Reconsidering the James Ossuary

Reconsidering the James Ossuary

Eight years ago, a small group of scholars shocked the world when they announced data that could potentially make unbelievers reconsider their skepticism about Jesus (see Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2002). A 2,000-year-old limestone box offered potentially the first direct evidence to Jesus: the James ossuary.

Jesus’ burial followed the common practice of the day. First, the body would be wrapped and entombed for a time. Once the body decayed, usually after a year or so, the bones would be gathered and placed into a stone ossuary, or bone box, and then warehoused in a family tomb.

Prior to 2002, probably the most famous ossuary belonged to the high priest Caiaphas. He is mentioned several times in the Gospels, including in relation to Jesus’ death. Few scholars dispute that this ossuary housed the bones of the biblical Caiaphas.

Unfortunately, the James Ossuary hasn’t fared as well. By the fall of 2003, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) cast doubt on the authenticity of the ossuary (see Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2003), proclaiming it to be a modern forgery. Then in late 2004, Oded Golan, the owner of the James ossuary, and three others were indicted for running a forgery ring. They denied all charges.

Golan and his co-conspirators weren’t the only ones on trial, however. A host of others were also symbolically in the dock. Some believe the IAA was politically motivated, wanting to make an example out of Golan and quash the lucrative antiquities industry, including artifacts sold to private collections and museums.

Others believe the IAA is a government-financed puppet of an extreme group of archaeological skeptics, called minimalists, who want to label virtually every find connected to the Bible as a “fraud.” Golan, for example, also had a connection to another revolutionary artifact: an ivory pomegranate that is believed to be the only surviving relic from Solomon’s temple. The inscription reads: “(Belonging) to the Temple (literally, house) of Yahweh, Holy to the Priests.”

Golan’s connection to the pomegranate provided ammunition for minimalists who wanted to cast doubt on other key artifacts. A guilty verdict against Golan would not only destroy the reputation of a prominent antiquities collector, it would also provide never-ending fodder to skeptics against the existence of Jesus and our knowledge of the biblical world in general.

After five years and a parade of witnesses, the trial over the alleged forgery of the James ossuary is finally over. The judge has now retired to consider his verdict. Here is a short summary of the case from the only reporter who was left standing by the end: “Judge Mulls Verdict in Jesus Forgery Trial.” We already have a pretty good idea about how the verdict is going to go, however. The IAA failed to prove its case. The judge even urged the IAA to drop the charges against Golan and the others.

No one disputed that this is a first century Jewish ossuary. No one even disputed the inscription, “James, the son of Joseph.” The crux of the debate revolved around whether the patina over the second half of the inscription (“…he is the brother of Jesus”) is authentic. If the patina covering this part of the inscription is authentic, then the inscription itself is, too. (A patina is a tarnish that forms over an object’s surface through age and exposure.)

One of the key experts recently summarized the critical moment in the case: “The Forgery Case Will Be Dropped.”

The entire forgery case revolved around the last part of the inscription, “achuyi d’Yeshua,” which syntactically is “brother (of him) of Yeshua.” The question was whether this was forged, and a fake “shake and bake” patina placed over it. I have some competence as a paleographer and contended the entire inscription was incised by one scribe. In 2002, I claimed that IF there was ancient patina in the second part of the inscription (achuyi d’Yeshua), the entire ossuary and all of the inscription was genuine. I was severely criticized by some “pro-forgery” scholars. I have stuck to my guns. For the last 6 years I have claimed the ossuary inscription is genuine. In the trial Yuval Goren admitted that microscopic analysis confirms ancient patina in “Yeshua.” That shattered the forgery claim and the entire case. On that basis, the judge has advised the IAA to drop the forgery case. The James ossuary inscription is genuine. [emphasis added]

No matter what the trial verdict is, it seems unclear whether the cloud of suspicion that hovers over perhaps one of the greatest biblical archaeological discoveries will ever dissipate. Will the media report the end of the trial as aggressively as it trumpeted the beginning? I doubt it.