The James Ossuary

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The James Ossuary

The James ossuary was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003

Above: The James ossuary was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003.

The James Ossuary is a sepulchral urn for containing bones, which was found in Israel in 2002 and was claimed to have been the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus. Its provenance is now in serious doubt, and it is considered a modern forgery. Its discovery was followed in January 2003 by another contentious archaeological 'find' soon connected with Oded Golan, the so-called 'Jehoash Inscription' (see below).

The James ossuary was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003

Above: Close-up of the inscription. Carved in Aramaic. 'Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua.' English translation: 'James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.' The James ossuary was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003.

On October 21, 2002, a press conference hosted by the Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society, anticipating a report in the Society's Biblical Archaeology Review (November 2002), presented a small chalk ossuary that bore an inscription Yaakov bar Yoseph Achui de Yeshua ('James son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus'). If authentic, it would have been the earliest archaeological proof that Jesus existed beyond the manuscript tradition.

Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, announced that it belonged to an anonymous Israeli antiquities collector. Identity of the owner was published in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz: a well-known collector of antiquities, Oded Golan, an engineer living in Tel Aviv, stated that he had bought the ossuary from an Arab antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem decades before, but had been unaware of the significance of the inscription.

The chalky limestone ossuary itself had been dated 1st century by Geological Survey of Israel (GSI) and Andr� Lemaire of Sorbonne University in Paris. Lemaire considered that it was 'very possible' that the ossuary had belonged to the biblical James. GSI had determined that the chalk of the ossuary was typical of Jerusalem ossuaries. A number of experts, including Kyle McCarter and Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, believed that the writing could be dated to the period between 20 BC and AD 70, and an examination performed by the Geological Survey of Israel found that the ossuary did not appear to be a fake: 'No sign of the use of a modern tool or instrument was found,' the conclusion read in part. 'No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found.'

The ossuary was going to be exhibited in Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) with permission of Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), and there was talk of various documentary deals. When the ossuary arrived in Toronto in the morning of October 31, 2002, the ROM personnel on hand were horrified to see that the ossuary was packed in a cardboard box (whereas the standard for shipping antiquities is typically within a foam-lined metal or wooden crate). The next day they proceeded to 'unwrap' the ossuary, only to find the few layers of bubble-wrap which surrounded the ossuary were thin enough to show the cracks which ran through the once-solid stone, the largest of which went right through the famed inscription. When the museum conservators proceeded to repair the damage, they discovered a carved rosette decoration on the site opposite the inscription.

Critical voices were soon heard. Robert Eisenman of California State University at Long Beach, a scholar specializing in biblical James, declared the discovery 'too perfect'.

When the Toronto exhibition of the James Ossuary began, Oded Golan flew to Ontario to participate. Lemaire defended his conclusion in a related session of the Society of Biblical Literature. Shanks belittled his critics and defended Oded Golan.

However, on June 18, 2003, the Israeli Antiquities Authority published a report concluding that the inscription is a modern forgery based on their analysis of the patina. Specifically, it appears that the inscription was added recently and made to look old by addition of a chalk solution.

The Jehoash Inscription

In January 2003, another artifact, dubbed the Jehoash Inscription, appeared in Israel. It was rumoured to have surfaced in the construction site or in the Muslim cemetery near the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. It supposedly described repairs made to the temple in Jerusalem by Jehoash, son of King Ahaziah of Judah, and corresponded to the account in 2 Kings 12. Once again, the owner was an anonymous antiquities dealer, this time in Hebron. GSI initially backed up this claim too.

The 'find' also reignited the conflict between Muslim authorities on the Temple Mount and the Israeli group of Temple Mount Faithful, who declared that the find was a divine sign that the al-Aqsa Mosque of the Temple Mount should be demolished and the new temple built on it immediately.

In the unfolding scandal already surrounding the 'James Ossuary', criticism appeared again. Israeli historian Nadav Na'aman, who had theorized that the books of the Kings could be based on public inscriptions, opined that the possible forger could have used his theory as a basis. Epigrapher Joseph Naveh of the Hebrew University revealed to the IAA and police that he had met the owners of the stone and had recognized the inscription as a collection of Hebrew, Aramaic and Moabite letters. Frank Cross of Harvard University noted various errors in spelling and terminology. Yuval Goren of Tel-Aviv University demonstrated how the convincing fake could be produced by abrasive airbrushing. The stone itself remained hidden.

Police investigation

Israeli magazine Maariv correspondent Boaz Gaon reported that IIA Theft Unit had focused their attention of the 'Jehoash Inscription' as being an expensive bait to defraud a prominent collector in London. Israeli investigators linked a phony business card and a phone number to a Tel Aviv private eye who admitted that his employee was Oded Golan, the 'collector' who owned the James Ossuary. Oded denied that he was the owner of the stone and claimed that the real owner was a Palestinian antiquities dealer who lived in an area under Palestinian Authority and must therefore remain nameless.

A March 19, 2003, article in Maariv told that court had issued a search warrant for Golan's apartment, office and rented warehouse. The search brought forth incriminating documents and photographs of Golan beside the Jehoash Inscription. Under interrogation, Golan promised to reveal the locations of the stone in exchange for immunity from prosecution but was refused.

Then police made a new search in storage space that Golan had rented in Ramat Gan but had not disclosed to the police. They found scores of dubious artifacts, forged ancient seals and other inscriptions in various stages of production and tools and documentation to help in the manufacture of the forgeries. Under harsh questioning, Golan reputedly broke down, confessed and promised to hand over the Jehoash Inscription.

IAA commission

Limor Livnat, Israeli Minister of Culture, mandated the work of a scientific commission to study the suspicious finds. IAA begun a heavy investigation about the affair.

As for the James Ossuary, epigraphers of IAA concluded that the inscription was modern. Chalk type of the ossuary did match with the type of chalk in various other ancient ossuaries. However, Yuval Goren and Avner Ayalon of GSI identified three different coatings in the ossuary, the last of which was artificial and covered only the inscription. Letters had been cut through the patina and covered with artificial coating. Different parts of the text in different styles had been copied from a catalog of Jewish ossuaries and possible carved by the aid of scanning software. Ossuary was authentic - albeit unusual in shape - but the inscription was a fake.

As for the Jehoash Inscription, the commission concluded that various mistakes in the spelling and the mixture of different alphabets indicated that this was a modern forgery. The stone was typical to western Cyprus and areas further west. Patina over the chiseled letters was different from that of the back of the stone and could easily be wiped off the stone by hand.

In a press conference in Jerusalem on June 18, 2003 the IAA commission declared that both inscriptions were modern forgeries.

However,in an external expert report, dated September 2005, Professor Wolfgang E. Krumbein, a world-renowned authority of the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg Germany, threw new light on the controversy. His conclusions contradict those of the IAA and indicate that the patina in the inscription had been manipulated after the June 2003 declaration of the IAA. Quote,

'The grainy whitish patina with yellow and grey particles embedded existing prior to 2005 and documented by the IAA as „James Bond' material looks like Meyer cement used around 1900-1920 at the Acropolis Monuments in Athens and other places. Unfortunately these materials are presently no longer existing on the ossuary and have been totally eliminated for reasons unknown. 5) The pictures further document recent (2005) addition of a reddish sticky or powdery and also rock staining material. In places also scratches and dark (black) material was recently added. These materials do not exist in photographic documents prior to 2005.'

Professor Krumblein concludes that 'Our preliminary investigations cannot prove the authenticity of the three objects beyond any doubt. Doubtlessly the patina is continuous in many places throughout surface and lettering grooves in the case of ossuary and tablet. On the other hand a proof of forgery is not given by the experts nominated by the IAA.' See his full report at


Some people believe that the Israeli Antiquities Authority has never offered any report explaining why it concluded the ossuary is a forgery. Therefore, a number of international experts refuse to agree that it is a forgery until the IAA allows scholars to review its findings. For example, Ed Keall, the Senior Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, Near Eastern & Asian Civilizations Department, continues to argue for the ossuary's authenticity, 'The ROM has always been open to questioning the ossuary's authenticity, but so far no definitive proof of forgery has yet been presented, in spite of the current claims being made.' [1]

Meanwhile Biblical Archaeology Review also continued to defend the ossuary. In articles in the February 2005 issues, several experts in writing on stone argue that the James Ossuary is authentic and should be examined by specialists outside of Israel. Another article claims the cleaning of the James Ossuary before it was examined may have caused the problem with the patina.

Oded Golan claimed publicly to believe his findings were genuine. Hershel Shanks declared that he did not believe the evidence and launched a personal complaint against IAA director Shuka Dorfman. Lemaire supported his original assessment when Frank Cross regretted Shank's attitude.

Joe Nickell, an investigative columnist for the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, very early on, pointed out several suspicious facts about the ossuary that needed further explanation.

In particular, a provenance was utterly lacking. (Golan said he cannot remember or no longer identify the dealer from whom he purchased the ossuary.)

Ossuaries are usually decorated and inscribed on one side only. There are rosettes on this ossuary on the opposite side of the inscription and the rosettes are badly worn with age, whereas the inscription has comparatively sharp edges. Why did Andre Lemaire, the French paleographic expert who collaborated with BAR, originally claim that the ossuary was otherwise completely unadorned?

Obviously, religious-politico, academic, and economic interests go 'hand in hand' with the truth about this ossuary. Many institutions have much to lose and others to gain from this bizarre discovery and 'Indiana Jones-like' adventure.

If this 'archaeological' find is to be believed to be the $1,000,000.00 insured ossuary of James' the brother of Jesus Christ, why was it stored in a bathroom, sitting on a toilet in the home of Golan?

The Royal Ontario Museum has this to say as its final words in a statement about Oded Golan's arrest and the validity of the so-called James Ossuary: 'There is always a question of authenticity when objects do not come from a controlled archaeological excavation, as is the case with the James Ossuary.'

On December 29, 2004, the Israeli justice ministry charged Golan, three other Israelis, and one Palestinian, with running a forgery ring that had been operating for more than 20 years. Golan was indicted in an Israeli court along with his three co-conspirators: Robert Deutsch, an epigraphy expert who has given lectures at Haifa University; collector Shlomo Cohen; and antiquities dealer Faiz al-Amaleh. They were accused of manufacturing numerous artifacts, including an ivory pomegranate which had previously been generally accepted as the only proven relic from the temple of King Solomon. Golan denied the charges.

Main sources

  • Neil Asher Silberman and Yuval Goren, 'Faking Biblical History', Archeology magazine, September/October 2003
  • Dr Jeffrey Chadwick, 'Indications that the 'brother of Jesus' inscription is a forgery'
  • Jonathon Gatehouse, 'Cashbox', 'Maclean's' magazine, March 2005

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