James Ossuary Forgery Case in Shambles

October 31, 2008

CONTACT: Sarah Yeomans
The Biblical Archaeology Society
Phone: 301.904.6641
E-mail: syeomans@bib-arch.org


WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 31, 2008) — The reputation of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is in shambles. After a nearly four-year trial (and still counting), 75 witnesses and more than 5000 pages of testimony, what has been billed as the “forgery trial of the century” is about to collapse. The Israeli judge who will decide the case has advised the prosecution in open court to consider dropping the case. The evidence isn’t there.

The story was reported by Matthew Kalman in the San Francisco Chronicle, and from there around the world. He described Judge Aharon Farkash’s evaluation as a “humiliating collapse” of the government’s case and “a major embarrassment ... for the [Israel] Antiquities Authority.”

The principal target of the case has been the bone box inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” that was brought to the world’s attention in 2002 by Biblical Archaeology Review in an article by Sorbonne epigrapher André Lemaire. The inscription, it was charged in the criminal indictment, was a forgery, engraved on an authentic stone box of the kind that Jews used 2000 years ago to rebury their dead—after a year following the initial burial when the flesh had decayed and desiccated.

The government’s principal witness was Professor Yuval Goren, a former chair of Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department, who testified that the forger had used a fake covering to conceal evidence of his forgery. But other witnesses suggested other ways this covering could have formed.

More importantly, on cross-examination Goren was forced to admit that after the police had removed this covering, he could see original ancient patina in the critical word “Jesus.” With that, the case blew up.

This should not have been surprising. One of the members of the IAA’s committee that long ago had declared the inscription a forgery, supposedly by a unanimous vote, had also written the IAA that she saw this original ancient patina in the engraving of the inscription.

Although the IAA advertised the committee’s forgery decision as unanimous, it never was. Many members of the committee expressed no opinion, but the IAA registered them as “yes” votes. Others committee members relied on the commanding standing and reputation of Professor Goren. One member of the committee who would have found the inscription authentic said he was “forced” to change his mind because of Professor Goren’s scientific analysis. In short, the committee, which included no non-Israeli, not even Professor Lemaire who had originally published the inscription in Biblical Archaeology Review and vouched for its authenticity, was bum-rushed into a supposedly unanimous decision.

At the trial, not a single expert in the Semitic script of the period testified that the inscription was a forgery. Nor did a single scientist back up Professor Goren’s scientific testimony—and several scientists testified otherwise.

But it took several years to prove that the emperor had no clothes. This is a painful example of how the judicial process can be manipulated by unscrupulous bureaucrats. The Israel Antiquities Authority hates the antiquities market, which is where this inscribed ossuary came from. This supposedly drove the prosecution. Until now, it has been widely assumed by almost everyone who has mentioned the inscription publicly, based on the IAA committee’s supposed unanimous decision and the ongoing forgery trial, that this inscription is a forgery. Now that will end.

But this is not the end of the matter. All the court can decide is that the prosecution has not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Logically, the inscription can still be a forgery. It is never possible to prove to a 100 percent certainty that an inscription is authentic. Theoretically, there is always one more test that might reveal it to be a forgery. Even inscriptions found in professional archaeological excavations can be salted.

And there is still another question: Is the “Jesus” of this inscription the “Jesus” we know from the New Testament? All three of the names in the inscription—James (rather Jacob or Yaakov in its Hebrew form), Joseph and Jesus (Yehoshua in the Aramaic of this inscription) were very common among Jews at this time. Scholars are already discussing and writing about whether or not this inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth. This is where the discussion should be—not in the hands of an official committee or in a criminal indictment.

Hershel Shanks is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.

To arrange for an interview with BAR editor Hershel Shanks, please call Sarah Yeomans at 301.904.6641, or e-mail syeomans@bib-arch.org. Contact information for other sources, including script experts André Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Ada Yardeni of Hebrew University, are also available.