The bone box is authentic, but the inscription is not. That's the conclusion of experts at the Israel Antiquities Authority following careful examination of the "Ossuary of James," which was unveiled to the world last November by Biblical Archaeology Review.

"The inscription is a fake," IAA director Shuka Dorfman told reporters at a news conference in Jerusalem. But BAR editor Hershel Shanks and Asbury Seminary professor Ben Witherington, his coauthor on a book about the ossuary, aren't yet convinced.

The inscription, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," electrified Christians who suddenly had an authentic 2,000-year-old souvenir of the founder of their faith. The 18-inch-long box carved out of soft limestone was typically used by first-century Jews to reinter the bones of deceased family members. To have one that may have held the bones of Jesus' brother was called by Shanks "the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology."

But the IAA confiscated the relic from antiquities collector Oded Golan as it returned to Israel from a two-month display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. A second artifact, a fragment of an inscribed tablet that purported to date from the reign of the 9th century B.C. king Jehoash, was also confiscated a short time later. The fact that both objects surfaced in the possession of the same collector, Golan, heightened suspicions.

The IAA assigned one team to reexamine the geology of the ossuary. A second team looked at the epigraphy of the inscription, the letterforms, grammar, and syntax.

"This was not a matter of competing experts," says archaeologist and writer Neil Asher Silberman. Silberman is coauthoring an article on the ossuary for Archaeology magazine with Yuval Goren, a geologist on the IAA investigative team. Noting that Shanks had obtained what amounted to a certificate of authenticity from the Israel Geological Survey before revealing the ossuary last year, Silberman says the IAA did a much more rigorous analysis.

Silberman says the IAA team found the same patina described by earlier investigators. This is a calcite buildup comparable to the mineral deposits on a tea kettle over time. They also found a "rock varnish," another natural buildup of algae and bacteria.

But inside the incised letters was a third type of patina. "They found microfossils that appear naturally within chalk stone," he said. "That indicated someone had taken chalk and powdered it up, fossils and all, and put it over the letters to make it seem that it was ancient."

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Silberman says geologists can also determine the temperature at which crystallization takes place. The patina on the other surfaces conformed to what would be expected for the cool groundwaters of Jerusalem. "But within the letters it seemed as if it was done with heated water."

The other IAA team also came up with an explanation for the inscription, which had fooled some of the world's leading epigraphers, with one part in a formal script and the second part in a more informal cursive script. "You wouldn't expect a forger to use two different, authentic first century handwriting styles," said Silberman. "That was always a puzzle," especially since the physical examination showed it had been carved at the same time.

The scientists suggest that each word in the inscription, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," exists on other ossuaries that have been catalogued. It would have been simple for someone using image software to put them together and carve them into the ossuary.

Witherington, a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, is not convinced, at least by what he's seen in the two-page summary, which is all that has been released so far. "The commission report is incomplete, and possibly inaccurate," he told Christianity Today.

"They did not take into account all of the detailed and meticulous work that the Royal Ontario Museum did after the museum exhibit closed in January," Witherington maintains. "For example, under an electron microscope they found surface marks, which are deeply cut scratches that go through the box and through the letters. And these are ancient."

"They've obviously done some very good work as well," he adds. He says he will await the full report before making his conclusions.

Shanks believes there are some political and personal ramifications to the decision. Many archeologists don't like the way he handled the whole ossuary discovery and other incidents in the past. "Dorfman hates me," he says. "He won't speak to me; that's inexplicable to me."

Shanks still has confidence in the ROM experts and the original study by the Israel Geological Survey, as well as the work of "the world's leading epigraphists" he consulted. "But if they're all wrong, so be it. Let's find the forger and put him in jail."

Neither Shanks nor Witherington would accuse Golan of the forgery, noting the abuse and criticism that he's weathered. Witherington calls him an indiscriminate collector: "He has a zeal for artifacts that's not necessarily always according to knowledge."

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But Duke University archaeologist Eric Meyers, a past president of the American Schools of Oriental Research, notes that Golan is under police investigation. "They found labeled boxes of dirt from every region of the country that was used to make and forge patina. I think he's a central figure here."

Related Elsewhere

See Wednesday's Christianity Today Weblog for more coverage of the IAA report. Articles published since then include:

Our earlier coverage of the ossuary and tablet includes:

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Earlier articles on the artifacts include:

  • Of biblical dimensions | It's a black stone tablet about the size of a textbook - a small object. But it is making big waves not only in Israel, where it was purportedly found, but throughout the world (Jerusalem Post, Jan. 23, 2003)

  • Does the 'James Ossuary' bring us closer to Jesus? | One can hardly avoid the impression that the excitement is due to a kind of modern semi-popular/semi-scholarly relic cult—that we can actually touch an artifact "so close to Jesus." (Margaret M. Mitchell, Sightings, Jan. 23, 2003)

  • Expert says 'First Temple' find a fake | A stone tablet inscribed with biblical passages in ancient Phoenician script that sparked an archeological controversy last week is a forgery, an internationally renowned expert said Sunday (The Jerusalem Post,January 18, 2003)

  • Tablet could prove temple of Solomon really existed (The Daily Telegraph, London, January 18, 2003)

  • Jehoash tablet said found near Muslim cemetery | Reportedly found outside the eastern wall of the Temple Mount, not far from Golden Gate (Ha'aretz, Jan. 17, 2003)

  • There is nothing else like it | The discovery of the Jehoash tablet has aroused a storm, and some scholars believe that it is a forgery (Ha'aretz, Jan. 17, 2003)

  • Romancing the stone | It would be in the public's interest for the museum to reach an agreement with the collector for the conditional acquisition of the tablet and to then present it to the public and to the scientific community here and abroad (Doron Lancet, Ha'aretz, Jan. 17, 2003)

  • Sensation or forgery? | Researchers hail dramatic First Temple period finding (Ha'aretz, Jan. 13, 2003)

  • Controversial 'First Temple tablet' reputedly dates to King Joash (Jerusalem Post, Jan. 16, 2003)

  • Ossuary hot topic at AAR/SBL meeting | Making the rounds of the various panels were biblical scholars Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, who were scurrying to finish their book on the subject to meet a late December deadline (Publishers Weekly, Jan. 6, 2003)