The press conference of the Israeli Antiquities Authority was announced with much fanfare, and headlines went out around the world—JAMES OSSUARY DECLARED HOAX, INSCRIPTION SAID TO BE CERTAINLY A MODERN FORGERY. Of course, it was not possible in June to critique this finding since the scientific reports that were said to be the basis of it were not released. Two months later, as I am writing this, only a summary of the findings has been released (though it is called a "final report"). One must wonder why the IAA is holding back the data, when the commission finished its work nearly three months ago.
As it is, the summary of findings of the various committees reveals major problems. If the scientific reports that are the basis of these summaries are not more substantial than the summaries, then certainly the headlines were not merely premature, but probably inaccurate as well.
Let us start with a few facts. First, only a few weeks after the IAA's much ballyhooed press conference, careful scholars from Toronto published more of their findings. They concluded that the inscription on the James ossuary is certainly not a modern forgery. Toronto Museum curator Ed Keall could hardly have been clearer in his article that appeared in the July/August Biblical Archaeology Review. Thus, at a minimum, we have a divided scholarly house in regard to this ossuary, and the attempt by the IAA to close the case on the James ossuary files has failed.
Second, Simcha Jacobovici, the producer of the Discovery Channel's special on the James ossuary, also held a news conference near the end of June. In it he pointed out various of the problems underlying the IAA's report and the way IAA proceeded with its examination. For example, the head of the Israeli Geological Survey initially silenced his two associates who first authenticated the patina on the ossuary, in effect overruling them. He then stated publicly that if French epigrapher André Lemaire still thinks the inscription is authentic it probably is. Then he retracted this statement. In fact, Lemaire does still believe the inscription is authentic. His detailed refutation of the IAA's findings and his devastating critique of the process will be published this fall in BAR. Something is rotten in Jerusalem, and this whole investigation begins to look more and more political.
Third, at a July panel discussion in Jerusalem after the showing of the Discovery Channel special The Brother of Jesus, Ada Yardeni, a leading Israeli authority on Hebrew and Aramaic script, continued to maintain that the inscription was authentic and that nothing the IAA's report had revealed disproved this conclusion.
Fourth, two independent examinations of the IAA's report indicate that it is far from conclusive. A team of scholars at the University of Kentucky has compared the IAA's summaries with the reports from Toronto. This team consists of Dr. Sue Rimmer (an organic petrographer), and Drs. Ana Carmo and Harry Rowe (both isotope geochemists). Their preliminary findings note the "many inconsistencies in the information we have looked at both in terms of data/observations and interpretations" and state that "the issue of whether the inscription cuts the ossuary's primary patina is unresolved" (despite the claims of some in the IAA that its report resolves the matter). The team also asks, "Is it true that only three additional ossuaries were sampled for comparison with the oxygen isotope data? On what basis were these selected?" Obviously a larger sampling is needed before one can draw sweeping conclusions.
In addition, Dr. John Eiler of the California Institute of Technology makes the important point that by its own report, the IAA admits that the film found in the ossuary letters is not identical to the patina on the Yehoash inscription—the other artifact the IAA was accusing collector Oded Golan of faking. This means that these two artifacts should not be treated as a part of a coordinated effort at forgery. Rather, each must be evaluated individually. Eiler insists that we need a double-blind test done by scientists who have no stake in the authenticity of the ossuary.
Fifth, only a few people have noticed that there were no New Testament scholars or New Testament archaeologists on the IAA committee that studied the James ossuary. This is a glaring omission. One would have hoped for at least one specialist who could relate the ossuary and its relevance to the New Testament.
Curiouser and curiouser this becomes: No internationally known scholars on this commission were from anywhere outside Israel. Nor were there any Christian scholars on this commission, even though some outstanding ones live in Jerusalem. Christian participation would have assured us that theological agendas were not at play. The conclusions of the study would have been far more convincing had there been a balanced and internationally represented team of experts on the IAA commission. A scientific inquiry wants to guard against predispositions and biases. There are serious problems with a self-chosen body like the IAA commission, especially when several of the members on the commission spoke publicly against the authenticity of the ossuary inscription before they conducted scientific tests on it.
The IAA, long before the James ossuary came to light, has repeatedly made clear that it has an agenda—to stop looters and forgers—and in the bargain to oppose collectors, who in its view aid and abet looters and forgers. These are basically admirable aims (though I do not think it is necessary to tar all collectors with the same brush), but James and his ossuary should not have been made the poster child of this crusade. It is such a high-profile artifact that it needed to be studied dispassionately. The environment of extreme suspicion that surrounded this investigation, and the attempt to proceed by a process I can only call "justification by doubt" (a process in which one shows one's scholarly acumen by discrediting something), leaves me worried that the conclusions must surely be dubious at best. It is clear that the ossuary must undergo further tests in the wake of this report.
What specific things need to be said about the published summary of findings? To begin with, no one disputes the presence of some sort of modern substance or film on some of the letters on the James box. Oded Golan told us long ago that his mother tried to clean the first part of the inscription. The fact that a modern chalky substance and evidence of modern tap water has been found on the inscription is no surprise. What the IAA calls fake patina, placed on the letters, is probably no more than modern cleanser and water. Perhaps the antiquities dealer also attempted to clean the ossuary inscription to make it easier to sell. Remember that neither the dealer nor Golan (when he bought the ossuary in the '70s) had any idea of its potential significance until Lemaire pointed it out last year.
It is especially disturbing that the oxygen isotope test was allowed to be the determining factor in concluding that the inscription was a forgery when (1) such a test has apparently not been tried on ossuaries before (that is, there was no controlled study or data to compare these results against); (2) this test can only prove there is evidence of modern water in the inscription, not that there is no ancient substance or patina in the inscription; and (3) the verdicts of the epigraphers on the IAA team were mixed, as their report shows, until the isotope test results were presented. In other words, one type of test with no track record was used as a trump card to rule out any questions raised by other sorts of studies. This is not good scientific procedure.
The real question is this: Is there evidence of any ancient patina or other substances in some of the letters? The answer is yes. Not only did the Israeli Geological Survey verify this more than a year ago, but if one reads the summary report carefully, it is clear the IAA cannot rule this out. For example, the report says that the word Jesus on the box may be genuine. This is especially remarkable because it goes directly against the earlier conclusions of those who wanted to argue that the first part of the inscription was genuine but the second part (brother of Jesus) was not.
The IAA notes that there is evidence in some of the letters of modern enhancement, particularly at the beginning of the inscription. No one denies this. But enhancement is not creation, and it is simply mind-boggling that the IAA can be so confident that the inscription cuts through the patina on the ossuary, when the Toronto team (which also examined the letters carefully under electron microscope) says it does not.
Scientific sins of omission
There are some glaring omissions in the summary report. First, as the Toronto team pointed out, some surface marks (or scratches on the ossuary) appear to be ancient, and these scratches go through the letters at several points. If the inscription was modern but the scratches were ancient, we would expect those scratches to stop at the top of the letters and restart below them. They do not do so.
Second, there is the ultraviolet light test done on the ossuary in Toronto. This seems to me to be a far more exacting scientific test than the oxygen isotope test when it comes to determining the authenticity of the inscription itself, and not the presence of a modern substance on the inscription. If there was evidence of modern tampering or modern forging of letters on an ancient ossuary, then this should have shown up under ultraviolet light. But nothing showed up under ultraviolet light. The inscription blended right into the surface of the box, which suggests it is as ancient as the ossuary itself. This test was presented on the Discovery Channel special for all to see. Why has the IAA ignored the data presented by other scholars?
Third, there is the issue of fissures found in the inscription side of the ossuary. These were created over a very long period of time, as the deposits in them suggest, and they go through various of the letters. This is not the same thing as the cracks caused by Golan's shipping the ossuary from Jerusalem to Toronto in the fall of 2002.
Time for some rethinking
One final matter needs attention: What about the fact that the inscription appears less weathered than the rosettes that are only faintly visible on the back of the ossuary? This fact seems to have been decisive in helping Professor Frank Cross of Harvard to conclude the inscription is probably a forgery. But there are a whole series of problems with this conclusion.
First, notice the differences between the rosettes on the Caiaphas ossuary and those on the James ossuary. Those on the Caiaphas ossuary, which dates to the same era, look like they were carved last week. The ones on the James box look very faint and weathered. Wouldn't they have both aged at the same rate, since they are both made of Jerusalem limestone and both from the same era and both were put in caves in Jerusalem to start with? Here is one answer: We know that construction work on and around the Temple and the Temple mount had ground to a halt by the time James died in A.D. 62. This left a lot of stone masons with too much time and limestone on their hands. How did they continue to make a living? One thing many of them did was carve ossuaries, which were apparently becoming increasingly popular in the period between Jesus' burial (A.D. 30) and James's (A.D. 63). Of course, stone masons carved ossuaries well before they were sold. Some ossuaries were not sold for a very long time. Undoubtedly some were left out in the quarry or yard where the stone was being kept, especially modest ones, such as the James ossuary. More elaborately carved ossuaries made of higher quality stone, such as the Caiaphas ossuary, would not be left to the elements.
Jerusalem can have severe weather. Limestone, especially poor porous limestone, such as the James box is made of, is subject to weathering. It is my theory that (1) the James box was carved long before it was bought and inscribed, and (2) once inscribed it went into the tomb, thus protecting the inscription from the same weathering the box's rosettes endured. Hence the inscription looks much less faded than the rosettes. Add to this the modern attempts to clean the letters but not the rosettes, and we come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation for the difference in apparent wear. Professor Lemaire will cover other possible explanations in his forthcoming BAR article.
In late July the Israeli police arrested Oded Golan, the owner of the ossuary, on "suspicion" of forgery. They released him soon afterward and have yet to press formal charges. Clearly if he is a forger, they should prosecute him. But André Lemaire says Golan does not have the knowledge or skill to be a forger. If the James ossuary is a forgery, then as Frank Moore Cross said in the Discovery Channel special, the forger is a genius, so skillful that he fooled the world's leading experts in various fields (paleographers, archaeologists, biblical scholars, and others). Furthermore, there is no evidence that Golan has made any money or attempted to make any money on the James ossuary or the Jehoash inscription (another artifact he brought to light, but one that is certainly not authentic). Yet making money is what forgery is all about.
This soap opera will continue to run for some time. Whatever happens with Golan, the authenticity of the James ossuary inscription does not stand or fall with him. That must be determined by the experts.
But until all the experts gain access to the IAA's data, I can affirm that André Lemaire and the Toronto scholars and I have not yet found any smoking gun in the IAA's report. I am still convinced the inscription is likely to be genuine, and will be vindicated as even further study and testing is done. In the meantime, let the scholarly debate continue, and let no one think that the IAA report is anything like the definitive word on this issue. Only God has the last word.
The ossuary still cries out to us, as Jesus once said the stones of Jerusalem would do—and what it says is James, and what it says is Joseph, and best of all what it says is Jesus. The ossuary is just possibly the Word made visible.
Ben Witherington is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and coauthor, with Hershel Shanks, of The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Today is day two of Christianity Today's Archaeology Week.
Friday: Biblical Archaeology's Dusty Little Secret | The James bone box controversy reveals the politics beneath the science. by Gordon Govier
Tomorrow: Jesus Amidst the Ruins | How does archaeology better help us understand the Christ of the Ages?
Archaeology magazine takes a very dim view of the ossuary's origins.
Witherington's book on the ossuary, The Brother of Jesus, is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of the ossuary includes:
Ossuary Questions Remain | Israel Antiquities Authority says "brother of Jesus" inscription is a forgery, but supporters say its report may be flawed (June 20, 2003)
Weblog: Israeli Officials Say James Ossuary, Joash Tablet are Fakes | Israel's Antiquities Authority unanimously calls James Ossuary inscription a forgery (June 18, 2003)
Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (Mar. 17, 2003)
Christian History Corner: Finding God in a Box | Have archaeological discoveries like the James ossuary served or obscured the quest to verify the Bible? (Jan. 31, 2003)
Weblog: Experts Get a Closer Look at the James Ossuary (Nov. 26, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Goes on Display as New Findings Emerge (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weblog: Ossuary Owner Will Go to Toronto After All (Nov. 11, 2002)
Weblog: Ossuary Owner Oded Golan Emerges to Defend Himself (Nov. 7, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Display Might Be Delayed (Nov. 6, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary 'Badly Damaged' en Route to Toronto (Nov. 4, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Contains Bone Fragments (Oct. 29, 2002)
Weblog: What Does James Ossuary Say About Mary? (Oct. 23, 2002)
Weblog: More Details Emerge on History of James's Bone Box (Oct. 22, 2002)
Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived | Scholars link first-century bone box to James, brother of Jesus (Oct. 21, 2002)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more