James Ossuary Passed a Test for Authenticity
On this day, September 17, 2002, one of the most exciting archaeological artifacts of recent years seemed to inch closer to authentication. In a letter addressed to Mr. Hershel Shanks of Biblical Archaeology Review, the Geological Survey of Israel, Jerusalem, wrote: “No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found.”
The letter was referring to what is known as the James Ossuary. An ossuary is a container for storing bones. This remarkable limestone box bore an inscription in Aramaic, “Ya’akov, son of Yosef, brother of Yeshua,” or “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
If the inscription were authentic, there was a high probability that the box referred to the James who was the brother of Jesus Christ. One reason is that a brother’s name would not likely be attached to the inscription unless he was well-known, which, of course, Jesus was. His fame would serve to identify the person who was buried. Another reason is that the frequency of occurrence of names can be calculated from other records. Based on that information, only a small number of Judeans would have that exact relationship–Father Yosef, son Ya’akov (the Hebrew form of James), brother Yeshua.
Specifically, the Geological Survey’s letter confirmed that the limestone was the right kind for the region and so was the soil that had stuck to the box. The surface of the box and some letters of the inscription had the same gray patina (a thin layer that forms where a surface meets air). Some of the letters had been cleaned, removing their patina. “The patina has a cauliflower shape known to be developed in a cave environment,” wrote the authors.
They noted that there was no evidence that modern tools had been used on the box. Forgers sometimes use pigments to fake old patinas. The Geological Survey found no such pigments.
All in all, the report was favorable. The inscription itself caused more difficulty. It appeared to be done in two hands. Had someone in the first century added “brother of Jesus” later, after the first inscription was written? Or had it been added when a monument was built to James? Those were possibilities to be considered. There was also some difficulty with the spelling of words, and differences in lettering styles, which seemed to be from different periods. However, some experts said they could show similar examples from the period in question.
However, further analysis of the amazing artifact, which would have been a wonderful piece of evidence for the Christian story, cast more and more doubt on it. On June 18, 2003 the Israel Antiquities Authority held a press conference at which they declared that both the first and second half of the inscription were forgeries. On July 21, 2003, Israeli authorities arrested an antiquities dealer whom they accused of forging the inscription. According to the authorities, he had forging tools in his possession and several unfinished forgeries in his shop. Despite the hopeful early reports, it now seemed that the James Ossuary was after all a forgery, although Biblical Archaeology Review insisted that it had more tests confirming the object’s authenticity.
Dan Graves, MSL
On This Day in Church History <Christianity@crosswalkmail.com>
- Biblical Archaeology Review. “Ossuary Update; the Storm over the Bone Box.” (BAR September/October 2003).
- “Dealer Arrested in Jesus Relic Forgery.” http://www.mcjonline.com/news/03a/20030728a.shtml
- Goren, Yuval. “Shanks Assertions Are Simply Incorrect and Misleading.” http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/ Reply_to_Shankes.htm
- Lemaire, André. “Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus.” (Biblical Archaeology Review November/December, 2002 p.29).
- Various internet articles.