Experts: Ossuary inscription a fake

AP, June 18, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) – An inscription purporting to link an ancient burial box to Jesus‘ brother James is a modern day forgery with no link to New Testament figures, Israel’s Antiquities Authority said Wednesday.

The ossuary, used to bury human bones in ancient times, had been hailed by some in the archeology world as an extraordinary discovery. The box read “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

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In the Bible, Matthew 13:55 refers to James as Jesus’ brother. He later became head of the church in Jerusalem, according to the New Testament.

Israeli officials on Wednesday described the inscription, as well as another purported archeological marvel, the “Yoash inscription,” as “forgeries.”

“The inscriptions, possibly inscribed in two separate stages, are not authentic,” the Antiquities Authority said in a statement.

The James inscription cut through the ancient limestone box’s patina, a thin coating acquired with age, the experts said, proving the writing was not ancient.

“The inscription appears new, written in modernity by someone attempting to reproduce ancient written characters,” the Antiquities Authority statement said.

The officials reached their conclusions after intensive exams by several committees of experts, the authority said.

Oded Golan, the Israeli owner of the ossuary, dismissed the officials’ findings.

“I am certain that the committee is wrong regarding its conclusions,” Golan said Wednesday. He had previously complained that the committee had “preconceived notions.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority and the Jerusalem police launched separate investigations into the two items after Golan offered one for sale.

The Yoash inscription is a shoebox-sized tablet from about the ninth century BC inscribed with 15 lines of ancient Hebrew with instructions for maintaining the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

When it was first disclosed two years ago, it caused a stir in the archeological world, with some experts calling it a rare confirmation of biblical narrative.

But a biblical language professor, Avigdor Horowitz, who served on one of the investigating committees, said not one inscribed passage on the tablet was without a linguistic mistake.

“The person who wrote the inscription was a person who thinks in modern Hebrew,” he told a news conference in Jerusalem. “A person thinking in biblical Hebrew would see it as ridiculous.”

The existence of the James ossuary was disclosed last November at a news conference in Washington by the Biblical Archaeology Review.

Israel Antiquities Authority head Shuka Dorfman said the ossuary itself was not examined because its authenticity as an ancient burial box was not in question. The practice of reburying Jewish remains ended around AD 70.

“The box is original; probably we have in our storeroom hundreds of the same or similar ossuaries. The inscription is false,” he said.

The artifact had been valued at $1.35 million to $2.7 million Cdn, based on the claimed link with Jesus.

Robert Eisenman, who wrote a book on Jesus’ brother, studied the box and said the writing on the box, written in two different hands, along with the artifact’s sudden appearance, made its authenticity questionable.

“I always considered the timing of the James ossuary very odd and worrisome,” he said. “There was a spate of books on James and his importance in 1997 and 1998, then the box appeared.”

The ossuary, exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum in November and December 2002, developed cracks en route to Toronto from Israel. The cracks extended through the latter parts of the inscription, now deemed a forgery. The museum’s conservation staff made efforts to redress the damage.

Golan said he bought the James ossuary in the mid-1970s from an antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem for about $270 Cdn, but he said he could not remember the dealer’s name.

Antiquities inspectors, who have questioned several Old City dealers, were also checking suspicions Golan bought the ossuary only a few months ago. In such a case, those involved in the sale could be prosecuted for dealing in stolen goods.

The police investigation into how the box was acquired will continue regardless of the committee’s findings.

Dorfman said the antiquities experts made a purely scientific examination of the artifacts, without trying to prove or disprove any allegations against Golan.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday June 18, 2003.
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