Forgery mystery creates a Pandora’s Box

Unanswered questions surrounding the James ossuary are pitting experts against each other, MICHAEL POSNER writes
The Globe and Mail (Canada), July 26, 2003

In a profession not normally noted for its belligerence, the strange case of Oded Golan and the James ossuary — potentially one of recent archeology’s most important discoveries — is generating a nasty little firefight.

The core of the dispute is whether the Aramaic inscription on the 2,000-year-old limestone bone box, — it reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” — is a modern forgery.

Some of the world’s foremost experts in epigraphy and paleography believe the script is genuine. If it is, and if it refers to the New Testament’s James, a Jerusalem church leader, it would be the first historical reference to the father of Christianity.

But many other scholars, including those connected to the Israel Antiquities Authority, are convinced that it’s bogus.

The dispute has already besmirched the reputation of Golan, the ossuary’s owner. Yesterday, the middle-aged Israeli entrepreneur, an important collector of biblical artifacts, was released from an Israeli jail, where he had been questioned for five days on suspicion of forgery. No charges were laid.

Police officials said they had found the ossuary, said to be worth as much as $2-million (U.S.), sitting on a toilet in a shed on the roof of Golan’s modest Tel Aviv apartment. They also claimed to have found forging tools on the premises and several semi-completed forgeries.

“I do not know whether Oded Golan is a forger,” said Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review [Subscribe] and a champion of the ossuary’s legitimacy. “What I do know is that the police, pressured by the IAA, have been sweating him to confess.” Golan’s release is unlikely to end the controversy.

His detention followed a report earlier this month by the IAA concluding that both the ossuary, and another controversial relic to which Golan has a middleman connection — the so-called Yoash tablet, dating from the ninth century BC — are frauds.

The IAA report was signed by 14 prominent Israeli academics. One has since defected, saying the oxygen isotope test on which the IAA based its conclusion was flawed. Even more problematically, Amos Bein, director of the Geological Survey of Israel, which conducted the test, is now saying he’s agnostic on the question of the box’s legitimacy.

His test, Bein says, only proves that the inscription’s patina — the chemical film that forms over exposed rock — has been tampered with. The tampering may have been the work of a forger; alternatively, it may only be evidence that the inscription was cleaned. Bein says it’s still possible to believe the inscription is genuine.

Another very distinguished scholar, Israeli paleographer Ada Yardeni, has also cast a vote in favour of authenticity. The problem with trying to determine whether the ossuary is real or a fabrication is that for every analysis pointing in one direction, there are counter-indications and arguments. Neither geology nor epigraphy seems capable of providing a definitive answer.

The oxygen isotope test, for example, demonstrated that levels inside the ossuary’s inscription were at variance with those of other ossuaries from the same historic period and the same region–Jerusalem. The variance was found in six of seven separate samples; the seventh, which found no dramatic variance, was dismissed by the IAA as an anomaly.

Ironically, the seventh sample was taken from the final phrase in the inscription, “brother of Jesus,” the very section that other skeptics maintain was likely added by a forger, to make the ossuary more valuable. Reading the IAA report with all its appendices for the first time this week, Royal Ontario Museum archeologist Ed Keall said that, considered in isolation, some of the evidence of forgery seems persuasive.

“I am open to the idea that I have been duped by an extremely clever forger,” Keall wrote in a formal response. But “there may be other explanations for the isotope readings,” he added in an interview. “We really don’t know the circumstances of the ossuary’s life. For scientific data to be statistically valid, the physical history of the object must be the same as that of the others. And I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that the authenticity of the artifact is being determined by machines.” Keall’s interest in the case is not merely academic.

Last winter, the ROM lent its substantial reputation to the box, putting it on public display for five weeks. This month, he wrote an article for the Biblical Archaeological Review, arguing that spectrographic analysis carried out by the ROM supported a conclusion of its legitimacy.

“Generally, the forger tries to fool the collector or academic by covering up the forged detail,” Keall writes. “Why is the first part of the James Ossuary inscription more clearly exposed, if it is the forged part? Why did the forger not apply much more artificial coating to disguise his work?”

Keall says he still doesn’t have unequivocal evidence to decide the issue, but admits: “There are a lot of unanswered questions.” Golan’s defenders believe he is the victim of an orchestrated campaign to discredit him.

The IAA, they say, was embarrassed by the fact that they issued an export licence for the ossuary last fall –for the ROM exhibition – without really understanding the box’s possible significance. Moreover, they simply don’t condone the manner in which he and other collectors operate – moving by stealth in the grey zone between licit and illicit, buying precious artifacts of uncertain provenance, many of them looted in unauthorized digs. Tarnish Golan’s name, so goes this line of reasoning, and you tarnish them all and their unsavoury practices.

“It’s a PR war to discredit him,”‘ insists the BAR’s Shanks. “If the police have evidence that he’s a forger, show us the seals.”

Meanwhile, the debate continues. Tomorrow night in Jerusalem, voices on either side of the issue will square off in a public forum. The discussion will follow the screening of Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici’s hour-long documentary on the ossuary, James, Brother of Jesus. Unless he is arrested, Oded Golan has said he will attend.

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