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The bone box of James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus

Biblical archaeology seems particularly prone to fraud, especially of fraudulent artefacts that confirm the religious beliefs of the faithful. One of the greatest stumbling-blocks that Christians have always experienced is that while they are proud to base their religion on books that they claim to be thoroughly historical in nature, many events of the New Testament – especially those of the Gospels – have no confirmation outside the Bible. Roman records are silent about many of the events and personages in stories familiar to all Christians. Forgeries purporting to confirm some of these details have been around since the first development of the religion and continue to be produced today.

The “discovery” of the ossuary

The supposed ossuary of James the Just, brother of Jesus

The supposed ossuary of James the Just, brother of Jesus

On 21 October 2002, Hershel Shanks, editor of The Biblical Archaeology Review, announced at a press conference that an amazing discovery had been made in Israel: a contemporary inscription confirming the existence Jesus of Nazareth and his brother, James the Just. The ‘find’ was an ossuary, a stone box designed to contain the bones of a deceased individual. Jewish practice in the first century CE was to lay out bodies of the wealthy in family tombs until all the flesh had decayed and subsequently to gather up the bones for storage in ossuaries. This was a typical example of the middle for the first century CE, close to the traditional date of James’s martyrdom in 62 CE.

Most ossuaries carry an inscription naming the individual inside together with a patronymic (name of the father); this example reads יעקוב בר יוםף אחוי ד ישוע (Ya‘aquv bar Yusef akhui de Yeshua‘, “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus”). All three names – Ya‘aquv (Jacob or James), Yusef (Joseph) and Yeshua (Jesus) were common enough at the time, but what is intriguing is that James is identified not just as the son of Joseph, but as the brother of Jesus, implying that Jesus was somehow more important than Joseph within the family for identifying James. This coincidence led those who first studied the ossuary to conclude that it was likely that James was indeed James “the Just”, brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

Oded Golan with the controversial ossuary

Oded Golan with the controversial ossuary

The box was brought to Hershel Shanks’s attention by an Israeli collector of antiquities, Oded Golan. He claimed to have bought the box from an Arab dealer in Jerusalem in the 1960s and to have taken no real interest in it until shortly before the announcement of the inscription. Initial studies, including one by the Geological Survey of Israel, concluded that the ossuary was a genuine first-century artefact, made from a limestone local to the Jerusalem area and that no evidence for modern forgery could be detected.

However, from the outset, there were critical voices. For a start, there are no parallels for the formula used to identify the person contained in the box. A second and more thorough analysis by the Israeli Antiquities’ Authority found a number of irregularities in the inscription, in the patina covering it and in the circumstances of its discovery. While there is no doubt that the ossuary is genuine, and that the first half of inscription (ףםוי רב בוקעי – Ya‘aquv bar Yusef) is also genuine, the epigrapher Rochelle Altman dismissed the second half as a “poor forgery”. In 2003, the Israeli police arrested Oded Golan on suspicion of forging antiquities; they found his home and a workshop he rented filled with forged objects in various stages of manufacture together with the equipment needed to make the objects. He eventually confessed his guilt during questioning, but denied the charges during his trial in 2004. He was, nevertheless, found guilty.

Despite this damning evidence against the authenticity of the inscription, Hershel Shanks continues to defend the ossuary, launching bitter attacks on its critics. The archaeological community, for the most part, does not accept the object as providing contemporary proof for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. This story raises important questions. Why was the ‘discovery’ announced at a press conference before academic study took place? Why were the first tests of authenticity conducted by the Geological Survey of Israel rather then the Israel Antiquities’ Authority? Why was so much faith placed in an object without provenance? Why has Hershel Shanks continued to support its authenticity despite the overwhelming evidence that Oded Golan was an accomplished forger who worked over many years? There is a lesson for us all in this débâcle.

21 Responses to The James the Just ossuary

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  • Dr. James Tabor says:

    You should read my book The Jesus Dynasty before completely ruling this a hoax. More scientific professionals have verified it than have not. Give it a read.

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      I have actually read your book and remain thoroughly unconvinced. The statistics especially come across as an abuse of mathematics to support a pre-judged conclusion.

  • He continues to back it up because the xtians can’t find any real evidence.

  • I fail to see the validity of your opposition to the genuineness of the ossuary. I saw no ‘damning evidence’ against it and not everything has to been done according to your ideals. I wonder i fyour anti-religious bias is palying a large role in your opinion.

    In the real world, provenance is a luxury and if we waited for all artifacts to be discovered in situ we would have probably half of the major discoveries we have at present, if that.

    Archaeologists are not known for their speed or for covering wide areas of territory and will miss a lot.

  • Sarah says:

    The knowledge that the man who brought this to light was a well known forger is enough for me. Fake!

    • Chris says:

      The “knowledge” that Oded Golan is well known forger is no knowledge at all, it is a pure lie spread by british TV and apparently this web site.
      Actually Oded Golan was charged with illegal trade of REAL antiquities, after it could not be proven that he forged anything.
      Honest scientists are still trying to prove the inscription as fake and still failing, yet denying even the possibility that it may be real, based on pure DENIAL and no facts at all.
      It makes me wonder how much of the “truth” on this site is actually hateful fiction sold as science.

      • Dave says:

        Actually Mr. Golan was charged with 41 counts of forgery and fraud regarding the ossuary, the Jehoash tablet, and “many other artifacts” not disclosed in full detail. He was acquitted of all forgery and fraud charges but convicted for possessing objects suspected of being stolen and selling antiquities without a license. According to Israeli newspapers items that could be used for forging artifacts were found in Mr. Golan’s possession and confiscated from his home by the police.

        From the way the trial reads the tools that could have been used for forging artifacts were part of the prosecution’s case against Mr. Golan demonstrating that he had the equipment and ability to perform the forgery. His possessing the tools is not a story or slanderous, it’s a fact and the equipment was part of the trial against him. Although he was acquitted of the forging and fraud charges the presiding judge was clear that the trial had no relation to the authentication of the items.

        The difficulty with authenticating these artifacts is they cannot be investigate on site and Mr. Golan cannot say where they came from, he claims when he was 16 years old that he bought the ossuary from and Arab dealer and I have not seen where he’s given details of how he acquired the Jehoash tablet.

        All investigators have to go on is the way the inscription was carved, the nature of the text, and the patina. Which is pretty much the perfect thing for a forger.

        • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

          I get the impression that in many ways, Oded Golan was acquitted on technicalities. He had the means to forge objects and inscriptions, but it was impossible to demonstrate that he had done so. Because he was able to demonstrate through photographic evidence that he had owned the principal artefact in the case, the so-called James the Just ossuary, since at least the early 1970s, it became impossible to demonstrate the its inscription could not have been in its present form at the time (the photograph shows it in the background, not presenting the inscribed face to the camera).
          Despite the acquittal, there remains a widespread suspicion that objects emanating from his business are not what they seem. Indeed, even before the accusations were made, there was widespread incredulity at his ability to source so many objects that appear to confirm Biblical accounts of the history of Israel/Judah.

  • Henri says:

    The silly explanation offered by “Capitan Mescalino” for Hershel Shanks’s obstinacy won’t work because Shanks isn’t a Christian. It should also be noted that just as there are non-Christians among the defenders of authenticity, so also most Christian scholars who reject the ossuary inscription’s authenticity.

    While Rochelle Altman was one of the earliest to reject the inscription, her case was based on examining photographs only, and she made major, fundamental errors (claiming that part of the inscription was incised and part excised, for example, which wasn’t true). So her assertions didn’t persuade many people, especially since a vastly more expert specialist on Semitic inscriptions (Andre’ Lemaire) who examined the ossuary itself published an article arguing that it was genuine. Lemaire is a professor specializing in Hebrew and Aramaic philology and epigraphy at the Sorbonne with hundreds of refereed articles in the field (and several academic books). Altman holds an English Lit Ph.D. and so far as I can tell has neither an academic appointment nor any refereed publications in any journal in the field.

    Shanks is also an amateur in archaeology and very much an entrepeneur and an unresting promoter of his journal, *Biblical Archaeology Review*, and of Biblical Archaeology in Israel. He chose to handle this in a way that maximized publicity rather than promoting scholarly rigor. And, as with many of the people discussed on this site (think Bolton with Drake’s Plate or Holand with the Kensington Runestone) who commit themselves publicly to objects that turn out to be forgeries, there seems to be a very powerful resistance to recognizing the undermining evidence.

    BTW, on a site devoted to winnowing out bad understanding in the social sciences, it is puzzling that you don’t correct people who write as if there were a serious historical question about whether Jesus existed. There isn’t direct archaeological evidence, but there isn’t direct archaeological evidence for the existence of most of the people we know of from history. The Romans didn’t carve statues of Jewish messianic claimants, or stamp commemorative coin series entitled “Movement Leaders We’ve Crucified in the Provinces.”

    Whether Jesus had any special status or nature or not, there are very few first century Palestinians of whose existence we have more evidence: we have copious literary evidence (including a dusting in early non-Christian sources, and several Christian sources that were circulated while many people who had lived in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s claimed activity were still alive) and the evidence of the existence of a Jesus movement (i.e., what later became Christianity) itself.

    Responsible historians of the period who take Jesus’s non-existence to be a serious possibilty are about as easy to find as good archaeologists who think pyramids could only have been built by aliens.

  • James P. Sartain, Jr. says:

    This is a good bit out of date, Golan has been in fact found not guilty of forging the ossuary. The experts, from what I have seen on line, are divided on its authenticity. This is in serious need of an update to bring it current.

    • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

      I agree. I will spend some time on this.

      Like many people, I was very surprised that Oded Golan was found not guilty in view of the huge amount of evidence for the prosecution’s case.

  • James P. Sartain, Jr. says:

    I haven’t followed the case in detail, but by the news reports it appears to have broken down on the fundamental point of whether there had been a forgery at all, due to the division of opinion of the experts. No forgery, no crime. They could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that it was a forgery.Whatever your opinion of Mr. Golan, good or bad, he is still entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

    • Henri says:

      In response to Mr. Sartain, the presumption of innocence is a legal principle putting the burden of proof on the prosecution. While it is sometimes confusedly invoked in other contexts, it isn’t a legitimate principle in archaeology or history. If I am trying to determine whether Henry II was complicit in the murder of Becket, the proper course is to compare the competing theories that we have and see which best accounts for the evidence that we have. That theory can then be judged as better- or worse-confirmed depending on the quality of the relevant evidence, the strength of the explanatory relation between the theory and the evidence, how well the theory fits with other knowledge that we have from history and related fields that relates to the theory, how confident we are able to be that we have considered the relevant alternatives, etc. Similarly, those considering whether the ossuary inscription is genuine need to consider what theory best accounts for the present character of the inscription, in light of all our other relevant knowledge.

      While Mr. Golan was and is entitled to the legal presumption of innocence and judgment by the standard of proof for a criminal case in any criminal proceeding against him, these standards would be wildly inappropriate for archaeologists, historians, epigraphers, or other scientists and scholars to use in judging whether the inscription is likely to be genuine and what effect the ossuary’s having appeared to public view from Mr. Golan’s holdings should have on scholarly judgment about that.

  • Henri says:

    Without intending any libelous implication about Mr. Golan, I would remind people that the standard of proof required in a court of law in a roughly democratic society (leaving aside the enormous issue of the Palestinian question as irrelevant to this particular point) is typically very high, much higher than that required for a common sense judgment or for a historical or social-scientific judgment that something is the most reasonable or likely hypothesis in light of the evidence. That is, it is wholly consistent with the judges’ having correctly found the evidence insufficient to convict Mr. Golan of any crime that the evidence be substantially in favor of his having altered or created the inscription, or his knowing who did so.

    Israel lacks a written constitution, though it has a series of “Basic Laws” that serve a quasi-Constitutional function. Trials are by single judge or by panel of judges, rather than by juries. The standards of evidence and a presumption of innocence are, broadly and roughly speaking, drawn from British common law (plus Israeli precedent, as interpreted by the Israeli Supreme Court). In such a system, judges are often bound by legal standards of evidence to acquit people even when the preponderance of the evidence favors belief in the guilt of the accused substantially. It is also of course perfectly possible that someone other than Mr. Golan created or altered the inscription in the 20th century without Mr. Golan’s knowledge or participation.

    If someone were convicted of forging the inscription, then presumably the evidence that was the basis for their conviction would be a strong basis for rejecting the ossuary as relevant to historical questions about James and Jesus. But we should keep in mind that the fact that someone hasn’t been doesn’t tell us anything about whether the inscription is (in whole or in part) a genuine first century inscription.

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that, despite the hype from Mr. Shanks and others, even if the inscription were confirmed to be genuine to the satisfaction of virtually all competent experts, pretty much all that it would show is that some person or people involved in burying James had certain beliefs about Jesus. But we already have very strong literary (including from a few non-Christian sources) and anthropological / sociological evidence that Jesus lived in Palestine in the first third of the first century and attracted followers who came to regard him as the Messiah, as Lord (a term traditionally reserved by Jews for God within Jewish contexts), etc. And we already have strong literary evidence (including a probably genuine reference by the Jewish historian / Roman collaborator Josephus) that Jesus had a brother named James, who was called “James the Just” by some, and who was an early leader in the Jesus movement (the predecessor of the Christian church) in Jerusalem.

    So, while the ossuary inscription would be (if genuine) an interesting piece of archaeological evidence confirming the existence of certain beliefs about Jesus in the first century, it adds no significant content to our historical knowledge about Jesus or about James or even about the Jesus movement, and the things that it would confirm are already well-evidenced.

  • James P. Sartain, Jr. says:

    In reference to Henri’s comment: All points valid and very well taken. The ossuary, if a fake, merely becomes irrelevant to the question, neither proving nor disproving anything. If genuine, it merely confirms knowledge we already had evidence for. It’s biggest effect would be to reinforce the credibility of the sources we previously possessed.

    As to Mr. Golan, my point was that he should not be prejudged in this case because of his reputation, whatever it may be, good or bad. I’m not familiar with his reputation beyond what I have seen on line. It is entirely possible that he did indeed fake the ossuary, or knows who did. I have no information on whether he possesses the knowledge and ability to produce a fake that has fooled at least some of the experts. It is equally possible that he is the dupe of some unknown forger. It is also equally possible that the box is genuine. I doubt, under the circumstances, we will ever know for sure, which is unfortunate. As a conservative Christian, I would like to have one more piece of undisputed confirmatory evidence. Those opposed to Christianity would no doubt like to finally dispose of one. As it now stands, the box is worthless, even if genuine. No one will ever accept it as proof or disproof of anything. I would predict, if the box is indeed a fake, that it was faked not for any attempt to prove or disprove anything, but to make the forger a great deal of money.

    • RobertB says:

      You may or may not be aware of a documentary/reenactment film titled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” which was produced by James Cameron and directed by Simca Jacobovich, an ‘investigative archaeologist’, journalist and filmmaker. Jacobovich is a bit of a dramaticist , somewhat in the style of Zawi Hawass, but the substance of the film is very interesting and convincing. Some years ago, a tomb was unearthed in Jerusalem during construction. A brief investigation was conducted, the ossuaries found within were catalogued and warehoused, then forgotten. However, between finding the tomb and the cataloguing of the ossuaries, one went missing. The chemical anaysis of the patina of the ossuaries catalogued and the purported ‘ossuary of James’ matched. Any patina acquired in similar surroundings would be unique, and assuming the tests are scientifically valid, the ossuary of Mr Golan could well have been the one that went missing some 30 or 35 years ago. The tomb is referred to as Jesus’ family tomb because so many names correspond to associates or family of Jesus. If James’ ossuary was indeed originally in this tomb it would also show that the tomb was in use over many years, as James, the head of the church/movement after Jesus’ execution, was murdered by the mob some 30 years after Jesus’ corporeal death.
      Of the ossuaries in storage, several have inscriptions such as “Mariameme” (as Magdalene was known), “Joseph”, “Maria” and “Judah, son of Jesus”, as well as a “Matthew” (another brother?).
      If things like this interest you, you may enjoy the film. Also, on the Biblical Archaeology Review website there is much technical information on the ‘Jesus ossuary’ investigation, paleology, paleography, chemical analysis of the patina, etc. Herschel Shanks has always been a very vocal champion of this discovery, but in the true sense of investigation, objectively presents all arguments (and a lot of arguing and challenges amongst experts and scientists!) involving the analysis of the ossuary.
      Apart from this subject, an ossuary was found in a family tomb, also in Jerusalem, of the priest Caiaphas, who sent Jesus to trial before Pilate. This Caiaphas is documented in the New Testament, so objects like this can be found, however unlikely or surprising it may seem.

      • Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews says:

        I have already written a post about the so-called Jesus Family Tomb. There are all sorts of issues with the statistics, the reading of the name Mariamne and the tendentious assumptions of family relationships that just aren’t stated in the inscriptions. It appears to be a perfectly ordinary tomb of a well-off Jewish family of the first century CE.

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