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
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.
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.