As discussed in detail in Hershel Shanks’s article “’Brother of Jesus’ Inscription is Authentic!” in the July/August 2012 issue of BAR, former Israel Antiquities Authority employee Joe Zias was at the center of the claim that the last part of the James Ossuary inscription was forged. The following are excerpts from his court testimony, as translated from the Hebrew record. For the exact court record, see the Hebrew transcript.
Joseph Zias in the Witness Box
A. I came [to the Old City of Jerusalem in the mid 1990s] … for something. All of a sudden I saw Mahmud Abu Shukreh. He asked me, “Would you like a cup of tea?” I said, “Why not?” I entered his shop … and sat down. We were alone and I went in for a cup of tea—I know it was winter because I only drink tea during the winter. I sat down in his rather small shop as he went to make the tea. As I looked around I suddenly saw an ossuary which, in my opinion, had no value and took up a lot of space. When he came out with the tea I said to him, “Mahmud, listen, why do you keep this thing around? It has no monetary value.” He looked at me and said, “This is my pension.” I said to him: “If someone would offer you $200, take the money and go, because it has no monetary value.”
Then he went and brought the ossuary from the wall [space]. I was sitting on a small stool, like the ones with a straw seat that you find in the market. He brought it from the wall. I looked at him and said, “There is an inscription there.” I am not a graphologist, that is not my field. I am interested in what is in the boxes, not the ossuaries themselves. I asked what it was. He told me that it was inscribed Yaakov ben Yosef. As I said, he told me that it was his pension, this Yaakov ben Yosef. I knew at once what he meant, for it is one of my areas of interest.
I said to him, “Listen, if it were inscribed Yaakov ben Yosef brother of Yeshu or anything like it, you would really have something. But as it is, what you have is of no value.” He did not react. He didn’t say a thing. He simply put it back. We drank the tea, and that was the end of the story until 2002.
Q. Did you read the inscription on the ossuary?
A. No, no no. Mahmud read it to me.
Q. You say that he did not read the inscription to you. Is there anything that you do remember? How do you know that this is the same ossuary that you are talking about?
A. Because of the context … Without this statement—“This is my pension”—I wouldn’t have remembered this, because this was just …
Q. But why do you think that this is the ossuary under discussion and not another one? He (Mahmud) actually told you something different than what is presently inscribed on this ossuary!
A. First of all, from my look at only a part, badly worn. The inscription was quite small because there are many ossuaries. I told you, I have seen so many ossuaries during my life, some with an inscription so large you can read it from the other side [of the room]. This one had something very, very small and that is the reason. I looked at it for a few seconds and asked Mahmud, “What is this,” and he then told me, “This is my pension.” I said, Wow, now I understand what he meant.
Q. Look here Mr. Zias, when I first asked you to tell us how you knew it was winter, you said it was because you drank tea.
Q. Then you told us that you actually don’t know if you drank coffee or tea. For if you drank coffee you say it was summer; if tea, it was winter. It doesn’t help us at all with this case, indeed it is inconsequential.
A. All right, as far as I am concerned, you can strike it.
A. Cup of tea, cup of coffee.
Q. Now I want to ask you. Did Abu Shukreh really invite you to drink and show you the ossuary. Wasn’t he afraid that you were from the Antiquities Authority?
And he had in his hands an object that in his opinion was his pension, something very valuable, and he showed it to someone from the Antiquities Authority and was not afraid?
A. I’ll tell you why. If it were inscribed Yaakov ben Yosef brother of Yeshu, I would have immediately done two things: I would have gone to the Antiquities Authority or I would have gone to the Christian community, where I have many connections because of my research. Since the inscription was only Yaakov ben Yosef it and had no significance, it was not illegal, not against the law, insignificant, just an ossuary with two names.
Q. … Did you not say to us here, and also at the police, that the reason you remember this ossuary is because of the context, because of the content …
Q. … of the words. But you when you were recently at the office of the state’s attorney, you made a correction and told them something different, you said that you remember the ossuary because of the rosettes.
A. No, no.
Q. You never said anything like that?
A. No, no, no.
Q. So, the interrogator apparently was confused, for that is what he affirmed to us, that you did say that. And I will tell you when, I will remind you what is written here in the record: The date was 20 August, yesterday. He writes that on 19 August you were at the office of the state’s attorney. Do you remember that you were in Jerusalem?
A. Ah, yes, yes, yes.
A. Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Q. Right. All sorts of things are written here. “Yesterday we met with Mr. Zias, etc. and the ossuary itself he remembers because of its rosettes.
A. Yes, I’ll tell you why, because one sees the rosettes …
Attorney Bahat [for the prosecution] … with difficulty.
Q. If [Abu Shukreh] had an ossuary with an inscription, inspectors from the Antiquities Authority would have come across it. If it was in the shop, and not in a cellar or a warehouse or a hiding place, the inspectors from the I.A.A. who make the rounds of the shops would have seen it and would not they, not you, have informed the I.A.A.?
A. No, I’ll tell you why. The inscription was turned to the wall. If the inscription had been turned outward where any and everyone entering the shop could see it, it would have been obvious. But the side with the inscription was concealed against the wall to hide it from onlookers.
Q. When he showed it to you, were you not in a position to read the inscription?
A. No, from the angle where I was sitting it was not possible. It was about a meter away from me and I was sitting below it. To see the inscription it would have been necessary to move it to a table where one could look at it. I had come to drink a cup of coffee, or tea with this gentleman, no more.
Q, Either coffee or tea—we cannot be sure.
A. Yes, yes.
Q. Based on what you said to the police, you said that “he then turned the ossuary
around and I saw an inscription on the back side.”
Q. [And you said] I cannot read Aramaic.
Q. And you asked that he read the inscription to you.
A. Yes, yes.
Q. So it is not because you were a meter away, not a matter of distance—you were could have stood up and had a look.
Q. Is the word Yosef an Aramaic name? [Zias’s personal name is Yosef (Joseph)]
A. I have no idea. That is not my area of expertise. I am not an epigrapher.
Q. I ask you again: You said to the police—perhaps incorrectly, perhaps erroneously, perhaps you may wish to correct your testimony – that you did not read [the inscription] because it was written in Aramaic and you do not understand Aramaic.
A. I did not read it, he read it to me. He told me what was inscribed.
Q. You said that because it was Aramaic, which you don’t understand—these are your words—“I do not read Aramaic”—you asked him.
Q. You asked him to read the inscription to you because you do not read Aramaic. That is what you said.
A. Look, you know that most of the inscriptions are in Aramaic or Hebrew, and that’s it.
Q. The word “Yosef”—is that an Aramaic name?
A. I have no idea, no idea, for that is not my field—I am not an epigrapher.
Q. I am saying to you, sir, that, field or no field, anyone here at this moment in this chamber knows how to read this, and I say to you that anyone you stop on the street would look and know how to read these words. They all can read the word “Yosef” [Joseph] or the word “Yaakov” [Jacob] or the word “bar [son of, as in bar mitzvah].
A. You know that up to now I have not seen the ossuary except in pictures.
Q. Seen? You said in my presence that you saw it.
A. Ah, yes.
Q. At Abu Shukreh’s.
A. No, no, my intent is that after the whole story came out I saw it only in pictures.
Q. You took part in conferences on this subject, you wrote articles [on the internet] on the subject but you never actually saw it!
A. What article did I write about this?
Q. Do you want me to show you?
A. Oh, something on the internet? Yes, I did write on the internet. Yes, but.
Q. You wrote articles, you expressed yourself, you were present, you attended conferences that dealt with this ossuary?
A. Yes, yes.
Q. But you never took the trouble to look at it not even in a photo?
A. No, I did see the photographs.
Q. You saw the photograph.
A. Certainly I saw the photographs.
Q. Then you did not see the inscription in the photographs? You only looked at the rosettes when you saw the photos?
A. No, no, no, not so.
Q. So you are saying to us—again I want to understand—Is what you said to the police correct or incorrect? You stated there that you could not read [the inscription] because it was in Aramaic and you asked Abu Shukreh to read it to you.
A. Yes, yes.
Q And this statement is correct?
A. Yes, yes, he read it to me, yes, yes.
Q. Right. And you stand by your position even now that it was impossible for you to read it because only someone who knows Aramaic could do so?
Q. And that you cannot identify there the words “Yaakov,” “Yosef,” and “bar.”
Q. Cannot identify these three words? Very well.
A. You know that up to now I have not seen the ossuary, I told you I only saw it in . . .Till now I have not see it in person.
Q. Mr. Zias, I return to your statement to the police: “Yaakov and Yeshu occur in abundance [on ossuaries].]
A. Yes, yes.
[Attorney Bahat: No, read it to the end.]
Q. [Attorney Bringer reads from Zias’s statement to the police:]
“I knew at once what I, what he, intended and I told him to be cautious, for Sukenik discovered something similar in the 1920s that had no significance because those names were very common. Yaakov and Yeshu occur in abundance.”
Now where on this ossuary did the name “Yeshu” appear? [By your testimony] It did not appear, according to what you said.
Q. It did not appear. It was only Yaakov bar Yosef.
A. That’s what I told you.
Q. This “Yeshu” was Abu Shukreh”s interpretation? –that this was his brother?
A. Yes, yes, yes.
Q. So how does this connect with the “abundance of Yeshu?” I remind you that Prof. Kloner testified here this morning that these [names] are not abundant, not at all. And I remind you that the word “Yeshu,” as you have asserted, was not there. So you inserted the word “Yeshu.” Why is this relevant? Let us assume that there are many “Yeshu”s. What is the relevance? Yeshu [according to your testimony] was not there, so why does it matter? Why did you say to Abu Shukreh that Yaakov and Yeshu occur in abundance?
A. No …
Q. Good. Let me ask you, how many ossuaries do you know of or have heard about or seen in photographs or read about that are inscribed Yaakov bar Yosef?
A. I don’t know.
Q. I have already told you that Prof. Kloner testified this morning that he does not know of even one. But perhaps you know of many. So please explain.
A. No …
Q. [Judge Farkash] The question put to you by Attorney Bringer is this: At the moment that you said to Abu Shukreh that Prof. Sukenik had found, had in his hands, an ossuary inscribed Yeshu bar Yosef, and this one was inscribed Yaakov bar Yosef, and [Sukenik’s] caused quite a stir, it was understandable why Abu Shukreh thought that his ossuary was also his pension.
A. Right, right, yes, yes.
Q. [Judge Farkash] Right?
A. Yes, yes …
Q. And don’t you understand? You said that it [the ossuary] was nothing, not important?
Q. [Judge Farkash] So why did you say it was nothing? If the ossuary inscribed Yeshu bar Yosef caused quite a stir when Prof. Sukenik found it, Abu Shukreh now tells you that he has an ossuary inscribed Yaakov bar Yosef, that it too should cause quite a stir. So
it is possible to understand that this one was worth a lot. Why did you tell him that it was worthless? This is the question.
A. If the ossuary was Yeshu ben Yosef, it would be valuable. But one should take care.
The point I wanted to make was that because the inscription was Yaakov ben Yosef, not Yeshu ben Yosef, it was insignificant.
Q. [Judge Farkash] Yes, but you yourself said that Yeshu had several brothers.
A. Yes, four brothers.
Q. [Judge Farkash] So, what if this [inscription] was one of his four brothers? I have a news reporter here for all these sessions just for this.
A. Yes, but without the continuation of the inscription you don’t know. Even I felt uncomfortable that I possibly put the idea into his head, but now I am sure that I did not, that he already knew that it was possible to change [the inscription] and simply raise the price of the ossuary to the sky.
Q. Good. Now please tell me how many ossuaries do you know of here in Israel that are inscribed with the name Yeshu? I can help you. There is the one from Talpiot that Amos Kloner . .
Q. So why did you say to Abu Shukreh that “Yaakov” is quite widespread, quite common? And “Yeshu” is very common? It is not at all common. There was [the ossuary published by] Sukenik and there was [the one found in] Talpiot—two with the name Yeshu. I do not say that this [inscription] was really the brother of Yeshu or that Sukenik’s [inscription] was Yeshu. I do not understand such matters, I am not a professional [archeologist], but it certainly arouses one’s curiosity. Rarely does one see an ossuary inscribed Yehoshua [=Yeshu] ben Yosef, which is quite interesting, quite curious, a fact that you say all the world is interested in. Who is fact was buried there I do not know. And the same with Yaakov. If that was Yaakov ben Yosef, you knew that he [Yeshu] had a brother named Yaakov. This being the case, you immediately made the tie-in that this [Yaakov] was connected to Yeshu?
A. Yes, yes.
[Judge Farkash] Good.
A. I remember that I saw it, I simply don’t know where, that’s not how it was. I just said—wait a minute – this was a matter of process, finally I remembered—wait a minute—I remember the day that I was at Abu Shukreh, and there was this ossuary, and I didn’t go to the Antiquities Authority because I was involved in a dispute with them, I won quite a large judgment and received quite a lot of money. And that is the reason [I didn’t know] to whom I should turn. To Oded Golan?
Q. Just a moment. You previously said it took time before you came to the idea, the insight that this was the ossuary.
A. Yes, many years went by.
Q. Many years. Exactly. And then you see, it took time, when, finally—how does the expression go?—the coin dropped [into the telephone box]. When exactly did it occur to you that this was [the ossuary] you saw at Abu Shukreh?
A. After I bought the book by Hershel Shanks.
Q. You bought the book by Hershel Shanks?
A. Why? Because there were pictures in it.
Q. Before than you had never seen the ossuary?
A. I had seen it only in the press—something like that.
Q. And when did that occur?
A. I have no idea, I only know that it was 2003.
Q. Why did you contend [on the internet and at conferences] with all sorts of arguments by experts that the ossuary was this or not that, but you never said “I saw it?” You were engaged with hundreds of publications but not once did you ever write the simplest
thing in the world: I saw the ossuary and “brother of Yeshu” was not inscribed on it.
A. At the moment the scientific arguments do not interest me, I am not debating with you.
[Judge Farkash] Why in all your postings on the internet did you never write that you saw this ossuary around 1992 at Abu Shukreh’s, why did you never write this?
A. I’ll tell you why. Because I simply didn’t want, I knew, that after I had spoken with Yosi Pagis [of the police]—Yosi?
[Judge Farkash] Yonatan
A. Oh, Yonatan. So he said, Listen, there is a chance you will be a witness at this trial. So he simply told me to be careful with what I say. I didn’t want to give too much information to Oded Golan and his attorney. That is the reason. Look, I did not want to conduct the trial over the internet, this is the reason I never mentioned [Abu Shukreh].
For the exact testimony as rendered into Hebrew, see the Hebrew transcript.