Authentic or Forged? What to Do When Experts Disagree

Hershel Shanks’s First Person in the November/December 2012 issue of BAR

I recently had lunch with Victor (Avigdor) Hurowitz, a distinguished professor of ancient Semitic languages at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is firmly convinced that the Jehoash (Yehoash) Inscription, which comes from the antiquities market, is a forgery. In this, he is in agreement with another scholar I greatly admire, Edward Greenstein of Tel Aviv University.

Hurowitz is quick to admit, however, that if the 15-line inscription describing repairs to the Temple is authentic, it would be enormously important—for the history of the Biblical text, for understanding the development of the Hebrew language, for Hebrew epigraphy, etc., to say nothing of the fact that it would also be the only known example of a royal Israelite (actually Judahite) inscription.

Hurowitz’s equally distinguished colleague at Ben-Gurion University, Chaim Cohen, has written at great length on why the inscription could well be authentic. But the fact is that almost all Hebrew language scholars (philologists) agree with Hurowitz. So for purposes of this discussion, I will assume that Hebrew language scholars as a whole regard it as a forgery.

Another group of scholars, however, are equally convinced that the Jehoash Inscription is authentic.1 They are geologists; they speak the language of the hard sciences. They used a stereoscopic binocular microscope to study “the morphology, structural features and thin sections of the rock.” They were able to examine the patina that developed within a crack that ran through four lines of the inscription. “During this study,” they concluded, “we did not find any petrographic or chemical evidence that the patina was artificially added to the stone. The patina within the crack and on the fracture planes [the plaque has two fractures in addition to the crack] is similar to the patina found within the engraved letters … It may be concluded that the patina [in the engraved letters] is a natural result of weathering processes that acted on the rock.” Since it takes hundreds of years for such patina to form, the engraving of the letters cannot be modern. Based on a carbon-14 analysis of the carbon in the patina, the geologists estimate that the patina is more than 2,000 years old.

The geologists’ conclusion is clear: “Our analysis strongly supports the authenticity of the Jehoash tablet and its inscription. All evidence indicates that the production of the tablet and the carving of its inscription occurred at essentially the same time.”

The question I want to raise here is purely methodological: What do you do when expert philologists say it is a forgery and expert geologists say it is authentic—especially when you are neither?

My friend Avigdor had no answer. Neither do I. Maybe one of our readers will.

Although I am not an expert in either Hebrew philology or in geology, I like to say that I am an expert in one thing: I am an expert on experts. I know who to rely on. But in this case leading experts in unrelated fields give me different answers.

And I don’t know of a single human being who is an expert both in First Temple Hebrew philology and in modern geological examination of allegedly ancient patina.

Because we rely on experts, and because there is an apparently irresolvable conflict of experts in this case, BAR has taken no position with respect to the authenticity of the Jehoash Inscription.

But I have a confession to make—if you promise not to tell anyone: In my heart of hearts, I believe the Jehoash Inscription is authentic. Not for the reason you suspect; not because I very much want it to be good, not because it would be so exciting if it is good, but because my common sense tells me so. Here is my “common sense” reasoning:

A crack runs through four lines of the inscription. (Actually, while in the possession of the Israeli police, the tablet broke along the crack, so it is now in two pieces, enabling the geologists to examine the patina in the depths of the crack.) All agree the crack is ancient. That means that the forger, if there was one, would have had to forge the letters of four lines across the crack. It is very doubtful that any forger could do this, but there are some who say it is possible. But it defies common sense to imagine that a forger would start with a plaque that had this crack in it, when one more tap might break the tablet and spoil all his work. This is especially true since similar tablets without cracks were easily available.

Another factor also affects my “kishkes”a.: The patina on the tablet contains “abundant pure gold globules 0.5 to 1 [millionths of a meter] in diameter.” Gold powder with globules of gold of this tiny size “does not exist in the modern gold market.” The smallest size available commercially is 0.5 millimeters (500 millionths of a meter). The occurrence of pure gold globules of 1 millionth of a meter is evidence of melting at above 1,000 degrees centigrade (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit). Moreover, the gold was not found in aggregates but as solitary particles, thus indicating a natural rather than artificial dispersion. The narrow range of globule size attests to a natural rather than artificial sorting process. This of course raises the possibility that when the Temple was destroyed by fire, this gold was spattered and lay in the ground, gradually becoming attached to the patina forming on the Jehoash tablet.

Recent research regarding silver suggests that this is a real possibility.2 Scientists found that ancient pottery in the ground gradually absorbs nearby silver. In an elaborate and sophisticated study, the scientists examined pottery excavated in the wealthy areas of Jerusalem and compared it to similar pottery from rural areas; their “data suggest that almost all of the Jerusalem-excavated sherds contained Ag [silver] above the amount found in the pottery from rural sites outside Jerusalem.” This was true even though “some of the pottery from rural sites had the same element composition pattern (except for the Ag) as the Jerusalem-excavated samples … Therefore the Ag was not in the clay naturally.” The scientists suggest that “a likely source of the Ag anomalies in the Jerusalem samples is in situ contamination by aqueous transport [i.e., rain] after deposition.” Where did the silver come from? Probably from silver (coins and other silver) lost or buried by wealthy Jerusalemites and pilgrims: “One significant source for the anomalously high levels of Ag found particularly in the Jerusalem pottery samples might possibly be related to the exceptional wealth of Jerusalem in the late Second Temple period.” Masses of pilgrims came to these areas of Jerusalem to make offerings and to pay their annual half-shekel tax.

The scientists also analyzed a ceramic jug from about 1000 B.C.E. excavated at Tel Dor that contained 18 pounds of silver tokens and scraps of jewelry. Two samples of the jug were analyzed, one from above the line of the silver inside and one from the base. Both pottery samples contained very high quantities of silver. The quantity of silver from the upper sample was 30 ppm (parts per million); at the base of the jug, the quantity of silver was 100 ppm.

If silver is absorbed in this way, it is not hard to imagine that gold would be absorbed in the patina of the Jehoash tablet in the same way.

Of course this is all very speculative and should only be whispered, if mentioned at all. On the basis of the irresolvable conflict of experts, however, we at BAR can take no position regarding the authenticity of the Jehoash Inscription.

For more on the Jehoash inscriptions and the other alleged forgeries debated in the “Forgery Trial of the Century,” visit the Bible History Daily James Ossuary Forgery Trial Resources Guide.



1. I am relying here on two papers whose authors include six geologists. The first of the two papers is Shimon Ilani, Amnon Rosenfeld and Michael Dvorachek, “Archaeometry of a Stone Tablet with Hebrew Inscription Referring to Repair of the House,” GSI Current Research 13 (2002). The second paper is S. Ilani, A. Rosenfeld, H.R. Feldman, W.E. Krumbein and J. Kronfeld, “Archaeometric Analysis of the ‘Jehoash Inscription’ Tablet,” Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008), p. 113.

2. The following analysis is from D. Adan-Bayewitz, F. Asaro and R.D. Giauque, “The Discovery of Anomalously High Silver Abundances in Pottery from Early Roman Excavation Contexts in Jerusalem,” Archaeometry 48, no. 3 (2006), p. 377.

a. Cf. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”—Oliver Cromwell

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17 Responses

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  1. Paqid says

    When fluid consensual opinion based on religious agenda, credentials and prestige conflicts with hard physical evidence, fluidity eventually yields and complies with the hard evidence. This has often proven to be the rule and will remain so.

    I notice that, even though it’s sometimes very tenuous (as in this case), scholars are increasingly coming to understand, and follow, the hard evidence even when it contradicts “traditional beliefs.”

    That understanding, while others flounder in vacuous misconstruals, is its own reward.

  2. JAllan says

    I agree with Yirmeyahu, because scholarly dating by writing is based upon the assumed USUAL way of shaping letters, spelling, grammatical composition, etc. in each era of history. Human scribes and stone cutters have individual variations. The presence of an outlier in any of these criteria is ASSUMED to be due to a forger, but it could possibly be due to a person with “bad” handwriting or spelling (which might be considered “good” in a later era; in fact, that person may have been the innovator that INTRODUCED the new fashion!), or some regional sub-fashion not known previously.
    On the other hand, PHYSICAL evidence is harder to explain away, especially if the scientific area is rather mature. There have been a few rare examples, as when 19th century geologists were confronted by chemists who pointed out that the SUN could not be more than 10 thousand years old if it were composed of pure coal and surrounded by pure oxygen; but in the 20 century, nuclear FUSION was discovered, and found to supply more than enough energy for a 5 to 10 billion year old sun (just ask the corals at Bikini)! However, from my general layman’s knowledge of physics and chemistry, there do not seem to be any major holes in chemical or nuclear theory involved here, especially with regard to radiocarbon dating.
    There are only three things that could make radiocarbon dating “off” by more than experimental error: differences in the isotope distribution of carbon when the sample was growing (small errors possible but not large ones); additional carbon from the atmosphere added to the sample during the interim (which would make the sample look YOUNGER, never older); and change in the value of the half-life of C-14 over time (science fiction story plot here; as in Asimov’s “The Gods Themselves”).
    Barring the two of these which would make the sample appear older, the combination of carbon dating and other geological analysis seems to say “authentic” to me, and the scribe may have been either dyslexic, poorly educated in grammar (or came from an outlying area with its own regional dialect, a-la Huck Finn), or ahead of his time.

  3. Chavoux says

    I think part of the way out is that the different authorities should give their methods/reasons and evidence for reaching their conclusions. While it is very difficult to teach non-experts to recognize the intricacies of all the different letter forms in the different time periods, it should still be possible to at least give some evidence for your position that non-experts can understand. While not explaining in detail how carbon14 dating work (and not mentioning the variance of possible dates at all) at least the basics of the method used by the “hard scientists” to reach their conclusion is given here, while nothing similar is given for the alternative view. That makes it impossible for any non-expert to reach a conclusion.

  4. BHD says

    The answer is obviously staring us in the face. It is a very old forgery.


    I am not an expert on anything relevant. However, what if the time-line was right and the writing was a work of fiction or had some meaning other than facts?

  6. Robert says

    The presence of Au globules is extremely interesting, and may be a reflection of contamination from Au said to have been used to decorate the walls of the Jerusalem Temple, or a sophisticated inclusion by a forger wishing to hint at this possible source for the tablet.

    Either way they indicate a high temperature process above 1000 deg C and several conclusions could be drawn from the actual chemical compositions of these Au globules. Has anyone performed XRF, PIXE, GRT radio chemical activation tests on the samples? If so does anyone know the results? The ratios of Au/Ag/Cu would yield useful information on the provenance and dating of the gold. For example the lack of Au in Ag materials is a good indicator of recent fabrication, and therefore a modern dating.

    The skills of today’s forgers should not be underestimated and the geological results in themselves, of carbon dating etc, should be viewed with a great deal of caution. As well as the scientific papers Shanks quotes there is a distinct lack of any reference to views from other scientist, such as Yuval Goren (An Alternative Interpretation of the Stone Tablet with Ancient Inscription Attributed to Jehoash, King of Judah), who throws substantive doubt on the credibility of the technological evidence.

  7. George says

    If I were depending on Experts, who seem to be sincere, in stating what they feel is factual, & if It seems that they are without valid opinion regarding the truth of a piece of “work” being genuine, then I would examine “1st the Opinion, then the Man” that says a piece of work is falsely, accomplished, especially if it can be used to oppose validity of a Prophetic Act, recorded in Holy Writings as a Prophesy when rediscovered! Ex: “i do not remember exactly how it is stated, but a deed to a parcel of property was sold to a prophet in order to prophesy that Land will be bought & sold again in Israel, or upon the return of the Children of Israel, this was accomplished, after or right before the Babylonian exile of many Hebrew people”! My reasoning, is based on two portions of scripture, one, Joshua said, do not make agreements with the Children of the land, because they will be thorns in your eyes. These children of the land, later, Children of Rahab, became Scribes, & so, could have changed many things in scripture, if their opinions were used or did, change the meanings of Hebrew Scriptures. For instance some have said that there were more then one Isaiah, were those who said this Sons of Rahab. In a book called in one bible, the Scribes were said to have become scribes, in the is in II Chronicles. Even the names of the Sons of Cain, or Kenites, were given, in one version, some being Hemath, & others.

  8. Thomas says

    The old definition of an expert was someone from 50 miles out of town. Now it is a drip under pressure. Experts do not change their minds. They die and new minds are free to decide.

  9. David says

    Why is Epigraphy/Paleography so critical?
    I understand that dating an inscription based on the text is of great importance, but surely there is some even minor scope for variance in the text. Look at today where literacy is so high, that you can read 100 letters from 100 different people and no two will be identical. I understand that literacy was extremely low in 1st and second temple periods but surely there is some variance in textual formation.
    With so much of the Geological evidence pointing to authenticity I think
    one must look at the possibility that the text could date that early????

  10. Wesley says

    Legitimacy has been an issue since the very beginning. Many standards and techniques have been developed to ascertain the age and or authenticity of artifacts. The difficulty I have with these techniques, standards, and experts, is that it requires a certain amount of “faith” in the entire process. Too much of the accepted standards for dating materials assume that there are no variations in the decay of materials. The track record for science in general is one of gross misconceptions, absurd theories, and truly imaginative speculation – know as a theory. Many who read or hear of certain theories should always stop and remember the definition of theory. But back to dating materials… There are just too many things both natural and manmade that can alter the structure of certain materials, such as Carbon, and lead to erroneous conclusions. There are many books on this subject. I would tend to trust the linguistic analysis of this particular object over the scientific method. Don’t get me wrong, science is a great tool for helping us explore and understand many things , but be regarded as such. The earth is not flat, lead continues to remain lead and not gold in spite of scientific endeavors to change that. It is interesting to me that the more “discoveries” we make, the more we realize how little we really know. In this case, the truth is usually the simplest answer…

  11. JAllan says

    I would trust the linguistics too, if the scientific evidence did not seem to me TOO unlikely to allow for a practical forgery. As I indicated, and others agreed on this post, the linguistic criteria involve AVERAGES in vocabulary, usage, spelling, and handwriting. Given a very large corpus of text, this can show the most likely date of composition, just as we can recognize 19th century handwriting as opposed to medieval. But there may be exceptions: different choice of words or grammar due to a scribe’s home village; variant spelling due to the same reason; just plain sloppiness, like typos on a keyboard today; or dyslexia (surely NOT a modern “disease”), which can affect word order, spelling, or orientation of letters. Such variants may happen to resemble the norm of an earlier or later time. On the other hand, radioactive decay IS known to be constant, except in science fiction novels, so when the two criteria diverge, unless there is a known technological tool that would make a forgery utterly SEAMLESS, and enough motive to USE such a sophisticated tool, I would trust the science over the linguistics, unless the text contains an OBVIOUS anachronism such as a reference to Menachim Begin meeting with Anwar Sadat, or a modern coined word such as atomic energy.

    And by the way, lead CAN be changed into gold; a few atoms at a time, at great expense, in a nuclear particle accelerator. In a fission reactor or atomic bomb, uranium or plutonium is changed into a variety of lighter elements, and in the stars, hydrogen bombs, and the not yet practical fusion reactor, hydrogen is changed to helium. But none of this is likely to have occurred in ancient times on Earth! And only governments and a few academic labs have the ability to do it today.

  12. D says

    It strikes me that BHD has proposed a real possibility that needs to be considered for both the Jehoash tablet and the James ossuary: they might be ancient forgeries.

    What the James ossuary is definitely not, is a modern forgery. There was never any reason to think so. If the physical evidence says the Jehoash tablet is old, so be it, pace the philologists (even though philology and epigraphy are fairly reliable).

    But ancient forging of artifacts needs to be considered, and I wonder why it hasn’t.

  13. A. says

    There is a fairly fundamental question here of what constitutes a ‘forgery’ and, as Dallas points out, why ‘forgery’ was practised. There is a good deal of literary ‘forgery’ in both BC and AD periods (is the Letter of Aristeas a ‘forgery’ or just a good story ?). The matter of forgery seems to be fairly important for those who subscribe to religious belief systems. I am not sure that anyone is really as bothered, for example, about Pseudo-Xenophon (the Old Oligarch, as the text is often known in English).

  14. Montreal says

    There is a fairly fundamental question here of what constitutes a ‘forgery’ and, as Dallas points out, why ‘forgery’ was practised. There is a good deal of literary ‘forgery’ in both BC and AD periods (is the Letter of Aristeas a ‘forgery’ or just a good story ?). The matter of forgery seems to be fairly important for those who subscribe to religious belief systems. I am not sure that anyone is really as bothered, for example, about Pseudo-Xenophon (the Old Oligarch, as the text is often known in English).

  15. JAllan says

    Ancient forgeries? Possible; of course, from the viewpoint of a museum, an ancient forgery is still an antiquity! The James Ossuary could have been forged in the 2nd or 3rd century AD for a CHRISTIAN market, although very few Christians in those days would have been linguistically sophisticated enough NOT to be fooled by the simpler process of writing the inscription in the Greek vernacular of their day, so using Aramaic would have been marketing “overkill” so to speak. As for the Joash inscription, what would have been the market for an ancient forgery? Its primary value, if authentic, is to confirm the truth of the Biblical account, which would not have been in question in ancient times, so there would be no reason to forge such a stone “only” a few centuries after it is supposed to have been written.

    So “forgery” in this context does not mean a falsely attributed TEXT, but an artifact allegedly ancient which really was produced only a few years ago. And it seems unlikely that either of these is a forgery by that definition, if the geological and radiological tests are accurate.

  16. Charlie says

    I throw up my hands!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. A Dilemma | theologyarchaeology linked to this post on November 4, 2012

    [...] group of scholars, however, are equally convinced that the Jehoash Inscription is authentic.1 They are geologists; they speak the language of the hard sciences. They used a stereoscopic [...]

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