July 2012 update: In the July/August 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks presents the authoritative post-trial analysis of the James Ossuary in the article “‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription is Authentic.” Read it in the BAS Library.
For more on the James Ossuary trial, visit the Bible History Daily James Ossuary Forgery Trial Resources Guide.
After a trial of more than five years with 138 witnesses, more than 400 exhibits and a trial transcript of 12,000 pages, Judge Aharon Farkash of the Jerusalem District Court has cleared the defendants of all forgery charges. His opinion in the case, handed down on March 14, is 474 pages long.
Of the five defendants originally indicted in 2004, only two remained in the case: Oded Golan, an antiquities collector with one of the most important collections in Israel (he was found guilty of the minor charge of trading in antiquities without a license); and Robert Deutsch, the most prominent antiquities dealer in Israel who has also taught at Haifa University, served as a square supervisor at the archaeological excavation of Megiddo and written scholarly books on his own and with other scholars of international repute.
The most famous of the objects charged to be forgeries is an inscription on an ossuary or bone box that reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It received its first publication in BAR–on October 21, 2002. The next day it was on the front page of almost every newspaper in the world, including the New York Times and Washington Post.
A second allegedly forged inscription is engraved on a little ivory pomegranate for which the Israel Museum paid $550,000. If authentic, it may be the only relic surviving from Solomon’s Temple. That too received its first English announcement in BAR.
A third alleged forgery is the so-called Jehoash (or Yehoash, in Hebrew) inscription, a 15-line text describing repairs to the Temple. If authentic, it would be the first royal Israelite inscription.
The indictment also charges several other inscriptions to be forgeries, including the “Three Shekels” ostracon and the “Widow’s Plea” ostracon (writings on pottery sherds), sold by Deutsch to famous, colorful, wealthy collector Shlomo Moussaieff.
The judge cleared the defendants of all charges of forgery.
As Matthew Kalman, the only journalist to cover the trial on a daily basis, wrote last fall: “The criminal, scholarly and scientific implications of [the judge’s] verdict are immense…An acquittal would be a severe setback for the Israel Antiquities Authority…It would also be an acute embarrassment for the isotope experts at the Israel Geological Survey and professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University.”
When the indictment was filed in 2004, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) claimed the defendants were part of large forgery conspiracy. This is just “the tip of the iceberg,” charged IAA director Shuka Dorfman. Among the IAA’s suspects were even leading academic writing experts Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Ada Yardeni of the Hebrew University. (The government’s chief witness in the case, Tel Aviv University Professor Yuval Goren claimed that I too played a “pivotal role” in the forgery conspiracy. My participation, he asserted, was “evident.”)
Perhaps most damaged by the judge’s decision is deputy IAA director Uzi Dahari who chaired the IAA committee that found the ossuary inscription and the Yehoash inscription to be forgeries. He led a bevy of scholars by the nose to accept an allegedly unanimous committee decision finding that the two inscriptions were forgeries. (See below.) At a BAR-organized forum, Dr. Dahari accused me of being the “catalyst for a series of forgeries.” He continued: “Mr. Shanks, you are playing with fire when you continually publish finds of this nature.” He referred to “solid proofs” that these two inscriptions were forgeries.*
Let’s consider the evidence regarding the three objects with inscriptions that have received the most attention.
The first is the ossuary inscribed “James, the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus.” All agree that the ossuary itself is authentic and ancient. The question is whether the inscription is forged—or more specifically whether the phrase “brother of Jesus” was added in recent times to an ancient inscription “James, son of Joseph.”
The first stop in any investigation of this question would be at the door of paleographaers, scholars who can date and authenticate inscriptions of particular periods based on the style and stance of the letters. In this case, the inscription has been authenticated by two of the greatest world authorities on the paleography of this period, as referred to previously, Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Ada Yardeni of Hebrew University.
What is even more significant is that no paleographer of any repute has even suggested that this inscription might be a forgery. There is no other side paleographically.
Scientifically, however, there is. Professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University found what he called “James Bond” covering the inscription in order to hide evidence of forgery. The James Bond was, he said, a mixture of ground-up limestone and hot water that formed a fake patina. But it turned out there was no way to make the mixture Goren hypothesized stick to the surface of the ossuary without the addition of an acid, traces of which would be found—and it wasn’t there. This so-call James Bond could be removed with a toothpick; it was hardly “bonded.” Goren even admitted that his “James Bond” could be the result of cleaning the ossuary (something dealers customarily do to make inscriptions stand out).
More important, after treatment, original ancient patina could be seen in several letters of the inscription, including one of the letters of the word “Jesus.” Before the trial, Goren had denied that there was any ancient patina in the inscription. When he was presented on cross-examination with new pictures taken by one of the defendant’s experts, Professor Goren became flummoxed and asked for a recess to allow him time to examine the box itself, rather than the pictures. He returned the next day and admitted in court that there was indeed original ancient patina in some of the letters. However, he sought to explain this, suggesting that the forger had incorporated ancient scratches with naturally formed patina as strokes of the forged letters of the inscription. (If anyone believes that, I have a bridge I’d like to sell them—very cheaply.)
Actually, this original ancient patina had been observed much earlier by Orna Cohen, one of the members of the Israel Antiquities Authority committee that examined the ossuary before the trial, but no one paid any attention to this; the IAA knew where it wanted to go.
There are other, simpler reasons why I believe that the inscription is not a forgery. Oded Golan has owned the ossuary since the late 1970s; he proved this with old photographs authenticated by an ex-FBI agent as using paper no longer used at a later date. And Golan never tried to sell the ossuary or publicize the inscription. He claims, quite believably, that he didn’t even know the New Testament mentions James as the brother of Jesus, or as he put it, “I never realized God could have a brother.” Even more understandably, he had no idea Ya’acov (on the ossuary and Jacob to any Israeli) was translated as James in English New Testaments.
The prosecution claims it found forgers’ tools in Golan’s apartment. Golan claims they were used in restoring antiquities from his collection, not for making forgeries. None of these tools, however, could be used to engrave the inscription on this ossuary. Even if he is a forger, that doesn’t mean everything in his vast collection is a forgery.
The second item alleged to be a forgery is a little ivory pomegranate inscribed “[Belonging] to the House (Temple) of [Yahwe]h; holy to the priests.” If it is authentic, it is probably the head of a small priestly scepter from Solomon’s Temple. We have other ivory scepters like this with rods still in them but without inscriptions. There is a hole in the bottom of this pomegranate for a rod to be inserted. Although the indictment alleges the inscription is a forgery, it was not included in the individual counts, so the judge did not deal with it in his opinion.
All agree that the ivory pomegranate itself is ancient. Again, it is only the inscription that is in question. After careful consideration of the matter, the inscription was authenticated by the late Nahman Avigad, one of Israel’s most highly respected and prominent paleographers before his death in 1992.
Again, like the ossuary inscription, no one seriously questions the paleography of this inscription. The question is again scientific—but simpler this time. As indicated above, only part of the inscription has survived. Some of the pomegranate containing the inscription was broken off in antiquity. The question is whether any of the surviving letters go into this ancient break; that is, when part of the pomegranate was broken off in ancient times, was the inscription already there? If so, the inscription is authentic.
A group of us got together at the Israel Museum to examine the pomegranate under a microscope to see whether any of the letters of the inscription went into the ancient break. If it did, the inscription was there before the break and was therefore ancient. If it stopped before the break, a forger was afraid to complete the letter for fear of breaking off more of the pomegranate. If a letter goes into the break it forms a little “v” on the side of the break, where part of the pomegranate had broken off long ago.
The group that gathered at the Israel Museum included Yuval Goren, who led the “forgery” claque, as well as two other pro-forgery scholars (and wonderful human beings and my friends), Professors Shmuel Ahituv and Aaron Demsky. Others included Andre Lemaire and me. Ahituv took charge of organizing the meeting once it was agreed to. I urged Ahituv to allow Ada Yardeni to attend the meeting, but he adamantly refused.
In the end, it all came down to a single letter—a heh. Does it go into the ancient break, thereby indicating it pre-existed the break? Is the little “v” there on the side of the pomegranate where part of it had broken off? Both from our visual inspection and from the microscope photographs, it is clear that the heh does go into the ancient break. The little “v” is there. So the letter was there in ancient times before the break occurred.
Each side published its report of the meeting in the Israel Exploration Journal (IEJ). But the report by Goren, Ahituv and Demsky arguing for forgery entirely fails to mention the heh that goes into the break, even though Lemaire heavily relies on this in his report. I wrote a letter for publication to IEJ, of which Ahituv was then editor, noting this glaring omission in their published report. I was told by return mail that IEJ does not print letters to the editor. (But this is not true. There are indeed examples of such letters.)
Now, whenever I see my friends Shmuel Ahituv and Aaron Demsky, I simply say to them, “What about the heh, Shmulik?” “What about the heh, Aharon?” They respond that they are through with this matter and don’t want to discuss it. Maybe some reader will be successful in eliciting a response from them that addresses this question.
The third artifact discussed here is a 15-line inscription on a black stone plaque, the text of which parallels a similar biblical description of repairs to Solomon’s Temple by King Yehoash in the 9th century B.C.E. If authentic, it could well have hung in Solomon’s Temple.
When this inscription first surfaced Yuval Goren quickly opined that it was a forgery because the black stone on which the inscription was carved was not native to Israel and probably came from “the Troodos Massif in Cyprus.” This was soon shown to be absurd. The plaque is made of simple arkosic sandstone, very common in Israel near the Dead Sea, as well as in Sinai.
The most serious claim that the Yehoash inscription is a forgery is philological. Some words in the inscription, these scholars contend, were not in use in the 9th century B.C.E. or not used in the same way at that time. Other scholars take the opposite position.
Because serious scholars rely on the philological infirmities of the inscription to declare it a forgery, I cannot confidently say they are wrong and that the inscription is authentic. But I do tend to think so. Here’s why.
The scientific evidence strongly points in this direction. The plaque had a deep crack running through four lines of the inscription. After the police confiscated the plaque, it (accidentally) broke in two along the crack. The crack could then be seen from the side. Part of the crack had ancient patina in it, proving that the crack was ancient. Would a forger choose to work with a stone that had a crack in it, where a slip of his engraving tool might break the stone in two, ruining all his careful work? Hardly. But even if he decided to take the chance, how did he manage to engrave four lines across the ancient crack?
In addition, the patina on the inscription contains minute globules of gold. Was the plaque once plated with gold? These gold globules are so small (one or two millionths of a meter) that they are not available on the market. They can be created, however, in an intense fire such as might have occurred in the conflagration that accompanied the destruction of the Temple—the First Temple in the 6th century B.C.E. or the Second Temple in 70 C.E. All this is explained in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Archaeological Science, authored by five experts from Israel and the United States who defend the authenticity of the inscription.
Finally, I have my own psychological reasons as evidence of authenticity. As I often put it, the first thing they teach you in forgery school is, “Make it short.” This vastly reduces your chance of getting caught. The Yehoash inscription, however, at 15 lines, flagrantly violates this basic principal of forgery. Many forgeries have been exposed in modern times, but none so long as this.
Despite all that I have said, the inscriptions I have discussed will be considered forgeries in the public mind for at least a generation—never mind the acquittal of the defendants and the evidence of authenticity. The reason is that these inscriptions have been declared forgeries, supposedly unanimously, by two committees of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
The fact is that these committees chaired by IAA deputy director Uzi Dahari were set-ups. The IAA knew where it wanted to go—and it got there. It enlisted Yuval Goren to lead a pack of scholars who “went along.” Father Joseph Fitzmyer, probably the world’s leading expert on ancient Aramaic (the language of the Jesus inscription) provides the details. The committees included people who had previously said the inscriptions were probably forgeries, but not anyone on the other side. So, for example, Andre Lemaire was not included. Neither were the geologists from the Geological Survey of Israel who had found the inscriptions authentic. Many of the IAA committee members conceded that their expertise was not in areas that would allow them to opine on authenticity, but the IAA treated their demurrers as votes for forgery. The demurrers were treated as “yes” votes when the IAA announced the “unanimous” decision of their committee.
The IAA tried “to give the impression that the committees were unanimous, and it’s not unanimous at all,” Fitzmyer said.**
Worse yet, committee members sometimes based their “yes” vote on Yuval Goren’s scientific evidence, not on their own expertise. For example, highly respected archaeologist Ronny Reich had reported to the committee that “in my opinion [the Jesus inscription is] authentic.” In the end, however, he said he was “forced” to change his mind as a result of Yuval Goren’s geological expertise. He was not the only committee member to base his vote on the basis of someone else’s expertise, not his own.
Since the ivory pomegranate was in its collections, the Israel Museum sent an observer to the committee that judged the pomegranate inscription. This observer was counted as a “yes” vote. The committee report published in IEJ listed her as an author, although she had never seen the report. One final telling point: The IEJ report lists all the members of the committee as authors. Normally in such a situation, they would be listed in alphabetical order, as they are in this case—all except one. Yuval Goren leads all the rest.
The judge’s decision doesn’t mean that the inscriptions are authentic. It only means that the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are forgeries. But at least the discussion can now proceed on a more academic basis. And perhaps the IAA has learned some lessons that can be applied in the future.