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.

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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.
 


 

Notes

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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  • Edmund says

    If this artifact had not contained a reference to Jesus there would have been no controversy. Men who are not wholly dedicated to the truth will usually choose to believe their existing worldview over any facts that are arrayed against it. Scholars are men and most men believe what they want to believe, irregardless of the facts. They do not reason from the facts to see the truth as they should. So few are really wholly dedicated to the truth. Therefore the group of scholars who do not have a strong worldview interest should be given the most credence. Also, this case should be decided on those facts which can be established with the greatest certainty and the least amount of opinion. That would be the quantitative geologic and physical findings that can be cross verified. According to these facts, the artifact is most probably authentic with a residual small degree of uncertainty. Absolute proof of anything is never possible. Future studies will add to or subtract from that conclusion. My worldview is as a Christian,scientist,physicist,constitutional conservative, physician.

  • Charlie says

    I throw up my hands!

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