Hershel Shanks: Has Joe Zias Shown the James Ossuary Inscription to Be a Modern Forgery?

Israel Antiquities Authority vs. Conspiracy of (Alleged) Forgers

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I take no pleasure in raising this very difficult subject again—the question as to whether a well-known scholar is lying. I do so only because it so very important.

If he is telling the truth, it is certain that the reference to Jesus in the James Ossuary Inscription (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”) is a forgery. If he is lying, he may well be responsible for the “forgery trial of the century” that is now going into its fifth year in a Jerusalem courtroom.

In November 2003, Joe Zias, a well-known physical anthropologist formerly with the Israel Antiquities Authority, told me that he had seen the James ossuary in a Jerusalem antiquities shop in the early 1990s without the last two (three in English) words, “brother of Jesus.” A third party to the conversation seemed to confirm what Zias said. If true, the last two words must be a modern creation.

I would not have published something like this from a chance conversation, but it turned out that Zias had told the same thing to Duke University archaeologist Eric Meyers, who published it on the internet.1 This made it a legitimate subject for discussion. In May/June 2005 I published a piece in BAR entitled “Lying Scholars?” in which I raised the question. (Subsequently, the third party to our conversation recanted; he admitted he had never seen the inscription in the antiquities shop.2)



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Since no one else, so far as I know, has made this accusation, Zias’s report of having seen the inscription without the last two words likely became the basis for the central claim of the criminal charge against the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan. Nearly reiterating Zias’s words, the criminal indictment states:

The method of forgery was characterized in that, in most cases, original antiquities were taken, and inscriptions…were added thereto transforming them into items of great value. Such forgeries were executed, inter alia, regarding the following antiquities: (a) The ossuary known as “The James Brother of Jesus Ossuary.”….To execute his scheme, Defendant No. 1 [Oded Golan] used an ancient ossuary…which bore an engraved inscription of “Jacob [James] son of Joseph.” Defendant No. 1 added to the ossuary…the words “Brother of Jesus,” in such a manner that these words were made to appear as part of the original inscription which had already appeared on the ossuary for two thousand years.

So far as I am aware, the only basis for this accusation is Joe Zias’s statement of having seen the ossuary in an antiquities shop in the 1990s without the last two words. So far as I am aware, however, Zias has never repeated his stunning accusation—until now.

Something else has become evident recently: The case against the ossuary inscription seems to be falling apart. At the conclusion of the prosecution’s case, the presiding judge (there are no juries in Israel) suggested to the prosecution that it consider dropping the case. “Not every case ends in the way you think it will when it starts. Maybe we can save ourselves the rest,” said the judge to the prosecution, according to Matthew Kalman, the only journalist who regularly covers the trial. “Where is the definitive proof that the accused faked the ossuary? You need to ask yourselves those questions very seriously,” the judge admonished.

The judge’s remarks have been widely disseminated.

Subsequently, Kalman interviewed Zias on camera. As if to bolster the prosecution’s case Zias repeated his accusation, apparently for the first time in five years:

“The first part of the inscription is authentic,” Zias said. “Somebody took an object worth perhaps, maybe $200, added a couple of words and the price now goes up to $2 million. I remember that I had seen his name [? blurred] in an antiquities shop in the 1990s, so it couldn’t have been in the hands of Golan [then].”

If Zias is telling the truth, the last part of the inscription, the reference to Jesus, must be a modern forgery.




1. Eric Meyers, “More Evidence Ossuary a Fraud?” at

2. The other party, Emile Puech, told a reporter for the Jerusalem Report that “he had glimpsed…a pinkish bone box…20 years ago. He also says today that he can barely recall the … ossuary, didn’t even notice if it had an inscription, and having seen the Golan box only in photos, he can’t possibly say if they [the ossuary he saw in the antiquities shop and the Jesus ossuary] are one and the same.” Quoted in “Israeli Prosecutor Repudiates IAA Report on Forgery,” BAR, March/April 2005.

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