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Israel Antiquities Authority vs. Conspiracy of (Alleged) Forgers

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I have concentrated on the James Ossuary Inscription and the Ivory Pomegranate Inscription, both charged to be fakes in the criminal indictment, because I am convinced that they are authentic.

These are both complicated stories, not to be reviewed extensively here, but just a tidbit may be in order: The James Ossuary is inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Several internationally recognized paleographers like André Lemaire and Ada Yardeni are convinced it is authentic. This alone would seem to raise a reasonable doubt as to whether they are forgeries and would require an acquittal in a criminal case. Yet the prosecution has not dropped the charge. It plods on—and on and on. It does this in face of the fact that, I believe, it knows that its case on this issue is doomed. Why do I think the prosecution knows? Because of the witness it called to counter the testimony of Lemaire and Yardeni. The prosecution was reduced to calling Rochelle Altman, who is unknown to the community of paleographers in this part of the field. Dr. Altman does not speak Hebrew. She has some strange ideas about writing systems and their variants which tell her that this inscription is a fake. She recently published a book about her theories of writing systems that was reviewed in the scholarly journal Maarav. The reviewer referred to her “bizarre assertions.” She “proceed[ed] by free association.” She “uses words like no one before her.” The reviewer says that only one paragraph in her 364-page book has anything to say about her “variants.” The reviewer says that he respects Independent Scholars (without academic affiliation; Altman has no academic affiliation). Independent Scholars, he says, frequently “delve deep into their subject without benefit of professional training. Ample evidence has been provided above that the reverse of this epithet applies here,” he concludes.1

If a prosecutor is reduced to calling Rochelle Altman to refute André Lemaire and Ada Yardeni, I must conclude that he knows he has a loser on his hands. What I cannot understand is why, in these circumstances, he continues to limp along.

Let’s turn for a minute to the Ivory Pomegranate Inscription. The late Nahman Avigad was sure it was good. So are André Lemaire and Ada Yardeni. The back of the pomegranate was broken off in antiquity. All agree on this. Three letters of the inscription are broken by this break. So these letters must have been inscribed before the break—in antiquity. Those who claim it is a fake, led by Tel Aviv University’s Yuval Goren, claim that a modern forger forged these letters and exposed himself by stopping short of the break, fearing he would knock more off the pomegranate if he went into the break. So the question is, do these three letters go into the break.

BAR sponsored an examination of these three letters of the pomegranate at the Israel Museum, which was attended by Goren and the other two people on the committee (Aaron Demsky and Shmuel Ahituv) who claimed that the three letters stopped short of the break. After the meeting we all had an opportunity to examine the pictures taken through a microscope at the meeting. Goren (as well as Demsky and Ahituv) admitted that as to one of the three letters they had been mistaken. As to the second letter, they said in their report in the Israel Exploration Journal, it “was difficult to tell.” Their IEJ report simply omitted any reference to the third letter, which clearly went into the break.Is the Pomegranate Inscription or Authentic?”.)When I wrote a letter to the editor of IEJ (Ahituv is the editor), I received a reply telling me that the journal does not print letters to the editor. In conversations with Demsky and Ahituv, whom I like and respect, they are less than certain that the inscription is a fake, claiming that they are only 80 percent sure.

For me, the only question regarding the ossuary and the pomegranate inscriptions is why the Israel Antiquities Authority would want to trash these precious messages from antiquity. One is especially meaningful to the Christian community. It is true that no Christians (or non-Israelis) were called upon to be members of the committee that condemned the inscription, as Father Joseph Fitzmyer has pointed out in his powerful criticism of the IAA committee.2 And while some intemperate remarks were made in the committee members’ statements that supposedly supported a unanimous committee decision (as Fitzmyer points out, the committee was by no means unanimous), I do not believe ethnicity of the committee members played any part in the committee decision. If I had to guess what accounts for the IAA’s stance, it would be that the IAA intensely dislikes collectors, and the owner of the ossuary is a prominent collector who they also suspect, on other grounds, is a forger, even though it is clear he did not forge the ossuary inscription.

Explaining why the IAA (and the Israel Museum) want to trash what may be the only relic from Solomon’s Temple is more difficult. Frankly, I am at a loss to account for it. Maybe some of the people reading this will have suggestions. However, I do know that once the decision to condemn the inscription was made, those who supported the finding dug their heels in and simply refused to accept countervailing evidence. This may explain a lot of the position the Israel authorities still take—they don’t want to admit they were wrong.

You also ask about the Yehoash inscription. The answer is that I simply cannot make up my mind about it. It is said to be a flagrant forgery by some paleographers and philologists whom I respect enormously—Frank Cross, Kyle McCarter, Victor Hurowitz, Edward Greenstein and others.

Yet my sense as a lawyer is that the inscription is good.

First, Chaim Cohen, who I also highly respect, says that if it is forgery, the forger is extremely brilliant because he found sound philological principles that were never known to the scholarly world until Cohen found them in his examination of the text.

Next, David Noel Friedman notes that no paleographer or philologist can be so sure because we know so little—we have so few inscriptions—with which to compare this. We are continually surprised by new inscriptions. If the Mesha Stele were found today, it would be declared a forgery.

Third, this is a very long inscription (15 lines). Forgers know that the longer the inscription, the easier it is to make a mistake. That’s why they forge short inscriptions.

Fourth, I cannot satisfactorily account for the minute micron gold globules found on the slab. These are not available commercially. They can be produced by intense fire, which might indicate this inscription was in the Jerusalem Temple when it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E..

Fifth, I am much impressed with the argument of Ronny Reich. Those who say the inscription is a “laughable” forgery translate “nechoshet edom” in the inscription as “copper from Edom” and they cite this as evidence of forgery; the forger is trying to copy the Biblical references to “gold of Ophir” and “silver of Tarshish.” But, as Ronny Reich has shown, this translation makes no sense in context. It should be translated as “copper from Adam,” where copper products were fabricated, not where copper was mined. You don’t go to the mine to buy copper; you go to the place where it is fabricated. Unless you think that the forger knew about this city of Adam and its fabrication of copper before Reich figured it out, the inscription would seem to be good.

Sixth, some pretty savvy scientists from the Geological Survey of Israel say their scientific examination of the plaque and its inscription shows that the inscription is authentic.3

So I am torn. My gut tells me it is good. But my caution tells me that a lot of guys who are much smarter than you and know a helluva lot more than you think otherwise; so be careful, Hershel, and shut up. Just conclude you don’t know.

As to the other items you ask about that are charged to be forgeries in the indictment, I have formed no opinion.




1. See “Finds or Fakes? Who Will Stand Up?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2005, p. 51.

2. Theology Digest 52:4.

3. See Ronny Reich, “Edom or Adam? An Alternate Reading,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2004, p. 47.

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