James Ossuary

The James Ossuary is an ossuary, a limestone box for containing bones, which came to light in Israel in 2002. It is claimed to have been the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus. Its provenance is unknown. Although the Israel Antiquities Authority assess it as a modern forgery, some scholars maintain its historical authenticity. Its discovery was followed in January 2003 by another contentious archaeological "find" soon connected with Oded Golan, the so-called "Jehoash Inscription" (see below). A documentary film The Lost Tomb Of Jesus (2007) makes reference to this ossuary. By 2008, in what has been termed "one of the biggest forgery scandals ever in the history of archaeology", it has become known that an Egyptian, Samah Shoukri Ghatas, had confessed to manufacturing the many items for Oded Golan. Golan, a well-known Tel Aviv antiquities collector, is presently on trial for the forgery.

The James Ossuary

On October 21, 2002, a press conference co-hosted by the Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society, anticipating a report in the Society's Biblical Archaeology Review (November 2002), presented a small chalk ossuary that bore an inscription יעקוב בר יוסף אחוי ד ישוע (Yaakov bar Yoseph Achui de Yeshua) "James son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus". If authentic, it could have been the first archaeological evidence for the historical existence of Jesus.

Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, announced that it belonged to an anonymous Israeli antiquities collector. The identity of the owner was published in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz: a well-known collector of antiquities, Oded Golan, an engineer living in Tel Aviv, stated that he had bought the ossuary from an Arab antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem decades before, but had been unaware of the significance of the inscription.

The chalky limestone ossuary itself had been dated to the 1st century by Geological Survey of Israel (GSI) and André Lemaire (Sorbonne University). Lemaire considered that it was "very possible" that the ossuary had belonged to the biblical James. GSI had determined that the chalk of the ossuary was typical of Jerusalem ossuaries. A number of experts, including Kyle McCarter and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ, believed that the writing could be dated to the period between 20 BC and AD 70, and an examination performed by the Geological Survey of Israel found that the ossuary did not appear to be a fake: "No sign of the use of a modern tool or instrument was found," the conclusion read in part. "No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found."

The ossuary was going to be exhibited in the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) with permission of Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), and there was talk of various documentary deals. When the ossuary arrived in Toronto on the morning of October 31, 2002, the ROM personnel on hand were horrified to see that the ossuary was packed in a cardboard box (whereas the standard for shipping antiquities is typically within a foam-lined metal or wooden crate). The next day they proceeded to "unwrap" the ossuary, only to find the few layers of bubble-wrap which surrounded the ossuary were thin enough to show the cracks which ran through the once-solid stone, the largest of which went right through the famed inscription. When the museum conservators proceeded to repair the damage, they discovered a carved rosette decoration on the side opposite the inscription.

Critical voices were soon heard. Robert Eisenman (California State University, Long Beach), a scholar specializing in biblical James, declared the discovery "too perfect". When the Toronto exhibition of the James Ossuary began, Oded Golan flew to Ontario to participate. Lemaire defended his conclusion in a related session of the Society of Biblical Literature. Shanks belittled his critics and defended Oded Golan.

However, on June 18, 2003, the Israeli Antiquities Authority published a report concluding that the inscription is a modern forgery based on their analysis of the patina. Specifically, it appears that the inscription was added recently and made to look old by addition of a chalk solution. In 2006, Dr. Wolfgang E. Krumbein, (Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg), having analyzed the ossuary, concluded that the Israeli Antiquities Authority's conclusion "...originate from a series of errors, biases, mistaken premises, use of inappropriate methodology, mistaken geochemistry, defective error control, reliance on unconfirmed data, disregard of information (such as the cleaning and preservation actions performed [on the ossuary], and the use of a comparative isotope methodology despite the fact that the [James ossuary] inscription fail[s] to meet the cumulative prerequisite conditions for such tests and comparisons."

In 2007 Matti Myllykoski summarised the current position thus: "The authenticity and significance of the ossuary has been defended by Shanks (2003), while many scholars — relying on convincing evidence, to say the least — strongly suspect that it is a modern forgery."

The Jehoash Inscription

In January 2003, another artifact, dubbed the "Jehoash Inscription", appeared in Israel. It was rumored to have surfaced in the construction site or in the Muslim cemetery near the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. It supposedly described repairs made to the temple in Jerusalem by Jehoash, son of King Ahaziah of Judah, and corresponded to the account in 2 Kings 12. Once again, the owner was an anonymous antiquities dealer, this time in Hebron. GSI initially backed up this claim as well.

The "find" also reignited the conflict between Muslim authorities on the Temple Mount and the Israeli group of Temple Mount Faithful, who declared that the find was a divine sign that the al-Aqsa Mosque of the Temple Mount should be demolished and the new temple built on it immediately.

In the unfolding scandal already surrounding the "James Ossuary", criticism appeared again. Israeli historian Nadav Na'aman, who had theorized that the books of Kings could be based on public inscriptions, opined that the possible forger could have used his theory as a basis. Epigrapher Joseph Naveh (Hebrew University) revealed to the IAA and police that he had met the owners of the stone and had recognized the inscription as a collection of Hebrew, Aramaic and Moabite letters. Frank Cross (Harvard University) noted various errors in spelling and terminology. Yuval Goren (Tel-Aviv University) demonstrated how the convincing fake could be produced by abrasive airbrushing. The stone itself remained hidden.

Police investigation

Israeli magazine Maariv correspondent Boaz Gaon reported that IIA Theft Unit had focused their attention of the "Jehoash Inscription" as being an expensive bait to defraud a prominent collector in London. Israeli investigators linked a phony business card and a telephone number to a Tel Aviv private eye who admitted that his employee was Oded Golan, the "collector" who owned the James Ossuary. Oded denied that he was the owner of the stone and claimed that the real owner was a Palestinian antiquities dealer who lived in an area under Palestinian Authority and must therefore remain nameless.

A March 19, 2003, article in Maariv reported that the court had issued a search warrant for Golan's apartment, office and rented warehouse. The search brought forth incriminating documents and photographs of Golan beside the Jehoash Inscription. Under interrogation, Golan promised to reveal the locations of the stone in exchange for immunity from prosecution but was refused.

Then police made a new search in a storage space that Golan had rented in Ramat Gan but had not disclosed to the police. They found scores of dubious artifacts, forged ancient seals and other inscriptions in various stages of production and tools and documentation to help in the manufacture of the forgeries. Under harsh questioning, Golan reputedly broke down, confessed and promised to hand over the Jehoash Inscription.

IAA commission

Limor Livnat, Israeli Minister of Culture, mandated the work of a scientific commission to study the suspicious finds. IAA begun an intensive investigation into the affair. As for the James Ossuary, epigraphers of IAA concluded that the inscription was modern. Chalk type of the ossuary did match with the type of chalk in various other ancient ossuaries. However, Yuval Goren and Avner Ayalon of GSI identified three different coatings in the ossuary, the last of which was artificial and covered only the inscription. Letters had been cut through the patina and covered with artificial coating. Different parts of the text in different styles had been copied from a catalog of Jewish ossuaries and possibly carved by the aid of scanning software. The ossuary was authentic - albeit unusual in shape - but the inscription was a fake.

As for the Jehoash Inscription, the commission concluded that various mistakes in the spelling and the mixture of different alphabets indicated that this was a modern forgery. The stone was typical to western Cyprus and areas further west. Patina over the chiseled letters was different from that of the back of the stone and could easily be wiped off the stone by hand.

In a press conference in Jerusalem on June 18, 2003 the IAA commission declared that both inscriptions were modern forgeries. However, in an external expert report, dated September 2005, W.E. Krumbein, entered the controversy. His conclusions contradict those of the IAA and indicate that the patina in the inscription had been manipulated after the June 2003 declaration of the IAA:

"The grainy whitish patina with yellow and grey particles embedded existing prior to 2005 and documented by the IAA as "James Bond“ material looks like Meyer cement used around 1900-1920 at the Acropolis Monuments in Athens and other places. Unfortunately these materials are presently no longer existing on the ossuary and have been totally eliminated for reasons unknown. 5) The pictures further document recent (2005) addition of a reddish sticky or powdery and also rock staining material. In places also scratches and dark (black) material was recently added. These materials do not exist in photographic documents prior to 2005."

Krumblein concludes that "Our preliminary investigations cannot prove the authenticity of the three objects beyond any doubt. Doubtlessly the patina is continuous in many places throughout surface and lettering grooves in the case of ossuary and tablet. On the other hand a proof of forgery is not given by the experts nominated by the IAA.


The Israeli Antiquities Authority has never offered any report explaining why it concluded the ossuary is a forgery. Therefore, a number of international experts refuse to agree that it is a forgery until the IAA allows scholars to review its findings. For example, Ed Keall, the Senior Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, Near Eastern & Asian Civilizations Department, continues to argue for the ossuary’s authenticity, saying “the ROM has always been open to questioning the ossuary's authenticity, but so far no definitive proof of forgery has yet been presented, in spite of the current claims being made. Meanwhile Biblical Archaeology Review also continued to defend the ossuary. In articles in the February 2005 issues, several paleographic experts argue that the James Ossuary is authentic and should be examined by specialists outside of Israel. Another article claims the cleaning of the James Ossuary before it was examined may have caused the problem with the patina.

Oded Golan claimed publicly to believe his finds were genuine. Hershel Shanks declared that he did not believe the evidence and launched a personal complaint against IAA director Shuka Dorfman. Lemaire supported his original assessment when Frank Cross regretted Shanks's attitude. The Royal Ontario Museum has this to say as its final words in a statement about Oded Golan's arrest and the validity of the so-called James Ossuary: "There is always a question of authenticity when objects do not come from a controlled archaeological excavation, as is the case with the James Ossuary.

On December 29, 2004, the Israeli justice ministry charged Golan, three other Israelis, and one Palestinian, with running a forgery ring that had been operating for more than twenty years. Golan was indicted in an Israeli court along with his three co-conspirators: Robert Deutsch, an epigraphy expert who has given lectures at Haifa University; collector Shlomo Cohen; and antiquities dealer Faiz al-Amaleh. They were accused of manufacturing numerous artifacts, including an ivory pomegranate which had previously been generally accepted as the only proven relic from the Temple of King Solomon. Golan denied the charges.

In February, 2007, at the trial of Oded Golan, the defense produced photographs taken in Golan's home that were dated to 1976. In these photographs, the ossuary is shown on a shelf. In an enlargement, the whole inscription can be seen. The photographs were printed on 1970s photographic paper and stamped March 1976. The photo was examined by Gerald Richard, a former FBI agent and an expert for the defense. Richard testified that nothing about the photographs suggested that they were produced other than in 1976 as the stamps and paper indicated. These photographs significantly undermined the prosecution's theory that the ossuary was a recent forgery by Golan intended to be sold for profit. As Golan's attorney, Lior Beringer, explained to Haaretz, "The prosecution claims that Golan forged the inscription after the beginning of 2000. But here is a detailed report from an FBI photo lab that states that the inscription existed at least since the 70s. It is unreasonable that someone would forge an inscription like this in the 70s and suddenly decide to come out with it in 2002."

On February 26, 2007 a news conference was held at the New York Public Library by director James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici to discuss their documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which discusses the 1980 finding of the Talpiot Tomb, which they claim is in fact Jesus' family tomb. In the film, they also assert that the so-called James ossuary is actually the "missing link" from the tomb (at the original discovery of the Talpiot Tomb, there were ten ossuaries, however one has since been lost - Jacobovici implies the James Ossuary could be the tenth from Talpiot). According to the film, "recent tests conducted at the CSI Suffolk Crime lab in New York demonstrate that the patina (a chemical film encrustation on the box) from the James ossuary matches the patina from the other ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb."

The Lost Tomb of Jesus — A Critical Look

Following the 4 March 2007 airing of The Lost Tomb of Jesus on the Discovery Channel, Ted Koppel aired a program entitled 'The Lost Tomb of Jesus - A Critical Look', whose guests included the director Simcha Jacobovici, James Tabor (a consultant and advisor on the docudrama), Johnathan Reed, Professor of Religion at the University of LaVerne and co-author of 'Excavating Jesus Beneath the Stones, Behind the Text', and William Dever, an archaeologist with 40 plus years experience in Middle Eastern archaeological digs.

The Washington Post in an article of 28 February 2007 cited Dever as being "widely considered the dean of biblical archaeology among U.S. scholars" and quotes him as saying, "I just think it's a shame the way this story is being hyped and manipulated" and "all of the names [contained in the tomb] are common".

Alan Cooperman, writer of the Washington Post article also states:

"Similar assessments came yesterday from two Israeli scholars, Amos Kloner, who originally excavated the tomb, and Joe Zias, former curator of archaeology at the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Kloner told the Jerusalem Post that the documentary is "nonsense." Zias described it in an e-mail to The Washington Post as a "hyped up film which is intellectually and scientifically dishonest.""

During the docudrama The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Simcha Jacobovici had claimed:

1.) concerning the ossuaries marked Yeshua` (i.e. Jesus) and the one believed to be that of Mary Magdalene: because "the DNA did not match, the forensic archaeologist concluded that they must be husband and wife";

2.) that testing showed that there was a match between the patina on the James and Yeshua` ossuaries and referred to it as the "missing link" from the tomb of Yeshua` (Jesus);

3.) and that an ossuary that became missing from the tomb of Yeshua` had actually been the infamous James ossuary believed to contain the remains of the brother of Yeshua`.

During Ted Koppel's critique, 'The Lost Tomb of Jesus - A Critical Look', Koppel revealed he had denials from these three people Simcha Jacobovici had misquoted in the documentary.

1.) Koppel had a written denial from the forensic archaeologist asserting that he had NOT concluded that the remains of Yeshua` and Miriamne showed they were husband and wife. In fact, he had logically stated, "you cannot genetically test for marriage".

2.) Koppel had a written denial from the Suffolk Crime Lab Director asserting that he had NOT stated the James ossuary patina matched that of the Yeshua` ossuary. He denied ever saying they were a match, and said he'd have to do much more comparison testing of other tombs before he could draw any conclusions.

3.) Koppel had a verbal denial from Professor Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who had supervised the initial 1980 dig of the tomb of Yeshua`, with whom he spoke on 2007/03/04, asserting that the ossuary that later turned up missing from the alleged Tomb of 'Jesus' could not have been what is now known as the James ossuary. In fact he indicated there was evidence that it was not the same by saying that the now missing ossuary he had seen and photographed and catalogued in 1980 had been totally unmarked, whereas the James ossuary is marked with the name of James and a rosette.

The archaeologist William Dever summed up his position when he stated on Koppel's critical analysis, 'The Lost Tomb of Jesus - A Critical Look', that Jacobovici's and Cameron's "conclusions were already drawn in the beginning" of the inquiry and that their "argument goes far beyond any reasonable interpretation".

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