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Bone (Box) of Contention: The James Ossuary

Special Report

Joe Nickell

Volume 27.2, March / April 2003

Supposedly recently discovered, the James ossuary—a limestone mortuary box that purportedly held the remains of Jesus’ brother—is the subject of controversy. It has captured the attention of theologians, secular scholars, laity, and journalists around the world. Some have rushed to suggest that the inscription on it is the earliest-known reference to Jesus outside the bible, providing archaeological evidence of his historical existence.

“World Exclusive!” proclaimed Biblical Archaeology Review. “Evidence of Jesus Written in Stone,” the cover continued; “Ossuary of ‘James, Brother of Jesus’ found in Jerusalem.” Urged the contents page: “Read how this important object came to light and how scientists proved it wasn't a modern forgery.”

Actually, as we shall soon see, the matter is much less clear than such hype would suggest, and there are many questions yet to be answered.

Background

The initial report in Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) was written by a French scholar, André Lemaire (2002), who believes both the artifact and its inscription authentic. Such an ossuary, or “bone box,” was used to store bones in Jewish burial practice during the period from the first century b.c. to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d. (In this tradition the corpse would first be interred in a niche in a burial cave. After about a year, when the remains became skeletonized, the bones were gathered into a chest, usually made from a hollowed-out block of limestone fitted with a lid [Figueras 1983, 26]).

Incised on one of the James ossuary’s long sides, the inscription consists of a single line of twenty small Aramaic characters. It reads (from right to left): “Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua”—that is, “Jacob [English James], son of Yosef [Joseph], brother of Yeshua [Jesus].” Based on the script, Lemaire dates the inscription to some time between 20 b.c. and 70 a.d. And he believes that the inscription’s mention of a father named Joseph plus a brother named Jesus suggests “that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament,” which in turn “would also mean that we have here the first epigraphic mention—from about 63 c.e.—of Jesus of Nazareth” (Lemaire 2002, 33).

inscription

The ossuary’s inscription (a portion of which is shown here) seems suspiciously sharp-edged for its apparent age.

Lemaire believes the inscription has a consistency and correctness that show “it is genuinely ancient and not a fake.” The box was examined by two experts from the Geological Survey of Israel at the request of BAR. They concluded that the ossuary had a gray patina (or coating of age). “The same gray patina is found also within some of the letters,” he wrote, “although the inscription was cleaned and the patina is therefore absent from several letters.” They added, “The patina has a cauliflower shape known to be developed in a cave environment.” The experts also reported they saw no evidence of “the use of a modern tool or instrument” (Rosenfeld and Ilani 2002).

Unfortunately, the cleaning of the inscription—an act either of stupidity or shrewdness—is problematic. It might have removed traces of modern tooling. And when we are told that the patina is found “within some of the letters,” we should certainly want to know which ones, since scholars have debated whether the phrase “brother of Jesus” might be a spurious addition (Altman 2002; Shuman 2002).

It is even possible for traces of patination in an inscription to be original when the carving is not. That could happen if—as is the case of the James ossuary—shallow carving was done over a deeply pitted surface. The patinated bottoms of remnant pits could thus remain inside the fresh scribings.

In any case the patina may not be all it is claimed. According to one forgery expert, because patination is expected with age, “The production of a convincing patina has therefore been of great interest to those engaged in faking or restoration” (Jones 1990). Although false patinas are most commonly applied to metalwork, stone sculptures and artifacts—including fake “prehistoric” flint implements—have been treated to create the appearance of antiquity (Jones 1990). For example, the versatile forger Alceo Dossena (1878-1937) produced convincing patinas on marble (a hard, metamorphic limestone) that gave his works “an incredible look of age” (Sox 1987).

The patina traces of the James ossuary inscription have already been questioned. Responding to the claim that patina was cleaned from the inscription, one art expert notes that genuine patina would be difficult to remove while forged patina cracks off. “This appears to be what happened with the ossuary,” he concludes (Lupia 2002).

Provenance

The reason for questioning the patina is that additional evidence raises doubts about the ossuary’s authenticity. To begin with, there is the matter of its provenance, which concerns the origin or derivation of an artifact. Experts in the fields of objets d'art and other rarities use the term to refer to a work’s being traceable to a particular source. For example, records may show that an artifact came from a certain archaeological dig, was subsequently owned by a museum, and then, when the museum sold off some of its collection, was bought by a private collector.

Provenance matters more with a sensational artifact, and the refusal or inability of an owner to explain how he or she acquired an item is, prima facie, suspicious—a possible indicator of forgery or theft. One of my cases, for instance, concerned a purported manuscript of Lincoln’s celebrated Gettysburg Address (actually the second sheet of what was ostensibly a two-page draft, signed by Lincoln). Suspicions were raised when it was reported that the dealer who sold the item wanted to remain anonymous, and my subsequent ultraviolet and stereomicroscopic examination revealed it was a forgery (Nickell 1996).

With the James ossuary, the provenance seems to be, well, under development. In his BAR article, André Lemaire (2002) referred to the “newly revealed ossuary” which he would only say was “now in a private collection in Israel.” A sidebar stated that on a recent visit to Jerusalem, “Lemaire happened to meet a certain collector by chance; the collector mentioned that he had some objects he wanted Lemaire to see.” One of the objects was the James ossuary (Feldman 2002).

The owner had pleaded with reporters not to reveal his name or address, but he was apparently uncovered by the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

He is Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv engineer, entrepreneur, and collector. Golan explained that he had not wished to be identified due to concerns for privacy.

“It’s a character issue,” he told the Associated Press (Laub 2002). “I don't like publicity.” But Golan received some attention that may have been most unwanted: He came under investigation by the Antiquities Authority’s theft unit (Scrivener 2002).

According to Golan, he bought the ossuary in the Old City (old Jerusalem) “in the 1970s,” paying a few hundred dollars to an Arab antiquities dealer he can no longer identify (Van Biema 2002; Adams 2002; Wilford 2002). He has said that it was the box’s engraving that interested him, yet nothing in the phrase “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ever “rang a bell” in Golan’s mind (Adams 2002). Incredibly, the sensational inscription had to wait three decades before finally being appreciated by André Lemaire.

Many scholars were horrified that the ossuary had apparently been looted from its burial site—not just because looting is illegal and immoral, but because an artifact’s being robbed of its context “compromises everything,” according to P. Kyle McCarter Jr., who chairs the Near Eastern studies department at Johns Hopkins University. McCarter added, “We don't know where [the box] came from, so there will always be nagging doubts. Extraordinary finds need extraordinary evidence to support them” (Van Biema 2002).

Not only the box’s provenance was lost but also, reportedly, its contents which might have helped establish its provenance. “Unfortunately,” stated André Lemaire (2002), “as is almost always the case with ossuaries that come from the antiquities market rather than from a legal excavation, it was emptied.” I lamented this reported state of affairs to a reporter (Ryan 2002), observing that the bones could have been examined by forensic anthropologists to potentially determine cause of death. James was reportedly thrown from the top of the Temple and stoned and beaten to death (Hurley 2002), so his skeletal remains might show evidence of such trauma.

As it turns out, Lemaire did not mention—perhaps he did not know—that Mr. Golan has a Tupperware container of bone fragments he says were in the ossuary when he acquired it. One piece is as large as one-half inch by three inches, and has raised questions about potential DNA evidence. Yet, according to Time magazine, Golan will not allow the fragments “to be displayed or analyzed” (Van Biema 2002).

Further Suspicions

In addition to the questionable provenance, the exterior appearance of the ossuary also raises suspicions. To view the box, which was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, I recently traveled to Toronto with several of my Center for Inquiry colleagues. They included Kevin Christopher, who has degrees in classics and linguistics, with whom I had been studying the case (see acknowledgments). We were able to get a good look at the box, and what we observed raised eyebrows.

exhibit

The ossuary was featured in this elaborate temporary exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

First of all, I was surprised to see that the ossuary was far from being “unadorned” as Lemaire (2002, 27) reported. He stated that “The only decoration is a line forming a frame about 0.5 inch (1.2 cm) from the outer edges,” but he is mistaken. Significantly, on the side opposite the inscribed side are circular designs, badly worn but unmistakably present.

Now, ossuaries are usually decorated on only one side (Royal 2002), presumably the one intended to face out during storage. If a name was added (possibly with an identifying phrase), it was apparently carved after purchase by someone such as a family member (Figueras 1983, 18). A look at a number of ossuaries (Figueras 1983; Goodenough 1953) shows that the name might be engraved on the decorated side if there were space for it; otherwise it might be cut on the top, an end, or the back. Wherever placed, it “probably faced outwards where it could be read” (Altman 2002a).

In the case of the James ossuary, there would have indeed been room on the front, yet the scribe elected to carve the inscription on the back. (A possible reason for this will soon become evident.)

Furthermore, the box’s decorations—the carved “frame” Lemaire referred to which outlines all four sides, plus the circular designs—are badly worn, whereas the inscription seems almost pristine. That is, the decorations are blurred, partially effaced, and (like much of the surface) pitted. Yet the lettering is entirely distinct and blessed with sharp edges, as if it were of recent vintage. My colleagues and I were all struck with that observation. So was an Israeli engineering professor, Dr. Daniel Eylon, of the University of Dayton, who noted that “sharp edges do not last 2,000 years.”

Dr. Eylon applied a technique that is employed in determining whether damage to an airplane part occurred prior to an accident or after it.

Examining photographs of the inscription for scratches accrued over time, he stated: `The inscription would be underneath these scratches if it had been on the box at the time of burial, but the majority of this inscription is on top of the scratches” (Eylon 2002).

The inscription’s off-center placement is even in an area of the back that suffers the least damage. Commenting on what is termed biovermiculation—that is, “limestone erosion and dissolution caused by bacteria over time in the form of pitting and etching”—one art historian states: “The ossuary had plenty except in and around the area of the inscription. This is not normal” (Lupia 2002). Indeed, that is one of the first things I had observed in studying the James ossuary. It suggested a forger might have selected a relatively smooth area of the back as a place to carve the small, neat characters.

Early on, the text of the inscription itself raised doubts among experts familiar with Aramaic scripts. They observed that the “James, son of Joseph” portion was in a seemingly formal script while the “brother of Jesus” phrase was in a more cursive style. This suggested “at least the possibility of a second hand,” according to one expert (McCarter 2002). Another states, “The second part of the inscription bears the hallmarks of a fraudulent later addition and is questionable to say the least” (Altman 2002b). But the perceived dichotomy in styles may simply signal that the forger was an inexpert copyist or that the effect results from the vagaries of stone carving.

Taken together, the various clues suggest a scenario in which a forger purchased a genuine ossuary that—lacking feet, elaborate ornament, and inscription—cost little. He then obtained an Aramaic rendition of the desired wording, carved it into what seemed a good spot on the blank back, and perhaps added patination followed by “cleaning” to help mitigate against the fresh look of the carving.

Forgers frequently select genuine old artifacts upon which to inflict their handiwork. Examples that I have personally investigated and helped expose include such inscribed works as two Daniel Boone muskets, the diary of Jack the Ripper, a carte de visite photo of Robert E. Lee, a dictionary with flyleaf notes by Charles Dickens, and many more (Nickell 1990; 1996).

Mounting evidence has begun to suggest that the James ossuary may be yet another such production.

Acknowledgments

Those making the December 5, 2002, trip to view the ossuary were—in addition to Kevin Christopher (who drove, assisted with research, and offered valuable observations)—Benjamin Radford, Katherine Bourdonnay, and Norm Allen. Also, Paul Kurtz provided encouragement, Barry Karr financial authorization, Tim Binga research assistance, and Ranjit Sandhu word processing, while other CFI staff helped in many additional ways.

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.