A Reader’s Guide to the Unfolding James Ossuary Story

Many of my readers have followed the long, complex, unfolding saga of the “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary that has variously been billed as the archaeological find–or forgery–of the century. The latest on the controversy is now being played out on the web site Bible & Interpretation with posts by Joe Zias who supports the forgery hypothesis and a response from Oded Golan, the ossuary owner, who was recently acquitted of forgery charges after a protracted seven year trial in Israel. Zias claims to have seen the ossuary in an antiquities shop in the 1990s when its inscription read only “James son of Joseph.” The implication of his “eyewitness” testimony is that “brother of Jesus” was added by Golan to bolster the case that this ossuary held the bones of none other than James the brother of Jesus. Be sure and read through the comments section on both these posts where the debate continues, especially those by Greg Doudna who effectively takes Zias’s case apart. As background to the Zias claim as well as his testimony at the trial see Hershel Shank’s article here.

Photos of the ossuary by Lori Woodall

Getting a handle on this complex story takes some time but is well worth the effort. There is a thick archive of articles at Bible & Interpretation which you can find conveniently listed here. Admittedly it is a lot to keep up with but I would highlight the following essays as well as the summary e-book by Hershel Shanks available free from the Biblical Archaeology Society. Here are the main links I would recommend:

“The Authenticity of the James Ossuary” by Oded Golan

Implications of the ‘Forgery Trial’ Verdict on the Authenticity of the James Ossuary” by Amnon Rosenfeld, et al.

James Brother of Jesus: The Forgery Trial of the Century, by Hersel Shanks

As a friend of Joe Zias back in 2003 I was peripherally involved and you can read my recollections here.

Since many who encounter this story are not even aware that Jesus had a brother named James I recommend this summary “Getting our ‘Jameses’ Straight” which I posted this past summer.

If  you are feeling a bit foggy on the details you might begin with this summary of the basic story that I wrote in 2006:

The Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus?

It was noon on Monday, October 21, 2002 when Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review announced at a press conference in Washington, D.C. that a limestone ossuary or “bone box” inscribed in ancient Aramaic with the phrase “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus” had surfaced in Jerusalem. The Associated Press flashed the story around the world that afternoon and the next morning there were front-page stories about the James ossuary in the New York Times, the Washington Post and practically every other newspaper in the world. That evening all the major television networks carried the news. Feature stories followed in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. Even though the ossuary had once held the bones of James, not Jesus, most of the stories emphasized that the inscription was the only physical artifact ever found from the 1st century AD that mentioned Jesus. The writers had to scramble a bit to deal with the “James” side of the story since it quickly became obvious that few, whether media or general public, were even aware that Jesus had a brother named James.

We were told that an undisclosed private collector, later revealed to be an Israeli named Oded Golan, had bought the ossuary fifteen years earlier from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer who said it came from the area of Silwan, just south of the Old City of Jerusalem. Golan had not paid much attention to the inscription nor realized its significance. In April of 2002 he had shown a photo of the ossuary to André Lemaire, professor of Semitic languages at the Sorbonne who was on a visit to Jerusalem. Lemaire was immediately intrigued, recognizing that the combination of names and relationships very likely pointed to not just any James but to the James, brother of Jesus of Christian tradition. He could hardly believe his eyes. Golan allowed him to study the actual ossuary shortly thereafter. After careful examination Lemaire was convinced based on his expertise in ancient scripts that the inscription was authentic. Later in interviews Golan was asked why he had not recognized the potential importance of such an artifact when he first bought it. He explained that as a Jew he was of course familiar with the Christian teaching of Mary’s virginity but had never imagined that Jesus, the “son of God,” could have had a brother. Obviously, he was not alone in that assumption.

Lemaire told Shanks about the ossuary when Shanks was on a visit to Jerusalem in May, 2002. Shanks was duly cautious, since this particular ossuary had not come from any authorized archaeological excavation, and thus its authenticity could be questioned. He asked Lemaire to prepare a detailed article about the new find to be published in the upcoming issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, and he insisted that the ossuary be tested scientifically. Golan agreed, and arrangements were made for experts at the Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem to examine it.

Inscriptions on ossuaries can of course be forged, but modern cuts into ancient limestone will not contain the ancient “patina” that naturally coats the surface of the stone over time. In the meantime Shanks brought in several other expert paleographers to give their opinions on the authenticity of the script itself. The ossuary passed all the authenticity tests with flying colors. The scientists concluded that the patina inside the letters was ancient, adhering firmly to the stone, despite the fact that someone had done a bit of cleaning of the inscription. No signs of the use of any modern tool or instrument were evident. The paleographers agreed with Lemaire’s analysis that the script was authentic and wholly consistent with that of the 1st century AD. There seemed little doubt that the ossuary once held the bones of “a” James, son of “a” Joseph, with a brother named “Jesus,” who had died and been buried in the 1st century AD.

Shanks was ready to go to press and he went into high gear. He knew that next to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls this was perhaps the most sensational archaeological find in modern times. He engaged the services of Emmy-award winning producer Simcha Jacobovici to produce a documentary for the Discovery Channel on the James ossuary that would air on Easter of 2003. He also worked out a book deal to publish a co-authored book with biblical scholar Ben Witherington to coincide with the release of the film.[i] The discovery was hailed in both the book and film as “the first archaeological link to Jesus and his family.” With Golan’s permission Shanks arranged a special exhibit for the ossuary at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto opening in late November of 2002. The city of Toronto and the month of November were no accidental choices. Toronto was slated to be the host city for the annual meeting of thousands of biblical scholars, archaeologists, and academics in the study of religion the weekend before Thanksgiving. The Society of Biblical Literature quickly arranged for a special session devoted to a discussion of the authenticity and potential significance of the James ossuary.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) had to approve the temporary export license but at that point no one recognized the potentially explosive attention that the ossuary would generate. When the ossuary suddenly made world headlines following Shanks’ press conference in Washington, D.C. on October 21 the Israeli authorities were taken completely unawares and were duly embarrassed. But all the arrangements for the Toronto exhibit were already in place. The Israelis immediately initiated an investigation into the circumstances of Golan’s acquisition of the ossuary but they did allow it to leave the country. According to Israeli law, if Golan had acquired it after 1978 the ossuary would have been illegally acquired and subject to confiscation by the State.

When the ossuary arrived in Toronto it had been cracked in transit and the scientific team at the Royal Ontario Museum took on the task of repairing it for the exhibit. One of the cracks ran through part of the inscription allowing the scientific team at the museum to more closely examine the way the letters were cut into the limestone. They agreed with the Israeli scientists that ancient patina was present in the letters firmly adhering to the stone and consistent with the rest of the ossuary.

Even before the Toronto gatherings questions were being raised about the conclusions of Lemaire and Shanks. No one questioned the authenticity of the ossuary itself—it was clearly a genuine artifact from the time of Jesus. Some objected to any discussion of the ossuary at all since it was a “black market” item lacking an archaeological context. Others had argued that the phrase “brother of Jesus” appeared to be written in a different hand than “James son of Joseph,” and might have been added by a forger. Still others maintained that even if genuine we would never be able to prove that the “James son of Joseph” of the ossuary was the brother of Jesus of Nazareth since all three names were common in the period.

I first viewed the ossuary at the November meeting in Toronto at a private after hours gathering of scholars at the Royal Ontario Museum. About twenty-five of us were invited—historians, archaeologists, epigraphers, and New Testament scholars. I stood next to Shanks and heard firsthand three of the top experts on ancient scripts in the world all agree that the inscription was authentic. The feeling in the room was contagious and electrifying yet strangely sober and subdued. I think most of us were convinced that we were standing before the actual 2000-year-old stone box that had once held the bones of James the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

When the James ossuary was returned to Israel in February 2003 the Israel Antiquities Authority confiscated it and appointed a team of fifteen experts to make a judgment as to the authenticity of all or part of the inscription. The committee was divided into epigraphers who were experts in ancient scripts and physical scientists who were to test the geochemistry of the artifact. In June 2003 the IAA committee declared the ossuary genuine but the inscription a forgery. A month later Golan was arrested on suspicions of forging antiquities. He has since been formally indicted and charged with adding the phrase “brother of Jesus” to an otherwise genuine ossuary that was inscribed with “James son of Joseph,” attempting to coat the letters with a fake baked-on patina, and lying about when he acquired the ossuary—all for purposes of generating worldwide publicity and financial gain. Both the IAA committee conclusions and the indictment against Oded Golan were widely reported in the media, giving the public the impression that the experts had now concluded that the James ossuary was a forgery.[ii] Such is hardly the case, and the authenticity issue is far from settled.

André Lemaire, the Sorbonne epigrapher, continues to strongly defend the authenticity of the inscription and has offered detailed responses to the ossuary detractors. Ada Yardeni, not on the IAA committee, but one of Israel’s leading experts in ancient writing, agrees. She points out unique features about the Aramaic phrasing in the inscription that no forger could have possibly known. In fact she even offered a concluding comment, “If it is a forgery then I quit.”To date not a single qualified epigrapher or paleographer has pointed out any evidence of forgery. In fact one member of the IAA committee who, against his better judgment, went along with the original vote now says he thinks the inscription is authentic. Other qualified experts have quested the IAA geochemical tests on the patina. The IAA geologists have had to back down from their initially proposed theories as to how the allegedly fake patina was produced. One member of the IAA committee has said that she saw ancient patina in the last two letters of the inscription—the very part that is supposed to be forged. The geologists from the Israel Geological Survey who initially found the inscription to be authentic have not changed their position, nor has the scientific team at the Royal Ontario Museum that examined the ossuary after it was broken.

[i] Hershel Shanks and and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and his Family (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).

[ii] David Samuels’ story in the New Yorker “Written in Stone” (April 12, 2004) gave many the erroneous impression that the case was closed.