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“James … brother of Jesus” ossuary trials reveals “dark portrait of the Holy Land antiquities trade”

April 13, 2012

The James Ossuary is a 2,000-year old chalk box that was used for containing the bones of the dead. The Aramaic inscription: Ya'akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua (English translation: "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus") is cut into one side of the box. The inscription is considered significant because, if genuine, it might provide archeological evidence of Jesus of Nazareth.

Since it was unveiled to the world in October 2002 the James Ossuary, a 2,000-year old chalk box that once held skeletal remains, has made headlines and caused headaches.  An Aramaic inscription carved into an exterior wall of the ossuary reads James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus — if authentic, it would be the tangible physical connection to Jesus.  The authenticity of the ossuary is not in dispute … the inscription is and the debate within the archaeological community remains fierce.  The Israel Antiquities Authority declared the inscription a forgery, though their finding was heatedly disputed by numerous scholars, most notably Hershel Shanks at the Biblical Archaeology Society.  Israeli authorities on December 29, 2004, the ossuary’s owner, Oded Golan, and three other people with operating a forgery ring, citing the inscription on the ossuary and several other artifacts as evidence.  In March 2012, Oded Golan was found not guilty of forgery, though guilty of involvement in illicit antiquities trading.  As Popular Archaeology reports, the debate continues about the inscription’s authenticity … and the attention focus on the illicit antiquities trade may help thwart some looting in the Levant.

Despite the recent verdict of Judge Aharon Farkash of the Jerusalem District Court acquitting accused Israeli forgers Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch, the jury is still very much out on the actual authenticity of the subject antiquities they were accused of forging. After a seven-year trial with 120 sessions where the judge heard 126 witnesses and dozens of experts, producing 12,000 pages of testimony with a final 475-page verdict, the world seems to be no closer than before to determining the truth about the antiquities in question. Among them, the James Ossuary inscription, the Jehoash Tablet inscription, and the diminutive Ivory Pomegranate inscription, await further research and testing before most or all experts can agree that they are, in fact, what they have been purported to be.

Close-up of the Aramaic inscription: “Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua” (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”)

On the criminal side of things, witnesses in the trial revealed a dark portrait of the Holy Land antiquities trade, including the looting of burials and under-the-table West Bank exchanges of large amounts of cash. Aside from the acquittal on forgery, the judge’s decision still found Golan guilty of three counts of violating the Antiquities Law and possession of suspected stolen property.

The scholarly world reacted in predictable fashion to the news, depending upon which side of the debate one favored before the verdict. Each side claimed a victory.

The Ivory Pomegranate, a small decorative object said to have topped a priestly staff. Made of Hippopotamus bone, it bears an inscription, “Belonging to the Temple (literally ‘house’) of —h, holy to the priests” or “Sacred donation for the priests of (or ‘in’) the Temple (literally ‘house’) of —. When it was discovered, it was thought to be part of the High Priest sceptre used within the Holy of Holies section of the Jerusalem First Temple (the Temple of Solomon). The bone was once considered a genuine artifact proving the existence of Solomon’s Temple, but has since been found to be 300 to 400 years older than the first temple and the inscription has been challenged as a modern forgery due to the Hebraic inscription allegedly being made after it had broken into 1/3 of its original size. Wikimedia Commons

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the Israeli government authority supporting the prosecution of the accused forgers, walked away with what it regarded as a positive result, namely, the slowdown of illicit trade of antiquities and inappropriate publication of finds that have been lifted from their proper archaeological contexts. Stated the IAA in a public pronouncement :

……..the benefits of placing the issue on today’s agenda were immense and have led to a dramatic change in the conduct of archaeological research in Israel and abroad: there has been an almost complete cessation of publishing finds that come from the antiquities market without first knowing their exact place of discovery; the trade in written documents and seals derived from illicit antiquities excavations has almost been entirely halted also. This in turn has led to a dramatic reduction in the scope of antiquities robbery occurring at biblical sites in Israel. In addition, ethical practices concerning research have changed and rules have been formulated regarding the “dos and don’ts” of the publication of finds. Furthermore, new methods have been developed for checking archaeological finds, which rely on research methods drawn from the natural sciences, and many collectors have made their collections available to the State for examination and registration. 

At the very least, it would seem that antiquities dealers and publishers of “biblical” artifacts have, in effect, been placed on notice that it will not be “business as usual” when it comes to selling antiquities for private gain. In this sense, the long-running trial may have been a boost to efforts at stopping or at least slowing down the illegal antiquities trade and the quick rush to publish finds before appropriate provenance can be determined.

However, regarding the IAA’s determination that the subject antiquities were “unequivocally” forgeries, a central focus between prosecution and defense, the decision left many followers of the trial proceedings scratching their heads.

“The prosecution failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt what was stated in the indictment: that the ossuary is a forgery and that Mr. Golan or someone acting on his behalf forged it,” stated Judge Farkash before the court.

Golan, Deutsch, and scholarly supporters of the antiquities’ authenticity, at least on the face of things, appeared to be vindicated in their claims that the now world-famous artifacts were indeed authentic. Maintained Hershel Shanks, Editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and a prominent commentator on the trial issues, “You have much looted material coming out of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). It has died down now but was once great. These finds can be important. Are you going to rescue them, or are you going to say you aren’t going to learn from them because they were looted?” And as he stated in a recently released article: “Perhaps most damaged by the judge’s decision is deputy IAA director Uzi Dahari who chaired the IAA committee that found the ossuary inscription and the Yehoash inscription to be forgeries. He led a bevy of scholars by the nose to accept an allegedly unanimous committee decision finding that the two inscriptions were forgeries.”  Shanks has been a leader in the charge to support the findings of a number of highly respected scholars who, upon examination, have suggested that the ancient pieces and their inscriptions are indeed authentic.

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