THE JAMES OSSUARY (YA‘AKOV OSSUARY): BULLET POINT SYNOPSIS ABOUT A PROBABLE MODERN FORGERY
By Dr. Christopher Rollston, George Washington University (Washington, DC)
Myth Number One: Forgeries are Rare. Actually, forged inscriptions are quite common. In fact, people have been forging inscriptions for a very long time. True, recent decades have witnessed many modern epigraphic forgeries, coming on the heels of many notable forgeries during the late 19th century and early 20th century (Rollston 2003; Rollston 2004; Vaughn and Rollston 2005; Rollston 2005). But epigraphic forgeries are attested not just during the modern period, but also during the Middle Ages, and even earlier, with some of the earliest forgeries hailing from ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt (Rollston 2014), and with ancient Christians producing scores of modern forgeries as well (Ehrman 2012). During the past 140 years, most forged inscriptions were sold on the antiquities market.
Myth Number Two: Forged Inscriptions are Easy to Detect. Some forgeries are of low quality and easy, therefore, to detect, but some are so good that they have fooled some of the best scholars in the world (for discussion, see Rollston 2003; Rollston 2014).
Myth Number Three: There was just one Jesus. Actually, this was a fairly common name in the Second Temple Period (i.e., the time when Jesus of Nazareth lived). In fact, within the New Testament, there are at least five people with the name Yeshua (Jesus): namely, Yeshua (Joshua) the successor of Moses (e.g., Acts 7:45); Jesus son of Eliezer (Luke 3:29), Jesus Barabbas (Col 4:11), a resident of Cyprus named Bar-Jesus (i.e., son of Jesus, Acts 13:6) and Jesus of Nazareth. Second Temple Jewish literature contains references to many additional people with this name. Significantly, therefore, even if the entire “James Ossuary Inscription” were ancient, there would be no guarantee that it belonged to the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. For that to be the case, there would need to be a more specific descriptor, something such as “the brother of Jesus of Nazareth,” or “the brother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.” Since we do not have that sort of data for this inscription caution is required.
GENERAL COMMENTS ON THE JAMES OSSUARY
The James Ossuary was not found on a scientific expedition. Rather, it was pillaged from the ground and sold on the antiquities market. Thus, there is no reliable chain of custody for this ossuary. There are no photos of its discovery. There is no means of ascertaining the number of bones that were placed in this ossuary. Moreover, it should be remembered that the bones of multiple people were placed in a single ossuary at times (regardless of whether there was no name inscribed on the ossuary, or just one name, or two names, etc., etc.), and so even if some bone fragments were still in this ossuary, it would have been impossible to determine whose they were. Of course, because the James Ossuary was not found on a scientific expedition, and because the chain of custody cannot be determined with any certainty (because it has been in the hands of antiquities dealers and antiquities collectors), and because antiquities dealers sometimes place some bones in one ossuary that came from a different ossuary, to attempt to discern anything from any bone fragments in the James Ossuary would be fruitless. After all, without a clear chain of custody, forensic medicine is not at all decisive.
THE SCRIPT OF THE JAMES OSSUARY
The script of the first half of this inscription /Y‘qwb br Ywsp/ reflects distinct depth and clarity. In addition, kerning (quite common in this period) is present. However, the second half of the inscription /’hwy d yshw‘/ is not carved with the same depth, clarity, and kerning. Because of camera angle and lighting (as well as shadowing), some photographs capture this rather well. Personal collation confirms that there is indeed a distinct difference in depth, clarity, and kerning between the first and second halves the inscription. Compare also the predominant consistency of the depth, clarity, and kerning of some of the longer ossuary inscriptions (e.g., Rahmani 70 Lid, Plate 11 [deep with kerning, slight reduction in size because of space constraints]; Rahmani 80 Lid, Plate 13; Rahmani 370 Lid, Plate 52 [light incising throughout]; Rahmani 430 Rim, Plate 62 [deep incising and kerning throughout]; Rahmani 560 Lid, Plate 80 [consistent depth and clarity]; Rahmani 796 Front, Plate 116 [light incising throughout]. Cf. Rahmani 12 Lid, Plate 2 [with “signature” not as deep, etc.]; Rahmani 893 Front, Plate 135 [reduction of depth and size, arguably an issue of centering].
Most Tenable Conclusion: Two Hands, with the words “James son of Joseph” written by one person and “Brother of Jesus” (i.e., brother of Yeshua) written by another person. However, based just on the script, it is tenable to suggest that (a) the hands are both ancient; or (b) the second hand is modern; (c) the entire inscription is modern and the forger was not assiduousness enough in forging. Within the fields of biblical studies, hermeneutics of suspicion have been invaluable. In my opinion, it is prudent to retain such hermeneutics with this market inscription as well, as it is the “brother of Yeshua” component (written in a different hand) that arguably makes this ossuary financially valuable. I should note that I have heard it suggested that “there is no logical reason for someone to add ‘brother of Yeshua’ to this inscription.” However, I can think of a million (financial) reasons for a forger to have done so. Of course, someone might retort that this assumes the modern forger would have *known* that this would make it valuable. I would think a forger would certainly know this. Someone might further retort that Golan did not know this reading until he was told and so would not have added it. I would suggest that any forger worth his salt would *want* epigraphers to *believe* that he did *not* know how significant this addition might be. It is a very savvy technique.
The Geological Survey of Israel performed SEM-EDS analyses on the patina of the “Ya‘akov Ossuary” (Rosenfeld and Ilani 2002). The results showed that the patina is composed mainly of CaC03 (93%) and contains Si – 5.0%; A1 – 0.7%; Fe – 0.3%; P – 0.4%; and Mg – 0.2%. The report notes that there are no modern elements (such as modern pigments), and the patina adheres firmly to the stone. Again, this is valuable information, but it is imperative that one not conclude or assume, on the basis of this evidence, that this entire inscription is ancient. Rather, this test simply demonstrates that this object need not be disqualified on the basis of anomalies in the chemical composition of the patina. It certainly does not authenticate the patina. Indeed, the report implicitly concedes this point with the words: “no evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found.” This is an important and honest assessment; however, it must be noted in the strongest possible terms that the absence of certain anomalies in the chemical composition of a patina is not the same as a demonstration of the antiquity of a patina. Note, however, that subsequent laboratory tests were performed and problems with the distribution of the patina were noted (Ayalon, Bar-Matthews, Goren 2004).
Forgers continue to produce some very sophisticated forgeries. These are sold on the antiquities market. High quality forgeries can and do sell for tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The James Ossuary was not found on a scientific expedition, but rather appeared mysteriously and was sold on the antiquities market. The chain of custody for this ossuary and its inscription cannot be known. The second half of the inscription on this ossuary (i.e., the part that says “brother of Jesus”) is the part that would potentially make this ossuary worth some money. Dramatic claims required decisive evidence. In the case of the James Ossuary, we simply do not have that caliber of evidence. Indeed, I consider (at least) the second half of the James Ossuary Inscription to be a probable modern forgery, not an inscription that can be said to be an ancient inscription connected with the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. I wish that this inscription could be said to be entirely ancient and I wish that it could be said that it is certainly to be connected with the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. But the evidence supporting this conclusion is simply too tenuous, alas.
Ayalon, A., Bar-Matthews, M., Goren, Y. “James Ossuary. Journal of Archaeological Science 31 (2004): 1185-1189).
Ehrman, B. Forgery and Counter-Forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. Oxford University Press, 2012
Rollston, C. “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests.” Maarav 10 (2003): 135-193.
Rollston, C. “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic.” Maarav 11 (2004): 57-79.
Rollston, C. “Navigating the Epigraphic Storm: A Palaeographer Reflects on Inscriptions from the Market.” Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 69-72.
Rollston, C. “Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period.” Pp. 176-197 in Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, eds. Matthew Rutz and Morag Kersel. Joukowsky Institute Publication Series of Brown University, Oxbow Books, 2014.
Rosenfeld, A. Ilani, S. “SEM-EDS Analyses of Patina Samples,” BARev 28 (Nov/Dec 2002).
Vaughn, A. and Rollston, C. “The Antiquities Market, Sensationalized Textual Data, and Modern Forgeries.” Written with Andrew Vaughn. Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 61-69.