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The Israeli Forgery Trial: The Verdict is Given

Epigraphic forgeries have been produced for more than two millennia, and they continue to be produced. Among the most famous from the Middle Ages is the The Donation of Constantine, a document that was hailed as ancient and important…until Lorenza Valla demonstrated (1407-1457 CE) the damning philological and historical evidence against its authenticity. Similarly, an inscription referred to as the “Brazilian Phoenician Inscription” was forged during the late 1800s and purported to be an account of Sidonians landing in Brazil. M. Lidzbarski declared it to be a forgery (in 1898), but Cyrus Gordon revived this inscriptional debate and argued (in 1968) that it was indeed an ancient Phoenician inscription. Galvanized by Gordon’s declarations, Frank Cross demonstrated (in 1968) very nicely that this inscription was forged in the modern period.

Similarly, in 1971 G. Mendenhall argued that some inscriptions from the antiquities market, inscriptions dubbed “The Hebron Philistine Documents” were ancient, and he subsequently stated that progress was being made in decipherment of these ancient documents. Frank Cross, however, stated in an annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature that year that these documents were modern forgeries. But Mendenhall chided Cross (without naming him in print) and stated that those who said these documents were modern forgeries simply “do not want to be confused with new facts” and “have already made up their minds about what the ancient world was supposed to produce.” Mendenhall went on to state that “the only scholars who are convinced of their authenticity are those who have worked seriously with the original documents, including the extremely productive computer analysis.” He also said (in 1970 and 1971) that “it is very difficult to believe that scholars capable of putting such an enormous range of information into these documents would also be capable of such irresponsible misuse of learning.” Because these sorts of statements persisted, Joseph Naveh wrote an article entitled “Some Recently forged Inscriptions” in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (1982) and demonstrated that these Hebron inscriptions were modern forgeries, and of a particuarly poor sort, as they were basically the Siloam Tunnel Inscritpion written backwards!

Mendenhall’s statement suggesting basically that “no one who has such knowledge would ever do something such as this” is oft cited by many people in different contexts (but mostly it is cited by those who wish to state that this or that modern forgery must be ancient because no person capable of producing a forgery would do so). Of course, (sadly) Mendenhall was too sanguine with regard to his assumptions about human nature and human motives. This is demonstrated most convincingly by the fact that Princeton University Professor P. R. Coleman-Norton published an article in Catholic Biblical Quarterly (in 1950) about finding a manuscript which was a Greek translation of the Latin Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, a manuscript he said he came across in the North African town of Fedhala. In his autobiography entitled Reminiscences of an Octogenarian Princeton Theological Seminary professor Bruce Metzger demonstrated that this “ancient manuscript” Coleman-Norton had said he found was non-existent, and that the entire thing was a Witz, as even the title of the editio princeps demonstrated (it was entitled “An Amusing Agraphon”). In short, very capable scholars are also capable of producing forgeries, and of this there can be no doubt. Of course, even the best forgeres make mistakes…and trained palaeographers can discern these, and this also has long been the case (although some scholars are more capable than others at this, as history also demonstrates).

Naturally, with regard to some of the inscriptions that were part of this trial, it is important to remember that Joseph Naveh argued in print (in an article in Israel Exploration Journal) that the “Two Moussaieff Ostraca” were probable forgeries (in 1998). After collating most of the provenanced Old Hebrew inscriptions in the late 1990s and then looking carefully at the Moussaieff Ostraca, I began to argue (publicly, beginning in March 1999) that these two Moussaieff Ostraca were definitive modern forgeries. Of course, during the 2001 and 2002 the “Jehosash Inscription” surfaced. Joseph Naveh considered it a modern forgery (he told me this in an e-mail, in response to my e-mail to him in which I mentioned the numerous palaeographic problems I saw in this inscription which were demonstrative of its status as a modern forgery…and Naveh told me he felt the same way). Frank Cross also told me in an e-mail (in response to my e-mail to him, listing the palaeographic problems with the Jehoash Inscription) that he too believed the Jehoash Inscription to be a modern forgery and he too soon wrote an article for Israel Exploration Journal arguing that the Jehoash Inscription was indeed a modern forgery. At the same time, I was in the process of completing a long article on epigraphic forgeries for Maarav (published in 2003…and now available on Academia.edu), which included a long palaeographic discussion of the problems with the Moussaieff Ostraca and so I augmented that article with my observations about the palaeographic problems with the Jehoash Inscription. Frank Cross subsequently told me in an e-mail (which he sent in response to a penultimate draft of my long Maarav article on forgeries, an e-mail I still have) that he had become convinced that these Moussaieff Ostraca were indeed modern forgeries as well (he had previously been quoted in print as saying they were genuine). In fact, Cross went even further and stated in an open letter that he also considered the Ivory Pomegranate to be a modern forgery as well. Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University became involved during this time as the primary scholar who used hard science analyses on these inscriptions (and many others), and his conclusions were that these inscriptions were indeed modern forgeries. There were dissenting voices, but not many.

Of course, the discussion in Israel soon focused on those that were believed to have forged some of these inscriptions. Based on various lines of evidence, there was a decision to attempt to prosecute those believed to be responsible for at least some of the most recent modern forgeries. For a nice summary of the objects that were part of the trial, discussion of the problems with the antiquities market, and with forgeries in general, readers might wish to consult the articles in Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005). As part of that trial, I was brought to Israel to testify a few years ago and did so…beginning one morning at around nine in the morning and finishing shortly before eleven p.m. It was a long, but productive day. I found the prosecutors, Dan Bahat and Adi Damti, to be gifted, devoted prosecutors. Moreover, Judge Aharon Farkash is a very fine judge, learned, wise. The problem is that he did not believe there was enough evidence “to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Significantly, however, speaking about the Ya’akov Ossuary (“James Ossuary”) in particular, Judge Farkash also stated (quite reasonably) that this “is not to say that the inscription on the ossuary is true and authentic and was written two thousand years ago.” Also, Prosecutor Dan Bahat has stated that the case had been “complicated by the refusal of a key witness, who was suspected of helping to forge many of the items, to come from Egypt to testify.” Bahat also stated that “What we have tried to do here is to set an international precedent.” Further elaborating, he said, “this is the first time someone has brought the issue of antiquiteis forgery before a court.”

At the end of the day, regardless of the guilt or innocent of those individuals charged and tried for forging inscriptions in this case, the fact remains that forgeries have been produced for more than two millennia and I do not forsee this changing. Indeed, it never will…after all, the motives for forgeries are numerous, from venality, to sour grapes, to a Witz, and from antiquity to the modern period even extend to realms of motivation in the realms of the political and religious.. I have an article coming out in a Brown University Symposium volume on the history of forgeries…and I have an academic monograph on this subject that will be sent off to a publisher this coming summer….so the saga continues…

Archaeology, Epigraphy

9 Comments to “The Israeli Forgery Trial: The Verdict is Given”

  1. [...] to render further study unable to settle the matter.See further the reactions and commentary from Christopher Rollston, Eric Myers, Matthew Kalman, James Tabor, Paul Barford, Hershel Shanks and the Biblical [...]

  2. [...] been cleared of every forgery charges: see the account by H. Shanks, but don’t forget to read C. Rollston’s interesting post on the subject. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This [...]

  3. Prof. Rollston. True, the motives for forgeries are noumerous. Can you say the same regarding the lab reports that confirmed the James ossuary’s source? All say it came from the Talpiot (first) tomb. Do they forge as well?

    • Thanks for the note. Alas, laboratory tests must still be interpreted…I learned this the hard way in 1998. In any case, I have since discussed numerous factors with regard to lab reports. I invite you to read, for example, my discussion of this in 2003 and 2004, the tandem articles on forgery and the antiquities market. They are available on academia.edu. Rest assured that “all” are not saying that the Ya’akov Ossuary came from the tomb dubbed Talpiyot A.

  4. [...] case is NOT OVER. See further the reactions from Christopher Rollston, Eric Myers, Matthew Kalman, James Tabor, Paul Barford, Hershel Shanks and the Biblical [...]

  5. [...] Rollston, here. Share this:PrintFacebookEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted [...]

  6. Chris, is it not the case that Yuval Goren, with regard to the James ossuary inscription, admitted in his second round of testimony, that original patina was in fact in the letters making up the name Yeshua? Since the prosecution case was that Oded took an ossuary inscribed “James son of Joseph” and added brother of Jesus, would that new evidence indicate at least that such was not the case? This was widely reported by Kalman, etc. and I think it is in the trial transcript, see http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/authjam358012.shtml

  7. James, if you have read the trial testimony, you know that I testified in that trial about the Moussaieff Ostraca and the Jehoash Inscription. I was asked to testify about the Ya’akov Ossuary, but I refused to. Obviously, I know about the cross examination of Yuval Goren. My position on this ossuary, and it was the position of Joseph Naveh as well (he told me so in conversation when all of this broke long ago) that he too was suspicious. As for the lab reports that you have commissioned for it…you have to know that most anyone with knowledge about protocols and procedures for laboratory tests, as well as a good knowledge of chemistry, can poke holes in those lab reports.

  8. [...] Various self-styled “bibliobloggers” have chimed in agreement, see Chris Rollston here, and Jim West here. Eric Myers has restated his doubts on the influential ASOR blog [...]

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