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Posted: 6/27/03

Israeli scholars say James ossuary
a fake; others not so quick to quit

By Alexandra Alter

Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS)–An inscription on an ancient stone burial box suggesting it held the remains of James, the brother of Jesus, is a fake, Israeli archaeological experts say.

Other scholars, however, contend the guilty verdict may have been leveled prematurely.

The Aramaic inscription on the limestone box, called an ossuary, was deemed genuine last October, when scholars and scientists announced the artifact could provide a link between the Jesus of the Bible and a historical figure named Jesus. If authenticated, the ossuary would have been one of the oldest archaeological references to biblical figures.

The inscription, which reads, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” originally thought to date to about 63 A.D., was in fact carved over the stone's natural fossilized sheen, or patina, said the experts of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

The James ossuary is said by Israeli archaeology experts to be authentic, although they believe the inscription is a forgery.

Last October, scholars defending the box's authenticity argued the Aramaic script used on the box matches the style that was popular in the first decades of the first century after the birth of Jesus.

Extensive tests also dated the burial box to 63 A.D.–a year after James' death and within the half-century such boxes were used.

Still, archaeological specialists in Israel announced June 18 that although the artifact is real, the inscription is a forgery.

“The ossuary is real. But the inscription is fake,” said Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. “What this means is that someone took the real box and forged the writing on it, probably to give it a religious significance.”

Other experts, however, have said that finding may be premature.

“The problem is, the report is not out yet,” said Hershel Shanks of the Biblical Archaeological Review in Washington, adding that there may be disagreement among the scientists. “There may be some archaeological politics involved.”

Two other groups of specialists from the Geological Survey of Israel and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto also studied the stone box earlier and determined it was genuine, Shanks added. Moreover, the patina over the inscription could have been worn down because the mother of the man who owned it scrubbed it heavily, he said.

The artifact's owner, Oded Golan, said he bought the ossuary in the mid-1970s from an antiquities dealer in Old Jerusalem. He also owns the so-called “Yoash inscription,” a tablet from the 9th century B.C. instructing the Jews how to maintain the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. It also was determined to be a fake, the Israeli newspaper Maarev reported.

Robert Eisenman, a biblical scholar who wrote a book on James, questioned the artifact's authenticity from the beginning because the script on the box appeared to have been written in two hands.

“I always considered the timing of the Jesus Ossuary very odd and worrisome,” he said. “There was a spate of books on James and his importance in 1997 and 1998, and then the box appeared.”

James, whom historians say was stoned to death in 62 A.D., is considered the first bishop of the Christian church in Jerusalem. He also is described as Jesus' brother in the Gospels. Protestants and Jews accept James as Jesus' brother, but Catholics, who believe Mary spent her life as a virgin, say he was a cousin. Many Orthodox Christians regard James as Jesus' half-brother from a previous marriage of Joseph's.

The strong possibility that the ossuary's inscription, thought to be one of the greatest archaeological finds of modern times, may be a modern forgery leaves many braced for disappointment.

“If it turns out to be a fake, whoever did it should be put in jail,” Shanks said.

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