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The Jerusalem Syndrome in Archaeology: Jehoash to James

Is it possible that over a century after Sir William Mathew Flinders-Petrie established the scientific methodology of biblical archaeology, the discipline is still controlled by dilatants and charlatans?


    It is only due to the limits of space that I do not go on and on with similar narratives. A hundred and thirty years after the exposure of the naïve and crude biblical forgeries of Moses Wilhelm Shapira, it seems that biblical archaeology did not learn the lesson and has completely forgotten its implications. Recently, I had the dubious pleasure of examining a seemingly endless line of fake biblical texts of various kinds. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of such forgeries referring especially to the time of the First Temple. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the disciplines of biblical history and archaeology have been contaminated to such an extent that no unprovenanced written source seems to be reliable anymore. To put it even more bluntly, the sciences of Hebrew epigraphy and philology are nothing but a fool’s paradise. The question arises: are we playing here with science or with science fiction? Is it possible that, as in the popular movie "The Matrix," we all live in a virtual world that was programmed for us by aliens and operated by a well-organized system of naïve scientists, media tycoons, and other messengers, who manipulate us so we can live calmly in the virtual reality that they created for us?

    Is it possible that over a century after Sir William Mathew Flinders-Petrie established the scientific methodology of biblical archaeology, the discipline is still controlled by dilatants and charlatans? As we all still hope that most of the scientists involved in this saga were motivated only by true scientific purposes, we must ask how could some of them be so naïve, ignore any sense of objectivity and be trapped in the crude pitfalls set by the forgers? Considering the nature of the fakes in question, the answer to this question may lie in the domain of psychology. The forgeries discussed here are not merely fakes of ancient artifacts. They are relics, intended to manipulate the emotions of scientists and the public alike by using the attribution to biblical events.[35] These forgeries were intended to infect collectors, museums, scientists, and scholars with the Jerusalem Syndrome in order to boost their market price and attract public attention.

    We biblical archaeologists must now decide whether we are ready to remain in a fool’s paradise or fight back in order to bring back science into our discipline. For my grandfather, who was a very orthodox Jew, the question whether there was a temple in Jerusalem or not was completely irrelevant to the depth and sincerity of his faith. He never needed a dubious ostracon, written in dodgy biblical Hebrew and coated by a layer of modern lime and wax, to make his belief stronger. I am confident that the discovery of the James Ossuary has not served to bring more people into the belief in the historicity of the Gospels. Perhaps the opposite is true. But for those of us who care about the future and integrity of biblical archaeology and history, the Jerusalem Syndrome in archaeology is a question of life and death -- either we fight against it, or we lose any trace of scientific dignity.

Addendum: Final blow or just a blow?

Avner Ayalon* and Yuval Goren**

* Geological Survey of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel.
** Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, Tel-Aviv University, Israel

    Recently, geologist James A. Harrell reviewed (in the non-peer reviewed BAR) our analytical results concerning the James Ossuary under the flaunting heading: "Final blow to IAA report: flawed geochemistry used to condemn James inscription".[36] Despite this dramatic heading that was presumably put there by the editors, Harrell’s "final blow" to our conclusions is that the patina covering the inscription on the James Ossuary was either faked or recreated by cleaning. Harrell’s arguments for the "flawed geochemistry" seem to be as strong as the final conclusion of his commentary. In what follows, we address them in short:

1. "Both scientists specifically point out that their statements are not final reports and that they will publish their complete findings later in a professional journal."

    Harrell referrs in his article to the abstract published by the IAA in the June 2003 press conference. Harrell never bothered to contact any of us for the data nor for clarifying some misunderstandings that he seemingly had. We assume that Harrell knows that it takes some time for a scientific article to be refereed and accepted for publication in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal. Still, between the press conference (June 2003) and now, our scientific paper was accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science.[37] Harrell could easily have asked for a pre-print of the article and received it (as did the BAR managing editor per his request).

2. "Ayalon assumed (but did not demonstrate) that calcite is the primary, if not the only, mineral on both the ancient patina and the inscription coating."

    Based on EDS analyses, the "letters’ patina" as well as the "non-inscriptional parts" are composed of CaCO3.

3. "For Ayalon’s hot-water scheme to work, the limestone would have to be dissolved in a hot acid-water solution and then the calcite crystallized by evaporating the solution. However, a coating made this way would have an acid residue and so give away its origin. To test for this possibility, the inscription coating needs to be chemically analyzed, but this has not yet been done."

(a) The calcite could have precipitated directly from the hot water itself (the same as the "cattle-stone" precipitates). There is no need to dissolve ground calcite.

(b) The acid involved in patina formation in nature is carbonic acid (H2CO3) formed as rainwater passes through the coil and dissolves soil-CO2. Once this acid is used, heating the water will result in CO2-degassing and CaCO3 precipitation with no acid residue. This could have been done artificially by using the same acid and without leaving any trace for it.

4. "……the ancient patina is clearly not pure calcite – its brownish color must be due to either iron oxides, clay minerals, and/or organic matter, all of which contain oxygen. The inscription coating also may not be pure calcit."

    Harrell is completely wrong. The ancient patina is made of CaCO3, the same as the inscription coating. Moreover, to liberate CO2 gas from the CaCO3 for mass-spectrometric analysis, we use dry phosphoric acid (H3PO4). In this reaction, iron oxides, clay minerals, and other silicate minerals, which may be present in very small amounts, do not react with the acid. Harrell, as a stable-isotope geochemist, should also know that in the mass-spectrometer we analyzed the isotopic composition of CO2 gas liberated in the reaction and NOT the isotopic composition of oxygen (O2) gas.

5. "Ayalon dismisses out of hand the one sample of inscription coating whose δ18O value fell within the range of the ancient patina……..Ayalon is showing his bias by not allowing for the other possibility: that the word Jesus (where the samples came from) is truly ancient. This, plus the fact that one member of the IAA committee observed traces of ancient patina in the "brother of Jesus" part of the inscription, provide two solid pieces of evidence supporting the inscription’s antiquity."

    Carried away with his arguments, Harrell forgot to mention that luckily we have analyzed three letters from the word "Yeshua" (Jesus). The δ18O of the patina sampled from the other letters was very negative, -10.2 permil (for the letter "Shin" of "Yeshua") and –7.7 permil (for the letter "Vav"). Only the last letter ("Ain") had a normal value; hence, our interpretation for this phenomenon is not the result of bias but the only logical possibility.

6. "For the moment, all we can say is that the oxygen isotope results are equally consistent with two possible interpretations:

1. The inscription is a modern forgery that was coated with faked patina; OR

2. The inscription is ancient but was cleaned in modern times with the coating produced either inadvertently as a result of cleaning or intentionally to disguise the cleaning."

    Both options suggested by Harrell agree with our conclusion that the "letters’ patina" was not formed under natural conditions that prevailed in the Jerusalem area in the last 2000 years. Therefore, the title of his article "flawed geochemistry used to condemn James inscription" is strange/puzzling, to say the least.

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