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Indications that the "Brother of Jesus" Inscription is a Forgery

By Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Church History
Brigham Young University
November 2003

    Dr. Jeffrey R. Chadwick's essay, "Indications that the "Brother of Jesus" Inscription is a Forgery," was an early scholarly analysis of the so-called James ossuary inscription, written within a few months of the Ossuary's announcement to the world. Dr. Chadwick first submitted the essay for publication to Hershel Shanks' magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review. Although the magazine turned down the essay, Mr. Shanks argued against it in his book The Brother of Jesus, which he co-wrote with Dr. Ben Witherington III. Dr. Chadwick's essay has never been released to the public, so Bible and Interpretation offers it to the world here for the first time.

    Article follows.


    The so-called "Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus," first publicized in the popular magazine Biblical Archaeology Review,1 has gained world-wide notoriety as an archaeological artifact supposedly connected to Jesus of Nazareth. Mentioned in newspapers and magazines around the globe, it was featured in an hour long Easter program on cable television's Discovery Channel,2 and is the subject of a new book entitled The Brother of Jesus co-authored by Hershel Shanks,3 the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. Were it not for the active involvement of Shanks, a dynamic individual who has arguably had as great an impact on the field of biblical archaeology as anyone now living, this ancient artifact would not be nearly as well known as it now is.

    There can be no doubt that the 21 inch long carved limestone container is an authentic first century C.E. ossuary (bone box) which originated in the Jerusalem area. Nor can there be any doubt concerning the authenticity of the eleven letter Aramaic inscription on one of its broad sides reading Yakov bar Yosef in English "Yakov son of Yosef." But I am convinced that a later addition to the inscription, tentatively identified as the Aramaic words ahui d'Yeshua, or "brother of Jesus," is a demonstrable forgery.

    The combination of the original eleven letter inscription and the nine letter forged addition make a twenty letter phrase supposedly reading (in King James English) "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." [An original drawing of the inscription appears at the top of this page.4] If it could be authenticated in its entirety, the impact of such a find would be spectacular. The discovery of a genuine first century written reference to Jesus of Nazareth and two other New Testament personalities would be of unprecedented significance in evaluating the historicity of Christian origins. But upon close physical examination, or even from the excellent photographs which appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, two things are evident: (1) The pointed instrument that scratched the last nine Aramaic letters onto the ossuary was not the tool that carved the first eleven, and (2) the hands that formed the letters identified as ahui d'Yeshua or "brother of Jesus" were not the same ancient hands that carefully engraved Yakov bar Yosef . I will examine evidence for these conclusions below. But first, a word about the source of the find.

    By now it is widely known that what I choose to call the "Yakov bar Yosef ossuary" is part of a private antiquities collection assembled by Oded Golan of Tel Aviv, Israel. Golan, an amateur archaeologist, attempted for a time to keep his identity anonymous. He possesses a large number of ancient artifacts purchased over many years from antiquities dealers all over Israel. Golan claims to have obtained the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary from a Jerusalem dealer sometime before 1978, but there is wide-spread suspicion that he obtained it much more recently. In either case, it is certain that the ossuary was not discovered as part of a legitimate archaeological excavation. It was, in fact, looted from an ancient tomb by modern antiquities thieves, and its original archaeological context and condition cannot be ascertained. Nor are the details known of just how the forged inscription was produced (although suggestions about this will be made later in this report).

    Golan met French scholar Andre Lemaire in 2001 at a private party in Israel. After seeing photos of the ossuary, Lemaire concluded that the inscription must refer to the James in the New Testament who is called "the Lord's brother."5 Physical inspection of the ossuary itself confirmed this conclusion to Lemaire, and the result was his startling article in Biblical Archaeology Review of November 2002, claiming the discovery of an authentic first century C.E. inscription mentioning three New Testament personalities Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph the husband of Jesus' mother Mary, and James (properly Yakov or "Jacob") the supposed "brother of Jesus."

    After its initial publication, the ossuary was taken to Toronto, Canada and displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in November of 2002 at the same time the American Schools of Oriental Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion were having their annual conventions in Toronto. It was during this exposition that I was first able to examine the inscription at close range, along with many other scholars. Unfortunately, when the ossuary was shipped from Israel to Canada, preexisting cracks in its limestone were aggravated, creating several breaks in the stone box. One break extended right through the inscription ironically, right through the forged part. The breaks and cracks were repaired by conservators at the Royal Ontario Museum. However, the masking of the breaks obliterated one of the letters of the inscription (the alleged dalet), so that it is now necessary to refer to photographs of the inscription taken before November 2002 in order to completely evaluate its authenticity. (I recommend the close-up photograph of the inscription that appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review of November 2002, pages 26-27.) Upon its return to Israel in March of 2003, the ossuary was seized by the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is investigating Oded Golan in connection with a number of alleged irregularities concerning pieces in his collection.6

The epigraphic indications of forgery

    In order to explore the epigraphic indications that the "brother of Jesus" portion of the inscription is a modern forgery added on to an authentic ancient inscription, it is necessary to engage in a far more detailed discussion of the actual shapes of all twenty letters of the inscription than has previously occurred. Lemaire himself explained that "details in the shape and stance of the letters are exceptionally important," and that "a mixture of letter shapes from different periods or different scribal traditions is a dead giveaway that an inscription is a fake."7 In the case of the ossuary in question, differences are stark between letter shapes of the original eleven letter inscription and the letter shapes of the nine letter addition. Upon careful comparison it becomes obvious that the person who formed the letters of the original Yakov bar Yosef portion of the inscription was not the same person who created the letters identified by Lemaire as ahui d'Yeshua or "brother of Jesus."

    The person that inscribed Yakov bar Yosef was very careful in the formation of each individual Aramaic letter, and appears to have observed a set of rules in executing his letters, such as precise creation of angles, horizontal and vertical lines, careful sizing of yods, and extending of vavs. He was careful not only in the formation of each individual Aramaic letter, but also in duplicating his letters. Take his creation of the letter bet for

example. As seen in the figure above, where two bets are seen side by side [fifth and sixth letters from right] the bet denoting "v" at the end of Yakov [fifth from right] and the bet at the beginning of bar or "son" [sixth from right] are nearly identical, featuring not only the small upward serif at the left-hand side of the top line, but also a carefully measured tag or "tittle" which extends slightly to the right of the perpendicular meeting point of their vertical and bottom horizontal lines.

    There are two other repetitions of letters in the original inscription two yods and also two vavs. In each case, the ancient engraver made the second occurrence of these letters look similar to the first. The yod that is the first letter of the name Yakov [far right in the figure below] is same size as the yod that is the first letter of the name Yosef [second from right]. Though the downstrokes of both yods are perfectly vertical, the two letters are only half the vertical height of other letters in the name phrase, and there is a visible attempt at a serif at the top of each. By comparison, the

 yods in the "brother of Jesus" addition are quite dissimilar. The yod of Yeshua [far left in the figure above], while handsomely created, is acutely diagonal rather than vertical, and extends well below the halfway point at which the yods of Yakov and Yosef end. The yod [second from left] in the word Lemaire identifies as "ahui" or "brother of" is also somewhat longer than the yods of Yakov bar Yosef, shows no attempt at a serif, and is indeed as different from the yod of Yeshua as it is from the yods of both Yakov and Yosef. In a short inscription of only twenty letters, for there to be no continuity of shape between the yods of the first part of the inscription and the yods of the second part of the inscription must be regarded with suspicion.

    Consider also the four vavs of the inscription. The vav that serves as the "o" of Yakov [far right in the figure below] and the vav that serves as the "o" of Yosef [second from right] are both perfectly vertical, with serifs at their tops, and both extend slightly below the baseline of other letters in the phrase. By contrast, the vavs of "ahui" and Yeshua are notably different. Thevav of Yeshua [far left in the figure below] does not extend

below the base line of other letters, as do the vavs of Yakov and Yosef, and the attempt at a top serif is weak and indistinct. The vav of "ahui" [second from left] lacks any attempt at all of a top crown or serif, and extends only very slightly below the baseline, probably due to the fact that it was made with two different cutting strokes (more on this later). Even the untrained eye can detect the significant differences of shape between the two sets of vavs, differences that should not exist in a short, carved stone inscription performed by a single hand.

    Stark differences also appear upon close examination of the letter ayin as found in Yakov and in Yeshua. The ayin that represents the "a" sound of Yakov [right side letter in figure below] was cut with its two upper lines extending in different diagonal directions, the right side line pointing diagonally upward to the right, and the left side line pointing diagonally upward toward the left. The right side line makes an oblique corner turn into its lower extension, and where the left side line intersects with the lower extension of the right side line, it does so at a perfectly perpendicular angle. By contrast, the handsomely cut ayin that represents the "a" sound

of Yeshua [left side letter above] has both upper lines pointing in the same direction, diagonally to the left. Where the right side line turns into its lower extension, it does so with a curve rather than an oblique corner. The connection of the left side line to the lower extension of the right line is not perpendicular, but occurs at an acute angle. While both ayins are attractively cut, they are clearly different in terms of style and shape. This should not occur in a stone cut inscription of only twenty letters, particularly where the first eleven letters were made so uniformly. Clearly, the two ayins were not made by the same person. Again, the evidence points to a second hand at work, adding the phrase "brother of Jesus" to the original name of Yakov bar Yosef.

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