Indications that the "Brother of Jesus" Inscription is a Forgery
This is not to say that the Aramaic letters of the "brother of Jesus" are not shaped in ways we should expect from the first century C.E., when Jesus lived. On the contrary, the shape of the het is generally correct, and both the shin and the ayin are particularly well formed, and correspond to general trends known from the period of Jesus. This may be what accounts, in part, for the acceptance which the entire twenty letter inscription has found in some scholarly circles. Among known authentic inscriptions from the first century there are variations in the way nearly all Aramaic letters were formed. In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that a single scribe might indeed form his letters in somewhat different ways upon a parchment or papyrus document of some length. But it is important to remember that we are dealing with a short inscription of only twenty letters engraved into stone, not a lengthy document written with pen and ink. The question is not whether some of the letters of the phrase "brother of Jesus" look correctly shaped for the first century period. The question is were they were engraved by the same person who engraved Yakov bar Yosef. It is to be expected that a five word inscription engraved into a stone ossuary would feature letter shapes of the last two words that looked the same as letter shapes of the first three words. But in the case of the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary this did not happen, because the final two words were added later, by different hands.
The most problematic feature of the "brother of Jesus" addition, in my opinion, is the letter identified by Andre Lemaire as a dalet. It is the fifth letter from the left in the added on portion of the inscription. Under normal circumstances we could expect a Jewish Aramaic inscription from the first century C.E. to feature the letter dalet in a form similar to the letters bet and resh. As can be seen in the figure below, which features the bet of Yakov [far right] and the resh of the word bar [second from right] as they appear in the inscription, these letters should be expected to feature a vertical line on their right hand side, and a horizonal line running leftward from the top of the vertical line and ending in a slightly upraised serif. If the ancient hand that made the bets and resh of Yakov bar Yosef also carved a dalet, then we ought to expect it to look like the model dalet below [second from left] which is based on features of the resh and the bets of Yakov bar Yosef. Its right side line would be nearly perfectly vertical, and its top line nearly perfectly horizontal, with slight extensions where the lines meet at the upper right and an upward serif at the left end of the top line.
But this is not the case with the alleged dalet of the inscription [above figure, far left]. The only somewhat vertical line slants upward toward the right, and the not nearly horizontal line at the top slants diagonally upward to the left and lacks any serif. It also fails to extend on the right beyond the not-so-vertical line, but instead meets that line at an acute angle well below its top point. The letter is entirely uncharacteristic of the work done in the name Yakov bar Yosef, and cannot reasonably be assumed to have been engraved by the same hand that carefully carved those first eleven letters. In fact, this crudely formed "dalet" doesn't even appear as neatly done as the letters of Yeshua, three of which are also clearly different from those of Yakov bar Yosef. Something is definitely wrong here. Obviously, more than one hand was at work in this inscription, which is a strong indication that the "brother of Jesus" was added later — a strong indication of forgery.
What about the patina?
At this point, readers may rightly ask themselves "But what about the patina?" A letter from the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructures Geological Survey, addressed to Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks and published with Lemaire's article of November 2002, certified that the surface of the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary featured a patina of grey to beige color.8
In addition to "What about the patina?" however, three other good questions to ask might be "What, actually, is patina?" and "Where, exactly, was the patina?" and most notably "Where wasn't there patina?"
In archaeological terms, the word "patina" is used to describe various types of thin film or coating which accumulate on artifacts over time. Patina is caused by a variety of chemical reactions involving the material of which an artifact was made, the environment in which it was deposited, exposure to direct moisture or humidity in the air, and the various soil types of the Land of Israel. But there are different patinas. For example, an ossuary which sat for centuries in a cave near Jerusalem, exposed to dust from the region's red, iron and calcium rich soil, but moistened only by the humidity of cave air, would develop patina different from that of a glass vessel buried in the sands of the coastal plain or a ceramic lamp buried in the volcanic soils of a tel near Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). Some patinas begin forming on artifacts very soon after they are deposited in a stationary situation. Some patinas are also easily removed by chemical treatment, washing, or scraping.
The Israeli Geological Survey analysis of the patina and a small amount of soil attached to the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary suggested that the limestone box had been left in a cave environment in the Mount Scopus or Mount of Olives area.9 This is entirely to be expected, since the ossuary is an authentic first century artifact, and was likely found in a burial cave in the Jerusalem area. The Geological Survey reported that grey patina was also found within some of the letters, although specific letters were not identified. Notably, patina was not found in several of the letters, which the Geological Survey attributed to the inscription having been cleaned. The Geological Survey also found no signs of use of a modern tool or other instrument. But the Geological Survey's letter did not detail where they did not find patina, and this is the most telling evidence of all.
The Discovery Channel's television special "James, Brother of Jesus" revealed that patina was only obtained from the engraved lines of the letter sameh10 [inside the square in the figure below]. No patina is reported to have been found inside any of the nine letters of the "brother of Jesus" addition. Additionally, it is evident from photos of the ossuary published in Biblical Archaeology Review, but even more evident when one inspects the ossuary up close and personal (as thousands did when the artifact was displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum), that the area around the "brother of Jesus" portion of the inscription is completely without any of the beige to grey patina mentioned above, whereas the stone surface around the "Yakov bar Yosef" portion of the inscription is well coated with the reported patina. The irregular line in the figure below indicates the limits of the existing patina around the inscription. Left of the line (around the "brother of Jesus" addition) there is no patina on the ossuary surface! The only exception is the alef of "brother," which appears to cut through
surface patina. In general, in the area around the inscription, patina is found only on the right hand part of the surface, directly above, below, and over the Yakov bar Yosef part of the inscription. (Excellent color photos clearly showing the patina line on the ossuary were printed in the Biblical Archaeology Review of January 2003, including the photo on the magazine front cover.) Why is the left hand part of the surface around the inscription, including eight of the nine letters of the "brother of Jesus" portion of the inscription, void of patina? Probably because of modern forgers' efforts to erase the signs of their modern tool usage.
For anyone who might examine the ossuary inscription with a magnifier, the new cuts of the "brother of Jesus," which were probably made with a small steel nail, would be a dead giveaway that the work was a recent fake. Attempting to sand or buff such cuts would also be detectable under magnification. But for even modestly sophisticated antiquities forgers, undetectable smoothing of edges is not difficult. With soft limestone material, such as an ossuary, one of the most effective methods is to treat the engravings with a water stream using a garden hose and a small, high pressure nozzle. Forcing a small but strong water stream on the letters of the inscription for several minutes each day over a two to three week period will smooth sharp edges in a way that leaves no marks behind. But such high pressure water treatment will also soften, dissolve, and even cleanly remove any patina which may have built up on the limestone surface. This is apparently what happened with the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary.
The forgers covered the original letters of Yakov bar Yosef so that they would not be adversely affected, leaving only the letters of the newly carved "brother of Jesus" (except for the alef) exposed to the water jets. This may be why the Geologic Survey did not find any evidence of modern tool work, but it is also why there is no patina found around the left hand part of the inscription. It is also probably why the Geological Survey observed that the inscription had been "cleaned." The prolonged water jets also removed any minute metal shavings that could have been left behind by the nail or whatever other sharp tool the forgers had used. The result was a clean addition to the inscription, void of modern looking edges, but also void of surrounding patina, or any patina in the engravings. But this is not to say that all evidence of patina is gone. The limestone around the "brother of Jesus" is indeed stained a light beige color, due to the patina that used to be there. The patina itself, however, is gone, and the grooves of the lettering are not stained at all, because there was never any patina in them.
From close examination, though, it appears to me that the forgers made a mistake in their smoothing efforts. While covering the letters of Yakov bar Yosef prior to the beginning of their water treatment, they also inadvertently covered the first letter of the phrase they had added — the alef of the word "brother." The patina, through which the latter-day alef was carved, appears to remain just around the letter itself. This is an item which investigators at the Israeli Antiquities Authority may go back and check, because, to the naked eye at least, both the upper right and lower right extensions of that alef appear not only to have been cut through the patina, but to have retained rather sharp edges, probably from not having been water smoothed. If verified, this would be actual forensic evidence of modern forgery.
A summary note about the patina: Hershel Shanks has made an issue of proving that no patina was added to the ossuary surface. This is in response to some early claims that modern chemical treatment could be applied to the inscription to make it appear as if ancient patina were present. But spectrographic examination of the inscription by the Royal Ontario Museum confirmed that no modern chemical treatment had been applied.11 My point, however, has nothing to do with adding patina. I agree with Shanks that modern patina cannot be made and applied in a way that can escape detection. My point is much different — it is about the patina that isn't there.
The problem with "ahui"
It seems to me that there is a significant problem with the suggestion that the word identified as "ahui" was used in the first century as a construct term for "brother." In a sidebar to Lemaire's article in Biblical Archaeology Review, editor Hershel Shanks reported that noted scholar Joseph Fitzmeyer had found two instances of this peculiar Aramaic "ahui" spelling from about the time of Jesus — one in the Genesis Apocryphon of the Dead Sea Scrolls and one on an ossuary inscription.12 The ossuary was subsequently identified in Shanks' book The Brother of Jesus as number 570 in Rahmani's Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries.13 A photo of the ossuary appears in the book, as well as a drawing of the Aramaic inscription on its lid [the drawing is reproduced below]. This ossuary inscription is suggested by Fitzmeyer and Shanks as a parallel to the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary inscription in relation to the alleged appearance of the term "ahui." The inscription supposedly reads Shimi bar Asiya ahui Hanin or "Shimi son of Asiya brother of Hanin." But this "ahui" reading must also be challenged on epigraphic grounds. The letter suggested as a vav in the inscription [marked by a solid arrow below] should probably be read as a yod. Three other yods in the inscription, and probably a fourth yod that is the first letter of the final name, are all carved exceptionally long [they are marked by hollow arrows above]. The supposed vav of "ahui" is actually a perfect match for those four other yods. Rather than a reading of
ahui Hanin, with an unidentified long letter preceding Hanin, the last two words of the inscription should probably be read as ahi Yohanin or "brother of Yohanin." The short diagonal mark between the two long letters should not be read as a yod, since it is so dissimilar to all the other yods of the inscription — it was either a carving slip or a divider separating the yod of ahi from the yod of Yohanin. And if that little mark is not a yod, then the word "ahui" does not exist in the inscription. It cannot be used as a parallel to the alleged appearance of "ahui" on the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary.
How then, do we deal with "ahui" on the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary? My approach to this problem was briefly mentioned by Shanks in his book The Brother of Jesus, but not fully explained.14 So I will explain it here. I believe there may actually have been two forgers who created the "brother of Jesus" addition — one who was not very experienced with Hebrew and Aramaic lettering, and a second who was. It was the second forger that carved the name Yeshua in letters that were fairly handsome, albeit clearly different from those of Yakov bar Yosef. The first forger, whose hand scratched the four letters which Lemaire identified as "ahui", was not as talented as the one who followed, nor was he as careful as he needed to be. This is clear from an examination of the letter which has been identified as dalet.
If the other letters of the inscription, both the originals of Yakov bar Yosef and the well shaped addition of Yeshua, had been crudely and crookedly carved, we might be justified in guessing that we also had a crudely, crookedly carved dalet preceding Yeshua. But the other letters, both originals and additions, are well shaped and neat, if indeed different in the way described previously. So what do we make of this single, very sloppily made dalet? I suggest that it was not originally meant to be a dalet at all. I suggest that it started out to be a shin!
The person who started the process of forging "brother of Jesus" very likely had a drawing of what it was thought the words of that phrase should look like [see example below]. It probably read ahi Yeshua ("brother of Jesus"), employing the construct form of "brother" found in the Hebrew Bible. But it did not employ an Aramaic dalet preposition. No vav would have appeared in the word ahi. The drawing was probably not the work of the forger. It may have been made by someone the forger did not even know, but was obtained through extended contacts. The first forger probably did not even know the difference between ancient Aramaic and Hebrew.
The first forger sized up the existing, ancient Yakov bar Yosef inscription. Then, using a small steel nail, he began adding the desired addition. He scratched the three Aramaic letters alef, het, and yod, forming the word ahi or "brother of," doing a sloppy job on the alef, and then began work on the name Yeshua. He formed a second yod, and the first two lines of the shin, at which point he, or a partner looking over his shoulder, realized that a disaster was occurring. He was carving the shin backward! [The dotted line suggests how the shin would have been finished.]
Such a dyslexic mishap should not be considered unlikely or even unusual, since the first forger was probably not a native Hebrew speaker. His experience with Hebrew/Aramaic letters was probably to occasionally read them, but rarely to write them. One can almost hear the exasperated forger, and any partners he may have had, looking disgustedly at the backward half-shin carved into the purloined ossuary and exclaiming "What do we do now?"