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

    What they did with the ossuary itself is not yet clear. Did they just give up and sell it to another party for whatever they could get? (This would be my best guess.) If they sold it, did they reveal to the buyer that they had added five letters onto the original inscription, enabling the buyer to attempt completion of the forgery? (See postscript below.) Or did they seek advice on how they might proceed themselves; perhaps even widening their circle of perpetrators to include a person with enough knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic to attempt a fix of the situation the first forger had created? We may eventually find out what path the ossuary took prior to its public unveiling.

    As for the inscription itself, however, it is clear from observation alone what happened. The course taken was to lengthen the yod of ahi into a vav, a fairly easy alteration which would eliminate the unseparated double yod the first forger had created. (An unseparated double yod would have been a giveaway that the addition was a fake.) The small curved stroke which lengthened the yod into a rather crooked vav is still quite visible [third letter from right in figure below]. It was probably hoped that the odd new "ahui" combination which resulted would be judged as an ancient blunder, or better yet, read as a defective Aramaic spelling. (See postscript below.) As for the backward half-shin, the second forger's course was to enhance the long line (by scratching it deeper), thus widening it ever so slightly, but to otherwise leave it alone [fifth letter from right in figure below]. Perhaps they reasoned it would be read as an eccentrically carved dalet acting as an Aramaic preposition, or at least be judged as the error of an ancient inscriber and disregarded.

    That the person who finished the forgery was probably not the same person who made the first attempt at the job is evident from close examination of the nine letters of their work [see figure above, where first forger's work appears at right and second forger's work appears at left]. The inept hand that sloppily carved the alef [letter at far right] and then made the backward shin mistake seems to have been taken off the job. The second forger had a steadier hand and a better method of Hebrew/Aramaic lettering. The quality of letter formation is clearly more polished in the four forged letters of Yeshua [left, above] than in the poorly scratched letters that precede them. The shin of Yeshua is particularly well formed [third letter from left], and the yod and ayin of Yeshua are impressively executed, even though they are clearly different from the yods and ayin of Yakov bar Yosef. After water procedures to smooth sharp lines so that the additional words of the inscription appear older than they really are, the forgery was complete, and ready for public view.

But couldn't the "brother of Jesus" addition be ancient?

    Even though it is obvious to the naked eye that the "brother of Jesus" portion of the inscription on the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary was added by different hands using a different tool than the hand and tool that engraved the name of Yakov bar Yosef, a legitimate question one might ask is: "Could this addition be ancient carving rather than a modern forgery?" To explore this issue it is necessary to review a bit of ancient Jewish history.

    From the time of the death of James "the Lord's brother" in 62 C.E., Jews continued to live in Jerusalem and the vicinity round about until the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132-135 C.E.), a period of some seventy years. (The only interruption in that period, in the case of Jerusalem, was between 70 and 73 C.E., incident to the end of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.) If, a year or so after his death and burial, James' bones were in fact deposited in an ossuary sometime around 63 or 64 C.E., and his name and the name of his father were carved into the ossuary at that time, it may not have been until after 73 C.E. that someone might have felt the need to further identify the owner of those bones as having belonged to the "brother of Jesus." This would leave just over six decades (from 73 to 135 C.E.) for the addition to have taken place.

    Following the Second Jewish Revolt, Jews were banished from Jerusalem and Judea by decree of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who at the same time changed the name of the province to Palestine in order to disassociate the Jewish people from its homeland. This also marked the end of Jerusalem's community of believers in Jesus, who were virtually all Jews, and who were the only people at that time who might have been interested in the identity of James. After the Second Revolt there was no one in the vicinity of Jerusalem who would have thought any ossuary inscription mentioning James might need an additional phrase. Is it possible, then, that in those six decades one or more Jewish believers in Jesus entered a tomb containing James' ossuary and noticed that it bore only his name and that of his putative father, and then decided to add nine more letters that would also identify him as the "brother of Jesus" for those future generations who would somehow chance into the burial cave and decide to inspect the ossuary? Possible? Well, yes, anything is possible. But likely? In the case of the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary, not very.

    If the nine letters of the "brother of Jesus" on the ossuary were an ancient addition, the following questions would have to be plausibly answered: First, why is the construct spelling of "brother" so odd? Normally it would be spelled ahi, the same in Aramaic as in Hebrew. Although Joseph Fitzmeyer identified two other first century instances of the peculiar "ahui" spelling, if my suggestion about the Shimi bar Asiya inscription is correct then the single appearance of "ahui" in the Genesis Apocryphon must be regarded as a defective spelling a misspelling. The question is, if the "brother of Jesus" phrase was an ancient addition made by an Aramaic speaking Jew, why couldn't the carver spell the word "brother" correctly?

    The second question is why the dalet was so poorly executed. If it is postulated that an ancient Jew wished to add the phrase "brother of Jesus" to a name on an ossuary, the use of the letter dalet as an Aramaic preposition of possession or relation would not be unexpected. But it is also to be expected that the same Jew who successfully carved a reasonably handsome Yeshua could somehow have managed to carve a decent looking dalet. The letter is so poorly formed, however, that it is almost unrecognizable as a dalet. Why couldn't the carver execute a respectable looking dalet? And for that matter, why couldn't he carve a respectable looking alef?

    The third question is why no patina appears around the "brother of Jesus" addition. Since the only time in antiquity that this addition could plausibly have been added was between the years 73 and 135 C.E., the same patina that developed around the words Yakov bar Yosef should surely have developed around the "brother of Jesus" during 1,900 years in a burial cave setting. It is to be expected that, if the addition were an ancient one, patina would have developed upon the entire face of the inscription, not just on the end around the words Yakov bar Yosef. We should expect, even today, to see the same greyish-beige patina surrounding the words "brother of Jesus," and also within the engraved letters themselves, as we see around and in the letters of Yakov bar Yosef. Yet we do not. Why isn't there any patina in and around the "brother of Jesus?"

    The answer to all these questions is that the "brother of Jesus" addition is far more likely the work of modern forgers than the effort of ancient hands. Any one of these three issues alone might not be enough to disqualify the suggestion of ancient origin for the addition, but all three together present a formidable body of suggestive evidence against the idea that the "brother of Jesus" was added to the ossuary inscription by an ancient Jew in Jerusalem.

A final observation

    As a postscript to this report I mention something I noticed in the Forward to Hershel Shanks' book The Brother of Jesus. The Forward was written by Andre Lemaire. On its first page, Lemaire writes about meeting the ossuary's present "owner," who is not named in the book, but whose identity we now know. Lemaire reports that on the day he saw a photo of the inscription for the first time, "the owner said he thought the inscription was especially interesting because there was only one other inscription in Rahmani's Catalogue (the standard catalog of Jewish ossuaries) mentioning a brother in a similar way."15 This statement can only refer to the "ahui Hanin" reading from ossuary 570 of Rahmani's Catalogue. But this is quite astounding.

    It means that "the owner" knew of the "ahui Hanin" reading from Rahmani's ossuary 570 long before he ever met Lemaire, and long before Joseph Fitzmyer identified that same "ahui Hanin" reading as a parallel to the "ahui d'Yeshua" phrase on the Yakov bar Yosef ossuary. Recall that months after Lemaire met "the owner," Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks had sought Fitzmyer's opinion on the "brother of Jesus" inscription before he went to press with it. Shanks reported that "Fitzmyer was troubled by the spelling in the James inscription of the word for 'brother'" but that "after doing some research ... he found another example in which the same form appeared in an ossuary inscription in which the deceased was identified as someone's brother."16 Fitzmyer had found ossuary 570 in Rahmani's Catalogue. Fitzmyer's finding is portrayed by Shanks as the ultimate breakthrough, the evidence which certifies the inscription's authenticity.

    His conclusion was that "either the forger of this inscription knows Aramaic better than Joe Fitzmyer, or it is authentic!"17 However, a very different conclusion could also be reached: that someone else had noticed the "ahui Hanin" reading of ossuary 570 long before Lemaire or Fitzmyer came into the picture, and had used it to fix a previously botched forgery job by correcting it to read "ahui d" before adding the name Yeshua. The forger knew that at least some scholars would eventually authenticate the "brother of Jesus" forgery, because they would find (or could be guided to) the "ahui" reading of ossuary 570. Since we know that "the owner" advised Lemaire concerning that reading even before showing him the "brother of Jesus" inscription, we have to wonder if he played any roll in the inscription's creation. In any event, the creation of the "brother of Jesus" inscription certainly bears further investigation.

 

    Jeffrey R. Chadwick is associate professor of Church History at Brigham Young University, Utah, U.S.A., where he teaches courses in Judaism and New Testament, and visiting professor of Near Eastern Studies at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, Israel, where he teaches archaeology and historical geography. He holds a Ph.D. in archaeology and is a practicing field archaeologist at sites in Israel.

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