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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?

By Yuval Goren
Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures
Tel-Aviv University, Israel
January 2004


The Jerusalem Syndrome is a clinical psychiatric diagnosis first identified in the 1930s by Dr. Heinz Herman, one of the founders of modern psychiatric research in Israel. Subsequent research was made by Dr.Yair Bar El, former director of the Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital in Jerusalem, involving 470 tourists who had been declared temporarily insane.[1] The Jerusalem Syndrome is a temporary state of sudden and intense religious delusions brought on while visiting or living in Jerusalem. Most of the hospitalized visitors were Jews, but many others were Christians. The clinical symptoms usually begin with a vague and extremely intense excitement. The patients often adopt "biblical" or otherwise eccentric clothing, sometimes merging their identity with that of a character from the Bible or having a strong feeling of mission. They typically adopt a lifestyle of religious observance and attach unusual significance to religious relics. The most interesting feature, considering the extreme behaviors associated with the Jerusalem Syndrome, is that the subjects sometimes have no prior history of psychiatric difficulty and exhibit none afterward. These patients, if they recover, are typically embarrassed by behavior they cannot explain.

During the last decade and especially towards the end of the second millennium AD, a number of archaeological artifacts of unknown origin have surfaced on the local antiquities market. A common feature of these artifacts is their reference to Jerusalem through attributions to major biblical landmarks or personalities such as the Jerusalem Temple, Judahite kings and other officials, or Jesus Christ. This attribution is made both on the item, through a dedication text, and about it, through opinions by persons who are sources of authority in various scholarly fields. Methodologically, it seems that their peculiar treatment by the scientific community may be interpreted as a milder symptom of the Jerusalem Syndrome. In what follows, I would like to present in short the narratives of some of these items as they relate to the hazardous role of the Jerusalem Syndrome in biblical archaeology.

The Moussaieff Ostraca

A pair of Late Iron Age ostraca, written by the same hand on different matters, will be the first subject of this discussion. Oded Golan, an antiquities collector from Tel-Aviv, sold these items to Shlomo Moussaieff, the well-known antique collector from London.[2] The first and most remarkable ostracon is an order by king Josiah of Judah to bring three shekels of Tarshish silver to the House of God. The second is a plea by a widow to an official for preservation of the rights over her property. After first being published in two scientific journals,[3] Hershel Shanks, the editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), published them in a series of articles in his journal under bold headlines and with particular reference to the first ostracon as one of the only material evidences of the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem, its text having been authenticated by the renowned Semitic epigrapher André Lemaire of the Sorbonne.[4] The BAR articles also referred to the results of scientific examinations that were conducted on the patina covering the letters by the Microfocus Oy laboratory in Helsinki.[5] The examinations of the patina revealed that it had two phases – the first carbonatic and the other siliceous -- indicating its sequential deposition over the inscription. The researcher concluded that this sequential deposition was evidently slow and natural, hence proving the antiquity of the inscription below. Therefore, the patina and the deposits on the surface seem to have developed naturally during burial. No modern elements or materials including adhesives were detected.[6]

However, shortly after the first publication in BAR, there were some skeptical voices. Several scholars referred to the ostraca as being "too good to be true".[7] Moreover, in a review article in the Israel Exploration Journal, the epigraphers Israel Eph'al and Yosef Naveh of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem suggested that by their text and style the inscriptions may be modern forgeries, including a puzzle of syntax and letter styles from various published epigraphic sources.[8] As a result of these uncertainties, the owner decided to submit the ostraca for more detailed laboratory examinations. This time, the sherds, the ink, and the patina of the two ostraca were examined in the laboratories of Aventis Research and Technologies, a biotechnological corporation based in Frankfurt, Germany, with branches in the United States. A detailed report by the head of the laboratory and a fellow researcher suggests that the two ostraca are modern fakes.[9] The analytical results clearly demonstrate that prior to the process of patina deposition a sharp tool was used to modify the letters. The simulated patina that was then applied over the inscription contained modern paraffin, lime, and some ash. From this data, it is evident that the results of Microfocus were somewhat out of focus.[10] It is of interest to note that in the recent discussion on the authenticity of the ostraca in the last May-June volume of BAR, the Aventis results are completely overlooked by the editor.[11]

The Jerusalem Lamp

A first-century-AD oil lamp with seven nozzles made of Senonian chalk and decorated with Jewish motifs is the next subject of this discussion. The same antiquities collector from Tel-Aviv shared this item with another Israeli antiquities collector.[12] Extremely well preserved, the lamp is remarkable in its unique combination of seven nozzles, the depiction of the temple menorah and a set of icons representing the seven species of crops with which the Holy Land was blessed. The lamp was brought for study to Varda Sussman, an expert in ancient oil lamps, prior to a proposed publication in BAR, under bold headlines, as the only tangible evidence from the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem.[13] The proposed article also referred to the results of scientific examinations that were conducted on the patina covering the lamp by the two co-authors, Drs. Shimon Ilani and Amnon Rosenfeld from the Geological Survey of Israel. Samples of the patina were studied using a scanning electron microscope equipped with an energy dispersive spectrometer to investigate the element content and analyzed under ultraviolet light. A special examination was made to check whether modern contamination or adhesives are involved in the patina. The examinations of the patina revealed that it had two phases – the first carbonatic and the other siliceous -- indicating its sequential deposition over the lamp. In their report, Ilani and Rosenfeld indicated that the patina and the deposits on the artifact’s surface seem to have developed naturally during burial. No modern elements or materials including adhesives were detected.[14]

However, shortly after the submission of the article for publication in BAR, there was a skeptical voice. Varda Sussman referred to the lamp as being "too good to be true."[15] In her part of the article, she hinted that by its style the lamp might be a modern forgery, including a puzzle of motifs from various published sources. As a result of this uncertainty, Hershel Shanks, the editor of BAR, decided to reject the paper from publication. In his letter to the authors, the editor explained as follows: “For authenticity Mrs. Sussman says she relies mostly on the geologists. Oddly, they do not confront the issue of authenticity directly. They seem to assume it. All they can say is that the authenticity must be made on the basis of stylistic interpretation. And Mrs. Sussman has already told us she cannot do this.”[16]

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[1] Bar-El,Y., Durst, R., Katz, G., Zislin, J., and Knobler, H.Y. “Jerusalem syndrome.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 176 (2000): 86-90.

[2] Gaon, B. “Blazing stones.” Ma’ariv daily newspaper, 6 Mar. 2003 (Hebrew).

[3] Bordreuil, P., Israel, F., and Pardee, D. “Deux ostraca paléo-hébreux de la Collection Sh. Moussaieff.” Semitica 46 (1996): 49-76. Bordreuil, P., Israel, F., and Pardee, D. “King’s command and Widow’s Plea. Two new Hebrew ostraca of the Biblical Period.” Near Eastern Archaeology 61 (1998): 2-13.

[4] Shanks, H. “Three Shekels for the Lord, ancient inscription records gift to Solomon’s Temple.” Biblical Archaeology Review Nov./Dec. 1997:28-32. Shanks, H. “The ‘Three Shekels’ and ‘Widow’s Plea’ ostraca: real or fake?” Biblical Archaeology Review May/June 2003:40-45.

[5] Hornytzkyj, S. “Preliminary analysis report on six terracotta artefacts.” (1997) Unpublished report submitted by Microfocus Oy laboratory, Helsinki. (6 text pages + 8 figures and graphs).

[6] Shanks, 1997 (above, note 4).

[7] Gaon, 2003 (above, note 2).

[8] Ephal, I., and Naveh, J. “Remarks on the recently published Moussaieff ostraca.” Israel Exploration Journal 48/3-4 (1998): 269-273.

[9] Land, H-T., and Feucht, G. “Expertise, Sample No. PE 257-1, Sample No. PE 257-5.” Undated and unpublished report submitted by Aventis Research & Technologies, Frankfurt (15 text pages including figures and graphs).

[10] From reading the original report (above, note 5), it becomes evident that although modern materials were detected and the crystalline features of the calcite in the patina of the two ostraca differed from those of the reference group, the researcher still suggested that the patina of the former might be original. This was based on the presence of amorphous silica (actually from the opalline phytoliths within the grassy ash) and a siliceous layer coating, the otherwise calcitic patina. However, such composition and microstructure may be created artificially by mixing commercial burnt lime with grass ash (made mostly of opalline phytoliths) because of the pozzuolanic reaction and the formation of calcium-silica gel. The micron-sized bipyramidal structure of the calcite crystals in the ostraca patina, as observed by SEM, indicates their crystallization from burnt lime. For a detailed discussion on these features in plaster products and further references, see: Goren, Y., Goring-Morris, A.N., and Segal, I. “The technology of skull modeling in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB): Regional variability, the relation of technology and iconography and their archaeological implications.” Journal of Archaeological Science 28/7 (2001):671-690.

[11] Shanks, 2003 (above, note 4).

[12] Gaon, 2003 (above, note 2).

[13] Gaon, 2003 (above, note 2).

[14] V. Sussman, personal communication.

[15] Gaon, 2003 (above, note 2).

[16] V. Sussman, personal communication.