Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

The Jerusalem Syndrome in Archaeology: Jehoash to James

The James Ossuary

    It is of interest to note that despite these harsh words, it was Mr. Shanks who accepted only a few months later and without any questioning the authenticity evaluation made by Ilani and Rosenfeld to another first-century-AD artifact made of Senonian chalk.[17] This time it was a modest stone ossuary bearing the Aramaic inscription Yaakov bar Yoseph, Achui de Yeshua, namely "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The same antiquities collector from Tel-Aviv owned this item. After its first presentation in a dramatic press conference, Mr. Shanks published the item in a series of articles in his journal under bold headlines and with reference to the ossuary as one of the only material evidences of Jesus Christ, its text having been authenticated by Prof. André Lemaire of the Sorbonne.[18] These publications also referred to the results of the scientific examinations that were conducted by Ilani and Rosenfeld, with subsequent tests by scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum.[19] The samples 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 were involved in the patina. In their report, Ilani and Rosenfeld indicated that the patina and the deposits on the artifact’s surface and the inscription seem to have developed naturally during burial. No modern elements or materials including adhesives were detected.

    However, shortly after the first publication in BAR, there were some skeptical voices. Several scholars referred to the ossuary as being "too good to be true." Moreover, in a review article in the Bible and Interpretation website, epigrapher Rochelle Altman suggested that by its text and style the inscription may be a modern forgery, including a puzzle of syntax and letter styles from various published epigraphic sources.[20] Such view was later suggested also by Prof. Frank Moore Cross of Harvard University.[21] As a result of these uncertainties, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) decided to submit the ossuary for more detailed examinations. This time the inscription and the patina of the ossuary were examined by a group of independent epigraphers and geoarchaeologists from various institutions and universities in Israel. In a detailed report by Avner Ayalon from the Geological Survey of Israel and by me, the inscription on the otherwise authentic ossuary is suggested as being a modern fake.

    The analytical results clearly demonstrate that after the natural patination process a sharp tool was used to create or modify the letters. Fake patina was then applied, containing chalk powder that was dissolved in hot water and then used to cover the freshly cut inscription. By this method, the fake patina could not be distinguished from the authentic one by the use of the rather unsophisticated method of ultraviolet light nor by simple chemical analyses that only yielded the presence of calcium carbonate at both the authentic and fake patinas. However, with the combination of micromorphologic study and the examination of the isotopic ratios of oxygen and carbon within the calcite, it became clear that the patina covering the freshly cut letters was artificial and completely different from the patina covering the rest of the surface of the ossuary.[22] Evidently, as had been noted in an earlier case, the previous scientists who examined the inscription did not confront the issue of authenticity directly. They seemed to assume it. Still, it is of interest to note that in the discussions on the authenticity of the ossuary in the subsequent issues of BAR and on the Internet, the IAA results were challenged by various extremely intellectual arguments.

    For example, it was said that the ossuary was placed by the collector’s mother on her balcony where it was constantly washed with tap water which somehow changed the isotopic composition of the calcite but only inside the inscription, not around it. It was claimed that someone used a sharp tool in modern times for vigorously cleaning the letters prior to their cover by the patina, which was still considered authentic and naturally developed over a long period of time. Another defender of the authenticity of the inscription suggested that the inscription was cleaned by acid which changed the isotopic composition of the oxygen in the patina covering the script.[23] The last comment is especially remarkable for its lack of understanding of even basic chemistry. Shanks’ co-author of the book "James, Brother of Jesus" even implied that the IAA committee, composed only of Jewish scholars, had a hidden theological agenda against the Christian world.[24] All these arguments, expressing more than anything else the depth of scientific integrity of their presenters, are not worth any further comment.[25]

The Jehoash Inscription

    A black stone tablet bearing an engraved Hebrew inscription in Phoenician script is the next subject of our discussion. An attempt was made to sell this item to the Israel Museum by a representative of the same antiquities collector from Tel-Aviv.[26] This remarkable tablet bears an inscription commemorating the repairs made by King Jehoash of Judah to the House of God. After first being published in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz,[27] the editor of BAR published it in a series of articles in his journal under bold headlines and with the remark that if authentic, it is one of the only material evidences of the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem.[28] The articles also referred to the results of the scientific examinations that were conducted by Drs. Shimon Ilani and Amnon Rosenfeld of the Geological Survey of Israel. The latter studied samples of the patina and the rock.

    He used a scanning electron microscope equipped with an energy dispersive spectrometer to investigate the element content and X-ray diffraction and inductively coupled plasma spectrometry to study the mineral and element composition. A special examination was made to check whether modern contamination or adhesives could be detected within the patina. The examinations of the patina revealed that it had two phases -- carbonatic and siliceous -- indicating its sequential deposition over the inscription. In their report, Ilani and Rosenfeld indicated that the patina and the deposits on the artifact’s surface and the inscription seem to have developed naturally during burial. No modern elements or materials including adhesives were detected.[29] These observations led Ilani and Rosenfeld to sweeping, even fantastic, conclusions[30] that were later omitted from the published report, most likely by the editorial board.

    However, shortly after publication in Ha’aretz and elsewhere, there were some skeptical voices. Several scholars referred to the tablet as being "too good to be true".[31] Moreover, epigraphers Israel Eph’al of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Frank Moore Cross of Harvard University suggested that by its text and style the inscription is a modern forgery, including a puzzle of syntax and letter styles from various published epigraphic sources.[32] At the same time, I criticized the conclusions reached by Ilani and Rosenfeld regarding the authenticity of the patina over the inscription.[33] As a result of these uncertainties, the IAA decided to submit the inscription for more detailed examinations. This time the inscription and the patina coating were examined by the same group of unrelated epigraphers and geoarchaeologists from various institutions and universities in Israel. In a detailed report by Avner Ayalon from the Geological Survey of Israel and by me, the Jehoash inscription is suggested as being a modern fake.

    The analytical results clearly demonstrate that prior to the artificial patina process a sharp tool was used to create the letters. Fake patina was then applied, containing a mixture of iron-rich clay, some ancient charcoal, and chalk powder that was dissolved in hot water and then poured over the freshly cut inscription. By using this method, the fake patina could not be distinguished from an authentic one by simple chemical analyses that only yielded the presence of alumina, silica, and calcium carbonate. However, with the combination of micromorphologic study and the examination of the isotopic ratios of oxygen and carbon within the calcite, it became clear that the patina covering the freshly cut letters was artificial.[34] Evidently, as had been noted in an earlier case, the previous scientists who examined the inscription did not confront the issue of authenticity directly. They seemed to assume it.

|Page 1|Page 3|Notes|