Well-known Israeli Archeologist Casts More Doubt on Authenticity of James Ossuary
Ossuary spotted in dealer's shop lacking the “brother of Jesus” element of the inscription.
Professor of Judaic Studies
Duke University, Department of Religion
In an interview with me in Atlanta at the ASOR/SBL meetings and in subsequent communications, a prominent Israeli archaeologist admitted seeing the so-called James Ossuary in an Antiquities shop on the Via Dolorosa in the mid-1990s. At first blush, this might not seem to be too earthshaking a revelation except for two things. Firstly, Oded Golan, the owner of the ossuary and dealer of antiquities who has been implicated in an alleged forgery scheme involving the ossuary and other artifacts including the Jehoash inscription, has maintained that he had possession of the ossuary since he was a youngster, ca. 1977-78, and was therefore in compliance with Israeli antiquities law, which changed subsequent to that time. Secondly, this well-known archaeologist who insists on anonymity has told me that at the time he saw the ossuary it lacked the “brother of Jesus” element of the inscription. This individual also informed me that he made a sworn deposition with this information with the Israeli police in August 2003 and has been surprised that it has not yet become public in the ongoing investigation of the matter.
The story related the following information, more or less. As a regular visitor to antiquities dealers in the Old City of Jerusalem, this individual dropped in for coffee and a schmooze one day in the mid-1990s in one of the shops on the Via Dolorosa. The archaeologist noted an ossuary nearby his chair and inquired about it. The dealer brought it closer and showed him the inscription on it, “James, son of Joseph,” and said that this was his retirement pension. The archaeologist responded in surprise while noting that these were common names and no historical conclusions could be reached on the basis of them. The archaeologist is certain that the ossuary is one and the same as the one whose authenticity is being debated in the press today. Moreover, in talking this over with a noted Hebrew/Aramaic epigrapher in Jerusalem, that person admitted to seeing the very same ossuary in the same dealer’s shop without the element “brother of Jesus.” His visit to the shop was around the same time, the mid-1990s.
As an interesting postscript to this story, the dealer’s shop has recently closed and the one-time owner of the ossuary has since moved to Europe. My anonymous source has also provided one other interesting datum that is pertinent to this discussion. Sometime in 2001 my source alleges that Golan through his lawyers offered for sale to The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, the so-called James Ossuary, now in its revised and expanded form, for a sum of $2 million. This information has also been turned over to the Israeli police but, as of this writing, without any tangible result.
I offer this information to the public in the hope of bringing about some sort of progress in what appears to be the stalled investigative process about this in Israel and in the hope of shedding more light on a subject that has received such formidable publicity in the United States both in the press and in magazines such as BAR. Why has this information, which seems to be so central to the case, not surfaced in public? Why does the attack on the Israel Antiquities Authority by Golan and his supporters appear to go on and on without legal answer? And why do so many readers in America seem to want to believe the impossible?
The implications of this case are enormous for students of biblical antiquity since the James Ossuary is part of a much larger scandal involving hundreds of forgeries that have penetrated the scholarly literature and museums of Israel and the world. This is a case that must be resolved with definitive and decisive action not only for the State of Israel and the integrity of its museums and its reputation as guardian of sacred artifacts of biblical history but also for all people who strive to understand and interpret those traditions for future generations.