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On Archaeology, Forgeries and Public Awareness: The "James Brother of Jesus” Ossuary in Retrospect

From the retrospect of almost a decade, the stories of the “Brother of Jesus” ossuary and the “Jehoash Inscription” will probably be recorded as an insignificant footnote in the history of the archaeological research of the Holy Land. Nevertheless, like the “Shapira Affair” in the nineteenth century, they are still likely to arouse the imagination of future mystery writers and filmmakers who, in the style of Indiana Jones, might make a decent living from the intriguing plot which has all the ingredients of a fascinating detective story.

By Gideon Avni
Director, Excavations and Surveys Department
Israel Antiquities Authority
March 2011

The sensational publication in late 2002 of a bombastic “archaeological discovery” of unknown provenance caused both professional and public uproar, actively assisted by the local and international media. Ostensibly, this was the dream come true of every historian and archaeologist – an object bearing an inscription linking the material find to a well-known historical figure, James, the brother of Jesus. In this case the artifact also aroused strong religious and emotional reactions, increasing the confusion.

The object in question was revealed to the public in New York in a magnificent ceremony in typical Hollywood style produced by the famed film director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar), followed by tremendous public exposure in a huge exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It is a modest ossuary made of Jerusalem limestone and dating to the Second Temple period, the likes of which are known to the thousands from the city’s cemeteries. The ossuary was engraved with an inscription in ancient Hebrew indicating three names that were common amongst Jews in the Land of Israel during the Second Temple period: יעקב, יוסף, ישוע – Jacob (James), Joseph and Yeshua (Jesus). The rare combination of these three names led a world renowned paleographer, Professor André Lemaire, to publish an article in which he suggested that these names relate to one of the major historical figures of early Christianity: James the brother of Jesus, who lived and was active in Jerusalem during the period in question. This combination of names fired the imagination of the producers of the extravagant Hollywood show who made it a worldwide public knowledge. Consequently a number of articles and books were published, all of which dealt with the question – was it or wasn’t it? Is this indeed the "real thing", the original ossuary in which the bones of James, brother of Jesus, were interrede?

What is the whole issue about? Ossuaries, small burial chests, are the most prevalent archaeological finds in funerary complexes from the late Second Temple period in Jerusalem and the Judean Shephelah, and characteristic of Jewish burial at the time. The unique burial process involving the ossuaries was introduced around 30 BCE and was common until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. It was conducted in two stages: upon the death of an individual his relatives would bring his body to the family burial cave for interment, where it would be placed inside an elongated, rock-hewn loculus. On the first anniversary of the person’s passing the family would return to the cave with an ossuary they had purchased, in which they would gather the deceased’s bones. The ossuary was then placed inside the family burial cave and often the name of the deceased would be engraved with a nail on the side of the chest.

Since the beginning of archaeological research in Jerusalem, some 150 years ago, more than 1,000 burial caves dating to the late Second Temple period were discovered in the vicinity of the city, yielding thousands of ossuaries. Most of the caves were discovered during modern construction and development work; some of them were excavated by archaeologists and many others were destroyed by bulldozers or were plundered in illicit excavations. Thus the ossuary became one of the most common products in Jerusalem’s flourishing antiquities market.

The inscriptions on the ossuaries constitute an unfailing source for scientific research. Of the hundreds of inscriptions that have been published several apparently mention known historical figures. One of the most famous inscriptions on ossuaries was discovered in 1902 on the estate of Sir John Gray-Hill, at the top of Mount Scopus (today within the grounds of the Hebrew University botanical gardens). This ossuary, discovered inside a large and elaborate burial cave along with many other ossuaries, bears a Greek inscription mentioning the name “Nicanor of Alexandria”, who was probably the donor of a gate for the Temple in Jerusalem. The inscription stirred up some excitement, and an academic argument ensued concerning its authenticity. This debate was actually resolved by the distinguished French researcher Charles Clermont-Ganneau who shortly after the discovery published a comprehensive paper proving that this was indeed an original inscription; he relayed in part on the fact that the provenance of the inscribed ossuary was well-known: an ancient burial cave from the Second Temple period.

Two other ossuaries with inscriptions mentioning historical figures from the Second Temple period were discovered in the 1990s, in the course of salvage excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the vicinity of Jerusalem. One cites the name יהוסף בר קיפא - “Yehosef bar Kayafa", possibly identified with Caiapahs, the same person who served as a high priest in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus of Nazareth; the other inscription refers to a man named Ariston, from Apamea in Syria, who is also mentioned in the Mishnah as a person who contributed his first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. Although the two inscriptions were discovered in proper archaeological excavations and in burial caves that were not damaged by illicit digging, it is in no way certain that these are indeed the same historical figures that are mentioned in the written sources, and a number of articles in the scientific literature have addressed this issue.

The main question raised by these inscriptions raise is whether they bear actual evidence of the same historical personality. The rare combination of names by itself does not constitute unequivocal proof of identification with the historical figure in question. A quick look in today's Israel phone books, for example, will turn up several people named Moshe Dayan. But is it possible to identify each of them with the renowned Israeli general, politician and antiquities collector Moshe Dayan? Of course not.

Already at the time of the sensational publication of the "James brother of Jesus" ossuary a heavy shadow was cast on this "discovery". The unclear provenance of the ossuary and the fact that it surfaced in the antiquities market in Jerusalem raised serious concerns regarding the authenticity of the inscription. Archaeological research of the Holy Land abounds with stories of artifact forgeries. These objects were often produced by modern artists that succeeded in deceiving even the most experienced scholars. As early as 1885 Clermont-Ganneau published a book that focused on antiquities forgeries made by expert artists, including a fake inscription on an ossuary. A more famous incident is the “Shapira Affair” from the same period, which dealt with the exploits of a Jerusalem antiquities dealer who created “Moabite" artifacts in his atelier and sold them to scholars and other interested parties, while instigating arguments in the academic community of the time regarding the origin and interpretation of the “ancient” finds that he himself had produced.

The fact that the “James” ossuary had not been discovered in a proper archaeological excavation fueled the notion of it being an act of artistic forgery. This suspicion increased when close to the time of the ossuary’s publication another sensational "discovery" of unclear provenance also surfaced at the local antiquities market and made the international headlines – a monumental inscription dating to the First Temple period that was ascribed to Jehoash, King of Judah. The discovery of two objects connected to ancient history, appearing suspiciously on the heels of each other, seemed a little too good to be true, but the media fuss and public interest around the discoveries did not subside. In order to investigate into the matter the Israel Antiquities Authority established two committees of experts that examined the paleography of the inscriptions and the objects themselves. These committees concluded that while the objects are apparently genuine, the inscriptions were engraved in the modern era. And indeed, following a police investigation, a well-known antiquities collector was arrested shortly thereafter and charged with forging the inscriptions.

However, unlike the usual media sensations that vanish as rapidly as they appear, the discussion surrounding these objects and their presumed ancient provenance continued for a long time, and the debate over “is this the real thing?” refused to wane. Dozens of articles and a number of books were written on the subject. These in turn drew responses, sometimes quite angry, accusations, responses to responses, and even conspiracy theories.

It seems the story of these artifacts engulfs within it much more than a scholarly debate. It illustrates the passion of large segments of the modern public in the western world for genuine archaeological finds that are connected to leading historical and religious figures of early Judaism and Christianity. The desire to see and feel “the real thing” attracted tens of thousands of visitors to the Toronto museum to examine the modest ossuary from Jerusalem.

This old desire, rooted in western civilization and comparable to the veneration of holy relics in Byzantine and Medieval times, still feeds the thriving antiquities markets in the Middle East and Europe. It seems that the astonishing public awareness to the newly discovered "relics" deserves scientific examination within the fields of psychology and sociology, rather than within the field of archaeology.

From the retrospect of almost a decade, the stories of the “Brother of Jesus” ossuary and the “Jehoash Inscription” will probably be recorded as an insignificant footnote in the history of the archaeological research of the Holy Land. Nevertheless, like the “Shapira Affair” in the nineteenth century, they are still likely to arouse the imagination of future mystery writers and filmmakers who, in the style of Indiana Jones, might make a decent living from the intriguing plot which has all the ingredients of a fascinating detective story.

Selected Bibliography

Avni, G. and Greenhut, Z. The Akeldama Tombs: Three Burial Caves in the Kidron Valley (IAA Reports 1). Jerusalem.

Clermont-Ganneau, C. 1885. Les frauds archeologiques en Palestine. Paris.

Greenhut, Z. 1992. The `Caiaphas` Tomb in North Talpiyot, Jerusalem. `Atiqot 21, 63-71.

Lemairé, A. 2002. Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus. Biblical Archaeology Review 28(6), 24-33.

Shanks, H. and Witherington, B. 2003. The Brother of Jesus – the Dramatic Story and Meaning of the first Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family. San Francisco.