Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Zias’ story was thoroughly examined by the Israel Antiquities Authority and by the Israel Police and later was examined by the District Court of Israel and was found to completely baseless. The Court concluded that Zias’ testimony was not reliable and that Zias’ testimony could not be used to determine that the James Ossuary was one of the two ossuaries that were in Abu-Shakra’s store in the 1990s. Even the prosecution gave very little weight to Zias’ statement at all in its closing arguments.

See Also:

James and The BAR Crowd - I Cons or just another Amazing Dis-Grace?

Essays on the James Ossuary and the Temple Tablet from Bible and Interpretation

By Oded Golan
Tel Aviv
December 2012

In an article by Joe Zias, recently published on The Bible and Interpretation website, Zias repeated the following story he recounted in August 2003: In the mid-1990s, he visited the store of antiquities dealer Mahmoud Abu-Shakra in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he saw the James Ossuary. To support his statement, Zias also states that the renown scholar Emile Puech, of the École Biblique, also saw the James Ossuary in that store. His article is accompanied by a photograph that was allegedly taken in Abu-Shakra’s store in late 2003.

1. Zias’ story was thoroughly examined by the Israel Antiquities Authority and by the Israel Police and later was examined by the District Court of Israel and was found to completely baseless. The Court concluded that Zias’ testimony was not reliable and that Zias’ testimony could not be used to determine that the James Ossuary was one of the two ossuaries that were in Abu-Shakra’s store in the 1990s. Even the prosecution gave very little weight to Zias’ statement at all in its closing arguments.

2. Mr. Zias has made not one, but several versions of his story and has contradicted himself several times: There were several major inconsistencies between Zias’ 2003 statement to the police and his 2007 testimony in court. His statements to the State Prosecutor’s Office, which were made several days before his testimony in court and filed with the court, were also substantially different than what he testified in court. The court mentioned this in the final decision.

3. Mahmoud Abu-Shakra, the antiquities dealer in whose shop the ossuary was allegedly observed according to Zias, categorically denies ever having had possession of the James Ossuary or of having ever heard of or seen any other ossuary that bore the words “Yaakov Bar Yosef.” His statement to that effect was given to the IAA, and Amir Ganor of the IAA testified to the statement in court. The IAA concluded that Abu-Shakra was telling the truth and decided not to summon him to testify in court.

4. It is “interesting” that of all the thousands of people, including collectors, antiquities dealers, and scholars who visited the shop, which was centrally located on Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem, as well as IAA officials also visited the shop regularly, Zias was the only person who allegedly saw the James Ossuary in Abu-Shakra’s shop.

5. On the other hand, several people (including Wolf-Lebidinsky and Mor-Yosef) remembered seeing the James Ossuary in the Golan Family apartment in Tel Aviv in the mid-1970s, twenty years before Zias allegedly encountered the ossuary in Jerusalem. These individuals were questioned and testified in court. Their testimony was not refuted and the court found no reason to doubt them.

6. Photographs submitted to the court, showing the James Ossuary in the Golan Family flat in Tel Aviv in the mid-1970s (not later than 1976), when I was a student in the Technion, bearing the entire inscription, were examined by the former head of FBI photography laboratories in the USA. Prof. Gerald B. Richards (who testified in court) found them to be original photographs that are consistent in all aspects with photographs taken no later than the 1970s, based on all possible parameters. These photographs are conclusive unequivocal evidence that the ossuary could not even have theoretically been in the possession of any antiquities dealer in the 1990s. Consequently, they are sufficient to determine that Zias’ story is inaccurate.

7. Scientific texts and reports prepared by a large number of scholars in the fields of stone, patina and geo-biological patination processes, archaeometry, microscopy, stone preservation, and others (including Prof. Krumbein, Dr. Ilani, Dr. Rosenfeld, Prof. Feldman, Mr. Dvoracheck, Orna Cohen, Dr. Ed Keal and Dr. Rahimi of the ROM Museum) unequivocally point to the fact that the words “Brother of Jesus” could not have been engraved in our generation since biogenic patina was found in the depths of several letter grooves and the minimal period of development of such patina (“varnish”) is many decades and there is no way to artificially accelerate the process or simulate “mature” patina. Even the prosecution’s key witness, Prof. Yuval Goren, when he was summoned by the State to give his testimony for the second time (in 2007), admitted that he had, in his subsequent examinations of the inscription, identified natural biogenic patina beyond any reasonable doubt, and such patina had with certainty developed in the depths and sides of the groove of the letter “ayin” and apparently in the letters “het” and “shin” of the words “Ahui d’Yeshu” (“Brother of Jesus”), in a process of many decades and probably thousands of years, similar to the patina that developed on all the sides of the ossuary.

Important scholars of paleography, language, and archaeology, including Prof. Lemaire, Dr. Yardeni, Prof. Misgav, Prof. Ronny Reich, Prof. Ahitov, Prof. Barkai and others, supported the authenticity of the entire inscription in their testimony as well.

8. BAR was lenient with Mr. Joe Zias when it noted in an article published in the recent July/August 2012 edition, that the story Zias told to the IAA in August 2003 that he had seen the James Ossuary in Abu-Shakra’s store in Jerusalem may be the result of Zias’ confusion, and when he stated that the James Ossuary was in the store, he in fact meant a different ossuary that was in the store (an ossuary inscribed “Yosef Bar Yehuda Bar Hadas” was in the store at the time).

However, in his article, Mr. Zias categorically— and justifiably so— rejects the possibility that he “forgot” or “became confused” at all. In truth, it is not plausible to confuse the James Ossuary (a relatively small and light ossuary with no engraved ornamentation, a flat lid, and no rosettes visible in ordinary daylight) with the other two ossuaries that Mahmoud Abu-Shakra had had in his store: one, a red ossuary with very deeply incised rosettes, with no inscription and an awkward pyramid-shaped which many visitors to Abu-Shakra’s store, including Puech, the scholar, remembered and a second ossuary which was large, heavy, white, devoid of any decoration, complete with an inscription: “Yehosef Bar Yehuda Bar Hadas.” These two ossuaries are in fact very different in character from the James Ossuary, on almost any parameter and cannot be confused with the James Ossuary.

Comparing Mr. Zias’ statements in November 2012 on the website The Bible and Interpretation with a photograph of the interior of Abu-Shakra’s shop, which showed the two ossuaries (the photograph was taken in the 1990s and only recently given to Zias) indeed indicates that it is not likely that Zias forgot or confused the ossuaries. If Zias does not suffer from pathological delusions— and I do not think he does— then, these statements are inconsistent and Zias’ statement to the police is false. He has also tried to implicate his colleagues and acquaintances (Prof. Puech and Prof. Eric Meyers) as well. Zias has attempted to defend these statements, primarily on various websites, using a combination of questionable tactics (this is not the first time Zias has used these methods —he is now being sued in Israel by AP for USD 700,000 on another matter).

9. In fact, nothing in Zias’ article in The Bible and Interpretation even suggests that Zias ever observed the James Ossuary or any other ossuary bearing the words “Yaakov Bar Yosef” in Abu-Shakra’s antiquities store.

10. Abu-Shakra’s shop was very small – there was no way to hide any ossuary in it. Therefore, the fact that IAA inspectors never saw an ossuary in this shop that bore the inscription “Yaakov Bar Yosef,” and never found any evidence of Zias’ allegation in Abu-Shakra’s store records speaks for itself and also shows that Zias’ story is totally unsubstantiated.

11. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that a licensed antiquities dealer would keep a rare and valuable ossuary (allegedly Abu-Shakra called the ossuary “his pension”) in his store without reporting it to the IAA, since he would be at risk of losing his license and having the item confiscated. This also indicates that Ziasv story is fictional.

12. Zias discusses the history of the James Ossuary, the alleged role of Herschel Shanks, and Abu-Shakravs current ownership status – but all these issues have nothing to do with Zias’ dubious account. As far as I remember, the dealer who sold me the ossuary told me that it had been discovered close to Silwan village in East Jerusalem, and I have consistently given this information when questioned. Ziasv claims that Mr. Shanks has made a lot of money from the story are also irrelevant and seem to be designed to divert the readers’ attention from Ziasv bizarre tale. The issue lies in the fact of whether Abu-Shakra opened his new store in late 2003 or on another date irrelevant to the question of whether the James Ossuary was ever in Abu-Shakravs possession.

14. To support his story, Zias tells the readers that the famous scholar, Prof. Emile Puech (an expert in Aramaic and Hebrew of the Second Temple period), also observed the James Ossuary in Abu-Shakra’s store. Prof. Puech reads both Hebrew and Aramaic fluently. Following Zias’ statement, Prof. Puech was questioned by the police, and he made a statement to the police, in which he categorically denied ever having seen the James Ossuary in Abu-Shakra’s store. Moreover, he clearly remembered that Abu-Shakra had a different ossuary in his store, which was decorated with deeply incised rosettes and was a pinkish color, which is rare for an ossuary (the James Ossuary has yellowish-white hue).

15. In the 1990s, Zias worked at the IAA as an assistant to Rahmani, who, for many years, documented the inscribed ossuaries discovered in Israel (he later published the entire corpus of such ossuaries). Rahmani would have undoubtedly been very interested in hearing about such an ossuary and studying it. Zias never told Rahmani or anyone else that he supposedly saw an ossuary inscribed with the inscription “Yaakov Bar Yosef.” Is it conceivable that Zias would have kept the sighting from his boss, whom he highly admired, especially in view of the rare combination of names that Zias allegedly observed and since Zias himself testified that he was aware that Jesus of Nazareth had a brother with the name Yaakov (James).

16. When the ossuary’s existence became known in the world media in October 2002, no one in the world, including Mr. Zias, claimed to have previously observed the ossuary in any place other than the Golan family apartment (with the exception of the son of an antiquities dealer from East Jerusalem, who claimed that his father admitted to him that he had sold it in the 1970s in his shop in Silwan). It was only in August 2003, almost one year later, and after the ossuary had been exhibited and seen by over 100,000 people in Toronto, and after the IAA-appointed committee of inquiry to examine the inscription published its conclusions, and after Zias himself participated in several Internet forums that discussed the authenticity of the ossuary – that Zias told the IAA that he had observed the ossuary in the 1990s in Abu-Shakra’s shop. He was immediately summoned to the police to give his statement and there he said that he was not able to read the words “Yaakov Bar Yosef” since he neither reads Hebrew or Aramaic and therefore asked the shop owner to read the inscription out loud to him. Isn’t it strange that Zias, who has lived in Israel for several decades and has also worked in the IAA for several decades says that he could not read any of the words, even though the writing was clearly legible and one of the words was his own first name (Yosef)?

17. In the court decision, the Honorable Judge Farkash wrote: “After Zias gave his version to the police, Zias participated in numerous discussions on the Internet about the ossuary. Zias expressed his opinion on the authenticity of the ossuary and also with reference to the statements of the experts who had examined the ossuary, and nonetheless, he mentioned not a single thing about what he saw in Abu-Shakra’s [shop]…”

The Judge finds it very strange that Zias used “scientific” arguments to prove that the ossuary should not be attributed to the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, instead of stating very simply that he “knew” that the ossuary was a forgery because he personally saw the ossuary only several years earlier, with only one-half of the inscription.

18. The Court also found it strange that Zias had many opportunities over a long period of time to speak about what he had supposedly seen in Abu-Shakra’s store, but he refrained from doing so. The judge says: “The question of why, for so many months since the ossuary was published in the media, did Zias no give his version to anyone in the IAA, is very disturbing… and that Zias found it appropriate to turn to the IAA only after the publication of the results of the IAA committee is also a disturbing fact.”

“Zias also testified that he saw Golan go on the stage at the Cinemateque when the movie on the ossuary was being shown (early 2003) and say that he purchased the ossuary in the seventies, yet Zias knew that he had seen it in Abu-Shakra’s shop in the nineties and yet he said nothing….”

19. Zias’ testimony was full of contradictions and paradoxes. To the police, Zias claimed that he cannot read Hebrew or Aramaic and that was the reason that he didn’t look at the inscription. In the courtroom, however, he came up with a different excuse for not having looked at the inscription. He said that he couldn’t read the inscription because of its location on the ossuary.

When he was being prepped for his testimony by the prosecution (a day or two before testifying), Zias told the prosecutor that he remembers the James Ossuary because of its rosettes. But anyone who has ever seen the ossuary, including the 100,000 visitors at the exhibition at the ROM in Toronto, knows that the James Ossuary does not have any engraved rosettes (on the side of the ossuary there is a very faint outline of a circle, which appears to be a mark to the engraver intended to use to probably engrave rosettes later), and even this circle is hardly visible to the naked eye (see photograph below). In fact, the markings of the circle can be seen only under a special light and certainly were not visible in the ordinary lighting of the interior of a shop, from the distance and at the angle (1 meter looking downward) that Zias testified to. Therefore it is not conceivable that these markings could be taken as the decisive characteristic of the ossuary (see attached images below).

20. When questioned why he never reported to Rahmani the inscription on the ossuary he supposedly saw, Zias replied that the combination of names “Yaakov Bar Yosef” is a common combination on ossuaries. In fact, the opposite is correct: Based on 150 years of study and the excavation of dozens if not hundreds of burial caves, no such inscription or combination of names (Yaakov/Yosef), has ever been discovered. Zias is not a scholar in archaeology and has actually no formal professional training in this field. However, as an administrative person of the IAA and as Rahmani’s assistant, who registered all the ossuaries, Zias was in a good position to know this.

24. Based on all the above it is clear beyond reasonable doubt that Zias’ story is erroneous from beginning to end.

Images of engraved ossuaries.

Four examples of ossuaries with engraved rosettes. This motif is absent from the James Ossuary and yet Zias claims that he remembers having seen the ossuary in Abu-Shakra’s store with rosettes on it.

Image of a non engraved ossuary

This is the non-engraved face of the James Ossuary (which Zias claims was visible to visitors in Abu-Shakra’s store). When asked by the prosecution how Zias is certain that the ossuary in Abu-Shakra’s store is the James Ossuary, Zias responded that he remembered the ossuary because of its engraved rosettes. See for yourself – are engraved rosettes a characteristic feature of this ossuary? (Image from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto).