Dr. King’s shred of papyrus is quite another matter. Jennifer Sheridan Moss, president of the American Society of Papyrologists and an associate professor of classics at Wayne State University in Detroit, said that the society would probably not publish a paper on such a piece of papyrus without knowing its provenance. “But if something this interesting came up, I suspect we would pursue more information on its provenance,” she said.
Dr. King admits that she has no verifiable provenance of any kind for her papyrus fragment. It could have been created yesterday by a clever artifact forger – and there is no shortage of such. They’ve pulled off some dramatic and highly profitable frauds in recent years. In 2002 an ossuary reported to have contained the bones of the Apostle James was revealed amid much press hoopla.
Inscription on the St. James Ossuary
In 2002, the Biblical Archaeological Review announced the finding of the ossuary inscribed in Aramaic with the name Ya’akov bar Yehosef akhui di Yeshua – that is: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It had been bought for $500 at a 1986 antiquities auction in Israel by Oded Golan, who said he believed it had been found in an ancient tomb in the Silwan suburb of southeastern Jerusalem.
Both the Hebrew Union College and Ben-Gurion University told the Review the ossuary had no provenance nor historical significance since all three names in the inscription, Ya’akov (James), Yehosef (Joseph) and Yeshua (Jesus) were extremely common during the first century – much like John, Jim or Joe today.
The Israel Antiquities Authority confiscated the ossuary and appointed a team of 15 epigraphers and physical scientists to analyze it. In June 2003 the authority declared the ossuary itself to be genuine, but the inscription was a partial forgery – that a clever antiquities forger had added key words to make it of interest to biblical scholars. Israeli authorities raided Golan’s apartment, finding a workshop filled with inscription tools. Golan was arrested as was museum conservator Refael Brown and antiques dealers Robert Deutsch, Shlomo Cohen and Faiz El Amlah, indicted on charges of having added to the ossuary the inscribed name of “James” and the phrase “brother of Jesus.”
Officials said that over several decades, a ring of forgers had created and traded a series of biblically-related fakes, some of which had been
bought for very high prices and placed in the prestigious Israel Museum in Jerusalem where Brown worked.
Israeli stamp with the now-discredited Temple Pomegranate
They were charged not only with faking the James Ossuary inscription, but also some of Israel’s hitherto prized museum pieces, including the ivory Temple Pomegranate, the inscribed Jehoash Tablet, the Widow’s Plea Ostracon, various clay shards written on with iron-carbon ink, an inscribed wine jug, 190 seals, a stone oil lamp, a quartz bowl and the royal Manasseh Seal.
Each, it was said, had been very cleverly forged, with “fake patina manufactured with great expertise.” The Israel state authorities and private museums had spent millions of dollars for the pieces and were quite embarrassed by the discovery of the forgery ring.
In court, Golan admitted that the ossuary had come from a cache of other such pieces found in 1980 at a tomb in East Talpiyot. Soil had been applied to the box in order to support Golan’s original claim that it had been found elsewhere. However, the case of the ossuary continues to swirl with controversy – particularly after Golan was acquitted of having forged the inscription.
Today, not much agreement remains between archaeologists and those who insist the ossuary’s inscription is authentic, such as French ancient-writing expert Andre Lemaire. However, the case cast a spotlight on the shadowy-but-legal sales of antiquities in Israel. As a result, the market in illicit antiquities from unauthorized excavations “has almost been entirely halted ,” said an official for the Israeli Antiquities Authority. “This in turn has led to a dramatic reduction in the scope of antiquities robbery occurring at biblical sites.”
How Golan and others acquired the box, and what they did with it next remains mired in controversy. Scholar Rochelle Altman says the inscription is phony and “bears the hallmarks of a fraudulent later addition” in a bid to dupe some wealthy collector into paying more.