In October 2002, archaeologists stunned the world by announcing the discovery of a first-century C.E. bone box with the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." In the succeeding months, a flurry of debate has surrounded the ossuary find. While many scholars believe the bone box itself is genuine, some question whether the Aramaic phrase "brother of Jesus" is a forgery tacked on to the original inscription. Here, the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review makes a case for the inscription's authenticity.

Reprinted from "The Brother of Jesus" with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

Since the discovery of the ossuary, more and more people, many of them scholars, were saying the inscription was a fake. Some people had been saying this from the moment the ossuary announcement was made.

Above: Artists' rendering of the ossuary inscription.

... On an Internet Web site, one Rochelle Altman concluded that the second half of the inscription ("brother of Jesus") was not written by the person who wrote the first half. Altman said categorically,
The differences between the two parts are glaring and impossible not to see.. [In the second part of the inscription] we immediately can see that this is a different person writing.. Part 2 has the characteristics of a later addition by someone attempting to imitate an unfamiliar script and write in an unfamiliar language.
She also identified another "tell-tale sign of fraud." The text of the inscription, she claimed, is excised rather than incised. That is, the area around the letters has been carved out so that the letters themselves protrude.

There are several infirmities in this analysis. The first is the certainty with which Altman makes judgments. It is strange that she is so sure of herself and able to see at a glance what apparently evades some of the world's leading paleographers. Second, she is clearly wrong (although just as confident) in contending that the inscription is excised rather than incised. She had never seen the ossuary itself, only pictures. Yet without hesitation she concluded that none of the letters in the inscription is cut into the stone. I am no expert. But even I can see that the letters are incised. Anyone who has seen the ossuary itself knows this.

But there is a more fundamental reason to doubt Altman's judgment. It is not simply that she is unknown to everyone in the small circle of paleographers who are experts in this field. It is not that her specialty is supposedly medieval manuscripts as opposed to inscriptions from the turn of the era. It is, rather, that she has not published any inscriptions from this earlier period. According to the paleographers we have consulted, no one can be an expert paleographer of this period who has not closely inspected original inscriptions of this period, translated them, evaluated the script, and then published a report on their findings in a scholarly journal or book, a so-called editio princeps. In fact, except for this small circle of people who work in the field, none of us is an expert. ... We must decide whether we have confidence in a Rochelle Altman or, for example, a consummate paleographer like André Lemaire.

Jeff Chadwick is an associate professor of church history at Brigham Young University. He is an archaeologist who has excavated in Israel, but he has not published anything paleographically. He, too, thinks the second half of the inscription is a modern forgery. And he is willing to step into the ring with world-class paleographers to point out where they faltered.

For Professor Chadwick, the second half of the inscription is "a demonstrable forgery." He reaches this conclusion by an analysis of the photographs in BAR. But he goes one step further. Based on the photographs, Professor Chadwick found the drawing made by Ada Yardeni to be "incorrect." Therefore, he made his own drawing to depict more accurately what he saw in the photograph.

The next thing Professor Chadwick observes-he says it is "obvious"-is that "the letter forms in the `brother of Jesus' are nothing like" the first part of the inscription. The last two words, he says, were "scratched into the ossuary with the conical point of a small steel nail." The letters in the first half of the inscription, however, "were made with a tool that effected a wider angle and a deeper cut than is visible in the [second half of the inscription]."

But that's not all. Professor Chadwick also finds two different hands in the last two words of the inscription. In other words, there were two modern forgers, not one. The two ayins in the last two words "were not made by the same person. Again, the evidence points to forgery.. Two different forgers seem to have been at work." This is remarkably complex paleography for someone who isn't an expert paleographer, especially considering that the evidence seems to have escaped the notice of the premier paleographers who analyzed the inscription not by looking at photographs but by inspecting the ossuary itself.

Chadwick doesn't stop here: "The first forger sized up the existing, ancient Yakov bar Yosef inscription, then . scratched the three Aramaic letters alef, het, and yod, forming the word achi (contextually "brother of"), doing a sloppy job on the alef." When the forger got to the shin in Yeshua, he made a "dyslexic mishap": he began carving the shin backward, Professor Chadwick tells us. That is, the letter our senior paleographers see as a dalet, Professor Chadwick says is not a dalet but the beginning of a backward shin. When "he, or a partner looking over his shoulder, realized that a disaster was occurring," the first forger stopped. "One can almost hear the exasperated [second] forger, and any partners he may have had, looking disgustedly at the backward half-shin on their purloined ossuary and exclaiming, `What do we do now?'"

Based on this analysis, Professor Chadwick is able to conclude that the first forger was "probably not a native Hebrew or Aramaic speaker. His experience with Hebrew/Aramaic letters was probably to occasionally read them, but rarely to write them." Nevertheless, the second forger was able to make the necessary corrections. Professor Chadwick concludes: "An ossuary that might have once sold for five hundred dollars on the antiquities market could now bring in a potentially five million dollar windfall-thanks to the clever hand of . the person who forged the name of Jesus."

Sound convincing? Rather, isn't this clearly a case of amateurs taking shots in the dark? I readily admit that I am not competent to judge the paleography. But I would rather stick with the unanimous judgment of the senior scholars who have devoted their lives to this arcane art.

There is another difference between the first and second parts of the inscription. The second part is seen by some (but not by other equally qualified experts) as rougher, not as elegantly and carefully executed. But, as Ada Yardeni has remarked, "The inscription is hand-carved and not machine-made. Most of the Aramaic ossuary inscriptions seem to have been made quite carelessly and by non-professional engravers. The James ossuary is no exception." Ossuary inscriptions were made quickly with a stylus; toward the end of the inscription, the script often becomes more degraded. More important in this case, the limestone where the second half of the inscription was carved appears to be softer. In her report on the conservation of the ossuary, Ewa Dziadowiec notes that the box is made of "a very soft, chalky limestone." Another report on the ossuary's condition upon arrival at the museum observes that the stone is worn and pitted. The condition seems to be even worse-more pocked-in the area of the second part of the inscription. There is also more patina in the area of the second half of the inscription, indicating a slightly different mix of chemical elements in the stone. Under these circumstances, it may well have been more difficult to carve elegant, sharp letters. This may account for any difference between the two halves of the inscription.

But even more significant is [Johns Hopkins professor and leading paleographer Kyle] McCarter's conclusion that if two different hands are responsible for the for the inscription, the second half of the inscription is still not a forgery. It was added no later than a hundred years after the first part of the inscription was carved, McCarter says. He speculates that "brother of Jesus" might have been added to the original inscription because in subsequent years, other members of the same family bore the name "James son of Joseph," and it had become necessary to identify this James further.

more from beliefnet and our partners