2016-06-30
June 18, 2003--When the Israel Antiquities Authority announced today that the much-heralded "bone box of the brother of Jesus" was a fake, many believed the dispute over whether the ossuary was a forgery was finally settled.

But archeological experts in North America say the case of the ossuary, hailed in November as possibly the most important archaeological discovery relating to the life of Jesus, is far from closed.

"The ossuary is real. But the inscription is fake," Shuka Dorfman, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Reuters at a Jerusalem press conference, referring to the Aramaic words on the bone box that read, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." "What this means is that somebody took a real box and forged the writing on it, probably to give it a religious significance."

American media latched on to the IAA's statement. The Christian Science Monitor said Wednesday's announcement "ended months of professional speculation about the veracity of the timeworn relics." And CNN declared, "'Jesus box' exposed as fake."

The IAA, however, has not yet released an official report. Some scholars say it is too early to determine what the authority's findings really mean, especially since they run counter to the results of studies on the ossuary done last year by the Israel Geological Survey and Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.

Hershel Shanks, head of the Biblical Archaeology Society, and biblical scholar Ben Witherington, Beliefnet columnist and professor at Auburn Theological Seminary, have been the most public proponents of the ossuary's authenticity. Today they issued a statement defending their position. Shanks, who co-authored the book "The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family" with Witherington last spring, said, "Some of the world's greatest paleographers, and two teams of rigorous scientists that have tested the inscription, have found nothing to question as to its authenticity."

No one doubts the authenticity of the actual ossuary, which archeologists agree dates from the first century A.D. and is typical of other bone boxes of the time period. But the inscription on the box, which led many to believe it could be linked to Jesus, had been contested by some scholars since the revelation of the ossuary's existence in the fall. With today's announcement, it is now being formally discredited.

"There is nothing wrong with it [the inscription] except that it seems to have been written by two different hands at different times," Avigdor Horowitz, a professor at Israel's Ben Gurion University and a contributor to the IAA's ossuary panel, told Beliefnet in an email. "Linguistically it is fine and there are parallels to it. The problem with it is that it seems to have been incised after the patina covering the ossuary developed, and the patina in the letters is fake."

The patina is a coating or film that develops on an object over time. The Israel Antiquities Authority examined the patina on the inscription and found several areas that did not match the patina on the rest of the ossuary.

The IAA's study of the patina led them to conclude that the inscription is a modern-day forgery. The contention of the IAA study is that while the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" are engraved on an authentic first-century bone box, the words were carved at a much later date and were covered with a specially-prepared mixture meant to fake a centuries-old patina.

According to a summary of the IAA's findings in the magazine Archaeology, the inscription's letters are covered with a substance that IAA panelist and archaeology professor Yuval Goren calls the "James Bond." The "James Bond" is a mixture of powdered chalk and microfossils dissolved in heated water, possibly modern-day tap water.

"At some time long after the natural processes of varnish and patination in a damp cave environment had been completed, someone carved a series of letters through the natural varnish on the ossuary... [then] covered the freshly cut letters with an imitation 'patina' made from water and ground chalk," the article says. The "James Bond" is found nowhere else on the ossuary.

The Archaeology article also suggests that scanning software might have been used to copy ancient script from genuine artifacts whose data is now available in computer catalogues. Copying ancient words from such databases and "aligning them with the computer software Photoshop or PageMaker can create a puzzlingly authentic template for a faked inscription." Such a forgery method might also account for the two styles of handwriting on the ossuary.

The magazine says that though the IAA's script experts were initially divided on the inscription's authenticity, the physical data about the patina led the panel to agree that the inscription must be a modern fake.

Neil A. Silberman, a historian with the Ename Center for Public Archaeology in Belgium, told the Associated Press that previous ossuary studies were "fairly slipshod examinations" by people who "really wanted this to be true." Such researchers "have wasted the time and the spiritual enthusiasm of their audiences," he said.

But the contention that the inscription was added in modern times doesn't persuade some experts. "The judgment that it is a modern forgery does surprise me," said P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., William Foxwell Albright Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University and an expert in the study of ancient writings.

McCarter said that even if it is determined that the inscription is from two different hands, it is not necessarily a modern forgery. He suggests the second part of the inscription, the words "brother of Jesus", was most likely "added in ancient times, by somebody who was creating a relic."

"The second hand looks like good ancient script," McCarter said, though he admits that it's "possible the second part is modern."

Despite today's announcement, many experts continue to argue the box and the inscription are genuine. "The Israeli Geological Survey investigated both the patina on the box and the patina throughout the inscription," Jack Meinhardt, managing editor of the Biblical Archaeological Society's magazine Archaeology Odyssey, told Beliefnet. "They found that the patina in the inscription matched the patina on the box, meaning that they were both ancient patinas."

Edward Keall, senior curator at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, where the ossuary was displayed this fall, maintains that the ossuary's inscripton is genuine. The museum's study of the ossuary, he said, led him to believe that the "artificially induced patina theory was a false claim."

Witherington, a biblical scholar, agrees, noting that the Toronto Museum's mass-spectrometry test shows "absolutely no evidence of modern tampering with the box or the inscription."

The lack of certainty about the inscription's authenticity might be as much due to politics as to the patina. "There's a conflict among the geologists, and there's even more conflict among the paleographers," Meinhardt said. "This is a panel of respected scholars who have put out this statement, but I suspect there was disagreement within the panel."

Keall suggested that "a political agenda" might have motivated the IAA to release this statement. The authority has been in public squabbles with the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, since November, when Golan allowed the ossuary to leave Israel for the exhibit at the Toronto museum.

The IAA is concerned about the looting of ancient artifacts and has been suspicious of antiquities collectors, who often acquire their finds through dubious channels. This may also be prompting the IAA's efforts to discredit Golan's ossuary. "There's a vendetta against Oded Golan," said Ben Witherington.

Another important factor complicating the search for answers is a lack of cooperation between investigating groups. "It's scholars not talking to each other," said Witherington.

"It's strange that they [the IAA] came out with the announcement before releasing the report," Shanks told Beliefnet. He believes that that the people who did the first test for the IGS may have been gagged and told to filter comments only through an approved IGS head.

Though Shanks, Witherington and others are withholding judgment until the full IAA report is translated and released, they say the jury is still very much out.

"We all know there's no such thing as airtight proof, but all of the actual scientific evidence we have favors the probability that this thing is genuine," said Witherington. "It appears that the IAA conclusions were based primarily on issues of patina-if this is true, this is a big mistake. A patina test is always debatable."

"They may have found out something about the patina that didn't come out in the [original] report," McCarter said. "We will never know for sure."

more from beliefnet and our partners