June 19, 2003--The day after the Biblical Archaeology Review published an article last October on the extraordinary inscription, "James, the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus," scratched on a stone bone box from Jerusalem, it appeared on the front page of almost every paper in the world.
On June 18, 2003, a committee appointed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) declared the inscription to be a forgery. The bone box, or ossuary, was indeed ancient, but the inscription was added in modern times, the committee found.
It may indeed be a forgery and, if so, let's hope the forger will be caught and put in jail.
But I'm still not convinced that it is a forgery.
The BAR article was written by one of the world's leading paleographers, Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne in Paris. Each letter in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke and the language of the inscription) has a history and development, much like modern car grilles. Paleographers can date the letters and also tell if an inscription is a forgery, for in an authentic inscription the shape of all the letters will date to the same time period. There was no doubt in Lemaire's mind that the inscription was authentic.
Normally, anything that Andre Lemaire writes for us would be enough to justify its publication in BAR. Because this was such an extraordinary inscription, however, we showed it to a number of other prominent paleographers. Harvard's Frank Cross, perhaps the world's most distinguished Semitic paleographer, said, "If this is a forgery, the forger was a genius." (Along the same line, leading Jerusalem archaeologist and paleographer Gaby Barkay is quoted in a recent news report as saying, "If its a fake, it's a fantastically executed piece.")
The inscription was also examined by P. Kyle McCarter, Albright Professor at the Johns Hopkins University (and author of Ancient Inscriptions), and by Israeli paleographer Ada Yardeni, author of The Book of Hebrew Script. They, too, saw no reason whatever to question the authenticity of the inscription.
We had it examined by one of the world's leading Aramaic experts, Father Joseph Fitzmyer of Catholic University of America. After some initial hesitation, he deemed the somewhat peculiar Aramaic phrasing on the inscription to be appropriate to the first century A.D.
The Geological Survey of Israel, a government agency, also examined the bone box and its inscription at our request and found both to be authentic.
By the time Ben Witherington III and I published our book, The Brother of Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), a second team of scientific experts had examined the inscription and found it authentic. The team was from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where the ossuary had been on exhibit.
The recent conclusion of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is essentially the view of one person, Professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University. The decision of the IAA purports to be by unanimous agreement of a 15-person committee, each of whom had been named by the IAA. It appears, however, that the only one on the committee with any geological and chemical knowledge on which the conclusion is based is Yuval Goren. He managed to convince the rest of the five-person (sub-)committee of his scientific conclusions based on materials in which they are not expert and which they have no more than a laypersons' knowledge. This (sub-)committee convinced the other scholars of the conclusion of the five-person scientific committee. The committee of other scholars has even less scientific expertise.
It would have been more comforting if other scientists, perhaps from the United States, would have been consulted and perhaps even included on the committee.
Of course, in this matter, Professor Goren may be right, but we need to wait for further developments before arriving at this conclusion.
There are other reasons why the conclusion of the IAA should at least be further explored before accepting it without discussion. For example, when the announcement was made the final report of the committee was not ready for distribution. Why was the announcement not made when the final report was ready to be released?
Can the IAA really be so sure of its conclusion? They seem to have no doubt whatever. In a Washington Post story on June 19, an IAA official is quoted as saying, "We're sure about it." Yet this same official later in the article is quoted as saying, "There is some doubt " about whether the word Yeshua (Jesus) is a forgery. As one scientist told us, "This is a very unprofessional way of doing things."
The committee never called in the scientists from the two other teams--the Geological Survey of Israel and the Royal Ontario Museum--that had examined the ossuary to see why their conclusion differed and to see what they had to say regarding the IAA's conclusion. For example, a handout the IAA gave out at its press conference states that the letters of the inscription "cut through" the patina. It is astounding that the two other scientific teams that examined the ossuary didn't notice this. The absence of patina in some of the letters may in fact have had something to do with the cleaning of the inscription; it had been partially scrubbed (apparently by the owner's mother). Shouldn't this have been at least discussed with the other teams before an announcement was made, especially since the Geological Survey of Israel's report specifically stated that it found "no evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina"?
At the IAA's press conference, the committee also announced that it had found that the patina contained an isotope of oxygen that indicated the patina included "tap water heated to a temperature not found in the Judean Hills during the last three thousand years." Our scientists tell us that this is a conclusion that can hardly be made with certainty, especially as the inscription had been partly cleaned and scrubbed, perhaps with hot water.
The latest word from the Royal Ontario Museum is that they stick by their conclusion. So do some of the paleographers we have talked to.
It's also significant that the team from the Israel Geological Survey has been gagged. They are not permitted to discuss the case. Why?
Another factor that cannot be ignored: Shuka Dorfman, the head of the IAA, hates antiquities collectors and antiquities dealers and the antiquities trade. He would like to put Israeli antiquities dealers out of business. His dislike is so intense that he stopped talking to me because BAR published the original article by Andre Lemaire. Indeed, he has even refused to approve an excavation permit for an important Jerusalem excavation because it was supported financially by the Biblical Archaeology Society, publisher of BAR.
In short, Shuka Dorfman would like nothing so much as to see the ossuary inscription declared a forgery. This extremely powerful man in Israeli archaeology packed the relevant committee (although he probably didn't have to). There were two IAA committees, only one of which was the scientific committee, called the "Committee for Examination of the Material and Patina." Dorfman appointed his own deputy as chairman of the scientific committee. The deputy is a fine archaeologist, but has no training in geology or chemistry. The professional geologist he appointed to the committee, Yuval Goren, had already expressed his view on the internet that patinas could easily be faked; indeed he explained in graphic detail how it could be done. He had apparently already made up his mind. To insure a majority on the committee, Dorfman then appointed another member of his staff to this five-man committee. It looks like Goren convinced his committee who then convinced the other committee, all based on the results of Goren's scientific interpretation.
All this is not to say that the IAA's conclusion is incorrect. What it says is that we must be patient and see what evaluations can be made of the IAA report when it comes out.