Recent indictments in a sophisticated antiquities forgery ring have cast a pall over the entire field of biblical archaeology and could provide new arguments for those seeking to delegitimize Jewish claims to the Holy Land.
Recent indictments in a sophisticated antiquities
forgery ring have cast a pall over the entire field of biblical
archaeology and could provide new arguments for those seeking to
delegitimize Jewish claims to the Holy Land.
That is because religious leaders – and even
governments – use the presence or absence of archaeological
discoveries to bolster their claims to truth and territory or to refute
“There is a huge fight over who has a claim to
the Land of Israel,” said David Hazony, editor in chief of Azure, a
Jerusalem-based journal. “When archaeological finds emerge that show
certain aspects of the Bible are historically true, it strengthens the
claim that there were Jewish people in this land and, therefore, have a
right to be here.”
When such biblical artifacts are not discovered or are shown to be hoaxes, some draw the opposite conclusion.
“There are people who say the Bible is false, so the
Jews had no right to come to Israel, that Zionism is a modern
colonialist effort to expand Jewish power,” Hazony noted.
For instance, the late Palestinian leader Yasser
Arafat often asserted that Jews had no connection to the Temple Mount,
the reputed site of the long-destroyed first and second biblical
temples and the present-day home of the Al Aksa mosque. Arafat pointed
to the dearth of Bible-bolstering artifacts as proof of his view.
Israeli and other archaeologists counter that the
artifacts may exist atop the disputed mount, but that the Islamic trust
that has overseen the site for decades has blocked international teams
from excavating there.
Due to these political sensitivities – and the
public’s thirst for any documentation that can bolster biblical
narrative – artifacts from the time of King David or Jesus are highly
prized, as well as scrutinized.
For instance, great excitement was generated two
years ago when it was announced an ancient burial box that may have
held the bones of the brother of Jesus had been found. It was inscribed
– “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
Believing the burial box – known as an ossuary – to
be one of the most concrete links to Jesus ever discovered, thousands
of Christian believers flocked to the Royal Ontario Museum when it was
exhibited there from November 2002 to January 2003. These same
believers tasted disappointment last December when Israeli experts
declared the box a forgery and four people were arrested in the alleged
“The ossuary itself was authentic but the
inscription was not,” says Yuval Goren, a Tel Aviv University
archaeologist and one of those who performed extensive scientific
testing on the box. “The inscription was covered by a patina that
wasn’t created under natural conditions.”
At the request of the police and a suspicious Israel
Antiquities Authority, the teams also examined a stone tablet called
the Yoash Inscription, which reputedly provides ancient Hebrew details
regarding the First Temple, erected by King Solomon in the 10th century
Had it been authenticated – which it was not – the
Yoash Inscription would have provided unprecedented historical evidence
that the Jewish Temple had functioned the way the Bible says it did.
Both artifacts found their way to the world via Oded Golan, the Israeli
antiquities collector and trader the police indicted in December.
Golan continues to deny any wrongdoing. He said he
bought the ossuary some 30 years ago from another dealer. He said he
failed to realize its worth until an expert saw his collection and
singled out the ossuary as a biblical gem.
Goren said this explanation is outlandish.
“When you collect and you buy something, especially
if it bears an inscription, you study it in depth,” he noted. “I can’t
believe (Golan) lived with it all those years without knowing Jesus had
Others say more evidence is needed before they decide if the ossuary is a fake or not.
Meanwhile, the entire archaeology community is
reeling as a result of the recent indictments, said Shimon Gibson, the
archaeologist who announced last year he had discovered a cave that may
have been used by John the Baptist to anoint his disciples.
“It’s now quite clear that if these allegations are
credible, it means that some artifacts which are in museum collections
are now known to be forgeries,” Gibson said.
Gibson said museums, private collectors and
individual believers of various faiths often fall prey to a fakes. The
problem arises when an item suddenly comes on the scene without the
scientific documentation to back it up, he said.
“We have to be very clear in the way we view
artifacts (that come from unproven sources), …” Gibson insisted.
“Artifacts that do not come directly from excavation or sites, but via
dealers and collectors, must be suspect.”
So, what does that say for finds like the Dead Sea
Scrolls, which initially appeared to turn up out of nowhere?
The difference is that scholars were able to go back
and trace the scrolls back to the Qumran, the area where hundreds of
authentic ancient parchments subsequently were discovered, Gibson said.
While the debate over the authenticity of some of
the most famous Christian and Jewish artifacts continues, theologians
warn of the dangers of conditioning one’s beliefs on what is dug out of
“Once you go down that road, then, you make your
faith dependent on the latest scientific discoveries, which are
tentative until the next discovery either supports or denies it,” said
Michael McGarry, director of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in
“There were those who said the James ossuary proved
that Jesus had a brother,” he explained. “If the ossuary was a fake,
does it prove that he didn’t?”