About two years ago, a small stone box made a worldwide splash as the reputed final resting place for the remains of James, the brother of Jesus.
About two years ago, a small stone box made a
worldwide splash as the reputed final resting place
for the remains of James, the brother of Jesus.
The so-called James Ossuary was acclaimed as a historic archaeological
find by many biblical scholars. It also was questioned by other notable
researchers and denounced as a fake by Israeli authorities in June 2003.
Now, those critics have more weight on their side – the recent
indictment of four antiques collectors in Jerusalem, accused of forging
biblical artifacts, many so skillfully that they fooled experts.
“The entire archaeology community is reeling as a result of these
indictments,” Israeli-British archaeologist Shimon Gibson said. “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
That may or may not include the James Ossuary.
Indeed, that artifact needs a careful examination to determine whether
it is an authentic relic or merely a common first-century burial box
with a phony inscription, a Southern Baptist professor says.
Steven Ortiz said fake items are common among antiques dealers but
insisted the James Ossuary needs further scientific analysis before a
final verdict is pronounced.
“You have antiquities dealers who sell actual objects and forged
objects,” said Ortiz, assistant professor of archaeology at New Orleans
Baptist Theological Seminary. “You have two or three archaeologists who
have looked at it and said it is authentic and two who have said it is
not. You have a geologist from the Royal Ontario Museum (in Toronto,
Canada) who says it is authentic. So, what you need to do is to get
scientists in a room, and like any project, you need a scientific
“What is sad about the James Ossuary is the way it hit the news was
sensational,” Ortiz continued. “With all the hoopla, there was not a
sober analysis of the ossuary itself. What we have now is people on
both sides who have a lot of emotion and careers at stake.”
The ossuary is a stone box that holds the bones of the dead. Such boxes
were used by Jews from around 20 B.C. until 70 A.D. The James Ossuary
first made worldwide news in 2002 and was authenticated by Lemaire and
The ossuary contains an Aramaic inscription on the side reading,
“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” – leading scholars to
speculate it once contained the remains of the Apostle James. It
initially was valued at $1 to $2 million.
With the indictment of the antiquities dealers, all of that is in
doubt. Those indicted include dealer Oded Golan, who is suspected of
forging both the James Ossuary and a stone tablet with an inscription
from 2 Kings 12.
Israeli scholars reached their conclusion about the James Ossuary by studying the weathering process.
However, Ortiz noted the Dead Sea Scrolls initially were believed to be
counterfeit. Then, after years of examination and analysis by scholars,
they were authenticated, he said.
“Every major find, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, were considered
forgeries at first,” Ortiz said. “Eventually, it has the weight of
analysis by scholars and eventually (the consensus) will lean toward
one way or the other like the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is very common.
“For every major inscription, you have two major epigraphers who claim
it is a forgery. And that is why we need more archaeologists and more
archaeological research collecting things in the proper scientific
In the July/August 2004 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, scholar
Edward Keall said tests bolster the case for its authenticity. Keall
serves as a senior curator at the Toronto Royal Ontario Museum.
Keall said biblical scholars and scientists spent several months
studying the ossuary, and testing by the Geological Survey of Israel
confirmed that the limestone is from the Jerusalem area, quarried in
the first and second century B.C. He said microscopic analysis of the
ossuary surface also indicates the box and the inscription are the same
age. Also, the surface did not contain any modern elements and is
consistent with cave burial. There were no signs of modern tool marks,
The study of ancient writing (epigraphy) also helps to establish the
date of the James Ossuary, Keall said. The words used in the
inscription for “son” and “brother” attest to its being Aramaic, the
everyday language of Jesus and the Apostles. The general style of the
letters places the inscription in the 20 B.C. to 70 A.D. time range, he
However, the ossuary’s archaeological origins represent a crucial
unknown factor. The owner says he purchased the ossuary from an
antiques dealer, who is thought to have obtained the object from an
Arab laborer, who found it in a cave just outside Jerusalem. Thus, the
ossuary did not come from a scientifically-controlled excavation.
Whether the James Ossuary is ever authenticated or not is a matter of
significance for the field of archaeology but is not pivotal in
bolstering of the historicity of Christianity, Ortiz said.
“What’s at stake is the integrity of the discipline of archaeology.
Whether the James Ossuary is (authentic), we can’t say it was the
actual James the brother of Jesus.
“James was a common name and so was Jesus in the first century,” Ortiz
noted. “Statistically, it does lean toward that, but it has never
changed anybody’s stance on the historicity of the events … in the
Gospels. So, it is pretty much a non-issue in terms of faith. I don’t
know anybody whose faith (was strengthened) because the James Ossuary
was deemed authentic, and I don’t know anybody’s faith that is going to
be weakened because it is proven a forgery.”
(This article includes information from Baptist Press and Religion News Service releases)