What 'Jesus hoax' could mean for Mideast antiques

Once hailed as Biblical proof, forged antiquities now raise questions about other artifacts in Israeli museums

The first archeological link to Jesus - a stone box said to hold the bones of his brother James - and a tablet detailing repairs to the ancient Jewish Temple are fakes, say officials of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

The announcement Wednesday ended months of professional speculation about the veracity of the timeworn relics, hailed as discoveries of stunning religious, historical, and contemporary significance.

The ossuary, with its mysterious provenance, fired popular imagination, renewing discussion of Christian theology and the links between early Christianity and Judaism. The objects' demotion to skilled forgeries now opens a new chapter, raising questions about the murky antiquities trade in Israel and beyond.

"How many more items are in museums that are not authentic, items from the antiquities market and not from archaeological sites?" asks Gideon Avni, director of the Excavations and Surveys Department at the IAA.

"It's the most serious question that this incident should raise," adds Dr. Avni, "that of forgeries getting into museums upon which research is based and conclusions are drawn."

News of the James Ossuary broke in October 2002, when Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archeology Review, called a Washington press conference to reveal a story with the familiarity and romance of fable.

He told of an anonymous Israeli collector buying the shoebox-sized container in the 1970s, then relegating it to his balcony, thinking it ugly. In spring 2002, a French academic came to see some of the collector's 30 ossuaries and as an afterthought, the collector showed him a photo of the James Ossuary's inscription.

The academic instantly deciphered the Aramaic, a language spoken by 1st century Jews. Grooved deeply into the ocher-colored stone, the letters read, "James, son of Joseph" and then more faintly, "brother of Jesus."

The news made national front pages and when the ossuary went on display at a Toronto museum for a few short weeks; more than 100,000 people flocked to see it. In a skeptical age ruled by science, the ossuary offered a tangible link to faith and was touted as such. It was "the first and only archaeological attestation of Jesus of Nazareth," said Mr. Shanks at the time.

For Christians who believe in the historical truth of the Bible, the ossuary was a rebuttal to skeptics. For others, it revived interest in Jesus' brother, who led the early church and advocated a faith that encompassed Jews still loyal to Judaism as well as Gentile converts.

Many people also saw the ossuary as an implicit challenge to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian theology, which holds that Jesus' mother, Mary, was a perpetual virgin and had no other children.

Theological questions were followed by archaeological doubt, despite authentication by the Geological Survey of Israel. For starters, Shanks's reputation among archeologists as a courter of publicity did not engender confidence.

When the collector was identified as a high-tech businessman named Oded Golan, Israeli officials stepped in. Israel sharply limits the number of antiquity merchant licenses offered each year and forbids unlicensed citizens like Mr. Golan from trading, selling, or exporting archaeological finds.

IAA officials seized the ossuary on its return from Toronto and took a look at the rest of Golan's collection. In it, they found yet another item worth solid gold, archaeologically speaking: the Yoash Inscription.

The charred sandstone tablet, three inches thick and just under a foot long, was covered in four ancient scripts describing King Yoash's attempts to renovate the Temple. In this part of the world, where Israelis and Palestinians bitterly contest every rock, the Yoash Inscription was a stone of particular importance.

Both peoples would like sovereignty over the area where the Jewish Temple stood and where one of Islam's holiest shrines now gleams in the sun.

This issue has been a sticking point in peace talks and some Palestinians have claimed that no Jewish Temple ever existed in the area. A written record of its renovation would buttress Israeli claims and silence naysayers.

But Golan could not or would not provide details of its provenance or of the ossuary's. The Yoash Inscription belonged to a Palestinian friend from East Jerusalem, he told authorities.

As for the ossuary, he couldn't remember who sold it to him, though he was sure it came from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.

In that dusty, desolate part of the city, the earth is riddled with 1st century Jewish burial caves where ossuaries were commonly used. Jews at the time buried their dead twice, first placing them in a burial cave and then a year later placing the bones in an ossuary.

There is no doubt that the James Ossuary came from such a cave - the box itself dates from the 1st or 2nd century, in line with James's death in AD 62.

The Yoash stone, too, is genuinely ancient. The problem with both items lies in their inscriptions - skillful forgeries betrayed by the stones themselves.

Stones stored in damp caves develop a patina, the film created by chemicals as they seep out of a rock over centuries. In the case of both objects, the IAA found that the inscriptions cut through the patina.

They also discovered chemical elements in the patina that didn't exist in Jerusalem in the past 3,000 years but are found in modern tap water.

While the relics might be fake, the issues they raised for religious Christians and Jews are very real, particularly on the question of whether physical proof is at all relevant to faith.

Avigdor Horowitz, a Biblical language expert at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, who helped the IAA with the Yoash Inscription, recalled looking it over one Sabbath morning.

"It is a charming text," he says of the passage that mirrors the Bible's Second Book of Kings (12:1-6, 11-17). "I was sitting there thinking, 'I wish this text were authentic.'" It clearly wasn't, he says, but as usual, he went to synagogue anyway.

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