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Ossuary Tales Volume 56 Number 1, January/February 2003
by Mark Rose

On October 21, 2002, the discovery of an inscription--Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua--on the side of a light brown, chalky limestone box was announced at a Washington press conference. André Lemaire of the Sorbonne University in Paris had just published his translation of the text--"James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"--in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR). Lemaire believes the 20-inch-long box, or ossuary, once held the bones of James, brother of the biblical Jesus, who was stoned to death in A.D. 62, according to the first-century historian Flavius Josephus. Time touted the discovery, saying: "If the inscription refers to the right James...this would be the most important discovery in the history of New Testament archaeology." The owner of the box, the press was told, wished to remain anonymous.

The owner, it turns out, is Oded Golan, a 51-year-old engineer living in Tel Aviv. Hours before the announcement in Washington, Golan was at a police station being questioned about the ossuary by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Amir Ganor, head of the IAA's antiquities theft unit, had visited Golan's home a few weeks earlier on a routine inspection of his antiquities collection, reputedly one of the country's largest. Golan made no mention of the ossuary or its inscription, which he had shown to Lemaire months earlier. Around October 7, Golan requested a permit from the IAA for the temporary export of two ossuaries, to be displayed at a late November convention of biblical scholars in Toronto. Again, there was no mention of the inscription.

"The IAA didn't know about the significance of the inscription when granting the license to exhibit it in Canada," says Uzi Dahari, the authority's deputy head. "We made the connection between our export license and the James ossuary after we saw the BAR article, three days before its publication."

From the later first century B.C. through most of the first century A.D. it was customary in Jerusalem for family members to lay out a body in a burial cave, come back when flesh had decayed, and put the bones into an ossuary, sometimes inscribed with the deceased's name. Lemaire says the James ossuary "very probably" refers to the biblical Jesus but admits that "nothing in this ossuary inscription clearly confirms this identification." Jesus, however, was a common name. Eric M. Meyers of Duke University notes that nine of the thousand or so ossuaries studied by scholars have the name Jesus inscribed on them. Paul Flesher of the University of Wyoming says two ossuaries have Aramaic inscriptions reading, "Jesus, son of Joseph." "The inscription is like 'Tom, son of Dick, brother of Harry,'" quipped another scholar.

Serious doubts have been raised about the inscription. Some scholars have suggested that it is too good to be true, that the letters are unusually clear compared to the surface of the ossuary, and that the second part (the mention of Jesus) may have been added by early Christians or by a modern forger. Published with Lemaire's article was a report by two Geological Survey of Israel scientists who examined the ossuary. They conclude that whatever tool it was carved with is consistent with a first-century date. The fact that it wasn't done with a modern drill, however, doesn't rule out forgery of part or all of the inscription.

Why would the inscription be forged? Gideon Avni, former chief archaeologist of Jerusalem, says he has seen two inscriptions forged on ossuaries to increase the value of the object. How much is the ossuary worth? While Golan insists he paid only a few hundred dollars for it, the ossuary was insured for $1 million for its trip to Toronto. Officials at the Royal Ontario Museum have pegged its value at $2 million. Golan says it is not for sale.

Golan's memory is selective. He says he had bought the ossuary by 1976 from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer for about $200. He recalls that the dealer told him it came from Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem. But he doesn't remember which dealer sold it to him.

According to Golan, he was unaware of the inscription's significance until he showed Lemaire a photograph of it last spring. At the Washington press conference, Golan was said to have a limited understanding of archaeology, which explained why he did not understand its importance. These statements are difficult to reconcile with the description of him given to the press by family members. His mother says Golan was digging at a neighborhood site in Tel Aviv at the age of eight. His brother Yaron recalls him gluing potsherds together at an early age and befriending archaeologist Yigael Yadin when he participated on the latter's excavation at Masada when he was 11 years old. Golan is said to know Aramaic and, his brother says, he "has phenomenal knowledge" of archaeology.

The IAA has questioned several Jerusalem dealers in an attempt to determine who sold the ossuary to Golan and when. According to Israel's Antiquities Law, if it was discovered or found in Israel after 1978, the ossuary belongs to the state. When the ossuary returns at the end of February, the IAA will have 90 days to decide if it wants to buy or rule that it cannot be sold outside of Israel. If it finds evidence it was dug up after 1978, the IAA could seize it.

The antiquities authority is reserving its judgment on the inscription's authenticity until it has the ossuary examined after its return to Israel, says Dahari, who doubts whether experts will be able to determine whether or not the inscription refers to the brother of Jesus. Lacking an archaeological context that might prove or disprove the inscription is real and refers to the biblical Jesus, the James ossuary seems destined to join the Shroud of Turin, its meaning and importance wholly in the eye of its beholder.

Damaged Goods

On October 31, the ossuary made headlines again after its arrival at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. A photo opportunity scheduled for the press the following day was abruptly canceled when the cardboard box in which the ossuary was shipped was opened to reveal that new cracks had opened in the limestone and old ones reopened, one running through the name Jesus. Dan Rahimi, director of collections management at the ROM, lamented, "This sometimes happens in the transportation of fragile objects, and is always regrettable." Hershel Shanks, editor of the magazine that first reported the discovery of the ossuary inscription, tried to put the unfortunate situation into context for readers of Canada's National Post, noting that, even though Moses smashed the first set of tablets with God's commandments, "if we had those, they would be incredibly valuable." Repair of the damage by ROM conservators had to wait until the owner's insurance adjuster approved the procedure--filling the cracks with resin and the holes with a resin and filler mixture to which a mineral pigment was added to match the limestone's color. "It's very emotional," commented William Thorsell, president of ROM to a columnist from The Globe and Mail. "Some people think God did this. A week after it opens, the ROM will probably get struck by lightning."

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America