Archaeology is not for the faint of heart: it often involves messy legal wrangling and impassioned debate. Over the past fifty years, legal mandates for controlled excavation and the establishment of ethical conventions regarding archaeological scholarship have done much to prevent the kind of careless collecting and haphazard documentation which plagued the archaeological excavations of the 19th and early-to-mid 20th century. Yet the regulation of archaeological excavation and transmission of antiquities belies an age-old problem endemic to the field. In many cases, antiquities are uncovered by untrained archaeologists — by construction crews digging subway tunnels or basements, by looters and treasure seekers, or simply by ordinary people who happen upon something “cool” and “old.” Such finds then enter the antiquities market without any information on their source, or provenance.
The problem with unprovenanced antiquities is threefold. First, information about an artifact’s source — Was it found in a tomb? On an ancient battleground? In an ancient house? Beneath a sacred altar? — provides important contextual information which helps scholars figure out the backstory and significance of an object. Second, the provenance and excavation date determines the artifact’s legal status. Is a private person allowed to own the object, or does the object belong a country? What country might that be? Can the object be taken to a country different from the one in which it was found? Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is the artifact genuine, or does it lack a record of its excavation because it is a modern forgery sourced from a workshop instead of the ground?
For the past fifteen years, an embittered debate concerning the authenticity of a simple unprovenanced stone box has broiled. In October 2002, an Israeli engineer and lifelong collector of antiquities presented a certain small ossuary (a burial container for dried bones), at an internationally attended press conference in Washington, DC. The ossuary itself was unremarkable — there are some 900 other Jewish ossuary tombs dating from 20 BC – 70 CE from within a two mile radius of East Talpiot, Jerusalem, where the ossuary may have been found.1 Instead, it was the ossuary’s Aramaic inscription which garnered such a frenzy of media attention: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
If authentic, the so-called “James Ossuary” would provide concrete archaeological evidence for the existence of Jesus, his brother James, and his father Joseph the carpenter. Such physical evidence would have a profound impact on long-unresolved questions concerning New Testament interpretation and the genesis of the Christian faith. Accordingly, the question of the ossuary’s authenticity merits very careful consideration. A false positive later discounted would injure scholarly reputation and call the credibility of biblical archaeology into question; a false negative would discount a spectacular archaeological find.
Unfortunately, the “James Ossuary” has received much media attention and attracted much controversy but has not always received the careful, methodical, and impartial consideration which characterize best practices in scholarship. One of the first problems in ascertaining the authenticity of the ossuary is the tendency to conflate three separate questions, each of which deserves its own discussion. First, is the ossuary box itself an authentic Jewish ossuary from 20 BCE – 70 CE? Second, did someone carve the Aramaic inscription in first century CE Judaea or in a modern workshop? Third, does the inscription, if in fact it does date from the first century CE, refer to the James, Jesus, and Joseph described in the New Testament, or to different, “ordinary” Judeans of the same name?
The answers to each of these three questions have been debated with varying levels of consensus. Scholars agree that the ossuary itself is authentic and dates from between 20 BCE and 70 CE, the only period in which Jews conducted ossuary burials. During the immediate lead-up to the “James Ossuary”’s big reveal in Washington, an overly excited team of investigators convened by the Israeli Geological Survey pronounced the ossuary authentic on the basis of an analysis of its surface patina (an encrustation of minerals and algaes). In March 2003, a second, more careful and impartial panel of investigators confirmed that the chalk stone from which the ossuary was carved could be sourced to a Negev desert quarry active during the 1st century CE. Furthermore, the chemical composition of the patina on the majority of the ossuary’s surface matched that of similar ossuaries which do have a known provenance in East Talpiot. There is little doubt, then, as to the ossuary’s authenticity.
The second question is whether the inscription is 2,000 years old or added by a modern hand. The October 2002 assertion that the inscription was genuine rested on the testimony of epigrapher André Lemaire with backing from epigraphers Kyle McCarter and Joseph Fitzmyer. All three epigraphers employed traditional methods of attempting to discount a forged inscription: they compared the lettering to similar authentic inscriptions from the correct time period and searched for anachronisms, inconsistencies, or improbable errors in grammar or spelling. The inscription on the “James Ossuary” passed their test. Yet the March 2003 investigation mandated and convened by the Israel Antiquities Authority reached a different conclusion. Their opinion was that the inscription was a modern forgery created from a template produced in Photoshop or a similar digital manipulation software — tools that the traditional method of evaluating an inscription doesn’t take into account. For example, someone skilled in Photoshop or PageMaker could scan images of authentic inscriptions bearing the words “James,” “son of Joseph,” and “Jesus”; resize and realign the images; and create a convincing template for a forged composite inscription, albeit one that appeared to be written by more than one scribe.2 Such is the case with the “James Ossuary” inscription, which appears to include two different styles of handwriting. One potential complication of this explanation, however, is a 1976 photograph of the ossuary in which the inscription is faintly visible.3 An inscription present in 1976 could not have been produced with the aid of PhotoShop or a similar software.
Here it is important to point out that the debate over the “James Ossuary” remains unresolved. No one knows for sure whether or not the ossuary housed the bones of St. James. Even fifteen years after the ossuary’s big reveal in 2002, controversy simmers and investigations continue to challenge the conclusions of previous investigations. The lingering uncertainty derives from the ossuary’s uncertain provenance. Without a clear record of its discovery, previous owners, and physical description at various points in time, the confusion might not reach a full resolution.
Barkat, Amiram. “Collector Accused of Forging ‘James Ossuary’ Says Old Photos Prove Authenticity.” Haaretz, February 8, 2007. https://www.haaretz.com/collector-accused-of-forging-james-ossuary-says-old-photos-prove-authenticity-1.212297.
Franz, Gordon. “The So-Called Jesus Family Tomb.” Answers in Genesis, April 4, 2007. https://answersingenesis.org/jesus-christ/resurrection/the-so-called-jesus-family-tomb/.
Kensington, James. “The Resurrection Tomb.” Popular Archeology, May 31, 2012. http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/june-2012/article/the-resurrection-tomb.
Kershner, Isabel. “Findings Reignite Debate on Claim of Jesus’ Bones.” The New York Times, April 4, 2015, sec. Middle East. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/05/world/middleeast/findings-reignite-debate-on-claim-of-jesus-bones.html.
Kloner, Amos. “A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot, Jerusalem.” ’Atiqot 29 (1996): 15–22.
Silberman, Neil Asher, and Yuval Goren. “Faking Biblical History.” Archaeology 56, no. 5 (2003): 20–29. JSTOR.
Staff, Biblical Archaeology Society. “‘Brother of Jesus’ Proved Ancient and Authentic.” Biblical Archaeology Society, June 13, 2012. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/inscriptions/brother-of-jesus-proved-ancient-and-authentic/.