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The James Ossuary - Authentic Artifact or Elaborate Fraud?

Updated on November 20, 2016
Ossuary, or "Bone box".
Ossuary, or "Bone box".

Since it was first revealed in 2002 the James Ossuary has climbed to the top of multiple lists. It is one of the best known of any recent archeological discovery, and certainly of any artifact related to the Bible. The Ossuary is also without doubt one of the most controversial artifacts in modern times. The ossuary, as presented, is inscribed with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus". If authentic, this is certainly one of the most important and sensational archeological discoveries in history. Unfortunately the ossuary has been surrounded with controversy. Is this controversy justified? Is this an authentic artifact which has been tarnished by the pride and arrogance of certain individuals? Or is this in fact nothing more than a fraud by a group of people who's interest are limited to their own personal profit?

Amidst all the drama surrounding this artifact, two of the men who presented the ossuary were put on trial for fraud. In 2012, after a marathon trial, the judge ruled the government had failed to prove the men had committed fraud. While the government had not proven their case against the defendants, did this mean the ossuary was in fact authentic? The ruling only exonerated the two men of fraud and certainly could not in itself prove the ossuary to be authentic. The evidence and testimony presented during the trial however can offer a great deal of insight into the authenticity, or lack thereof, of the James Ossuary.

First it may be necessary to explain what exactly an ossuary is and what it is used for. It is a small stone box used to store bones. A family would own a burial site, or tomb. When a family member died they would be buried in this tomb. When the bodies decayed the bones would be transferred to the ossuary in order to make room for another deceased family member in the tomb. This would allow the tomb to be used multiple times without the need to purchase more land or excavate a new tomb. In some cases these ossuaries would have an inscription carved or engraved into the top or side. Inscriptions are considered somewhat rare. Of the ossuaries found and cataloged only fifteen percent have any type of engravings. It is generally believed the ossuary would only be engraved if it contain the remains (bones) of a well known person, or the family was very wealthy.

Another term which must be discussed is patina. Put in very simplistic terms, patina is a substance which builds up on artifacts, especially in engravings, over long periods of time. Scientist can examine this patina and determine the age of an artifact with a somewhat high degree of accuracy. The absence of patina, or the presence of incorrect patina can be telltale signs of fraud. The patina on the James Ossuary was at the center of the fraud allegations and would be discussed in great detail throughout the trail.

Close up of inscription on Ossuary.
Close up of inscription on Ossuary.

The prosecution had three major points in their case against the defendants. The first involved the origin of the artifact itself. Some believe this is the entire reason the trial took place, but more on that later. The second point was the patina and a substance which came to be known as James Bond. The final element was an eye witness who claimed to have seen the ossuary in one of the defendants' shop years before and the inscription was far different. In fact, he claimed the inscription did not include the 'Brother of Jesus' portion, which prosecutors claimed was added later. Let us take a closer look at each of these three elements.

The first is the origin of the ossuary, or the Provence of the artifact. Many of the scholars who doubt the authenticity of the ossuary doubt preciously because of this point. The artifact was not found by an archeologist or as a part of any licensed archeological expedition or dig. It is believed the ossuary was stolen from a burial cave, but it is unclear where it was found or by whom. While this is always a major concern given the amount of fraud which takes place in the antiquities market, it in itself is not proof the artifact is a forgery. It does mean the artifact will be subjected to a much higher standard and stricter scrutiny if it is too be accepted by the scholarly community. While any artifact brought to light in this manner is rightfully scrutinized and doubted , it does not mean the artifact must be a forgery. A good example of this is one of the greatest discoveries of all time, The Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 by a sheep herder in a remote cave. The scrolls were not immediately taken to the authorities and were not validated by any type of expert. They were offered for sale but there were no takers and they were eventually taken to New York City. There they were eventually sold as the result of a want ad in the newspaper. This is certainly not the way you want an important artifact to be discovered or handled, but it does demonstrate how or who makes the discovery does not automatically make the find authentic, or a fraud.

Sample of Patina on coin/medallion.
Sample of Patina on coin/medallion.

The second point is the patina found in the engraving on the ossuary. While this is a complex and involved science, the bare facts are simple. The prosecution claimed they discovered a foreign substance in the engraving. This substance, which came to be known as James Bond, was a bonding substance they claimed was used to hold ancient patina in place inside the engraving. This would of course only be necessary if there was no natural patina in the engravings to begin with. If there was in fact no ancient patina, the only conclusion any objective person could come to was that the artifact was indeed a fraud. The substance was not denied by the defendants, but its purpose and origin were strongly challenged.

The final element of the prosecution was an eye witness. In any case the judge or jury like to hear an eye witness tell them what they saw. Not just testify about forensic findings, but something they personally witnessed firsthand. In this case the witness claimed to have seen the ossuary in the shop of one of the defendants years earlier. At that time the ossuary inscription did not include the words, "Brother of Jesus". If this testimony were true it would be a damning piece of evidence certain to crush any consideration of the artifacts authenticity. The prosecution suffered a setback with this witness and eventually the witness was never called to testify. It was just one of many setbacks which helped to unravel the prosecutions' fraud case.

How did this the prosecution's case fail to result in a conviction? In each instance the case fell apart and eventually the problems became strong points for the defense and helped strengthen the case for the authenticity of the artifact. We have already seen a legitimate discovery can be made outside a legitimate dig by an expert archeologist. An unprovenanced artifact should be scrutinized much more closely, but it should not be automatically labeled a forgery.

In the case of the James Bond and the missing patina, the prosecution's case failed miserably. The defense countered the James Bond material was in fact a substance used to clean the ossuary. This is a common practice which allows the engraving to be more clearly seen. The persecutions' star expert, Yuval Goren was to testify concerning the James Bond. On the stand he was presented with photographic evidence which showed ancient patina located under the James Bond. Goren asked for a recess so he could examine the artifact itself rather than just a photo. When the trial resumed Goren had to admit there was indeed ancient patina under the James Bond substance. This major set-back for the prosecution was made even worse when one of the government's other experts also discovered ancient patina in the word Jesus in the inscription.

An additional set-back developed when the eye witness recanted his story. He now claimed to have only been joking when he said he had seen the ossuary years before. With the change in his story, the witness never took the stand. Some might argue the witness was paid off or otherwise convinced to change his story. While this must be considered as a possibility, additional evidence tends to support his recanted statement of not having seen the ossuary when he originally claimed.

All shops in Israel dealing with antiquities must provide an inventory to the IAA (Israeli Antiquity Authority) on a regular basis. The IAA conducts spot checks and inspections of shops to insure these inventories are accurate. Failure to maintain an accurate inventory list could cost a shop owner their license, so it is taken very seriously. According to inventory records the shop in question never listed this ossuary on its reports to the IAA and the IAA never reported any discrepancies. Some point to this as the IAA's own records confirming the fact their eye witness was lying. Regardless of how this information is interpreted, the integrity of the witness was completely destroyed.

The prosecution's case was destroyed. Their own experts found ancient patina in the inscription, their eye witness was useless, which left only an argument about the origins of the ossuary. Therein lies perhaps the key to the entire case. Normally an artifact of this type would be presented to the authorities and IAA for research and scholarly review. Instead it was announced in an article and a public showing of the ossuary. The IAA found out about the artifact when they received a call concerning the exhibition. Understandably the IAA was not pleased. At that point the IAA did not seem interested in the opinion of experts who said the ossuary was authentic. The IAA felt they had been snubbed and unfortunately now seemed more interested in putting someone in their place rather than objectively reviewing the facts.

James Ossuary on display
James Ossuary on display

These facts included the opinions of some of the top experts in their respective fields. Two of these experts are Andre Lemaire and Ada Yardeni. They are among the most respected and knowledgeable paleographers in the world. (Paleography - the science of dating and authenticating inscriptions based on the shape and stance of the letters in the inscription.) Other experts have also stated their belief the ossuary was authentic, but the overpowering problem was the provenance of the ossuary. If the providence of the ossuary can be overlooked, which seems impossible for some, the evidence for the ossuary's authenticity seems very clear. Perhaps had the ossuary been presented through the proper channels and methods, there would have been no trial and little if any debate. Unfortunately it is doubtful the James Ossuary will ever be universally accepted, but based on the best evidence available and a number of world renown experts, the ossuary is indeed authentic.

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