Authenticity of antique burial box inscription debated


    By Ravin Robertson

    A BYU professor believes a portion of an Aramaic letter inscription of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” on a limestone burial box is a modern forgery that was added in recent times to increase the box”s value.

    Possibly the first tangible evidence of Jesus of Nazareth, this inscription has fueled a raging debate among archeologists, scientists and scholars about the legitimacy of the inscription: “Ya ”a kov bar Yosef a khui Yeshua,” on whether the ossuary, Latin word for bone box, is an authentic first century artifact.

    “I think probably what happened is someone who had some background in Christianity knew that in the Bible, in the New Testament, there”s this guy named Jacob or James, who was called the brother of the Lord, and Joseph was the stepfather of Jesus,” said Jeff Chadwick, a BYU associate professor of church history. “They put Jacob and Joseph together, and said, hey if we just added brother of Jesus on there, this would go from being about a $500 artifact to maybe a $5 million artifact.”

    Chadwick, who is also an expert in epigraphy, or the study of ancient language and letters, said the nine letters that spell out “brother of Jesus,” are thinner, not engraved as straight as the rest of the inscription and are actually cut with a different instrument.

    “The carver of the 11 letters, “Jacob, son of Joseph,” did a very consistent job,” he said. “All of a sudden, the other 9 letters become inconsistent and a different tool was used.”

    French scholar Andre Lemaire, a specialist in ancient inscriptions and reputedly the premiere expert on epigraphy, was the first scholar to examine the James ossuary.

    “I am pleased to report that in my judgment it is genuinely ancient and not a fake,” Lemaire said in the November/December issue of Biblical Archeology Review (BAR), the leading publication on archeological discoveries.

    Deeming the ossuary and inscription authentic, Lemaire said the laboratory of the Geological Survey of Israel concluded “no evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription that was found.”

    Also, according to Lemaire, there could have been maybe 20 people out of a contemporary Jerusalem population of 80,000 who fulfilled the requirement of being “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

    First revealed to the public in Oct. 2002 at a news conference by BAR, this beige box had been held in the private collection of Oded Golan, a 51-year-old engineer from Tel Aviv.

    Golan, who owns Israel”s largest collection of biblical artifacts, claims to have acquired the 20 by 11-inch ossuary in the mid-1970s from an antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem for $200.

    Although on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada during November and December 2002, the Israeli Antiquities Authorities insist the ossuary be back in Israel by the end of February 2003 so Israeli experts can further investigate its origins.

    Amir Ganor, head of the anti-robbery unit in the antiquities authority, told the Associated Press if the ossuary was traded, it would be seized by authorities.

    “If the artifact was recently traded, those involved with the sale of the ossuary could be prosecuted for dealing in stolen goods and the box would be seized by authorities,” Ganor said.

    Experts and scientists date the James ossuary from the first century A.D. because Jews followed the custom of placing the remains of their deceased in ossuaries.

    In Nov. 2002, academics, experts and specialists gathered in Toronto for the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, two major associations of North American religion scholars.

    Although the James ossuary was not on the docket of the convention, Lemaire defended his stamp of approval while other scholars suggested their theories about the inscription.

    Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University said the two writing styles “suggests the possibility of a second hand.”

    Chadwick, who attended the Toronto convention, said, “I found that I wasn”t the only one, at least half of the other archeologists I talked to, also felt that this was a partial forgery.”

    Eric Meyers, former BAR editor and professor of Judaic studies at Duke University, represents the segment of religion scholars who contend that buying artifacts from looters encourages more looting because antiquities need to be carefully excavated by professionals.

    “To say the least, I have a very bad feeling about the matter,” Meyers said at the convention.

    While on route from Jerusalem to Toronto, an ancient crack in the ossuary expanded and caused further cracking in other places.

    Chadwick said the letters “of” in the phrase “brother of Jesus” are now masked by beige paste used by museum officials to patch the crack.

    “Since I don”t think the words “brother of Jesus” are authentic and original, I find it a curious irony that the crack comes right through the forged portion,” he said.

    At the request of a BAR editor, Chadwick prepared a response about the ossuary in which he wrote that someone sloppily added, probably in the last 5-7 years, “brother of Jesus” to an authentic ossuary to make money.

    “My personal inspection, way up close of this, in the museum in Toronto, only fueled the suspicion that what you have here is a true artifact that had a forged addition to it,” he said. “The first eleven letters seem authentic, “Jacob son of Joseph.” The last nine letters seem like an added modern forgery.”

    Chadwick said because other experts and academics are also writing their opinions about the ossuary, the scholarly debate about the ossuary will go on for some time.

    “I have a top 20 list of why I think that this is a modern addition and forgery,” he said. “And whether it”s Lemaire or McCarter, I”ve seen their arguments in writing and they just don”t hold water.”

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