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Archeology and the Bible

Was James' ossuary found in Israel?
Is it a really neat hoax?

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Sponsored link.


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Overview:

Christianity Today reported in its 2002-OCT-21 edition and the Bible Archaeological Review (BAR) reported in its 2002-NOV-DEC edition that an ossuary (bone box) dating from 1st century CE Palestine has been found with the Aramaic inscription "Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua."

This translates into English as: "James, son of Joseph, brother of Yeshua." (Yeshua in Hebrew is translated as Jesus in the Greek language). Aramaic and Greek were the most common languages in Palestine at the time. Hebrew was spoken and read by few; it was mainly a religion of the upper classes and of the priesthood. Probably because of the low status of women at that time, the name of James' and Yeshua's mother was not included in the inscription. Many speculated that the Yeshua referred to might have been Yeshua of Nazareth, who Christians commonly call Jesus Christ. The James referred to would then be the brother of Yeshua mentioned in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) Incidentally, the box was empty. If it held James' bones, then there might have been a remote possibility of extracting a DNA signature from the marrow -- an interesting thought.

BAR editor Hershel Shanks said: "It could be, probably, the most significant archaeological discovery of this generation...the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology." Other experts are less certain. John Kloppenborg is a professor of religion at the University of Toronto. His specialties are in early Christian history and epigraphology (the study of inscriptions). He said: "If you travel in evangelical [Christian] circles, I would imagine lots think it's great and probably authentic. But in the circle I move in, I have yet to meet anyone who thought the inscription authentic." 11

An ossuary is typically a limestone box that was used by Jews in in ancient times. When a person died, their body was typically left in a cave to decompose. A year or so later, when the flesh had rotted away from the bones, the latter were stored in an ossuary. This ossuary is typical in size; it measures about 20" long, 10" wide and 12" high.

If the James whose bones were once stored in this ossuary was the James, a Jew who led the Jewish Christian movement in Jerusalem, then it would be the most ancient piece of hard evidence of the existence of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ). The only other evidence from that era is contained in the text of the Bible, the Gospel of Q, other gospels and epistles that never made it into the Bible, and in other literary works.

Unfortunately, the ossuary was allegedly purchased by collector Oded Golan from the antiquities market and was not uncovered in an archaeological find. Archaeologists use the term "unprovenanced" to refer to such objects. Professor Eric Meyers said: "There was a whole tomb that was looted and this has been sold on the black market. We're missing all of the rest of the stuff that could have filled in the blanks. That's very sad and that's why we don't want to encourage archaeological looting and this sort of activity."

Two stories are circulating about the ossuary's recent history. One says that the collector purchased the box about 30 years ago from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer. Another is that it was purchased about 15 years ago.

The belief that this was the ossuary of the brother of Jesus was dealt a serious blow when "linguistics experts provided evidence showing that the inscription was dated centuries after the time of Jesus." 7 The belief was essentially demolished when a committee of experts from many scientific disciplines announced on 2003-JUN-17 that the ossuary did indeed date from ancient times, but that the inscription is a modern forgery.

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Is the ossuary a modern forgery?

Forgeries of biblical objects and even the biblical text has a glorious two millennia history. It was natural for some archaeologists and religious historians to suspect that the inscription or even the entire ossuary is a fraudulent modern copy of a first century object. However, experts have examined microscopically the patina on the box itself and compared it to the patina in the grooves of the inscriptions. Specialists at the Geological Survey of Israel have searched for evidence "of modern pigments, scratches by modern cutting tools or other signs of tampering." They found none. They extracted some patina -- a cream-colored film on the surface of the stone -- and found that it matched the patina on the inside of one of the letters. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto ON Canada used long-wave ultraviolet light which would probably "highlight attempts to fake it." 9 Nothing seemed out of place. The box appeared to be ancient.

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Can the age of the ossuary be determined?

One source said that soil remains were found in the box. Other sources state that there was no organic matter associated with the box's creation or use. If the latter is true, then it would be impossible to use carbon-14 dating methods. Even if soil were present, this dating method would only determine the date of the soil, not of the box itself.

Jews used ossuaries:

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In Jerusalem throughout the first century BCE and first century CE.

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In the Jordan Valley and in Galilee into the third century CE.

Thus the box could have been made and used in the Jerusalem area from about 100 BCE to 100 CE. But it could have originated in the Galilee centuries later.

French archaeologist, Andre Lemaire, and Dr. Joseph Fitzmyer, a widely respected American scholar of Aramaic, have determined that the dialect in which the inscription is written matches most closely to the Galilean dialect of the late 2nd to 6th century CE. There are two indications of this:

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The suffix "uy" was used on the word "brother" in "brother of Jesus." In all the inscriptions and texts from first century BCE and first century CE Jerusalem, this suffix was spelled "uhy." The only exception is in "an unusual text called the Genesis Apocryphon" where the "uy" is assumed to be a spelling error.  "In Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of Galilee in the late second century and beyond, the -uy spelling is the main one in both inscriptions and texts."

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In Aramaic inscriptions found in Jerusalem, the phrase "brother of Jesus" is written by changing the last letter of the word "brother," and butting it directly against the word for "Jesus." In inscriptions of the later dialect of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, the word "of" is actually spelled out. It is the latter wording that appears on the ossuary.

It appears that the box was constructed for a man by the name of James who lived in the Galilee sometime after the first century CE.

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Could the ossuary have been for the James of the Bible?

The Jewish historian Josephus recorded that James was executed about 63 CE. In order for this ossuary to have been for James, then:

bulletAn Aramaic dialect only known to have been used later in the Galilee would have had to have been utilized, and
bulletThe engraver would have had to make a spelling error.

This seems highly improbable.

But even if one assumes that, somehow, the box was from first century Jerusalem, what are the chances that the James mentioned in the box is the brother of Jesus? It turns out that Ya'akov, Yosef and, and Yeshua (James, Joseph, Jesus) were very common names in Palestine at the time. So the inscription probably would have referred to another family, not to Joseph, and two of his sons -- Jesus and James -- as mentioned in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).

Before the study by Andre Lemaire, and Dr. Joseph Fitzmyer, had been completed, some academics believed that the box was probably related to Jesus. For example:

bulletKyle McCarter, a Johns Hopkins University archaeologist said that the box was probably for James the brother of Jesus, but that he had "a bit of doubt." He commented: "We may never be absolutely certain. In the work I do we're rarely absolutely certain about anything."

Others were more skeptical:

bulletRobert Eisenman of California State University believes that the existence of an historical Jesus "is a very shaky thing."  He told reporters that the new discovery was "...just too pat. It's too perfect."
bulletRev. Joseph Fitzmyer, a professor at the Catholic University said: "It will always be controversial...The problem is how do you determine that the people involved are the people in the New Testament...It's certainly possible that they are, but I can't see going beyond that."
bulletFrank Zindler, Editor of American Atheist Press questioned whether proper peer review was followed prior to the news of the alleged discovery being made public at a press conference and in the pages of BAR. He added: "Considering the fact that virtually all religious relics claimed to date from before the second century are hoaxes or misunderstandings, it is a priori likely that this 'find' will be found fraudulent if objective scientific study should ever be allowed."
bulletDaniel Lazare, author of a recent cover story in "Harper's" subtitled "archaeology Refutes the Bible's Claim to History, said that "The odds against it are really huge....We're pretty sure that James lived. We're pretty sure that Jesus lived. But James was a pretty obscure guy who, you know, was just one of millions of common folk in that part of the world....But it's a longshot. It doesn't mean it's impossible. It's just unlikely. And the fact that it was not recovered through a recognized archaeological dig but was found on the open market does compromise it, as well." 10
bulletShibli Zaman, is an "independent analyst in the fields of Comparative Religion, Semitic Etymology and Philology, and various classical Islamic sciences." 13 He found many indications that the inscription is a modern forgery. He has published an essay in which he grouped the discrepancies into eight categories. 14

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The mention of the brother in addition to the father of James:

The Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) article stated that the ossuary probably belonged to James, the brother of Jesus. It states: "The family relationships contained on the new find helped experts ascertain that the inscription very likely refers to the biblical James, brother of Jesus (see, for example Matthew 13:55-56 and Galatians 1:18-19)...the mention of a brother is unusual -- indicating that this Jesus must have been a well-known figure..."

One unusual feature of this ossuary is that Jesus' name was mentioned at all in the inscription. Among the hundreds of bone boxes which survive from that time, only two mention a brother. This might imply that the "Jesus" was a person of great stature at the time, as the Bible Archaeology Review stated. However, there are other possible explanations. Yeshua's name may have been added because:

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He had paid for James' funeral, or

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He owned the tomb, or

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He presided over the burial ceremony, or

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Because of the large number of James and Josephs in the area, they might have wanted to specify one additional name to more clearly define which James was being referred to.

The BAR article stated that: "Although all three names were common in ancient times, the statistical probability of their appearing in that combination is extremely slim. Contradicting this belief is the opinion of André Lemaire. He asked: "Could it be James the brother of Jesus? There was no mention of [James as being from] Nazareth, but it was very impressive." He estimates that there were perhaps twenty James' among the two generations of Jerusalem's population of 80,000 who was the son of a Joseph and the bother of a Yeshua. In all of Palestine, the number would presumably have been much larger. Zindler disagrees with this estimate. "These were among the most common names of the time, and given the large families of that day, a very large number of Jesuses must have had brothers named James and fathers named Joseph."

The ossuary could have belonged to the James in the Bible, but the odds seem to be very much against it. Lemaire acknowledges in his article that "nothing in this ossuary inscription clearly confirms the identification" of this James as the one known in Christian tradition.

The U.S. Discovery Channel featured a documentary TV program in the spring of 2003 that dealt with all aspects of the ossuary find. The Israel Antiquities Authority has issued a limited export permit. The ossuary was placed on display during a 2002-Fall convention of religious scholars at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada.

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Sponsored link:

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Implications concerning the Virgin Birth:

Most Roman Catholics, liberal Protestants, mainline Protestants, Muslims and members of the Baha'i faith believe that Jesus mother, Miriam or Mary, was a virgin at the time that Yeshua was conceived by the Holy Spirit. These beliefs are based on the biblical Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the Qur'an. This is commonly referred to as the Virgin Birth, although "Virgin Conception" would be a more accurate term. The Bible refers to James as a "brother" of Yeshua, both in the Pauline Epistles and in the Gospel of Matthew. However, Christian denominations have divided beliefs concerning the precise relationship between Yeshua and James:

bulletProtestants generally believe that they were full-blooded brothers, both having Mary as their mother. Many liberal Protestants assume that Joseph was their father.
bulletRoman Catholicism teaches that James was a cousin or close associate of Yeshua. They believe that Mary was a virgin at the conception and birth of Jesus, and remained a virgin all her life.
bulletEastern Orthodoxy teaches that James was a step-brother of Yeshua, the product of an earlier marriage by Joseph.

No one knows which of the above beliefs is correct, or if a fourth possibility represents reality. There are no historical records to consult. However, each of these faith groups teaches and supports their own story, presumably because it is the best match to their theological beliefs.

If this ossuary were that of James of the Bible, then it would add support to the Protestant position.

Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, commented: "The dominant Catholic tradition is that the brothers of Jesus are actually cousins because Mary didn't have any more children, or they were step brothers in that they were Joseph's sons by a previous marriage. This inscription could call into question that doctrine." 

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Decision by an investigating committee:

The Associated Press announced on 2003-MAR-5 that the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) had created two separate commissions of archaeologists, conservators, geologists and language experts to study the ossuary and the Joash Tablet. 12 One committee of experts studied "the scientific aspects in the writing and style" of the inscription. The other studied "the originality of the patina in the engraving and the ossuary itself." The patina is the calcium-carbonate crust that builds up over time on soft limestone. 17 On 2003-JUN-17, the 14 scientists involved announced their unanimous conclusions. This will probably be the most definitive answer that the world will ever have about the nature of the ossuary:

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The ossuary itself dated to ancient times, perhaps even to the time of death of Jesus' brother James.

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The patina -- a varnish-like finish -- that covers part of the inscription appears to be fake. It was made from ground chalk and water. It was artificially created within the last few decades using temperatures that do not occur in nature or in any process known in the 1st century CE.

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In some places, the inscription cuts through the patina.

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Chemical elements were discovered in the patina that didn't exist in Jerusalem prior to modern times, but which are currently found in tap water.

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The inscription appears to have been made by a modern speaker of Hebrew who is attempting to create an ancient Hebrew inscription.

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Thus, the inscription, but not the ossuary, is a hoax.

Robert Eisenman, a professor of Middle Eastern religions and archaeology said that the first part of the inscription ("James, son of Joseph") appears to have been written in formal script, while the second part ("brother of Jesus") was written by a different hand in cursive script. This suggests that the two parts of the inscription were written at different times by different people. 17

Dr. Gideon Avni, the director of excavations and surveys of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said: "There were doubts from the beginning that this discovery was too good to be true. Now we know it's not true. I know this comes as a enormous disappointment, especially for Christians who responded emotionally to the discovery...But from our point of view, it is a relief. It is better to stop this thing now than to let it travel through the great museums of the world, pretending to be something it isn't." 15

The article in the Toronto Star featured pictures of other items that it considered great fakes. It includes the fossil remains of Piltdown Man and the Shroud of Turin. 15

Meanwhile, Hershel Shanks, the editor of the Biblical Archaeological Review said: "This isn't a court where you just hand down a judgment and no one can question it." He referred to the statement by the IAA as "an exercise in archaeological politics." He attributed the differences in patina across the inscription to previous heavy scrubbing by the mother of the ossuary's owner. The 2003-JUL/AUG issue of the Review will contain an article by Edward Keall, head of the Near Eastern and Asian Civilizations Department of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, ON. In it, he asserts that "the ossuary and its inscription are genuinely ancient and not a modern forgery."

On 2003-JUL-24, the Jerusalem Post quoted Dr. Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Antiquities Authority, as stating that the initial testing on the ossuary's inscription was not extensive enough to detect the forgery. However, a follow-up test revealed that the ratio of oxygen isotope 16 to isotope 18 in the patina did not correspond to the ratio found in the Jerusalem area. This definitively proved that the patina covering the ossuary was a forgery. 20

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Arrest of the owner:

Oden Golan is the current owner of the ossuary, and was the individual who introduced the Yoash inscription to the world. He was arrested on 2003-JUL-22 by Israeli police on suspicion of forging and dealing in fake antiquities. 18 "In court, police unveiled equipment they said was found in Golan's home, including stencils, stones and partly completed forgeries." 19 Golan has denied that he is a forger. "Despite the findings, Golan insisted that the artifacts were authentic. He was unavailable for comment because he was in police custody." 19 According to the Jerusalem Post, Golan's arrest "hasn't put a damper on those trying to promote the find as inscription as genuine." 20

By 2006-MAY-16, his trial in criminal court for forging the James ossuary inscription was underway.

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More analysis:

Professor Wolfgang E. Krumbein, of Oldenburg University, Germany, a well-known expert in geology, geochemistry and microbiology, examined the inscription. He reports:

"We can state with certainty that a period of 50-100 years, at least, was necessary for the formation of the specific composition of patina whose traces were identified inside the ossuary inscription."

"Patina sampled from the surface of the ossuary, far away from the inscription, was found to be identical to the microscopic traces of patina, which I found inside the ossuary inscription and sites sloping from the surface into the inscription grooves (and no indication of any kind was found of any adhesive on this patina). Therefore, we must conclude that the patina formed over the entire ossuary and the remains of patina in the inscription area were formed over the same period of time."

"The conclusions noted in the reports by Goren, Ayalon and their colleagues, originate from a series of errors, biases, mistaken premises, use of inappropriate methodology, mistaken geochemistry, defective error control, reliance on unconfirmed data, disregard of information (such as the cleaning and preservation actions performed [on the ossuary], and the use of a comparative isotope methodology despite the fact that the [James ossuary] inscription fail[s] to meet the cumulative prerequisite conditions for such tests and comparisons." 21,22

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A later development:

A tomb was found in 1980 in Talpiot, Jerusalem which contained ten ossuaries. Six were marked with names that matched those in Jesus' immediate family, including Jesus, Maria -- his mother, Joseph, etc. An analysis of the popularity of the names in first century Palestine revealed that the chances that this tomb is some other family than Jesus' is remote. At some time during the next 15 years, one of the ossuaries was lost.

Discovery News reports:

"Robert Genna, director of the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory in New York, analyzed both the patina taken from the Talpiot Tomb and chemical residue obtained from the 'James' ossuary, which was also found around 1980, but subsequently disappeared and resurfaced in the antiquities market. Although controversy surrounds this burial box, Genna found that the two patinas matched. " 'The samples were consistent with each other,' Genna told Discovery News."

"Upon examining the tomb, the filmmakers determined a space exists that would have fit the 'James'ossuary. Given the patina match and this observation, Jacobovici [a producer of TV documentaries] theorizes the lost burial box could, in fact, be the "James" ossuary." 23

One complicating factor arose during the trial of Golan. Former FBI agent Gerald Richard testified that a photo of the James ossuary was taken in Golan's home. The FBI photo lab tested the photo and found that the paper was manufactured during the 1970s. The Toronto Star states:

"Jacobovici conceded in an interview that if the ossuary was photographed in the 1970s, it could not then have been found in a tomb in 1980. But while he does not address the conundrum in the documentary, he said in an interview that it's possible Golan's photo was printed on old paper in the 1980s.

Nothing about this ossuary appears to be simple and unambiguous!

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Related menus on this site:

bulletThe Virgin birth
bulletArchaeology and Judeo-Christianity
bulletThe Jehoash/Yoash inscription

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References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. John Wilford, "Artifact May Be Earliest Relating to Existence of Jesus," New York Times, science section, 2002-OCT-21, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  2. Gordon Govier, "Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived: Scholars link first-century bone box to James, brother of Jesus," Christianity Today, 2002-OCT-21, at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/
  3. Jeordan Legon, "Scholars: Oldest evidence of Jesus?," CNN, 2002-OCT-21, at: http://www.cnn.com/2002/TECH/science/10/21/jesus.box/index.html
  4. Guy Gugliota, "Archeological link to Jesus found, expert says," Toronto Star, Toronto Canada, 2002-OCT-22, Page A2
  5. "Proof of Jesus' Existence Examined in Discovery Special," Zap2it.com, 20020OCT-21, at: http://tv.zap2it.com/news/tvnewsdaily.html?28551
  6. "Israel allows scholars to take relic abroad: Inscription on bone box may be first mention of Jesus of Nazareth," Associated Press, 2002-OCT-27, at: http://www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/meast/10/27/jesus.inscription.ap/index.html
  7. Debbie Berman, "Archaeologists skeptical on authenticity of Temple tablet," IsraelInsider,  2003-JAN-17, at: http://web.israelinsider.com/
  8. Paul Flesher, "Does the James' Ossuary really refer to Jesus Christ?," at: http://www.bibleinterp.com/
  9. Roger Highfield, & Jonathan Petre, "Burial box 'held the bones of Jesus's brother'," Telegrpah.co.uk, 2003-APR-18, at: http://news.telegraph.co.uk/news/
  10. Don Hill, "Israel: Scholars Disagree Over Reported Ossuary Of Jesus' Brother, James," Radio Free Europe, 2002-OCT-23, at: http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/
  11. Michael McAteer, "Who needs proof," Toronto Star, 2003-APR-20, Page A3.
  12. Ted Olsen, "Weblog: Israel Inspects James Ossuary, But Joash Tablet Has Disappeared," Christianity Today, 2003-MAR-6, at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/
  13. "About us," A True Word, at: http://www.atrueword.com/
  14. Shibli Zaman, "The Ossuary Scam: A Critical Analysis of the 'James' Ossuary," A True Word, 2002-OCT-25, at: http://www.atrueword.com/
  15. Mitch Potter, "Coffin linked to Jesus is a fraud, experts rule," Toronto Star, 2003-JUN-19, Page A3
  16. Nichole Gaouette, "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 Christian Science Monitor, 2003-JUN-19, at: http://www.csmonitor.com/
  17. James Adams, "Experts dispute ossuary findings," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON, 2003-JUN-19, Page R1.
  18. "Dealer arrested in Jesus relic forgery," CNN.com, 2003-JUL-24, at: http://www.cnn.com/2003/
  19. " 'James ossuary' dealer suspected of forgery," 2003-JUL-24, The Toronto Star, Page A22.
  20. Abigail Radoszkowicz, " 'Jesus ossuary' promoters unfazed by forgery arrest," Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem, 2003-JUL-24, Page 04.
  21. "Update—Finds or Fakes? Forgery Bombshell," Bible Archaeology Society, 2006-MAY-16, at: http://www.bib-arch.org/
  22. Wolfgang E. Krumbein, "Preliminary Report: External Expert Opinion on three Stone Items," Bible Archaeology Society, 2005-SEP, at: http://www.bib-arch.org/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  23. Jennifer Viegas, "Jesus Family Tomb Believed Found," Discovery News, at: http://dsc.discovery.com/

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Copyright © 2002 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-OCT-22
Latest update: 2007-AUG-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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