Archeology and the Bible
Was James' ossuary found in Israel?
Is it a really neat hoax?
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
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
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.
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:
In Jerusalem throughout the first century BCE and first
In the Jordan Valley and in Galilee into the third century
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
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:
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
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."
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.
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:
||An Aramaic dialect only known to have been used later in the Galilee
would have had to have been utilized, and
||The 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:
||Kyle 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:
||Robert 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
||Rev. 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
||Frank 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."
||Daniel 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
||Shibli 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
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
Archaeology Review stated. However, there are other possible
explanations. Yeshua's name may have been added
He had paid for James' funeral,
He owned the tomb, or
He presided over the burial ceremony, or
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
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
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.
Implications concerning the Virgin
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
believe that they were full-blooded brothers, both having Mary as
their mother. Many liberal Protestants assume that Joseph was their father.
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.
teaches that James was a step-brother of Yeshua, the product of an
earlier marriage by
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."
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:
The ossuary itself dated to ancient times, perhaps even to
the time of death of Jesus' brother James.
The patina -- a varnish-like finish -- that covers part of
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.
In some places, the inscription cuts through the patina.
Chemical elements were discovered in the patina that didn't
exist in Jerusalem prior to modern times, but which are currently found in
The inscription appears to have been made by a modern speaker of Hebrew
who is attempting to create an ancient Hebrew inscription.
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.
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
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
damper on those trying to promote the find as inscription as genuine."
By 2006-MAY-16, his trial in criminal
court for forging the James ossuary inscription was underway.
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
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
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
"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
"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
Nothing about this ossuary appears to be simple and unambiguous!
Related menus on this site:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
John Wilford, "Artifact May Be Earliest Relating to Existence of
Jesus," New York Times, science section, 2002-OCT-21, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
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/
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
Guy Gugliota, "Archeological link to Jesus
found, expert says," Toronto Star, Toronto Canada, 2002-OCT-22, Page
"Proof of Jesus' Existence Examined in
Discovery Special," Zap2it.com, 20020OCT-21, at: http://tv.zap2it.com/news/tvnewsdaily.html?28551
- "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
Debbie Berman, "
Paul Flesher, "Does the James' Ossuary really refer to Jesus
Roger Highfield, & Jonathan Petre,
"Burial box 'held the bones of Jesus's
brother'," Telegrpah.co.uk, 2003-APR-18, at:
- Don Hill, "Israel: Scholars Disagree Over
Reported Ossuary Of Jesus' Brother, James," Radio Free Europe,
- Michael McAteer, "Who needs proof,"
Toronto Star, 2003-APR-20, Page A3.
- Ted Olsen, "Weblog: Israel Inspects James
Ossuary, But Joash Tablet Has Disappeared," Christianity Today,
- "About us," A True Word, at:
- Shibli Zaman, "The Ossuary Scam: A
Critical Analysis of the 'James' Ossuary," A True Word, 2002-OCT-25,
- Mitch Potter, "Coffin linked to Jesus is
a fraud, experts rule," Toronto Star, 2003-JUN-19, Page A3
- 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:
- James Adams, "Experts dispute ossuary
findings," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON, 2003-JUN-19, Page R1.
"Dealer arrested in Jesus relic forgery," CNN.com,
- " 'James ossuary' dealer suspected of
forgery," 2003-JUL-24, The Toronto Star, Page A22.
- Abigail Radoszkowicz, " 'Jesus ossuary'
promoters unfazed by forgery arrest," Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem,
2003-JUL-24, Page 04.
- "Update—Finds or Fakes? Forgery Bombshell,"
Bible Archaeology Society, 2006-MAY-16, at:
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:
Jennifer Viegas, "Jesus Family Tomb Believed Found," Discovery News, at:
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Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-AUG-22