Ossuary lettering tied to Jesus called fake

Israel's finding disagrees with others' conclusions

June 19, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - An Aramaic inscription on an ancient limestone burial box suggesting it contained the remains of Jesus' brother, James, is a forgery, experts with the Israel Antiquities Authority said yesterday.

The finding, which contradicts conclusions by other scholars, casts doubt on the significance of the ossuary, which had been hailed as providing one of the earliest known archaeological references to Jesus.

While the ossuary might be from ancient times, the lettering carved into its side - "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" - "is a fake," said Gideon Avni, director of excavations for the Antiquities Authority. "We do not know when it was done or by who."

Avni said the patina - the natural surface sheen of the burial box - includes a mixture of gold, red soil and carbon mixed with elements from modern tap water, a combination "not found in the Judean Hills during the last 3,000 years."

Also, he said that the words "brother of Jesus" appear to have been the work of a hand different from the one that did the rest of the inscription, written in an informal, cursive style possibly years after the first part of the phrase was expertly carved in formal lettering. But he cautioned that the brief sentence "is too short for a proper linguistic review."

The Antiquities Authority also announced yesterday that a tablet purported to be one of the few links to the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, from King Solomon's times, also is a forgery, as shown by several mistakes in the text that confuse ancient and modern Hebrew.

Both objects are owned by Oded Golan, a prolific collector who is the managing director of two engineering firms in Tel Aviv. In an interview in November, Golan - the subject of a police investigation into how he obtained the ossuary - said he bought the chipped object for $200 in the Old City in the late 1960s but only recently had the inscription translated.

Golan could not be reached for comment yesterday. He dismissed the committee's finding in an interview with the Associated Press. "I am certain the ossuary is real," he said. "I am certain that the committee is wrong regarding its conclusions."

Israeli police want to know when Golan obtained the ossuary, because it could belong to the state if it was purchased during the past 15 years, under laws designed to protect artifacts. Police said that several Old City merchants reported seeing the ossuary last year.

Ossuaries dating from the time of Jesus are relatively common, with several hundred in the hands of the Antiquities Authority. But because Golan's apparently came from a shop - and is thought most likely to have been stolen from an archaeological dig - it is impossible to determine where it had been originally buried.

The startling find was first reported last year in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review. Andre Lemaire, a French specialist in ancient scripts at the Sorbonne in Paris, dated the ossuary based on an examination of writing and laboratory tests, and was backed by the Geological Survey of Israel. Lemaire defended his conclusions at a seminar in November at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, which displayed the ossuary.

Steven Feldman, managing editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, said yesterday that Israel's conclusions do not end the discussions.

"It looks to me like we have conflicting findings by different groups of specialists," Feldman said. "We may need some outside group to evaluate the work of all these groups. This is not the final word."

The debate in Toronto centered on the inscription, and when and how it might have been written. Scholars suggested that it was forged during the Byzantine period in Jerusalem, or earlier, when pilgrims visiting the Holy Land sought out objects linked to Jesus. Others discussed whether the letters on the object - a mixture of cursive and formal script - were appropriate to the times.

But the Israel Antiquities Authority concluded that the letters postdate the patina because they cut through it. If the inscription were authentic, they said, the patina would cover the inside of the carved lettering.

Also, the Antiquities Authority said that the film "consists of chips of chalk completely undissolved by water and contains fossilized single-cell organisms" that would be impossible if 2,000 years old. "The inscription appears new, written in modernity by someone attempting to reproduce ancient written characters based on existing examples," its report concluded.

A similar problem with the surface was found on the tablet, known as the "Joash inscription." Officials said that the writing on this purported artifact - which would have offered some of the best proof of the First Temple period in Jerusalem - has glaring historical inaccuracies.

The tablet describes temple repairs by King Joash. But Avigdor Horowitz, a Biblical language expert, said part of the text used a phrase that in modern Hebrew means "to fix" - bedek bayit. In ancient Hebrew, it means the opposite, "to destroy," and wouldn't have been used to describe the repairs.

Nevertheless, Horowitz described the passage as "beautiful" and said he read it over and over again, "wishing it were true." But, he said, "the person who wrote it used modern Hebrew. That was the smoking gun."

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