James Ossuary


In October 2002, Hershel Shanks, founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society and publisher of the Biblical Archaeology Review, announced “the first ever archaeological discovery to corroborate biblical references to Jesus”. The discovery in question was a chalk ossuary dating from the first century AD carrying the inscription in Aramaic “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. Several scholars, including epigraphers and physical scientists, had examined the inscription and assured Shanks that it was genuine (Lemaire 2002). Dubbed the “James Ossuary”, the identity of its owner was kept secret at first, but several newspapers soon revealed it to be Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv antiquities collector. Golan claims to have started collecting antiquities in the early 1960s, and that he purchased the ossuary in the early-to-mid 1970s (Shanks 2003, 22; Gatehouse 2005, 31). The date of purchase is important because in 1978 Israel enacted a law taking all unexcavated artifacts into national ownership. If the ossuary was out of the ground and in private hands before that date, Golan would be in full legal possession. If, on the other hand, the ossuary had been taken out of the ground after that date, Golan would have no title.
The ossuary had first come to the attention of Hershel Shanks in May 2002, and by September that year he had sold the film rights and arranged a book deal (Gatehouse 2005, 30). In October, he contacted Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) about an exhibition. The ROM jumped at the chance of displaying such an important artifact, and the exhibition ran from November 15 to January 5, attracting 95,000 visitors in six weeks. The ROM announced it had made a $270,000 profit. It also paid Shanks $28,000 (Gatehouse 2005, 33-4).
Although the ossuary itself is almost certainly genuine, with nothing known of provenience, academic cynicism about its inscription mounted, and the inevitable questions surrounding its authenticity followed. Then in 2003, Israeli archaeologist Joe Zias announced that he had seen the ossuary before, in a Jerusalem antiquities dealer’s store in the mid-1990s, when the inscription read only “James, son of Joseph” (Gatehouse 2005, 32-3). .
            In January 2003, another religious artifact appeared. A stone tablet inscribed in Hebrew Phoenician recording repairs to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem carried out by King Jehoash. Again, the inscription appeared to offer material confirmation of an event otherwise only known from the Bible, though in this case the Old Testament. Again though, provenience was sketchy, and the authenticity of the inscription was called into question.
In March, 2003 police and IAA officers raided Golan’s apartment and other premises. They found him to be in the possession of the Jehoash inscription, which they seized, along with other documents and material. They also discovered a large number of unregistered archaeological artifacts, and many artifacts in various stages of fraudulent manufacture (Silberman & Goren 2003, 26).
In December 2004, Golan and four other people (Robert Deutsch, Refael Brown, Shlomo Cohen, Faiz el Amlah) were charged with forging artifacts or enhancing genuine artifacts with forged inscriptions (Shanks 2005). The charges against three of the people were dropped though in May 2008 the trial of Golan and Deutsch was ongoing. Numerous objects were named in the indictments, including the James Ossuary and the Jehoash inscription. Another high-profile object was an inscribed ivory pomegranate said to be the only surviving artifact from Solomon’s temple, and which had been on display for many years in the Israel Museum.
Gatehouse, J. 2005. “Cashbox”, Maclean’s, March 28, 26-36.
Lemaire, A. 2002. “Burial box of James the brother of Jesus”, Biblical Archaeology Review 28(6), 24-33.
Shanks, H. 2003. “Cracks in James bone box repaired”, Biblical Archaeology Review 29(1), 20-25.
Shanks, H. 2005. “Update. Finds or fakes?”, Biblical Archaeological Review 31(2), 58-69.
Silberman, N.A. & Y. Goren 2003. “Faking Biblical History”, Archaeology September/October, 20-29.