The Ossuary of James: The Box That Just Won’t Go Away

The ongoing trial of Oded Golan, accused of forging artifacts such as the “Jehoash Inscription” and the ossuary of James the brother of Jesus, has provoked yet another editorial from Hershel Shanks.  It seems that a significant portion of the case against Golan rests with the testimony of anthropologist Joe Zias, who reportedly saw the ossuary in Jerusalem in the 1990s—and noted that its inscription did not contain the words “brother of Jesus” at that time.  Shanks, who co-authored a book on the controversial artifact shortly after its appearance in 2002 and has vociferously defended its authenticity, suggests that Zias’ dubious allegations have been revived in order to rescue a flagging case:

So far as I am aware, the only basis for this accusation [of forgery] is Joe Zias’s statement of having seen the ossuary in an antiquities shop in the 1990s without the last two words. So far as I am aware, however, Zias has never repeated his stunning accusation—until now.

Something else has become evident recently: The case against the ossuary inscription seems to be falling apart. At the conclusion of the prosecution’s case, the presiding judge (there are no juries in Israel) suggested to the prosecution that it consider dropping the case. “Not every case ends in the way you think it will when it starts. Maybe we can save ourselves the rest,” said the judge to the prosecution, according to Matthew Kalman, the only journalist who regularly covers the trial. “Where is the definitive proof that the accused faked the ossuary? You need to ask yourselves those questions very seriously,” the judge admonished.

The judge’s remarks have been widely disseminated.

Subsequently, Kalman interviewed Zias on camera. As if to bolster the prosecution’s case Zias repeated his accusation, apparently for the first time in five years:

“The first part of the inscription is authentic,” Zias said. “Somebody took an object worth perhaps, maybe $200, added a couple of words and the price now goes up to $2 million. I remember that I had seen his name [? blurred] in an antiquities shop in the 1990s, so it couldn’t have been in the hands of Golan [then].”

Following the initial appearance of these charges in 2004, Shanks responded with a pointed article entitled “Lying Scholars?” (the full text of which is apparently available here).  Frankly, I would be surprised if very many people are interested in the debates surrounding this tricky little box.  Given my strong academic interest in the family of Jesus, I avidly followed the initial reports of the ossuary’s discovery.  I soon realized, however, that it contributes very little to the historical record regardless of its authenticity.  (For a list of four firm yet vague contributions, see an earlier post here.)  As its continued presence in the public sphere cannot be attributed to its significance as an archaeological artifact, it is increasingly evident that the majority of Shanks’ vitriolic attacks and the equally contentious responses of his opponents are driven by personal concerns rather than objective scholarship.  No one likes to admit that they’re wrong!

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July 2009


© 2006-2009, Matthew Burgess. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of the original content of this website is strictly prohibited. Quotations or citations should include a link to this website. The views and opinions given here are my own and do not represent those of the University of Virginia (or anyone else, for that matter).

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