Joseph M. Holden, Ph.D.

Figure 1 Zev Radovan

Figure 1 Zev Radovan

One of the earliest and most important discoveries relating to the historicity of Jesus and members of his family is the limestone bone-box (called an ossuary) made known to the public in October 2002. Ossuaries were used by Israel from about the second-century B.C. until the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Over ten thousand such ossuaries have been discovered but only about one hundred contain inscriptions. Of these, only two have an identification similar to the one etched in the now famous and somewhat controversial “James Ossuary.” The entire Aramaic inscription reads, “Jacob (James), son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” (Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua).

Figure 2 Zev Radovan

Figure 2 Zev Radovan

If, in fact, the inscription in its entirety is recognized as authentic, which we believe to be the case, we have clear first-century A.D. testimony of Jesus, his father Joseph, and brother James. James (Ya’akov) is given in the Gospel accounts as a brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55), but he is also one of the most important figures in the New Testament. The book of Acts reveals he was the pastor of the Jerusalem church, moderator of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and penned the epistle of James. James is also spoken of a number of times in the writings of Josephus. He was put to death by certain Jewish leaders in A.D. 62, so if the James Ossuary is the one in which his bones were placed, then the dating of the bone-box would be approximately A.D. 62-63, allowing time for the reburial of the bones after the decomposition of the flesh, according to Jewish practices.

In December 2004, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the State of Israel brought an indictment against antiquities dealer and owner of the James Ossuary, Oded Golan, claiming the second part of the inscription, the portion which reads “brother of Jesus” to be a forgery. This indictment seems to have come to nothing after five years of court proceedings that concluded in March 2010 with 116 hearings, 138 witnesses, 52 expert witnesses, over 400 exhibits, and more than 12,000 pages of court transcripts![1] According to Golan’s written summary of the trial (supported by the 474 page Hebrew language opinion handed down by Jerusalem District Court Judge Aharon Farkash on March 14, 2012), many high-level scholars with expertise in ancient epigraphy, paleography, bio-geology, and other crucial disciplines relating to examining the inscription have testified that there is no reason to doubt that the “brother of Jesus” was engraved by the same hand in the first-century A.D.  In view of this, it is very likely that we may have a very early and important historical witness to Jesus and his family.

The Populat Handbook of ArchaeologyA summary of the arguments for and against the authenticity of the inscription is listed below.

Arguments against Its Authenticity

  1. The ossuary was not discovered in situ, within a secure archaeological context, but rather obtained through the antiquities trade.
  2. Though the bone-box itself and the first half of the inscription are not contested, arguments the second half of the inscription (brother of Jesus) was recently engraved (forged) and was not completed by the same hand have been posited due to the absence of natural occurring patina.[2] (Patina is a thin layer of biogenic material expected to be present on most, if not all, ancient artifacts to some degree. It is caused by the continuous secretions and activities of micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, algae, and yeast on the stone and inside some of its grooves. If the same consistency of patina is equally distributed on the ossuary and found within the engraved grooves, it would suggest the authenticity of the inscription. The absence of patina within the disputed portion of the inscription would suggest a forgery or modern engraving of letters.)
  3. The foundation of the IAA’s case against Oded Golan was based on an eyewitness, Joe Zias, an anthropologist formerly employed by the IAA, who claimed he previously saw the ossuary without the “brother of Jesus” portion of the inscription.

Arguments for Its Authenticity[3]

  1. The size of the ossuary indicates the bones belonged to an adult male, thus being consistent with James.
  2. In 2004, while the ossuary was in IAA possession, the police (Mazap) made a silicon impression (cast) of the inscription that contaminated and mutilated the inscription. When the silicon was removed it also removed the natural occurring patina, but despite this action traces of the patina were still present in several of the letter grooves, indicating that the inscription is indeed ancient.
  3. The name on the ossuary (James) reveals that the person was a male.
  4. Ossuaries were only used by Jews only in the area of Jerusalem and from the end of the first-century B.C. until A.D. 70, the same time period that Josephus tells of the death of James at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders.
  5. Of all those ossuaries bearing an inscription, almost all speak of the deceased occupant’s father, but occasionally has the person’s brother, sister, or other close relative, if that person was well-known. The rare presence of a sibling’s name (Jesus) would indicate that Jesus was a very prominent figure.
  6. Prof. Kloner, a specialist and archaeologist, dates the ossuary to between A.D. 45– 70, and is thus consistent with the death of James in A.D. 62 according to Josephus.
  7. Though the names Joseph, James, and Jesus are common names in the first-century, the combination of “James, son of Joseph” is rare and unique to this ossuary, meaning it is highly probable the bone-box belongs to James, Jesus’ brother even without the second half of the inscription mentioning this.
  8. Prof. Camil Fuchs, head of the Statistic department at Tel Aviv University, researched deceased males in Jerusalem in the first-century A.D. He made conservative estimates by examining the growing Jerusalem population between A.D. 6-70, subtracting all women, children who will not reach manhood by time of James’ death, minus non-Jews, and considering the fame of Jesus as a brother to warrant the inscription, time of death, and literacy. He concluded with 95 percent assurance there existed at the time in Jerusalem 1.71 people named James with a father Joseph and brother named Jesus![4]
  9. Golan affirms he purchased the ossuary from an antiquities dealer who said it was found in the Silwan, or Kidron Valley area in Jerusalem. James the Just, pastor of the Jerusalem church[5] and half-brother of Jesus[6] was stoned and thrown from the pinnacle of the temple according to Josephus. According to Christian tradition, he was buried in a rock-cut tomb in the Kidron Valley, and one year later, in accordance with Jewish tradition, his bones were interned in an ossuary.[7]
  10. Expert witnesses have confirmed the inscription in its totality was inscribed by the same hand in the first-century, though this was a much disputed item, especially by Yuval Goren and Avner Ayalon, until experts were put under oath at trial.
  11. Experts have confirmed the presence of microbial patina on the ossuary and both parts of the inscription “James, the son of Joseph” and “brother of Jesus,” demonstrating the unity and antiquity of the inscription. In addition, this patina is generally deemed ancient, without the possibility of it occurring naturally in less than 50-100 years, making a recent forgery impossible. The world’s leading expert in bio-geology and the patination process, Wolfgang Krumbeim of Oldenburg University in Germany, affirmed the patina on the ossuary and inscription most likely reflects a development process of thousands of years. He added there is no known process of accelerating the development of patina. In addition, he concluded the patina covering the inscription letters are no less authentic than the patina covering the surface of the ossuary, which the IAA says is authentic. Other researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto confirmed the patina within the letter grooves is consistent with the patina on the surface of the ossuary, thus legitimizing the entire inscription’s antiquity.
  12. According to expert paleographers Andre Lemaire and Ada Yardeni, who authenticated and dated the inscription based on the shape and stance of the letters, the Aramaic is fully consistent with first-century style and practice.[8] No credible challenge to their findings has yet to be published.
  13. Adding the words, “brother of Jesus” is exceptional among the ossuaries found in Jerusalem.[9] During the trial, it was revealed what eyewitness, Joe Zias, who does not read Aramaic, thought he saw (i.e. James Ossuary) was actually a different but similar ossuary with three Aramaic inscribed names (Joseph, Judah, Hadas) known as the “Joseph Ossuary”.[10] Prior to rendering the final verdict by Judge Farkash, apparently Zias said to Hershel Shanks he was “joking” when told others about the “brother of Jesus” portion of the inscription was missing from the ossuary![11]

So extensive and strong is the support for the authenticity of the ossuary and its inscription, according to Golan, Dan Bahat, the prosecutor, said in his closing arguments that the State would probably dismiss the charges the ossuary inscription is a forgery.[12] In fact, many of the IAA witnesses who initially claimed the inscription was a forgery appeared to have changed their minds after closer analysis and scientific testing.[13] In addition, many prosecution witnesses, those who testified for the IAA/State and argued the inscription is a forgery, confirmed the authenticity of the inscription based upon careful analysis of the patina and the engraved inscription. The following chart offers a survey of several expert witnesses and their conclusions about the ossuary inscription.

Expert Witness/Opinions Regarding the Authenticity of the James Ossuary[14]
Person Expertise Comments
Andre Lemaire Epigrapher, ancient Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions. Has no doubt the entire inscription was ancient and inscribed in a single event. No reason to believe the contrary.
Ada Yardeni Paleographer, researcher, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Examined the inscription in 2002 and concluded the entire inscription is of ancient origin, and inscribed by a single individual. She also stated, “If this is a forgery, I quit.”
Hagai Misgav Member of the IAA Committee, expert in Hebrew and Aramaic ossuary inscriptions. Found no indication of forgery in the inscription.
Shmuel Ahituv Member of the 2003 IAA Writing Committee to examine the authenticity of the inscription and expert on Hebrew inscriptions. Found no indication the inscription is a forgery or is modern. The text and paleography make it difficult to rule out the authenticity of the inscription.
Yosef Naveh Professor, prosecution witness No indication the inscription is a forgery.
Y.L. Rahmani Archaeologist, has published the corpus of IAA ossuary inscriptions in IAA’s possession. After examining the inscription, found no indication the inscription, or any part of it, was a forgery.
Dr. Esther Eshel Prosecution witness She cannot rule out the possibility the entire inscription may be ancient
Roni Reich Jerusalem professor, archaeologist, and researcher Ossuary inscription is ancient, no reason to doubt its authenticity, and most likely comes from the late second temple period.
Gabriel Barkay Jerusalem archaeologist and professor Ossuary is ancient and found no scientific evidence to doubt its authenticity.
Gideon Avni IAA “Writing Committee” appointed to examine the paleography and inscription in 2003. Never testified against the authenticity of the inscription.
Orna Cohen Senior antiquities conservator for the IAA and Israeli museums, archaeologist, chemist, and specialist in the conservation of ancient stone items. Based on her careful analysis of the patina within the letter grooves under various light conditions, she concluded with certainty the phrase “brother of Jesus” had been engraved in ancient times.
Wolfgang Krumbein One of the world’s leading experts (Oldenburg University, Germany) on the patination process, stone patina, geology, and bio-geology. Analyzed samples of patina taken from the ossuary letter grooves, and concluded this patina would require 50-100 years to develop, and most likely reflect a development process of thousands of years.  The patina in the letter grooves was consistent with the patina on the surface of the ossuary, whose antiquity has not been contested.
Shimon Ilani

Amnon Rosenfeld

Experts in Archaeometry (scientific testing of archaeological artifacts) at the Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem After examination of the inscription in 2002, they identified natural bio-patina in all of the letter grooves, demonstrating the inscription occurred prior to the scratches and patina forming. They believe the ancient origin of the entire inscription.
James Harrell University of Toledo (OH), Expert in geology and stone of the ancient world Found no indication any part of the inscription was forged.
Dan Rahimi Royal Ontario Museum of Toronto Museum researchers tested the patina and found natural patina in the letter grooves under a granular substance that is consistent with detergent used by the IAA to formerly clean the ossuary.
Yuval Goren Expert in petrography of potsherds and clay/silt, former member of IAA, and prosecution witness Goren initially submitted an opinion on the ossuary at the IAA’s request in 2003 where he denied any presence of natural patina in the letter grooves. He later contradicted this by reversing his findings. Later in 2007, after a re-examination of the inscription, he admitted to finding natural patina in the second half of the inscription.
Avnor Ayalon Geo-chemist of the Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem and prosecution witness He proposed to examine isotopic composition of the oxygen and carbon in carbonate patina, and compare it to the same found in stalactite caves in Jerusalem. Similar isotopic values would prove the carbonate patina on the ossuary may be natural, but a dissimilar value would demonstrate it is not natural and most likely a forgery. However, Ayalon’s model has been challenged by and deemed to be based on false assumptions and inappropriate for examining ancient artifacts.
Elisabetta Boaretto Expert in Carbon 14 dating, prosecution witness Found no evidence to support the inscription is forged or new. Only signed the IAA petition against Golan because Goren, who later reversed his opinion, and Ayalon, whose model was subsequently shown to be mistaken, had previously asserted they had found no patina, not due to her own analysis of the inscription.
Jacques Neguer Chemist for the IAA and prosecution witness Asserted the inscription had been cleaned with detergent in the past, but cannot determine whether it was a forgery.
Israel Police Forensic Department (Mazap) Forensics Letters in the first half of the inscription, which are not contested, were engraved by the same individual who engraved the second half of the inscription.
Gerald B. Richards Adjunct professor of forensic science at George Washington University, and senior consultant to the FBI Conducted scientific tests of Oded Golan’s photos, including infra-red and ultra-violet tests, of the ossuary, proving the inscription had been engraved prior to 2002 since the photography (Kodak) paper used was discontinued in the 1980s. The indictment against Golan had claimed Golan had forged the inscription around 2002. This claim is now impossible to sustain.
Dan Bahat State prosecutor in the case Announced the State would most likely dismiss the charges involving the ossuary and retract its claim the ossuary inscription was a forgery had the bill of indictment not involved other charges.

Golan summarizes the outcome of extensive scientific tests performed on the ossuary and its inscription when he writes:

Neither the prosecution nor the IAA presented even a single witness who was an expert on ancient stone items, or patina on antiquities and who ruled out the authenticity of the inscription or any part of it. On the contrary, the findings of all the tests, including those of prosecution witnesses Goren and Ayalon, support the argument that the entire inscription is ancient, the inscription was engraved by a single person, and that several letter grooves contains traces of detergent/s that covers the natural varnish patina that developed there over centuries, and was partially cleaned (mainly the first section), many years ago.[15]

Is The Bible Really The Word of GodThe apologetic and historical implications following from this ossuary are far-reaching since it informs us: 1) James, Joseph, and Jesus have historical corroboration as individuals and a family in the first-century; 2) early Christians, like James, may have been buried according to Jewish custom; 3) Aramaic was used by early Christians; and 4) early Christianity emerged from its Jewish roots, making it extremely difficult to divorce Christianity from its Jewishness. As such, the inscription’s primary apologetic value rests on the notion that after the most intense interdisciplinary expert scrutiny according to the rules of law, the James Ossuary is destined to be the most authenticated and scrutinized artifact in history. We now can appreciate the ossuary as an authentic artifact that provides the earliest direct archaeological link to Jesus and his family!

Copyright Joseph M. Holden, 2012. All Rights Reserved.[16]

[1] Oded Golan, “The Authenticity of the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Tablet Inscriptions – Summary of Expert Trial Witnesses,” (March, 2011), 1. The trial was brought to an end on March 14, 2012, when Jerusalem District Court Judge, Aharon Farkash, cleared the defendants (Oded Golan, Robert Deutsch, et al.) of all forgery charges (see Judge Farkash’s 474 page opinion in the case). The clearing of the forgery charges shows that the prosecution failed to demonstrate that the inscription was a forgery. As a result, there is no reason to doubt that the inscription in its entirety is an authentic description of Jesus and His family. This conclusion is supported by the dozens of expert witness named below and the script analysis offered by Andre Lemaire (Sarbonne) and Ada Yardeni  (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) which gave them no reason to doubt the authenticity of the inscription. There is yet to be offered a reputable paleographical challenge to their conclusions on the matter. See James Brother of Jesus: The Forgery Trial of the Century with Hershel Shanks, editor, Biblical Archaeology Review (BAS, 2012).

[2] After testing the ossuary, clay specialist, Professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University, initially championed the idea that ancient patina was missing from the second half of the inscription and that the forger must have used some other bonding substance or was a result from cleaning the inscription. However, subsequent examination of the inscription by Orna Cohen of the prosecution team revealed ancient patina in the word “Jesus’, thus discrediting Goren’s testimony and led Goren to reverse his initial conclusions.

[3] Based on court transcripts and expert testimony summarized by Oden Golan, “The Authenticity of the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Tablet Inscriptions – Summary of Expert Trial Witnesses,” (March, 2011); also see arguments for authenticity put forth in Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family. New York: Harper Collins, 2003

 [4] Hershel Shanks, “’Brother of Jesus’ Proved Ancient and Authentic” in A Biblical Archaeology Press Release (Washington D.C., June 13, 2012); Hershel Shanks, “’Brother of Jesus’ Inscription is Authentic!” in BAR 38:04, July/August 2012.

[5] Confirmed by his role at the council of Jerusalem and the words of Eusebius.

[6] The evidence appears clear that James was truly the half-brother of Jesus and son of Mary. The perputal virginity of Mary was not taught at the earlier periods of the church and even was rejected by Augustine. The word for brother in Greek is ἀδελφός (adelphos), while the word for cousin is ἀνεψσιός (anepsios). BDAG, 78. Louw and Nida, 118, say, “The interpretation of ἀδελφός in such passages as Mt 12.46; Mk 3.31; and Jn 2.12 as meaning ‘cousins’ (on the basis of a corresponding Hebrew term, which is used in certain cases to designate masculine relative of various degrees) is not attested in Greek nor affirm in the Greek-English lexicon edited by Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker. Such an interpretation depends primarily on ecclesiastical tradition.” The relationship is confirmed by the second-century father Hegesippius where he distinguishes James and Jude as brothers. Moreover Jude in his letter says that he is the brother (ἀδελφός) of James. Matt 1:25 is plain that the lack of sexual relations between Joseph and Mary was only until the birth of Jesus. It was morally proper for Jewish husbands and wives to have sexual relations and bear children, in contrast to some of the extreme ideas of celibacy practiced in some segments of the patristic period. The church historian Eusebius says that James was the head of the Jerusalem church and was brother of Jesus.

[7] Oded Golan, “The Authenticity of the James Ossuary,” (March, 2011), 13-15.

[8] Shanks, “’Brother of Jesus’ Inscription is Authentic!” in BAR 38:04, July/August 2012.

[9] Paul L. Maier, “The James Ossuary,” Issues, Etc.

http://www.mtio.com/articles/bissar95.htm (last visited November 13, 2011).

[10] Shanks, “’Brother of Jesus’ Inscription is Authentic!” in BAR 38:04, July/August 2012; also see the record of the defense’s cross-examination of Joe Zias in the Hebrew court transcript at: http://bib-arch.org/pdf/trial-hebrew-transcript.pdf

[11] See Strata: “Joe Zias: ‘Hershel Shanks Has No Sense of Humor’” in BAR 38:03, May/June 2012.

[12] Golan, The Authenticity of the James Ossuary, 13, (page 11462 of the Hebrew language court transcript).

[13] This can be seen on several fronts such as comparing earlier and later court documents, and comparing the later Golan, The Authenticity of the James Ossuary (2011) with earlier accounts of IAA witnesses recorded in Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

[14] Chart is based on the summary of court proceedings offered by Oded Golan, “The Authenticity of the James Ossuary,” (March, 2011), 1-15.

[15] Golan, The Authenticity of the James Ossuary, 10.

[16] The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible

http://www.veritasseminary.com/shop/popular-handbook-archaeology-bible/