Famous Fakes: the James Ossuary

The Secret History of Art has a new podcast episode available, the second half of a two-part podcast on Fake Religious Relics that began with a discussion of perhaps the most famous proven religious relic fake, the Shroud of Turin.  We continue with the second-most famous, the James Ossuary, once thought to have contained the bones of Jesus’ brother, James.

The James Ossuary

Oded Golan, Israeli archaeologist, claimed to have purchased an ossuary, a limestone box from the 1st century AD that was meant to contain bones, from an antique shop in Jerusalem in 1976.  He applied, in 2002, for a permit to ship the ossuary abroad for exhibition in Toronto, and around the same time, showed it to, Andre Lemaire, a scholar at the Sorbonne in Paris.  Lemaire noted an inscription that Golan claimed not to have seen.  It was written on the outside of the ossuary in Aramaic: Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua. “James, the son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”  It suddenly occurred to both Lemaire and Golan that this might just be the ossuary containing the bones of James, the brother of Jesus Christ.

Many devout Christians have failed to notice that, according to the Bible, Jesus had a number of siblings, making the later assumption that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus technically impossible (the idea of Virginal Birth does not appear in the Bible anyway, it was a much later addition to the story of Christ).  Among his siblings, both brothers and sisters, was someone called James, who is often linked to the James who became one of Jesus’ apostles.  This, Lemaire believed, could very well be a relic directly linked to Christ.

Lemaire published an article to this effect in Biblical Archaeology Review, and considered that there was a very high probability that this was indeed an authentic inscription. Golan had not noted the inscription in his application for a permit to export the work—if it were indeed an important religious relic, then Israel would be less inclined to permit it to be sent abroad.  The permit was accepted and the ossuary shipped to Toronto for exhibit.

Though Golan claims to have paid only $200 for the ossuary, he insured it for transport at $1 million.  The Toronto museum to which it was shipped, the Royal Ontario Museum, estimated that it was worth $2 million because of its cultural significance—that is, after all, why they wanted to display it.  The Israeli Archaeological Association (IAA) began an investigation.

When word got out about the ossuary, thanks initially to Lemaire’s article, it created a huge media storm.  It was called “the most important archaeological discovery ever made” by one enthusiastic journalist.  But there were obvious problems right from the start, and they had nothing to do with forgery.  No one seemed to notice that the names James and Jesus and Joseph were incredibly common among 1st century AD Jews.  They were the equivalent of Mike, Chris, and John today.  If someone found an object today mentioning “Mike, son of Chris and brother of John” would they assume that the Mike in question was someone famous?  There were doubtless thousands if not tens of thousands of Jews named James, Jesus, or Joseph around the time of Christ.  Why would anyone assume that this ossuary referred to the James, son of Joseph and brother of Jesus.

The answer is because the world wants discoveries, particularly the religious worlds longs for tangible objects that “prove” intangible religious beliefs to be true.  Of course anyone who needs to be shown some scientific proof of what they would like to believe in before they are willing to believe are missing the point.  Faith is about a blind willingness to believe.  But that pales in comparison to the excitement of discovering archaeological evidence that one’s faith is founded in truth, not just smoke and stories.

It was too good to be true, because it wasn’t true.  In March 2003, Israeli authorities arrested Golan for suspicion of forgery and dealing in fake antiquities.  A board of IAA experts determined that, while the ossuary itself was an authentic, ancient artifact, the inscription had been added to it in the modern era.  After the natural aging that occurred to the limestone box after centuries buried in a damp cave, someone had added the inscription on the back side of the box, covering the freshly-cut lettering with a homemade “patina” of age based on a mixture of water and ground chalk.  A five-man team of forgers, led by Golan, were found to have faked a number of biblical artifacts by adding inscriptions to authentic objects.  A search of a storage facility rented by Golan unearthed forged ancient seals and a series of inscriptions in various stages of production, as well as engraving tools and soil from excavation sites that would have been rubbed into the inscriptions to give the illusion of age and long burial.

Noah Charney is a best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction, and a professor of art history.  To subscribe to The Secret History of Art Podcasts, click here.

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