Inscription on coffin believed to be that of Jesus' brother is fake, Emmanuel professor says

By Julie Fann
star staff

Presenting evidence from his own study and that of fellow professionals, Emmanuel School of Religion professor and renowned scholar, Dr. Chris Rollston, on Wednesday explained to Elizabethton Rotary Club members that an ossuary recently believed to be inscribed as belonging to that of James, the brother of Jesus, is a forgery.
   "Items as a result of illegal digging often make their way to the antiquities market ... there is a strong, financial motivation," Rollston said. "The ossuary alone may be worth $500 or $600, but if the inscription were genuine, the value would increase to around $2 million, perhaps even $4 million."
   Oded Golan, an Iraeli collector, is the owner of the James Ossuary. According to Rollston, Golan was in police custody due to controversy surrounding the ancient antiquity, which Golan claims he has owned for 15 years, Rollston said. Prior to that time, Golan says the ossuary had been in the possession of his family at their home since the 1970's. The truthfulness of Golan's statements has been questioned by authorities and scholars.
   Press coverage surrounding the James ossuary increased during the fall 2002 due to the work of a respected French epigraphist, André Lemaire. Lemaire said, in an article which appeared in the popular magazine Biblical Archaeology Review, that he considers the ossuary's inscription to be entirely genuine and dates it to the mid-first century A.D..
   An ossuary is a carved stone "box" where human bones were placed for the purpose of "secondary burial" (i.e., after the flesh had decayed). The "James Ossuary" reads Ya'akov bar Yoseph, Ahwy d Yesua' ("Jacob son of Joseph brother of Jesus").
   Rollston, who received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and who specializes in the study of ancient inscriptions, noted that the portion of the inscription that reads "brother of Jesus" is quite different in style from the rest of the inscription. Also, a patina (a "film" that develops on objects in time, due to the nature of the deposition or storage of the object) is a substance that can be faked, or manufactured in a lab, Rollston stated.
   "Yuval Goren, professor of geology at Tel Aviv University, was able to produce a patina that appeared ancient (chemically) in his lab in Tel Aviv," Rollston said.
   Inscriptions are of three basic types. Provenanced inscriptions are found by archaeologists during controlled archaeological excavations. The authenticity of those finds are not questioned because their archaeological context is certain.
   However, sometimes inscriptions are dug illicitly and are sold on the antiquities market. Also, occasionally modern people familiar with the languages and scripts forge inscriptions. Forgers read scholarly literature and so are sometimes able to produce "inscriptions" that appear genuine.
   According to Rollston, the ossuary is reported to have been offered to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem for $4 million and is a non-provenanced ossuary.
   In an article Rollston co-wrote with other biblical scholars that appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review, professor emeritus at Harvard and America's leading expert in ancient Semitic inscriptions, Frank Moore Cross, concluded that the inscription, "leaves little doubt that we are dealing with a forgery, and that, fortunately, it is a rather poor forgery."
   Results from close examination of the inscription by Rollston, Cross, and P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., W.F. Albright professor of biblical and ancient Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, reveal that the first portion of the inscription that reads "Jacob (James) son of Joseph" is Aramaic that is written in a typical first century A.D. formal script, while the words translated "brother of Jesus" are written in a typical second century cursive script.
   McCarter believes the words translated "brother of Jesus" were written by a different hand, more specifically, either Jewish Christians of the second century (e.g. the Ebionites) or by a 20th century forger who was quite good, but made a fundamental mistake with the script.
   Rollston feels fairly confident that the portion "brother of Jesus" is a 20th century forger.
   In a handout Rollston distributed to Rotary members, he provides his final assessment of the inscription:
   "Ultimately, because the script of the first portion of the inscription (i.e. Ya'akov bar Yoseph) differs so substantially from the second portion of the inscription (i.e., Ahwy d Yesua') the authenticity of the ossuary inscription is suspect. Of course, the fact that the ossuary is non-provenanced, having been purchased on the antiquities market, is also a red flag. Finally, the presence of a patina on some letters proves absolutely nothing about the date of the inscription. The point is that the entire inscription cannot be considered genuine. The words 'the brother of Jesus' are most likely modern, added by a venal 20th century forger."
   Rollston is the editor of Maarav, a journal of the North West Semitic languages, and is assistant professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at Emmanuel School of Religion.