What 'Jesus Hoax' Could Mean for Mideast Antiques ; Once Hailed as Biblical Proof, Forged Antiquities Now Raise Questions about Other Artifacts in Israeli Museums

By Nicole Gaouette writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

What 'Jesus Hoax' Could Mean for Mideast Antiques ; Once Hailed as Biblical Proof, Forged Antiquities Now Raise Questions about Other Artifacts in Israeli Museums


Nicole Gaouette writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The first archeological link to Jesus - a stone box said to hold the bones of his brother James - and a tablet detailing repairs to the ancient Jewish Temple are fakes, say officials of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

The announcement Wednesday ended months of professional speculation about the veracity of the timeworn relics, hailed as discoveries of stunning religious, historical, and contemporary significance.

The ossuary, with its mysterious provenance, fired popular imagination, renewing discussion of Christian theology and the links between early Christianity and Judaism. The objects' demotion to skilled forgeries now opens a new chapter, raising questions about the murky antiquities trade in Israel and beyond.

"How many more items are in museums that are not authentic, items from the antiquities market and not from archaeological sites?" asks Gideon Avni, director of the Excavations and Surveys Department at the IAA.

"It's the most serious question that this incident should raise," adds Dr. Avni, "that of forgeries getting into museums upon which research is based and conclusions are drawn."

News of the James Ossuary broke in October 2002, when Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archeology Review, called a Washington press conference to reveal a story with the familiarity and romance of fable.

He told of an anonymous Israeli collector buying the shoebox- sized container in the 1970s, then relegating it to his balcony, thinking it ugly. In spring 2002, a French academic came to see some of the collector's 30 ossuaries and as an afterthought, the collector showed him a photo of the James Ossuary's inscription.

The academic instantly deciphered the Aramaic, a language spoken by 1st century Jews. Grooved deeply into the ocher-colored stone, the letters read, "James, son of Joseph" and then more faintly, "brother of Jesus."

The news made national front pages and when the ossuary went on display at a Toronto museum for a few short weeks; more than 100,000 people flocked to see it. In a skeptical age ruled by science, the ossuary offered a tangible link to faith and was touted as such. It was "the first and only archaeological attestation of Jesus of Nazareth," said Mr. Shanks at the time.

For Christians who believe in the historical truth of the Bible, the ossuary was a rebuttal to skeptics. For others, it revived interest in Jesus' brother, who led the early church and advocated a faith that encompassed Jews still loyal to Judaism as well as Gentile converts.

Many people also saw the ossuary as an implicit challenge to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian theology, which holds that Jesus' mother, Mary, was a perpetual virgin and had no other children.

Theological questions were followed by archaeological doubt, despite authentication by the Geological Survey of Israel. For starters, Shanks's reputation among archeologists as a courter of publicity did not engender confidence.

When the collector was identified as a high-tech businessman named Oded Golan, Israeli officials stepped in. …

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