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
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
"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
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
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
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. …