The James Ossuary
Today I have chosen to discuss the “James Ossuary”. The infamous bone box was obtained by an antiquities collector in the 1970’s from an unknown source in Jerusalem, and left in a cellar for nearly 30 years, until the owner asked a renowned expert to decipher the inscription on the ends. The inscription translated to say the ossuary belonged to James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. The box was then offered to a museum in Canada, for display for a period of time.
The owner claimed no knowledge of the context in which the ossuary was obtained at source, nor realisation of the historical and archaeological importance of the artefact prior to the deciphering of the inscription, except to say that he was told at the purchase that the box was sourced as a sole item. It was only when the ossuary rapidly gained publicity and excitement grew on an international level that its authenticity was called into question. This speculation culminated in one of the most well-publicised and long drawn out trials involving the suspected forgery of an artefact. The owner and a well-known dealer in antiquities, who is also a renowned scholar in the field, were both arrested and charged by the Israel Antiquities Authority with several counts of forging antiquities. The resulting trial lasted seven long years.
During the trial, evidence obtained by the IAA and Israel’s police scientists was shown to be flawed, due to a combination of lack of expert knowledge and contamination. Their tests also damaged the relic to the point where future tests would probably not be possible. The experts who supposedly tested the patina and decided it was faked, were found to have tested other later materials in error, most importantly residue from modern cleaning processes. The Prosecution witnesses, several leading experts, in turn testified that they could not dismiss the possibility of the authenticity of the artefact, in fact most of them agreed it was not a forgery. One expert for the prosecution offered results of dating tests he had conducted based on incorrect scientific methods, he had no expertise in the study of ancient stonework, nor the study of bio-organic changes in such items. During his tests he gained many results which contradicted his theory, he chose not to present those findings.
Experts for the defence agreed that without a doubt that not only was the inscription in its entirety authentic, but that matching biological evidence in the patina on both the ossuary and into the engraving, including Jesus, was consistent and in such a pattern that could not be faked due to ageing processes, it was all ancient therefore all parts of the inscription were authentic.
The Judge acquitted both defendants of all charges relating to forgery of the artefacts in question, including the ossuary, and delivered scathing rebuttals to the IAA and Prosecution. Despite being found not guilty, the IAA have refused to return the items resulting in accusations of punishment for the owner despite his innocence, and rumours of some ulterior motive, perhaps an effort to obtain the artefacts for their own benefits. Several other similar allegations of forgery and other charges have been mentioned during the debate. It is confirmed the IAA owns a storage facility holding thousands of antiquities obtained by similar means.
The ironic fact is the authenticity of the ossuary was never in question. Experts agreed from the outset that this was without doubt an ossuary dating from during the first century CE, and the first part of the inscription was also genuine. This box housed the bones of James, son of Joseph. It was only alleged that the second part of the inscription, relating James to Jesus, was forged.
Despite this, it appears that in the world of antiquities mud sticks. The James Ossuary is known as one of the greatest hoaxes in modern times. Debate continues to rage about the significance of the ossuary. If it were indeed authentic, it would cause a huge spanner to be thrown into the Christian works. That Jesus had siblings, which ironically is cited in the New Testament, calls into question Mary’s role as the Perpetual Virgin. Irrefutable proof that this artefact is authentic would beg the question, which other “biblical” antiquities dismissed as forgeries are in fact authentic? In the expert field, the verdict may be in, but the Jury is definitely still out.,