"Jesus Box" Is a Fake, Israeli Experts Rule

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 18, 2003
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There have been biblical scholars questioning the authenticity of the so-called Jesus box from the get-go. Yesterday the Israel Antiquities Authority issued a report calling the box a fake.

Others disagree, and the controversy is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

"I think what we have here is a case of dueling experts," said Steven Feldman, managing editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, the journal which first reported the find. "I don't think we've heard the last of this story. So far three groups of specialists have examined this. The Geological Survey of Israel thought the inscription was ancient, as did the Royal Ontario museum, which did extensive testing. The group with the Antiquities Authority thought it an inscription in modern times. I think it needs more evaluation, and hopefully some kind of consensus will emerge about it."

From the first century B.C. to about A.D. 70, it was the Jewish burial custom to place their dead in a cave for a year, then retrieve the bones and put them in an ossuary—also known as a bone box. Several hundred bone boxes from that era have been found; some ornately carved, some plain, some with feet, some not.

The box in question caused a sensation because it bears the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

The find was first described in the November/December 2002 issue of the Biblical Archaeological Review by Andre Lemaire, a paleographer at the Sorbonne University in Paris, (École Pratique des Hautes Études). He dated the box, which was empty, to A.D. 63.

His report sparked a spate of controversy among biblical scholars and archaeologists. If the 2,000-year-old ossuary were genuine, it would be the first archaeological proof that Jesus existed. Up until now, all references to the three men have been found only in manuscripts.

The authenticity of the ossuary itself was generally accepted, but many scholars questioned whether all or part of the inscription was a forgery.

In April the Israel Antiquities Authority formed two committees to examine the evidence. One was assigned the task of examining "the scientific aspects in the writing and style [to be able to] confirm the authenticity of the writing;" the other was tasked with verifying the "originality of the patina" on the stone's engraving and the stone material itself.

The committees released their unanimous findings Wednesday: the box itself may be correctly dated, but the inscription was added at a later date.

"The inscription appears new, written in modernity by someone attempting to reproduce ancient written characters," the agency announced.

"There doesn't appear to be anything new in the report, either in terms of evidence or argument," said Ben Witherington, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. "And they haven't looked at or taken into account the Toronto evidence."

A conference of biblical scholars took place in December at the Royal Ontario Museum, allowing a large number of antiquities professionals to look at the box, and many were convinced of its authenticity, he said. The box also underwent laboratory testing in Toronto and was examined using mass spectrometry, ultraviolet light, and other tests.

Question of Authenticity

The artifact's lack of provenance had always been a red flag to many scholars. To antiquities specialists, knowing where something was originally found provides a wealth of clues that can be used to authenticate an object.

Lemaire discovered the ossuary while examining the collection of Oded Golan, an engineer in Tel Aviv with a passion for relics from biblical times. Golan purchased the artifact from a Jerusalem-based dealer in the 1970s. However, Golan's reputation as a collector is "questionable."

"The dealer who sold it was a man of questionable reputation who had a history of inappropriate dealings with various museums and government agencies," Eric Meyers, an archaeologist at Duke University, told National Geographic several months ago.

Meyers doesn't question whether the box is genuine and dates back to the first century. But he never believed the inscription was authentic.

In addition to provenance, doubts arose because half of the inscription had been cleaned at some point in time. The break comes at the word "brother." The "brother of Jesus" part of the inscription also looks to be written in a slightly more cursive form than the beginning of the inscription.

The box was originally tested in Israel by scientists at the Geological Survey Group, who judged it to be about 2,000 years old, and carved from Jerusalem limestone. The Antiquities Authority committee suggests that it's possible the stone from which it was hewn originated in Cyprus or northern Syria.

"All they seem to have looked at is the patina issue. No one is doubting that this is an ancient Jewish ossuary," said Witherington, who is co-author of The Brother of Jesus. "Nor is anybody arguing about whether the inscription is more recent than the ossuary. I think we're talking about a reused ossuary, which would account for some of the discrepancies in weathering." The book, published March 18, describes the find itself, and what it tells us about biblical times and the origins of Christianity.

"Even if it was [made of stone quarried outside of Jerusalem], what difference would that make? We know the people of the times carted cedars from Lebanon to Jerusalem to use in building the temple; why wouldn't stone masons bring in good quality stone?"

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