Whatever Happened to the James Ossuary?

As you may remember, in October 2002 there was great fanfare as a new archeological find was announced. With the support of top scholars, Biblical Archeological Review announced that an ossuary bearing the inscription, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," was found near Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, however, other scholars began to express doubts about the validity of the find. In June 2003, the Israel Antiquities Authority examined the ossuary and determined it was a forgery. Because the IAA failed to issue a full report about their examination, however, the controversy over authenticity continued.

As more doubts were raised, the tide shifted against authenticity. Then, in December 2004, Israel issued an 18-count indictment against Oded Golan, the owner of the James Ossuary, and four other men, accusing them of forging antiquities, including the Ossuary. The indictment was reported on this blog, but what has happened since then?

News reports are scarce, but here is what I have been able to piece together. First, I will provide some of the specifics about the indictment:

The charge sheet, which ranges from forgery to suborning others to commit perjury, lists Golan in various combinations with his co-defendants: Robert Deutsch, who owns three antiquities shops in Tel Aviv and Jaffa; Shlomo Cohen, who used to run a Jerusalem antiques shop; Rafi Brown, a former conservator at the Israel Museum; and Faiz El Amlah, a West Bank Palestinian. The 18 charges cover the James Ossuary and the Joash Inscription, as well as various inscribed pottery shards, clay seals, a jug, a bowl and a decorative lamp.

The above link is to an article by David Rowan which provides details regarding the evidence involved, as well as Mr. Golan's continued claim that he is innocent and that the James Ossuary is authentic. It is well worth checking out, though it is dated (having been written in May 2005). In short, the Israeli government is pursing this case aggressively and has amassed a voluminous amount of evidence, though direct links between the alleged conspirators seem to be lacking (which the author notes may just be par for the course in this kind of forgery operation).

The trial has started and is moving rather slowly. A September 2005 article from the London Telegraph reported about some witnesses, including an Israeli art collector and an Egyptologist who works for the British Museum, who were being called to testify at the trial. Although the art collector, considered the leading private collector of biblical antiquities, insists that none of the millions of dollars worth of antiquities he bought from the alleged conspirators is suspect, the prosecution is expected to focus on a piece that he refused to buy because he was suspicious of its origins. Prosecutors also expect to cast doubt on some of the other items he purchased. Obviously, the art collector has an interest in the reputation of the antiquities he purchased.

One witness who has testified is Ada Yardeni an expert in the field of Aramaic and Hebrew palaeography. I do not know what his testimony was, but he wrote a piece for BAR concluding that "I am confident that the James ossuary inscription is authentic." Dr. Yardeni, however, did have doubts about the inscription on another relevant piece. Moreover, it was Dr. Yardeni's transcription of the inscription on the James Ossuary that appeared on the cover of BAR.

Another witness who may have testified by now is Lenny Wolfe, a Jerusalem based dealer in antiquities whose expertise is reportedly in seals and bullae. Mr. Wolfe would appear to be a prosecution witness.

The latest I have seen is from blogger and pastor Jim West, who reports that the trial is moving along at a snail's pace, but that one of the defendants has pleaded guilty.

In sum, fewer scholars are willing to speak in support of the autheniticy of the James Ossuary; the owner of the James Ossuary and others have been indicted and zeaolously prosecuted by the government of Israel for fraud and forgery; the authenticity of the James Ossuary is an important issue in the trial; and one of the defendants has pleaded guilty to all charges (though I have no specifics as to what statements he may have made in connection with his plea or the James Ossuary).

UPDATE: I found this article from the Society of Biblical Literature website which has a thorough description of the indictment. It includes this description of the defendants:

1. Oded Golan: a collector from Tel Aviv who is accused of fabricating and selling inscriptions.
2. Robert Deutsch: an antiquities dealer who has also completed course work in archaeology and epigraphy. In addition, he teaches courses as an adjunct instructor at the University of Haifa.
3. Rafael Brown: an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem.
4. Shlomo Cohen: an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem.
5. Fayez al-Amaleh: a Palestinian antiquities dealer.

I believe it is Mr. al-Amaleh who has pleaded guilty.

The article also provides descriptions of the significant artifacts alleged to have been forged, including the James Ossuary. Helpfully, the article matches each defendant with the artifacts that each is alleged to have been involved in forging or selling. Mr. Golan alone is listed as forging the James Ossuary. It would seem, therefore, that Mr. al-Amaleh's confession may tell us little that directly bears on the James Ossuary.


Kevin Knox said…
Very cool followup. Thanks!

I did a quick search on your site for shroud and Turin. Any thoughts on the shroud?
Layman said…


I'm afraid I have little to offer on the Shroud. I have not found it a very effective apologetics tool because of the conflicted nature of the tests that have been done. Perhaps another Cadre member or reader would have more to offer.

Janell Price said…
Very informative article. Thanks for the research necessary to update this important topic.
Jennifer said…
I am a student of anthropology with an interest in biblical archaeology. I have followed this story, as well. Great follow-up.
BK said…

I did a piece quite some time ago on the Shroud. You can find it here: http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2005/03/maybe-shroud-is-dead-after-all-or_24.html

I haven't seen anything else lately.
Chris Simeone said…
Here's an update as of October 30, 2008...


I short the article states the inscription was not a forgery.

The government’s star witness, Yuval Goren, former chairman of Tel Aviv University’s institute of archaeology, was forced to admit on cross-examination that there is original ancient patina in the word “Jesus,” the last word in the inscription that reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

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