The Authenticity of the James Ossuary Inscription: My Opinion is Shifting

I just got done reading this article about the Oded Golan trial. The point of fascination is that Golan mentions a picture taken in the 1970s of some shelves inside the home of Golan’s parents. The photograph shows the now-famous James ossuary — with the complete “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” inscription. The authenticity of the photograph was vouched for by an FBI photo analysis expert (from the USA, naturally).

I was unaware of this photograph. I find it persuasive. It seems very solid proof that the full inscription is not faked, but authentic. The article describes attempts by the prosecution to argue the photo was faked, but the thinking is quite strained (and I’m willing to bet the FBL guy knew what he was doing). This would mean that the suspicious patina issues surrounding the inscription must have some other explanation (I am still not satisfied at all with the current defense of the inscription on that point).

The photo also means something else: The James ossuary cannot have come from the “Jesus Family tomb.” That tomb was discovered on March 28, 1980, according to Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who investigated the find at the behest of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.1 If the “Jesus Family Tomb” was discovered in 1980 but this photograph of the James ossuary is from the 1970s, the James ossuary has no connection to that tomb.

  1. See p. 15 of Amos Kloner, “A tomb with inscribed ossuaries in east Talpiyot,” Jerusalem. Atiquot 29 (Jerusalem):15-22.

Responses to the James Ossuary Forgery Trial Verdict

A “not guilty” verdict in the seven-year trial of antiquities dealer Oded Golan was announced today. The trial was significant in that it involved the James ossuary (and so, naturally, its inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”). As I blogged a short time ago (see point #3 at the link), though the ossuary itself is accepted by all as authentic, many scholars consider the inscription to be entirely or partly faked. Since this ossuary is thought by some (namely Jacobovici and Tabor) to have originally been interred in the first Talpiot tomb (the “Jesus family tomb”), the case has been watched closely.

Mark Goodacre has a round-up of scholarly responses to the verdict. Most (Tabor of course is an exception) don’t think a legal verdict means the inscription is authentic, declaring that the scientific evidence against the inscription is a separate issue from who is responsible for it. The response of Eric Meyers of Duke University, whose comments are representative:

“I would therefore emphasize that because the government, in this case, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Police, failed to prove that the artifacts in question were inauthentic in no way means that they are authentic. The burden of proof that falls on the prosecution in a criminal case must rise to a high level of proof beyond reasonable doubt. The fact that the defendants have been acquitted thus does not end the matter of the quest to decide authenticity. This leaves much opportunity for academic opinion to continue to believe that these artifacts are not authentic and to question their provenance.”

Meyers’ response also includes mention of the fact that “The prosecutor Dan Bahat said the case had been weakened by the refusal of a key witness to travel from Egypt to testify, the same person who had appeared on Sixty Minutes.”

State of the Question for “Jesus Family Tomb” and Talpiot B

I was prodded to write this summary post by Mark Goodacre’s most recent post on Simcha Jacobovici’s apparent obliviousness to the academic criticisms of his work by Mark and others. In a video dated to last year, Jacobovici pretends to be unaware of any mistakes in his work and its presentation.

There are only two explanations for how he “missed” Mark’s list of errors (this weekend will mark four years that they have been online) and those of others: (1) ineptitude; and (2) apathy fueled by self-aggrandizement. I’ll let readers decide which one makes more sense. My money is on the latter.

Mark, of course, good-natured as he is, seems to have assumed that Jacobovici actually cared about the discourse over the past few years and the past few days. I can imagine Mark doing his best to imagine $imcha pouring over the scholarly interaction, fretting here and there about how he could have done  a better job of thinking more carefully about the data. Forget it, Mark. That never happened nor will it. After years of blogging on paleobabble and the constant internet trafficking of antiquity-twaddle (and even more years of doing so by email), I can tell you from hard experience that the last thing people like Jacobovici are interested in is pursing truth objectively. They are interested in the “truth” of the agenda they have constructed. I know this comes across as harsh, but it’s just the way the paleo-babbling grist mill works. I’m more jaded than Mark because I’ve seen dozens of other archaeo-hucksters pretend that their work is so paradigm-shifting and intellectually overwhelming that it cannot be answered by mainstream “in-the-box” scholars. It’s PR BS; just part of keeping people interested enough to keep coming back for the next credit card swipe. And Jacobovici is better at it than most.

Consequently, as a refresher of sorts, I thought I’d put together a summary of where all this is really at — what are the main sticking points?

Aside from Mark Goodacre’s listing of errors on Jacobovici’s website presentation of this tomb, what has all the discussion of which Jacobovici feigns ignorance produced? What’s the current situation?  Here’s a list of the most crucial points:

The “Jesus Family Tomb”

1. The Names in the Tomb

A. Paucity of Patronyms

Most of the names in the tomb lack patronyms. That is, we have no idea of the relationships between the people in the tomb. This applies to “Jesus son of Joseph” and either of the Marys in the tomb. Jacobovici (and Dan Brown, another scholar) wants people to think that Jesus and one of the Marys (the one whose name allegedly reads “Mariamne,” and alleged reference to Mary Magdalene) as being married.But why not brother and sister? Aunt and nephew? Grandmother and grandson? Second cousins twice removed? No patronyms = guesswork. The same goes for any of the other names lacking patronyms. There is ZERO evidence in any ancient text that Jesus was married to anyone. For example, you can click here to watch some exciting screen capture videos of me searching the Gnostic gospels (in vain) for a Jesus’ marriage. You can see Goodacre’s list of errors in regard to the “Mariamne” red herring as well.

B. The Commonality Issue

Most of the names in the tomb are common. The retort to this is that the assemblage of these names in a single tomb is not common.  But how would we know that? Rahmani lists 227 inscribed ossuaries, many of which are from the same tomb, and so few family tombs have actually been discovered. The most reasonable scholarly estimates of the population of first century Jerusalem at no more than 100,000, most of whom were Jews (Samuel Rocca, Herod’s Judaea [Mohr Siebeck, 2008], p. 333). So let’s say 75,000 Jews in first century Jerusalem. Numerically, there would have been many more family tombs than have been discovered, so any estimate of the rarity of any collection of names is based on navigating without instruments. The point: Rarity in terms of the data we have is not the same as rarity in terms of the data that corresponded to a first century Jerusalem reality. Not having the latter gives no warrant to substituting the former and pretending it’s the latter. That’s a little thing I like to call “cheating.”

The statistical likelihood of this being Jesus’ family tomb is also greatly influenced by the name Yoseh. If this name is just a variant of the more common Joseph, the probability that the tomb is truly that of Jesus of Nazareth is 2-3%. If, on the other hand, Yoseh is a rare name, then the probability is 47%. Mark Goodacre has pointed out for years now that Yoseh and Joseph are interchanged in the gospels for the same person:

The difficulty over (1) is that the names Joses and Joseph are clearly regarded as similar or the same in the New Testament. Mark 6.3 calls Jesus’ brother “Joses” while the parallel in Matt. 13.55 calls him “Joseph”.  Matthew clearly regards Joseph as an alternative, preferable way of saying “Joses”.  Likewise, the character who appears in Mark 15.40 and 15.47 is called Joses in Mark and Joseph the Matthean parallel (Matt. 27.56).  Moreover, the fact that this character may be a different character than the brother of Jesus also witnesses against the alleged extraordinary nature of the name. The same Joseph / Joses variation is found in the texts too, and not just here in Matthew but also in Acts 4.36, Joses / Joseph Barnabas.

So, if we go with the data we have for the persons actually in question (Jesus’ family) the name is not rare; it is a variant for “Joseph.”

[UPDATE 3/13/2012: Richard Bauckham was kind enough to add the following note in the comments page regarding this name:

“There is an important point about the name Yoseh which is being missed. People seem to have accepted the claim by Tabor and the others that there are only 9 occurrences. But they get this figure by distinguishing between Yoseh(final he) and what Tabor says is “Yosi” (final yod). These are in fact the same. The latter should be vocalised “Yose” (long e). Yoseh is an Aramaic spelling, Yosey a Hebrew spelling. The combined total occurrences for the two forms is about 40, which means a considerably higher frequency. In this case, Yose is not ‘rare.’ Of course, it is also true, as has been said a number of times in these discussions, that Yose is just a shortened form of Joseph(Yosef or Yehosef), and the same person would often be known by both full and short forms. Matthew has Joseph where Mark has Joses, no doubt because Matthew preferred the formal to the colloquial form. The same could happen on an ossuary inscription or in other places.”]

2. Logical Coherence

A. Yoseh and Judas

The above issue with the name Yoseh is important for another reason. On one hand, Jacobovici would have us be breathlessly astonished with how his evidence coincides with the gospels, while on the other hand, we are to ignore where it simply is not. Goodacre succinctly notes this inconsistency in two regards:

(1) They claim that “Yoseh” is significant because it is rare, a claim that does not take the New Testament evidence seriously.

(2) They do not regard “Judas son of Jesus” as contradictory evidence for the identification with the Jesus family.

Honestly, we are supposed to believe Jesus had a son (by Mary Magdalene) and named him JUDAS!?  Yes; that is what we are asked to believe.

B. Logic Check

I can’t help asking what to me are some obvious questions:

  • This tomb was not hidden underground. Given its famous occupants, how is it that no enemy of the early church, Roman or Jewish, simply didn’t end Christianity by exhuming the bones of Jesus of Nazareth from his own tomb showing the whole thing to be a sham?
  • “Matthew” is a name on one of the ossuaries. So, presuming with Jacobovici that he is the Matthew who wrote the Gospel of Matthew, and that Jesus of course was long dead before he wrote it, how in the world would Matthew get away with that scam? No one local in Jerusalem knew it was a scam? Seriously?

3. The James Ossuary Debate

Most scholars believe the ossuary is genuine, but that the inscription (“James the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus/Yeshua”). There are good reasons (here and here and here) to consider either the whole or the second half of the inscription to be faked  (i.e., added by a modern hand). This would make the related issue of whether this ossuary was one of the missing ossuaries in the “Jesus Family tomb” moot. Obviously, if if came from that tomb, then the statistics would have to be reworked (but that would not in term affect the Yoseh issue noted above, or the logical coherence issues). And even if it came from the tomb, the inscription could still be a fake (whole or part). Someone could have taken a blank ossuary from that tomb and added the inscription. The official final report of the Israel Antiquities Authority on this ossuary included these epigraphic experts (with their summative thoughts included):

The Ossuary Inscription Committee

Prof. Amos Kloner (Appendix 6E)
It is clear that the engraving on the bone box dates from a different period than its original installation. The inscription appears new. The writer tried giving the letters an ancient appearance by using samples from contemporaneous inscriptions.

Dr. Tal Ilan (Appendix 6F)
Even if the ossuary is authentic, there is no reason to assume that the deceased was actually the brother of Jesus. But I am of the opinion that the inscription is a forgery.

Prof. Roni Reich (Appendix 6D and 6D1)
The inscription does not exhibit a combination of configurational or substantial effects that would imply forgery. But I was convinced that the inscription is a forgery when presented with the findings by the Materials Committee.

Dr. Esther Eshel (Appendix 6G)
From my examination of the inscription and the data I received, it appears to me quite clear that the inscription is not authentic, and was added at a much later date (possible in two stages).

Incidentally, the verdict in the antiquities hoaxing trial that involves this ossuary is set to be announced next Wednesday. Regardless of the verdict, it seems the inscription involved fakery judging by the links noted above. The patina issue as it relates to the inscription seems very suspicious.

The Talpiot B Tomb

My thoughts on this are captured in an earlier post. Basically, we have an inscription reading (for the divine name) that lacks precedent in terms of letter formation and a picture that is supposed to be a fish spitting out a man (Jonah), but the man is a blob. No man; no Jonah, and no fish [insert blurry UFO picture joke here]. I’m going with the unguentarium view of the drawing. It makes the most sense.