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James ossuary

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The James ossuary while on display at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003.

The James Ossuary is a 2,000-year-old “Bone Box” that many believe belonged to James the brother of Jesus. On the side of the bone box is inscribed in Aramaic: “Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua”, which is translated “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. As the inscription was the first historic record found of Jesus apart from manuscripts, its authentication could prove to be the most significant New Testament find in modern times. The Biblical Archaeology Review announced the discovery in October of 2002 and published the story in the November/December issue.[1]

The James burial box is about 20 inches (50 centimeters) long and made of Jerusalem limestone. The style of Aramaic inscription is a key indicator of age, and in this case consistent with the middle of the first century A.D. Although the names on the ossuary were fairly common for the era, the statistical probability of the three names occurring in proper relationship argues strongly that the inscription was a reference to the James of the New Testament.[1] It is also noteworthy that the mention of a brother on a bone box is extremely rare. Of the 215 bone boxes found with inscriptions, only one other identifies the name of a brother, and illustrates that the person was of some importance. Furthermore, honoring the name of a person who had been crucified offers clear testimony to the strong belief that Jesus had been resurrected.[2]

The ossuary has received much public scrutiny since its discovery and well publicized trial following an accusation of forgery by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). However, with the collapse of the prosecution's case and the advisement by the presiding judge in open court that the case should be dropped, it appears the trial will end in a major embarrassment for the IAA and a vindication for the defendants in the case and those supported the authenticity of the inscription.[3]

Historical context

James is referred to as "the Lord’s brother" in Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3, Gal. 1:19, called simply "James" in Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18, and 1 Cor. 15:7, and is considered by most scholars to be the author of the New Testament Epistle of James. Upon the crucifixion of Jesus, James assumed leadership of the Christian church in Jerusalem until he was martyred in 62 A.D. This was a great blow, for James was a deeply dedicated figure whose obvious piety and prudent leadership had commended the new faith to many for more than two decades. His most striking testimony had been that commitment to Jesus in no way required severance from Jewish roots. The consistent Jewishness of James' theology is evident in the Epistle of James that exists in our New Testament.[4]

It was the burial custom in Israel to place the dead in a cave for approximately a year to allow the flesh to decompose and desiccate away, and then the bones would be retrieved and placed in an ossuary. The practice took place for a limited period of time from the first century B.C. to about 70 A.D., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple. Several hundred ossuary from that era have been found, and although most are rather plain, on rare occasions they contain ornamental carvings and feet.[1]

Accusation of Forgery

Close-up of the Aramaic inscription: “Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua” (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”)

The ossuary and its inscription were examined extensively by the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada where it was displayed from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003.[5] Ed Keall, director of the Near Eastern and Ancient Civilization department of the Royal Ontario Museum, and many other scholars remain convinced of its authenticity. André Lemaire, a leading paleographer from the University of Paris found ancient patina within the lettering of the inscription, lending strong evidence for its authenticity.[6]

However, shortly after its discovery was announced, the James Ossuary met with a firestorm of controversy and claims of forgery. Suspicions began when it was learned that the artifact had been purchased from the antiquities market rather than discovered in situ. The artifact's lack of provenance immediately raised doubts among some scholars who rely upon knowing where something was originally found for authentication. Andre Lemaire, a paleographer at the Sorbonne University in Paris (École Pratique des Hautes Études) had discovered the ossuary while examining the collection of Oded Golan, a world renowned expert with an extensive collection of relics from biblical times. While authenticity of the bone box itself appears certain, the portion of the inscription which specifically offered testimony to the historicity of Jesus Christ was challenged by archaeologists, such as Eric Meyers from Duke University. Some, including Meyers, challenge the find based on the apparent questionable reputation of the art dealer who sold Lemaire the artifact. Meyers states: "I'm more convinced than ever that the artifact has been tampered with, and that the part of the inscription that reads 'brother of Jesus' is a forgery inserted at a later date".[2]

According to Keall, a non professional lay person started circulating an interpretation that the inscription was a "two-hand job" after seeing a photograph of the inscription and doubts spread like a contagious disease when reports of the reference to Yeshua (Jesus) were first published. Challengers pointed out that the inscription appeared to be scrubbed, and that a portion was in a slightly more cursive form, and also that one side of the bone box is more weathered than the other.[2]

Kealle summarizes the findings of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM):

We looked over the box very carefully, and subjected it to analytical testing using a light polarizing microscope, ultraviolet light, a microscope with 60 times the magnification, and electron microscopy. I'm very comfortable saying that the ossuary itself and the inscription are totally genuine and everything we found was consistent with considerable age. It's obvious someone had scrubbed the James part of the inscription. But it's like when you brush your teeth, no matter how hard you try to do a good job, there are always bits and pieces left. And that's true with the inscription; there are still bits and pieces left in the nooks and crannies, and they are consistent with the rest of the encrustation.[2]

The validity of the Yeshua inscription was later attacked by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), which appointed a committee of 14 scholars to examine the find, and on June 18, 2003, announced in a press conference that the James Ossuary inscription was a forgery.[7] However, the IAA never offered any detailed report explaining why it concluded the ossuary is a forgery that would allow the Royal Ontario Museum to reevaluate its findings, and the ROM therefore remains in support of its authenticity.[5] It is also noteworthy that one of the 14 scholars appointed by the IAA has since decided that the inscription is genuine.[8]

Materials subcommittee member Jacques Neguer summarizes the IAA committee's assertions:

The ossuary is authentic. Its inscription is a forgery. All the various scratches on the ossuary are coated in the original patina and only the inscription and its immediate surroundings are coated with an artificial "patina" - like [a] material of round crystalline granules. The inscription cuts through the original patina and appears to have been written by two different writers using different tools.[8]

Jonathan Sarfati published an update of the ossuary in Creation Magazine wherein he summarizes several criticisms of the IAA assertions of fraud not the least of which was the antichristian bias of the IAA committee who investigated the ossuary.[6] According to Lemaire, the committee did not include any Christian scholars, and the IAA had chosen people of known bias who had "expressed their opinion against the authenticity of the inscriptions".[9]


In July of 2003, Oded Golan was arrested under investigation, and authorities claim that a search revealed extensive evidence of activity including ancient seals and inscriptions in various stages of production. Despite these allegations, the authorities did not hold the accused for trial, but released him pending further investigation.[8] Golan was charged a year later along with four others on 18 counts of forgery, fraud, and damaging archaeological artifacts. Charges against two of the defendants were dropped, another man pleaded guilty to a minor charge unrelated to the main accusations, which left Golan and Professor Robert Deutsch, who were accused of being the leaders of the supposed forgery ring.[10]

Their trial, which has lasted more than 4 years and counting, was billed as the “forgery trial of the century” and involved more than 75 witnesses and over 5000 pages of testimony.[11] Under cross examination by defense attorneys, many experts recanted some of their findings.[10] For example, the government’s principal witness, Professor Yuval Goren (former chair of Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department) who testified that the forger had used a fake covering to conceal evidence of his forgery, was forced to admit upon cross-examination that he could see original ancient patina in the critical word “Jesus.” With that admission, the case fell apart.[3]

At the trial, not a single expert on Semitic inscriptions of the period testified that the ossuary was a forgery. In addition, several scientists offered testimony against Professor Goren’s and none verified his claims. On October 2008, Judge Farkash advised the prosecution to consider dropping the case after more than three years in court, which would result in a major embarrassment for the IAA and the Israeli police.[11] The defendants (Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch) who have maintained their innocence throughout the ordeal appear to have been vindicated, along with the Biblical Archaeology Review, which consistently supported the authenticity of the inscription, as have leading paleographers André Lemaire of the University of Paris and Ada Yardeni of Hebrew University.[3]


The validity of the Yeshua inscription has thus far withstood attempts to discredit it as a forgery. While it is true that paleoanthropologists are unable to authenticate ancient artifacts with 100% certainty, if legitimate the James Ossuary may well be the most significant New Testament archaeological discovery in modern times. It not only provides evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ, but also of the first century belief in his resurrection. That such a discovery would be the subject of public scrutiny and condemnation is not unexpected, and therefore it is best to remain skeptical of these accusations. It may be true that this ancient ossuary provides actual evidence of Jesus and the sacrifice through which the forgiveness of our sins was paid.

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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Burial Box May Be That of Jesus' Brother, Expert Says National Geographic News, October 21, 2002
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Jesus' Brother's "Bone Box" Closer to Being Authenticated National Geographic News, April 18, 2003.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Supporters of James Ossuary Inscription’s Authenticity Vindicated Biblical Archaeology Review, November 10, 2008.
  4. Ivor J. Davidson, The Birth of the Church: from Jesus to Constantine, AD 30 - 312, in The Baker History of the Church, vol. 1. (p. 131)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Royal Ontario Museum Statement: Oded Golan’s arrest/ James Ossuary Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Bonebox bashers blasted: Update on James ossuary claims by Jonathan Sarfati, Creation 26(2):15, March 2004.
  7. "Jesus Box" Is a Fake, Israeli Experts Rule National Geographic News, June 18, 2003.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 James Bone Box by John Baskette, Answers In Action
  9. Israel Antiquities Authority’s Report Deeply Flawed By André Lemaire. Biblical Archaeology Review 29:06, Nov/Dec 2003.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Ossuary hoax case may collapse San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 2008
  11. 11.0 11.1 James Forgery Case in Shambles Biblical Archaeology Review, October 31, 2008

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See Also