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Since the publication of the ossuary (bone box) in which James, the brother of Jesus, was allegedly buried, an unprecedented debate has arisen in both the scholarly and general world, and the issue does not want to die. The main problem concerning the find is that the ossuary came from a private collection, and was not found in a legal and documented archaeological excavation. For this reason, the authenticity of the object must be proven if possible.
Scholars in various fields examined the ossuary. The most critical examination was a microscopic analysis of the patina (an erosion layer) that developed in the letters after they were chiselled onto the side of the ossuary. The results were positive – the patina is genuine. This result persuaded many to conclude that the ossuary is authentic.
Due to a technical negligence, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) granted permission for the ossuary to be exported for three months and it was the centrepiece of a special exhibition in the Royal Ontario Museum, where people stood in line to get a glimpse of the new astonishing find. The Royal Ontario Museum also examined the ossuary by ultraviolet light. This light can sometimes track modern manipulations on antiquities but the ossuary passed this test too. There was no indication that the inscription, or any part of it, was added in modem times.
When the ossuary returned to Israel, the IAA took custody of it and a special committee consisting of scholars from various fields re-examined it. Again the geological examination was critical. In the microscopic analysis the patina, again, seemed genuine, but the geologists also ran another kind of test. This is a new technique that counts the amount of oxygen in the isotopes in the patina of the letters. The result was negative. The amount of oxygen was different from the patina of other 2000-year-old artefacts. A few weeks ago the IAA presented this result, together with the negative opinions of most of the archaeological scholars of the committee, at a special press conference. The news again made world headlines.
But this has only opened a new debate. On 27 July 2003 the “Cinematique” of Jerusalem invited the press and other people connected to the issue to attend the screening of a TV program about the ossuary made a few months ago. Following the screening, a panel of Israel scholars engaged in an open discussion. Surprisingly, most of the scholars were in favour of the authenticity of the ossuary. The notion some people had that Christian scholars tended to approve the ossuary, while Israeli/Jewish scholars tended not to, is now clearly wrong.
Another special guest appearing in the panel was Oded Golan, the owner of the ossuary. Just a few days before, he had been released from police custody after a long inquiry. The discussion was somewhat emotional and sometimes conducted in loud tones. Golan asserted his version of the discovery of the ossuary and his claim that it is authentic and even hinted to a conspiracy by the Israel Antiquities Authority against him.
But Shimcah Yakobovitch, the director of the TV program, presented the real punch line. A few days before the symposium, he interviewed the head of the Israel Geological Survey, asking him in greater detail about the isotope test they ran on the patina of the letters. He got a very interesting statement in reply. It appears that contamination of the patina changes the levels of the oxygen. The contamination can be caused by at least two things (1) when a forger inserts fake patina on the letters and (2) when the letters are cleaned by a wet towel – and that is exactly what Golan claimed: “I have owned the ossuary for over 25 years. Most of those years it was at my parents’ house. It is quite probable that my mum cleaned it occasionally to get the dust off”.
So is it genuine or not? It seems no side can be totally convincing. Personally, I am very suspicious of anything Golan says. Golan could have bought an ancient ossuary and forged the inscription by chiselling the whole or just the last part of it. Or he could have recently bought the genuine ossuary inscribed with the name of James that had been taken from a looted tomb in the Jerusalem area. If the latter, he knew the Israeli antiquity law that any ancient artefact found or purchased after 1978 could be confiscated by the state and so made up the story that he had owned it for a long time, yet only recently became aware of its full significance.
But Golan’s credibility is not on trial here, it is the credibility of the ossuary. With the current data, it seems to me that the ossuary cannot be convincingly disproved from being authentic. But, since the ossuary has no provenance, I will never be absolutely certain that it is genuine.
On Friday 8 August, I interviewed Oded Golan, the owner of the James ossuary at his home in Tel Aviv. The time we spent together was very interesting, but he did not answer my questions. For the most part, he told me nothing new.
I was accompanied by a Dutch reporter who represented a small magazine in Holland. Oded was very nice to us, which I found surprising, but that may have been because the Dutch reporter was slim and blonde! Oded spoke for three hours straight but it was more of a monologue than a dialogue or interview. He spoke continuously, barely giving us a chance to ask any directing questions. He spoke about both the James ossuary and the Yehoash inscription. He also claimed that the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) had formed a conspiracy against him.
With regard to the claim that the ossuary is a fake, Oded Golan said, “It is still possible 0.0000000000000001% that the James ossuary is a fake. I used to give the Yeboash inscription 15% chance that it is a fake. Now a lot less.”
His house is quite interesting. Built in the 1960s in northern Tel-Aviv, he has never bothered renovating it with more modem tiles or walls, but he has made many display areas where highlights of his collection are presented. He lives alone, with a dog, and a big white piano in the middle of the room.
I also spoke with Ron Kehati, a member of the anti-theft unit of the IAA. He said that it is only a matter of days before Golan will go on trial, and that there are so many accusations against him, it is absolutely certain he will go to jail. The only question is, for how long.