Image: The James Ossuary
The James Ossuary has been the focus of a controversy that has lasted for more than a decade. An ossuary is a limestone container that is used to preserve the bones of a dead person. The reason the James Ossuary is important to archaeologists is because of its inscription: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” If the name Jesus on the ossuary is the same Jesus of the New Testament, then the ossuary contained the bones of one of the brothers of Jesus. According to Mark 6:3, Jesus had four brothers, James, Joseph, Judas and Simon and several sisters.
The owner of the Ossuary is Oded Golan whom the Israel Antiquity Authority accused of being a forger. The case against Golan went to trial. After years of litigation, an Israeli court exonerated Golan of forgery and ordered the Israel Antiquity Authority to return the James Ossuary to its owner.
When the ossuary was returned to Golan, it was discovered that the inscription had been tampered with. According to a news report, the Israel Police Forensics Laboratory applied a silicon substance to the inscription in order to determine whether the inscription is authentic.
Below is an excerpt from the report:
“The Israeli police, with permission of the IAA, made a red silicon mold of the inscription — destroying the ‘letter patina’ by pulling out this ‘soft’ patina … thus destroying evidence,” said the geologists who first studied the ossuary in 2002, according to Jerusalem-based journalist Matthew Kalman who has covered Golan’s trial extensively. “Consequently, the alleged small amount of masking letter patina is absent now and cannot be studied further.”
A patina is a tarnish that forms on objects after a long period of time. It is one factor archaeologists use to determine the authenticity of artifacts.
Reacting to the contamination of the inscription by the Forensics Laboratory, Golan said:
“The inscription was defaced, contaminated. The government said the second half of the inscription was forged — the words ‘brother of Jesus’ — and that’s where the major damage has been done.”
The damage to the inscription is a great tragedy for those who want to study the ossuary and the authenticity of the inscription. Many scholars believe that the James Ossuary is not a forgery and that the inscription is original to the ossuary. Now that the patina has been damaged, it will be impossible to determine the authenticity of the ossuary.
The great tragedy of this whole situation is that the red silicon substance was applied to the name “Jesus.” As its stands now, we will never know if this was a deliberate effort to destroy any evidence that links the ossuary to the Jesus of the New Testament.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary