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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

Biblical Artifacts Declared Fakes: Arrests in Israel for Forgery

          In 2002, the news that an ancient ossuary might be associated with James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, created great excitement in the world of biblical archaeology as well as among Christians and those of other religious faiths. The ossuary, or burial box, purportedly had an Aramaic inscription reading "Ya'akov, son of Yossef, brother of Yeshua," translated as "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" (see AR 3,3:12). While there was no way of absolutely proving a connection with the historical Jesus, the juxtaposition of the three names, and the dating of the Aramaic script, led some to believe that it was the burial box of James, martyred in AD 62. As such it had a powerful emotional and religious significance as the earliest reference to the biblical Jesus.

          The limestone ossuary was in the possession of Oded Golan, a well known Israeli collector of antiquities. At the time, Golan claimed he had purchased the box many years ago, and was unaware of its potential value until the inscription was read by André Lemaire, an expert in ancient scripts. While the news about the inscription was welcomed with enthusiasm by many, doubts about its authenticity were raised almost immediately. Over the past two years, various scientific analyses have been performed on the ossuary, including tests to determine if the patina over the inscription was consistent with that on the remainder of the artifact. At the same time, paleographic analysis of the inscription questioned both the style of lettering and the wording. While the evidence suggests that the box itself was ancient (probably ca. 1st century AD), at least part of the inscription is probably a recent fake.

          Also, in the past two years, Oded Golan and his entire collection have been under intense scrutiny. Initially, he was held by Israeli authorities for questioning about his role as a possible forger and receiver of stolen antiquities, but eventually released without being charged. Then in late December 2004, Israeli police indicted him along with three antiquities dealers (Robert Deutsch, Shlomo Cohen, and Faiz-al-Amaleh) on charges of running a forgery ring for over twenty years. Charges also included causing damage to antiquities and receiving fraudulent goods. The case is of particular interest because the items now declared to be fakes were once considered some of the most highly valued historical and religious pieces to be found in Israel.

          Other spectacular artifacts now revealed as forgeries include:

          o An ivory pomegranate (fig.1), once thought to be the top of a temple priest's scepter. Until recently on display in the Israel Museum, the pomegranate was believed to be the only known relic from Solomon's temple. This small artifact had an inscription partly encircling its neck which read "Sacred donation for the priests of (in) the House of [Yahw]h," identifying it with the Temple. Pomegranates were ancient symbols of fertility, and a motif known to be used in the Temple of Solomon (1 Kings 7:21). All of this is now moot, since the pomegranate has been withdrawn from view, and the Museum has announced that it is a fake. At the time of its purchase from an anonymous source in the 1980s, the Museum deposited $550,000 in a secret Swiss bank account. This subterfuge alone should have raised suspicions.

         o A stone seal purportedly belonging to Menashe (also known as Manasseh), King of Judah ca. 687-642 BC. It is reported to have been offered to a private collector for $1 million. Reference to Menashe's rule (noted for toleration of foreign gods), and to his captivity in Babylonia can be found in II Chronicles 33:11-13.

          o A decorated stone menorah said to belong to the temple High Priest. This also was offered to private collectors for a large sum of money.

          o The Yoash (or Jehoash) Inscription. The sandstone tablet, if it had been authentic, would have been of immeasurable historical value. It supposedly contained instructions in ancient Hebrew for repairing the First Temple in Jerusalem during the reign of Yehoash, son of Akhazyah, King of Judah (836-798 BC). Such repairs were reported in the Old Testament in 2 Kings:12, and the tablet, if genuine, would have provided non-biblical confirmation of the event.

[Fig.1: Ivory pomegranate, purported to be from Solomon's temple, declared a fake (Israel Museum)].

          The tablet, like the ossuary, was owned by Oded Golan, and like the ossuary, the stone tablet itself is probably ancient. Carbon-14 analysis undertaken by the Geological Survey of Israel dates the crust on the stone to 2,300 years ago. This appears consistent with the stone being an actual relic from the 9th century, which began corroding at the beginning of the 3rd century. Based on linguistic analysis, the inscription, however, was considered to be a forgery by most scholars almost from the start. These included Frank Cross, a distinguished Biblical archaeologist, now retired (2003), Edward Greenstein of Tel Aviv University (2003), and Reinhard Lehmann, of Johannes Gutenberg University (2004). For a different opinion, consult David Freedman (2004).

          o Fragments of clay vessels with inscriptions that supposedly showed a connection to biblical sites including the Israelite temples.

          o A quartz bowl with an Egyptian inscription describing the destruction of Megiddo by Egyptian armies. The outcome of this battle is a topic of considerable academic debate, and any documentation such as the purported bowl would be of great interest.

          In addition to the large amounts of money that passed hands, and the potential havoc the forgeries may raise for museum collections, there is a larger question of religious and political importance. Many religious people and others interested in documenting Israel's historical claim to Jerusalem have been anxious to find proof outside the Bible regarding the existence of the First and Second Temples. To date, only remains of the reconstruction of the Second Temple that occurred during the reign of Herod The Great (37 BC-4 AD) have been located. The present impossibility of excavating underneath the Muslim sites on the Temple Mount prevents more conclusive investigations.

          With some Palestinians claiming right of ownership of the sacred area, and denying that the First and Second Temples ever existed on the Temple Mount to legitimize their claims, any archaeological proof of the early temples' existence (such as the pomegranate and the Jehoash Tablet) must have been welcomed by many Israelis. By replicating ancient Hebrew letters and producing inscriptions in conformity with Biblical texts, the forgery ring took advantage of the desire of many people to possess tangible evidence of biblical accounts for religious and nationalistic purposes.

[ inscriptions.html;, 29 Dec. 2004;, 5 Mar. 2004; Lewitt, I. (Ed.) 1995. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. New York, Vendome Press; Freedman, D. 2004. "Don't Rush to Judgment." Biblical Archaeology Review 30:49-51.]

This article appears on pages 15-16 in the Recent Finds in Archaeology of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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