Krumbein's bombshell

Paleographer challenges authenticity of 1st-century box purported to have borne Jesus' brother's remains.

jesus inscription 88 (photo credit: )
jesus inscription 88
(photo credit: )
The owner of the first-century bone box inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" is now on trial in criminal court in Tel Aviv for forging the last part of the inscription. Whether Oded Golan, the guy in the dock, is sleazy, an antiquities dealer, a forger or a Mafioso (all of which he would deny) is beside the point unless the inscription on the bone box, or ossuary, is a forgery. As editor of the magazine that first alerted the public to this extraordinary artifact in an article by the eminent Sorbonne paleographer Andre Lemaire, my interest lies solely in whether the inscription is authentic or a forgery. I have little interest in the defendant's character. For if the inscription is authentic it may be the only archeological evidence we have of the Christian messiah - though it also may not be, even if it is authentic. The inscription is widely believed to be a forgery based on the finding of an Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) committee, which in turn relied solely on the scientific conclusion of Tel Aviv University petrologist Yuval Goren and isotope specialist Avner Ayalon of the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI). Together they developed a test based on oxygen isotopes that had never been used before to unmask a forgery. But it was enough to convince the other members of the IAA committee, none of whom was an expert in this test, that the inscription - all of it, not just the last part - was a forgery. ODDLY ENOUGH, not a single expert paleographer (script expert) has questioned the authenticity of the inscription on paleographical grounds. There is not even a suggestion of a suspicion in the paleography of the inscription. Andre Lemaire, after examining the report of the IAA committee is still convinced that it is authentic. More recently, one of Israel's most prominent paleographers, Dr. Ada Yardeni, was called to the stand by the prosecution. Whether or not her testimony surprised the prosecutor, we cannot say. But her testimony was clear: The inscription is authentic and by one hand (the indictment admits that the first half of the inscription is authentic). On cross-examination, defense counsel questioned Yardeni about a published report that quoted her as saying, "If this is a forgery, I quit." Yardeni replied that, yes, she had said that, adding if the inscription were proved to be a forgery, she "would leave the profession." That's how sure she was. PEOPLE IN Israel always want to know what Joseph Naveh, Israel's leading paleographer and Dr. Yardeni's teacher, had to say about the inscription. Indeed, the IAA report notes that its committee "would, if needed, consult with Prof. Y[osef] Naveh, an authority on ancient Hebrew writing of international repute." The IAA committee did not do so, perhaps fearful of what Naveh would say. So far as is known, he has not commented on the authenticity of the inscription. In the view of some, his silence speaks volumes. But, still, none of this confronts the scientific evidence of Goren and Ayalon. Faced with this evidence, defendant's counsel consulted Prof. Steve Weiner, director of the Kimmel Center for Archeological Science of the Weizmann Institute for a recommendation as to a scientific expert. Defense counsel wanted the world's most reliable expert in stone patinas. Weiner recommended Professor Wolfgang E. Krumbein of Oldenberg University, Germany. Krumbein has 15 books and over 400 scientific articles to his credit. He has been a visiting professor at a number of universities, including Harvard, and has engaged in several post-doctorate research projects at Hebrew University. A copy of Krumbein's report has now been published on the Web site of the Biblical Archaeology Society (, and it is devastating to the prosecution. Krumbein found that the patina inside the inscription could not have formed in less than 50 years. Thus, if the inscription is a forgery, it was forged at least 50 years ago. Krumbein was also in a position to review the work of the scientists who had found the inscription to be a forgery. This is his judgment: "The conclusions noted in the reports by Goren, Ayalon and their colleagues, originate from a series of errors, biases, mistaken premises, use of inappropriate methodology, mistaken geochemistry, defective error control, reliance on unconfirmed data, disregard of information (such as the cleaning and preservation actions performed [on the ossuary]), and the use of a comparative isotope methodology despite the fact that the [James ossuary] inscription fail[s] to meet the cumulative prerequisite conditions for such tests and comparisons." Each charge is documented in detail in his report. Efforts to obtain reactions from Goren and Ayalon have been unsuccessful. PERHAPS THE most damning part of Krumbein's report relates to the IAA itself. He found evidence of the IAA's "deliberate manipulation of the inscription patina." Krumbein also found that the IAA had "contaminated" the inscription with red material that prevented anyone from checking the validity of earlier tests. Taken together, Yardeni's testimony and the Krumbein report would seem to preclude a judicial finding beyond a reasonable doubt that the inscription is a forgery. But the trial has now dragged on for more than a year, and there is no sign that it is reaching a conclusion. In the meantime, the world waits to see whether the new debate will begin: Even if authentic, does the inscription refer to Jesus of Nazareth? Scholars are already lining up on both sides of the question. The writer is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.