The Burial Box of Jesus' Brother: Fraud?

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The bone box, or ossuary, allegedly bearing the Aramaic inscription "Yaakov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua" ("James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus")

The world of biblical archaeology was stirred in 2002 by the unveiling of a limestone burial box with the Aramaic inscription Yaakov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua ("James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"). Allegedly dating to an era contemporaneous with Christ, the names were a tantalizing collation of potentially great significance: James was indeed the name of a New Testament personage known as the brother of Jesus, both ostensibly the sons of Joseph the carpenter, husband of Mary. If its dates were genuine, the burial box — or ossuary — could well be circumstantial evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, a tenet supported only by gospels and scripture written, at the earliest, a generation after his crucifixion and, of course, by the faith of hundreds of millions through 2,000 years.

Experts, however, declared the ossuary a modern-day forgery. It was seized by Israeli police and its owner, Tel Aviv collector Oded Golan, was arrested and charged with counterfeiting the ossuary and dozens of other items. Golan and co-defendant Robert Deutsch were put on trial in the Jerusalem District Court in 2005. Deutsch is accused of forging other valuables, though not the ossuary. Both men deny all charges.

Their trial is still continuing. Many of the world's top archaeological experts have testified as both prosecution and defense witnesses in proceedings that already run to more than 9,000 pages. And while the original charges against the ossuary appear to have been popularly accepted as conventional wisdom, they seem to be headed for trouble in the courtroom where the fine reading of law comes into play. Judge Aharon Farkash, who has a degree in archaeology, has wondered aloud in court how he can determine the authenticity of the items if the professors cannot agree among themselves.

The director of the Israel Antiquities Authority will soon take the witness stand for the first time since he declared, in December 2004, that the ossuary and other items seized in a two-year investigation were the "tip of the iceberg" of an international conspiracy that placed countless fakes in collections and museums around the world. He promised more arrests. But, while there is much evidence to sift through as the case stands, no other fake items have been seized, no-one else has been arrested, and Judge Farkash has hinted strongly that the prosecution case is foundering.

Next week, defense attorneys will take on one technical aspect, presenting evidence suggesting that scientists testifying for the prosecution have disproved their own findings against the ossuary. The scientific evidence against Golan is largely based on measurements of the oxygen isotopic composition (in technical terms, d18O — Delta 18 Oxygen) of the thin crust — or patina — covering the ossuary inscription.

Scientists are unsure exactly how the patina is formed but most agree it is composed of deposits of solid calcium carbonate that come by way of rain or groundwater. It can contain particles added by wind and perhaps biological. Additionally, depending on the levels of acidity, it may also involve a chemical reaction with the surface of the object. Some scientists say the process is similar to the way stalagmites grow in caves; others disagree.

Testifying for the prosecution, Miryam Bar-Matthews and Avner Ayalon from the Geological Survey of Israel recorded isotopic values as low as -10.2 permil (parts per thousand) in patina found within the inscription on the ossuary. (It is believed that the lower the number permil, the wetter the season was when it was created.) "The patina could not have been created in the Judean Hills or the surrounding area in a natural way," Bar-Matthews told the court in October 2007. With the exception of one letter in the word Yeshua ("Jesus"), she said, "the patina in the other letters is not natural."

Bar-Matthews and Ayalon based on their research on stalagmites in a cave near Jerusalem, where isotopic data showed rainfall and surface temperatures over many centuries, they concluded that the climate in the past 2,000 years could not have produced the patina on the ossuary. As they wrote with Professor Yuval Goren — another prosecution witness and professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University — in the Journal of Archeological Science in 2004, "the patina covering the letters was artificially prepared, most probably with hot water, and deposited onto the underlying letters." The article states: "There is no evidence for the existence of water with such low d18O values in the area during this time span. The range of rain and groundwater d18O values in the Judean Mountains region during the last 3,000 years could not have been lower than approx -6 permil." Pressed by defense counsel, Bar-Matthews declared that an isotopic value lower than -6.5 permil for the ossuary was "impossible."

However, a subsequent paper by Bar-Matthews and Ayalon with their American colleagues Ian Orland and John Valley studied samples from a stalagmite that apparently grew from about 200 B.C. to 1100 A.D. And that showed isotopes as low as -8.5 permil, with annual rainfall in the Roman era reaching double the amounts the scientists had previously calculated. The article, published in the 2009 issue of Quaternary Research, was submitted for publication on October 11, 2007, before Bar-Matthews and Ayalon gave evidence at the ossuary trial.

The defense expects to use these esoteric contradictions against the prosecution when the trial resumes on Sunday. Defense expert Prof Joel Kronfeld of the Department of Geophysics at Tel Aviv University says the new data shatters the prosecution case. "I think this is amazing — it blows my mind," Kronfeld told TIME. "The findings in this study stand in complete contradiction to the assumptions presented by Ayalon and Bar-Matthews, and shed new light on the theory they presented to the court. They not only undercut their own arguments for determining that the patina on several items was not natural but rather quite the opposite. These data can support the authenticity of the items."

Bar-Matthews, however, argues the data from her later study are "irrelevant" to the ossuary trial. She and her colleagues say that the very low values representing wet seasons were "noise" that should not be taken in isolation since patina takes many years to form. Patina's isotopic value would represent an average figure, not just the low winter results. "It's like comparing tomatoes and gloves," Bar-Matthews told TIME. "There is no scenario where we can get light isotopic values below -6 permil also in Jerusalem under natural conditions."

The defense is likely to point out that the tests on the ossuary carried out by Bar-Matthews and Ayalon also found traces of patina in at least two other letters of the inscription with isotopes of -4.65 and -5.82 permil — well within the original range they suggested. Bar-Matthews and Ayalon discounted these results, saying the results had been corrupted either from the limestone of the box or from a nearby crack that had been recently repaired.

The trouble with this kind evidence is, of course, that the formation of patina isn't yet explainable in science everyone can agree on. The patina on one letter could be the result of one particularly wet winter that happened to leave its evidence on the ossuary — but perhaps not in a stalagmite in a cave. Or vice versa. "The analogy between the formation of cave deposits and the formation of patina on archeological objects is imprecise and more work is needed," says Professor Aldo Shemesh, an isotope expert at the Weizmann Institute who was also called as a defense expert. In the end, using this kind of evicence is a numbers game — figuring on averages of statistics over which all the experts disagree. Says Shemesh: "Scientific debates should be discussed and resolved in peer-reviewed literature and scientific conferences, not in court."

In his court, Judge Farkash will have a trial-full more of other evidence to figure what the "facts" are in this case, including examples of other half-finished alletedly ancient artifacts. So, even if the science of patinas leads the court nowhere, the pious may still in the end have to rely on their faith for the certainty of things unseen.