Until recently, paleography—the study of the form and slant of the letters of an ancient inscription—was the chief means of determining whether an inscription was authentic or a modern forgery. The shape of each ancient letter has developed throughout history. Every 25 or 50 years, the way a letter is written changes slightly. To make things more complicated, the letters may be written in formal script or in cursive script or in semi-formal or semi-cursive. In this way, an expert paleographer can date an inscription. And if all the letters don’t cohere, it spells forgery. It was commonly thought that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to fool an expert paleographer. A forger would need to be an expert paleographer himself/herself and also be an expert engraver or penman to carve the letters into the stone or write them on a piece of pottery.
The BAR article announcing the James ossuary inscription—“James, the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus”—was written by one of the world’s most distinguished paleographers, André Lemaire of the Sorbonne. He was confident of the paleography; the inscription was authentic.
Because of the extraordinary nature of the inscription, we nevertheless sought the opinion of other leading paleographers—Harvard’s Frank Cross; Kyle McCarter, the Albright Professor at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; Ada Yardeni, an Israeli specialist who wrote The Book of Hebrew Script. We also consulted an Aramaic specialist, Father Joseph Fitzmyer of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. None found anything suspicious about the paleography.
Especially interesting was the silence of Father Emile Puech, of the École Biblique et Archéologique in Jerusalem. He, too, is an expert paleographer specializing in the Second Temple period, the time of the James ossuary inscription. In a letter in Minerva magazine (January/February 2003), he passionately argued that the inscription did not refer to Jesus of Nazareth, but, significantly, he didn’t question any aspect of the paleography.
We thought that among the world’s expert paleographers there was a unanimity of judgment. The only expert to question the paleography was a specialist in medieval manuscripts who had never published an inscription from the Second Temple period.
Now comes the summary report of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) committee. The IAA appointed separate subcommittees to study the ossuary inscription and another subcommittee to study the so-called Jehoash inscription from the First Temple period. This is an indication of just how specialized the field is: Experts in the First Temple period were, for the most part, not competent to opine on a Second Temple inscription, and vice versa. For example, one of the members of the Jehoash inscription subcommittee, Shmuel Ahituv, stated in his separate submission, “I do not see myself qualified to decide in this area of Second Temple period paleography.”
Several members of the subcommittee, despite the paleographical support the James ossuary inscription had previously enjoyed, have nevertheless found it to be a forgery. Tal Ilan states, “I am of the opinion that the inscription is a forgery.” Esther Eshel states, “It appears to me quite clear that the inscription is not authentic, and was added at a much later date.” Amos Kloner states, “The inscription appears new. The writer tried giving the letters an ancient appearance by using samples from contemporaneous inscriptions.”
This is all that is said in the summary of the report. At this writing, the full report has not yet been released. No doubt, we will know more when it is. Whether the committee members are questioning the inscription 038paleographically is not absolutely clear from the statements of Ilan, Eshel and Kloner. Perhaps they are questioning it on other grounds. But it certainly seems, given Kloner’s statement, as if they are relying on paleography to question the authenticity of the inscription.
Also noteworthy is the statement of the other member of the subcommittee not yet quoted, Ronny (or Roni) Reich, who found no reason to question the inscription paleographically. His vote that it was a forgery, he says, was based on the scientific findings made by the materials committee relating to the ossuary’s patina—not on his paleographic judgment of the inscription.
But perhaps the greatest indication that we can no longer place confidence in paleography to detect a forgery comes from the man whom many consider the world’s greatest paleographer of ancient Semitic inscriptions, Frank Cross, now retired from Harvard. He is almost universally acknowledged as the dean of Semitic paleographers. He practically invented the field.
His initial judgment after examining the inscription at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto was, “If this is a forgery, the forger is a genius.” In the February 2003 issue of Harvard University’s Semitic Museum News, editor Joseph Greene reports that, initially, “Frank didn’t like the look of the dalet,” though apparently Cross later decided that the dalet was also authentic. “The inscription is epigraphically [=paleographically] flawless, even that questionable dalet.” My own informant tells me that there is one letter in the inscription (probably the dalet) that is in a form thought by Cross to be known only by him; but the forger, if the inscription is a forgery, knew it, too.
Yet despite the fact that the inscription is “flawless” paleographically, Cross is nevertheless convinced now that the inscription is a forgery. His reasons, however, are not paleographical. If he had to rely on paleography alone, he would be fooled.
Cross believes it is a forgery because the inscription itself appears to be relatively unweathered, while two rosettes on the other side of the ossuary are very badly weathered—so much so that they can barely be seen. “The deciding factor in his mind is the relative freshness [of the inscription],” as reported in the Semitic Museum News. Whether or not this is a sound basis for declaring the inscription to be a forgery is debatable. Experts claim that different sides of ossuaries—and sometimes even parts of the same side—weather differently. One side may have lain against a wall, another not. More significant, in this case the first part of the inscription was cleaned with an unknown solvent and with a sharp instrument. According to a study of the ossuary inscription by a team of experts at the Royal Ontario Museum, where it was exhibited last year, some of the letters that had been cleaned with this sharp tool had even been “slightly ‘enhanced.’”
Cross was also influenced by the fact that the same team at the Israel Geological Survey that concluded that the ossuary inscription is authentic also concluded that the Jehoash inscription is authentic, the latter being in Cross’s view, “a demonstrable forgery.” If the geologists could be wrong about one inscription, why couldn’t they be wrong about the other? As Cross wrote in a letter to me, “If the Jehoash inscription was a forgery and they declared it genuine, then their declaration that the ossuary inscription was genuine was suspect. The team was either incompetent or even in collusion with the forger. In any case there ceased to be credible scientific support of the authenticity of the ossuary inscription.”
Whether Cross’s argument is grounds for suspecting the ossuary inscription is a forgery (or only grounds for eliminating the scientific basis for its authenticity) is beside the point. The important point is that Cross recognizes that even he can be fooled paleographically by a clever forger. If the ossuary inscription is a forgery, there is a forger out there who can produce a paleographically “flawless” inscription.
Until recently, paleography—the study of the form and slant of the letters of an ancient inscription—was the chief means of determining whether an inscription was authentic or a modern forgery. The shape of each ancient letter has developed throughout history. Every 25 or 50 years, the way a letter is written changes slightly. To make things more complicated, the letters may be written in formal script or in cursive script or in semi-formal or semi-cursive. In this way, an expert paleographer can date an inscription. And if all the letters don’t cohere, it spells forgery. It was commonly thought […]