Duke University Professor Claims: A Third of Israel Museum’s Inscriptions Are Forgeries
A forgery crisis—or a forgery frenzy, depending on how you look at it—is currently facing Israel.
“Estimates are running as high as 30 or 40 percent of all inscribed materials in the Israel Museum [in Jerusalem] have been forged,” said Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University in a lecture sponsored by Cornerstone University’s Center for the Study of Antiquity (CSA) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this past May.
“There is no doubt but Israel and its Antiquities Authority is faced with its gravest moral crisis in the history of the State, if not the history of modern archaeology,” Meyers added.
Among the forgeries in the museum collection is an inscribed ivory pomegranate said to be from Solomon’s Temple for which the museum paid $550,000. The ivory pomegranate itself is genuine, but the inscription around the neck of the pomegranate is said to be a forgery. The pomegranate was once the head of a priestly scepter (it has a hole in the bottom for the rod), and the inscription reads, “Holy to the priests … (Belonging) to the Temple of [Yahwe]h.”a The inscription “is now clearly assessed to be a forgery,” Meyers claimed, although he did not elaborate.
Museums buy looted as well as forged artifacts, Meyers charged. “The Metropolitan Museum in New York has one of the worst records in the world on this … Very immoral,” he said.
Meyers also outed an unnamed scholar who has been accused of possibly lying that he had seen the famous James ossuary in an antiquities shop in the mid-1990s without the reference to Jesus.
An article in the May/June 2004 BAR reported an Internet posting by Meyers in which two unnamed scholars were said to have seen the James ossuary—now inscribed “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus”—in the mid-1990s in a Jerusalem antiquities shop but without the reference to Jesus.b If true, the reference to Jesus must have been added later—and is a clear forgery.
The two unnamed scholars had told the same story to BAR editor Hershel Shanks, but only one of them asked not to be named, so Shanks named the other one in his story—Joe Zias.c
Although the other scholar remained unnamed, a picture of him with a pixilated face was published in BAR. Shanks explained why he concluded that this scholar was very probably lying: The scholar had written widely about the James ossuary inscription, claiming that it could not refer to the New Testament Jesus (the name was not uncommon at the time), but had never mentioned that he had seen the ossuary in the mid-1990s without the reference to Jesus. Instead, he gave numerous reasons why the inscription could not refer to Jesus of Nazareth. And he assumed the authenticity of the inscription and was very clear that it was by one hand.
But who was this scholar who now claims to have seen the James ossuary inscription in the mid-1990s without the 053reference to Jesus, but failed to mention this in numerous places where he discussed the inscription and treated it as authentic?
In his Cornerstone University talk, Meyers divulged his name—Emile Puech. Meyers also told this reporter his name in a pre-lecture interview. Puech is a leading Dead Sea Scroll scholar and an expert in identifying and dating the various forms of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic scripts. If anyone could detect a forgery based on the script, it would be Puech. But he never before asserted it to be a forgery. Meyers noted that Puech is “a priest and a professor at the Ecole Biblique [in Jerusalem],” which some say explains why Puech is so sure that the reference could not be to Jesus of Nazereth even if the inscription is authentic.
Meyers defends Puech and Zias. They are not lying, he says. Indeed, their sighting of the ossuary without the reference to Jesus shows that it is a forgery, according to Meyers.
Joe Zias also spoke at the series of lectures at Cornerstone University. He was not initially asked to be a lecturer, but during the series, which included Professor André Lemaire and the ossuary owner Oded Golan, Zias asked if he, too, could deliver a lecture. His request was granted by CSA directors Dr. Scott Carroll and Dr. Doug Mohrmann. Zias maintained that he did see the ossuary in the mid-1990s without the reference to Jesus. As to the article in BAR by Hershel Shanks, Zias told this reporter, “Shanks, I’ll see you in court.”
Meyers, in his talk, noted that “Joe Zias has made this [statement] in a sworn deposition to the Israeli police in the presence of a lawyer and the police chief of Jerusalem and is on the record. Why this is not enough to bring a formal indictment [against Oded Golan], I’m not sure.”
Puech himself has not publicly commented on the claim he made that he saw the in the mid-1990s without the reference to Jesus.
As readers of BAR know, others defend the authenticity of the ossuary inscription. Two speakers in the Cornerstone University lecture series who did defend the authenticity of the ossuary inscription were Professor André Lemaire of the Sorbonne and the ossuary’s owner, Oded Golan.
Commented CSA co-director Carroll, “There hasn’t been a venue with an even playing ground. Venues in the past have been popular magazines, lectures to small numbers of scholars or schmoozing in lounges at conferences. This is the only time these leading authorities on both sides of the issue have had the opportunity to speak in one venue.”
Lemaire, defending the authenticity of the ossuary inscription, said that it very probably refers to Jesus of Nazareth. He himself spoke from the viewpoint of an epigrapher, expert in the language group (Northwest Semitic), which includes Aramaic. Lemaire was the author of the original publication of the inscription in BAR.d He has analyzed the IAA committee report that found the inscription to be a forgery. He found the committee reasoning flawed and unconvincing.e “So far as I am aware,” Lemaire asserted in his Cornerstone University talk, “No member of the committee nor anyone else has written to me or published an article saying I have made mistakes in my critical remarks.” He also noted that the IAA committee had still failed to publish the promised “detailed and well-argued scientific report” and not merely a summary.
Moreover, Lemaire said, no “Northwest Semitic epigrapher has published a paper against the authenticity of the inscription.”
With regard to the geological aspects of the committee’s report, Lemaire noted that even before he published his original article in BAR, a report by Drs. Shimon Ilani and Amnon Rosenfeld of the Geological Survey of Israel found no scientific reason to question the authenticity of the inscription. And, after his article appeared, a study by the Royal Ontario Museum reached the same conclusion. Both of these studies noted that the inscription area had been over-cleaned. The geologists on the IAA committee stated that the suspicious coating on the inscription area indicated that the inscription was a forgery OR that it had been cleaned in a modern period. Yet the committee in their brief summary never explored the latter possibility. Therefore, said Lemaire, “Not only is the interpretation of the inscription as a forgery not proved, but it is very improbable since it contradicts the epigraphic analysis and the conclusion of the previous laboratory examinations.”
In conclusion, he stated, “I do not see any scientific reason to change my mind [regarding the authenticity of the inscription].”
Instead of scientific attacks on the inscription, Lemaire said, we hear much about the collector (Oded Golan) and much gossip and rumors. Moreover, it is more a political problem than a scientific problem.
Lemaire also defended the practice of publishing inscriptions that come from the market without known provenance. All leading epigraphers—past and present—do so, including Israel’s most prominent epigrapher, Professor Joseph Naveh, and America’s most prominent epigrapher, Professor Frank Cross.
Israel Antiquities Authority: Too Much Booze Nabs Golan as Forger
It’s an open and shut case, according to Dr. Uzi Dahari, Deputy Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority and chairman of the IAA committee that found the James ossuary—inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”—to be a forgery. Oded Golan, the owner of the ossuary, is a forger!
Dahari made his case in a lecture sponsored by Cornerstone University’s Center for the Study of Antiquity in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on May 12, 2004.
Golan is “the master forger—the idea man who coordinated” everything, Dahari said. At the time of his lecture, Dahari said Golan was only “the prime suspect” (because he had not yet been charged), but, Dahari added, “I don’t have any doubt about it.”
Dahari said the police have “so much solid evidence that they will expose him in three or four months.”
In addition to Golan, many other people are part of the forgery conspiracy, Dahari said. They include experts in Bible, history, archaeology and epigraphy, among them several professors. “I know their names, but I won’t tell you at this time.”
Apparently the police were able to crack the case because of too much booze. The alleged forgery technician of the conspiracy—the man who supposedly carved the inscription—is an Egyptian jeweler who has worked in Israel for 15 years. Part of every year he works for Golan. The Egyptian jeweler has a Jewish girlfriend with whom he would go to Tel Aviv pubs and drink. While drinking, he divulged to his girlfriend what he had been doing. “[Many] people heard it,” Dahari told the rapt crowd at Cornerstone University. “The police put their finger on these people and his girlfriend,” all of whom apparently told their story to the police.
After making the forged artifact, Golan’s next move was to involve “academics of repute,” who provided authentications of the forgeries, acting either out of “scholarly interest, naivete, and/or monetary interests.” These scholars include Professor André Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Dr. Ada Yardeni, a leading Jerusalem epigraphist.
The next step was to involve geologists—Dr. Shimon Ilani and Dr. Amnon Rosenfeld of the Geological Survey of Israel—to provide a written opinion that the patina on the inscription is authentic. While Ilani and Rosenfeld do work for the GSI, Dahari said that the work that they did was as “private men,” rather than for the GSI. (However, the report they gave to BAR, published in our November/December 2002 issue is on GSI letterhead as an official institute of the State of Israel in The Ministry of National Infrastructures; Ilani and Rosenfeld claim they were directed to undertake the investigation by GSI director Amos Bien.) Dahari was scathing in his criticism of Ilani and Rosenfeld: All they did was determine that the fake patina contained calcium carbonate, “which [for them] means this is genuine. This is enough for them, no other examination. This is not geological expertise.”
The final step in the scheme was to go to Hershel Shanks to have it published in BAR—“and then you can sell it for a lot of money.”
“That was their system,” Dahari concluded. He called it “the system of Oded Golan.”
That the ossuary inscription is a forgery is exposed not only by the drunken confession of the Egyptian jeweler who was the “forgery technician,” but also by the Antiquities Authority’s own investigation of the ossuary. According to Dahari, the forgery revealed itself in several ways. First, there is no genuine patina in the letters of the inscription; the inscription cuts through the patina. “You don’t have to be a doctor of geology” to see this, Dahari told his audience as he showed them a patina image on the screen.
The forger then attempted to conceal his forgery with a fake patina. The fake patina—“to camouflage the forgery”—is, however, a different color than the real patina on the rest of the ossuary. Not only that, but “you can take it [the fake patina] off with your finger, with your clothes … Real patina is part of the stone.”
So, in fact, the forgery is not difficult to detect. The forger made “so many mistakes.”
Dahari claimed that conservators of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto also thought the ossuary inscription was a forgery when the ossuary arrived there for exhibit in November-December 2002. They told the director of the museum, “This must be a forgery,” according to Dahari. So the director called Hershel Shanks, who checked with Golan and reported back that Golan had asked his mother to clean it before it was shipped to Canada. (The IAA report states that the modern coating over the inscription could be the result of an effort to mask the forgery or the result of the inscription’s being cleaned.)
Both the Royal Ontario Museum and Shanks deny that such a conversation ever took place. Edward J. Keall, the curator of the ossuary exhibit, called Dahari’s account “a complete and utter fabrication.” In fact, Keall wrote an article in BAR detailing the tests undertaken by the museum that supported the authenticity of the inscription.f
Dahari claims that Golan’s mother was half-blind and 89-years-old. Golan says his mother, a microbiologist, was 78 at the time and had excellent eyesight. Golan denies that he told his mother to clean the ossuary prior to its being shipped to Canada; he says his mother cleaned it when he lived with his parents many years ago.
Dahari also claimed to have identified several other forgeries produced by Golan’s alleged forgery conspiracy, among them a group of seal impressions called bullae. The impression is made when a seal is impressed into wet clay. The lump of clay would then be used to seal an ancient document. Thus, to forge a bulla, you need some clay, some water and a fake seal with which to impress the clay. The forger made a mistake, however, and used modern tap water, which, in Israel, contains fluorine to prevent tooth decay. Dahari’s experts found fluorine in the water used to make the clay of the bullae. One of these forged seal impressions reading “[Belonging] to Hezekiah son of Ahaz,” was sold by Golan for “$700,000, not more not less.” Dahari’s audience was enthralled.
Who is Oded Golan?
Following are excerpts from the talk of antiquities collector and accused forger Oded Golan at Cornerstone University, in April 2004:
[When I agreed to allow the James ossuary inscription to be published in BAR] I had no idea that I would have to undergo my own Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.
Before I begin, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Oded Golan. I was born in Israel in 1951. I graduated in industrial and management engineering with honors from the prestigious Technion, after serving as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. Over the years, I was active in the airline and tourism industries all around the world and represented leading airlines in Israel. I am now the CEO of a hi-tech company which has developed unique interactive, web-based and computerized systems for documentation, for families interested in preserving personal records for posterity, as well as for students, pupils and research associates.
I am also currently involved in a real estate project in northern Tel Aviv for the development of land, which has been owned by my family for several decades.
I live modestly. I am a law-abiding citizen and have never sought any publicity.
My parents were part of a wide social circle of Israel in its early years of statehood, when Israel was a small place and everyone knew everyone. My father was an industrialist and my mother a professor of microbiology in Rehovot. They are still active.
In my childhood, my parents and I would travel and tour the small state. Antiquities were literally everywhere and I began to collect antiquities at the early age of eight. I remember the first items that I discovered myself in Tel Qasile, a tenth-century B.C.E. site near Tel Aviv.
At the age of nine, I discovered an ancient winepress from the second century B.C.E., the time of King Alexander Yannai, on a hill behind my parents’ home.
When I was 10 I found a small clay tablet engraved with lines in the rubble that was cast aside by members of Yigael Yadin’s dig at Tel Hazor. To this day I do not really know how I did it, but I immediately realized that it was an ancient cuneiform inscription.
When we returned to Tel Aviv, we contacted Professor Yadin, one of the most famous and admired personalities of the time, and invited him to see my find. He kindly accepted the invitation and when he came to our home a few days later, he immediately identified it as a cuneiform tablet. However, since he was unable to decipher it, he asked me to loan it to him for a few days. After the inscription was deciphered by Professor Hayim Tadmor, it emerged as part of the most ancient dictionary ever found in the world, written in Sumerian and Akkadian, and it included terms of commerce from the 16th century B.C.E.
When I was 13 and Professor Yadin was directing the excavations at Masada, he invited me to join him as the youngest member of the team.
In my final years of high school, after 1967, I used to leave school, without my parents’ or teachers’ knowledge, take a bus to Jerusalem and wander around the Judean desert or the area of Mt. Hebron, searching for archeological artifacts. While my classmates were practicing their English grammar, I spent my time in the ancient tells of the Judean desert, meeting Bedouin and local villagers. I went to the desert many times and had some very unusual experiences. I did, however, miss many English lessons, which you can certainly tell from my English.
In the army, as an intelligence officer, I continued my travels and collecting. I participated in several critical days of combat on the Golan Heights front during the October 1973 War [the Yom Kippur War] and then was transferred to the Suez Canal, which was the border with Egypt.
As a student of engineering, I continued collecting antiquities.
At that time I already had three ossuaries in my relatively small collection, including the so-called James ossuary, which I acquired in the mid-1970s and which was the least impressive of the three.
The James ossuary was actually in my parent’s home for over a decade after its purchase, where many people saw it. I then brought it with me to my present home (approximately 15 years ago), where the collection continued to grow. Since I did not attribute particular significance to the ossuary, approximately five years ago I moved it to my shed [storage place].
Today, my collection is probably the largest private collection of Biblical archeology in the world and includes thousands of items, some of which are extremely important.
The Israel Antiquities Authority’s allegations against me are a mixture of intentional manipulations and blatant lies and, therefore, it is not surprising that they have failed to bring forward a single piece of evidence, despite 18 months of investigation, including the interrogation of dozens of collectors, museums, dealers, research institutes, conservators, academic scholars and others all over the world to support their harsh allegations, which were published on hundreds of Web sites, TV programs and press items all over the world.
I have consequently found myself in many Kafkaesque situations in which I am accused of completely ungrounded allegations and have faced the deliberate destruction of my reputation and the reputation of my collection.
The present IAA policy, even if it manages to reduce the trade in unauthorized archeological finds, will destroy private collecting of archeology completely in Israel and cause all the important archeological finds in Israel to be removed from Israel, similar to the situation in neighboring countries (such as Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, for example), and we shall lose all the information they bear forever.
I believe that the police and the IAA are now unable to refute their original allegations, and are now trying to conceal their erroneous policy and improper acts and manipulations performed to protect IAA interests, especially after the witch-hunt during these last 18 months.
After the investigators were unable to point to even one Israeli archaeologist, geologist, chemist or any other scholar involved in this alleged ring of forgers (although they repeatedly announced that they soon would soon do so), the investigators decided to hurl accusations at people outside Israel.
I purchased the ossuary approximately 25 years ago in the Old City of Jerusalem when I was a university student. At that time, I made most of my purchases from three East Jerusalem dealers. I clearly remember being told that it was found in the Kidron Valley in the vicinity of the ancient cemetery in Silwan village. When purchased, neither the dealer nor I noticed anything special about the ossuary, and the purchase price was accordingly low.
At the time, I actually thought that the inscription referred to three generations because the only thing that I could read with certainty was the three names, Yaakov, Yosef and Yeshua. The word “Brother of” in Aramaic is very hard to read and decipher.
By the way, it is quite difficult to read the inscription on the ossuary in normal daylight, due to a lack of contrast, and artificial lighting is necessary.
The first time I heard of a possible attribution of the ossuary to James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, was suggested by André Lemaire only in 2002.
At that time, it actually sounded very strange to me that Jesus had siblings because I was familiar with the story of his Immaculate Conception. The history of Christianity was completely outside my knowledge (as it is to most Jewish Israelis; the history of Christianity is not studied in Israeli schools at all).
On the day that the world media first published information on the ossuary (I believe it was in October 2002), many journalists from all over the world contacted the IAA in Jerusalem and asked how the IAA permitted an item that did not originate in an official excavation to be exported to a leading museum overseas. The IAA, which attributed no special significance to the item until that moment, was very embarrassed. Before several hours had passed, I received a phone call from the IAA, requesting my presence at an urgent meeting with members of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Department and later with Mr. Shuka Dorfman, director of the IAA. The IAA clarified that it was embarrassed to discover that an important item did not originate from an official excavation, and second, that its own staff failed to recognize any special significance to the item when approving its export license. The IAA also informed me that it was reconsidering the export license and may prevent its export from Israel.
Twenty-four hours later, I received approval to transport the ossuary out of the country for the exhibition, as they put it “in order to prevent further embarrassment to the IAA as a result of the cancellation of the exhibition in Toronto.”
I cannot say for certain whether the ossuary once bore the bones of James, brother of Jesus of Nazareth, who was also known as James the Just, who received a death sentence by the Sanhedrin and was later stoned around the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. But I do know with certainty that the present government authorities in Jerusalem have proven, through their conduct, or should I say misconduct, that they are truly successors of that government of 2,000 years ago.
In our May/June 2004 issue we reported an interview with a former antiquities dealer named Mahmoud Abushakra, who denied knowing Joe Zias, a Jerusalem scholar who claims that he saw the James ossuary in Abushakra’s shop in the mid-1990s without the reference to Jesus.g We also published a picture of Abushakra standing in the doorway of his shop. It has come to our attention that the passerby in the picture is none other than Joe Zias, suggesting that Abushakra did indeed know Zias. As we go to press, we are attempting to contact Abushakra to determine whether or not we misunderstood him and whether he continues to be clear that the James ossuary was never in his shop.
Duke University Professor Claims: A Third of Israel Museum’s Inscriptions Are Forgeries