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The discovery of miraculous, faith-affirming relics has had a long and prominent place in the religious history of the Holy Land. From at least the Byzantine period onwards, the passion for digging up, touching, venerating, and celebrating artifacts directly connected to the lives of Jesus and the Apostles and the Prophets and Kings of Ancient Israel has played a central role in shaping European attitudes about the special holiness of the Land of the Bible—and in affirming the Bible's character as a historical text. Over the centuries, when troubling questions arose about a particular relic's authenticity, they were often settled by the number and scale of the miracles it produced. Indeed, the possession of miracle-giving relics was so important for the prestige and political pretensions of many medieval European communities that no means were excluded to obtain them—including intentional fabrication, pious misinterpretation, and wide-scale robbing of tombs and ancient sites.

Although the popularity of medieval relic-hunting declined with the Reformation, a new hunt for relics began in the 19th century with the rise of Biblical Archaeology. At a time when the accuracy of biblical history was being challenged by geologists and textual critics, a vast wave of pious explorers, scholars, museum agents, and private collectors began to comb the ruins and tells of the Middle East for tangible evidence of the biblical past. Though denominational rivalry and national pride were certainly among the motivations, in most cases they took second place to a shared determination to prove the Bible historically "true." Yet for the most part, the archaeological finds were evocative rather than confirmatory. The simple pottery, houses, fortifications, and weapons of the Bronze and Iron Ages retrieved from the ancient sites of the region offered a broad material context—rather than explicit proof—for widely variant readings of the biblical narratives.

During 150 years of intense and widespread excavation, just a handful of archaeological artifacts were ever discovered that could be unambiguously linked with specific biblical characters. Among them were the Assyrian inscriptions mentioning the Israelite kings Omri and Jehu; the Moabite stele of King Mesha; the seal of Shema the Servant of Jeroboam from Megiddo; and the "Beit David" inscription from Tel Dan in northern Israel. To that number could be added a number of privately owned Hebrew personal seals and ostraca. Of relevance to the historical reliability of the Gospels were the building inscription of Pontius Pilate from Caesarea, and more recently, the ossuary of Caiaphas from Jerusalem. Yet all of these finds became (and continue to be) primarily the focus of scholarly debate and discussion. None have become venerated icons, explicitly linked to modern religious or political concerns.

So what happened in recent months, when two extraordinary artifacts from private collections in Israel were unveiled with great fanfare to the international press?

First came the ossuary of "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" acquired from a private collection in Tel Aviv. Announced to the public in a headline-grabbing press conference in Washington in October and displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in November, it was described in the Biblical Archaeology Review as unique historical evidence for the existence of Jesus "literally written in stone." CNN, ABC, NBC, PBS, CNN, Time, Newsweek, the U.S. News and World Report, the New York Times and the Washington Post all prominently carried the story. Epigrapher Andracute; Lemaire of the Sorbonne asserted that it is "very probable" that the box indeed belonged to Jesus' brother James. And although the circumstances, date, and site of its discovery remained uncertain, BAR editor Hershel Shanks noted that the "James ossuary may be the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology," adding that it "has implications not just for scholarship, but for the world's understanding of the Bible."

Next came the "Jehoash Inscription," revealed to the world in mid-January 2003 in excited press stories and TV reports featuring scientists of the Geological Survey of Israel, whose lab tests had reportedly confirmed its antiquity. Bearing 15 lines of Hebrew-Phoenician script, it described the repairs to the Temple overseen by "Jehoash, son of King Ahaz of Judah," in language strikingly reminiscent of the account in 2 Kings 12:1-6 and 11-17. Here, too, the identity of its owner remained secret, as did the date and precise place of its discovery. Yet according to archaeologist Gabriel Barkay of Bar-Ilan University, this find—if authentic—would be "the most significant archaeological finding yet in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. It would be a first-of-its kind piece of physical evidence describing events in a manner that adheres to the narrative in the Bible." And Hershel Shanks, when asked by an Associated Press reporter, asserted that if authentic, the inscription would be "visual, tactile evidence that reaches across 2,800 years."

Skeptical voices about these artifacts' authenticity soon began to be heard. In the aftermath of the special session on the James Ossuary at the SBL annual meeting, scholarly critics questioned the epigraphic style of the inscription and some suggested that the reference to Jesus had been added to an original text. Likewise, in regard to the Jehoash Inscription, serious questions were raised about its syntax, vocabulary, and even letter-forms by Professor Joseph Naveh of Hebrew University and other senior scholars. The geologists' conclusions, though initially taken at face value, were challenged. Counter arguments were mounted by Professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University to show the modern forger's processes could have produced the seemingly natural patina with the embedded gold globules (originally suggested to have been the burning of the Jerusalem Temple). And Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, head of the Carbon-14 dating laboratory at the Weizmann Institute, questioned the accuracy or relevance of the 300-290 BCE carbon-14 date that had been obtained.

This was hardly the first time that forgeries had been suspected in the world of Biblical Archaeology, though it had been more than a century since the uproar was so great. In the 1870s, the famous Jerusalem antiquities dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira had sold a large collection of "Moabite idols" to the Berlin Museum and in 1883 had attempted to sell an ancient manuscript of Deuteronomy to the British Museum, but both had been exposed by the archaeologist and epigrapher Charles Clermont-Ganneau as modern fakes. Also in the 1880s, a long Phoenician inscription had surfaced in Brazil, purporting to describe an ancient Near Eastern expedition to the New World. This too was discredited as a blatant forgery.

Both the Shapira Scrolls and the Paraiba Inscription were deemed initially suspicious not only because, coming from the antiquities market, their provenience was so uncertain, but and also because of the questionable historical evidence they purportedly contained. In the case of the Shapira Scrolls, the intellectual context was the controversy over the biblical "Documentary Hypothesis," for which the discovery was purported to be an earlier recension of the Book of Deuteronomy. In the case of the Paraiba Inscription, the scholarly context was the raging 19th century debate about the possibility that the ancient civilizations of the Americas could have been influenced—or perhaps even motivated—by contact from the Old World. In both these cases, scientific testing followed intellectual suspicion, actively encouraged by scholars who were determined to prove that the supposedly "conclusive" evidence was faked. Indeed forgeries often possess a great heuristic value. The geographer David Lowenthal put it succinctly when he suggested that in "revealing hidden assumptions about the past they claim to stem from, fakes advance our understanding no less than the truths which expose them."

Is there anything we can learn about the underlying assumptions of the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Inscription even as we await the final verdict on their authenticity?

Those who have closely followed the discussions over the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the last 15 years surely know that one of the most controversial assertions was that of the iconoclastic scholar Robert Eisenman, who in his book James the Brother of Jesus (1997) stressed the historical primacy of James the Just and his leadership of an uncompromising radical nationalist sect, that had little or nothing to do with Jesus. Indeed the search for the historical James, and more so, the historical Jesus, has widened the gap and heated up the rhetoric between the historical "maximalists" and "minimalists" in the field of Christian origins. The association of James with both Joseph and Jesus on his own funerary inscription suggests—even demands—belief in a more traditional history.

This is also the case with the Jehoash Inscription. At a time when the date of composition of the Deuteronomic History has become a matter of acrimonious disagreement between biblical "maximalists" and "minimalists," the Jehoash Inscription offers a powerful lapidary reply to those who would deny that the Deuteronomic History contains a reliable record of events. Indeed in 1999, the historian Nadav Naaman opposed a post-exilic date for the DH, by suggesting that the biblical text could have been based at least in part on public inscriptions. And that is, in fact, what he argued in his article "Royal Inscriptions and the Histories of Joash (sic, NAS) and Ahaz, Kings of Judah," Vetus Testamentum 48 (1998): 333-49—just four years before the Jehoash Inscription was found.

Coincidences do, of course, happen. But the sudden surfacing of two unprovenanced artifacts within the span of just a few months, both explicitly linked to major biblical personalities and both providing powerful ammunition to bolster "maximalist" positions would be a very great coincidence indeed. Naaman himself responded in the Israeli daily Haaretz that after he had first read the inscription in press reports, he assumed "one of two things—either I hit the nail on the head, and my theory was confirmed fantastically, or the forger read my theory and decided to confirm it. In any case, if in the near future another inscription turns up, the "Ahaz inscription," I will be convinced that it's a forgery. At present I'm only suspicious."

Suspicions should never invalidate serious scholarly research, but there is something even more ominous at stake. In the ever-widening public discussion, the James Ossuary has quickly transcended mere epigraphic interest to provide seeming confirmation for religious faith in the historicity of the Gospel accounts. And the Jehoash Inscription has not only served to bolster the "maximalist" position in biblical research, it has become a stone of contention in the bitter contemporary battle for the spiritual and physical possession of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, where, according to some sketchy and unsubstantiated reports, it was originally found. The militant Israeli group "The Temple Mount Faithful" posted photographs and detailed descriptions of the Jehoash Inscription on their website, declaring it "completely authentic," and noting that "people feel that the timing is no accident and that it is a clear message from the G-d of Israel Himself that time is short, the Temple should immediately be rebuilt..." A few days later, Abdullah Kan'an, secretary-general of Jordan's Royal Committee for Jerusalem Affairs, issued a press release asserting that extremist factions in Israel were using the claims of the discovered tablet to support their bid to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuild the Temple, and further warned that "If that happened, God forbid, a holy religious war will definitely inflame the whole region."

So what lesson is to be learned from these recent discoveries and their disturbingly divisive after-effects? Whether they are authentic artifacts or clever forgeries, both the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Inscription have been irreversibly transformed into relics. And because of their uncertain origin, they are irretrievably tainted data, lacking a proper archaeological context by which their significance might be properly assessed. Actively promoted as definitive "proof" or "evidence" in highly-charged contemporary debates, their public importance has come to rest not in what they are, but what they symbolize.

Preventing future outbreaks of public excitement over unusual, Bible-related artifacts of questionable provenience is almost certainly impossible, so long as the market forces of antiquities collecting—and the ego of collectors—are permitted to actively seek publicity and public acclaim. A more reasonable challenge in the coming years for responsible biblical historians and archaeologists might instead be to persistently and aggressively attack sensational claims about artifacts of dubious origin, not help to construct them, and to recognize how dangerous and ultimately misleading this modern form of relic worship can be.

Neil Asher Silberman is at the Ename Center for Public Archaeology; he will publish a piece on relics and forgery in an upcoming issue of Archaeology.

Citation: Neil Asher Silberman, " On Relics, Forgeries, and Biblical Archaeology," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2006]. Online:


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