Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Between Authenticity and Forgery

Forgery is a hateful scourge.

Every artifact and inscription acquired from the antiquities market comes with the suspicion that it is a forgery.

On these two statements we can all agree. But this does not mean that we should ignore everything that comes from the antiquities market. It means we should be skeptical. It means that the authenticity of the artifact or the inscription automatically becomes a question. Some items may be shown to be forgeries. Other items are almost certainly genuine. Sometimes there is uncertainty. But this is frequently true of many features of archaeological finds. Often we can't be sure of the date or the interpretation or the reconstruction of an excavated find. In the case of unprovenanced items, there may be one more element of uncertainty—authenticity. Yet, still, we cannot pretend they don't exist.

Take, for example, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Most of them were looted and purchased from middlemen. Yet no one would think of ignoring them. We can also be confident that they are not forgeries. But some fragments do not have a secure find spot; they may have come from Qumran or they may have come from the second-century fragments found at Nahal Hever. If your research is dependent on these fragments predating 70, you probably won't want to rely on them. For other questions, the fragments may be quite usable.

Or take the newly-surfaced Jehoash inscription that is creating such a hubbub. It consists of 15 lines inscribed on an 11-inch-long black sandstone plaque. The upper part is missing. (For full text, see the March/April issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.) The text concerns funds for repairing the Temple, paralleling 2 Kings 12 describing what is apparently the same matter.

Some leading scholars are confident that it is a forgery. Frank Cross of Harvard says orthographically the forger "errs catastrophically in at least two cases." Kyle McCarter calls one of them "a real howler. I thought the bad guys had become a lot more sophisticated." Joseph Naveh of Hebrew University concurs, noting that "numerous details do not coincide with [supposed] dates." Robert Deutsch of Haifa University (and an antiquities dealer) finds it "a very poor forgery," "a hybrid chimera," combining Moabite, Phoenician and Hebrew letters. Christopher Rollston, editor of Maarav, also finds the inscription "not difficult to expose as a forgery because it wasn't particularly well done....The script of the Jehoash inscription deviates so substantially from all provenanced Iron Age Hebrew inscriptions (in terms of mixtures of forms from different periods and languages) that it cannot, in my opinion, be seriously considered ancient."

That would seem to be pretty definitive. But wait. Other prominent scholars are not so sure. They're not ready to pronounce it genuine, but they're also not ready assuredly to declare it a forgery. An article in Ha'aretz places Gabriel Barkay of Bar Ilan University, Shmuel Safrai of Hebrew University, Ada Yardeni, a leading Israeli paleographer, and Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne in this category. Another on-the-fence scholar is Chaim Cohen of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who says that "it should not be assumed a forgery because of the philological arguments that have been suggested until now. My philological understanding of each of these items is [that it is] possible. If, however, there are other valid reasons [paleographical ones], I would have no problem accepting that judgment if it were completely authoritative and was also accepted by the geologists."

Which brings us to the geologists. They are as confident that the inscription is authentic as the philologists and paleographers mentioned above are that it is a forgery. The plaque has been intensively studied by geologists Shimon Ilani, Amnon Rosenfeld and Michael Dvorachek of the Geological Survey of Israel. The patina in the incisions of the letters and in a crack in the stone contains the same silica as the stone itself, indicating that it must be naturally formed over centuries. Carbon particles in the patina were subjected to carbon-14 testing and yielded a date of about 400 to 200 B.C.E. with a 95 percent chance of accuracy. Most intriguingly, the patina contained tiny globules of pure gold that can be formed by intense burning. It is of course impossible not to think of whether the plaque was in the Temple with its gold and was burned in 586 B.C.E. when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. The carbon particles may also have come from the fire, say the geologists. Moreover, "it would be virtually impossible to engrave a large number of [the] letters...after the formation of the crack [which contains the patina and also runs through some of the letters] without causing breakage to the plate."

So who do you listen to, the geologists or the philologists and paleographers? For Victor (Avigdor) Horowitz of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, it's clear: If the epigraphers—the specialists in the writing itself or the philologists who are experts in the text—say that the inscription is bogus, this means that the geologists have been duped and that the forgers have invented methods of bypassing them." Have they found ways to fake patina that matches the stone? Were they smart enough to think of putting the gold globules into the patina?

For other equally distinguished observers, it's the other way around. "Salvation will not come from archaeologists or epigraphers," says Nadav Na'aman of Tel Aviv University. "There is no difficulty today in creating an inscription with writing appropriate to the period, such as the writing on what is called the King Jehoash inscription. This is especially true since archaeologists and epigraphers have no precedent for this kind of inscription, such an ancient Judahite royal inscription." Therefore the deciding factor in the debate will be the scientific one, rendered by the geologists.

Avi Hurwitz of Hebrew University agrees: The geologists "are outside the debate of stylistic, linguistic, biblical and historical similarities. They are entirely objective." About the geologists who performed the tests on the inscription, Hurwitz says, "They are first-rate. I have heard good things about them."

Nevertheless, both Hurwitz and Na'aman would like to see the scientific tests replicated by others. Just as the forgers are apparently getting so sophisticated that they can produce a text that will fool the philologists and paleographers, they may also be so scientifically sophisticated that they can fool the geologists.

In the end, what are we to make of all this? Some would conclude that we must simply ignore all unprovenanced finds. For me, this is an entirely unjustified conclusion. Simply put, cases differ. You might choose not to rely on the Jehoash inscription in your research, but surely you would not ignore the Dead Sea Scrolls. Although most of them were looted, there is no question about their authenticity. Many unprovenanced artifacts and inscriptions also fall into this category. Others, however, are more doubtful. And still others are proven forgeries. It should not be beyond the community of scholars to make these distinctions.

I personally find the debate about the Jehoash inscription fascinating and intriguing. I love following it. Apparently so do a lot of other people, based on the web discussions. Assume you are studying the historicity of 2 Kings 12. You would start with the text and reach some conclusions based on your textual research. Then you would independently look at other evidence. If, on the basis of your textual study, you decided that the text was probably historically reliable, you would probably add something like, "If the Jehoash inscription is authentic, it supports my tentative conclusion concerning the text." If your textual study concluded that there was probably no historical basis for the narrative in 2 Kings 12, you would probably add that "The Jehoash inscription is almost certainly a forgery and therefore presents no problem for my conclusion." But in either case you can't pretend the inscription doesn't exist. Scholars are accustomed to living with uncertainties. The authenticity of unprovenanced artifacts and inscriptions is sometimes (but by no means always) just another uncertainty. If you're looking for certainty, I like to say, go into mathematics, but stay away from ancient history.

Hershel Shanks is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and Bible Review.

Citation: Hershel Shanks, " Between Authenticity and Forgery," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2006]. Online:


© 2019, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.