Ganging up on biblical archaeology

Nina Burleigh (“Hoaxes from the Holy Land” Op-Ed article, Nov. 29) is unwilling to consider the possibility that the now-famous bone box inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” is authentic. This is despite the fact that the Jerusalem judge in the case, after listening to the state’s witnesses for more than three years, is of the view that the government has failed to prove the inscription is a forgery and should consider dropping the case. Burleigh’s view after the judge’s pronouncement remains the same as in her book, “Unholy Business.” Burleigh has only vitriol and nasty innuendo for anyone, including myself, who defends the authenticity of the inscription.

I start from the assumption that it is just as bad to claim an authentic inscription is a forgery as to claim a forgery is authentic. If this inscription is authentic, I want to know about it -- and so does the public.

Regarding the Joash Tablet, which Burleigh also discusses, the Biblical Archaeology Review, which I edit, has taken no position. Leading scholars have taken opposing views. Unlike Burleigh’s Op-Ed article, the discussion has been reasoned and respectful. We have published both sides.

The evidence regarding the James ossuary inscription is, however, far different. Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Ada Yardeni of Hebrew University, two world-class expert epigraphers in the Aramaic script of the period, regard the inscription on the bone box (or ossuary) as authentic. Moreover, no expert in this script has suggested any infirmity in the epigraphy of the inscription.

Burleigh blames the failure of the governments’ case on the defendants’ lawyers, whom she describes as “nimble” and “expensive.” She says the government’s witnesses were “accustomed to working on dusty digs or answering questions from somnambulant students.” Burleigh recognizes that the government witnesses “either contradicted themselves ... or had their conclusions ripped apart.” But, of course, this was done on cross-examination by “nimble, expensive attorneys.”

This case, however, is being heard and decided by a sophisticated judge. The Israeli legal system does not use juries. “Nimble, expensive lawyers” can perhaps fool juries, but it is harder to do this with an experienced judge.

It is true that a scientific expert from Tel Aviv University, Yuval Goren, stated that a thin film on the inscription was designed to cover the evidence of forgery. But he also said that what causes the inscription to appear as if it were carved in modern times -- and therefore a forgery -- could be the possibility that it may have been “completely cleaned” recently (something regularly done by dealers offering inscriptions for sale). And Goren said this not in his cross-examination but in his original report to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

More important, when this film was removed by the police, Goren was shown more recent pictures of the inscription. He later said there was some original ancient patina, even parts of the word “Jesus.” (That didn’t change Goren’s position that the inscription is a forgery.)

Burleigh can perhaps make a case that the inscription is nevertheless a forgery, but she needn’t denigrate or question the motives of scholars who disagree with her. That is exactly what she does when she contrasts “serious and sober biblical scholars” with their “more ruthless colleagues.” Indeed, she defames biblical scholars and biblical scholarship as a whole with the scurrilous charge that “the desire of the faithful for material proof [of the Bible] drives scholarship as much as anything actually dug up from the sands of the Holy Land.”

Of course, the Israeli judge’s suggestion that the prosecution consider dropping the case does not mean the inscription is authentic. As we said in our news release to which Burleigh refers but does not quote, “All the court can decide is that the prosecution has not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Logically, the inscription can still be a forgery.”

We also added that there is a question as to whether “the ‘Jesus’ of this inscription is the ‘Jesus’ we know from the New Testament.” We noted that all three names in the inscription “were very common among Jews at this time.”

Burleigh indeed knows how to write for People magazine, where she is a staff writer. But she evidently knows little about how scholars determine whether an ancient inscription is a forgery.

Hershel Shanks is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.