Wily Scholars and Detectives

Since the publication of my book, I have received a variety of messages from characters who want/believe the ossuary and tablet to be real. They consistently accuse me of having had an agenda in writing the book, which simply stated is to advance the agenda of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which faked the fakes, and then planted evidence against Mr. Golan, in the interest of destroying the Israeli antiquities trade itself.

By Nina Burleigh
February 2009

Last year in Israel, poking around in the dust near the Dead Sea, I kicked over a curiously inscribed stone, carved with words in a language I could not read. Realizing that I might have stumbled upon an important piece of Holy Land archaeology, I took the object to a well-known epigrapher in Jerusalem, who, after examining the piece for some hours, concluded that it said, in ancient Hebrew: "And lo, in the year 2008, Y____h will inflict upon you a Madoff, and your prosperity will dry up like the earth after a hundred-year drought; all your goats and all your wives and all your dwellings will evaporate like water in the sun."

The epigrapher advised me that the rock was most likely a fake since the word "Madoff" was not one commonly used by the ancients to refer to a plague. Imagine my shock then, to read last month that a man named Madoff did indeed, in the year 2008, cause prosperity to evaporate.

Unfortunately, I left that stone behind in my hotel room in Jerusalem, after deciding I didn't want to add its weight to my luggage, already loaded with Herod-era coins that I had been assured by dealers might well have been handled by the money-changers in the Temple. I suppose my Madoff rock will soon turn up for sale in the Old City, and I already regret my ignorance, and, especially, the skepticism of my friend, the renowned epigrapher.

Most readers will recognize the above as an obvious attempt at a joke. I say "most" because some consumers in the proof-for-faith market might actually believe it. Others will not be amused, and will, on the contrary, take it as yet more proof that I, an American journalist who has dared to look from the outside in at the arcane and highly specialized field of biblical archaeology and the trade in ancient Holy Land objects, am a tool of the dreaded and mighty Israel Antiquities Authority, in that agency's relentless and unscrupulous effort to 1) prove the Bible false and 2) deprive the Israeli antiquities dealers of their means of livelihood.

I first got interested in the tale of the forged James Ossuary when I read about the case in the New York Times around the last week of 2004. The Israeli government had indicted five men for forging archaeological objects – most famously the James Ossuary and Joash Tablet - purported to prove various Bible characters or stories true. The authorities were calling it "the fraud of the century."

I assumed at first that the main market for these objects was among evangelical Christians in the U.S. As I began researching the story, I realized that while the evangelicals were a factor in the marketing of fake Bible proof, they were not the real marks. The real marks were high-end collectors like Shlomo Moussaieff and other billionaires, whose wealth allows them to indulge a voracious taste for extremely expensive ancient stuff.

Before I got into this story, I knew absolutely nothing of the antiquities trade or these men. I hail from Illinois, and I got my start in journalism covering politics in Springfield, Illinois, currently having its 15 minutes of fame as the backdrop for the antics of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich's behavior doesn't shock me or anyone else who spent any amount of time covering the capitol city of the Land of Lincoln. I have lost count of how many governors of Illinois in my lifetime have ended up wearing prison stripes – it is either two or three – and that's only in the executive office. For years after I left Illinois, I've read of former sources or subjects of mine facing federal and state corruption charges, and often, doing time behind bars.

In Illinois, I learned a pretty crucial lesson for a journalist. From a pretty young age, I came to know that while lots of people do bad things for ideology, or out of passion – the latter always good for a story - a much larger class of people are motivated to break the rules out of mundane avarice. I never studied banking or became adept at the kind of investigative business reportage that reveals money trails, but I did come to understand the concept of following the money.

I wrote Unholy Business out of curiosity, with the aim of describing an intriguing alleged crime, from the point of view of the detectives who uncovered it. I also wanted to describe the victims and the accused. Whether innocent or guilty, their voices were integral to the story I was telling.

Working on the book in Israel and in the U.S., I met some of the most unusual, eccentric people I have ever met, and I entered a subculture average Americans know nothing about. The people and the experience inspired me, and I wrote a book that I believe captures the back story of the world of antiquities trade in the Holy Land in an engaging way.

After writing the book, I sent a copy of the galley off to an American publisher named Hershel Shanks. I was well aware of his keen interest in the James Ossuary, his selling the movie rights to it, touting it in his magazine, writing his own book about it, and following the forgery trial closely for years in print. His magazine, Biblical
Archaeology Review
, was a great source of documents for me about the case, and I had interviewed him in Washington, and he seemed to be open to considering all sides of the debate.

To my surprise, about a month after I sent him the galley, I received a long email from Israeli collector Oded Golan, accused by the Israeli government of forging the James Ossuary and several dozen other objects. It turned out that rather than review my book, Mr. Shanks had taken the rather unusual step, for a book reviewer, of sending the uncorrected galley off to the accused, who in turn had written me an email in perfect English (Mr. Golan's English during interviews had been charming but not always fluent), and using alarmingly professional-looking Latin legalese like sub judice.

After politely sending a few corrections to my publisher, Mr. Shanks never mentioned my book in his magazine, even though it details the case against the Ossuary, and, more interestingly for his readers, the various characters involved on both sides of the case. Nor did he ever answer an emailed question about mailing the galley off to the accused.

Since the publication of my book, I have received a variety of messages from characters who want/believe the ossuary and tablet to be real. They consistently accuse me of having had an agenda in writing the book, which simply stated is to advance the agenda of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which faked the fakes, and then planted evidence against Mr. Golan, in the interest of destroying the Israeli antiquities trade itself.

My problem with this conspiracy theory is pretty simple. As a journalist schooled in follow-the-money, I don't believe that the men I met who worked for the antiquities authority hate the antiquities trade enough to engineer a massive conspiracy involving faking fakes. And I don't see how they could possibly enrich themselves by destroying it. Nor were they strongly ideological on the issue.

The chief detective involved was a young army lieutenant, a father with young children, being called up to fight Hezbollah in Lebanon, in addition to trying to fulfill his charge to protect 30,000 archaeological sites from plunder. One of the chief scholars, Tel Aviv University archaeologist Yuval Goren, struck me as a serious, sober, and un-flamboyant man who seemed happiest looking through a microscope at rocks. To hear his challengers, Goren is an avowed enemy of Israel who hates the Bible and is hell-bent on disproving it.

Without evident motives of avarice, ideology, or passion driving the detectives and scholars, it was and is much easier for me to believe that people who wanted to make money off gullible billionaires had a fake factory than to believe agents of an under-funded Israeli agency concocted a global conspiracy.

I marvel every day at the breadth and ferocity of the global public relation campaign underway not only to "prove" the alleged fakes are real (and curiously, the only fakes this pr campaign ever addresses are the three very famous ones – the ossuary, tablet, and Israel Museum's ivory pomegranate, and not the numerous other items in the trial) but to vilify the scholars and authorities who have opined that the objects are fake. The campaigns always use the word "hate"—"Goren hates the antiquities trade" (BAR, Hershel Shanks, March-April 2005, p. 67). "Shuka Dorfman, the head of the IAA, hates antiquities collectors and antiquities dealers and the antiquities trade."

After my own book came out, I received one email from a member of the pro-tablet and ossuary crowd accusing me of having an affair with the detective. Another psychoanalyzed me, writing "don't you see, Nina, you unconsciously became the horn of the IAA?" Hershel Shanks, responding to a piece I wrote for the LA Times, stated that because I have a job at People Magazine, I can't possibly understand the issues involved in the case of the ossuary. And finally, my favorite so far, a man named Victor Sasson, who, according to Wikipedia, is an Iraqi-born Jew and scholar in London, and who has self-published a "novel" about the Joash Tablet and also a screed about his feminist ex-wife called "Confessions of a Sheep for Slaughter: Memoirs of Feminist Wolves" posted an attack on me, calling for nothing less than God's protection: "May God protect and shield us from … third-rate, nimble, and abusive journalists who prostitute their pens in specialized fields about which they know nothing!" (source Jim West's blog http://ia310817.us.archive.org/0/items/sasson/VictorSasson.pdf [View as HTML] Thus I have joined the ranks of the wily scholars and detectives engaged in an assault with ulterior motives on the trade in antiquities in Israel.

The detectives and many of the scholars – Goren, included – have consistently refused to get into the fray and defend themselves. But other scholars are so upset about the attacks that they have responded, and the results of these pissing matches are fairly easy to follow in BAR. One of these individuals composed a heavily footnoted paper documenting the "smear campaign" against fellow scholars. The scholar offered me the paper but asked to remain anonymous. Here are some excerpts:

"The 'smear scripts' censor opponents indirectly by defamation and destruction of professional standing. Here and there, censorship is applied directly. For instance, Dr. Jeffrey Chadwick submitted his paper on why he thought the inscription on the 'James' Ossuary was a forgery to the BAR. The paper was refused and the contents were inaccessible; however, a rebuttal of Dr. Chadwick's points appeared in
Shanks and Witherington's, The Brother of Jesus book in March 2003. Dr. Chadwick's paper was finally published in November 2003."

"Dr. Karen Vitelli refuses to support the 'Free the antiquities dealers and collectors' lobby, a feature of the BAR for more than ten years. In the 'First Person' editorial of the November-December 1999 BAR, Shanks states that Dr. Vitelli used money from collectors to finance archaeological digs; therefore, she is a 'hypocrite' and 'has no right to' say anything. Collector Shelby White states her position against Shanks and his 'Free the antiquities dealers' program. In the March-April 2003 issue of BAR, White is a 'hypocrite' and has 'no right to'... along with a revolting cartoon caricature. This 'First Person' editorial is so offensive that Dr. Joe Seeger, former President of ASOR, spoke out against it."

"The combination of 'amateur' with 'no right to' is by far the most common theme aimed solely at the most dangerous opponents to whichever con is being promoted. To state that a professional in a field is an 'amateur' asks for a libel suit. The stockyard terminology of the "smear scripts" employs a number of different strategies to defame an expert as an 'amateur.'"

"In the July-August 1994 issue of BAR, Shanks claims Dr. Elisha Qimron, granted his Ph.D. in 1976 and a world expert on the Hebrew of the DSS, is just a 'research assistant.' A 'research assistant' is a graduate student, someone who has done the coursework but is an 'inexperienced amateur.' After declaring Dr. Qimron an 'amateur,' Shanks asserts that Dr. Qimron has 'no right to' copyright his work. This combination against Dr. Qimron appears from 1994 through the January-February 2001 and March-April 2001 issues of the BAR. Shanks lost the copyright violation suit anyway. "Making Girling's point in his 'King Tut tut tut' article, Shanks had help from the media, from blogs, from articles on copyright, from lawyers, from panel discussions, and from disgruntled scholars who abetted the smear campaigns."

"With complete contempt for the consequences, articles absurdly easy to prove as adhering to the designated 'smear scripts' that appear in the BAR under the name of Hershel Shanks sneak into other newspapers, journals, magazines, and books, and onto scholarly lists and web-sites under assorted by-lines."

The mainstream news media is bored by the interminable trial underway in what one observer called "a room the size of a broom-closet" in the East Jerusalem courthouse. The details of the trial itself, including really damning evidence involving numerous lesser known objects the fakery of which is not being disputed, rarely get attention. However, every new "expert" who comes forward for the defense to say that the Ossuary or Tablet is real gets amplified by interested parties.

Suspicious? Rather.

All of this is not to say that I believe Mr. Golan, who has protested his innocence from the beginning, or Mr. Deutsch, the other man in the dock in Jerusalem, are criminals. As far as I am concerned, they are innocent until proven guilty. What is really on trial is the soundness of biblical archaeology and its scholars.

*Nina Burleigh is the author of four critically acclaimed nonfiction books. Her latest, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land (Collins, 2008), tells the story of the unraveling of a Bible relic forgery scheme in Israel, and the intriguing world of biblical archaeology and relic collectors.

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