Recollecting the Jehoash Inscription, The Trial in Jerusalem, and Comments on the James Ossuary

The Jehoash tablet occasioned the mushrooming of sundry self-styled expert linguists, palaeographers, and epigraphers, who suddenly surfaced on the media horizon from all directions. We live in a world of media hype, especially with the democratic and incredible internet; and reporters – some quite wily – cannot distinguish between a specialist epigrapher, an Akkadian scholar, and a general practitioner in a Bible department.

Dr. Victor Sasson
Hebraist and North-West Semitic Epigrapher
Formerly, Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society
February 2016

The Jehoash Inscription

Re-reading my study of the Jehoash inscription undertaken in 2003 (Ugarit-Forschungen 35, 2004), it seemed to me that I was quite thorough in my treatment of the text at the time. Nevertheless, there was one verse in II Kings 12 that I overlooked – and that is ki lebedeq hab-bayit titnuhu. The priests here are enjoyed not to take donations for themselves but to give these for the required repairs of the Temple. Now we know quite well what a storm was created by those who branded the inscription a forgery when they claimed that wa-‘a’as et bedeq hab-bayit was ‘a howler’ - a blunder that the supposed forger had made. They claimed that to do bedeq bayit in Modern Hebrew meant to overhaul, whereas in Biblical Hebrew it would mean making further damage to the walls of the Temple! I have discussed all of this in my UF 35 study already and there is no need to dwell on it again. But here is a word of caution: in general, one should be wary of Modern Hebrew speakers using biblical idioms.

Now if we examine the particular verse I have mentioned in its original Biblical Hebrew, the clear understanding of the literal text is that the money donated should be ‘given for the breakage of the Temple’, since the word bedeq has been widely understood to mean ‘a break, a fissure’.[1] The question is: Where is the Hebrew equivalent of the English word ‘repairs’ that I have used to elucidate what the Hebrew verse means? It definitely is not in the biblical Hebrew text, if we understand the word bedeq to mean ‘damage’. This points to the grave weakness in the reasoning of those who dwelt on branding the inscription a forgery by a present day speaker of Hebrew. The biblical writer, then, is not informing the priests to devote the donated money towards making further damage to the walls of the Temple, but to leave it for restorations or renovations. The conclusion is: the inscriptional idiom is as valid as the biblical one.

Regarding the verb ‘asah (to do, make), I have already dealt with it adequately in my original study. However, it appears that I did not draw attention to the fact that the writer of the inscription knew exactly what grammatical form of the verb to use – and that is the waw consecutive! An incompetent forger, supposedly a speaker of modern Hebrew, would have made a crystal-clear blunder by using the verbal form we-‘asiti – (I did) the regular perfect tense used for past tense in Modern Hebrew. As far as I can recollect, no scholar who denounced the inscription as a forgery mentioned this point.

Another thing to mention is that it is possible that the person who wrote the inscription did not actually live in the century in which the Temple episode took place. I mentioned the Tell Fakhriyah Assyrian-Aramaic bilingual inscription in my UF study regarding this possibility: the text of the Jehoash tablet ‘could be an ancient copy of an original inscription’. And so, Biblical Hebrew language may have partly ceased to be as dynamic as before. This may account for the verb ‘asah being loaded with its multi-usages even in some Biblical Hebrew passages. The verb is not only used of the achievements of Hebrew kings (e.g. we-khol ‘asher ‘asah), but also in a case of manicure (Deut. 21:12).[2] In other words, Biblical Hebrew over time, may have lost synonyms of the verb ‘asah. (English, for instance, abounds in synonyms – e.g. do, perform, achieve, accomplish, etc.).

To another issue. A theory was suggested years ago by a scholar named James A. Montgomery that Biblical Hebrew scribes may have used archives/annals in writing historical events.[3] The term ‘annals’ has been stretched in recent years to mean also inscriptions. After further evaluation of this theory - which cannot be verified one way or another - I am not convinced that at least in this case of II Kings 12, the scribe used any kind of inscriptional material. There is a freshness about the biblical text that excludes, in my view, such material. Further, inscriptions, first and foremost, were made and meant for public display, as evidenced by the Siloam Tunnel inscription, the ‘Amman Citadel inscription, and the Tell Dan inscription (Victor Sasson, PEQ 114, 1982; PEQ 111, 1979; and JSS 40, 1995, respectively), to mention a few I am familiar with, first hand. What other historical/annalistic sources the biblical scribe had at his command that have disappeared in course of time? This can only be a matter of conjecture.

Regarding the trial in Jerusalem, I gave evidence in English in court in October 2008. By that time, quite a number of scholars had given testimonies, and the trial was coming to an end, with official transcripts in Hebrew available to the public. A few months earlier I had published a novel about the Jehoash inscription in which I used some excerpts of evidence given by two professors – one an Akkadian scholar, teaching in the University of the Negev; and another, a historian, teaching at Tel-Aviv University. I used only their initials in the book. I myself translated, as faithfully as possible, those particular Hebrew transcripts.[4]

I shall give an example – using the evidence of one witness in court - of how a committee of scholars cannot do justice in the case of the Jehoash inscription. There was bound to be some sort of comradery involved in the process of evaluating the inscription – a process that involved a criminal trial. This is particularly true if the committee is composed of local scholars in a very small country, as indeed was the case. I believe the process and its results in the case of the Jehoash would have turned out differently had it been a Committee composed of international experts, of diverse backgrounds.

The following is the example I have alluded to, and will focus on one witness, as mentioned above. The Prosecution asked the Akkadian scholar to tell the court how he heard about the inscription and how he joined the Committee:

Witness‘Okay. I heard about the inscription, for the first time, from a radio news bulletin. I am not sure which year it was. I was very much excited about this discovery. Then, in the evening, in the main television news called Mabbat, they showed us the tablet and they even read from the text. I got to the university the next day and met my colleagues and we talked about the inscription, and I heard various opinions about it, of course all kinds of negative things. Later on, I saw some articles written by other scholars from Tel Aviv University. One day I received an invitation from the AA to join the committee that they had appointed, to determine the authenticity of the Jehoash, as well as the ossuary. I accepted the invitation. I came to the meeting. They showed us the two finds, and it was really very exciting to see them. We were entrusted with the task of examining these artefacts so as to determine if they were authentic. They gave us one month or so for that purpose. I worked on the inscription, studied it thoroughly, and I saw that, from top to bottom, nothing is genuine. I wrote down my opinion and submitted it to the Committee. When we again assembled, I saw what others submitted was essentially the same, even though we did not discuss matters between us. And so, it was, as with the translation of the Greek Septuagint, we too miraculously submitted the same version. Later on, I published my opinion on the Internet.’

The Septuagint, no less! And a miracle, too! The legend about the translation of the Torah by seventy Alexandrian Jewish scholars into Greek is well-known. They were sequestered for a period of time and were enjoined not to discuss their project. And they all came back with the same translated version! Our witness claimed that there was no discussion among the sundry members of the Committee, but it is clear that he had heard negative things about the inscription on television, and also read various articles written by Tel Aviv University scholars. I have discussed in my original study in UF a couple of major publications which branded the inscription a forgery. The reference of the witness must have been to these articles, as well to various television interviews at the time. Yet, the pretence was that he had his own independent evaluations of the text of the Jehoash which, in his opinion, after studying it thoroughly, ‘from top to bottom, nothing is genuine’. This is a scholar who had nothing at all to do with ancient Hebrew epigraphy, neither did he publish any detailed, scholarly article on a major or minor Hebrew inscription, and yet we see him speaking with the authority of an established, well-known North-West Semitic epigrapher.

Then there was an exchange regarding royal inscriptions. The Defence referred to the Siloam tunnel inscription and asked the witness if it is a royal inscription:

WitnessThe Siloam Tunnel inscription is not royal. It is graffiti or something like that.

Graffiti? How can anyone, let alone a scholar in a Bible department, call this famous inscription ‘graffiti or something’? The word graffiti (actually, a plural but generally used as singular) according to major dictionaries, refers to an unauthorised scribbling or drawing on a wall. In point of fact the Siloam tunnel inscription has for more than a century been universally known among biblical scholars and epigraphers to be a very good piece of Classical Hebrew. Further, the Defence attorney was correct in saying the digging of the tunnel must have been authorised by the king himself. Also, this expert witness did not even know when the inscription was discovered. The Defence attorney - quite well informed by this stage of the trial - told him it was in the nineteenth century, which is correct.

There is no need for me to dwell on other blunders of this witness, but turn to the James Ossuary inscription, and see what he had to say on the witness stand.

The Inscription on the James Ossuary

Regarding this inscription, I myself did not research it at the time. Over the years, I have been more interested in longer inscriptions. Also, the problem with this specific one has much to do with palaeography - a specialised and slippery field, which is a mixture of science and art. I have dealt briefly with palaeography with some inscriptions, but I am not a specialist. There are other scholars more competent in this area. But I still think it is a hazardous area and much caution needs to be exercised even by a specialist.[5] And so, while preparing this article, I wanted to familiarize myself with the issues by reading some essays on the subject of the James ossuary. I do not believe that anyone has changed his mind. Robert Eisenman dismissed the second part of the inscription as a forgery coming out just after the publication of his book on ossuaries.[6] I doubt if his book had anything to do with it. Andre Lemaire, a colleague in North-West Semitic Epigraphy - whom I met briefly some thirty-five years ago at a conference in Jerusalem - maintained (in a lecture given on April 21, 2004, and which I chanced to see as a pdf on the Web) that the inscription is genuine and a first mention of the well-known Jesus. Indeed, in a written communication with him quite recently, he informed me that he still thinks both the ossuary and its inscription, in its entirety, are genuine.

Let us get back to the trial. The following is an exchange between the Defence attorney and our witness:

DefenceTell me, Professor, you have signed the Committee’s report. On the summary page the Committee decided, as follows: A. the Jehoash inscription is a forgery. B. the inscription written on the James brother of Jesus ossuary is a forgery. But you have not submitted any opinion about the ossuary, correct?


DefenceBy that you mean your signature is a mistake; it is not in reference to the ossuary?

Apparently, the witness had not anticipated this question, and at this point there was some confusion. The Judge had to intervene, by addressing the witness:

JudgeThe question is whether you have prepared or submitted an opinion regarding the ossuary.

WitnessNo. I have not submitted an opinion regarding the ossuary. I must admit that I amnot an expert regarding the questions that were raised about the ossuary. I was a member of the Committee. I read the professional opinions that were submitted by others and, to the best of my ability – which I admit is limited – I agreed with the others. Therefore, I do not have an independent opinion regarding the ossuary.

This answer clearly infuriated the Defence attorney. Below is the last and most important part of what he said:

DefenceThis amounts to this: I am not an expert in this field, I did not examine the ossuary, I did not submit an opinion; others said the ossuary is a forgery, then I said okay and I signed.

WitnessOkay. These were our instructions.

DefenceThese were the instructions. Meaning one just signs like that.

WitnessMy hands have not shed the blood.

A most bizarre answer! What of course he meant by it was that he was not guilty. But since this was a criminal trial in a court of law, and every spoken word was recorded, the Defence attorney was quick to say that no blood had been shed. Nevertheless, he insisted on the witness repeating that he had signed the Committee’s report in the way he did. The witness’ answer was ‘Yes’. Needless to say, I myself would decidedly not sign a report, based on what others in a committee have written, regarding the authenticity of this inscription, or any other.

I have said above that I did not research the James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus inscription. But if I were pressed to give an opinion about this one, I would have to say that the second part of the text is more likely a forgery - but not by anyone living at present, certainly not by the well-known collector of antiquities. Here are my reasons:

First, my understanding is that Ya’aqob (James) was a well-known person in Jerusalem at the time, and had the designation of Has-Saddiq (The Just), in addition to being brother of Jesus. However, the existing wording on the ossuary appears to be more about Yeshu’a and less about the buried Ya’aqob – and this is suspicious. A wording of Ya’aqob Has-Saddiq bar Yosef would raise no suspicions of an added second part to the text.

Second, if the second part of the existing inscription is an addition, then its purpose was to mislead, for whatever motive - whether religious or pecuniary. The names Ya’aqob, Yehoshua/Shua, and Yosef were - and still are – all common names among Jews, especially in the Middle East.

Third, the scientific evidence given by experts regarding the patina indicates that the second part of the inscription was added decades, if not centuries ago. If this is correct and the added part was inscribed centuries ago, then the added part may have had purely religious intent.

Fourth, there is a very good ground for forgery, as there has always been a desperate need on the part of Christian masses for any kind of tangible proof – however flimsy - of the existence of this man-made-god – Jesus of Nazareth.

Let us get back now to the Jehoash inscription. There are a few markers or indicators that point to its being genuine. I have discussed these in my original study in UF 35, but here I would like now to dwell on one instance – the blessing for the people at the end of the text. It was taken, if I recall correctly, by the Akkadian scholar and probably by others, as suspicious since royal inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia invariably praise the king and his achievements. The king would boast of his ruthlessness in quelling insurrections, destroying enemy villages and cities, slaughtering his enemy soldiers, constructing new buildings in his homeland, introducing peace, and so forth. Yet, scholars claimed, this supposedly royal Jehoash text speaks of a blessing for the people – and hence, it must be suspect. No one took the trouble to examine the reason for this blessing. No one took the trouble to check II Kings 11: 13-20, and especially 17- 20, where the word ha’am (‘the people’) is repeated a number of times. There was a special bond between the king and his people. Further, it was the people who, through their donations, made the renovations of the Temple possible. A blessing for the people – ha’am – in the inscription makes perfect sense. A forger – a fool or a genius - would have taken the safest course at hand. He would have supplied our scholars with exactly the formula they expected - by inscribing a blessing for the king!

I have mentioned elsewhere that the Jehoash tablet occasioned the mushrooming of sundry self-styled expert linguists, palaeographers, and epigraphers, who suddenly surfaced on the media horizon from all directions. We live in a world of media hype, especially with the democratic and incredible Internet; and reporters – some quite wily –cannot distinguish between a specialist epigrapher, an Akkadian scholar, and a general practitioner in a Bible department.

The Prosecution, not being able to prove beyond reasonable doubt their case that the inscription is a forgery, decided to confiscate the tablet at the end of the trial. Their reason for this was that the stone was genuine but that the text was fake! Clearly an imbecile legal stratagem, for if they needed a genuine stone from the time of King Jehoash or from pre-history, all they had to do was to go to any Judean hill, have a stone carved out, trimmed, polished, and put in the Israel Museum. They would then be displaying a truly genuine, provenanced artefact –and be proud of it!

Copyright ©2016 by Victor Sasson.


[1] One should be very careful with cognates. See Peter R. Ackroyd’s ‘Meaning and Exegesis’ in Words and Meanings, Essays Presented to David Winton Thomas (CUP 1968). Thus, ‘bloomers’ in English and ‘de bloomers’ in German may sound the same but have different meanings.

[2] This usage of the verb came to my attention through David N. Freedman’s ‘Don’t Rush to Judgment’ article in BAR 30 (2004). I saw the article after completing and publishing my study of the Jehoash. I sent an offprint to Professor Freedman when, I believe, he was already in hospital. He responded by sending me a number of his own offprints, and a kind word of agreement with me regarding my published research on the Jehoash. I first met Freedman at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem probably in June or July of 1977, when he was Director of the Institute and I arrived there as a Thayer Fellow, appointed at that time by the American Schools of Oriental Research. Dr. Albert Glock was soon to replace him.

[3] See pp. 30-38 of James A. Montgomery’s A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Book of Kings.

[4] With Arabic as my first language, I am fluent in Modern Hebrew, too. I also hold a highly specialised Honours degree from the University of London in biblical, medieval, and modern Hebrew (including biblical Aramaic), and my examiner for the oral examination was no other than Professor Chaim Rabin of the Hebrew University (who was appointed by London University for the task). I gave evidence in court in English, as mentioned above, because all my scholarly publications were done in English.

   Regarding my abilities as translator: in the latter part of 1970’s I was hired by a U.S. government office to translate Hebrew and Arabic newspaper articles into English at home. Everything was done by post. I recall I was paid a pittance, something like ten dollars per one thousand words. But I had the privilege of undergoing security clearance before undertaking this top secret job!

   I should mention that the translated excerpts, first included in my book, King Jehoash and the Mystery of the Temple of Solomon Inscription, (2008), and partly reproduced in this article, are copyrighted material.

[5] Consider Joseph Naveh’s statement: ‘… often more as well as less developed letter-forms may occur in the same period, sometimes even in the same inscription.’ Review of The Scripts of Ancient Northwest Semitic Seals, by L.G. Herr, BASOR 23 (1980). But in my own opinion, there can be any number of factors that may mislead any seasoned palaeographer in the dating or evaluating an inscription from biblical times.

[6] See Robert Eisenman’s article “‘The James Ossuary’ and Its Authenticity”, in The World Post of January 20, 2011. The single quotes are his own.

Comments (4)

Dear Dr. Sasson, Hi!!! Thank you for this very balanced and excellent article. I would add that with most unprovenanced inscriptions, which the vast majority of our inscriptions at 95% or so are unprovenanced, such as the Amarna Tablets and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Biblical Scholars who purchased them from the Bedouin initially doubted their authenticity. So this seems to be an historical pattern. With the Jehoash tablet, I must also add the work of the geologists like Dr. Amnon Rosenfeld of blessed memory. It is really difficult for me to ignore the hard science data of 2,000 plus year old patina covering the Jehoash tablet's letters. Thank you for everything that you do. With Much Gratitude and Admiration, Michael Welch

#1 - Michael Welch - 02/13/2016 - 13:11

"Third, the scientific evidence given by experts regarding the patina indicates that the second part of the inscription was added decades, if not centuries ago."

If the author would do a bit more research beyond detergent patina of 2006 into the microscopy and elemental analysis of the whole inscription that is current he would need to delete this 3rd point.

Best to not give an opinion at all. Wasn't that the whole gist of his article?

#2 - Eliyahu Konn - 02/13/2016 - 13:30

As a 35 year criminal defense attorney with over 100 felony jury trials behind me, I can attest that with any trial, the bias/interest/motive displayed by any witness is as important as the substance of their testimony. It is for this reason I agree with the ultimate ruling of the court in the forgery trial - as the recounting in this article shows once again, the state's witnesses failed repeatedly when it came to neutral, unbiased opinion. Perhaps every artifact at issue was a forgery. If so, it is unfortunate that the state put on a such a compromised case that the only possible ruling was insufficiency of the evidence for forgery.

#3 - E.G. Gordon - 02/13/2016 - 23:20



So the Jehoash inscription is most likely authentic and the James the brother of Jesus ossuary is most likely a forgery?

#4 - grant - 03/16/2016 - 22:02

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