Preliminary Discussion Concerning The So-Called Ossuary Of Jacob From A Tel Aviv Collection

From: “The Polish Journal of Biblical Research” Vol. 2, No. 1 (3), December 2002 [printed in May 2003!]. Copyrighted by Zdzisław J. Kapera and The Enigma Press 2003.

Author’s e-mail address is as follows:

By Zdzislaw J. Kapera
Jagiellonian University, Cracow
July 2003

    On October 24, 2002 Mr. Hershel Shanks, the Editor of the world’s most popular bimonthly devoted to biblical archaeology, the “Biblical Archaeology Review”, made a public announcement in the glare of TV spot lights, of the greatest archaeological discovery directly concerning the New Testament. An ossuary had been found in which were preserved the bones of Jacob, the ‘brother of the Lord.’(1) What we have seen in the press and on TV in the last three months seems to be something parallel to the First Battle of the Scrolls, i.e. the dispute about the authenticity and antiquity of the manuscripts from the Dead Sea in the late 1940s and early 1950s.(2) Certainly, we will soon face another ‘battle’ concerning the deciphering of the inscription on the ossuary, and then a ‘battle’ over Judaisation or Christianization of the object. Many scholars will certainly become involved in the description and evaluation of this unexpected discovery.

    Almost immediately after the public announcement I was requested by the Secretary of the Polish Society of Jewish Studies to give description and preliminary evaluation of the discovery to the participants of the Third International Conference on Jews and Judaism in Contemporary Research held in Cracow on November 26-27, 2002.(3) At that time the object was not in Tel Aviv any longer, but at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where a great exhibition accompanying the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion was being held. It was impossible to include in my presentation first reports from that meeting or from the panel sessions on the ossuary. What I had collected, i.e. some data from the Polish and foreign press and from some internet discussions, was only very preliminary information about the discovery. Very fortunately, I had received the “Biblical Archaeology Review” issue in question and was able at least to study the good published photographs of the object.(4)

    What follows below is again only a preliminary presentation of the discussions, this time not of the first month but of the four months after the public announcement of the discovery. Thanks to my colleagues and friends, I have received some additional current material.

    Introductory data on the so-called Ossuary of Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus from a collection in Tel Aviv.

Shape and dimensions of the object:(5)

    The object in question, the ossuary of Jacob according to A. Lemaire, is a limestone (to be exact, chalk) box 50,5 cm long at the bottom and extending to 56 cm at the top. One of the short sides is perpendicular to the base. The other side is slanted. As a result the box is of a trapezoid shape. It is up to 25 cm wide and up to 30.5 cm high. The stone box is covered by a lid which is generally flat but minimally convex, which is visible in some photographs. The lid rests on a 0.6 cm ledge inside the rim of the long sides of the object.

    In A. Lemaire’s article the ossuary is described as ‘unadorned, unlike numerous ornately carved ossuaries. The only decoration is a line forming a frame [...] 1,2 cm [...] from the outer edges.’(6) It is worth adding that the ossuary does not have even the smallest legs. This description should already be supplemented with a remark that during conservation of the object in Toronto it was discovered (thanks to incidental lighting) that there is a very modest decoration on the back. The decoration consists of ‘two faintly incised concentric circles, which probably included red-painted six-point stars.’(7)


    The box is of ‘a sedimentary deposit, composed mainly of marine microorganism skeletons of calcium carbonate’. All chalk from Jerusalem is from ‘the Menucha formation of Mount Scopus sequence of the Senonian period.’ The surface strata of the Menucha formation were exploited close to Jerusalem in the 1 and 2 centuries A.D. Several quarries are known from this time. The ossuary in question comes from those chalk deposits.

    Numerous samples have been taken from the stone box. Six samples of the chalk, six samples of the patina and two samples of soil were analyzed with a SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) equipped with EDS (Electron Dispersive Spectrometer) by the laboratory of the Geological Survey of the Ministry of National Infrastructures of the State of Israel. Samples of patina were taken from ‘various places on the external wall of the inscription.’ It is interesting to know that the patina is ‘absent from several letters’ of the inscription as ‘the inscription was cleaned.’ We should add that the conservators in the Toronto museum requested to have permission to check the patina again, but we do not know the results of their research as yet.(8)

    The chalk of the ossuary contains mainly (97%) CaCo3 plus 1,5% of Si; 0,7 % of aluminum; 0,4 of iron; 0,3 % of lead and 0,2 % of magnesium. The patina is composed of similar percentages: 93 %, 5 %, 2,5 %, 0,3 %, 0,4 % and 0,2 % respectively. The percentage in the soil samples was different: 85 %, 7,4 %, 2,5 %, 1,7 % and 1,0 % (plus 0,7 % of Titanium), which means much more so-called heavy metals. Interesting for me is the high percentage (5%) of silica in the patina, i.e. three times as much as in chalk. The samples of the soil are very close in contents to the Rendzina type, ‘known to develop on chalks of the Mount Scopus Group’.

    All the quoted data come from the official letter dated 17/9/2002 announcing the results of research to the Editor of the “Biblical Archaeology Review.”(9) The tests were executed by Dr Amnon Rosenfeld and Dr Shimon Ilani. It will be interesting to see if their comments on the ossuary samples will be confirmed by the Toronto laboratory team.

Aramaic inscription:

    Text of the inscription is short. It counts only twenty letters. It was read by Andre Lemaire as: ‘Ya‘akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua’, i.e. ‘James (Ya‘kov/Jacob), son of Joseph (Yosef), brother of Jesus (Yeshua).’(10)

    The text was admirably and clearly presented in the “Biblical Archaeology Review” on a drawing prepared by the Israeli scholar Ada Yardeni, expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls paleography.(11) The characters are incised with care and are in classical, square script. We do not notice spaces between the characters.

    As I am not well enough trained in Aramaic and epigraphy I abstain from any comment at the moment.


    The typology of limestone / chalk ossuaries from Jerusalem is well established since 1994. Mr. L. Y. Rahmani published about a thousand such objects from the Israeli state collections. A first look at the shape of the ossuary permits us to attribute it to type 2. Rahmani dates this type to the years 20 B.C. - 70 A.D.(12)

    Professor A. Lemaire, taking into consideration the high probability of identification of the person named Jacob, the son of Joseph (conjecturally with St. Joseph, the husband of Mary) and brother of Jesus (conjecturally Jesus Christ) dates the stone box very precisely to the year 63 A.D. He takes into consideration the transmission of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius concerning the death of St. James the Just in 62 A.D.(13) and the local Jerusalem tradition of opening tombs after a year to collect the bones of the buried and put them in an ossuary.(14) As such stone boxes were often inscribed with the name of the deceased and sometimes with additional details, in this case we are dealing with Jacob, the Lord’s Brother.

Prelude to the story

    It is a truism to say that we are no longer able to live without TV, at least very many of us are not. Television is usually the first medium to bring us news. That was also the way it happened in the case of the ossuary. The secret of the discovery was kept till its first public presentation by CNN. The curious thing is that the ossuary had just left Israel and was on its way to New York (and than to Toronto) when CNN asked the Israel Antiquities Authority questions about it. That happened one day before its official presentation. The workers of the Department of Antiquities at once identified the collection (in Tel Aviv) and owner of the object (Mr. Oded Golan). The Israeli police interrogated him for several hours to establish whether the Israeli law of antiquities had been violated. It had not.(15)

    On the day of official presentation, H. Shanks described the circumstances of the discovery. It is a typical story of its kind. Professor André Lemaire, of the Sorbonne, is a very well known specialist in the epigraphy of ancient Israel. In the spring of 2002 he happened to meet at a party a rich collector, who invited him home to read Aramaic inscriptions on some of his antiquities. Lemaire visited him in Tel Aviv in June and read the surprising inscription on the ossuary. According to Shanks, the most surprised was the owner himself. The ossuary was fully accessible for Lemaire to study for two weeks. From the beginning Prof. Lemaire was (and still is) convinced that the ossuary was genuine, as was the inscription on it.(16)

    When Prof. Lemaire had done his job, he approached a few scholar colleagues of his to notify them of his unusual discovery. Eventually he also told Mr. H. Shanks, the editor of BAR. Lemaire had previously cooperated with this bimonthly, the most popular journal of its kind in the world. H. Shanks decided to have the object verified independently and ordered expensive geological research in the state owned Israeli geological laboratory. When the authenticity of the object was confirmed, the discovery was revealed to the well known aramaist and expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls studies, the Rev. Professor Joseph Fitzmyer (formerly of the Catholic University of America, now retired). Father Fitzmyer was well chosen as an expert. He had published a lot of similar inscriptions in the well known “[A] Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts,” Rome 1978. At the beginning he was hesitant to confirm the reading of the Aramaic inscription. However, ‘(...) [A]fter doing some research, Father Fitzmyer found the same spelling of ‘brother’ in the Dead Sea Scroll known as the Genesis Apocryphon.’(17) The authenticity of the Aramaic text was thus confirmed. That paved the way for way the official publication of the inscription on the ossuary. Lemaire’s article went to the press and appeared at the very end of October 2002 as a BAR exclusive. But, as we have noted above, on October 23 of 2002, the American TV and next the press all over the world announced “the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology.”(18) Why did the incidental discovery become so important?


    It seems that it was the Sorbonne professor who first realized the impact of the inscription on the New Testament studies, even though he was not the first to see the ossuary or read the inscription. The owner himself tells us that he read the Aramaic text, but did not understand the expression ‘brother of’ and did not combine the three names as the names of the members of the family of Jesus.(19) The text had certainly been deciphered by the famous Israeli scholar Ada Yardeni, an expert in Hebrew epigraphy and the main paleographer of the recent team publishing the Dead Sea Scrolls.(20) Why she was and still is silent is unclear to me, but it was her drawing of the text that illustrated André Lemaire’s article. If she is preparing the first scholarly publication of the inscription with André Lemaire that would explain her official silence. Incidentally, it cannot be ruled out that one other French scholar saw the object some time ago and read the inscription.(21)

    In any case, it was Prof. Lemaire who publicized the ossuary and explained why it was so important.

    He asked himself the following question: ‘who is “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”?’ And he continues: ‘In one sense, this question asks who was James in Christian tradition - in what way was he Jesus’ brother? In another sense, it asks whether the Jesus of the inscription is the Jesus of Nazareth we know from the New Testament.’(22)

    With his good historical and theological background Prof. Lemaire concluded that the bones preserved in the ancient ossuary had to be the bones of James the Just, whose martyrdom was noted by the first century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius in connection with the events of the year 62 A.D. Both ‘this type of bone box’ and ‘the classical shape of the letters of the inscription ... fits this approximate date.’(23) It looks reasonable to Lemaire that ‘a leader of the Jerusalem church would be buried in Jerusalem and his bones later [i.e. in 63 A.D.] collected in an ossuary like this.’(24) Of course, Lemaire takes into consideration the fact that ‘[the problem] whether Jewish Christians (or perhaps more correctly, Christian Jews) were re-interred in ossuaries is a matter of some debate.’ He realizes that ‘no inscription or symbol has been found indicating that this was a Jewish Christian custom, in addition to a Jewish custom’, but he follows the opinions of some scholars that such ‘a distinct possibility’ exists.(25) Somewhat troublesome for Lemaire is the lack of what might be expected epithets such as ‘the Just’ or ‘the Righteous’ for Jacob and ‘of Nazareth’ or ‘the Messiah’ in the case of Joshua. In any case, he continues with this would be identification and tries to calculate how many people in Jerusalem named Jacob son of Joseph would have had a brother called Joshua. Starting with the number of 80,000 people living in Jerusalem at that time,(26) he establishes with some precision certain statistically probable figures. According to them, in Jerusalem ‘during the two generations before 70 C.E.’, the name would have been applicable to about 20 people. He goes on to say, rightly, that ‘It is, however, impossible to estimate how many of these 20 people were buried in ossuaries and how many of these ossuaries would be inscribed.’(27)

    To solve the problem of identification of the man from the ossuary, Lemaire looks for additional help in the rarity of the inscription itself. ‘It is common to mention the father ..., but mention of the brother is very unusual, although it does happen ... The mention of the brother probably means that the brother had a particular role, either in taking responsibility for the burial, or more generally because the brother was known, and the deceased had a special connection with him.’ And then Lemaire ends with the following statement:

    ‘When we take into account that this “James/Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” had a brother who was by this time well known and that [the deceased] ... had a special relationship with this brother as the leader of the Jerusalem church, IT SEEMS VERY PROBABLE that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament. If so, this would also mean that we have THE FIRST EPIGRAPHIC MENTION - from about 63 C.E. - OF JESUS OF NAZARETH.’(28)

    To sum up, Prof. André Lemaire is sincerely convinced that the ossuary and the Aramaic inscription are genuine and can be connected with an event in Jerusalem precisely dated to the year 62 A.D. His evaluation of the data permits him to identify the deceased - with high probability - with James the Just, the Lord’s brother. What is more, we have here the first epigraphic mention of Jesus Christ.


    It was obvious that the journalists would at once approach specialists all over the world with requests to comment on the surprising discovery. Looking at the collected internet and press documentation from a distance, the scholars of the world were divided at that moment (the very end of February 2003) into three visible but uneven groups. The largest is the group of the enthusiasts, with A. Lemaire at the head. The second, hesitating group, is represented first of all by Prof. Eric Meyers of ASOR and Prof. Paul Flesher of the University of Wyoming. The third group, the negationists, is the smallest one. It embraces some French, Polish and Israeli scholars (not only archaeologists) and is strongly voiced. To this group should be added Robert Eisenman, of California State University Long Beach who was the first to question the genuineness of the inscription, suspecting a fake.

    The first group accept the authenticity of the ossuary and the whole inscription, as well as their dating to 63 A.D. The second group accept the antiquity of the object but hesitate concerning the date of both the ossuary itself and the inscription, which they divide into two separately dated parts. The third group maintain that the object is faked. All the groups have their arguments, the discussion is in progress and the result is still uncertain.
The discussion of the ossuary has in fact only begun. The object has been known for four months. What we know from the press and the internet is only preliminary information about forthcoming scholarly skirmishes. This was proved by what happened in Toronto, where two of the most important international meetings of scholars working on the Bible, religion and archaeology took place at the end of November 2002. Very characteristically, the ASOR representatives ignored the existence of the illegally acquired artifact and said nothing about. On the contrary, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto organized a presentation of the ossuary for the general public for a period of six weeks and also a special panel discussion with some invited guests. The Society of the Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion in their turn organized a special discussion session at the end of their annual convention. Both were successful and fully covered by the Canadian media first of all. Some scholars have already prepared their own reports for publication.(29)


    A letter from the Israeli Geological Survey in Jerusalem confirming the antiquity of the patine of Jacob’s ossuary was sent from Jerusalem to H. Shanks on September 17, 2002. A month later, on October 21, he asked the authorities of the Royal Ontario Museum if they would be interested in exhibiting the box. As three internationally recognized scholarly conferences were scheduled to be held in Toronto at the end of November, they immediately realized that the display might be a great advertisement for the museum. They certainly knew that these conferences usually brought together up to 10,000 people! The positive answer of the Museum was obvious. The only condition was to supply a valid export license from Israel and a guaranteed date of return. As Mr. Dan Rahimi from the ROM recollects, ‘Within an hour I had a copy of the export permit with the ROM’s name on it.’(30)

    Almost immediately after Mr. H. Shank’s presentation of Jacob’s ossuary, the management of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto announced the public exhibition of the object from November 16 to December 29, 2002. The owner was not expected to be there, but the turn of events made it necessary for him to come to Canada. He sent the object to the Museum with permission of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. It was shipped from Tel Aviv to Hamilton via New York. From Hamilton it was trucked to the ROM. As we now know from some press reports, it was insured already at that time for one million dollars. Due to improper packing and probably lack of professional treatment at the airports, the object was badly damaged on its way to Toronto. The minimal cracks widened and new and dangerous cracks formed. It is true that the ossuary had some original (ancient) hairline cracks inside, but nobody expected such a tragedy, especially as ‘one of [the new] cracks runs through the inscription.’(31) The owner was horrified at the news, but at once ‘a conservation proposal [was sent by the ROM authorities] to the owner’. With the proposal of repairs the Museum sent the owner images of the damage caused in transit. At first he decided to wait. But after a discussion with the representative of the transport company and being assured that this did not break the agreement with the insurance company he gave them the green light. The necessity to repair created an unusual opportunity to study the object for the first time in full details under museum laboratory conditions. It is worth mentioning that the ROM has excellent experts on reparation of objects. One of them, a specialist in stone artifacts, is Dr. Ewa Dziadowiec from the Warsaw branch of the National Museum in Poland. During restoration work in her presence, an archaeologist from the ROM, Dr. Ed. Keall, discovered the already mentioned ornamentation consisting of two concentric circles. This decoration was recognized for the first time thanks to very strong lights used when filming the object. Used in restoration were ‘special pigmented resins to join and fill the cracks.’ They remained visible when the object was on public display.(32)

    The presentation of the ossuary of Jacob was a great success for the Museum. There was an expectation that the ROM might see ‘ticket sales jump by 15,000’ according to the museum spokesman Mr. Francisco Alvarez. But certainly the jump was even higher. Thousands of people queued at the ROM’s entrance every day. The exhibition fee, which remained officially undisclosed, was eventually discovered by some journalists, who say it was a quarter of a million dollars for the owner. Mr. Alvarez was right in ‘calling the acquisition of the artifact “a matter of timing and good luck.”’(33) What is worth adding ‘more than 50 media outlets were on hand for ... [the] panel discussion at the ROM, as were more than 1,000 scholars’ - as reported Bob Harvey of the “Ottawa Citizen”.(34) Jack Meinhard of the Biblical Archaeology Society announced well in advance that each entry for two public lectures cost $ 50 a ticket.(35) It seems that really a lot of money is involved in this archaeological game and we should not forget about it when following the scholarly discussion on the ossuary.(36)

The owner’s press conference in Toronto

    As very many details concerning the origins of the ossuary still remain unknown or unclear expectations were raised when the owner, Mr. Oded Golan, a 51-year-old engineer from Tel Aviv, decided to come to Toronto to take part in the two public meetings mentioned. Originally Mr. Golan had wished to remain in the background as an anonymous owner, but his identity was revealed by the Israeli press when he was questioned by the Tel Aviv police in connection with a suspected breach of the Israeli antiquities law. However, he defended his version, which was that the object had been bought legally 25 years ago and presented legal documents from the IAA concerning exportation of the ossuary. Within a week the Tel Aviv newspaper “Haaretz” published a long article presenting his profile and an unofficial view of the IAA concerning the object. We know that the object is to go back to Israel in mid-March 2003 and new expert studies will be undertaken by the state laboratories there.

    The owner of the ossuary certainly came across in a 90-minute conversation with journalists as ‘a good storyteller’. However, he did not give any new data concerning the origin of the mysterious stone box. As Leslie Scrivener of the Toronto “Star” wrote in the first lines of his report, ‘Oded Golan can remember how he found a pottery shard with a cuneiform inscription when he was 10 [...] But he cannot for the life of him remember where the most controversial piece in his large collection, the ossuary said to contain the bones of James, the brother of Jesus, came from [...]There was nothing memorable about the box...’ It was explained that Mr. Golan had not just a few (as some had reported) but a collection of about 30 ossuaries, of which only four or five with him at home. The remaining objects ‘are kept in a storage shed in Tel Aviv.’ He had bought the box in question for about $200. ‘He remembers as a teenager buying from four antiquities dealers in Jerusalem [...] He’s quite sure the box came from caves in Silwan, just east of Jerusalem, and that it came alone, without other pieces that would help identify its origins.’(37)

    The collection of O. Golan’s antiquities is usually called the largest private collection in Israel. Golan has been collecting ancient objects since he was 8 years old. Now he possesses about 3,000 artifacts, mainly shards, especially pieces of the so-called Philistine pottery from ancient Palestine. It is astonishing that the owner, ‘who runs a high-tech company that makes interactive visual archives - a record of the work of a community or educational institution’ has so far not shown scholars any documentation concerning his collection, no diaries, no notes, no invoices, nothing. He simply does not remember his visit to a Jerusalem dealer years ago and he does not possess any documentation of the artifact now insured for $ 1 million.(38)

The scholarly panel on the ossuary at the ROM

    As many as 500 people turned up at the Museum event on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2002. They were hosted by Dr. Ed Keall, curator of the ossuary exhibit. Besides the owner and H. Shanks, the panel included three luminaries of American scholarship: Prof. Peter Richardson of the University of Toronto, an expert on the first century Judaism and the author of an excellent book on Herod the Great; Prof. Kyle McCarter of John Hopkins University, an internationally acknowledged paleographer and expert on the Copper Scroll, and Prof. Benjamin Witherington, a theologian, an expert in the New Testament research, who is now working on a book concerning the theological implications of the possible identification of the deceased from the ossuary as James the Just.


Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.