Reply to: “Why I am Not Yet Convinced the Ossuary Inscription is a Forgery, by Hershel Shanks, Editor, Biblical Archaeology Review, on Beliefnet.
Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures
Tel-Aviv University, Israel
In a press conference that was held on June 18, 2003, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) published the results of the special committee appointed to examine the authenticity of the inscription on the James ossuary and the Jehoash stone. The committee unanimously concluded that the two inscriptions were modern forgeries.
In his commentary for Beliefnet, Mr. Hershel Shanks, Editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review and co-author (together with Ben Witherington III) of The Brother of Jesus, suggests that “the debunkers’ “proof” rests in the hands of one scientist”. This devious Dr. Strangelove, who was “the only one on the committee with any geological and chemical knowledge”, is none but yours truly. According to Shanks, “Yuval Goren… managed to convince the rest of the five person (sub-)committee of his scientific conclusions based on materials in which they are not expert and which they have no more than a laypersons’ knowledge. This (sub-)committee convinced the other scholars of the conclusions of the five-person scientific committee”. Hence in a true conspiracy tale reminiscent of the classic 1957 film "Twelve Angry Men", he puts me in Jack Lemmon’s position as the one juror who skillfully convinced the rest of the jury to conclude with the verdict he desires. Desires for which purpose? I certainly have no idea, as I have never had any hidden agenda concerned with Christian studies, Aramaic epigraphy, biblical history or burial customs of the Jewish population during the Early Roman period. Still, when I quoted this passage from Shanks’ commentary to my mother, she said that I was wasting my time in archaeology, for if I can sweet talk such a distinguished committee, I should have taken a career in politics instead.
However, Shanks knows very well that his are empty words. The patina sub-committee included at least one more member whose knowledge in geology and geochemistry was by far greater than mine. Dr. Amos Bein, Director of the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI), appointed Dr. Avner Ayalon to officially represent the GSI in this special committee. In his letter to the IAA dated March 9, 2003, Bein declares: “by your request, I appoint Dr. Avner Ayalon as a member of the scientific committee for the examination of the [James] ossuary. Dr. Ayalon has broad expertise in the operation of the equipment required for the examinations, and long experience in the application of the geochemical and petrographic methods that are required for the identification and characterization of materials”. Hence Shanks’ assertion that “the committee never called in the scientists from the two other teams – the Geological Survey of Israel and the Royal Ontario Museum…” is simply incorrect and misleading. As Shanks later claims against me, “the professional geologist he [IAA director] appointed to the committee, Yuval Goren, had already expressed his view on the internet that patinas could easily be faked”.
By the same logic, Shanks would not support the inclusion of Drs. Ilani and Rosenfeld of the GSI in the committee, for they too had an expressed opinion about the ossuary. Moreover, Shanks himself expressed the same view (that patinas could be faked) in his book, as he insisted on having the patina of the James ossuary examined by scientists from the GSI (whom according to the testimony of one of them, had to work hastily and secretly and only examine if the ossuary had any unrelated artificial matter on it, as opposed to myself, who at that time had not set eyes on the specimen). In conclusion, anybody who had any opinion on the matter should have been excluded from this committee, including Shanks himself. If so, indeed only laypersons could be allowed in, having no previous opinion on patination processes or epigraphy. But coming back to the point, Dr. Ayalon indeed represented the GSI on behalf of its director and has acted as the most qualified geologist in the team.
In the IAA press conference of June 18, 2003, the results of the patina sub-committee were presented first by Dr. Uzi Dahari, vice-director of the IAA and chairman of the sub-committee. Then, Ayalon and myself presented our respective results in some more detail. Ayalon’s examination of the isotopic ratios of oxygen (160-18O) in the calcite of the true and fake patinas, gives the final knock-out to the assumption that the patina coating the inscription could have been created under natural conditions, be it in a burial cave in Jerusalem, or on some balcony in Tel-Aviv. Since Ms. Suzanne F. Singer, Contributing Editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, also attended the press conference and even presented some questions, I am confident that Shanks was reported of this minor detail as well as all the others. Therefore, one may wonder if Beliefnet really cited him correctly.
There are two points that Shanks made, which are absolutely justified. First, the results of the investigations should be published in the framework of scientific papers. This will be done in the nearest future. Secondly, he is absolutely right when referring to me as a “controversial figure that, on other matters, his work has been criticized”. But one could say the same about Albert Einstein too. Indeed, Albert Einstein I am not, but alas, none of the persona involved in this saga is. The argument that “it could be more comforting if other scientists, perhaps from the United States, would have been consulted and perhaps even included on the committee” is chauvinistic, colonialistic and does not deserve further comment.