After a trial of more than five years with 138 witnesses, more than 400 exhibits and a trial transcript of 12,000 pages, Judge Aharon Farkash of the Jerusalem District Court cleared the defendants of all forgery charges in the case of the James Ossuary. Still, the trial details leave us with concerns about the total authenticity of this artifact. ABR Staff member Gordon Franz interviewed one of the trial witnesses and conservator, Orna Ohen, in 2008.
In the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks addressed the fallout from the verdict in the 'forgery case of the century' between the Israel Antiquities Authority and the antiquities dealer and owner of the James ossuary, Oded Golan (2012:26-33, 62, 64-65). The issue Shanks focused on was the authenticity of the inscription: 'James the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus.'
Is the Inscription Authentic?
In the article, Shanks asked the question and then gave his opinion: 'Is the inscription authentic? The court held only that the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the inscription was a forgery. But it surely did not find that the inscription was authentic. I have no doubt, however, that it is' (2012:26). One reason the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt was because the witnesses disagreed whether all, part, or none of the inscription was authentic. Most of the witnesses believed that the words 'brother of Jesus' was a modern-day forgery. Shanks, however, pointed out that one of the government witnesses, Orna Cohen, testified that there was original patina in the word 'Jesus' (2012:31), but Shanks did not tell the whole story. Orna revealed more.
Interview with Orna Cohen
Four years ago, in July of 2008, Stephanie Hernandez and I interviewed Orna Cohen. Orna is a conservationist of antiquities who has made outstanding replicas of artifacts for museums and restored a number of buildings, including the monumental Late Bronze 'ceremonial palace' at Hazor where we conducted the interview.
We covered a range of topics about Orna's job and why it is important to conserve what has been excavated. Orna is one of the best in the field of archaeological conservation and restoration. One of the issues that we asked her about was forgeries on the antiquities market and could patina be faked. In her answer about patina being faked, Orna mentioned the James ossuary, which at that time was at the center of the forgery court case in Israel. Orna was one of the government witnesses in the trial and had the privilege of actually examining the James ossuary first hand. Here is what she had to say:
Gordon: 'How easy is it to fake patina?'
Orna: 'It is possible, but it is not easy to fake patina. You need the knowledge, but it has been done. There is research going on about it for historical buildings. For instance when you are renewing part of a building you want to repeat the patina, so there is research about these things. I had the pleasure of looking at and checking the James Ossuary and I gave my comments on it. I think the ossuary is authentic and a real one, but the inscription on it, I am convinced there are two hands that wrote the inscription. To my opinion, part of the inscription is faked, part is original. Of course, there are things that go on in trial now [This interview was conducted in July 2008]. They are still trying to figure out what is faked and by whom it was made. To my opinion, the name Joshua [on the ossuary] is real. The inscription reads: 'Ya'acov bar Yosef achi Yehoshua.' [Translation: Jacob (or James), the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus]. So the first part, I think is added. My professional opinion is almost against all the others that think the last name [on the inscription]; 'brother of Jesus' (Joshua) is a fake. So my opinion was against the others [at the trial]. I checked and it's according to the patina in the letters. There was a fake patina of just dirt that was put in these letters on purpose so I cleaned part of it and underneath there was the original, yellowish patina that based on my experience, was the original one. It was not on the first part of the inscription but it was on the last part of the inscription. That is what I gave as my opinion.' (Brackets […] added by interviewers for clarity).
Assuming Orna is correct, we still do not know who the second hand was that added the first part of the inscription 'James the son of Joseph.' On cross-examination, Yuvel Goren also admitted there was ancient patina in the word 'Jesus' (2012:31) which confirmed Orna's statement.
The Conclusion of the Matter
In my opinion, it is not 'Case closed!' I do not think Shanks presented a strong case for the authenticity of the whole inscription and the jury is still out on its authenticity. Perhaps some day the second hand will reveal itself and we will know the identity of the person who added 'James the son of Joseph.'
Transcript of the Interview
For the transcript of the whole interview conducted by Stephanie and I, you are invited to visit my website and read, 'It is the Best Job in the World!: An Interview with Conservator Orna Cohen'.
'Brother of Jesus' Inscription is Authentic! Biblical Archaeology Review 38/4: 26-33, 62, 64-65.
ABR Editorial Note: Orna Cohen has done work for ABR in conserving and restoring ancient coins discovered at our excavation at Khirbet el-Maqatir, Israel.