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Published: Sunday, 7/13/2003

Biblical hopes are hoaxes

Identifying antiquities is no mean feat. But it is one made more difficult when an artifact has significance to one or another faith - like the ossuary whose discovery was reported in the Biblical Archaeological Review last October. It was hoped that the container held bones of Jesus' brother James.

Similar hope lay with a shoe-box size stone tablet that came to light two years ago. Some experts dated it to the 9th century B.C. On it there is writing called the “Yoash inscription,” which some of them thought confirmed a Bible story.

Great store had been set on the limestone box inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It seemed authenticated by a New Testament account that Jesus, revered as God, had a brother James, the son of Mary's husband Joseph.

At first blush the box's Aramaic inscription looked authentic. A French scholar of ancient texts had found it so. The stone fabrication seemed to fit, too. Indeed, the ossuary went on display at the Royal Ontario Museum last November. Skeptics noted that there were many families with a Jesus and a James, with a head of household named Joseph.

Hopes were dashed and skepticism validated when Israel's Antiquities Authority said recently that the ossuary is a forgery with no links to the Biblical past. They also debunked the Yoash tablet.

Investigators saw the James inscription cutting through the patina of the old stone and concluded that it was “written in modernity by someone attempting to reproduce ancient written characters.”

The Yoash inscription consisted of 15 lines thought to be in ancient Hebrew. It instructed that the Jewish Temple be kept in Jerusalem.

But not one phrase of it was without linguistic mistake, and it was the product of a mind that thought in modern Hebrew, not ancient, a Biblical language expert declared.

The man to whom both the ossuary and tablet are tied has insisted on the stone box's authenticity. Police are looking into whether he bought it 30 years ago, as he claimed, or more recently from a looter.

The moral of these stories is an old one. If things look too good or too politically convenient to be true, they probably are.


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