Bible Archaeology

The James Ossuary May Be Destroyed?

The Jerusalem Post:

A Jerusalem judge will announce on Wednesday whether he has decided to order the destruction of a burial box that could have held the bones of the brother of Jesus and an inscribed tablet that could have come from the First Temple.

At a Jerusalem District Court hearing in April, Judge Aharon Farkash said he might exercise “the judgement of Solomon” and order both items to be destroyed.

The stone burial box, or ossuary, dates to the first century CE and has an Aramaic inscription that reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The black tablet is inscribed with a passage recording repairs by King Jehoash around 800 BCE. Its surface is spattered with sub-microscopic globules of gold that suggest it might have survived a fire in which golden items melted into tiny airborne particles.

If genuine, the items are the only artifacts yet recovered that can be linked directly to the family of Jesus and the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and could be of considerable historical significance.

Last March, at the end of a trial lasting nearly seven years, a Tel Aviv collector was acquitted of faking the two artifacts and other antiquities by Judge Farkash, vice president of the Jerusalem District Court.

But Judge Farkash reserved judgment on whether the ossuary or the stone tablet were authentic because of disagreements between the world’s leading experts.

On Wednesday, Judge Farkash will pass sentence on the defendant, Oded Golan, who was acquitted on 41 charges of forgery, fraud and other serious crimes, but found guilty of three minor misdemeanors of trading in antiquities without a license and handling goods suspected of being stolen.

At a hearing in April, the prosecution demanded a tough sentence including jail time and said that the ossuary, the tablet and many other items should be confiscated by the court, even though Golan had been acquitted of all charges related to them.

“Maybe I’ll order them to be destroyed and neither side will have them,” said Judge Farkash in comments that were not recorded in the official court transcript.

It would be “the judgement of Solomon,” said Judge Farkash.

“Neither of you will have the ossuary or the Jehoash tablet. They broke once already, they can be broken again. Just destroy them,” he said.

The ossuary cracked into two pieces 2002 while it was being shipped to an exhibition in Canada and was repaired by restorers at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The Jehoash tablet broke along an existing crack in 2003 while it was being handled by investigators at the Israel Police forensic laboratory.

The judge also suggested that the items might be put on display for the public.

“Maybe they should be exhibited at the Israel Museum as items from this trial suspected of being fakes,” he said.

Experts who gave evidence for both sides last night urged Judge Farkash not to destroy the items.

Andre Lemaire, the Sorbonne scholar who published the first analysis of the ossuary in 2002 and has stood by its authenticity, said its destruction would be “scandalous” and “a manipulation of historical evidence.”

“It would be necessary from a scientific point of view to start a new suit, on a real basis this time, for voluntary destruction of historical evidence and tentative manipulation of history,” Professor Lemaire told The Jerusalem Post.

Christopher Rollston, professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Emmanuel Christian Seminary who appeared as a prosecution witness, said “it is never prudent to destroy antiquities, regardless of the controversy surrounding them.”

“I would certainly not wish to see the Ya’akov (“James”) Ossuary destroyed. Indeed, to destroy the ossuary would only fuel the controversy, effectively turning this ossuary into an archaeological martyr of sorts. I wish to see it returned to its legal owner,” he said.

Prosecution witness Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, agreed that the ossuary should not be destroyed, but said it should not be returned to Golan. “The Israel Antiquities Authority has a place for alleged forgeries in their storehouses – why not put this item there too for posterity?” Finkelstein suggested.

Defence counsel Lior Bringer said the items should be returned immediately to Golan, who said he has not yet decided what to do with them.

“The prosecution is asking the court to punish the defendant for crimes for which he was acquitted,” said Bringer. “Golan admitted to the three minor charges he was convicted of in the first police interview. On these charges there was no need for a trial at all.”

“He spent more than two years under house arrest and was in prison twice. He has suffered enough,” said Bringer.


Bible Archaeology

A Bit More on the Bethlehem Bulla

[Background here.]

From Joseph I. Lauer via e-mail:

1. Yesterday, Zachi Dvira (Zweig) forwarded some information about the bulla and the work of the Temple Mount Sifting Project members. Zachi and Dr. Gabriel Barkay (the “Gaby” below) direct the Project.

Zachi wrote: “This bulla was found a few months ago at the sifting site by Rachel Nahum, which the sifting site office manager. It was found during the time we were working on Gibeon LMLK bulla essay. Gaby saw this bulla and identified it immediately as a fiscal bulla mentioning the town Bethlehem. We’ve been giving sifting services to Eli’s Shukrun excavations for over a year, but recently we have significantly increased the number of staff members working this material and it will take place for some time. We expect many more unique finds from this material to show up in the future.”

The IAA release quotes Eli Shukron stating, in part, “The bulla we found belongs to the group of “fiscal” bullae – administrative bullae used to seal tax shipments remitted to the taxation system of the Kingdom of Judah in the late eighth and seventh centuries BCE.”

Those interested in fiscal bulla should see Dr. Barkay’s report, “A Fiscal Bulla from the Slopes of the Temple Mount – Evidence for the Taxation System of the Judean Kingdom,” at and his essay at [pp. 151-77 in Hebrew, and two English pages].

2. The expanded AP news report, at PhysOrg and other sites, states: “Shmuel Achituv, an expert in ancient scripts at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University who did not participate in the dig, said the discovery was the oldest reference to Bethlehem ever found outside of the Bible. Apart from the seal, the other mentions of Bethlehem, Achituv said, ‘are only in the Bible.'” In addition, the article stated, “Hebrew words often do not have vowels, which are understood from the context, making several interpretations of the same word plausible. Some of the letters are crumbled, or were wiped away. Three experts interviewed by the AP, one involved in the text and two independents, concurred the seal says Bethlehem. There are only some 40 other existing seals of this kind from the first Jewish Temple period, said Achituv, making this a significant find, both because such seals are rare, and because this is the first to mention Bethlehem.” See “Ancient Bethlehem seal unearthed in Jerusalem” at

There’s also a video of Eli Shukron speaking about the bulla in English, including at

And see four pictures at

3. In my earlier “Is Bethlehem on the bulla?” e-mail I mentioned that “Some scholars have already indicated that they take issue with Eli Shukron’s reading of the bulla’s text (Bishv’at Bat Lechem [Lemel]ekh = in the seventh / bet lehem / lm[lk]) but see, instead, a person’s name or other wording.”

Since then, one scholar has posted the details of his disagreement and another has withdrawn his reservations about the “bet lehem” reading but with important caveats.

A. Today, May 24, Dr. George Athas posted “A New Seal that DOES NOT refer to Bethlehem” at his site, at

In it, besides making a political judgment, he explains in detail how he would read the lines differently and states his belief that the letter in the second line read as a het is actually a heh, negating a reading of of “lh(.)m” (=  “lechem”). In a comment, Dr. Peter van der Veen agreed in part with Dr. Athas but took issue with the heh reading (“I do think that it is a het as the left vertical line can be detected but it is rather damaged.”). Dr. Athas explained why he was not convinced and concluded that, “In any case, this is why we need another pair of skilled eyes to inspect this bulla. I simply don’t trust photos enough to make definitive judgements.”

(Interestingly, on May 23, a reader (“Sarah”, not an epigrapher) of Duane Smith’s “A ‘Fiscal Bulla’ From Bethlehem” posting wrote, “looks like a he not a cheth in ‘Bethlehem’.” See

However (and more on that below based on Dr. Ahituv’s observations), when you look closely at a greatly enlarged photo of the bulla, such as the IAA’s high-resolution picture at ZIP file, do you see what could be an almost completely effaced left stroke of a het?

(Unless my eyes are playing tricks on me, and subject to stereoscopic microscope analysis, it seems to be there when observed at very great enlargement.)

Or do you see a heh? (The shading at the left between the horizontal lines and to the left above the top line would disqualify the heh.)

Ha’aretz also has a not-quite-as-large picture (that is further enlargeable when clicked upon with the mouse cursor) at!/image/121356148.jpg

B. Dr. Victor Avigdor Hurowitz of Ben-Gurion University initially expressed reservations about the reading of the bulla in the IAA’s press release.

However, in an e-mail and a posting at his Facebook page he wrote the following about an hour ago: “Retraction about Beytlehem bulla. Friends, I must retract the statements I made a few days ago about the newly found bulla mentioning [b]yt lh(.)m בית לחם. Why? It turns out that my objections were based on a mistaken press release of the bulla issued by the IAA. They offered a transcription and transliteration which were erroneous. My colleague Shmuel Ahituv, an epigrapher, saw the bulla itself and he informs me that the signs on the right which the IAA transcribed as ב are in fact on close examination of the object remnants of a yod. Also, the letter transcribed as ח is indeed such. On the photo it looks like a ה because the down stroke on the left seems to be absent. Ahituv tells me that traces are still visible. In other words, the text reads [ב]ית לחם This is obviously Bethlehem and I have no objections to the identification. In summary, if Ahituv’s transcription and decipherment are correct this bulla is an attestation of this place in an extra-Biblical, Iron Age source. But if the IAA has correctly transcribed the text, my objections stand. So I retract my objection but will not accept blame.”


Bible Archaeology

Ancient Bethlehem Seal Unearthed in Jerusalem

AP is reporting:

Jerusalem — Israeli archaeologists have discovered a 2,700-year-old seal that bears the inscription “Bethlehem,” the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday, in what experts believe to be the oldest artifact with the name of Jesus’ traditional birthplace.

The tiny clay seal’s existence and age provide vivid evidence that Bethlehem was not just the name of a fabled biblical town, but also a bustling place of trade linked to the nearby city of Jerusalem, archaeologists said.

Eli Shukron, the authority’s director of excavations, said the find was significant because it is the first time the name “Bethlehem” appears outside of a biblical text from that period.

Shukron said the seal, 1.5 centimeters (0.59 inches) in diameter, dates back to the period of the first biblical Jewish Temple, between the eighth and seventh century B.C., at a time when Jewish kings reigned over the ancient kingdom of Judah and 700 years before Jesus was born.

The seal was written in ancient Hebrew script from the same time. Pottery found nearby also dated back to the same period, he said.

Shmuel Achituv, an expert in ancient scripts at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University who did not participate in the dig, said the discovery was the oldest reference to Bethlehem ever found outside of the Bible. Apart from the seal, the other mentions of Bethlehem, Achituv said, “are only in the Bible.”

The stamp, also known as “fiscal bulla,” was likely used to seal an administrative tax document, sent from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the seat of Jewish power at the time.

It was found as archaeologists sifted through mounds of dirt they had dug up in an excavation outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls.

Shukron said the first line most likely read “Beshava’at” — or “in the seventh” — most likely the year of the reign of a king. The second line, he said, has the crumbling letters of the word “Bethlehem.” The third line carried one letter, a “ch” which Shukron said was the last letter of the Hebrew work for king, “melech.”

Hebrew words often do not have vowels, which are understood from the context, making several interpretations of the same word plausible. Some of the letters are crumbled, or were wiped away. Three experts interviewed by the AP, one involved in the text and two independents, concurred the seal says Bethlehem.

There are only some 40 other existing seals of this kind from the first Jewish Temple period, said Achituv, making this a significant find, both because such seals are rare, and because this is the first to mention Bethlehem.

The dig itself has raised controversy.

It is being underwritten by an extreme-right wing Jewish organization that seeks to populate the crowded Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan with Jewish settlers, arguing that they have ancient links to the area. The dig is being undertaken in a national park in the area of Silwan, known to Jews as “the City of David.”

Shukron said the seal was found some months ago, but they needed time to confirm the identity of the artifact.


Bible Archaeology

Roman Military Bronze Certificate in the Israel Museum

The Times of Israel:

Nearly 2,000 years ago, a Roman soldier was honorably discharged after combat service in Judea. The paperwork is on display at the Israel Museum.

We do not know the name of the Roman war veteran who owned this bronze certificate, which marked his discharge from active service 1,922 years ago. His name was engraved on the tablet when it was issued in Rome, but that part is missing.

We do know that he was discharged in 90 CE and that he served in one of the empire’s combat units stationed in the unruly province of Judea. Because a Roman soldier served 25 years before being released, we can deduce that this anonymous fighter was in active service as a younger man during one of the key events in Jewish history: Rome’s suppression of the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. He might have been a participant.

The certificate, currently displayed along with other Roman military artifacts at the Israel Museum, was a copy given to the soldier — the original remained the property of the government and would have been displayed in Rome, on the Capitoline Hill or in the Forum. It was issued, the text informs us, in the name of the emperor Domitian, identified here as “Imperator Caesar Domitianus Augustus Germanicus, son of the deified Vespasian, Pontifex Maximus.”

The inscription also identifies the commander of Rome’s forces in Judea at the time, an imperial administrator named Titus Pomponius Bassus, who was known to scholars from other records. Bassus spent several years as a governor in Anatolia, and later ran a government program in southern Italy that offered incentives to encourage childbirth, according to a 2003 article in the museum’s journal, Studies in Archaeology, which first published details of the certificate after its acquisition. But this tablet was the first indication that Bassus had ever been governor of Judea.

These details are important to historians, but the most important detail for the anonymous soldier himself would have been the end of the inscription, the part that said he had been “honorably discharged after 25 years of military service” and officially granted him civitas – Roman citizenship.

Troops in the Roman auxiliaries, like our soldier, were from conquered provinces and were not citizens of Rome, unlike members of the empire’s crack detachments, the legions. Citizenship was the Empire’s reward for the successful completion of a quarter-century of military campaigns, interspersed with periods of grueling fortification and construction work: It was a privilege he could pass on to his children, an upgrade in his social status and a powerful incentive to join the military in the first place.

Many of our soldier’s comrades, we can assume, did not live to receive the honor.

The certificate lists nine Roman units that were in Judea the year it was issued. We don’t know which he belonged to, but one of them, the Ala Veterana Gaetulorum, is known to have participated in crushing the Jewish revolt two decades before. Forty years later, the province’s Roman garrison would be engaged in suppressing yet another Jewish revolt, this one led by Simon Bar Kochba. On that occasion, too, the Jews would prove no match for Rome.

Physical remains of the Roman military presence in the land of Israel all those years ago still crop up with some frequency. Last year, for example, a complete legionnaire’s sword and sheath were found in a Roman-era sewer underneath Jerusalem. Most of these artifacts can be traced to the unit that was long the empire’s dominant local force — the famed Tenth Legion, which arrived to suppress the first revolt and stayed for the better part of three centuries. Roof tiles, bricks, belt buckles and other paraphernalia have been found bearing the legion’s name — Legio X Fretensis, or the Tenth Legion of the Sea Strait — and its trademark symbols, a wild boar and a warship.

Perhaps the most evocative of these discoveries is a pay slip belonging to one Tenth Legion man, a soldier from Beirut named Gaius Messius. The parchment fragment was found at Masada during excavations there; it was the troops of Gaius’s legion who besieged and stormed the desert fortress that was the Jews’ last stronghold after the fall of Jerusalem. The assault was in 73 CE, and the pay slip dates to around that time.

Gaius’s fate is unknown. All that history remembers of him is how much he made that year: 50 denarii.

Of that, according to the slip, most was deducted for supplies, including 16 denarii for barley, five for boots, two for leather straps and seven for a linen tunic.

HTRogue Classicism

Bible Archaeology

The James Ossuary Trial Verdict: Not Guilty

Breaking News: Golan and Deutsch Acquitted of All Forgery Charges.

Forgery Allegations Dismissed by James Ossuary Trial Verdict.

Biblical Archaeology Society:

The Biblical Archaeology Society has just learned that the District Court in Jerusalem exonerated Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch of all serious charges of forgery. Judge Aharon Farkash stated that there is no evidence that any of the major artifacts were forged, and that the prosecution failed to prove their accusations beyond a reasonable doubt.  The allegedly forgeries include the famous James Ossuary, whose inscription reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Several other ancient artifacts, including the “Three Shekels” ostracon, the “Widow’s Plea” ostracon,and the Jehoash tablet, the first extant royal Israelite inscription, were cleared of charges by the “forgery verdict of the century.”

Wednesday’s verdict ruled that there is no evidence of forgery for the James Ossuary.

The debates on the artifacts’ authenticity will surely continue, but this verdict clears Golan and Deutsch. The academic discourse on the implications of the James Ossuary can now proceed without the impediment of the forgery trial. While all of the major charges were dismissed on grounds of lack of evidence of forgery, others were dropped due to the statute of limitations. However, Golan was found guilty of trading in antiquities without a permit and another minor charge. Deutsch was acquitted on all counts.  Oded Golan will be sentenced on December 23, 2012.

See also The Times of Israel:

Archaeology ‘trial of the century’ ends in acquittal of accused forger.

Israel’s state prosecutor charged Oded Golan with forging biblical antiquities. After 7 years in court, the trial ended Wednesday with the collapse of the case…

Read on here.


Bible Archaeology

Does the Merneptah Stele Contain the First Mention of Israel?

Biblical Archaeology Society:

Does this fragmentary hieroglyphic inscription contain the first mention of Israel? According to a recently published article by Manfred Görg, Peter van der Veen and Christoffer Theis, the name-ring on the right may indeed read “Israel,” and they date it almost 200 years earlier than the reference to Israel on the Merneptah Stele.

The Merneptah Stele has long been touted as the earliest extrabiblical reference to Israel.* The ancient Egyptian inscription dates to about 1205 B.C.E. and recounts the military conquests of the pharaoh Merneptah. Near the bottom of the hieroglyphic inscription, a people called “Israel” is said to have been wiped out by the conquering pharaoh. This has been used by some experts as evidence of the ethnogenesis of Israel around that time.

But a new publication by Egyptologists and Biblical scholars Manfred Görg, Peter van der Veen and Christoffer Theis suggests that there may be an even earlier reference to Israel in the Egyptian record. Manfred Görg discovered a broken statue pedestal containing hieroglyphic name-rings in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin and, after studying it with colleagues Peter van der Veen and Christoffer Theis, they suggest that one of the name-rings should be read as “Israel.” Not all scholars agree with their reading because of slight differences in spelling, but Görg, van der Veen and Theis offer strong arguments, including supportive parallels in the Merneptah Stele itself. This newly rediscovered inscription is dated to around 1400 B.C.E.—about 200 years earlier than the Merneptah Stele. If Görg, van der Veen and Theis are right, their discovery will shed important light on the beginnings of ancient Israel.


* See Frank J. Yurco, “3,200-Year-Old Pictures of Israelites Found in Egypt,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1990.

For more about the discovery of a possible first mention of Israel before the Merneptah Stele by scholars Manfred Görg, Peter van der Veen and Christoffer Theis, see “When Did Ancient Israel Begin?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012.