Weighing the Evidence: Is the James Ossuary Authentic?

Many are familiar with the James Ossuary, which hit the news to great fanfare in 2002, followed by the ensuing controversy regarding its authenticity. The limestone ossuary (bone box) dates to the first century and bears an inscription reading, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It was quickly disputed and declared a forgery by some, countering the claims of authenticity made by previous experts. The Israel Antiquities Authority accused its owner, Oded Golen, of forging the inscription and took the rare step of taking him to court in what has been called, “the forgery trial of the century.” Since Golan’s acquittal on forgery charges in 2012, the James Ossuary has only occasionally popped up in the media. It was also the subject of one significant (though seemingly little-known) academic study, published in 2015.

People’s knowledge of the James Ossuary often comes from Wikipedia’s incomplete, outdated, and biased article or from old news reports from the early 2000’s which announced that the IAA declared it to be a forgery. I believe it is time to take a second look at the James Ossuary. In this article, I’ll be analyzing the evidence both for and against its authenticity, and sharing my opinion. Due to sheer volume of information in the public realm about the James Ossuary, I’ve been selective in choosing the arguments on both sides that I found the most persuasive. If the James Ossuary is a forgery, it is of little significance, if authentic, it is an important witness to the historicity of Jesus.

The James Ossuary, as it was displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2022. Photo: Ferrell Jenkins

Timeline of Events

Before beginning, it is helpful to review the timeline of events related to the James Ossuary:

  • 1970’s – Oded Golan acquires the ossuary from an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem. He did not realize the significance of the inscription on it at the time. Authenticated photographs from the mid-1970’s entered into evidence during the trial demonstrate that he did indeed possess the ossuary from the time he claims to have owned it.1
  • 2001 – Golan meets epigrapher, André Lemaire at a party and asks him to look at an ossuary in his collection. Later, he shows Lemaire a photo of the James ossuary in which the inscription was readable. Lemaire instantly recognizes its significance.2
  • 2002 – Lemaire publishes an article in Biblical Archaeology Review, translating the Aramaic inscription on the ossuary as, “Ya‘akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua” or “James (Ya‘akov/Jacob), son of Joseph (Yosef), brother of Jesus (Yeshua)” Lemaire further dates the ossuary and inscription to the first century, specifically in the last decades before 70 C.E. based on the shape of the letters. Moreover, Lemaire reports that the ossuary and inscription have been studied in a lab and declared authentic: “[T]he patina does not contain any modern elements (such as modern pigments) and it adheres firmly to the stone…No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found.”3
  • 2003 – The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) assembles a group of scholars to study the James Ossuary (and a couple of other disputed artifacts) to determine their authenticity. The committee produces a final report; it is not a scientific report, but rather statements of opinion from the scholars who studied the ossuary. The consensus is that the inscription on the James Ossuary is a forgery.4
  • 2004; 2007-2012 – Oded Golen and several others were charged with forging and selling artifacts. The government’s case relied on the testimony of two significant witnesses: Prof. Yuval Goren, a clay specialist from Tel Aviv University, and archaeologist, Joe Zias. Goren had maintained that he discovered a fake patina on the questionable “brother of Jesus” part of the inscription. However, at the trial, when confronted with evidence that the original, authentic patina was visible in the word “Jesus,” he asked for a recess to examine the ossuary and returned the next day to admit the original patina was present.5 Like Goren, Zias’s testimony also crumbled at the trial. He originally claimed he had seen the James Ossuary in an antiquities shop without the phrase “brother of Jesus.” However, under oath, Zias admitted he had only briefly seen the inscription and that he did not have the expertise to read the ancient letters. Moreover, when the owner of the shop was later asked, he stated that “he had never had in his shop an ossuary with the inscription that Zias claimed to have seen there.” Zias now claims he was joking.6 In the end, Golen was acquitted on the charges of forgery, but was convicted of two minor charges of trading in antiquities without a license.7

To be clear, everyone agrees that the ossuary itself is an authentic, first-century bone box. The heart of the issue is whether or not the phrase “brother of Jesus” was added in modern times to an ancient inscription that read, “James, son of Joseph.”8

The Artifact

The James Ossuary. Photo: Paradiso / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Craig A. Evans provides the following description of the artifact itself: “The ossuary is some 50 centimeters long, at the base, widening to 56 centimeters at the top, some 30 centimeters wide at one end and about 26 centimeters wide at the other end, and about 30 centimeters high. (Thus the ossuary is not perfectly rectangular in form.) The inscription, which is made up of five words, is 19 centimeters long. The lid is flat and rests on a ledge inside the rim. Badly weathered, the ossuary reveals faint traces of rosettas on one side…The inscription is quite legible and reads as follows…Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Yeshu’a or James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”9

The Evidence Against Its Authenticity

1. The team of scholars assembled by the IAA concluded that the inscription on the James ossuary was a forgery. However, Dutch scholar, Pieter van der Horst, has pointed out that the IAA “appointed almost exclusively committee members who had already expressed outspoken opinions to the effect that the inscription was a forgery” and did not appoint anyone with a contrary position, such as Andre Lemaire. Moreover, he notes that, while the IAA gave the direction that each scholar on the committee stick to his or her own discipline, ultimately this guideline was ignored.10

2. Some have suggested that the first part of the inscription (James, son of Joseph) is written in a formal script, while the second part (brother of Jesus) is written in cursive, suggesting it was added later by a different person. André Lemaire, who has studied the inscription in-depth, notes that this is simply not true. There is a mixture of formal and cursive scripts in both parts of the inscription, a phenomenon known in other ossuary inscriptions.11

The inscription on the ossuary reads, “Jacob [James], son of Joseph, brother of Yeshu’a [Jesus].” Photo: Paradiso / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

3. Christopher Rollston has suggested that the second part of the inscription “is not carved with the same depth, clarity, and kerning,” concluding that it is a “probable modern forgery” (the title of his blog post).12 Interestingly, at the trial, Christopher Rollston appeared as a witness and refused to give an opinion on the authenticity of the inscription stating, “I only talk about what I’m sure of. That is not my field…this is not a period I specialize in. My work is in the Iron Age.”13 Since the trial, Rollston claims to have become knowledgeable about Second Temple-era inscriptions. After speaking to him about his change of mind, Hershel Shanks concluded, “The most we can say is that Rollston came to his conclusion rather casually.”14 Moreover, epigrapher Ada Yardeni stated, “The claim that the depth of the engraving differs from the first to the second half of the inscription seems to me mistaken if not biased. I would like to know exactly how the depth was measured and the exact difference in depth. In such a small script, I doubt a significant difference in the depth can be observed.”15

Image: Paradiso / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

4. Jodi Magness has argued that a reference to James’ burial marker by Hegesippus in the second century implies he was buried in a trench tomb, not a rock cut tomb. Thus there would have been no ossuary for James.16 However, the reference to a grave marker is not an issue for Jerome Murphy-O’Conner, who has noted historical evidence for the presence of first-century tombs near the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount, traditionally the location identified with James’ death. He concludes, “Might James’s bones have been laid to rest in an ossuary buried near the grave-marker at the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount? Perhaps. The evidence certainly does not preclude the possibility…If so, one possibility is that the ossuary of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” surfaced during Benjamin Mazar’s excavations along the southern Temple Mount wall earlier this century and was removed by looters.”17

The Evidence in Favor of Its Authenticity

1. Eminent epigraphers, André Lemaire, Ada Yardeni, and Emile Puech have all attested that the entire inscription is authentic, and have responded in detail to numerous questions about its authenticity. 18

A close-up of the name Yacob [James]. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority

2. When the ossuary was shipped from Israel to be displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Canada it was damaged, breaking into five pieces. This provided experts an opportunity they would not have otherwise had to closely examine the ossuary as they made repairs. Edward J. Keall, former Senior Curator at the ROM wrote, “We were able to show that the so-called “two-hand” theory was baseless. This theory maintains that the last two words of the ossuary, “brother of Jesus,” were added by a second hand to an already existing inscription that read “James, son of Joseph. Our examination showed that part of the inscription had been recently cleaned, a little too vigorously, with a sharp tool. And for some reason whoever did it cleaned the beginning of the inscription, but not the end. The cleaning had removed some of the surface encrustation from down inside the letters, but not all of it. Those letters on which a sharp tool had been used may even be judged to be slightly “enhanced”—they look sharper than those of the other part of the inscription. The end of the inscription looks softer and less angular—more like a cursive script, and therefore of more recent date. But the soft look is due to the survival of the encrustation on the part that had not been cleaned.”19

3. Ancient patina has clearly been found in all five words, in both parts of the inscription (despite being cleaned and retraced), implying that both parts are ancient. At the trial, under cross-examination, critic Yuval Goren admitted to seeing some of the original, ancient patina in the word Yeshua (Jesus).20 Moreover, in a recent study published in 2014 in the Open Journal of Geology, Amnon Rosenfeld, Howard R. Feldman, and Wolfgang E. Krumbein noted the presence of striations (grooves or scratches) within the letters, including letters in the name of Jesus which are filled with the same patina found on the surface of the letters, indicating the authenticity of the entire inscription. Further, they discovered “heterogeneous existence of wind-blown microfossils (nannofossils and foraminifers) and quartz within the patina of the ossuary, including the lettering zone, reinforces the authenticity of the inscription.”21 This would falsify the suggestion some have made that the “brother of Jesus” part was forged at a later time.

A photo from the 1970’s shows the James Ossuary on Oded Golen’s bookshelf. A close-up examination of the ossuary reveals that the complete inscription was there in the 1970’s, as Golen claims. Photo: Jerusalem Forgery Conference: Biblical Archaeology Society Special Report 

4. Photographic evidence presented at the trial demonstrates that the ossuary with the inscription was in Oded Golen’s collection as early as the 1970’s as he had claimed. Apparently an ex-girlfriend of Golen’s had taken a photo in his apartment back in the 1970’s, which shows the ossuary on a bookshelf that also has phone book from 1974. Gerald B. Richards, an expert who is the former chief of the Special Photographic Unit of the FBI, examined the paper on which the photograph was printed and found that this paper was not manufactured by Kodak after the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.22 Moreover, Golan appears to have not even understood the significance of the ossuary in his collection until André Lemaire pointed it out in 2001. This is not surprising, since an Israeli would not necessarily associate “Yaakov” on the ossuary with James in the English Bible. Regardless, his ignorance of the significance of the inscription is evidence that he did not forge it. I believe it stretches credulity to suggest otherwise.

The Verdict

Unfortunately, the James Ossuary was not found in a controlled archaeological excavation, nor is the chain of custody known for the artifact. It was likely looted from an ancient tomb in the area of Jerusalem23 and sold on the antiquities market. For some, the very fact that this artifact came from the antiquities market automatically disqualifies it from consideration as authentic. However, numerous authentic artifacts have come to light through the antiquities market, such as the first Dead Sea Scrolls and the early Hezekiah bullae (not the one discovered in situ in 2015). One needs to be extremely cautious with artifacts that come from the antiquities market, as there are indeed many forgeries to be had. In the case of the James Ossuary, I do not believe its authenticity should be questioned primarily on the basis of its origin.

On the balance of probability, given that the entire inscription is authentic, and that the owner was unaware of its significance, I believe the artifact is a genuine, first-century ossuary that once contained the bones of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” New Testament scholar, Craig Evans summarizes the evidence: “There is no question that the James ossuary and inscription are ancient and therefore authentic.”24

The real question is whether this refers to James, the brother of the Jesus of Nazareth from the New Testament or to another James whose father was Joseph and whose brother was Jesus. As many have pointed out, the names James, Joseph, and Jesus were all among the most common names in the first century. The most significant clue as to the identify of the James on the ossuary is that he is called the brother of Jesus. Most ossuaries contain a name and a “son of…” identifier. Of the hundreds and hundreds of known ossuaries with inscriptions, only one other one contains the inscription, “brother of…” It is also from the first century, and bears the inscription, “Shimi, son of ‘ Asaiah, brother of Hanin.” Craig Evans notes, “It has been suggested that mention of the deceased’s brother probably implies that the brother was well known, probably much better known than either the deceased or his father.” He goes onto raise the possibility that this Hanin may have been the “the well known Hanin, whose sons were known for supplying Jerusalem with sacrificial animals.”25 Similarly, the biblical James was also identified by his relationship to his more famous brother, Jesus of Nazareth, in antiquity. For example, Josephus described him as, “The brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.”26 Given the rarity of ossuary inscriptions referring to someone as the “brother of…”, except in cases when the brother was famous, and given that James was identified as the brother of Jesus by Josephus, it seems reasonable to me to conclude that the James Ossuary once contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

In summary, I would conclude that the James Ossuary is an authentic artifact, that the complete inscription is genuine, and that it likely contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus Christ from the New Testament, although we cannot be certain. If this is correct, the James Ossuary provides yet more evidence for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, and further affirmation of the accuracy of the gospels and the book of Acts.  


1 Hershel Shanks, “Predilections—Is the ‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription a Forgery?” Biblical Archaeology Review 41:5 (September/October 2015), p. 58.

2 Ibid, 58.

3 André Lemaire, “Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus: Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Jesus found in Jerusalem.” Biblical Archaeology Review 28:6, (November/December 2002), p. 28.

4 Uzi Dahari, “Final Report Of The Examining Committees For the Yehoash Inscription and James Ossuary.” Israel Antiquities Authority. http://www.antiquities.org.il/article_eng.aspx?module_id=&sec_id=17&subj_id=175&id=266 (Accessed March 18, 2023).

5 Hershel Shanks, “’Brother of Jesus’ Inscription is Authentic.” Biblical Archaeology Review 38:4 (July/August 2012), p. 31.

6 Ibid, 32.

7 Hershel Shanks, “Predilections—Is the ‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription a Forgery?” Biblical Archaeology Review 41:5 (September/October 2015), p. 56.

8 Hershel Shanks, “Verdict: Not Guilty” March 14, 2012. Bible History Daily. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/news/verdict-not-guilty/ (Accessed March 20, 2023).

9 Craig A “A Fishing Boat, A House, and an Ossuary What Can We Learn from the Artifacts?”. In The Missions of James, Peter, and Paul. (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 223-224.

10 Pieter W. van der Horst, Saxa Judaica Loquuntur: Lessons from Early Jewish Inscriptions, Biblical Interpretation Series 134 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), pp. 67–87, as quoted in Hershel Shanks, “Predilections—Is the ‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription a Forgery?” Biblical Archaeology Review 41:5 (September/October 2015), p. 54.

11 Hershel Shanks, Jerusalem Forgery Conference: Biblical Archaeology Society Special Report (Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2007), p. 24.

12 Christopher Rollston, “The James Ossuary (Ya’akov Ossuary): Bullet Point Synopsis About a Probable Modern Forgery.” March 22, 2015. http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?p=699 (Accessed April 15, 2023).

13 Hershel Shanks, “Predilections—Is the ‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription a Forgery?” Biblical Archaeology Review 41:5 (September/October 2015), p. 56.

14 Ibid, p. 57.

15Hershel Shanks, Jerusalem Forgery Conference: Biblical Archaeology Society Special Report (Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2007), p. 9.

16 Jodi Magness, “Ossuaries and the Burials of Jesus and James.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 124, No. 1 (Spring, 2005), p. 154.

17 Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Where was James Buried?” Biblical Archaeology Review 19:3 (June 2003), p. 42.

18 Hershel Shanks, Jerusalem Forgery Conference: Biblical Archaeology Society Special Report (Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2007), p. 8.

19 Edward J. Keall, “Brother of Jesus Ossuary: New Tests Bolster Case for Authenticity.” Biblical Archaeology Review 29:4 (July/August 2003), p. 53-54.

20 Hershel Shanks, Jerusalem Forgery Conference: Biblical Archaeology Society Special Report (Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2007), p. 10.

21 Rosenfeld, A. , Feldman, H. and Krumbein, W. (2014) The Authenticity of the James Ossuary. Open Journal of Geology4, 69-78. doi: 10.4236/ojg.2014.43007.

22 Hershel Shanks, Jerusalem Forgery Conference: Biblical Archaeology Society Special Report (Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2007), p. 12.

23 I find claims that the James Ossuary came from the Talpiot tomb to be unconvincing. First, the Talpiot was discovered in 1980, and a photograph entered into evidence at Oded Golen’s trial clearly shows it was in his collection in the 1970’s, years before the Talpiot tomb was discovered. Further, excavators of the Talpiot tomb have stated that there were only 10 ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb. Nine of these are in the Israel Antiquities Authorities storage facility at Beth Shemesh. The tenth ossuary is missing. This missing ossuary, however, looks nothing like the James Ossuary. Shimon Gibson was one of the original excavators of the Talpiot tomb, and documented each of the ossuaries discovered. In his book, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence, Gibson writes, “While I can see how attractive it would be to link the so-called “James” ossuary with the Talpiot tomb, it simply cannot be the case because we know for certain that the tenth “missing” ossuary was plain, undecorated, and uninscribed, and on top of everything else it was broken. This description does not fit the “James” ossuary, which is complete, decorated on one side with double rosettes and on the other side with a deeply-carved inscription…” (Gibson 2009, 184). Finally, claims that the patina on the James Ossuary is similar to that on the Talpiot ossuaries are not reliable given the small sample size, and the fact that other ossuaries from the area may have a similar patina.

24 Craig Evans (Personal communication, April 3, 2023).

25 Craig A “A Fishing Boat, A House, and an Ossuary What Can We Learn from the Artifacts?”. In The Missions of James, Peter, and Paul. (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 225.

26 Josephus, Antiquities, 20:9:1.

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