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The 'James' Ossuary Inscription

The 'James' Ossuary Inscription

The ossuary was genuine, but the inscription was faked.


Courtesy of

As an expert on scripts and an historian of writing systems, I was asked to examine this inscription and make a report. I did.

The bone-box is original; the first inscription, which is in Aramaic, "Jacob son of Joseph," is authentic. The second half of the inscription, "brother of Jesus," is a poorly executed fake and a later addition. This report has already been distributed on at least two scholarly lists.

Please note that the fraud is so blatant that I did not bother to go into extreme detail on whether the faked addition is supposed to be Hebrew or Aramaic. (If that's a vav, -- then it's Hebrew, not Aramaic; if it's yod, then it's says 'my brother', not 'his brother' or 'brother of'. By no stretch of the imagination can one claim this to be in Aramaic... 'of' in Aramaic is 'di'.)

You have to be blind as a bat not to see that the second part is a fraud.

Here is the report:

Report on the "James" ossuary inscription
I carefully checked many photos and writings on ossuaries and covenants before sending you my report. I make no claim to be an expert on ossuaries, but inscriptions and scripts are another story. It might be in order to warn you that I have a great deal of experience at spotting ancient frauds and forgeries.

There are a few things we have to bear in mind about ossuary inscriptions.

First, according to Rahmani (1981, 1982) on Jerusalem burial practices, most ossuaries are from the period between 30/20 BCE-70 CE -- but by no means all.

Second, human remains are not dug up and displaced without very good reasons. Ossuaries show up in quantity when burial space is at a premium.

Solutions to the burial space problem are quite varied. In Classical Greece, for example, low status people were buried in space-saving one-person shaft graves (with a tiny round marker on the spot with the necessary data). The Keramikon in Athens is full of these. In Italy, from the Renaissance until the late 19th-century, after 3 years, unless a family could afford an ossuary or pay another three years rent, the bones were dumped in a mass grave site -- usually a convenient quarry or crevice or what have you, filled with dirt layer by layer. In Athens, ossuaries are still used (metal boxes nowadays); again, that three-year rent period runs. Even in modern Louisiana, along the Mississippi water seepage makes it impossible to dig graves of a reasonable depth; burials are in family mausoleums and bones are pushed down to make way for the latest arrival.

As ossuaries, after all, contravene the normal rules for Jewish burial, the appearance of so many ossuaries in the period before the destruction of the Temple is strong evidence that the cemeteries around Jerusalem were in a space-crunch. (The post-70 reduction in ossuaries follows naturally enough from the removal of enough people from the area to reduce the need for bone- boxes.)

It is not a question of "popularity" at all (which when one thinks about it, is a most peculiar way to think about the subject), but a lack of burial space... which also gives us information about population density of a given area. (Oddly enough, there does not seem to be very much in the literature that addresses this point for the relevant period; yet the correlation between the space constraints indicated by the rise in ossuaries and the density of the population of a given area is rather obvious.)

Third, while today, grave markers are carved by pros, this was not the case in these Jewish ossuary inscriptions. The apparently wide variations in ossuary inscriptions come from a simple fact: these ossuary inscriptions are covenants, vows to affirm continuing respect for the deceased in spite of having disinterred his/her remains. As with any other vow, the text must be in the hand of the one making the vow. Thus (as is noted in the literature), a surviving member of the family painted on, or scratched into, the (usually) limestone box the memorial data. In some cases a professional would carve over the handwriting exactly as written. (By the way, this is the standard practice for all professionally carved covenants.)

In other words, all those ossuary inscriptions are holographs. Needless to say, in such a mass of individual writing, literacy varied tremendously from semi-literates who wrote only upon occasion to schoolboys to scholars. [What is relevant to sorting out the apparent lack of relation between status and ossuary is not the wealth or social status of the individual(s) (up to three sets of same-family bones can show up in an ossuary), but the level of literacy and status of the survivors. Thus, there is a relationship between status and inscription... but we would need information on the "survivors" in each case to know who, what, when, how, and why.]

From the writing on the ossuary inscriptions, some are clearly written by youngsters and semi-literates who did not have complete control of graph sizes and could not hold a straight line. Others are clearly the holographs of literate people.

James inscription was written by two different people
The inscription on the "James" ossuary is a bit more complicated. First it has been gone over by a professional carver; the words are excised (not incised). Second, it was written by two different people.

Translated, with the amendments to the original spelling as given in the article, the inscription reads:

Jacob son of Joseph brother of Joshua.

The emended translation does not indicate the way the words are actually written, which is in two distinct groups:


[Editor's note: the transliteration provided by the author is in accordance with the Michigan-Claremont Encoding System for ASCII]

Nor does the translation give any indication of the change from the carefully executed and expertly spaced *inscriptional* cursive -- including careful angles and the cuneiform wedge on the bet's, the resh, and the yod -- in

[Jacob son of Joseph]

to the less than expertly executed *commercial* sans-wedge cursive in

[brother of Joshua]

While it is customary to dismiss such differences as unimportant ("scribes are not typewriters"), here the differences between the two parts are glaring and impossible not to see.

In the first part, the script is formal
In part 1, the script is formal, the ayin has an acute angle, the bets, resh, and yod have the cuneiform wedge, and the yods are consistent in size and cannot be confused with the vavs.

The person who wrote the first part of the inscription [ Y(KOBBRYWSF ] was necessarily a surviving member of the family. He was fully literate; he clearly was familiar with the formal square script (those cuneiform wedges), the writing is internally consistent, and this part of the inscription is his expertly written holograph.

In the second part, the script is informal
In part 2, the script is informal, the two ayins are completely different from each other and differ yet again from the ayin in part 1. When we compare the yod in Y(KOB with the (amended) three yod's in )XWW(Y#W( we immediately can see that this is a different person writing. First of all, the yod in 'brother of' and the first yod in W(Y#W( are written as vavs. With the model of the correct way to write the yod-ayin [ Y( ] right in front of his nose on 'Jacob', there is no reason at all for the extended vav or the extra vav in what should be Y(#(. Then, the yod in the peculiarly misspelled W(Y#W( does not resemble the yod in Joseph [ YWSF ] as written in part 1 which also has a wedge. The shin in W(Y#W( [damned if I can figure out how to trans-literate this abhorrent spelling of Joshua] is wedgeless and does not accord with the first part of the inscription... but then, none of the forms in the second part agree with the script of the first part.

The person who wrote the second part [ )XWW(Y#W( ] may have been literate, but it is doubtful that he was literate in Aramaic or Hebrew. Again, aberrant spelling is dismissed as dialectic. True, there are dialectic variants, but there is always some linguistic logic behind these variants. There is nothing logical about these misspellings. They smell of someone guessing how the words "brother of" and the name "Joshua" would have been spelled a couple, three hundred years earlier. Once again, the writing in this part is internally consistent in its semi-literacy. Part 2 has the characteristics of a later addition by someone attempting to imitate an unfamiliar script and write in an unfamiliar language.

There is yet another tell-tale sign of fraud here. As noted, the text is excised. (Which indicates a wealthy family.) Nobody excises an entire block of stone to raise the text; not even the Yadi stele is entirely excised. In "name" plates or other small inscriptions, if excised rather than incised (cheaper), the normal practice is to excise the text and a frame, which frame itself is excised by incised limits but never beyond them. Only the area within the frame will be excised; the rest of the block will be left alone. Far too much here has been excised from around the names. More to the point, where is the original frame?

Second part of inscription added later
Well, to anybody who knows something about anti-fraud techniques as practiced in antiquity, it is rather obvious. The frame was removed to add the second part of this inscription. The original frame would have been the barest minimum distance from the text and have appeared something like this:


If the entire inscription on the ossuary is genuine, then somebody has to explain why there are two hands of clearly different levels of literacy and two different scripts. They also have to explain why the second hand did not know how to write 'brother of' in Aramaic or even spell 'Joshua'. Further, they had better explain where the frame has gone.

The ossuary itself is undoubtedly genuine; the well-executed and formal first part of the inscription is a holographic original by a literate (and wealthy) survivor of Jacob Ben Josef in the 1st century CE. The second part of the inscription bears the hallmarks of a fraudulent later addition and is questionable to say the least.

November 2, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 16

(16) al puglisi, June 3, 2003 12:00 AM

thank you

thank you thank you thank you. Already fundamentalist Christian apologists are rallying around the Ossuary (as if it proves something.)

(15) Karl W. Randolph., May 3, 2003 12:00 AM

The use of relics, how crazy!

This big brouhaha about this inscription shows a shallowness of thought, both of those who want it to be authentic refering to Jesus of the New Testament, and the detractors (Sadly, I’ll have to put Rochelle Altman in the latter group, as I cannot see from photographs any of her claims. She’s actually wrong on one point, the letters are incised, not excised.)

The problem with an artifact is, unless we have a clear historical record of it, there is no modern way to prove its authenticity. The Shroud of Turin, for example, has no paper trail going back to Jerusalem, and because of its handling and that it was in a fire, it is indelibly contaminated so that no modern test can “prove” its authenticity. Likewise this box, it has no paper trail, there could have been more than one Jacob/James son of Joseph who had a brother named Jesus, there’s no way to prove it is what Christians hope for even if the inscription is authentic first century. I find the discussions interesting, but it is a tempest in a teapot, ultimately irrevelant.

(14) Yaron Mendelovici, December 3, 2002 12:00 AM

Nytimes finally writes about its "authenticity"

The headline is:
"Experts Question Authenticity of Bone Box for 'Brother of Jesus'"
You can find it at:

(13) Anonymous, November 18, 2002 12:00 AM

Why have we not read this in papers or seen on TV?

See above

(12) Michael Berglin, November 11, 2002 12:00 AM

The ossuary

The Ossuary inscription proves nothing. Just as the Shroud of Turin was toated as the burial cloth of Jesus, carbon 14 dating put the whole thing somewhere in the middle ages.

Because the Gospels were written 80 to 100 years after the death and nobody had any real tangible evidence one might conclude that to make a movement, one has to have a marytr. With the distance between peoples and settlements, and long after the event, we would see such things offered as proof positive. Case in point, Horst Vessel, a early nazi martyr -- did he really exist? There no pictures of him, no details of his life, but there was a massive tomb for him.

The Gospels were written by men well after the event. 80 - 100 years, in a time when the average life expectancy was 45 yrs old at best. It has been proven the Luke hadn't been born at the time of the execution, was a Roman physician who had never left Rome at all and he talks as if he has first hand knowledge.

Lastly, I offer that time does many unusual things. Look at JFK, he was a bumbling adutler, brought the world to the brink of total atomic warefare. But because he was killed, we have change our view and see him as the slain saint of America. Abraham Lincoln is another example -- withwhat he did, if the North would have lost, Lincoln would have been tried for war crimes. He trampled civil rights, threw people into prision for no other reason that simply disagreeing with him. But, time looks at Lincoln as the savior of the nation when inreality it was Lincoln threw the gauntlet.....

Perhaps Jesus was a real person -- I don't know and I really don't care. But, maybe too much has been made of the man and not the message.

There are a number of Christian 'proofs' it is claimed, but all the proof is outside of Jewish Law (the trial at a Rabbi's house, in the middle of the night -- forbidden by Talmud). As for the crucifiction, he was supposed to be nail up by the hands -- physically impossible. Being taken down from the cross -- totally contrary to Roman law of leaving the condemed to hang there as an example.

The inscription proves nothing at all. James, Jesus and Joseph were common names.. Just because my first name starts with an M does not mean I am in linage with Michal Angelo.

Jesus did not come from the line of David. Jesus may have been born in Bethleham but that was end of it if one believes the circumstance surrounding Mary's conception. If Jesus was a diety, then he had no earthly father and the linage is passed through the paternal father which takes Jesus right out of the loop. If Joseph was his full paternal parent (meaning the divine conception is out of the mix) it still does not prove anything.
I was born in St. Paul Minnesota -- does that prove I am from the linage of Alexander Ramsey -- not by any streach of the imagination.

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