The Use Of Geology In The Authentication Of The James Ossuary -- By: Benjamin Felker

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 22:4 (Fall 2009)
Article: The Use Of Geology In The Authentication Of The James Ossuary
Author: Benjamin Felker

The Use Of Geology In The Authentication Of The James Ossuary

Benjamin Felker

“Is it real?” That is the most important question when some sensational and seemingly incredible artifact is found by archaeologists. They then have to answer that question. This happened recently when a limestone box was found with the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” inscribed on its side. But most people have no idea how they test an artifact to find out if it is indeed genuine. So we will take a look at what they did to find out about the James Ossuary. We will take a look at the geologic techniques that scientists used to ascertain the authenticity of the ossuary. We will describe a brief history of the box, look at the tests used and how they work, evaluate their effectiveness, and determine whether or not they did a good job. (The quick answer is, they didn’t.)

The James Ossuary surfaced in the media in 2002, after spending many years in the attic of antiquities dealer Oded Golan. After its “rediscovery,” it was immediately grabbed by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) and examined by their experts. It was examined by non-geological methods and declared to be authentic, due to the shapes of the letters inscribed on it. The ossuary was also examined by the Israel Geological Survey, and all signs on the box were judged to be consistent with a date of origin some 2000 years ago (Artifax 2003), the time when James, brother of Jesus, was martyred. And to this day, nobody who values their reputation as a geologist will dispute the fact that the bone box itself is indeed of first-century origin (ibid). We will look at the methods they used to determine this. However, all of the drama centers on that which made the box famous, the inscription. This was tested by two scientists from the IAA, Avner Ayalon and Yuval Goren. They performed tests on the patina of the rock and performed oxygen isotope analysis of the inscription, all of which will be examined in greater detail below. Their conclusions sparked a world of controversy, claiming that

the oxygen isotopic composition of the letters patina could not have formed under natural temperature and water oxygen isotope composition that prevailed in Judea during the last 3000 years. The patina was most likely artificially formed from powdered chalk immersed in hot water. These observations clearly call into question the authenticity of the inscription on the “James Ossuary” (Ayalon 2003).

The box was also examined later by Wolfgang Krumbein, who declared that Ayalon and Goren did a poor job on their examination (Krumbein 2005).

We will begin with the authenticity of the box itself. It is indeed 2000 years old. How do we know this? The scientists examined the patina of...

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