Pt. 5: The case for forgery

Left: The "James" ossuary. Center: Oded Golan, convicted of forgery in 2004. Right: The Ivory Pomegranate was the only artifact in an entire room at the Israel Museum until it was pronounced a forgery.

Left: The “James” ossuary. Center: Oded Golan, convicted of forgery in 2004. Right: The “Ivory Pomegranate.” The Israel Museum devoted an entire room to this artifact until it was pronounced a forgery.

In this series of posts, Enrico Tuccinardi and myself have shown that the “Caesarea inscription” never existed except in the imagination of wishful Christians and Jews. Three fragments which do not go together have been assembled into a mythical plaque. That plaque never existed. Furthermore, such a plaque could not have existed where the fragments were allegedly “found,” for M. Govaars has shown that no synagogue existed in the area. Hence, the traditionalist who considers the “Caesarea inscription” (hereafter in quotes) to be a bona fide artifact suffers under a double impossibility: the mutual incompatibility of fragments, and the missing synagogue where the plaque should/would have been housed.

The above considerations inexorably lead us to conclude that:
– the three fragments came from three different sources; and
– all three fragments came from outside of area A in Caesarea.

The second point immediately leads us to view the findspots of fragments A and B with suspicion, for these fragments were found in Area A where there was no synagogue. The only reasonable explanation for the presence of these fragments is the argument of “re-use.” According to this argument, the fragments in situ no longer had anything to do with a synagogue. Fragment A was found “re-used” next to a cistern, and fragment B “re-used” in the floor of a Byzantine room. However, the re-use argument is fraught with problems. We shall consider it now, for it is the only possibility remaining that the fragments in question are authentic.

The vanishing argument for authenticity

If fragments A and B of the “Caesarea inscription” are examples of re-use, then we are confronted with the extraordinary facts that not one, but two synagogues existed in the vicinity of Area A, and also that each of those two synagogues possessed a plaque of the twenty-four priestly courses. We can infer this because Mr. Tuccinardi has shown that fragments A and B are not compatible as regards line spacing. Avi-Yonah also noted a difference in “color” between the two fragments. The unavoidable conclusion is that these two fragments came from two different marble plaques. This in turn means that not one, but two synagogues yielded the two plaques, for it is hardly conceivable that a single synagogue would have possessed two different plaques of the twenty-four priestly courses. Again, if the fragments A and B “discovered” in Area A/Field O in 1962 are authentic examples of artifact re-use, then the two synagogues from which those fragments came would have been located in the vicinity. But archaeology has, to my knowledge, never produced evidence for the existence of such synagogues anywhere in the vicinity.

All this represents one improbability after another—but all these steps are necessary to preserve the authenticity of fragments A and B. If both fragments A and B are authentic, there are also other problems. We can summarize them in the following three points, all of which must be true for the fragments to be authentic:

(1) Two synagogues existed in the general vicinity of Area A and each possessed a marble plaque with a list of the twenty-four priestly courses;
(2) The two plaques in these synagogues were “re-used” in ancient times and found their separate ways to the same Area A;
(3) Those precise sectors of Area A where the two fragments lay (sectors D and F) just happened to be excavated in the same week of 1962 by J. Vardaman and E. Oren.

Let’s take each of the above points in turn.

(1) Two synagogues existed in the general vicinity of Area A,
and each possessed a marble plaque with a list of the twenty-four priestly courses?

As mentioned above, there is no evidence for the existence of such synagogues. That each would have possessed a marble plaque of the twenty-four priestly courses is, in any case, most unlikely. After all, we have less than half a dozen plaques (only fragments) of the priestly courses extant anywhere (Ascalon, Rehov, Nazareth, Yemen). Such fragments/plaques are extremely rare. For two synagogues in the same general area of Caesarea to have contained such plaques would be unprecedented—and this has never been claimed anywhere in the literature. This line of reasoning is so unlikely that it must be doubted—or, at the minimum, placed under great suspicion.

(2) The two plaques in these synagogues were “re-used” in ancient times
and found their separate ways to the same Area A?

Only non-Jews would break up (destroy) plaques bearing the list of priestly courses and then re-use such fragments in a floor, etc. I have yet to see any documentation of such destruction of Byzantine synagogues in Caesarea.

Furthermore, fragments A and B were “discovered” in the same area approximately 70 meters apart (see map below, areas D and F). How probable is this? After all, re-use is random, and presumably the two destroyed plaques had different histories.

In short, the suggestion that fragments A and B were re-used fragments of destroyed plaques coming from nearby (unauthenticated) synagogues must be deemed preposterous. Yet this is the only scenario which supports the argument of authenticity.

(3) The two fragments are “discovered” within one week of each other?

This is perhaps the most extraordinary aspect attending the discovery of fragments A and B. Fragment A was found on August 14, 1962 in area D. Fragment B was discovered in area F the following week (precise day unknown) before the excavation season ended on Aug. 21. We must recognize that only about 5% of the total surface area of Field O was excavated (see map). It is astoundingly “good luck” that the two fragments of the priestly courses would be found precisely in the areas excavated. The odds against such a coincidence are astronomical. We recall that fragments of the twenty-four priestly courses are extremely rare. To discover two such fragments (unrelated to one another), in the same general area, and in the same week beggars all description.

Thus, the case for authenticity implodes under its own weight.

Area A (later renamed "Field O"). Note that very little of the gross area was actually excavated in 1962: only the areas B, C, D, and F in dotted lines, along with "area A" in upper left. (From M. L. Govaars 2009:137.)

Area A (later renamed “Field O”). Note that very little of the gross area was actually excavated in 1962: only the areas B, C, D, and F in dotted lines, along with “area A” in upper left. (From M. L. Govaars 2009:137.)

On the other hand, if fragments A and/or B were forged, then the above problems disappear—there is then no need to suppose the existence of two synagogues not far away, to suppose that each synagogue had a plaque with a list of the twenty-four priestly courses, and to suppose that fragments of both those plaques somehow found their way into Area A where they were so conveniently found in the same week of excavations. The “authentic” scenario approaches the vanishing point of probability when its implications are realistically considered. Occam’s Razor tells us to look to the simpler solution which fits the facts, and the simpler solution is clear: fragments A and B of the Caesarea inscription were not “found” at all—they were planted in Area A between August 14 and August 21, 1962.

This places an entirely new light on the genesis of fragments A and B. When we realize that fragments A and B were “planted,” then the possibility becomes very real that they were also forged. One who plants material in the field in order to deceive is certainly capable of involvement in forgery. As a result of our knowledge that fragments A and B were planted, the suspicion that those fragments were forged must now be viewed as the most likely explanation of the so-called “Caesarea inscription.”

The forgery mill

The Jehoash inscription.

The Jehoash inscription.

Israeli dealers in antiquities have long been aware of the great desires of both Jews and Christians to “prove” the Bible. A great deal of money can accrue to the dealer who provides an “authenticated” piece of physical evidence which shows that, say, the Temple of Solomon actually existed, or that King David actually existed, or that Jesus Christ actually existed. It is these needs which have produced the most famous cases of forgery in Israel: the inscribed ivory pomegranate (allegedly from the Temple of Solomon); the reputed ossuary of “James, brother of Jesus”; the Jehoash tablet with an inscription purportedly documenting repairs to Solomon’s Temple… The experts have deemed these all to be forgeries. Yet a few evangelical scholars (and the conservative Biblical Archaeology Review) obstinately continue to defy the expert opinion. Dirk Boll writes:

As demand has grown, the numbers of fakes and forgeries have risen in proportion. As early as the nineteen-fifties, statisticians at government institutes had discovered that about sixty percent of all the objects on the antiques market were not genuine…
(D. Boll, Art for Sale, 2011:115)

The above statement reflects the global antiques market. We have every reason to believe that the market for Israeli antiquities is even more porous and corrupt than Boll suggests. After all, when someone forges a Tiffany vase or a Chinese bronze, the public possesses numerous genuine specimens against which to compare the forgery. But the most famous forgeries that have taken place in Israel are with one-of-a-kind artifacts.

Oded Golan went to prison for his involvement in forging both the Jehoash inscription and the James ossuary.

According to the BBC, when the police took Oded Golan into custody and searched his apartment they discovered a workshop with a range of tools, materials, and half finished ‘antiquities’. This was evidence for an operation of a scale far greater than they had suspected. Investigators have established that collectors around the world have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for artefacts that came through Oded Golan’s associates. Dozens of these items were examined. Police then suspect that artefacts made by the same team of forgers have found their way into leading museums around the world. [Wikipedia]

In March 2008, the American TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes broadcast an undercover video interview with an Egyptian craftsman…

… in Cairo named Marco Samah Shoukri Ghatas (identified as Marko Sammech by 60 MINUTES), who stated that he did work for Golan over a period of fifteen years. When shown a photograph of the Jehoash Tablet, Ghatas said—on camera—that he had “inscribed several stone slabs that were just like this for [Oded] Golan… Golan brought me the text and I carved it onto the tablet.”

According to a follow-up story in HA’ARETZ in April 2008, Ghatas confessed—both to Egyptian authorities and to Amir Ganor, head of the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit—that he had “personally forged the Jehoash inscription, on the basis of the sketches brought to him by Oded Golan” and had manufactured numerous other items “according to specifications received from Golan.” According to Ganor’s testimony, Ghatas also admitted to “rinsing and smearing” the James Ossuary, apparently with an artificial patina. (E. Cline, BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY, 2009, p. 128)

The center of the antiquities trade in Israel has always been Jerusalem. It would have been very easy for E. Jerry Vardaman to consult with one or more dealers while he was in Israel during the 1962 excavation season. A circumstance now presents itself in a new light: three weeks before the discovery of the “Nazareth” fragment, Vardaman left the excavations in Caesarea and went to Jerusalem for several days. Furthermore, Vardaman’s entries into his excavation notebook virtually cease for the two weeks preceding the discovery of fragment A, and during that long period his whereabouts are unknown.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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