The Stone Box

Did A Stone Box Once Contain The Bones Of Jesus' Brother?

Correspondent Bob Simon has a story about the Bible and truth. More precisely, it's about Biblical antiquities and how they can be seen to prove that the stories told in the Bible really happened.

Just two years ago, the world of biblical archaeology was rocked to its foundations, and all because of a stone box that was discovered in Israel, and called an ossuary.

Ossuaries were used to hold the bones of the dead approximately 2,000 years ago, in the time of Jesus. The discovery of this ossuary created more excitement among Christian scholars than anything since the Shroud of Turin. And like the Shroud, no sooner was it unveiled than it came alive, with questions.

The box is made of limestone. It's not terribly large, but it attracted a very large crowd, more than 100,000, when it was first exhibited. It made the New York Times and the cover of Biblical Archaeology Review.

New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, who wrote a book about the box, was at that first exhibit. "There was a lot of excitement. There was, you know, the atmosphere was kind of palpable, really," says Witherington. "And there were various of us just sort of buzzing around this exhibit."

Actually, ossuaries are quite common. The Israel Antiquities Authority keeps hundreds in its basement. What was so special about this one? The mysterious engraving on its side -- sort of a Da Vinci Code in stone. It's written in ancient Aramaic and it reads "James. . . Son of Joseph. . . Brother of Jesus."

Could this box have contained the bones of the man the Gospels mention as Jesus' brother?

"If it can be proven, it's probably one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the century," says Steve Pfann. He and Claire Pfann are scholars of early Christianity, based in the Holy Land. They believe the ossuary is the first firm archaeological evidence that Jesus once lived here.

"That is really a great thing just to be able to confirm, from an extra-biblical source, that a man named Jesus existed," says Claire Pfann.

Jesus' brother, James, isn't nearly as well known as other members of the family. But after the crucifixion of Jesus, James became the leader of the early church, the first Bishop of Jerusalem. James died, it is written, in 62 AD, when he was stoned by an angry mob and fell from the walls of the Holy Temple.

The way things were done back then, his body would have been put in a cave. And a year later, when the flesh was gone, his bones would have been placed in an ossuary. And it gets better.

Archaeologists agree that the box is genuine and that it dates from the time of James and Jesus. Statisticians say the odds against it being anyone other than James and Jesus are enormous. Two Israeli geologists gave it their stamp of approval. But some experts felt they couldn't render a definitive verdict because it was put on public display so quickly they didn't have time to study it.

"The ossuary was kept more or less secret by a small group of scholars who knew about it," says Neil Silberman, a historian of archaeology who believes the box was presented to the public by people more interested in showmanship than science.

"It was thrust on the world, in a combination of public relations campaign and huge exhibition, that really didn't allow people to think about it."

But isn't that how the world operates if something as spectacular as an ossuary with the name of Jesus is found?

"Well, maybe that's part of the problem," says Silberman. "In studying the history of archaeology, I'd have to say that this is perhaps the most outrageous case of tabloid archaeology, and the most singular celebrity artifact I've ever seen."

But the problem with the artifact, according to Silberman and others, is not the box itself, but the inscription.

A prominent historian said the language of the inscription was "too perfect, too pat." Some epigraphers (script experts) said the two halves of the inscription don't match. The beginning, "James son of Joseph," is straight, the letters formal. But the end, "Brother of Jesus," is uneven, and the letters are different.

In other words, "Brother of Jesus" may have been added by a forger.

The question comes up because the ossuary was not dug up at an authorized excavation, where every shard is scrutinized by scholars. Like most so-called antiquities, it just turned up in the shop of an antiques dealer, which is another way of saying it was looted.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has a special unit of archaeological detectives trying to stop this trade. They spend their nights burrowing underground on the trail of tomb-raiders, like those who may have stolen the ossuary from the tomb of James. The trouble is, no one has any idea when that happened, or where.

But 60 Minutes knows where it turned up: in the Tel Aviv apartment of Oded Golan, an Israeli entrepreneur, amateur pianist and one of the world's biggest collectors of biblical antiquities.

He says he bought the ossuary from an Arab dealer in the '70s and never thought twice about the inscription, because as a Jew, he knew nothing about Jesus.

"I didn't know at the time at all the Jesus had any siblings," says Golan, who had this ossuary for more than 20 or 25 years, never knowing what he had.

Golan says it was in 2002 when an eminent scholar happened to see the ossuary at his home, and told him what the writing could mean. Golan sprung into action. He had the box scrutinized by specialists in different fields. They were impressed. So, Golan shipped it off to Toronto for its unveiling before a colloquium of archaeologists who gave it their undivided attention.

After they'd had their fill, the Israel Antiquities Authority demanded that it be brought back to Israel so they could have a look. They appointed two committees to decide whether that inscription was cut 2,000 years ago, or much more recently.

"The letter is freshly cut from the varnish into the rock," says Professor Yuval Goren, director of Tel Aviv University's archaeology department, and one of the committee members.

He's been checking the ossuary's patina, the residue that gathered on the surface of the stone box over the past 2,000 years. And he's been comparing it to the patina inside the letters of the inscription.

"Inside the inscription, there was another type of patina-like material that seemed through the microscope, it seemed to be completely different," says Goren, who believes the inscription had been added later. "Whether all of it is a fake, or only part of it is a fake, this I don't know. The patina, coating it, all of it is a fake."

"And frankly, if all of it, or part of it is a fake, it doesn't make any difference, does it?" asks Simon.

"I don't think so," says Goren.

The ossuary was returned to Golan. But then, just two months after it had been exhibited in Toronto, there was another extraordinary revelation.

A tablet was secretly offered to Israel's National Museum, with a reported price tag of $4 million. Why so much? It was billed as the only remnant of the Temple of King Solomon, a godsend for religious Jews, because it would strengthen their claim to the Temple Mount, which has been contested for centuries by Jews and Muslims.

First the ossuary, and then the tablet, both revealed in the space of two months? It was an amazing coincidence, but the amazing coincidences don't stop there.

Amir Ganor, head of the Antiquities Authority Detective Unit, was put on the tablet's trail and all leads pointed to the apartment of Golan. They confiscated the tablet and decided to take the ossuary as well. But when Golan led them to it, the detectives could barely believe their eyes.

"He opened a small chamber on the roof, and I saw this chamber is a toilet, and what I found on top of the toilet, I found the ossuary of James the brother of Jesus," says Ganor.

Golan doesn't try to deny that he kept the ossuary on the toilet, but he says don't leap to unwarranted conclusions.

"I was really scared that people will come into the house and steal it, so I took it to the safest place in this building," says Golan.

As the unit continued to search the building, they stumbled upon a workshop that they found interesting. There were drills designed, they thought, to cut new inscriptions. There were half-completed seals. Ancient charcoal, useful perhaps, to outwit carbon dating. There were samples of soil from archaeological sites, which could be used to make fake patinas. The cops called the workspace a factory of fakes.

"The police are talking to us also about earth and charcoal samples from a specific period that they say you would have used to make something appear to be much older than it is," says Simon.

"This is just a wrong allegation. It's a false allegation, that's all what I can tell you," says Golan. "Because all the materials that I had, which are some soils, different color soils. It's in order to give when you restore an ancient piece you would like to give a feeling to the viewer that it looks old."

He admits that he has restored some of the artifacts that he has found. But has he ever created an artifact? A fake?

"No," he says.

Golan says the Israeli authorities want to make an example of him, a scapegoat. And Witherington, who wrote that first book about the ossuary, agrees: "There's this huge anxiety about collectors and looters and forgers. I think they saw this as a window of opportunity."

An opportunity, he says, to clean up the business, and make Golan a scapegoat.

Does he think the ossuary is real or fake? "I would say it's probably real," says Witherington.

But the Antiquities Authority continues to insist it's a fake. And not only that. They claim Golan has been making forgeries and millions of dollars for the last 15 years. And they say the real casualty here is knowledge itself, our passion to dig down to the real foundations of our history, and our faith.

"It seems to me that there's really two possibilities when you're dealing with the James ossuary and other recent discoveries," says Simon. "Either they're real or you've got a group of very talented forgers."

"There've been good forgers for hundreds of years," says Silberman. "But a 16-year-old with a basic graphics program can take absolutely documented inscriptions, and rearrange the letters, and reproduce them and it makes it very much harder just to see the difference between something new and something genuine."

"So both sides are getting better. The forgers are getting better, as is science in discovering forgeries is getting better," says Simon.

"Well, that's what we call progress in archaeology, I guess," says Silberman.
The Israeli police say they plan to indict Golan on multiple charges of forgery and fraud later this month.
  • Rebecca Leung

60 Minutes App

New Look. New Season. The 60 Minutes app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch!

More from 60 Minutes