The (Almost) Perfect Fake and/or the Real Thing

David Noel Freedman

The following discussion is about the two most notorious inscriptions that have turned up in recent years: the Proclamation of King Jehoash of Judah (putatively ninth century b.c.e.) and the Ossuary of Jacob (James) the Son of Joseph and the Brother of Jeshua (Jesus) (putatively first century c.e.).1 The former is written in Classical (Biblical) Hebrew, while the latter is written in the Palestinian Aramaic of the period. Following the publication of each of these inscriptions, a storm of controversy has arisen over the authenticity of each of them. Generally speaking, the same scholars who have questioned the genuineness of one of them have also questioned the genuineness of the other, while those who defend the genuineness of one have also defended that of the other. There may be exceptions of two kinds: a number of scholars have limited their pronouncements to one of the inscriptions and withheld comment on the other, and vice versa. Since the evidence and arguments are not the same for the two inscriptions, we should deal with the inscriptions separately. But first, a few remarks about the basic issue: fake or real—false or true?

By definition, a perfect fake is undetectable, meaning that even the best and most skeptical experts will be taken in by it. Is either of these in that category, or are there any such in the whole inventory of ancient Near Eastern inscriptions? Maybe some, maybe none—because perfection is hard to attain, even when the market is rich, the incentives are great, and the necessary skills and techniques are available. Again, by definition, or major implication, perfect fakes would pass muster as authentic. There may be at least a few, maybe more, going undiscovered.

What would a perfect fake inscription—or even one that was imperfect but very, very good—look like? The perfect fake would not be perfect itself, by which I mean that it would not be flawless. There would be an occasional novelty in wording, form, grammar, or syntax. It might even have an error or two, depending upon the length of the inscription, since most of them would have been carved by stonecutters, not scribes—by artisans, not artists. In other words, perfect fake inscriptions would look very much like the real thing and be indistinguishable from authentic inscriptions by all the standard criteria.

Whatever information such an inscription may contain, it would not add to or subtract substantially from what we already knew or know about the subject matter. It may add a few details but would not depart sharply from known data. It wouldn’t add appreciably to our current knowledge or subtract from it. It is simply there in all its false glory, to be admired and appreciated for being something other than what it is, an artifact from a later time. At the other extreme is a real thing, with real information from ancient times, and therefore important in its own right even apart from the message that it bears, the materials of which it is made, and the other details relating to its manufacture and installation. It belongs to real history and contributes to the recovery of it, as well as to our understanding of that time and place.

Where along this spectrum of false and true do the Proclamation of Jehoash and James Ossuary inscriptions fall? Right now, in my considered judgment, in spite of confident assertions from both sides of the argument, we really don’t know and can’t be sure. For each piece of evidence and for each category of discussion, there are opposing arguments, but none seem conclusive. For the purposes of the following discussion, we will call those who hold the inscriptions to be modern fakes “the Fakers” and those who consider them to be real artifacts of the ancient past “the Antiquarians.”

Linguistic Data and Argumentation

In regard to the Jehoash inscription, its Hebrew is manifestly that of biblical times and corresponds to the period of the contents and the paleography (ninth century b.c.e.). The Fakers would test the inscription against a model for that time and place and, depending upon the individual scholar, would claim that the inscription doesn’t fit within the range of authenticity, because it had too many novelties and anomalies, along with mistakes—or, on the other hand, because it had too few. In the prior case, the evidence would point to a clumsy modern forger who simply substituted modern Hebrew expressions with which he (or she) was familiar and otherwise betrayed his contemporary workmanship through conspicuous lack of skill. At the other end, if there were very few departures from the ancient standard, that would show that the modern forger simply copied verbatim or blended materials drawn directly from the Bible or other ancient sources. And if the inscription fell somewhere between these extremes, the Fakers would argue that the forger was even more expert at imitating reality. In other words, wherever the evidence weighs in, and whatever the number or percentage or proportion of variations and deviations from the norm, a fake is a fake, and a good forger can (and did) produce an inscription that would fit into the graph at any point from one extreme to the other. I would agree that, if the inscription is a fake, then the forger could make it fit anywhere in the spectrum we have sketched out. But this does not prove or even support the claim, which is presumed or assumed and then justified or explained.

The Antiquarians, for their part, would proceed from the data on which both sides agree and then argue for splitting the difference between the Fakers at both ends of the spectrum.

They would claim that the linguistic features of the inscription fit comfortably between the extremes, and therefore there is no reason to question the inscription’s authenticity. This is not proof either—whether for or against—and the debate will remain at an impasse unless we find more evidence or make better arguments on either side. Both sides can claim high ground by making selective use of some of the evidence in support of their position, while using ingenious countervailing arguments to dismiss or explain away the opposition’s views.

What has been said of the Jehoash inscription applies in large part to the Ossuary of Jacob (commonly but wrongly called “James”), the son of Joseph and the brother of Jeshua. The questions concerning authenticity and significance are made both simpler and more complicated as the different sides of this controversy have emerged and joined the battle. So far as I am aware, all those engaged in the discussion and debate agree that the ossuary itself is an authentic artifact of the first century c.e. and belongs to the latter part of that century, much like thousands of others from this region and from the first two or three centuries of the Common Era. This ossuary bears an inscription, as do many others from the same period. Most of the latter have not attracted much attention, because the names they bear are common in this period, and further information is lacking that would permit identification of the individuals named. That might have been the fate of this inscribed bone-box, except for the collocation of three otherwise unremarkable names, and the specified relationship among the three persons mentioned: Jacob, Joseph, and Jesus are three of the most important figures in the New Testament, and the combination of parentage and brotherhood is specifically true of Jesus, his brother Jacob, and their father, Joseph. So the questions of authenticity and applicability become centrally important. Naturally and inevitably, the arguments began and still continue.

Even if we are ultimately satisfied that not only the ossuary but the inscription on it are genuine artifacts of the first century c.e., what can be said about the combination of names? While Joseph, Jesus, and James figure prominently in the New Testament, the names themselves were quite common in the Jewish community before, during, and after this period. The combination of the three names and the relationships specified in the inscription might not have a historical connection with the members of the holy family in the New Testament. There would be no way to prove or disprove this particular hypothesis. It would remain an interesting speculation—nothing more, nothing less. Demographic arguments might be used to support one conclusion or the other but could hardly constitute proof and certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt. So that particular question should not be brought to bear on the other more basic question of authenticity. Alternatively, if the inscription were a fake, then the combination of names would be an obvious choice, but that observation would have to come after the determination of the question of authenticity. If the latter cannot now be settled, fitting the other pieces together won’t settle the matter either.

When it comes to the wording, including the reference to a brother, the inscription is unusual but hardly unique, and that applies as well to the Aramaic expression adding the pronominal suffix to the word for “brother”; it is also unusual but not the only example. So the language could pass muster. On the other side, if it were a fake, we would expect a good forger to be careful to stay within the bounds of traditional linguistic usage in matters of this kind, especially in writing on gravestones or, in this case, an ossuary.

Paleographic Scrutiny and Evaluation

Much the same may be said of the results of paleographic analysis—that is, the close study of the style of the inscription’s carving. While paleographic analysis is a well-established science (and over the years admirable progress has been made in sorting out the genuine from the fabricated), and more precision has been achieved in accurate dating to within a century in many cases, still, neither exactness nor unanimity has been achieved. Legitimate differences of opinion persist, and questions about some if not many of the most important ancient Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions remain unresolved. In the case of the Edict of King Jehoash of Judah, the jury is still out. I would say that it fits well within the range between false and true. It might be what it claims to be, a proclamation of the ninth century b.c.e., or it might be a clever fake of the twentieth or twenty-first century c.e. (depending upon whose story you believe about its manufacture) or almost anything between in terms of the time span or the mode and process of its making. The conclusion would be that since no single item in the inscription has been shown beyond a reasonable doubt to be impossible, then the possibility that it is an authentic artifact must also be allowed.

About the paleography on the ossuary: some argue that the writing fits well with the period of the ossuary itself—namely, in the range from the middle to the end of the first century c.e.—whereas others hold that some of the letters or words are anomalous and argue further that more than one hand can be discerned and that, precisely, the link with Jeshua has been added (very recently) by a later hand. In the end, all the anomalies taken together may only reflect the fact that one or more stonecutters actually did the job based on sketches or drawings and their own inadequate knowledge of the language and the content of the inscription. In other words, unusual features are proof only of unusual features, and these may or may not be compatible with a determination of authenticity or of fakery but are insufficient in themselves to make that determination. This debate has raged for some time now, and I don’t believe that as a group or individually we know enough to settle this argument by the available evidence or force of reason. A confession (or two) might help, but, as we know only too well, even “unforced” confessions do not always have probative value, in court or out of it. As matters stand, we come out pretty much where we came in, with the verdict that the Scottish people hold dear: “Not Proven!” On the one hand, we can’t affirm that the inscription is authentic, although it may be. On the other hand, we can’t dismiss it as a proven fake. As of now, it is somewhere in between. Perhaps time will make a difference, perhaps further study and new finds will help to resolve the mystery. Perhaps not.

By way of summary, let us say that we already knew the following about the two inscriptions:

  1. King Jehoash collected money for the Treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem in order to make repairs and renovations in the building and issued an edict when the money had been collected, and the work was authorized and in progress (or even completed).
  2. Whether or not the ossuary is the receptacle of the remains of Jacob the son of Joseph and brother of Jeshua (of the New Testament), we already knew that Jesus had a brother named Jacob, and they were known as the sons of Joseph. Most of us believe that this was common knowledge of the time: that Jesus and Jacob were the sons of Joseph and that Jacob later served as the leader of the Jerusalem community of Christians.

We would say that, if the inscriptions are fakes, then the information provided hardly adds anything new or striking and nothing that would mislead scholars in the future. If authentic, they would not add much to the knowledge we already have. So in the end, whether real or fake, they don’t seem to make much difference.

David Noel Freedman

David Noel Freedman holds the Endowed Chair in Hebrew Biblical Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He has produced more than three hundred scholarly books, including The Leningrad Codex: A Facsimile Edition (1998), which made the world’s oldest and most complete extant manuscript of the Hebrew Bible available to the public.


The following discussion is about the two most notorious inscriptions that have turned up in recent years: the Proclamation of King Jehoash of Judah (putatively ninth century b.c.e.) and the Ossuary of Jacob (James) the Son of Joseph and the Brother of Jeshua (Jesus) (putatively first century c.e.).1 The former is written in Classical (Biblical) …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.