ATLANTA -- Whether or not a purported first-century inscription naming Jesus is the real thing, many scientists and scholars at a panel discussion Sunday agreed on one point: The Israel Antiquities Authority's cry of hoax was a hasty conclusion.
At the center of the international debate is a limestone burial box, or ossuary, thought to belong to Jesus' brother James. The artifact emerged from Israel's semi-legal antiquities market last year, raising many doubts as to its authenticity.
"I don't know for sure whether this is a forged inscription, and I'm sort of cast as a defender of the inscription. I'm not," said Hershel Shanks, who moderated the panel discussion at the annual joint conference of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta. "What I do know is, Israeli authorities have badly managed the affair."
The ossuary, distinctively used by first-century Jews, bares the startling inscription, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Statisticians have deduced that the inscription likely refers to Jesus of Nazareth.
But the Israel Antiquities Authority has declared the inscription a fraud, casting a dark shadow over what some believe to be one of the greatest archaeological finds in modern times - rare physical evidence of the life of Jesus.
The IAA, which has yet to release a full report on its findings, stated in June that the ossuary itself was ancient but oxygen isotope analysis suggested the words on it were inscribed in modern times. The hard, brown patina (surface film) that covers the box could not be found on the inscription, where a soft, grayish chalk-and-water paste had been applied instead to imitate weathering, the IAA said, reasoning that it had found proof of fraud.
Many panelists criticized the IAA's assessment of the inscription Sunday, saying its 15-member investigating committee called the inscription a forgery before conducting a thorough analysis.
James Harrell, a geologist at the University of Toledo and member of the Association for the Study of Marble and Other Stones in Antiquity, said his analysis of the inscription suggests the missing patina could simply be the result of overcleaning - not forgery.
"The IAA only accepted the first possibility and didn't even consider the second," Harrell said.
Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Review, which published the initial findings, said experts from the IAA declined to speak at the forum.
Oded Golan, the collector who came forward with the ossuary in October 2002 and has since been accused of being the forger, said it had been "undoubtedly cleaned" while in his family's possession but did not know specifically how.
Golan said the ossuary, one of more than 3,000 artifacts in his private collection, was purchased from an unknown dealer about 30 years ago. Golan dismissed the idea that the inscription was forged by the dealer because he himself didn't know its significance until he showed it last year to Andre Lemaire, a French expert on ancient inscriptions.
"It was sold to me at a price similar to other ossuaries," Golan said. "If it was fake and mentioning such a name, they probably would have sold it to me at 200 times what they did."
Panelists also pointed out that while oxygen isotope analysis found most of the inscription showed some sort of modern influence, the last part of it was consistent with the ancient patina - specifically the part that names Jesus.
Many called on the IAA to continue their analysis of the ossuary by recruiting specialists for the investigative team, comparing the box with more samples of that era and possibly conducting radiocarbon dating on the inscription.
The forum also debated another controversial artifact, known as the "Temple tablet."
The tablet is purported to date from the time of the biblical King Jehoash (or Joash) and refers to repair plans a mere century and a half after Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple. The inscription echoes biblical accounts in 2 Kings 12:5-17 and 2 Chronicles 24:4-14.
The IAA also has called the tablet, another item in Golan's collection, a hoax. On Sunday, skeptics cited language on it that's inconsistent with ancient Hebrew.
Golan, who was detained by Israeli police earlier this year for questioning, remained critical of the IAA, accusing it of dismissing important findings from the antiquities market to discourage illegal trading. Instead, he said, it simply discourages dealers with significant artifacts from coming forward.
"People are just afraid because they can only lose; there is nothing to gain," Golan said.
On the Net:
American Academy of Religion: http://www.aarweb.org
Biblical Archeology Review: http://www.bib-arch.org
Society of Biblical Literature: http://www.sbl-site.org