Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land

In delving into the story of a high-profile biblical antiquities fraud case in Israel, Nina Burleigh found a journalistic treasure trove. Her stranger-than-fiction new book, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land, is packed with amazing characters — ex-spies, religious fanatics, con men, obsessive cops, quirky archaeologists, and a shady billionaire. It has a twisty, suspenseful plot that begs for cinematic adaptation, and it raises important questions about the limits of our understanding of the ancient past and the influence of ideology on science.

A staff writer at People magazine with a background as a journalist in the Middle East, Burleigh is wonderful at evoking her story’s various exotic milieus, which include the serpentine allies of old Jerusalem, palatial apartments in Tel Aviv and London, and scorching, dust-covered archaeological digs. She skates a bit too lightly over the tangled politics of Middle Eastern history, both ancient and modern, but the book is nonetheless fascinating and transporting.

Unholy Business is about a forgery case that rocked the study of both early Christianity and early Judaism. In 2002, an archeological impresario named Hershel Shanks, described by Burleigh as a “lawyer, crank, P. T. Barnum, and Indiana Jones all rolled into one man,” began publicizing a limestone box that he claimed was the first physical proof ever discovered of Jesus Christ’s existence. The box was an ossuary, or a container where Jews around the time of the 1st century kept the bones of their dead, inscribed with the Aramaic words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

It was owned by Oded Golan, a well-known antiquities collector who emerges as the inscrutable center of Burleigh’s story. Golan showed it to a Sorbonne scholar who dated the box to 62 CE, the year that the biblical James died, and averred that it had once contained his remains. The two of them teamed up with Shanks to bring the ossuary to the world’s attention.

For the Protestant faithful, this was a momentous finding, one that seemed to offer physical confirmation of an important part of the New Testament. (Catholics, meanwhile, found it troubling, since their doctrine holds that Mary was a perpetual virgin, and that Jesus had no full brothers.) Shanks arranged for the ossuary to be displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where Christians greeted it rapturously. In the past, modern science has disproved one biblical assertion after another. Suddenly, science appeared to be bolstering Scripture rather than undermining it — until the box was revealed as a fake.

One of the book’s more interesting themes deals with the appetite of believers for physical evidence to allay creeping doubt. Biblical literalists may say they privilege faith over science, but they are desperate for scientific confirmation, suggesting that they’ve internalized more modern, secular values than they care to admit. The longing for spiritual reassurance creates an opening for canny forgers who take advantage of the will to believe.

As Burleigh shows, this is true of Jews as well as Christians. Not long after the James Ossuary appeared on the scene, another momentous find appeared. It was a stone tablet describing repairs to Solomon’s temple, with wording very similar to language in the Old Testament Book of Kings. Some speculated the tablet might have been part of the temple itself. If real, tangible proof of the existence of Solomon’s temple were discovered, it would have geopolitical implications. After all, the site where the temple supposedly stood is one of the most contested pieces of land on earth, and religious Christians, Muslims, and Jews all have a stake in its disposition.

“According to the Bible, King Solomon built a fantastic temple in Jerusalem around 1000 BCE,” Burleigh writes. “Lined with gold, it housed the Ark of the Covenant, the container for God’s written word to mankind.” The Babylonians are said to have sacked the temple in 800 BCE. Though the temple was rebuilt by Herod, it was subsequently destroyed by the Romans. The Wailing Wall, the holiest place in Judaic tradition, is all that remains of the second temple, and no evidence of the first temple has ever been found. Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, the temple will be rebuilt. For some Christians awaiting the end times, the rebuilding of the temple is a crucial part of the scenario that will usher in the return of Christ.

Right now, though, the temple site is occupied by the Al Aqsa Mosque, which is considered Islam’s third-holiest site, after Mecca and Medina. (Burleigh misidentifies it as Islam’s second-holiest place, a small but not unimportant error.) Apocalyptically minded Christians and Jews have, in the past, plotted to destroy the mosque, which many believe could lead to a massive conflagration in the Middle East. Proof of the existence of the first temple would likely strengthen their resolve. Conversely, for many Muslims, the absence of such proof is seen as bolstering the Palestinians’ historic claim on the land.

The true scope of the Jewish people’s history in Israel is hotly contested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides accusing the other of twisting archaeology to support their political agenda. Even secular Israeli nationalists are eager for evidence of a long record of Jewish life in the Holy Land in order to reinforce the legitimacy of Zionism, showing it as a project of homecoming rather than colonization. So the stone tablet, brought forward by shadowy characters with ties to Israeli intelligence was hugely significant. It was also, in all likelihood, a fake.

Eventually, Burleigh shows how these two frauds are linked, although much mystery remains. Were the forgers merely mercenary, or were there ideological motives at work as well? Unholy Business is at its weakest when trying to describe the thicket of conflicting historical and political claims underlying controversies in biblical archaeology. Burleigh remains somewhat aloof from these roiling intellectual battles, sketching arguments on both sides without really engaging with them. This allows her to retain her objectivity, but it also means that her analysis doesn’t go very deep.

Yet if one wants to hear more from the author on that point, it’s partly testament to how compelling the rest of the book is. She herself describes it best early on, writing, “When I embarked on this project, I thought of it as an exotic crime story, The Maltese Falcon meets Raiders of the Lost Ark with a little bit of The Da Vinci Code thrown in.” What she found is all that and more, a real-life thriller as consequential as it is entertaining.