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In 2002, an ancient limestone box called the James Ossuary was trumpeted on the world's front pages as the first material evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ. Today it is exhibit number one in a forgery trial involving millions of dollars worth of high-end, Biblical era relics, some of which literally re-wrote Near Eastern history and which could lead to the incarceration of some very wealthy men and embarrass major international institutions, including the British Museum ...
In 2002, an ancient limestone box called the James Ossuary was trumpeted on the world's front pages as the first material evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ. Today it is exhibit number one in a forgery trial involving millions of dollars worth of high-end, Biblical era relics, some of which literally re-wrote Near Eastern history and which could lead to the incarceration of some very wealthy men and embarrass major international institutions, including the British Museum and Sotheby's.
Set in Israel, with its 30,000 archaeological digs crammed with biblical-era artifacts, and full of colorful characters—scholars, evangelicals, detectives, and millionaire collectors—Unholy Business tells the incredibly story of what the Israeli authorities have called "the fraud of the century." It takes readers into the murky world of Holy Land relic dealing, from the back alleys of Jerusalem's Old City to New York's Fifth Avenue, and reveals biblical archaeology as it is pulled apart by religious believers on one side and scientists on the other.
In November 2002, the public display of an ossuary (an ancient burial vessel) inscribed "James, the brother of Jesus," sent ripples of excitement, doubt and consternation through both the religious and scholarly worlds. But when scholars took a close look, they declared the inscription a forgery based on the lack of provenance and a tremendous disparity between the physical writing of the word "James" and the rest of the inscription. In her captivating chronicle, veteran journalist Burleigh (Mirage) enters a dark world full of shady dealings, illicit collectors and monomaniacal archeologists. Along the way we meet an improbable cast of characters, including Oded Golan, the ossuary's owner; André Lemaire, an epigraphist who early on testified to the authenticity of the ossuary's inscription; Shlomo Moussaieff, a billionaire collector with a warehouse full of artifacts of uncertain value; and Israel Finkelstein, a maverick Israeli archeologist who questions the historicity of many biblical events. Burleigh draws readers in from page one and brilliantly captures the compelling debates about archeology's relationship to narratives of faith. (Nov.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Fascinating bad guys; exotic locations; lost religious treasures too good to be true; and a cast of characters made up of scholars, religious believers, antique dealers, cops, and millionaires make this book a strange-and true-tale and a delight to read. In 2002, the James Ossuary, an ancient limestone box for bones with an inscription on it that said "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" was publicized as the first real physical evidence of Jesus Christ's existence. The plot thickened when the ossuary went on tour, creating lots of publicity, a book by advocate Hershel Shanks, and a Discovery Channel documentary. Then the ossuary's owner, Oded Golan, and his antique-dealer associates were charged with forgery. The trial of Golan and a colleague has lasted years (and has also led to the uncovering of other important forgeries). Burleigh (staff writer, People magazine) does a fabulous job of tracking down and talking to the major players in what the Israeli authorities call the "fraud of the century." Whether or not readers believe the ossuary is authentic, they will thoroughly enjoy this book. Highly recommended for public libraries and academic libraries supporting classes on archaeology.
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. --Michelle Goldberg
The author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Michelle Goldberg is a news and political reporter for Salon.com. Her work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Observer, New York, In These Times, The New Republic online, The Guardian (U.K.), The Utne Reader, Newsday, and other publications and newspapers nationwide. She was a columnist for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and for Shift magazine and has taught at New York University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.
The Billionaire's Table
That's the stuff that dreams are made of.
—Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon
At sunset, the collector and his lucky guests can't help but notice the primal kaleidoscope in the heavens above the Mediterranean Sea. Three walls of floor-to-ceiling penthouse glass front the westward horizon, and every afternoon shades of vermilion and violet, pink and indigo streak the sky and sea. Anyone witnessing the celestial display from this vantage point feels enriched, but the old man who owns the view, Shlomo Moussaieff, is in fact one of the world's richest men.
People tell two versions of how Moussaieff made his billions, with a twist depending on whether the teller likes or dislikes the old man. The nice version is that for four decades he sold pricey jewelry to oil sheiks from a tiny shop on the ground floor of London's glittery Hilton Hotel, and also knew the prostitutes they employed. The sheiks paid the girls in jewelry because they deemed it more honorable to give their "girlfriends" presents than to pay them hard cash. After these transactions, the unsentimental ladies rode the mirrored and gilt elevators downstairs and sold the jewelry back to Moussaieff, at prices far lower than what the sheiks had paid. Then Moussaieff sold the pieces again at full value. The nastier version of the story, told by men who think the old man has crossed them, is that the jeweler sold the sheiks precious jewelry and then the escorts stole the baubles andbrought them back to the shop.
At eighty-five, Moussaieff's labyrinthine life story is made up of a thousand and one equally fantastic and unverifiable tales. As he tells it, an abusive rabbi father kicked him onto the streets of 1920s Jerusalem when he was a boy of twelve, so he slept in dank, ancient tombs on the Old City's edge with homeless Arab urchins, plucking his first Roman-era coins out of that hallowed dirt. He passed his teenage years lice ridden and deprived, sometimes sleeping rough in a synagogue where he overheard and memorized the Talmud, sometimes in an Arabic reform school memorizing the Koran, and sometimes in a Christian hospital. After fighting in Europe in World War II, he was briefly jailed by the Allies for attempting to smuggle valuable Judaica from synagogues the Nazis somehow hadn't plundered. He fought in the streets of Jerusalem's Old City during Israel's War of Independence, becoming friendly with general Moshe Dayan, another lover of antiquities. Together the men made forays into Gaza to acquire archaeological treasures. In London a few years later, he began amassing enormous wealth through intimacy with the world's richest Arab potentates. A stint in the Israeli Secret Ser-vice fits in somewhere. What is certain is that by the 1980s, he had created a colossal fortune from a jewelry business that landed him in the cosmopolitan upper echelon. One of his daughters is married to the president of Iceland.
These days, the old man spends less time making money and more time disbursing it to enlarge his vast collection of biblical antiquities. He doesn't care what people say about him, either. His only interest in life now, besides smoking and flirting, he says, is "proving the Bible true"—an odd pursuit for an avowedly unreligious man, but an offshoot of an early obsession with finding God. He believes completely in the historical reality of biblical characters, but Yahweh remains beyond his reach. The antiquities inside his Tel Aviv apartment would keep a team of museum curators busy for decades. Among them are a pair of three-foot-high iron lions from what was supposedly the Queen of Sheba's palace in Yemen, chunks of long-demolished Syrian Jewish temples on the walls, whole slabs of Assyrian cuneiform from Iraq, vitrines packed with pre-Canaanite pagan cult figurines, intact tile friezes taken from Roman baths in Israel. But these artifacts are only a small sampling of the six hundred thousand Bible-era relics he has collected over the years and that he stores in warehouses in Geneva and his London townhouse. Almost all of them, he readily admits, were removed illegally from their countries of origin.
Moussaieff's collection, quirks, and financial might are well understood among the antiquities traders in Israel. On most nights when Moussaieff is in Tel Aviv, a revolving cast of dealers and collectors drop in to sell, buy, or simply sip Diet Coke, enjoy the sunset over the sea, and watch the old man in action. His guests may also include socialites, politicians, and scholars who are attracted by the money, collection, and mystique of one of Israel's most intriguing characters. A dyslexic who can barely read, he is by turns profane and refined. He tells filthy jokes, veers between Hebrew and Arabic as the mood suits him, slyly calls men and women habibi—the Arabic word for sweetie—and will recite, eyes half-closed, bits of Holy Land arcana he has photographically memorized from the Bible and Koran. He can wax at length on the characters whose heads are commemorated on tarnished bits of Roman coins or the significance of clay figurines representing pre-Canaanite gods and goddesses.
On a balmy spring evening in 2002, an elfin fellow named Oded Golan joined a half-dozen other men at the billionaire's long rectangular table, inhaling the fumes of the great collector's chain-lit Marlboro Lights. Golan, fifty-something, short, with oddly shaped, fleshy ear tips, and a shiny brown mop of hair over an impish face reminiscent of Joel Grey in the movie Cabaret, was and still is one of Israel's biggest collectors of Bible-era relics. But his collection is tiny by comparison with Moussaieff's. Besides collecting Israeli artifacts, Golan—who came from a wealthy and accomplished Tel Aviv family and studied industrial design in college—ran an architectural tour business, speculated in real estate, and was an amateur classical pianist. His calloused, short fingers attested to the fact that he also used his hands and his design training to lovingly restore the ancient items he collected.Unholy Business
Posted May 25, 2009
Quite possibly the James Ossuary had a bigger audience that first day at the Toronto Museum than Jesus himself on his triumphal return to Jerusalem for that long ago pass over. Ossuaries, stone boxes, were used to contain the bones of the Hebrew dead from about 30 C.E. to 70 C.E. Corpses were allowed a year in a cave or sepulcher to allow soft tissues to decay, then the bones placed in an ossuary for economy of storage space. This ossuary was touted as being that of Jesus' brother, James. The inscription on the side of the box reads, in Aramaic, "Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua" ("James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"). If genuine, it would have been the only material relic from the time of Jesus that mentions him. (References to Jesus by Flavius Josephus, for instance, are known to be forgeries, written by Christian redactors around 400 A.D.)
Carved of limestone, the James Ossuary arrived at the Canadian Museum on October 31 2002. It was packed "like a discount toaster oven." (131). Wrapped in bubble wrap and placed in a cardboard box, it was, not surprisingly, badly broken. It was also insured with Lloyds of London for a million dollars, leading Canadian authorities to suspect insurance fraud on the part of shipper, antiquities dealer Oded Golan, now on trial for antiquities fraud in Israel. Emergency repairs were made, and the stone box went on display. The ossuary was on display from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003. "On the first day, ten thousand people filed past, some in silent prayer" (132).
Yet even before the display began, experts knowledgeable in the field were denouncing the ossuary as a fraud.
To take one example, Epigrapher Rochelle Altman published a devastating critique, stating the first half of the inscription was in a different hand than of the last half and that "of" in "brother of" (Jesus) was in a form not used until the 9th century CE (132). Altman was not alone in her critique. Israeli Antiquities Authorities called it "the fraud of the century." It was one among many fakes passed off as archaeological finds with biblical ties.
Whether one love or hates "Unholy Business" often seems to depend on their belief system. But like what she says or not, there's no denying she says it well, telling a complex story with numerous multi-faceted characters in an understandable and interesting way. She proves to be that rara avis among journalists who purchases the intellectual chops, the willingness and the independence to pursue a story to its logical conclusion.
Nina Burleigh has traveled to the Middle East many times during her writing career. She has written for the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, and Time. Previous books include: The Stranger and the Statesman, A Very Private Woman and Mirage. She resides in New York City and is an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
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