The sword in the stones

Lessons from a spectacular museum fraud

It is hard to forget the excitement and drama when, in 2002, the Royal Ontario Museum displayed an ancient ossuary, a funerary bone box made of limestone, in a special exhibition. This was no ordinary receptacle: carved into one side was an Aramaic inscription identifying the bones as those of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” For religious and secular visitors alike, this appeared to convey hard, physical evidence of the existence of central figures in the Christian New Testament. Or did it?

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) had given its imprimatur to a controversial biblical archeology find. Scholarly sceptics were quick to pounce. They questioned the grammar of the ossuary’s crudely incised letters. They pointed out that the Hebrew names for James and Jesus were widely used and might not have belonged to the Biblical brothers known as James and Jesus. They asked hard scientific questions about...