Monday, May 4, 2009

Of Ossuaries, Forgeries, Export Licences - and Unprovenanced Curators

Of Ossuaries, Forgeries, Export Licences - and

Unprovenanced Curators


Dr. Victor Sasson


My two-piece essay, ‘The Trial on Trial and Unholy Hoaxes by a Nimble Journalist’, drew two comments by one, Joe Zias, of whom I had never heard before. When I first read those comments, frankly I thought they came from a boorish character, making some crass remarks for the purpose of drawing attention to himself. The two comments were without much substance, finesse, or style. I decided to ignore them. Later on I learned that the man had an official position in Jerusalem. For that reason, especially, I have decided to respond to his comments (for my essay, see Dr. Jim West’s weblog for December 29th, 2008).

In his first comment, Mr. Zias blundered, mistaking me for a certain antiquities dealer in West Jerusalem who happens to have similar surname as mine. He wrote that he personally knew that dealer “for three decades”.

In his second comment, he apologised for his mistake. Clearly, he had not read my two-piece personal account carefully before rushing to write his abusive comments. His apology does not change that fact.

We shall soon see how all this is relevant to the sort of official position this man held in Jerusalem. Still, he again repeated that I could not take the heat in the Jerusalem court when I gave my testimony on the Jehoash inscription for the defence. He chose to ignore the details I have given in my honest personal essay, and plunged into crass, derogatory remarks, even though I had never heard of him before.

In his first comment, Mr. Zias tells us of his testimony in the Jerusalem court. Later, we understand that it was in connection with a specific ossuary. He was summoned to court by the defence for cross-examination, but was a witness for the prosecution in the case of Oded Golan, the antiquities collector.

I decided to acquire a copy of the court transcripts, which contain his testimony.

The transcripts are on public record and can be obtained and examined by anyone.

Mr. Zias was in the Jerusalem court on the 13th of November, 2007 (Docket No. 63). I must say that, reading his court testimony, I found myself very much amused at times, and at other times, deeply alarmed, if not outraged.


Mr. Zias worked for about three decades as curator of antiquities for the Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem! The exact dates he gives in his own testimony are from 1972 to 1997.

He informs the court that his professional status is that of anthropologist and that he has published scholarly papers on skeletal remains/bones found in ossuaries. His specialization included ancient diseases. He makes it clear he is not an epigrapher and does not research inscriptions.

In his web-site curriculum vitae, he mentions his training in anthropology and in medical issues of human remains. There is mention of some training in archaeology. No mention is made of academic training at the doctorate level in any field.

As mentioned, Mr. Zias was summoned to court to give testimony regarding a specific ossuary.

Scant Modern, and Zero Biblical Hebrew

In his first comment regarding my article, Mr. Zias makes a derogatory remark and then proceeds to say that he had asked the court to give his testimony in English which, he said, was his mother tongue, but that the court refused his request.

After thirty years living in Jerusalem, working for a government department, Joe Zias asked to give his testimony in English! Judge A. Farkash must have found that request foolish and laughable, coming from a former employee of the government, with so many years in the service.

Mr. Zias complains he had no choice, indeed compelled, to give his testimony in Hebrew. However, anyone who cares to examine the court transcripts will see that he often slipped into using English (and was often assisted by the prosecutor (!) in the case, who translated or paraphrased what Zias attempted to say). And that drew negative comments from the judge himself.

At one point in the cross-examination, the judge himself translated an English sentence spoken by the witness. Zias made the tactless remark: “I want him [the judge] to be my translator.”

When I read that Zias had worked for 25 or 30 years in Jerusalem as curator of antiquities (and also keeper of the Dead Sea Scrolls, according to his web-site cv) and requested the judge to give testimony in English, I could hardly believe what I was reading. Here is someone who, in his derogatory remarks about this writer, pretends to be an intellectual Think Tank and a Superman – and yet his own words in court give us a good idea of what he is in reality.

Filling in Pre-printed Forms for Export Licences

Having read Mr. Zias’ court testimony in Hebrew (all court testimonies are printed and published in Modern Hebrew only), I discovered that as curator, working for the Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem, he had the responsibility of issuing export licences for antiquities! In other words, this was the position of a person who lived for 30 years in Jerusalem and whose knowledge of the local, official spoken and written language, Modern Hebrew, was far below his responsibility of issuing export licences!

The defence lawyer grilled the witness on that point.

In his answer, Mr. Zias said he only had to fill in a certain pre-printed, official form in Modern Hebrew!

I found this quite amusing. I imagine readers, too, will feel greatly amused, if not alarmed, at the same time. Mr. Zias’ statement tells us something not only about him personally, but also about the kind of people the Antiquities Authority employ and about the AA itself!

Apparently 25 or 30 years in an official position in Jerusalem were not enough for this pretentious man to get a good grip on the local language. And, indeed, why should he take the trouble to learn, since his job entails only the filling in of a pre-printed form to issue export licences? I suppose it was only one pre-printed form, and not more than one, over a period of a quarter of a century!

What an enviable official position to hold – with all its prestige, benefits, and immunities!

Feeling entertained, I soon recalled there have been precedents to such great men before: in H.M.S. Pinafore, Sir Joseph, who never ventured to sea, became ruler of the Queen’s Navy by polishing up the door knobs of the Admiralty!

Mr. Zias makes a derogatory remark about my request to give my testimony in English. But my first language is Arabic – Babylonian- Jewish Arabic! The biographical note, attached to my article, mentions that I grew up in Baghdad. Perhaps Mr. Zias does not know that in Baghdad people speak Arabic, just as in Paris people speak French, in Moscow people speak Russian, in Mongolia people speak Mongolian. Could I have asked to give my testimony in modern, standard Arabic, instead of giving it in English? I am dwelling on this point because it tells us something important about this character, and about his employers, who are supposedly hunting down double-dealers and impostors!

Who are the impostors here? It is a good question to ask.

Now although I myself can read, write, and speak fluent Modern Hebrew (which I learned as a foreign language), I gave my testimony in English because I had to discuss technical, epigraphic issues based on my publications, all of which were conceived, written, and published in English. (I learned English also as a foreign language and read Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and Swift as a teenager, on my own, using a dictionary, even before I could speak proper English).

A Good Friend of Biblical Antiquities Dealers

Mr. Zias was not only acquainted with Jewish dealers of antiquities, like the one in West Jerusalem he himself mentions in one of his two comments. In his court testimony, Mr. Zias states that he socialized with the owner of an antiquities shop in Arab Jerusalem, and that he took tea with him in wintertime (coffee in summertime, according to him). Clearly, that was on a regular basis, and for many years.

“I had a friendly relationship with him,” he stated in the cross-examination.

One day – in 1990 - Mr. Zias was on Via Dolorosa in Arab Jerusalem and, he said, he “happened” to see Mahmood abu-Shakrah, who invited him in for tea. “I knew him from the 1970’s”, the witness said. He spoke highly of him, saying he was an educated Arab dealer of antiquities.

Mr. abu-Shakrah then pointed at an ossuary lying on the floor of his shop, and said it was his “pension”, which could only mean that it was a precious item, which he aimed to sell and make huge profits, after which he would go into retirement. Later on in the cross-examination we understand that the ossuary had an inscription, which faced a wall. When the dealer showed the inscription to his guest, Mr. Zias told his host he could not read it since it was written in Aramaic!

“I am not an epigrapher,” Zias told him. The inscription of course was very short, containing several words only. Zias then enquired, “What does it say?” His Arab friend answered, “James son of Joseph”.

So much for an official who issued export licences for biblical antiquities but could not even read his own name on an inscription that contained several words! Mr. Bringer, the defence lawyer, poked fun at Zias, asking his witness how it was he could not read his own name, Joe (=Joseph or Yosef, in Hebrew and Aramaic, written in a more developed script), when anyone outside in the street could easily read it?

The witness answered: “I have a problem with Hebrew”, and “Epigraphy is not my field”.

The lawyer insisted: “But you issue export licences!”

An Antiquities Dealer who is not Afraid of an AA Official

The cross-examination now turned to the precious ossuary that Mr. Zias saw at the antiquities dealer’s shop in 1990. The defence lawyer, Mr. Bringer, asked his witness: “How is it that antiquities dealer [Mr. abu-Shakrah] was not afraid saying this to an official of the AA?”

The lawyer, of course, was referring to the “pension”, which the apparently precious ossuary signified. He kept asking this question, without getting a satisfactory answer. But for an employee of the Antiquities Authority, whose responsibilities included the issuing of export licences, to socialise intimately with an antiquities-dealer, looks very much like the police fraternizing with members of the underworld!

I do not know if that particular ossuary was the famous ‘James brother of Jesus’ ossuary or not, but that was the impression I myself got from reading the court transcripts. Needless to say, one should not jump to any conclusions but let the judge in the case form his opinion, based on the testimonies given.

We must always give this witness for the prosecution the benefit of the doubt – even if he himself is always ready and willing to lynch others.

Joe Zias and Mr. abu-Shakrah’s German Wife

At a later stage in the cross-examination, Joe Zias stated that he had had communications with abu-Shakrah’s wife, who was German. He said he had believed she was a physician and so he had contacts with her, discussing various diseases. Later, he said, he discovered he was mistaken. She turned out not to be a physician at all.

Well, either he blundered, or she purposely misled him - one of the two.

One day, he relates, Mrs. abu-Shakrah came to the AA to see him in his office. She needed his help. She told him she was about to board an airplane, but was arrested because she was carrying two suitcases packed with antiquities.

What kind of help she wanted from Zias, we do not know. He did not elaborate.

Her husband, said Zias, was reliable, but “she was caught red-handed”. It appears (according to Zias) those items were not genuine. On the other hand, if those items were replicas for sale, why did Zias say she was caught “red-handed”? (Hebrew: ‘l ham – lit. ‘in the heat of the act’). This part of his testimony is definitely murky.

The defence lawyer did not press on with further questions. The matter was acutely embarrassing. Mr. Bringer realised that further questioning would lead nowhere - and it was late in the proceedings, anyway.

One can imagine the dramatic, theatrical aspect of this episode of abu-Shakrah’s wife coming to the AA to seek help from one of their officials! Not an ordinary official, let us remember, but one that issues export licences!

Mr. Zias Makes a False Statement

Joe Zias made a false statement that negated what I had said in my own expert testimony – in October 2008 - and what I have repeated in my published personal account, in ‘The Trial on Trial’ essay.

Mr. Bahat, the prosecutor, wanted to associate me with publishing un-refereed research on the Internet. I answered that I had never published any research study on the Internet. My research studies were all submitted to internationally respectable scholarly journals, refereed publications, and were published by them. Mr. Zias twists my statement in my own essay, and claims that the prosecutor asked me about “something” (i.e. research) that I had published on the Internet.

Very much like the prosecutor in the case, Mr. Zias plays a dishonest, tricky game in order to mislead.

In his first comment, he talks about the Akkadian scholar from the University of the Negev, but he sandwiched him in between the comments he made about this writer. That can be misleading to the reader.

Mr. Zias was clearly shaken by the defence lawyer because he was not giving satisfactory, truthful answers to quite legitimate questions - as we can see from his own testimony. When I myself gave testimony in October 2008, the prosecutor, Mr. Bahat, did his best to confound, confuse, and mislead with irrelevant questions, which even the judge, A. Farkash, found objectionable and had to reprimand the prosecutor (see my ‘The Trial on Trial’).

Joe Zias - “A Liar”?

During the cross-examination we learn that Mr. Zias at one time sued his employers, the Antiquities Authority! He gave no further details and we do not know the precise reasons for the friction between the two sides.

Were they unhappy with him? Did they want to sack him? We do not know.

We also learn that he had sought to sue the editor of Biblical Archaeological Review (BAR) but was advised (according to his own statement) that such legal action would cost him more than what he would be able to collect in damages (assuming he would succeed in his suit). That editor (who happens to be a lawyer himself) had called Joe Zias “a liar” – i.e. that he had lied about the ossuary (presumably the one mentioned earlier). Mr. Bringer, the defence lawyer, grilled his witness on this point.

From a random check of the Web, one can see that this man is addicted to posting

negative comments, left and right, about all sorts of people and issues. This seems to be an irresistible occupation for him. For a specialist on ancient diseases, Zias is clearly suffering from some undiagnosed modern ailment, possibly some computer virus.

Joe Zias - An Epigrapher?

In his first comment, Mr. Zias states the following: “From the point of epigraphy it [the Jehoash inscription] may look good to the naked eye however as Yuval Goren has shown, under the microscope it’s of recent manufacture.”

Here is a former curator and keeper of Biblical Antiquities who could not read his own name on that ossuary that was discussed earlier, lecturing on the Jehoash inscription and pretending to be an epigrapher.

Is this the way epigraphers do research, using their naked eye only? This shows such a gaping ignorance of what professional epigraphical research is!

Regarding the physical aspects of the stone, Professor Dr. Wolfgang E. Krumbein, a world leading authority on patina formation, has determined that Yuval Goren and the AA scientific team have not proved the Jehoash inscription a forgery. And I myself have demonstrated in my own research that all the claims of forgery are easily refutable, and that the text could well be an ancient copy of an original text.

There is a world of difference between concluding that the Jehoash text is definitely forgery, and concluding that it may be genuine.

A “Game of Fraud and Forgery”

Mr. Zias speaks of “this game of fraud and forgery which has cast a shadow on the world of archaeology”.

Speaking of forgeries, how did this man, whose level of Modern Hebrew appears to approximate that of a junior in a primary school, and whose Biblical Hebrew a zero, manage to forge his way into the career of curator of Biblical Antiquities and keeper of the Dead Sea Scrolls?

If this is not a forged miracle - what is it then?


A Lament and a Prayer

What a desecration of the Holy Hebrew Scriptures at the hand of Cossacks and Tartars! What an offence to the cherished memory of the Hebrew Prophets and to their scribes who toiled, generation after generation, copying their fiery, divine words!

What an insult to ancient Middle Eastern Jewry who are the originators and preservers of these precious, holy texts!

Our God and God of our Fathers protect and shield us from swindlers, scoffers, and impersonators who have defiled thy sacred words!


(Originally written in March 2009; revised and enlarged in April.)

Copyright © 2009 by Victor Sasson

Dr. Victor Sasson grew up in Baghdad. He is British-educated and holds degrees from the University of London and an American Ph.D. He was Senior Lecturer in Semitic Languages at the University of South Africa, Member of the Society for Old Testament Study, and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. A biblical scholar and specialist in Hebrew and Aramaic Epigraphy, he has also published four novels, including King Jehoash and the Mystery of the Temple of Solomon Inscription, which is based on his published research on the Jehoash tablet.