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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Unholy Business by Nina Burleigh

Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed, & Forgery in the Holy Land by Nina Burleigh. New York: Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-06-145845-3

In 2002, a very old ossuary, presumably found in or near Jerusalem, basically a box for bones, containing an inscription, came to light, and was widely publicized in the mainstream media. The box was in the possession of a collector, who had purchased it from a third party, and it was presumed to have come from an illegal excavation, something which happens all too frequently in the “Holy Land.”

The box would not have been of much import, except for the text of the inscription, which was translated to read as “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Of course, all three of those names were fairly common in the time period in question, but even the possibility that this inscription might be the first physical evidence of the actual existence of Jesus, was enough to create a sensation.

The larger story involves other ancient artifacts that also purport to establish the historical authenticity of some part of the Bible. Most of these artifacts being brought to light from collections, not proper excavations carried out by reputable archaeologists. This poses a significant problem, for without the evidence of the object's original location, it is very difficult to judge the authenticity of the items. Were they real? Were they forgeries?

The ossuary was eventually deemed to be a forgery by most of the experts involved, although what made it particularly tricky was the fact that almost certainly, at least SOME of the inscription WAS original to the piece, and the very clever forger probably altered the original inscription to make the reference to Jesus.

This book, entertainingly written by a seasoned journalist, provides a fascinating look into the world of so-called Biblical archaeology, collectors, scholars, and other assorted characters who surround the antiquities market in Israel and Palestine. Biblical archeology comes with lots of baggage, obviously, since so many believers have a vested interest in the results, wanting to see the Bible proved to be historical. Which is not, of course, the interest of a true scientist, who simply interprets the evidence, without presupposition or preconceived ideas or beliefs.

Definitely recommended for anyone with an interest in the topic.

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