Leading Scholar Lambastes IAA Committee
In a recent article, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., one of the most highly respected Aramaicists and New Testament scholars in the world, has lambasted the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) for the work of its committee that declared the James Ossuary inscription to be a forgery. The inscription reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”; it received enormous publicity when its existence was first announced in an article in BAR by Professor André Lemaire,a whom Fitzmyer identifies as “a well-known and competent French epigrapher from the Sorbonne in Paris.” The IAA committee, as Fitzmyer notes, was composed of “14 Israeli scholars, with no contributions from non-Israeli experts and, strikingly, [the committee’s Final Report makes] no mention or recognition of the competence of ... Professor Lemaire,” who judged the inscription authentic.
Appointing a committee to decide whether or not the ossuary inscription is a forgery, instead of allowing the scholarly discussion to play out, has “politicized archaeology,” Fitzmyer writes.
By appointing a committee that has declared the ossuary inscription to be a modern forgery, the issue “has become a matter of politicized archaeology, advocated by the highest authority on antiquities in the State of Israel.”
Fitzmyer also harshly criticizes the actual work of the committee, headed by the assistant director of the IAA, Uzi Dahari.
Fitzmyer notes that there is no Final Report to which all members subscribed, only individual statements by the 14 committee members. These members were chosen, as they admit, even if they had previously expressed an opinion about the authenticity of the inscription. But all such previously opinioned members “had uttered a negative opinion,” not some positive and some negative. This, says Fitzmyer, may raise “a question of a priori prejudice.”
The IAA says that “the most suitable experts were chosen” to be on the committee. And its conclusion appears to be unanimous. The committee report concludes without qualification: “To the best of our scientific judgment ... the James Ossuary inscription is a forgery.” But, notes Fitzmyer, “When one reads the individual comments of the members ... one finds that several of these [individual] statements are strikingly nuanced, despite the [absolute] negative conclusions [of the committee report]. Moreover, the judgment expressed [in the individual statements] sometimes depends on reasons other than the individuals’ ‘own expertise,’ which was part of the original mandate of the IAA when it set up the committees.”
In one individual statement, the committee member in effect disqualified himself, but “his vote has somehow been part of the ‘scientific judgment’ of the Final Report.”
Another individual statement admits that the writer is not “an expert on ... carved inscriptions or palaeography” and that her decision that the inscription is a forgery relied on what “experts have determined.” Fitzmyer pointedly notes that she does not tell us what experts she relied upon. Like the Final Report, she does not consider Lemaire’s views.
Another committee member, based on his own expertise, would have found the inscription to be authentic, but, as he admits, “I am forced to change my opinion” by the scientific evidence—in which he had no expertise.
Still another committee member stated that based on her own expertise, she could not express an opinion. Fitzmyer comments: “That should be recorded at least as an abstention, and not a negative vote.”
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