People staff writer Burleigh (Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, 2007, etc.) digs into the burgeoning trade in fraudulent religious relics, warning readers not to be too trusting.
She highlights the saga of the James Ossuary, a limestone box promoted as the resting place for the bones of Jesus’s brother. (Burleigh never explains why the name Ya’akov inscribed on the container is translated as James, rather than more directly as Jacob.) Amid a plenitude of Iron Age bone boxes, this particular ossuary was, according to many experts, treated to an additional modern-day inscription to link it to Jesus Christ. The author also looks at the cases of a stone tablet and an ivory pomegranate, each said to be from Solomon’s Temple, that were also apparently amended recently. Her discursive, sometimes repetitive text relates conversations with stalwart detective Amir Ganor, chief of the Israeli Antiquities Authority’s Theft-Prevention Unit, and with collector Oded Golan, indicted in 2004 for “creating a series of forgeries [including the James Ossuary] and scheming to sell them.” Burleigh also interviewed biblical scholars, demure professors, looters and liars and many shadowy figures. She touches on museum operations and the Bible-land tour business as well as Hebrew and Aramaic orthography, paleographics, archeology and allied scriptural forensic studies. She finishes by noting that the trial of Golan and several other accused perpetrators has been underway in an Israeli court for years. The stories of those unprovenanced relics are not yet completed.
A dramatic narrative, though its coverage of such a wide field makes it occasionally reductive.