The 'Unholy Business' Of Biblical Forgeries In 2002, archaeologists claimed a box of ancient bones held the remains of Jesus' brother. Nina Burleigh discusses her book, Unholy Business: The True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land, which explores how forgers create fake artifacts to "prove" Biblical stories to be true.
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The 'Unholy Business' Of Biblical Forgeries

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The 'Unholy Business' Of Biblical Forgeries

The 'Unholy Business' Of Biblical Forgeries

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This is Talk of the Nation. Neal Conan is away. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington. Let me tell you a story. In the holy land, a box of ancient bones is discovered but not just any bones. Inscription on the box says James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. Could this be material proof of the existence of Jesus? Well, it was certainly a news story that ran on all kinds of media outlets including NPR.

(Soundbite of All Things Considered News 2002)

ROBERT SIEGEL: News now of what maybe the oldest reference to Jesus ever found by archaeologist. It is a limestone box with an inscription on in Aramaic.

STEWART: That was All Things Considered back in 2002. Now there's a reason I said, I wanted to tell you a story as in a tall tale, as in a fabrication.

Ms. NINA BURLEIGH (Journalist): It was heralded as potentially the oldest reference to Jesus ever found by archaeologists. But now the Israeli antiquities authority has ruled it was a fake.

STEWART: The story of how an ancient box of bones known as ossuary went from a sensational find to unsavory fraud is the subject of a new book by journalist Nina Burleigh. She joins us in a moment. But later, New Yorker editor David Remnick joins us to tell us why he wrote a 15-page piece about Barack Obama and race in the most recent issue. But first faith, fraud, science and politics - what role do religious artifacts play in your faith? Does it matter if you found out later they were not what they claim to be?

Give us a call at 1-800-989-8255. You can also email us. The address is And, you can join the conversation at our website, go to and click on Talk of the Nation. Nina Burleigh joins us from our bureau in New York. Her book is called "Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed, and Forgery in the Holy Land." Welcome to Talk of the Nation, Nina.

Ms. NINA BURLEIGH (Author, "Unholy Business: A True Tale of Greed, Faith, and Forgery in the Holy Land"): Thank you.

STEWART: So you've called this story "The Maltese Falcon" meets "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with a little bit of "The DaVinci Code" thrown in. How did this story begin for you?

Ms. BURLEIGH: Well, I was sitting in my house in upstate New York trying to channel the Sahara Desert working on a book that I finished before this on archaeologists working in Egypt. And to procrastinate, I picked up the New York Times around Christmas time of '04 and read the article that you mentioned - five men indicted for a scheme to forge a high-end, very well known famous biblical archeology. And I hadn't heard of the James Ossuary. So I read this, and I thought - first of all, I'm not a very religious person, but the older I've gotten the more, sort of, fascinated I am by people of faith and respectfully fascinated. And I read this and I thought first of all, people of faith, do they need proof? Do they need material objects for this, for their faith? And secondly, what manner of men would deviously create it for them?

So, that's how I got into it. I read the articles. It was Christmas time '04, and I kind of put it on the back burner. I was finishing the other book, working on other things and you know periodically checked in with it. And then finally in '06 six, in the fall of '06, I got on an airplane and flew over to Tel Aviv. I've never had been into Israel before. I've been in and out of the Middle East a lot as a journalist, Baghdad, Jordan, places like that, but I'd never gone into Israel. Got off the plane, and of course, because the passport is stamped all over with Arab countries, I was taken aside and interviewed for that, very politely and pleasantly.

But actually, from that moment forward, I felt like I had stepped into a Scheherazade tale or a movie. I met some of the most eccentric characters and explored one of the most - one of the strangest subcultures I've ever been exposed to which is people who get ancient history out of the ground often illegally and buy and sell it legally in Israel to a group of people who collect biblical archeology for their homes. And some end up in museums, some ended up at Sotheby's, but a lot of it is going to a small group of people who just have a taste for this ancient stuff.

STEWART: You mentioned that there's been an increase in desire of these artifacts. Why is that?

Ms. BURLEIGH: Well, I think over the last maybe 20 years there's been more access to these digs. I mean Israel - there are 30,000 archaeological sites in the Holy Land, and there's more access to them now after the '67 war. But also, I think you know there's a lot of religious - there's an upswing in religious fundamentalism, right, in all three religions and certainly here in the United States. And this material is in great demand among people of sort of the newer persuasions, the more fundamentalist believers I guess. And, so there is that. And simply the access I think. There's more digging going on - more illegal digging going on.

STEWART: Well, in the case of the James Ossuary, I'm sort of curious. Initially when it appeared, you write a bit about this, people were - I wouldn't say quick to say oh yes this could be something. But if someone writes a paper about it, and then someone else reads the paper and says yeah, that could be the case, that could be true. Can you explain to me why so many people were able to say yes I believe this is authentic and be so wrong?

Ms. BURLEIGH: Well, I can't speak for the scientists, and let's just state right up front here before we get any further that the owner of the ossuary who is on trial for forging it maintains his innocence and contends that it's not fake. And that there are still people out there in - even in the face of all the scientific evidence - who are saying that it's not fake.

STEWART: You make a pretty good case in your book for us to believe that it's probably not real.

Ms. BURLEIGH: Well, I just you know, I don't buy that these scientists who investigated it with chemical means analysis in microscope who looked at it closely and found modern materials buried in these ancient letters. I don't buy that they had a vendetta or you know some kind of reason to do this other than they were asked to do it and investigate it. So, that's kind of why it looks like I agree with them. However, there is this other side and to answer your first question, people come to these objects. And, this is part of what's so fascinating about this world. People come to these objects even if they're scientists with belief systems. And they're looking at them through the lens of belief systems.

So biblical archeology is a point where - it's sort of the limit where science kind of operates on the borders of belief and belief in other worldly beings. So, it's a very interesting and strange kind of a subculture. And the scientists - there are scientists who are in the middle ground with this. They'll take the bible, and they'll say the bible is a historical document, it is accurate as to the geography of this area. And then there are people on either end of the spectrum on one end who say the bible is completely accurate in every way and that every single thing that's mentioned in it, if we look far enough we will find some kind of object that relates to it if we're lucky.

And then on the very other side, there are what we call the minimalists and there are people who think the bible is utter fiction and should not be held up when people are over there digging as any sort of a guide. So there's this war going on in biblical archeology all the time between these two forces and it's really, really gotten more and more pitched because there's also - there are also issues Israeli nationalism involved here.

STEWART: Well, we'll get to that in just a moment. I do want to bring in one of our listeners who really gets to one of the points you make in the book. He - I believe that he gets to it quite well. Let's talk to Maz(ph) in Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Maz.

MAZ (Caller): Hi! How are you?

STEWART: It is a he. Hi, Maz. In this discussion of artifacts and faith, what did it lead (unintelligable) believe or to conclude?

MUZ: I love the topic of faith because it's the principle of believing without having the fact, and that is faith. And, you know, if you're going to entertain the idea that life is a test and we're all here to do what we're supposed to do then believing in God and having that faith is the point of it you know, and that's what it's all about. It's not like a news report like there's just - Jesus did live you know, Jesus existed. This just in - Muslims are right you know. This just in. It's like you can't - it's what it is to the person and it's more so like believing in what you can't -what you don't know is true you know. It would be great if the prophecy was fulfilled and then it was - that's great. It's not like I don't want to see Jesus return. You know, I would love to see it happen just like it was written you know. That's the faith, but to find an artifact, a bone or whatever they're going to dig up next. I think that's not the point of it. I think there's a bigger picture.

STEWART: All right, Maz from Phoenix. Thanks for weighing in.

MAZ: All right. Thank you.

STEWART: Nina, do you find that people who were involved in these digs - are they thrill seekers, are they people out there who just want to make some money, or they true believers?

Ms. BURLEIGH: Well, in the sanctioned sites where the archaeologists are actually digging every summer, I did run across people from theological institutions in the United States and in other countries who are working there. And so yes, there is that aspect to it. You know all of these sites, all of these digs cost money, and the money - the streams of money come from often people with an interest - not always. I mean sometimes it's just strictly academic. But, often they get help from theological organizations or in the case of ancient Judea God, they have funding coming from some Israeli nationalist organizations who are looking for proof of ancient habitation. So there's theology and politics in the funding stream. But, also the digging - we haven't gotten into this - but there are the archeologists digging at the sites.

Then, after dark there are plunderers going in and with metal detectors. And, the scholar cop, who you had me reference early in the beginning, his job and he's - you know he and his 12 guys with 30,000 sites, you can imagine what kind of a job they've got.

STEWART: That's a workload.

Ms. BURLEIGH: They could go out every night and find people with metal detectors going over these sites looking for stuff. You know ,the tombs there - you know the pre-biblical tombs contain - every person buried would have like a hundred objects, personal objects with them so there would be you know. There's bronze that's worth money for people.

STEWART: It's obviously a treasure trough for someone who's looking for such place. Nina, hang on a minute. We're going to talk more with Nina Burleigh about her book "Unholy Business: The True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land." What role do religious artifacts play in your life and your faith? Call us 800-989-8255. Email, I'm Alison Stewart. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington, in for Neal Conan. We're talking with Nina Burleigh about a fascinating case of forgery and religious relics. She tells the story in her new book "Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land." You can read about how one of the richest men in the world became an ancient artifact collector and in an excerpt from "Unholy Business." It's at our website, We do want to hear from you as well.

If you have any questions for Nina Burleigh about this story, this case, give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our Email address is So Nina, I want to go back to a little more of the sort of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" aspect of this story, because you just tell the story - it's a little bit complicated, all the players, but you really - even though we know what happens at the end, you create a sort of great mystery. There is - the alleged forgerer, we'll call him, is Israeli antiquities dealer named Oded Golan. He says he is innocent. How did you come to meet him?

Ms. BURLEIGH: Well, that first trip over, I had four days to see whether I could do the story or not. You know I just parachuted in basically and started making phone calls, and his lawyer gave me his number and said call him. And I knew that he was talking to journalists, because I had read interviews with him. And, he invited me to his house right away. Went in and it was - it's in you know, sort of a modest apartment in Tel Aviv. You open the door, and it's like stepping into a museum. The walls are lined with vitrines - would keep curators at work for many, many years. And, on his porch he had a bunch of ossuaries, these limestone boxes, like the one that became famous.

And he put out two glasses of water - a very charming gentleman very, very learned in - all of these men are in terms, they love ancient history. And, he loves, genuinely loves, ancient history. Whatever else he's accused of, that is true. He absolutely has a passion for it. And, we sat down and he's kind of - he has this kind of impish face, like it reminded of Joel Grey in the movie "Cabaret" with this kind of funny ears and short. And we sat down and chatted, and he didn't - he gave me what I thought - I mean, he didn't - none of the dealers or collectors would ever come clean with me about where they got their stuff. And, I had gotten used to that already, because I had been stopping into these shops in the old city before I met him and talking with dealers. But, he wouldn't tell me where he got it - where he got things.

He was very, very - I guess digressive would be the nice way of putting it. Shaggy dog tales would be another way. And I could barely get out the door. I mean, we talked for hours. And, I had a driver waiting for me downstairs, because at that point, I didn't know my way around, and I was much late leaving. And, you know, he told me about where he got his things and he had his own explanation for why you know the ossuary sat in his house for so long without him knowing it was important. And, he said it was because he's Jewish, and he doesn't know that - he didn't know that Christ had a brother.

And he only understood the importance of it when he invited this scholar who's an expert in ancient languages to, a French scholar, to come to his apartment and look at a different ossuary with a script that he couldn't read on it. And next to that - he gave him pictures. And next to that photograph of the one he couldn't read, he had placed the picture of the one that said "James, brother of Jesus." And the scholar is a French seminarian, fallen-away priest, and he looked - he glanced at that other picture and he said that one. What's that? I want to see that. And, you know, he had written extensively on James.

So, it's reasonable that Mr. Golan would have been familiar because he knows who all these scholars are. He knows what their specialties are. It was reasonable for him to know that Andre Lemaire, the fallen-away priest, knew about James. But anyway, in his explanations, he just accidentally had that picture next to the other one. And so then you know, that was the beginning of its stardom. This scholar brought it forth in a magazine that's published in the United States by a Washington-based lawyer actually.

STEWART: And then I need to ask about - well that's why it became famous. And the way it became infamous is because two officers were taking a smoking break on the roof.


STEWART: Can you tell that story? It's just such a fantastic story.

Ms. BURLEIGH: So fast forward, now you know the ossuary is back in Israel. It's become famous, and it's back in Israel, and the scholar cops are trying to locate it and another object, which I guess we're going to get into at some point that really got them interested. But they were staking out Oded Golan's apartment watching him come and go, and he was playing this cat and mouse game with them where he wouldn't show them where he had his things. And one of them - it was hot. It's very hot there in the summer and the cops had decided to go up to the roof of his building instead of hanging about in the lobby which was all close and dark and hot.

So they walked up the steps, they opened up to the roof and they're up on this whatever it is - the tenth floor of this building. And they're catching the breeze and having a smoke, and all of a sudden, they look over and they see this kind of little hut on top of the roof like it's was like a laundry room. And, they poked their - they kind of poked over. And one of them says oh, my goodness. Look at this! And there was, on the toilet, the ossuary. That is of such great importance to Christians that people had stood before it tens of thousands in silent prayer in frozen Ontario winter four years or three years before. And, so that's how they located it finally - to then finally test it for its authenticity

STEWART: And , to have discovered that there were definite lapses in its authenticity, shall we say?

Ms. BURLEIGH: Yes. And there were other things that they found there - half-made objects, plans for other objects. I mean they thought that they came upon a workshop in his apartment.

STEWART: We do have a couple of callers who do have a few questions or comments. Let's talk to Aaron. Aaron is from Sacramento. And, Aaron you have a question for Nina Burleigh.

AARON (Caller): Yeah, I'm just curious, because as I'm listening to the conversation it seems as though faith obviously plays a huge part in these relics. But, I'm wondering, in terms of forgery and whatnot, if the author has had a chance to explore whether or not these objects are used to validate the faith regardless of whether or not there are forgeries of others or if it's strictly a monetary position for them - if they are just trying to make money or if there really is the idea that they are trying to validate faith.

STEWART: What did you find, Nina?

Ms. BURLEIGH: Well, if you're asking me about the motives of the forgers, I think it is money. And secondly, I mean, let's again remind you that Oded Golan maintains his innocence, and he has not been convicted. He's a secular man. He is not religious. So certainly for him these objects are not about religion. They're about history. Now, the use of forged objects to make money is I think, part of the deal. But, I think also that in his case or in the forger's case, there is also a desire to be kind of part of ancient history to stamp yourself to be with the ancient priest almost. I think that's kind of what's going on. And, the other major objects in this case - they related - the two other ones that kind of got the cops interested, one of them was a tablet that has to do with Solomon's Temple.

Again, the first archaeological proof that Solomon's Temple existed was found around - came out of private market around the same time that the ossuary was brought forth. And, if you know anything about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the temple, the first temple, Solomon's Temple, supposedly existed on the spot where the Temple Mount is today. What the Israelis call it the Temple Mount. The Muslims call it something else. And they have had a mosque on top of it since 700 A.D. And in the side of that mount is where the Western - the Wailing Wall - is, the Western wall, where you see the Orthodox Jews praying. So this spot is one of the most is one of the most contentious spots in Israel, in the world.

STEWART: And if you can prove that your people were there...

Ms. BURLEIGH: Exactly.

STEWART: And I have this thing that proves it.

Ms. BURLEIGH: Exactly. So if motive - if there is a motive here, in that case, it had to do with, I think, kind of a land rights issue. And the other object that came - it's not part of the trial but the Israel Museum had paid $500,000 in the '80s for a tiny little ivory pomegranate that was said to have been on the scepter of one of the priests in the first temple. And it too was validated by the same French scholar who validated the ossuary. And it too related to you know, being the first - it's the first archaeological evidence of the first temple.

So, after this trial started or after these objects were actually inspected and deemed forgeries the Israel Museum on its own motion took that object and examined it again and decided it was a forgery. So, these three major objects, the ossuary, the tablet, and this little pomegranate, which is 20 years older than the others, and it's not part of the trial. Are related in this way? Are they - were the motives of the forgers religious? I don't think so. But I think, you know, finances, and I think politics.

STEWART: Nina, we're going to take another call, we're going to talk to Evan from Cincinnati. Hello, Evan(ph).

EVAN (Caller): Hi there. I just wanted to share my experience. I've been on many archaeological digs in Israel. And recently, this past January I was there for a high school trip for two and a half months. And I was amazed that a lot of the caves that you'll find from the Bar Kokhba revolt from the Roman era, around the year 30 Common Era. And you see that a lot of these have not been explored either from a lack of money or a lack of interest because many of the important things around them have already been discovered, and nobody really believes that there's anything of dire importance left in these caves. But it was amazing you know, we would find these little pieces of pottery from the Roman era and we would also find the trash the British left over from the mandate period in the early 1900s. It was very interesting.

STEWART: Thanks for sharing your experience, Evan. Can you just show up and decide you want to go on a dig?

Ms. BURLIEGH: Well. Almost.

STEWART: Or just start digging?

Ms. BURLIEGH: Oh, well, no. You can't just start digging now. That's illegal.

STEWART: I can't imagine that.

Ms. BURLIEGH: That's why - that's what this plunderers are doing at night. And - but, you can raise your hand, I mean, as Evan - it sounds like he may have been in high school or college, those are the people dig - doing the - you can be in the United States, you can go online and you know, there are all sorts of sites, And you can raise your hand, and if you have a couple of thousand dollars, you can go over there. And you're working under the instruction obviously of an archaeologist. You're working under the, you know, the auspices of an official dig. But yeah, lots of people do that. And, you know, as he pointed out, even the places that aren't being inspected or looked at right now are filled with stuff, because it's a really rich place -historically rich ground. And people, you know, archeology for Israelis is like, I don't know, like fishing or something for Americans. It's like, that you know, their - their national past time.

STEWART: We're speaking with Nina Burleigh, whose book is called, "Unholy Business." We'll continue in just a moment. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart speaking with Nina Burleigh. Her book is "Unholy Business." We're talking quite a bit about artifacts that have made into the marketplace. And you talked about something a little bit earlier, I want to get back to that there were several artifacts which have been deemed to be fakes by certain archaeologist, and some of them are in museums already. So, next time I go to the museum, and I'm walking around - I'm wondering am I supposed to believe that everything there has been authenticated?

Ms. BURLIEGH: Well, you know this book really opened my eyes. The researched really opened my eyes to the kind of subjective underbelly of archeology - and biblical archeology in particular. Because, as I said you know, people come to these things with their belief systems and they look at them to a lens. I didn't get in deeply into how much of the stuff might be in museums. The police think that there is some of it in museums, at least sold to them - it may not be on display. And, let me just say something about how -they don't actually - museums don't actually pay for it. A wealthy collector will pay, and then donate it and get a tax write off.

So, there's a whole business here of donating these things. And, it's not just in biblical archeology it's true of all museums. And other writers have actually written more extensively on this issue of forgeries. There's a book I, when I was researching it about the Met, and it's rather shocking. But, I don't - the objects on trial involved in this particular trial were the only ones that these police underfunded guys working for two years on this case, heroically, were able to get their hands on. They couldn't go around the world collecting. They tried to get some people - you know, they thought one of the major objects was in California. A dealer or a collector had collected it and paid big money for it, but they could never get anyone to admit it. You see, people are embarrassed when they've paid that much money for fakes too.

STEWART: I can imagine. Before we wrap this conversation, I do want to go to Jerry in Atlantic City. Because Jerry's got a little bit of a personal relationship with what we've been talking about. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY (Caller): Hi. How are you?

STEWART: I'm doing well.

JERRY: Yeah. I was just listening by radio and I heard the name of Oded Golan mentioned. And about 10 years ago I worked with him in Tel Aviv. And, I wrote letters, I mean, I edited the letters that he wrote to some of these experts to verify antiquities like ancient seals and things like that, as well as working on the project.

STEWART: Did he strike - is he a sincere person?

JERRY: I'm sorry?

STEWART: Is he sincere in his desire for collecting antiquities?

JERRY: Oh yes. I mean, he was totally into it and generally serious about it. And I don't know - this is a guy that - a very strange guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JERRY: And he was so into this world that I don't know whether he just concocted this whole world - thought he was doing something that was - I don't know, momentous and far reaching. I don't really know. But, I do recall work with him and I don't think - and what I worked on, there was no, you know, (unintelligible) nothing illegal found...

Ms. BURLEIGH: But he has a lot of real stuff in his house. I guess it's ton of it.

JERRY: He does. I think he just went a little too far really.

STEWART: Jerry, thanks for sharing your story.


STEWART: And - before we let you go Nina, we should say that this trial still going on, correct? This investigation.

Ms. BURLEIGH: Indeed it is.


Ms. BURLEIGH: Their system of swift and speedy justice, or their definition of swift and speedy justice a bit different than ours. Yeah, the judges has been sitting there listening to archaeologists, get up on the stand and argue about whether the stuff is real or fake, for three years. And, he finally, a couple of weeks ago actually, said to the prosecution, you don't have me convinced here, and I want you to take some time off. Because it was you know, these archaeologists are used to talking to sleepy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURLEIGH: Not well paid lawyers who tear them down. So, they haven't been able to make their case. And there is, there is one human witness to the workshop aspect, but he's Egyptian. And, he has no intention of coming to Israel to testify, and of course those two countries don't have that kind of reciprocity when it comes to criminal trial. So, he won't be testifying.

STEWART: This is to be continued. "Unholy Business, a True Tale of Faith, Greed, and Gorgery in the Holy Land," written by Nina Burleigh. Nina, thanks for spending some time with us.

Ms. BURLEIGH: You're welcome. Thank you.

STEWART: Up next, "New Yorker" editor David Remnick on the Obama campaign, and a new template for racial identity and running for office. I'm Alison Stewart. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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