‘Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed & Forgery in the Holy Land’ By: Nina Burleigh
An enticing shroud of mystery quickly draws readers into the pages of Unholy Business, a non-fiction book by People magazine staff writer & Colombia University adjunct professor Nina Burleigh. She opens with describing an elderly epigrapher’s (analyst of ancient writing) suspicions about certain ‘ancient’ relics, and goes on to explore the artefact-laden home of a billionaire collector.
The connection between these real-life characters and a host of others in Unholy Business are an ossuary, or bone box (once used by Israelites to hold the bones of the dead), a stone tablet, and an ivory pomegranate—all once touted as artefacts proving Biblical stories—and all now considered forgeries, in what Palestinian authorities call ‘the fraud of the century.’
Burleigh travels from the roadblock-studded streets of Israel to the slick London flats of collectors to bring to life the scientists, scholars, archaeologists, collectors, critics, and, in some cases, creators of ancient Judaea, objects revered by thousands of believers as physical evidence of Jesus Christ. Some, like Israeli billionaire collector Shlomo Moussaieff, and Biblical Archaeology Review founder and editor, the influential yet not officially scholarly Hershel Shanks, want to prove the Bible true. (Burleigh describes Shanks as ‘an odd duck—lawyer, crank, P.T. Barnum, and Indiana Jones all rolled into one man’).
On the other side of the fence are scholars who want to adhere to proper science and not allow a probably fictional book to determine what is pulled out of the ground, or ‘minimalists,’ who actually want to disprove stories that might prove Biblically relevant, believing it all to be false. Joe Zias is the most entertaining of these, an American-born Israeli forensic pathologist who, Burleigh describes, ‘is obsessed with ferreting out and exposing the myriad shady characters digging in the Holy Land.’ For every pseudo-scholarly article published with a biblical leaning, Zias, somewhat zelous in his own right, publishes an article that blows it out of the water.
This constant battle formed of dirt and books, set in a land which is constantly at battle itself, has relevance far beyond the millions of dollars collectors and museums spend on artefacts, and beyond the intellectual and emotional toll taken on scholars or even believers. The Holy Land has an enormous tourist industry, which, in a barren landscape, provides income for many locals willing to dress up as Biblical-era fishermen or farmers. Each new archaeological site unearthed and linked in some way, however tenuous, to the Bible, becomes a new stop on the tourist route, and a new source of income for local people.
The star of this cast of real-life characters is the notorious antiquities collector Oded Golan and a handful of accomplices, charged with creating a series of forgeries and scheming to sell them. The items, once touted around the US and Canada, and leaving many believers in their wake, include an ossuary (bone box) bearing the inscription ‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,’ an ivory pomegranate with the inscription ‘Holy to the priests, belonging to the Temple of Yahweh,’ and a stone tablet with a whopping sixteen lines of text (extremely unusual for the bits of antiquity usually found), describing repairs to Solomon’s Temple. All of them are now declared to be high-tech forgeries, which attempted to provide collectors and the (faithful) public with exactly the kind of ‘evidence’ it is so desperately hoping to find.
Burleigh follows Detective Amir Ganor, the head of the case investigating Oded Golan, and unveils the story to its fullest extent to date. It is a fine read for someone unversed in the Bible or in archaeology, as Burleigh herself is an amateur in these fields; however, this could make for frustratingly under-detailed writing to those more knowledgeable. Burleigh also employs an unusually redundant prose style, perhaps to maintain clarity amongst the sometimes confusing host of characters. She describes a person and his or her profession and stance on the case, gives a few lines of dialogue, and repeats the description. This weighs down the book, especially in the middle, when she provides mountains of context for these objects.
The mystery and excitement of the case do pick up again, but as the court case itself was a lumbering affair, the end of the book grinds to a somewhat ungraceful halt. The best places are in Burleigh’s vivid character descriptions, and her depiction of the ongoing struggle between believers and non-believers, verbally tossing Holy Land artefacts back and forth among each other. She describes the web of interaction and influence which shows that people from Israel and Palestine to London, to California and Canada were influenced by what was perhaps ‘the fraud of the century.’