Book Review – Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed & Forgery in the Holy Land by Nina Burleigh (2008)

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.

“The incorrigible pilgrims have come in with their pockets full of specimens broken from the ruins . . . Heaven protect the Sepulchre when this tribe invades Jerusalem!” Mark Twain in “Innocents Abroad.”

The author places this quote at the head of Chapter 3, entitled “Pieces of God.” There is a passion for collecting antiquities from the Holy Land that borders on compulsion in those who can afford it, and invites all sorts of trade in stolen goods, and as we see here, forgeries. Burleigh traces the histories of several pieces that made quite a stir in the religious history world, including an ossuary (bone box) said to be a relic of James, the brother of Jesus. You may not follow all the details as the authorities uncover the fraud involved in what first seemed to be either theft or unauthorized removal of antiquities.

Of course huge sums of money are involved at all angles, and that may have been the primary motive for the fakes. But underneath it is a desire to find artifacts that “prove” aspects of the Bible stories that are important to both Christians and Jews. The James Ossuary is important to Christians; others attempt to substantiate the early Temple on what is now called the Temple of the Mount, as part of a property claim to the site by Jews as against late-comer Muslims.

If you don’t mind the sometimes baffling forensic details, you will probably enjoy this real-life whodunnit and its corresponding how dunnit.