JERUSALEM (AP) – A Jerusalem court on Wednesday acquitted an Israeli collector of forging a trove of Bible-era artifacts but failed to determine whether a purported burial box of Jesus’ brother James at the center of the seven-year trial was authentic or a fake.
The question has confounded biblical archaeologists for almost a decade.
The defendant, collector Oded Golan, had first brought the burial box, or ossuary, to the world’s attention in 2002. The box was hailed at the time as the first artifact directly connected to Jesus, but the Israel Antiquities Authority later said it was forged.
An investigation began in 2003 and Golan was charged in 2004 with leading an international forgery ring to create phony biblical artifacts. The trial began in 2005. Golan was in detention for about a month during the initial investigation and then placed under house arrest for nearly two years.
The case marked the first time an Israeli court dealt in suspected antiquities forgery.
Judge Aharon Farkash of the Jerusalem District Court said Wednesday that extensive expert testimony in the case served to confound rather than clarify whether the ossuary and other artifacts were fakes.
There were so many specialists with conflicting claims, the judge said Wednesday, that he could not determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether the ossuary and another purported major find—a stone slab engraved with written instructions by ninth century B.C. King Yoash on renovating the biblical Jewish Temple—were authentic.
“This topic is likely to continue to be the subject of research in the scientific and archaeological fields, and time will tell,” the judge said. The Israeli antiquities authority said the inscriptions on the ossuary and the tablet were made to look old by applying a mix of old chalk and charcoal to confuse scientists. The indictment also alleged Golan forged other artifacts, traded in stolen artifacts and held pilfered finds.
Golan, a 60-year-old industrial engineer and high-tech entrepreneur, said he felt vindicated. “I am very happy for this complete and decisive acquittal.”
Golan, visibly nervous as the hearing opened Wednesday, later said he has helped preserve important artifacts through his collections.
“I have been a collector for tens of years. I have saved hundreds of thousands of antiquities that were found mainly in Judaea and Samaria (West Bank),” he said.
Lead prosecutor Dan Bahat said the case marked the first time an Israeli court dealt in suspected antiquities forgery. “We tried with this case to do something unprecedented on a global scale,” he said.
The ossuary is a lime burial box inscribed with the epigraph “Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Golan sent it for exhibition in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 2002. When the box returned to Israel, Golan was already under investigation.
Initially, five defendants were charged in the case.
Robert Deutsch, an inscriptions expert not linked to the allegations concerning the ossuary and the tablet, was acquitted of forgery and other charges. In earlier proceedings, one defendant reached a plea bargain, while charges against the remaining two were dropped.
Golan was convicted Wednesday of four minor charges including unlicensed antiquities trading, possessing suspected stolen artifacts, and selling artifacts without license. His sentence will be announced in April.
The state prosecutor and Golan had marshaled more than 100 witnesses, including archaeologists, Biblical historians, as well as experts in paleology, ancient Hebrew and microbiology. The court transcripts ran 12,000 pages, and the verdict was 475 pages thick.
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