Jerusalem Court Acquits Antiquities Collector of Forgeries After 7-Year Trial

Whether the artifact above held the bones of Jesus' brother is still a question among archaeologists.

By Matthew Kalman, Jerusalem

In a case that has roiled scholars around the world in a broad range of disciplines, the Jerusalem District Court on Wednesday acquitted an Israeli antiquities collector, Oded Golan, of forging dozens of priceless archaeological artifacts, including an inscription on the burial box, or ossuary, of James, brother of Jesus.

“It is not every day that a court hears a case involving as many topics as this one,” wrote Judge Aharon Farkash on the second-to-last page of his 475-page verdict.

“The complexity of the trial derived among other things from the fact that this was the first time that a court was asked to rule on a question of antiquities forgery, especially in the framework of a criminal trial,” he said.

During the seven-year trial, the court heard testimony from experts in archaeology, the Bible, chemistry and geochemistry, geology, grammar and language, paleography, and more.

The list of witnesses—74 for the prosecution and 52 for the defense—that trooped through Judge Farkash’s tiny courtroom reads like a who’s who of the world’s leading scholars in many of those fields.

But in transplanting their academic prowess from lecture hall to courtroom, the scholars swiftly became aware of the chasm separating scholarship from criminal law. For each world-renowned expert wielded by the prosecution, defense attorneys deployed an authority of equal eminence. Often, the experts taking up the cudgels on opposing sides came from the very same campus.

And, as the judge wryly noted in his verdict, even when the professors were appearing for the same side, they disagreed with one another—and sometimes even with themselves, changing their minds as time passed.

At several points during the trial, the judge’s frustration became clear. “If you, the world’s leading experts in this field, cannot agree with each other on the authenticity or otherwise of these items, how do you expect me, a mere judge, to reach a conclusion?” he asked.

As a result, the spectacular acquittal of Mr. Golan and of Robert Deutsch, an inscriptions expert—Israeli officials initially said the defendants were connected to an international forgery ring—on all the most serious charges will do little to calm the academic debate raging over the authenticity of dozens of items listed among the 18 charges on the indictment sheet. Those items include the limestone ossuary, an inscribed tablet attributed to the ninth-century-BC King Jehoash, and an inscribed decanter. The last two items might have come from the Temple in Jerusalem.

“My conclusion,” Judge Farkash told the court, “is that the prosecution failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt what was stated in the indictment: that the ossuary is a forgery and that Golan or someone acting on his behalf forged it. This is not to say that the inscription on the ossuary is true and authentic and was written 2,000 years ago,” he said. “This matter is expected to continue to be researched in the archaeological and scientific forum and the future will tell.”

André Lemaire, a biblical epigrapher and director of studies at l’École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, who first published the ossuary inscription in 2002, said he had always believed in his original judgment.

Forged 2,000 Years Ago?

“I never doubted the authenticity of the whole inscription, even after reading carefully all the arguments presented against it. I am confident that further scientific tests will not change the situation,” Mr. Lemaire told The Chronicle.

Meir Ben-Dov, a witness for the defense and the only archaeologist to attend most sessions of the trial, said the entire process had been “nonsense.”

“These debates should be taking place in an academic seminar, not a court of law,” Mr. Ben-Dov said.

“I myself am convinced that there is no evidence of forgery. If it was forged, maybe it was forged 2,000 years ago,” said Joel Kronfeld, emeritus professor in the department of geophysics and planetary sciences at Tel Aviv University, who appeared for the defense. “There are just no compelling results that show us there is any forgery.”

Across the Tel Aviv University campus, Yuval Goren, a prosecution witness and professor in the department of archaeology and ancient Near Eastern civilizations, was equally insistent in the opposite direction.

“I examined the materials covering the ossuary and the inscription, and we found out that the materials covering the inscription were not created in the natural processes typical of the Judean mountains area over the last 2,000 years,” said Mr. Goren.

“Since the verdict is not guilty, it means the accused had, first of all, very good lawyers but also there was no legal way to connect between them and the fraud. But it doesn’t really change much about the scientific conclusions because they are unrelated,” he insisted. “I think the scientific data still stands for itself.”

His view is supported by James E. West, adjunct professor of biblical studies at the Quartz Hill School of Theology and moderator of an influential online forum on biblical archaeology.

“Golan has harmed the field of archaeology in incalculable ways,” said Mr. West. “Whenever real, and important, discoveries are made, the public will view them with skepticism because now there will always underlie them the potential that they too are fakes. It may have been a good verdict for Golan personally—but for the field of ‘biblical archaeology’, this is a sad day, a bad day, and in truth, a tragic day.”

Israel Finkelstein, another professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, was also a prosecution witness. He continues to believe the items are fakes and says archaeologists should avoid any item not found in a supervised excavation.

“A judicial procedure is one thing and an academic investigation—and debate—is another,” said Mr. Finkelstein. “As far as I can judge, there is enough evidence against the authenticity of the inscription on the ossuary and the Jehoash inscription.”

Eric M. Meyers, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Duke University, said the failure to prove the items were forged “in no way means that they are authentic. The burden of proof that falls on the prosecution in a criminal case must rise to a high level of proof beyond reasonable doubt. The fact that the defendants have been acquitted thus does not end the matter of the quest to decide authenticity. This leaves much opportunity for academic opinion to continue to believe that these artifacts are not authentic and to question their provenance.”

Antonio Lombatti, an Italian church historian, said he expected the debate to continue. “If the carbon dating of the Turin shroud in 1988 didn’t put the word ‘end’ to the debate, I won’t expect a trial verdict to have the last word on a Jewish ossuary,” he said.