Decision in Israeli Forgery Case Calls Jesus’s Divinity Into Question

For nearly a decade, the Israeli antiquities collector Oded Golan stood accused of being something of a real-life Indiana Jones. When he was first arrested, investigators claimed to have found the “tip of the iceberg” of an international dealership of stolen artifacts that Golan controlled. His reputation was badly tarnished, and the case took on a particularly high profile in Israel for involving a small burial box with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” in ancient Hebrew.

If genuine, the box would have stood as evidence that Jesus was not an only child, as recounted in the New Testament. It would, for that matter, have been the first physical object in history to be connected with the extra-biblical Jesus.

Golan is now acquitted of manipulating the artifact, but in his ruling, judge Aharon Farkash made the point several times that he could not conclude that the box was authentic. “The prosecution failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt what was stated in the indictment,” Judge Farkash told the Jerusalem court, “that the ossuary is a forgery and that Mr. Golan or someone acting on his behalf forged it.”

Since it was first put on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, arguments have raged about origins of the 2,000-year-old chalk receptacle. After two professional opinions by the Israel Antiquities Authority raised serious doubts about the authenticity of the box, known as the “James ossuary,” numerous experts stepped forward to defend Golan during the trial.

Not unexpectedly, many of those same people are now expressing surprise at the judge’s ruling; prosecutor Dan Bahat expressed hopes that the decision would serve as “an international precedent” on the issue of antiquities forgery.

With only a few, minor charges standing — including three minor charges of illegal antiquities dealing and possession of stolen antiquities — Golan can largely put questions of the box’s authenticity behind him. The public will not.

— Reid Singer