A Jerusalem court on Wednesday acquitted an Israeli antiques dealer of faking a host of spectacular relics including a casket said to contain the bones of Jesus’ brother, court documents showed.
Oded Golan was accused of committing fraud in producing what the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) ruled in 2003 were actually a series of convincing but ultimately forged relics.
But the case fell through, with Golan acquitted of faking the sarcophagus as well as another supposedly ancient stone tablet, because of lack of evidence, according to a copy of the ruling seen by AFP.
He was also acquitted of several other charges of forgery, but convicted on two minor counts of possession of suspected stolen goods, and trading antiquities without a permit.
And some of the charges were dropped because the statute of limitations had expired.
“The indictment… accused Golan of faking antiques in different ways. For certain items, I decided that it was not proven, as required in criminal law, that they were fake. But there is nothing in these findings which necessarily proves that the items were authentic,” said Judge Aharon Farkash.
“All that was determined was that the means, the tools and the science available at present, along with the experts who testified, was not enough to prove the alleged fraud beyond reasonable doubt,” he said.
The IAA, which provided expert testimony describing the objects as fakes, said it respected the court’s decision and pointed out the ruling did not establish that the relics were in fact authentic.
“According to the judge, ‘The absolute truth was not a guiding light for Golan,'” it said.
“The judge did emphasise that it was not possible to determine that the finds presented in the trial… are not forgeries.”
But Yair Kachel, Golan’s spokesman, said the verdict proved the items were genuine.
“Mr Golan is one of the most important Israeli antiques dealers and his good faith has been recognised by the court,” he told AFP. “Our experts convinced the judges that these items were authentic.”
Golan was charged in 2004 with having faked ancient artefacts whose “discovery” in October 2002 was hailed worldwide. He is accused of having tried to sell them for several million dollars to museums or private collectors.
In addition to the ossuary said to contain the bones of Jesus’s brother James, Golan was also charged with counterfeiting a stone tablet he claimed was a vestige of Solomon’s Temple.
The announcement of the discovery of the ossuary, which contained the inscription “James, son of Joseph and brother of Jesus,” was greeted with much excitement as well as scepticism in archaeological circles.
Later examination by the IAA revealed that while the ossuary itself was ancient, the inscription — which added both its historical significance and monetary value — was not.
The second artefact stripped of its historical bona fides by the IAA was a black stone tablet carrying a Phoenician inscription attributed to the Jewish king Jehoash, who ruled Jerusalem at the end of the 9th century BC.
The 10-line inscription written in the first person mentions “repairs ordered in the Temple” by Jehoash and bears a striking resemblance to a passage in the bible’s Book of Kings, chapter 12.
If it had been authentic, it would have provided the first non-biblical proof of the existence of the First Temple, which has yet to be confirmed by any archaeological evidence so far.
Golan always denied any wrongdoing, and said he bought the ossuary for $200 (150 euros) at an antique shop in Jerusalem’s Old City, although he said he had forgotten exactly where.