The Case Against Oded Golan: Acquitted

Image:  The Jehoash Tablet

Image Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)

In a legal case that lasted 7 years, Oded Golan, an Israeli antiquity dealer who was accused of making fake biblical artifacts, was acquitted by a judge in Jerusalem today.  Golan was accused of forging the James Ossuary, a stone box containing the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. Golan was also accused of faking the Jehoash inscription, an inscription that was considered to be the only surviving royal inscription from ancient Israel.

Below is an excerpt from an article published in The Times of Israel:

An Israeli collector accused of antiquities fraud was acquitted Wednesday in a packed Jerusalem courtroom after a trial that lasted seven years — a stunning reversal for the prosecution and a victory for a defendant maligned as an arch-forger who falsified history for personal gain.

Oded Golan had been charged with faking biblical artifacts, including the “James ossuary” –  a stone box bearing an inscription identifying it as containing the bones of James, brother of Jesus. The ossuary became an international sensation a decade ago after it was hailed by some scholars as the first physical evidence for the existence of Jesus.

Golan was also accused of forging a second famous piece, the so-called “Jehoash tablet,” with an inscription supporting the biblical narrative about the Temple in Jerusalem.

The judge, Aharon Farkash, acquitted Golan of all charges of forgery and fraud. He convicted the collector only of lesser charges of selling antiquities without a permit and possession of items suspected to be stolen. A co-defendant, antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch, was acquitted of all charges.

Reflecting the unique nature of the case against Golan, the ruling in Jerusalem’s District Court mentioned not only criminal law but 9th-century Phoenician script, isotopes, Egyptian hieroglyphics, ancient kings of Judaea, and Jesus of Nazareth.

In his decision, the judge was careful to say his acquittal of Golan did not mean the artifacts were necessarily genuine, only that the prosecution had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Golan had faked them.

Although the Israel Antiquities Authority went to great lengths to prove that the artifacts were not genuine, Judge Farkash ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove that both artifacts were forgeries. The judge wrote: “The prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt what was stated in the indictment that the ossuary is a forgery and that Mr. Golan or someone acting on his behalf forged it.”

In his decision, the judge also refused to declare that the artifacts were authentic.  The judge wrote: “This is not to say that the inscription is true and authentic and was written 2,000 year ago. We can expect this matter to continue to be researched in the archaeological and scientific worlds and only the future will tell. Moreover, it has not been proved in any way that the words ‘brother of Jesus’ definitely refer to Jesus who appears in Christian writings.”

The real losers in this case are those who are interested in studying the relevance of these artifacts.  Now, the general public will be unable to decide whether the ossuary and the tablet are authentic.  As the judge in the case wrote, “police had badly bungled a forensic check of the famous ossuary and might have contaminated the Aramaic inscription, making it impossible to reach a clear conclusion about whether the words ‘brother of Jesus’ had been forged as the prosecution alleged.”

Let us hope that further studies of these inscriptions by archaeologists and other experts in epigraphy will reveal whether these artifacts are genuine or whether they are fake.

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Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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