JERUSALEM -- Is the purported burial box of Jesus' brother James fake or authentic?
Seven years of trial, testimony from dozens of experts and a 475-page verdict Wednesday failed to come up with an answer.
A Jerusalem judge, citing reasonable doubt, acquitted Israeli collector Oded Golan, who was charged with forging the inscription on the box once hailed as the first physical link to Christ.
Golan said the ruling put an end to what he portrayed as a 10-year smear campaign against him. Hershel Shanks, editor of the Washington-based Biblical Archaeology Review, said he was delighted, insisting the burial box, or ossuary, is authentic and a "prized artifact to the world of Christianity."
The Israel Antiquities Authority, which believes Golan's most high-profile items are forged, said the case shows the limits of science in proving forgeries, but it also prompted museums and universities around the world to be more suspicious of finds of uncertain origin.
In his ruling, Judge Aharon Farkash of the Jerusalem District Court said Wednesday that he heard so many specialists with conflicting claims that he could not determine whether the ossuary was forged.
"This topic is likely to continue to be the subject of research in the scientific and archaeological worlds, and time will tell," Farkash wrote.
The case of the burial box is likely to be irrelevant to believers.
Stephen Pfann, an archaeologist and president of the Christian Holy Land University, said Christians don't need objects to prop up their faith. "In a way, there will always be that necessity of faith to be involved in a person's convictions, whether or not we find artifacts associated with the story," he said.
Much of the trial focused on the patina over the inscriptions of the ossuary and a second find, a stone tablet purportedly carrying instructions by King Yoash of the 9th century B.C. on maintenance at the Jewish Temple. The patina is a thin layer of grime that can attest to the age of engravings.
At one point, the prosecutor brought a camp stove, chalk, beaker and other ingredients to show how easy it is to make fake patina, said journalist Matthew Kalman, a frequent trial observer. The defense then used the same technique to show that fake patina doesn't stick to stone.
"It began to look like a high school chemistry class," said Kalman, editor of The Jerusalem Report magazine.
The saga began in 2002 when Golan sent the ossuary with the Aramaic inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" to Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. Shanks was among its early enthusiasts, publishing the first report on it in 2002.
Golan has said he's owned the ossuary since the late 1970s and never paid much attention until a visiting French expert suggested the inscription might refer to the brother of Jesus.
After the Toronto exhibit, he started facing questions at home.
At first, the antiquities authority investigated whether he had transferred the box abroad with the proper license. It also questioned where the Yoash tablet, inscribed with 15 lines in Hebrew, came from. Eventually, IAA experts concluded both were forgeries, and police began to investigate.
Golan was indicted in late 2004, along with four other defendants, charged with forging and trading in dozens of stolen items. His trial began in 2005.
Witnesses in the trial – more than 100 hearings transcribed in 12,000 pages – described a dark underside to the Holy Land antiquities trade, including grave robbing and shadowy exchanges of fistfuls of cash on West Bank roads.
Shanks said finds should not be automatically dismissed because of uncertain origin.
"You have much looted material coming out of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank)," he said. "It has died down now but was once great. These finds can be important. Are you going to rescue them, or are you going to say you aren't going to learn from them because they were looted?"
Archaeologist and biblical historian Eric Meyers of Duke University said questions about where Golan obtained the ossuary make it all the more important to regulate the antiquities trade in Israel.
"Israel is unique in the Middle East for allowing antiquities dealers to operate under official government licensing," he said. "This is a dirty business ... and the Israeli police and antiquities authority have trouble dealing with all this chicanery."
During the trial, the Israel Museum re-examined its collection to remove forged items, and museums and universities have grown more suspicious of undocumented finds, said Shai Bartura, an IAA official.
"People just do not want to take chances," he said. "If it's not absolutely legitimate, if it doesn't have an archaeological context, then most serious facilities of display or research simply will not touch it."
Golan was convicted Wednesday on four other charges, including trading unlicensed antiquities, possessing stolen artifacts and selling artifacts without a license. The court will consider Golan's sentencing in April.
Robert Deutsch, an inscriptions expert, was acquitted Wednesday of all charges. He was accused of forgery, but not in connection with the ossuary and the tablet.
In earlier proceedings, one defendant reached a plea bargain, while charges against the remaining two were dropped.