Oded Golan, the Tel Aviv collector accused of forging biblical artifacts, was at the center of a seven-year trial that ended in his acquittal Wednesday. But he was never its star — that role belonged to the artifacts themselves.
While the significance of the exoneration for Golan himself is obvious, what it means for the antiquities is less clear.
The most famous of the artifacts is a stone box known as the “James ossuary,” exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum a decade ago and touted by some scholars as the first archaeological evidence for the existence of Jesus. It bears an Aramaic inscription reading, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
The prosecution claimed Golan had taken a genuine but common ossuary inscribed with the words “James, son of Joseph,” and added the words “brother of Jesus,” turning it into a find of global importance and vast worth. Then, according to the charge, he manufactured a fake patina — the thin film of grime that typically accumulates over centuries — and applied it to the new inscription to make it seem ancient.
He was also accused of manufacturing the ancient Hebrew inscription on a rectangular piece of stone known as the “Jehoash tablet,” which recounted a Temple renovation by a king of Jerusalem in the 9th century B.C.E. If genuine, the tablet is one of the most spectacular items ever to have surfaced in the world of biblical archaeology.
Golan was also accused of forging a string of other artifacts, including clay seal imprints, a lamp, and a ceramic decanter. He denied all of the accusations and was acquitted of all charges of forgery and fraud. The judge convicted him only of lesser offenses: possessing objects suspected of being stolen and selling antiquities without a license.
The case offered a glimpse at the murky world of biblical antiquities, where objects often surface not in excavations but on the black market, their origins unclear and their authenticity difficult or impossible to confirm. Golan said he had obtained most of the objects in question, including the ossuary, from dealers, most of them Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The thirst for objects that offer a physical link to the world of the Bible, and the sums involved — the Jehoash tablet was purportedly offered to the Israel Museum for $4 million, though no sale ever took place — would make objects of this type well worth a forger’s time.
The Golan case has had the effect of making collectors and experts more suspicious of forgeries, and museums have reviewed their collections looking for fakes. Because of the trial, the Israel Antiquities Authority wrote in its response to the verdict, “there has been an almost complete cessation of the publication of finds that come from the antiquities market without first knowing their exact place of discovery, and the trade in written documents and seals derived from illicit antiquities excavations has been halted almost entirely.”
In his ruling Wednesday, the judge went out of his way to say that the fact Golan had been found not guilty did not mean the artifacts were real.
His decision to clear Golan of forging the inscription on the James ossuary, he wrote, “does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic or that it was written 2,000 years ago. This will continue to be studied by scientists and archaeologists, and time will tell.
“Moreover,” he wrote, “it was not proven in any way that the words ‘the brother of Jesus’ necessarily refer to the ‘Jesus’ who appears in Christian writings.”
This applies to all of the artifacts in question, he added several hundred pages later in the lengthy text of his decision: “All that has been established is that the tools and the science currently at the disposal of the experts who testified were not sufficient to prove the alleged forgeries beyond a reasonable doubt as is required by criminal law.”
In short, the case’s conclusion does not establish whether or not the James ossuary, the Jehoash tablet, or any of the artifacts in questions are historic discoveries or slick fakes. The only clear conclusion to be drawn from the trial, perhaps, is a frustrating one: Where ancient artifacts are concerned, that distinction is nearly impossible to make.
“The trial was a collision of two worlds — criminal prosecution and scholarly archaeology,” said journalist Matthew Kalman, the editor of The Jerusalem Report and the only reporter to cover the entire trial.
“The two simply speak different languages,” he said. “The verdict will not make a difference to the archaeologists arguing about the whether the artifacts are authentic.”
Follow Matti Friedman on Twitter.
Do you appreciate The Times of Israel's non-partisan coverage of Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.