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James ossuary antiquities dealer cleared of fraud

03/14/2012 11:14 EDT | Updated 05/14/2012 05:12 EDT

An Israeli antiquities dealer has been acquitted of forging relics, including the contentious James ossuary — the casket said to have held the remains of the brother of Jesus.

A judge acquitted Oded Golan of the most serious fraud charges in Jerusalem on Wednesday, saying the prosecution had failed to prove without a reasonable doubt that the artifacts in question were forged or that Golan (or an accomplice) was behind it.

However, the judge did convict him on several minor counts, including possession of suspected stolen goods and trading antiquities without a permit.

"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," Judge Aharon Farkash wrote in the ruling.

Still, the judge acknowledged that the debate will likely continue since "there is nothing in these findings which necessarily proves that the items were authentic.

"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," Farkash wrote.

"We can expect this matter to continue to be researched in the archeological 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 the Jesus who appears in Christian writings."

Blow to investigators, antiquity experts

The ruling is a severe blow to the Israeli Antiquities Authority and police officials, who led the investigation and case against Golan over the past decade.

In 2002, Golan made headlines when he announced the discovery of the ancient artifacts, sparking both intense excitement as well as skepticism over their authenticity.

The ossuary — a type of container, often decorated with iconography, used in ancient times to hold the bones of a deceased person — drew large crowds when it was put on public display at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum in late 2002, with many anxious to see what was purportedly the oldest archeological link to biblical figures. However, in 2003, the IAA accused Golan of created a series of convincing, but fake relics.

A year later, Israeli police arrested Golan and charged him with forgery. The faked items purportedly included a stone tablet detailing repairs to the Temple of Solomon during the reign of King Jehoash, as well as the inscription on the limestone ossuary. Though experts acknowledge that the burial box likely hails from ancient times, they accused Golan of forging the inscription, which bears the words "Ya'akov [James], son of Yosef [Joseph], brother of Yeshua [Jesus]" in Aramaic.

In the New Testament, an early Christian named James is referred to as "the brother of the Lord." However, some religious experts believe the figure was a cousin rather than a sibling of Jesus.

Golan maintains he bought the ossuary in Jerusalem decades ago, but has forgotten exactly where.

Outside the courtroom Wednesday, Golan said he was "delighted at the complete and total acquittal I have received here today."

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