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After five years, the “forgery trial of the century” has concluded in a Jerusalem courtroom and defendants Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch have been acquitted of all major charges against them.
The James Ossuary trial verdict has been announced. Read Hershel Shanks’s insightful commentary and analysis of the trial in this free eBook.
Know the facts behind the forgery trial verdict. Download our free eBook and get top scholarly analysis of what the verdict means for the authenticity of the James Ossuary and other alleged forgeries.
In late December 2004, four Israelis and one Palestinian Arab were indicted in Jerusalem on charges of running a massive forgery ring over several decades. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Israeli police claimed the ring had created a host of Biblically-related ancient artifacts with forged inscriptions involving millions of dollars, some of which are exhibited in the prestigious Israel Museum. The trial opened in September 2005 and continued for five years through 116 sessions, 133 witnesses, 200 exhibits, and close to 12,000 pages of testimony from witnesses.
In October 2010, closing arguments finally wrapped up in “the forgery trial of the century,” to determine whether or not the James Ossuary, the Yehoash tablet and other ancient artifacts were forged by two defendants. Trial judge Aharon Farkash pored through the evidence over the past 15 months, and on Wednesday, March 14, 2012, finally delivered his verdict.
In his verdict, the judge acquitted the case’s two remaining defendants, Tel Aviv collector Oded Golan and antiquities dealer and scholar Robert Deutsch, on all major counts of creating and selling forged antiquities, most notably the now-famous first-century C.E. bone box (or ossuary) inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” a small inscribed ivory pomegranate allegedly used in Solomon’s Temple, and the Yehoash tablet, which, if authentic, would be the first royal inscription of an Israelite king ever found.
The Allegedly Forged Antiquities: James Ossuary Inscription, Ivory Pomegranate Inscription, Jehoash Tablet Inscription
The inscriptions below will be considered forgeries in the public mind for at least a generation. Why? Because these inscriptions have been declared forgeries, supposedly unanimously, by two committees of the IAA, led by Tel Aviv University Professor and archaeologist Yuval Goren.
Among the ancient artifacts alleged in the 2004 indictment to be forgeries are the following:
James Ossuary Inscription
A limestone bone box (ossuary) inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” is the most famous ancient artifact alleged to be a forgery. The ossuary was first published in Biblical Archaeology Review (on October 21, 2002) and the next day this ancient artifact was front-page news in the New York Times, the Washington Post and around the world.
The 2002 article in Biblical Archaeology Review announced:
Amazing as it may sound, a limestone bone box (called an “ossuary”) has surfaced in Israel that may once have contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. We know this because an extraordinary inscription incised on one side of the ossuary reads in clear Aramaic letters: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
But is this the same James who was the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, or was this another James, whose father happened to be called Joseph and who happened coincidentally also to have a brother named Jesus?
In the case of the James Ossuary, there is a consensus that bone box itself is in fact a true ancient artifact. Only the inscription has been alleged to be a forgery.
Hershel Shanks explains why he believes the James Ossuary inscription is authentic in this free eBook James, Brother of Jesus: The Forgery Trial of the Century.
The ivory pomegranate inscribed “[Belonging] to the House [Temple] of [Yahwe]h; holy to the priests,” if authentic, is likely the head of a priestly scepter from the temple of King Solomon. Since 1988 it has been on display in the Israel Museum.
As with the ossuary, there is a consensus that the ivory pomegranate itself is a real ancient artifact; it is only the inscription that has been called into question. Until 2004, there was little question about the inscription’s authenticity—until rumors surfaced that year that the inscription was a fake. A day or two before the forgery indictment was handed down in late December 2004, the Israel Museum announced that a committee had been appointed in conjunction with the IAA to study the pomegranate inscription and that the committee had found evidence that it was a modern forgery.
This was the first the public knew that a committee had been appointed to study the pomegranate and its inscription. At that time, no report whatever had been released. There was no public information as to the basis of the finding. The names of the members of the committee were kept secret. BAR learned, however, that Yuval Goren was a member—the same Yuval Goren who has found all the other artifacts in the indictment to be forgeries. Although the indictment alleges the inscription is a forgery, it was not included in the individual counts, so the judge will not deal with it in his opinion in the case.
Find out why Hershel Shanks holds that the Ivory Pomegranate inscription is authentic in the free eBook James, Brother of Jesus: The Forgery Trial of the Century.
Jehoash Tablet Inscription
The Jehoash inscription is inscribed on a rectangular black stone about the size of a piece of typing paper and consists of 15 lines of Hebrew text. It purports to record repairs to Solomon’s Temple by King Jehoash in the ninth century B.C.E. This description closely parallels the description of Jehoash’s repairs to the Temple as recounted in 2 Kings 12:5-13.
When this inscription first surfaced Yuval Goren quickly opined that it could not be a real ancient artifact. He claimed it was a forgery because the black stone on which the inscription was carved was not native to Israel and probably came from “the Troodos Massif in Cyprus.” This was soon shown to be absurd. The plaque is made of simple arkosic sandstone, very common in Israel near the Dead Sea, as well as in Sinai.
The most serious claim that the Yehoash inscription is a forgery is philological. Some words in the inscription, some scholars contend, were not in use in the 9th century B.C.E. or not used in the same way at that time. Other scholars take the opposite position.
It was the Jehoash inscription that triggered the investigation that culminated in the forgery indictment in December 2004. The IAA was suspicious of the fact that two such extraordinary inscriptions—the Jehoash inscription and the James ossuary inscription—came to public attention within such a short time from the same source: Oded Golan. To the IAA it seemed as suspicious as lightening striking the same spot twice within a few months. This led the IAA to appoint a committee to study these two inscriptions. On the basis of Yuval Goren’s analysis, the committee declared both inscriptions to be forgeries. Further investigation broadened the inquiry.
Hershel Shanks suspects that the Yehoash inscription is likely to be authentic. Find out why in the free eBook James, Brother of Jesus: The Forgery Trial of the Century.
The Defendants: Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch
Oded Golan has one of the largest, if not the largest, collection of antiquities in Israel. He has been collecting antiquities for 40 years. He is often referred to in the press as an antiquities dealer. He denies this. He says he has sold only a handful of pieces in his entire life (the usual activity of a collector to upgrade his collection)—and none of these sales was to a buyer outside of Israel.
He lives in a middle-class apartment in Tel Aviv. A white piano sits in his living room, which he plays at nearly a concert level. He was an officer in the Israel Defense Forces and has made his living at a variety of businesses and real estate investments. The police say he may be in financial trouble, which drove him to engage in the business of forgeries.
In the 2004 indictment, Golan is said to be the ringleader of the forgery conspiracy. He does not have the expertise to do it, however, without a lot of help. At the time of the indictment, Golan immediately issued a statement asserting his innocence. “There is not one grain of truth in the fantastic allegations related to me,” he said.
Robert Deutsch immigrated to Israel from Romania in 1963 and is a licensed antiquities dealer, with shops in Jaffa and in two hotels in downtown Tel Aviv.
Since becoming an antiquities dealer, he has also become a scholar. He now has a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University and is studying for two Ph.D.’s, one at Tel Aviv University and the other at Haifa University, where he teaches while continuing to operate his antiquities shops, which feature twice-yearly auctions of important antiquities.
Deutsch has published a series of well-received, frequently cited books of important antiquities in private collections, most of which are unprovenanced—that is, no one knows where they were found or under what conditions. He has probably handled more bullae (ancient seal impressions) than anyone in the world. He scoffs at young scholars who pontificate about forgeries without ever having handled these objects. At Haifa University he teaches ancient inscriptions.
An expert in epigraphy, Deustch also developed an interest and expertise in archaeology. He was on the senior staff at Tel Aviv University’s excavation at Megiddo until quietly excommunicated because he was an antiquities dealer.
Deutsch, asserting his innocence at the time of the indictment, accused the IAA of filing “blatantly false accusations,” and “malicious … and intentionally false charges” against him that “distorted the truth.” The methods they used, claimed Deutsch, “would not embarrass even a senior KGB agent.”
About Hershel Shanks
Hershel Shanks is the premier figure in communicating, through his magazines, books, documentaries and conferences, the world of Biblical archaeology to general readers. Hershel Shanks is “probably the world’s most influential amateur Biblical archeologist,” declares New York Times book critic Richard Bernstein. Shanks was also a leading figure in making the complete Dead Sea Scrolls available to the world.
He is editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review and was editor of Bible Review, Archaeology Odyssey, and Moment. He is the author and editor of several major books on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jerusalem, and Biblical archaeology, including Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, The Search for Jesus, Recent Archaeology in the Land of Israel, Archaeology and the Bible, Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount: From Solomon to the Golden Dome, The Copper Scroll and the Search for the Temple Treasure, and Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Adventures of an Archaeology Outsider. He lives in Washington, D.C.