Mysterious photographs from the 1970s are to be brought as evidence to prove that the so-called ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus, is authentic. They are to be presented by attorneys for Oded Golan, the antiquities dealer charged with forging the item, which when it was made public, was dubbed "the most important archaeological discovery from the beginnings of Christianity."
The photographs, copies of which have reached Haaretz, have already been examined by an American expert and are to be submitted as evidence in court. But they do not remove doubts about the item, which touched off a storm in the archaeological world.
In December 2004, after a lengthy police investigation, the State Prosecutor's Office indicted Golan and three other Israelis for what they called the most serious case of antiquities forgery ever uncovered in Israel.
Golan, 55, a Tel Aviv resident, was charged with allegedly masterminding a ring responsible for the fabrication of antiquities over a period of more than 15 years. According to the charge sheet, the group stands accused of attempting to sell items to museums and wealthy collectors for millions of dollars.
The indictment states that in 2001 or shortly before, Golan forged the inscription on the ossuary (bone receptacle) and that at approximately that same time, also forged the so-called "Joash inscription."
The ossuary was unveiled in a press conference in Washington, D.C., in October 2002. It was inscribed in Aramaic with words interpreted as "Yaakov the brother of Yeshua," alluding to the fact that the individual whose bones it held was Jesus' brother, James, mentioned in the New Testament. A geological test commissioned by the owners of the ossuary and confirming the authenticity of the find was presented at the briefing.
A panel appointed by the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Shuka Dorfman, determined in June 2003 that the inscription on the ossuary was "added recently," while the ossuary itself was authentic.
In the defense's photographs, dated 1976, the ossuary is shown on a shelf, apparently in Golan's home. In an enlargement, the whole inscription can be seen with great difficulty. The photo was examined by Gerald Richard, a former FBI agent and an expert for the defense. Richard testified that "Nothing was noted that would indicate or suggest that they were not produced in March 1976 as indicated on the stamps appearing on the reverse side of each print."
Golan's attorney, Lior Beringer, told Haaretz that the photos support the defense's position. "The prosecution claims that Golan forged the inscription after the beginning of 2000. But here is a detailed report from an FBI photo lab that states that the inscription existed at least since the 70s," Beringer said. "It is unreasonable that someone would forge an inscription like this in the 70s and suddenly decide to come out with it in 2002," he added.
The date of the photo is also significant legally because any antiquity discovered in Israel since the passage of the 1978 Antiquities Law belongs to the state.
The IAA refused yesterday to comment on the new finds and would say only that the matter was being dealt with by the state prosecutor.
The photos join experts in Israel and other countries who have tried to disparage the credibility of the IAA panel, in what the IAA at the time described as a well-orchestrated campaign backed by interested parties. The accusation was leveled against Hershel Shanks, the editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, published in the U.S. Shanks' identification of the ossuary brought him credit worldwide. He funded the exhibition of the ossuary in a Toronto museum, from which money poured in from thousands of visitors to the organizers, including Shanks. Shanks has told Haaretz in the past that he is motivated by the desire to get to the truth in the matter.
But it is the way the ossuary was found that seems to raise the most doubts. Golan, whose friends say his knowledge is "phenomenal," said that for years he did not realize that he had of the most important archaeological finds in the world on his shelf. When asked by Haaretz about this in an interview, he explained, "It didn't set off any bells, I am not an expert in Christian tradition."