12 Mar 2012

The ‘Jesus’ box: clever forgery or genuine article?

After a seven-year trial, an Israeli judge will this week decide whether an archaeological artefact is the only one ever discovered with a direct link to Jesus Christ – or a forgery.

On one side, there is the plucky collector Oded Golan, who says he has the box that held the bones of James, brother of Jesus. If true, it will be the only artefact ever found with a possible direct link to the son of God.

On the other, there is the establishment, anxious to clamp down on the black market in biblical antiquities, wants to make an example of him. The police arrested Mr Golan and say he is part of a ring of criminal forgers.

The trial has taken seven years, and will be resolved this week – the world of Christendom holds its breath.

The crucial inscription

It all centres on a limestone burial box or ossuary, used for holding the bones of the deceased. The box itself dates from the time of Jesus but it is the inscription that has caused a stir. Carved into its side, in Hebrew: “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”.

Mr Golan has one of the biggest private collections in Israel. He says the box had been sitting in his shop for years before a leading academic happened upon it.

The find electrified the world of popular archaeology. But the police along with the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) said Golan (and accomplices) had added the brother of Jesus bit.

As the trial began, the dispute centred around analysis of a microscopic coating inside the inscription. At one point, the judge asked how he could be expected to make the call when the scientists couldn’t agree.

Huge implications

Mr Golan wasn’t the only one on the stand: the establishment have been staking their reputation on a guilty verdict.

Then there’s the Catholic Church, some of whom believe that Mary was a life long virgin and didn’t have other children

If the box is found to be genuine, the scholarly and scientific implications of this trial are immense. And of course, Mr Golan leaves court about 2 million dollars richer.

If it is a fake though, it cuts the legs from under the multi-million pound black market in biblical antiquities – the bane of licensed archaeologists.

Either way, dig down into this story and you’ll come across layer upon layer of vested interests.