Eric Meyers’ reaction to the verdict in the forgery trial in Israel

Posted in: Antiquities Market, Archaeology and Bible, Archaeology in the News, Cultural Heritage and Property, Inscriptions
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Reaction to Golan Acquittal, Professor Eric M. Meyers, Duke University

The verdict announced today, March 14, by Judge Aharon Farkash in Jerusalem, acquitting Oded Golan and Robert Deustch of all major charges comes as no surprise. The James ossuary first came into public view some ten years ago in Toronto when a special exhibition was mounted at the Royal Ontario Museum coterminous with the conventions of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research. I was among the very first to question the wisdom or such an exhibition after the artifact had a questionable provenance and had come to the public’s attention with such hoopla, which is not the normal way for important artifacts or subjects to be vetted. Speaking at a plenary session of SBL I also drew attention to portions of the inscription which seemed questionable at best and to the rush to judgment that this was the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. Secondary burial in an ossuary was a common form of inhumation in late Second Temple times that continued on for some time after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE in the Galilee. It was the dominant form of burial at the Jewish necropolis of Beth She`arim near Sepphoris where Rabbi Judah the Prince was buried in the 3rd c. CE.

It is significant that Judge Farkash quoted this from his 475-page verdict: “The prosecution failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt what was stated in the indictment that the ossuary is a forgery and that Mr. Golan or someone acting on his behalf forged it.” He went on to add: “This is not to say that the inscription is true and authentic and was written 2,000 year ago. We can expect this matter to continue to be researched in the archaeological 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 Jesus who appears in Christian writings.’ “The prosecutor Dan Bahat said the case had been weakened by the refusal of a key witness to travel from Egypt to testify, the same person who had appeared on Sixty Minutes. Golan was convicted on several relatively minor charges, including on two counts of illegally trading antiquities without a permit, and two charges of storing property suspected of being stolen.

I would therefore emphasize that because the government, in this case, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Police, failed to prove that the artifacts in question were inauthentic in no way means that they are authentic. The burden of proof that falls on the prosecution in a criminal case must rise to a high level of proof beyond reasonable doubt. The fact that the defendants have been acquitted thus does not end the matter of the quest to decide authenticity. This leaves much opportunity for academic opinion to continue to believe that these artifacts are not authentic and to question their provenance. This lack of certainty is another demonstration of why the Israeli antiquities law, which allows the trade in artifacts obtained before 1978, leaves open a loophole for trading in artifacts that may be recently looted or that may be inauthentic. This shortcoming in the law contributes to the ongoing destruction of the archaeological, historical, and cultural record through looting and possible corruption of the historical record through the acceptance of antiquities that may not be genuine in the corpus of historical artifacts that illuminate the cultural heritage of the land of the Bible.


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