Although everyone loves a mystery, museumgoers generally attend exhibitions expecting they're getting the real-meal deal – be it a Picasso, a 13th-century Mayan artifact, Champlain's astrolabe, or a collection of moon rocks from Apollo 11.
Close to 10 years ago, though, 100,000 visitors braved Toronto's winter cold to visit the Royal Ontario Museum to look at something that this week may be determined to be nothing more than a fake.
That something is the so-called James ossuary, a 33-kilogram, trapezoid limestone box, measuring 51 by 25 by 31 centimetres, dated to circa 60 AD, and excavated from a cave near Jerusalem around 1987.
Used in ancient times to store human bones, it's a plain, singularly unprepossessing artifact – save for the Aramaic inscription scratched into one of its sides: “Ya'akov [James] son of Yosef [Joseph]brother of Yeshua [Jesus]”
For some, the inscription is evidence of the ossuary's authenticity as the repository of the remains of Jesus's brother, James the Just, who led the Jerusalem church after Christ's death and was himself martyred around AD 62. In fact, in late 2002, when the ROM began its seven-week show, the burial box had, for believers at least, the heady status of being “the only archaeological artifact found to date with a possible link to the family of Christ.”
For others, the ossuary set off alarm bells as a hoax – a modern-day forgery. Indeed, Israeli authorities arrested the ossuary's owner, Tel Aviv engineer and antiquities collector Oded Golan, in 2003; in December, 2004, he was indicted on 44 charges of forgery, fraud and deception related to the bone box as well as to other alleged ancient artifacts.
It's these charges – and another 13 lesser counts against a Golan associate, antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch – that a Jerusalem District Court judge, Aharon Farkash, will rule on Wednesday morning.
If authentic, Golan's antiquity is worth millions of dollars, Christians get a new relic to venerate, the powerful Israeli Antiquities Authority's credibility is besmirched – and ROM gets credit for having hosted the ossuary's international debut.
Not that the museum as an institution unequivocally endorsed the box's authenticity during its display from Nov. 15, 2002 through Jan. 5, 2003. (Golan had agreed to lend it to the ROM after it was pointed out to him that Toronto would be hosting the conventions of the Biblical Archaeology Society, the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research in November, 2002.) Museum ads for the ossuary were a canny mix of caution and provocation, built around the tagline: “Is this the first tangible link to the existence of Jesus?”
Hyped at its start as “the fraud trial of the century,” Golan's legal ordeal proved an epic of starts and stops. It began in September, 2005, and finally wound to a halt in the autumn of 2010 after hearing testimony from almost 140 witnesses – police investigators, representatives of the IAA, dealers, collectors, curators, linguists, and experts on everything from patina build-up and epigraphy to the rise of Christianity and chemical isotope dating.
On occasion, the trial verged on collapse, largely because the experts couldn't come to a conclusion about whether the patina (the sheen or tarnish on part of the inscription) was naturally occurring or had been faked. And is the Jesus inscribed Jesus of Nazareth or someone else? Golan, 61 this year, maintained his innocence throughout, declaring at one point that he had “never faked an archaeological artifact in [his]life.”
Wednesday's verdict is occurring against a background of jaw-dropping biblical archaeological claims and counterclaims. A just-published book, The Jesus Discovery, argues that a cache of ossuaries discovered in a cave south of Jerusalem could have housed the bones of some of Jesus's first followers.
Last year at a media conference in Jerusalem, Toronto documentarian and archaeology buff Simcha Jacobovici unveiled two nails excavated from the alleged burial cave of the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, that Jacobovici said likely were used to crucify Christ.
In 2008, Princeton University hosted a symposium on the so-called Talpiot ossuaries – 10 bone boxes, six with inscriptions, discovered in a cave in the early eighties, east of Jerusalem – at which scholars debated the contention the boxes were from the tomb of Jesus's family.