The front line of biblical archaeology in Israel has moved from the excavation to the courtroom.

On December 29, Israeli authorities charged four Israelis and a Palestinian with creating and selling fake or enhanced antiquities. The ringleader is alleged to be Oded Golan, the owner of the James ossuary.

Police say the accused took authentic ancient relics and inflated their value by adding counterfeit inscriptions that link them to the Bible. The 18-count indictment includes charges of forgery, receiving fraudulent goods, and damaging antiquities. Golan and Robert Deutsch, another of the accused, both deny wrongdoing.

Israeli authorities charge the forged inscriptions were covered with a coating designed to mimic an ancient patina, a mineral layer that accumulates over the centuries. The authorities say many antiquities sold for grossly inflated amounts of money.

The James ossuary—with the inscription "James the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus"—has been the center of controversy for the past two years while the Israel Antiquities Authority investigation proceeded. It symbolizes to many archaeologists the kind of artifact that fits too neatly into the biblical picture.

The iaa announced in June 2003 that the James ossuary inscription was a fake. However, critics say the iaa has not made a strong case, and its conclusions lack substantiation (ct, May 2004, p. 20).

Many of these critics contend that the case against the ossuary represents an overreaction by the archaeological establishment, some of whom are skeptical about the historicity of the Bible.

"You definitely have people on both sides of the issue," said Larry Geraty, president of La Sierra University and president of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the premier organization for archaeologists working in the Middle East.

Geraty said ASOR has a strong position against unprovenanced antiquities—those with undocumented histories. The organization doesn't want to lend respectability to antiquities dealing, which in turn contributes to tomb robbing and other looting.

"It's not that we need [the James ossuary] to authenticate our faith," Geraty said. "There's no question about the existence of Jesus, but it's always nice to have that kind of confirmation."

Ben Witherington III, a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and coauthor of a book on the ossuary, The Brother of Jesus, said the dispute over unprovenanced artifacts is irresolvable. He doubts any legal actions can stop the looting.

"It's a mistake to try to quash the antiquities trade," he said. Witherington said that the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light when it ended up in the hands of antiquities dealers.

He believes the James ossuary needs further scientific testing and maintains that its authenticity will be vindicated.

While the legal action raises some troubling questions for archaeology and biblical studies, many scholars believe it's good to get the questions out in the open.

One is Walter Kaiser, professor of Old Testament and president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Kaiser said "We're all interested in seeing the interests of truth and justice served."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's earlier coverage of the James ossuary includes:

Rush to Judgment? | Israel Antiquities Authority's 'findings' bother many archaeologists. (April 29, 2004)
Biblical Archaeology's Dusty Little Secret | The James bone box controversy reveals the politics beneath the science. (Sept. 19, 2003)
Bones of Contention | Why I still think the James bone box is likely to be authentic. (Sept. 22, 2003)
Ossuary Questions Remain | Israel Antiquities Authority says "brother of Jesus" inscription is a forgery, but supporters say its report may be flawed. (June 20, 2003)
Article continues below
Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (March 17, 2003)
Finding God in a Box | Have archaeological discoveries like the James ossuary served or obscured the quest to verify the Bible? (Jan. 31, 2003)
Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived | Scholars link first-century bone box to James, brother of Jesus (Oct. 21, 2002)

Christianity Today's earlier coverage of archaeology includes:

Why We Dig the Holy Land | If biblical archaeology is not reinvigorated, Scripture-illuminating evidence will remain buried in the Middle East. (Sept. 26, 2003)
Listening to the Fifth Gospel | The sun-baked ruins of the Holy Land have a story to tell. By David Neff (Sept. 25, 2003)
What Do the Stones Cry Out? | Beware of claims that archaeology disproves—or proves—the Bible is true. By Christian M.M. Brady (Sept. 24, 2003)
Top Ten New Testament Archaeological Finds of the Past 150 Years | How do shrouds, boats, inscriptions, and other artifacts better help us understand the Christ of the Ages? By Ben Witherington (Sept. 23, 2003)
Bones of Contention | Why I still think the James bone box is likely to be authentic. By Ben Witherington (Sept. 22, 2003)
Biblical Archaeology's Dusty Little Secret | The James bone box controversy reveals the politics beneath the science. By Gordon Govier (Sept. 21, 2003)
Did the Exodus Never Happen? | How two Egyptologists are countering scholars who want to turn the Old Testament into myth (Sept. 7, 1998)
Weblog: James Ossuary Owner Arrested on Fraud and Forgery Charges (July 23, 2003)
Ossuary Questions Remain | Israel Antiquities Authority says "brother of Jesus" inscription is a forgery, but supporters say its report may be flawed (June 20, 2003)
Weblog: Israeli Officials Say James Ossuary, Joash Tablet are Fakes | Israel's Antiquities Authority unanimously calls James Ossuary inscription a forgery (June 18, 2003)
Weblog: Apostle Paul's Shipwreck Makes Headlines | Former U.S. ambassador tries to block book (May 15, 2003)
Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (Mar. 17, 2003)
Weblog: Israel Inspects James Ossuary, But Joash Tablet Has Disappeared (Mar. 6, 2003)
The Unluckiest Church | Archaeologist predicts the future is grim for the ancient church's site (Feb. 6, 2003)
Christian History Corner: Finding God in a Box | Have archaeological discoveries like the James ossuary served or obscured the quest to verify the Bible? (Jan. 31, 2003)
The Dick Staub Interview: Dan Bahat on Jerusalem Archaeology | One of Israel's leading archaeologists talks about the importance of the Temple Mount and key historical finds in the Holy Land (Jan. 28, 2003)
Weblog: Experts Get a Closer Look at the James Ossuary (Nov. 26, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Goes on Display as New Findings Emerge (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weblog: Ossuary Owner Will Go to Toronto After All (Nov. 11, 2002)
Weblog: Ossuary Owner Oded Golan Emerges to Defend Himself (Nov. 7, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Display Might Be Delayed (Nov. 6, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Owner Revealed, Under Fire from Israeli Government (Nov. 5, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary 'Badly Damaged' en Route to Toronto (Nov. 4, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Contains Bone Fragments (Oct. 29, 2002)
Weblog: What Does James Ossuary Say About Mary? (Oct. 23, 2002)
Weblog: More Details Emerge on History of James's Bone Box (Oct. 22, 2002)
Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived | Scholars link first-century bone box to James, brother of Jesus (Oct. 21, 2002)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.