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Two cleared of faking Jesus-era box

Seven years of trial, evidence from dozens of experts and a 475-page verdict has come no nearer to discovering whether the purported burial box of Jesus' brother James is authentic or a fake.

A Jerusalem judge, citing reasonable doubt, acquitted Israeli collector Oded Golan, who was charged with forging the inscription on the box once hailed as the first physical link to Christ.

Mr Golan said the ruling had put an end to what he said was a 10-year smear campaign against him. Hershel Shanks, editor of the Washington-based Biblical Archaeology, said he was delighted, insisting the burial box, or ossuary, was authentic and a "prized artefact to the world of Christianity".

The Israel Antiquities Authority, which believes Mr Golan's most high-profile items are forged, said the case shows the limits of science in proving fakes, but it also prompted museums and universities around the world to be more suspicious of finds of uncertain origin.

In his ruling, Judge Aharon Farkash of the Jerusalem District Court said he heard so many specialists with conflicting claims that he could not determine whether the ossuary was forged. "This topic is likely to continue to be the subject of research in the scientific and archaeological worlds, and time will tell," Judge Farkash wrote.

The saga began in 2002 when Mr Golan sent the ossuary with the Aramaic inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" to Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.

Mr Golan has said he has owned the ossuary since the late 1970s and never paid much attention until a visiting French expert suggested the inscription might refer to the brother of Jesus. After the Toronto exhibit, he started facing questions at home.

At first, the antiquities authority investigated whether he had transferred the box abroad with the proper licence. It also questioned where the Yoash tablet, inscribed with 15 lines in Hebrew, came from. Eventually, IAA experts concluded both were forgeries and police began to investigate.

Mr Golan was indicted in late 2004, along with four other defendants, charged with forging and trading in dozens of stolen items. His trial began in 2005. Mr Golan was convicted on four other charges, including trading unlicensed antiquities, possessing stolen artefacts and selling artefacts without a licence. He will be sentenced in April.

Robert Deutsch, an inscriptions expert, was acquitted of all charges. He was accused of forgery, but not in connection with the ossuary and the tablet. In earlier proceedings, one defendant reached a plea bargain, while charges against the remaining two were dropped.

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