The "James ossuary," an inscribed limestone box purported to have contained the bones of Jesus’ brother James, is still a mystery — at least according to a Jerusalem court.
Delivered at the end of a seven-year fraud trial, the ruling admitted that it was not possible to determine whether the ossuary and other objects presented in the trial were genuine or had been forged.
The verdict acquitted an Israeli antiquities collector of forgery and fraud charges on the basis of reasonable doubt.
The story began 10 years ago when André Lemaire, professor of Hebrew and Aramaic philology and epigraphy at the Sorbonne University in Paris, announced a sensational discovery: the first archaeological evidence of Jesus' existence.
"Amazing as it may sound, a limestone bone box, called an ossuary, has surfaced in Israel that may once have contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus," Lemaire wrote in Biblical Archaeology Review.
"We know this because an extraordinary inscription incised on one side of the ossuary reads in clear Aramaic letters: 'James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,'" he added.
Believed to have been stoned to death in A.D. 62, "James the Just" is mentioned in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as Jesus' brother. However, the Roman Catholic Church believes Jesus had no siblings.
According to Robert Eisenman, author of "James, Brother of Jesus," the true successor to the movement we now call Christianity was indeed James and not Peter.
As the ossuary finding was announced, it immediately stirred a scientific controversy. Eisenman, professor of biblical archaeology at California State University, Long Beach, was the first expert to doubt its authenticity, in a Discovery News interview.
"Several things cast suspicion: The line of custody is insecure, and the inscription is too perfect. They would have never written 'brother of Jesus' in the first century," he told me.
The ossuary was first displayed to the public at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2002, where it was viewed by almost half a million visitors.
Around the same time, another unique finding resurfaced. Known as the "Jehoash Inscription," the stone tablet was presented as a building inscription describing, in ancient Hebrew script, the renovation work done on the first biblical temple by King Jehoash nearly 3,000 years ago.
It was supposedly the only surviving item of the First Temple ever, constituting evidence of its existence and authentication of the biblical text appearing in the Book of Chronicles.
"The appearance of the two items in late 2002 and early 2003 fired the imaginations of millions of Christians around the world, who received tangible proof of Jesus’ family, and of thousands of Jews who ostensibly now had physical evidence from the First Temple and archaeological verification of the biblical stories," the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement.
After consulting with experts, the IAA concluded that the items were forged "for the purpose of damaging archaeological research, and creating a false impression of the historical evidence, which influenced the belief of millions of people throughout the world -– and all of it was done capriciously, in order to achieve financial gain."
A complaint was filed with the Israel police, the principal suspect being Oded Golan, who was in possession of the two objects.
The trial stretched over more than 100 hearings.
"It is not every day that a court hears a case involving as many topics as this one: archaeology, history, Bible, chemistry, geology, linguistics and more. Testimony was heard on subjects never before discussed or ruled on in court," Judge Aharon Farkash wrote in his ruling.
At the end, "the prosecution failed to prove beyond all 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," the verdict said.
However, the judge did emphasize that it was not possible to determine that the finds presented in the trial –- including the ossuary and the "Jehoash inscription" –- are not forgeries.
"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 the Jesus who appears in Christian writings," the 475-pages-long ruling said.
Eisenman was not surprised by the verdict. He had already predicted it in a Huffington Post article written last year.
"Courts can't determine these things, especially in view of contradictory evidence from so-called experts," Eisenman told Discovery News.
"Anyhow, they can't evaluate 'internal evidence.' No one would have even thought about a 'Jesus' being important at that point. Only people nowadays would think that," he said.
Top photo: The James ossuary; Credit: Paradiso/Wikimedia Commons.
Bottom photo: Detail of the Jehoash inscription; Israel Antiquities Authority.