Forgery of the century? Israel in decade-long war over biblical artifacts

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A 10-year legal battle is drawing to a close in the Holy Land over several astounding biblical relics, including a limestone box said to have held the bones of the purported brother of Jesus and the first-ever relic of biblical King Solomon's First Temple.

But are they real or the greatest hoax in a hundred years?

Last year, the Israel Antiquities Authority failed to prove in court that the items were forged by antiquities collector Oded Golan. Now the IAA seems to have changed its tune, and the two parties found themselves in court again in early August. Now Israel wants to own the items it spent a decade calling fake.

"We understand the situation differently now," the state argued in court, according to Jerusalem-based journalist Matthew Kalman. "It's ours ... and we have the right to do whatever we want with our property."

The Israeli Supreme Court will soon rule on who will possess the items, Golan or the state -- a crazy situation, said Hershel Shanks, editor-in-chief of Biblical Archaeology Review.

'If you can produce something that scholars will debate, then you've got the potential [to make] millions.'

— Jonathan Rosenbaum, an expert in antiquities forgery

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"They've been charging him for a dozen years, making his life miserable, arresting him, confining him to his home, causing enormous expense ... and now they seem to be saying it's authentic? It's hard to understand," he told

The Solomon-era relic is at the forefront of the battle. Called the Yoash tablet, it is a rectangular stone about the size of a hardbound book, inscribed with 15 lines of ancient script detailing repairs made to Solomon's temple, which echo a passage from the Old Testament.

According to the Bible, Solomon built the First Temple on Mount Zion where the modern Dome of the Rock currently stands. (King Herod built the Second Temple on the same site, of which the Wailing Wall is the last remaining part.) Said to have been destroyed in 587 B.C., there is no proof of the First Temple outside of the Bible -- save for the Yoash tablet.

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The other item is an ossuary, a limestone box built to hold the bones of the dead. Called the James ossuary, the small stone box has an inscription that reads, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." If authentic, it would be considered the first physical link to Jesus.

When a French archaeologist suggested the bone box might be more than just an ordinary relic, Golan put it on display at a museum. Two years later, the IAA began questioning its authenticity. And after 10 years, 12,000 pages of documents, and more than 100 hearings, the world of archaeology is more divided than ever.

"In its heart of hearts, the state thinks ... that one day it will turn out that the inscription is not fake," Golan's defense attorney David Barhum said, Kalman reported.

The state now maintains that the inscription on the limestone box and the tablet are forged -- but the stones themselves are ancient and therefore belong to the state.

For its part, the IAA declined to comment after several days of repeated efforts by

"The IAA does not give interviews on that issue," the agency said.

The challenge in proving the Yoash tablet real is that it was found at an antiquities store, and not in the ground, explained Jonathan Rosenbaum, an expert in antiquities forgery and president emeritus of Gratz College in Pennsylvania.

"We have no way of really knowing its background and where it came from. This is a common problem," he told

Experts look at three areas to determine authenticity: the style of the writing, the language of the inscription and the geological makeup of the material. Experts in these three fields have come to different conclusions, Rosenbaum said, but he believes it to be a fake.

"The likelihood is it could be forged. And a number of scholars would probably lean in that direction," he said.

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As to the James ossuary, Rosenbaum explains that it would be easy for an antiquities collector to come into possession of a relic and simply add a controversial inscription.

"All they had to do was put words on it and it becomes historically significant. With the James ossuary, the box is authentic, but the inscription added on is not."

Forgers would have a huge financial motive to fake ancient artifacts, especially ones of these significance. Rosenbaum estimates the Yoash tablet could fetch millions.

"If you can produce something that scholars will debate, then you've got the potential if you are the owner for millions," he told

He suggests that the James ossuary and the Yoash tablet be held for safe keeping while the experts determine their authenticity.

"Hopefully in a few years we will know the truth."