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Post Info TOPIC: Hoaxes from the Holy Land

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Hoaxes from the Holy Land

The faltering prosecution of an antiquities dealer in the James ossuary case underscores problems in authenticating biblical artifacts.

Israeli authorities called it "the fraud of the century": fakes passed off as archaeological finds with biblical ties. The most notorious object was the James ossuary, a limestone box inscribed in Aramaic with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Five men were charged, and the trial has been dragging on for three years.

But it may all be crashing to a halt. A few weeks ago, the judge -- who is hearing the case without a jury -- told the government lawyers he's not convinced the objects are forgeries and suggested they consider dropping the matter. If the authorities can't make their case, experts warn that the antiquities market -- and a proof-hungry religious public -- inevitably will be fed groundbreaking biblical "discoveries" as far-fetched as Solomon's crown and Abraham's sandals.

The James ossuary first made world news in 2002. Hershel Shanks, an American lawyer and publisher of an archaeology journal for Bible history enthusiasts, arranged a news conference and presented the box as the first archaeological evidence of the materiality of Christ. Shanks then wrote a book, sold the film rights and arranged a blockbuster museum exhibition in Canada. In 2003, tens of thousands of people waited in line in an Ontario January to file past it, some in silent prayer.

The James ossuary, however, was not discovered by archaeologists working at a dig. It emerged from the private antiquities market in Israel -- a colorful, murky world in which a small group of licensed dealers buy and sell pieces of ancient history often illegally plundered from one of the 30,000 archaeological sites in Israel and the West Bank.

In Israel, news of the James ossuary was quickly overshadowed by another explosive discovery in early 2003 -- again from the private market -- of an inscribed stone purported to be the first archaeological evidence of Solomon's temple. Nicknamed the Joash Tablet, the sandstone held 16 lines of text remarkably similar to a passage in the Old Testament referring to repairs made to the temple.

The tablet was never officially exhibited: A man formerly with the Israeli secret service had been running around Israel with it in a case handcuffed to his wrist, showing it to selected authenticators. Israeli authorities jumped in to investigate because of the tablet's obvious potential to inflame the ever-contentious issue of who should control the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

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