It seemed too good to be true.
Within the space of a few short weeks in
the winter of 2002, the dry world of Biblical antiquities was electrified by the
announcement of two major discoveries.
One was a first-century limestone
burial box, or ossuary, inscribed with the Aramaic words “James, son of Joseph,
brother of Jesus.” The second was a black stone tablet that appeared to have
hung on the wall of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
If genuine, they would
be the first items ever recovered that could be directly linked with the family
of Jesus and the Temple of Solomon. But no sooner had they appeared than they
were swept into the dustbin of archaeological scholarship, denounced as
forgeries and seized by the Israel Police.
Suspicion of foul play mounted
as both items were eventually traced to a single man: Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv
antiquities collector and business entrepreneur. Golan was arrested. His home,
offices and a string of storehouses in Tel Aviv were raided by police and
antiquities officials, who carted away hundreds of papers, artifacts, tools and
In June 2003, two committees of experts appointed by the
Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) declared both items fakes. A criminal
indictment issued in December 2004 placed Golan at the center of a sophisticated
international forgery ring. He was charged with 44 separate crimes including
fraud, forgery and deception. If found guilty, he faced seven years in
In autumn 2005, Golan and four codefendants went on trial before
Judge Aharon Farkash in the Jerusalem District Court. One defendant pleaded
guilty. Charges against two others were eventually dropped. In March 2012, Golan
was acquitted on all 41 of the most serious crimes and convicted of just three
minor misdemeanors unrelated to the ossuary or the tablet. His one remaining
codefendant was cleared on all counts.
But despite Golan’s acquittal, the
IAA continues to regard him as a crook, refusing to return any of the items they
seized in 2003.
Back home at his apartment in Tel Aviv, lined with
glass-fronted display cabinets containing dozens of ancient artifacts, Golan
says the IAA seems determined to punish him even though he is innocent. He is
just as determined to get the artifacts back and put them on public
“I think these pieces, the ossuary and the public. Definitely,”
Golan tells The Jerusalem Report. “It could be an extremely interesting
exhibition even if you devote two-thirds of it to the question of how come
somebody thought they are not authentic.”
“It’s important to
get them back.” says.
Golan, who insists he has “never faked any
antiquity.” He seems more bemused than bitter at the IAA’s continued campaign
that even the judge referred to as a “witch hunt.”
He says he is still
considering an appeal against his conviction on the three charges of illegal
trade in antiquities and handling goods suspected of being stolen. He believes
it is invalid because the items were not from Israel.
“I don’t know. I
haven’t decided. I will decide according to the behavior of the government,” he
He is likely to be disappointed. Judge Farkash is expected to rule
in August on the fate of the artifacts. In the eyes of the archaeological
establishment, despite his complete exoneration by the judge after an exhaustive
seven-year trial, Golan remains a crook. At the time of his arrest, the police
and the IAA believed they had caught a master criminal and major
“We still do,” a senior IAA official tells The Report. “We know
that he produced the artifacts.”
Farkash clearly disagrees. In a detailed
475- page written verdict delivered on March 14, Farkash found enough reasonable
doubt to acquit Golan on all the forgery charges and shredded the scientific
evidence presented by the 74 prosecution witnesses. Scientific arguments about
the oxygen isotope values on the items proved unreliable. In one blistering
swipe, Farkash describes the prosecution testimony as “illogical, completely
unreasonable and totally unacceptable.”
Golan, now 60, makes an unlikely
criminal. He was born into the Tel Aviv elite. His grandfather founded one of
Israel’s major insurance companies and the family purchased land in the state’s
early years that is now worth millions. His father is an engineer and his mother
a world-renowned biochemist.
Golan studied engineering and became a
serial entrepreneur with successful businesses in travel, architectural seminars
and educational software. He is also an accomplished photographer and plays
concert-level classical piano on the white baby grand in his living room. If he
is guilty of masterminding an international forgery ring, it is not because he
needs the money.
It is also hard to understand the psychology that would
drive a successful, brilliant man to destroy what is clearly the great love of
his life. Golan’s mother recalls that he was only eight years old when he led a
group of friends to explore an archaeological mound near his home in Tel Aviv,
bringing home pieces of pottery that he glued together in his bedroom.
the age of 10, he stumbled across a small clay tablet inscribed with ancient
lettering while walking with his parents near the Sea of Galilee. It proved to
be the oldest dictionary yet unearthed, seven lines of a 4,000-year-old phrase
book in Akkadian and Sumerian.
He wrote to archaeologist Yigael Yadin to
inform him of the discovery. Within days, Yadin came knocking at the door of the
family home in Tel Aviv, asking to see “Mr.Golan,” not realizing that
the learned scholar who had sent him a postcard was a schoolboy.
escorted the professor to his bedroom to show him the artifact and agreed to let
Yadin take it back to Jerusalem for analysis.
His mother served tea and
Two years later, when Yadin advertised for
volunteers to help him excavate Masada, the site of a doomed last stand by
zealot Jews against the Romans, Golan phoned the professor and begged to be
allowed to join the expedition, even though the minimum age was 18. Yadin
agreed, on condition that the 12-year-old was brought to Masada by his parents.
Too small to help with the heavy manual labor, Golan stayed a week at the camp,
washing the items discovered at the dig and climbing the Snake Path up the
mountain every day to see the excavations.
When Israel captured the West
Bank in the 1967 Six Day War, the summer that Golan finished 10th grade, he
leaped at the opportunity to explore the biblical heartland of ancient
“I started traveling to the West Bank,” Golan recalls. “I
couldn’t tell my parents I was going and there was no public transport.
didn’t have money for a taxi. So I went to the East Jerusalem bus station and
caught buses to Bethlehem, Hebron and other places.
For six months I
traveled to the West Bank, skipping school two days a week.”
He became a
regular visitor to the antiquities dealers in East Jerusalem, who took a shine
to this eager young man with his fast-developing knowledge of antiquities,
Arabic and ancient languages.
Golan says it was some time in the early
1970s that he purchased a simple stone ossuary from one of these dealers, Ot’man
Waz-Waz, that was typical of the type used by Jews in Roman times. After death,
the corpse would be wrapped in a shroud and laid in a cave. After a year,
relatives would unseal the tomb, collect the bones and place them in an ossuary.
Sometimes, they would inscribe the name of the deceased on the box. Ossuaries of
the wealthy were often richly decorated with carved rosettes and other
The limestone box was added to Golan’s growing collection. A
photograph snapped by chance in the mid-1970s – deemed genuine by a former FBI
photographic expert – shows it beneath the shelves on the porch outside his
bedroom at his parents’ home. Books from the Technion library that Golan was
using at the time for his studies are clearly visible, together with a telephone
directory from 1974.
This photograph would later become a key piece of
evidence in Golan’s defense.
The indictment accused him of adding the
second part of the inscription – “brother of Jesus” – to the original text. The
words are clearly visible in the photograph. The prosecution was unable to
convince Judge Farkash that the picture was another cunning Golan forgery. In
interviews published before any criminal charges were even considered, Golan’s
parents recalled him taking the box with him when he left home after
A former girlfriend who was with Golan between 1972 and 1977 –
and whose picture is on the shelf in the photograph – testified that she
remembered the box and the inscription because her name was Mor Yosef and she
could clearly read the words “bar Yosef” (son of Joseph). She also remembered
thinking that it was a disgusting thing to keep in a bedroom and she had urged
Golan to get rid of it. Golan says he kept the ossuary but thought little of it.
In 2001, Andre Lemaire, a visiting professor of ancient languages from the
Sorbonne, was leafing through the albums of Golan’s collection when he came
across a photograph of the ossuary with the eyepopping inscription “James, son
of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
Golan was surprised by Lemaire’s
He had thought the ossuary worthless. “I didn’t know much about
Christianity,” he says. “I never knew Jesus had a brother. The inscription meant
nothing to me.” Lemaire wanted to publish the ossuary in the Biblical Archeology
Review. Golan agreed, but they decided to carry out some scientific tests to add
to Lemaire’s language expertise.
A few weeks later, Golan brought the
ossuary to Jerusalem for a meeting with Amos Bein, director of the Geological
Survey of Israel. Swearing Bein and his staff to secrecy, Golan asked if the box
could be checked. Bein called in two of his top scientists: Shimon Ilani and
Amnon Rosenfeld. Ilani was an expert in iron and geochemistry. Rosenfeld was a
micropaleontologist who specialized in the study of
Working with Michael Dvorachek, an expert in the use of a
scanning electron microscope, they had developed a reputation for their
pioneering use of geological tools to study archaeological items. For more than
a decade, Israeli museums and archaeologists had beaten a path to their door,
asking them to examine a wide variety of items. The results of their research
had been published in scientific journals around the world, earning them
international respect. Over the several sessions, the scientists submitted the
ossuary to a barrage of tests to determine its authenticity.
of the ossuary and the grooves of the engraved letters were covered in a thin
film known as patina, a naturally-occurring crust that forms on ancient objects
that is a mixture of water, calcium carbonate, windborn particles and local
minerals. Through a microscope, the geologists observed that the same patina,
varying in color from gray to beige, was found on the ossuary and inside some of
the letters. They took six samples of patina from the surface of the ossuary and
inside the inscription and studied them with a scanning electron microscope
equipped with an electron dispersive spectrometer.
letter dated September 17, 2002, to the editor of the Biblical Archeology
Review, Rosenfeld and Ilani wrote that the patina bore no traces of any modern
elements and they saw no indication of the use of modern tools or instruments.
“No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the
inscription was found,” they concluded.
Golan did not draw the attention
of the geologists to the potential importance of the inscription and they, all
Jews, were equally ignorant of Christianity. “We were not at all excited,” Amnon
Rosenfeld tells The Report.
“I did not know that Jesus had
Meanwhile, in September 2001, a private detective called
Itzhak Tsuriel arrived at the Geological Survey of Israel on Malchei Yisrael
Street in Jerusalem carrying a briefcase. Inside, wrapped in a cloth generally
used to clean floors, was a rectangular black stone tablet about 12 inches long,
10 inches wide and just over 3 inches thick. The top was broken and there was a
crack across the middle. One face of the stone was polished and very flat, while
the reverse was wavy and smooth. The flat side was covered in engraved letters
forming 15 lines in ancient script meticulously inscribed into a rectangular
panel set inside a neatly chiseled border.
Tsuriel was carrying the
tablet on behalf of Isaac Herzog, a respected attorney and former cabinet
minister. Herzog had been instructed by the owner of the tablet to send it to
Amos Bein. It seemed like one more obscure archaeological artifact – until they
“When we saw it, we started to laugh,” Rosenfeld recalls. The
text appeared to be a famous passage from the Second Book of Kings recording
repairs made to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem around 800
Nothing like this had ever been found before.
If it was
authentic, it was worth a fortune.
It could be the only artifact ever
found that might prove the existence of the First Temple, built in the 9th
century BCE and destroyed by the Babylonians 300-400 years later.
immediately said it was a forgery. We couldn’t believe our eyes. It’s obvious
what’s written on it. You can read it. Suddenly you find some piece of the Bible
in front of you. It was impossible,” he says.
The scientists asked
Tsuriel to leave the tablet with them, but he refused to let it out of his
sight. He returned three times so they could carry out their tests.
starting point was that this is a forgery and we should find something bad about
it,” says Rosenfeld. But the three-man team, sworn to secrecy, was disappointed
– and elated.
“We examined it over a period of one year and we couldn’t
find anything wrong with it,” he says.
What they did find amazed
Embedded in the patina were thousands of sub-microscopic globules
of pure gold – as if the tablet had been close to a raging inferno in which
golden objects had melted and then diffused into tiny droplets in the intense
The gold globules, each less than five microns in diameter, were
visible only under the electron scanning microscope, an instrument so sensitive
it would be able to detect the slightest particles of modern material. There
Samples of the patina were sent for Carbon-14 dating to the
Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Miami, Florida. According to the
lab report dated 5 June, 2002, the patina was approximately 2,200 years
In a paper prepared for the in-house journal of the
Geological Survey, the geologists said they “did not find any petrographic or
chemical evidence that the patina was artificially added to the stone.” Gently,
they proposed that the results of their examination “may lead to the hypothesis
that the tablet is a royal inscription that was placed in Jerusalem at the time
of King Jehoash.”