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Israeli court clears 2 of faking Jesus-era box

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JERUSALEM — Is the purported burial box of Jesus' brother James fake or authentic?

Seven years of trial, testimony from dozens of experts and a 475-page verdict Wednesday failed to come up with an answer.

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.

Golan said the ruling put an end to what he portrayed as 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, is authentic and a "prized artifact to the world of Christianity."

The Israel Antiquities Authority, which believes Golan's most high-profile items are forged, said the case shows the limits of science in proving forgeries, 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 Wednesday that 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," Farkash wrote.

The case of the burial box is likely to be irrelevant to believers.

Stephen Pfann, an archaeologist and president of the Christian Holy Land University, said Christians don't need objects to prop up their faith. "In a way, there will always be that necessity of faith to be involved in a person's convictions, whether or not we find artifacts associated with the story," he said.

Much of the trial focused on the patina over the inscriptions of the ossuary and a second find, a stone tablet purportedly carrying instructions by King Yoash of the 9th century B.C. on maintenance at the Jewish Temple. The patina is a thin layer of grime that can attest to the age of engravings.

At one point, the prosecutor brought a camp stove, chalk, beaker and other ingredients to show how easy it is to make fake patina, said journalist Matthew Kalman, a frequent trial observer. The defense then used the same technique to show that fake patina doesn't stick to stone.

"It began to look like a high school chemistry class," said Kalman, editor of The Jerusalem Report magazine.

The saga began in 2002 when Golan sent the ossuary with the Aramaic inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" to Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. Shanks was among its early enthusiasts, publishing the first report on it in 2002.