A Jerusalem judge has asked the prosecution to consider dropping charges against an antiquities collector accused of forging an ancient burial box that was touted as the first physical evidence of Jesus.
Last week, the judge questioned whether the prosecution during the three-year trial had proved "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the artifacts were fakes and whether it had "definitive proof" that Israeli collector Oded Golan faked the archaeological artifacts.
The Justice Ministry has been given six months to decide how to proceed with the case but has not indicated what it plans to decide, the Jerusalem Post reported.
"We will state our position - whatever it will be - in court as is the accepted practice," a ministry spokeswoman said in a statement.
The two main artifacts said to be fakes were a limestone burial box thought to belong to Jesus' brother and a black stone tablet thought to refer to repairs made to the Temple in Jerusalem by the biblical King Joash.
The "James ossuary," reportedly bears the inscription, "James, son of Joseph brother of Jesus," leading experts to believe the box contained the burial remains of James, the brother of Jesus Christ.
It gained widespread attention when it was displayed by Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. In the same month, the journal Biblical Archaeology Review claimed the ossuary was the first direct physical link to Jesus' existence.
At the time, Golan, owner of the James ossuary and the Joash tablet, said he bought the ancient box from a antiquities dealer in the 1970s.
Archaeologists and antiquities authorities, however, had raised doubts about the authenticity of the pieces, prompting an investigation by both scholars and police.
Tests by experts confirmed the burial box dated back to 60 A.D. But the Israel Antiquities Authority declared the inscription of the ossuary a forgery after examining the box.
"The inscription appears new, written in modernity by someone attempting to reproduce ancient written characters," the group of researches had stated. "The inscriptions, possibly inscribed in two separate stages, are not authentic."
IAA also explained that the Aramaic inscription appeared to be carved through layers of patina, a thin coating acquired by aging. The officials also found traces of Tel Aviv tap water in the patina.
For the Joash tablet, the researchers concluded the inscription was written by someone thinking in modern Hebrew.
A two-year investigation by the police also uncovered an elaborate forgery lab in Golan's home. Alleging the James ossuary was a clever fake, the police in December 2004 charged the antiquities collector and four others with 18 counts of forgery, fraud and damaging archaeological artifacts.
"This was fraud of a sophistication and expertise which was previously unknown," said policeman Shaul Naim, who headed the investigation, according to Chronicle Foreign Service. "They took authentic items and added inscriptions to make them worth millions."
Charges against two of the men were later dropped. A third pleaded guilty to a minor charge, unrelated to the main charge. Golan and antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch remain on trial as the leaders of a forgery ring.
Golan and Deutsch have both denied the charges, insisting that the artifacts are indeed real and that they did not fake anything.
The Biblical Archaeology Review has continued to stand by the authenticity of the inscription of the James ossuary. The journal took the judge's latest comments as a sign of vindication, saying the trial "has all but blown up."
According to the BAR, Yuval Goren, former chairman of Tel Aviv University's institute of archaeology, admitted during cross-examination that there is genuine patina in the word "Jesus," the last word in the inscription that reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
The story of the ossuary is the subject of a new book Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land by Nina Burleigh.