Friday, March 16, 2012

Verdict on the James Ossuary Trial

After hearing 138 witnesses, considering over 400 evidentiary exhibits, and reflecting an inordinate length of time over a 12,000 page trial transcript, Judge Aharon Farkash has arrived at a verdict, and he supports his finding with a written opinion over 400 pages in length. Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch are not guilty of antiquities forgery. I am sure there is a very good reason why it took five years to try this case, and I'd like very much for someone to explain it to me.

The burden of proof in Israel is the same as in the United States--beyond a reasonable doubt. It seems to me that it shouldn't have taken the judge five years to figure out that the prosecution was not going to be able to carry its burden of proof. It seems that the prosecution at some point would have realized they weren't going to be able to convict the defendants and moved to dismiss the case. Although I have not followed the case closely, I was a prosecutor long enough to be able to size up the prosecutive merit of a case without reading the entire file. It seemed to me from the outset that the case reeked of reasonable doubt.

In 2002 the news broke that Oded Golan had an ossuary (a bone box) inscribed with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." (First Century Jerusalemite Jews practiced two-stage burial.  They would put an unembalmed body into a cave to await decomposition, and when the body fully decomposed, they would put the bones in an ossuary). A number of highly reputable experts pronounced the ossuary to be a genuine relic of the First Century, and a number of others ballyhooed the ossuary as belonging to James the Just, who was mentioned in Josephus, the Gospels and Acts as the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

Although almost all experts have adjudged the ossuary to be genuine, some have claimed that the words "...the brother of Jesus" were added centuries later. The issue(s) at trial became: Are the words "...the brother of Jesus" original or were they added later? Did Golan and his co-defendants (a) forge the words, or (b) know that the words were forged?

The acquittal really answers none of those questions. At a minimum, it simply means that the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Golan and his co-defendants knew the words were forged. At a maximum, it means that the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the words were forged.

Based on the little I have read on the case, I think the inscription is genuinely that of a man named James ben Joseph who had a brother named Jesus; but the man is not necessarily James the Just, brother of Jesus of Nazareth. You might say "It's highly improbable that there could be two men in First Century Jerusalem who were named James ben Joseph and had a brother named Jesus." To that I would respond "It's highly improbable that two unrelated men named Will West, who had identical facial features and biometrics, could both go to Leavenworth Prison in the early 1900's; but it happened." The incident led to the abandonment by American law enforcement agencies of the Bertillon System as a method of identifying suspects. They replaced it with a new system of fingerprinting.