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What 'Jesus hoax' could mean for Mideast antiques

Once hailed as Biblical proof, forged antiquities now raise questions about other artifacts in Israeli museums

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The first archeological link to Jesus - a stone box said to hold the bones of his brother James - and a tablet detailing repairs to the ancient Jewish Temple are fakes, say officials of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

The announcement Wednesday ended months of professional speculation about the veracity of the timeworn relics, hailed as discoveries of stunning religious, historical, and contemporary significance.

The ossuary, with its mysterious provenance, fired popular imagination, renewing discussion of Christian theology and the links between early Christianity and Judaism. The objects' demotion to skilled forgeries now opens a new chapter, raising questions about the murky antiquities trade in Israel and beyond.

"How many more items are in museums that are not authentic, items from the antiquities market and not from archaeological sites?" asks Gideon Avni, director of the Excavations and Surveys Department at the IAA.

"It's the most serious question that this incident should raise," adds Dr. Avni, "that of forgeries getting into museums upon which research is based and conclusions are drawn."

News of the James Ossuary broke in October 2002, when Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archeology Review, called a Washington press conference to reveal a story with the familiarity and romance of fable.

He told of an anonymous Israeli collector buying the shoebox-sized container in the 1970s, then relegating it to his balcony, thinking it ugly. In spring 2002, a French academic came to see some of the collector's 30 ossuaries and as an afterthought, the collector showed him a photo of the James Ossuary's inscription.

The academic instantly deciphered the Aramaic, a language spoken by 1st century Jews. Grooved deeply into the ocher-colored stone, the letters read, "James, son of Joseph" and then more faintly, "brother of Jesus."

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