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What 'Jesus hoax' could mean for Mideast antiques

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The news made national front pages and when the ossuary went on display at a Toronto museum for a few short weeks; more than 100,000 people flocked to see it. In a skeptical age ruled by science, the ossuary offered a tangible link to faith and was touted as such. It was "the first and only archaeological attestation of Jesus of Nazareth," said Mr. Shanks at the time.

For Christians who believe in the historical truth of the Bible, the ossuary was a rebuttal to skeptics. For others, it revived interest in Jesus' brother, who led the early church and advocated a faith that encompassed Jews still loyal to Judaism as well as Gentile converts.

Many people also saw the ossuary as an implicit challenge to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian theology, which holds that Jesus' mother, Mary, was a perpetual virgin and had no other children.

Theological questions were followed by archaeological doubt, despite authentication by the Geological Survey of Israel. For starters, Shanks's reputation among archeologists as a courter of publicity did not engender confidence.

When the collector was identified as a high-tech businessman named Oded Golan, Israeli officials stepped in. Israel sharply limits the number of antiquity merchant licenses offered each year and forbids unlicensed citizens like Mr. Golan from trading, selling, or exporting archaeological finds.

IAA officials seized the ossuary on its return from Toronto and took a look at the rest of Golan's collection. In it, they found yet another item worth solid gold, archaeologically speaking: the Yoash Inscription.

The charred sandstone tablet, three inches thick and just under a foot long, was covered in four ancient scripts describing King Yoash's attempts to renovate the Temple. In this part of the world, where Israelis and Palestinians bitterly contest every rock, the Yoash Inscription was a stone of particular importance.

Both peoples would like sovereignty over the area where the Jewish Temple stood and where one of Islam's holiest shrines now gleams in the sun.

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