For as long as man has worshipped a god, there have been forgers, crafty hucksters who seize on a believer's desire to possess material proof of the divine. In Jerusalem, it is a bountiful trade. The old adage is that if all the splinters of the True Cross were gathered from across Christendom, it would yield a wooden crucifix the size of a Manhattan skyscraper. Even back in the Middle Ages, pilgrims visiting Jerusalem told of hawkers who sold counterfeit bones and relics of saints.
But indisputable historical evidence that Jesus Christ, or any of the other Biblical prophets, truly existed is something that eludes religious scholars. There was therefore much excitement in 2001 when a reclusive Tel Aviv collector, Oded Golan, announced that a stone reliquary had come into his possession inscribed with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The discovery of the ossuary was hailed in some quarters as a spectacular archaeological find solidly circumstantial proof, at last, of Christ's existence. For it would have held the remains of the Apostle James, who was killed in A.D. 62 and is described in the Bible as Jesus' brother.
When the James ossuary toured Canada in October 2002, it attracted thousands of the curious and faithful. Some visitors kneeled in quiet prayer. But back in Israel, police detectives, along with a growing posse of biblical scholars, were growing skeptical of the ossuary's authenticity. After a two-year investigation, police in December 2004 charged the antiquities collector and four others of forgery, alleging that the James ossuary was a clever fake and that Golan had masterminded an international ring of thieves that over the past 20 years had duped major museums and collectors out of millions. Put on trial, Golan denied the charges, and some experts and the pious rallied to his side. Nevertheless, one of the detectives insisted, "Oded Golan played with our beliefs, the beliefs of Jews and Christians. That is why it's the fraud of the century."
The extraordinary story of how Israeli detectives built a case against Golan and his alleged cohorts is the subject of Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land by Nina Burleigh, a former TIME staffer who now writes for People. In fast, noir-ish prose imagine Sam Spade in the Holy Land Burleigh tracks her story through the twilight world of Arab grave robbers and smugglers to the glimmering salon of a billionaire collector in Mayfair whose mission, writes Burleigh, is "proving the Bible true." Past accounts of the James ossuary are fiercely partisan, written by debunkers or true believers. But Burleigh keeps her balance, and her humor, as she sifts far more diligently than many archaeologists through the evidence. She also has unprecedented access to all the major players in the James ossuary debate: dogged police detectives, sharp-witted antiquarians, Bible-besotted collectors and suspected forgers of near genius.
Like any other Holy Land story, it's a potent mix of religion and politics. As Burleigh writes, "Where historians seek clues to the puzzle of the ancient worlds, evangelical Christians seek proof of the literal interpretation of the Bible and nationalist Israelis want evidence of ancient Jewish inhabitation."
The James ossuary provided all of that, and more. At first detectives from the Israel Antiquities Authority suspected that the ossuary was authentic but had been stolen from a site by Arab grave diggers and sold to Golan. Israeli sleuths say they discovered that the limestone casket was indeed authentic, and dated back to the correct period of A.D. 60. But the key inscription, linking the object to Jesus Christ, was a clever fake. An analysis of the patina also revealed the presence of Tel Aviv tap water. In his defense, Golan claims it was because his mother occasionally scrubbed the ossuary with soap and water, not realizing its historical value.
Believers and scientists alike were shocked by the accusations that not only was the James ossuary a fake but so were two other rare objects of biblical significance: an inscribed pomegranate and the gold-flecked Jehoash tablet, which both supposedly came from Solomon's Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C. Those two relics are linked to Golan's workshop, say police. As Burleigh describes it, the debate over the authenticity of these sacred items pitted scientists against believers. She writes, "The faithful those who believe in a higher, supernatural power that leaves a material record of itself for man to literally hold and behold must also confront and grapple with the painful presence of doubt."
Meanwhile, Golan's trial, with its parade of more than 75 scientists and biblical scholars, is likely to drag on for another year. But Golan maintained in an interview with TIME that he is innocent of all charges and that since the trial began experts have come forth to prove that both the inscriptions on the James ossuary and the Jehoash tablet are genuine. Even after the judge finally decides whether Golan was an innocent collector or a master forger, it's likely that the debate between skeptics and believers over the James ossuary and its supposed proof of Christ's historical existence will rage on long afterward.