An inscribed stone that may be the only remnant of Solomon’s Temple has been returned to its owner after an 11-year legal battle waged by the Israeli government.
The Jehoash Tablet, also known as the “Bedek Habayit” inscription, is back in the hands of Tel Aviv collector Oded Golan, who plans to put it on public display in a major museum.
Golan finally retrieved the tablet and hundreds of other items more than two years after he was acquitted of forging priceless antiquities in a seven-year criminal trial and nearly a year after the High Court finally rejected a last-ditch appeal by Israel's state attorney and the Israel Antiquities Authority.
After more than a decade of confrontation, Golan tells me he does not wish to be rushed into his next move.
“Now I should exhibit it,” he says. “When, where, how – I don’t know. I’ll make a decision in the next year.”
“But it should go on display in a major museum so the public can see it for themselves, together with all the test results carried out before and during the trial,” he says.
The Jehoash tablet is a black stone about 12 inches long, 10 inches wide and just over 3 inches thick, chiseled with 15 lines of ancient Hebrew script similar to a passage from the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 12, recording repairs made to the Temple in Jerusalem by King Jehoash around 800 BCE. If authentic, it is the only item yet found that may have come from Solomon's Temple.
Many experts believe it to be a modern forgery. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has led a decade-long legal battle on behalf of the government to claim the tablet for the state. After losing the prosecution and the appeal, the IAA finally returned the tablet to Golan a few weeks ago, together with hundreds of other items seized from him back in 2003.
As the only reporter who has covered this story from beginning to end and sat through a decade of court hearings, I watched in amazement as the IAA embarked on a doomed prosecution that it not only lost, but has now triggered a $2-million lawsuit for wrongful prosecution from Golan’s main co-defendant, the Tel Aviv antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch, who was acquitted on all charges.
Back in 2003, the IAA at first demanded possession of the tablet because of its huge potential significance as the only known remnant of the Temple. Then Education Minister Limor Livnat ordered the IAA to find the stone after reading about it in Haaretz.
Oded Golan agreed to hand over the tablet as part of a written agreement with the Jerusalem district attorney, but was then arrested and charged with forging it and other antiquities, including a stone burial box with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
In 2012, Golan was acquitted on all charges of forgery and Jerusalem District Court Judge Aharon Farkash ordered the IAA to return some 500 items seized in raids on his home and workplaces. “The state insisted on its view that this was not an antiquity, but a forged antiquity. Since, according to the state, it is not an antiquity, it cannot now contend that it owns the tablet according to the Antiquities Law, and therefore by law it should be returned to Golan,” Judge Farkash ruled.
But the state, while continuing to argue that the items were forged, insisted on keeping them and appealed to the High Court. I was astounded when Israel’s state prosecutor tried to argue against Judge Farkash’s steely logic.
When the IAA continued to argue in the High Court that they should keep the tablet, Golan made them an offer: he would loan it to any major museum in Israel if the IAA would confirm that it was a genuine antiquity from Israel. The IAA refused.
Last October, the High Court agreed with Judge Farkash and ordered the return of the items. Last November, the IAA returned the “Brother of Jesus” burial box to Golan. A few weeks ago, they quietly returned the Jehoash Tablet and the remainder of the 500 items they had held since 2003.
While in the safekeeping of the IAA, the tablet broke in two along an existing crack. Ironically, the break helped to prove that Golan had not forged it. The patina, the bio-organic crust that forms on ancient objects, can clearly be seen inside the crack, suggesting that it could not have been made recently.
Golan says he bought the stone from Hasan Akilan, an East Jerusalem dealer, in 1999. The shop inventory shows that Akilan acquired it in 1997. He told Golan it was found in the Muslim cemetery outside the eastern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, right next to the Temple Mount.
Scientists at the Geological Survey of Israel tested the tablet for Golan over several months in 2001 and found no indication of forgery. Instead, they found thousands of sub-microscopic globules of pure gold embedded in the patina, each less than five microns in diameter, as if the tablet had been close to a raging inferno in which golden objects had melted and diffused into tiny droplets. Samples of the patina were sent for Carbon-14 dating to the Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Miami, Florida, who found the patina was approximately 2,200 years old.
In a paper published for the in-house journal of the Geological Survey in late 2002, the geologists stated that they “did not find any petrographic or chemical evidence that the patina was artificially added to the stone.” They proposed “the hypothesis that the tablet is a royal inscription that was placed in Jerusalem at the time of King Jehoash.”
Golan tells me he still isn’t sure exactly what the tablet is.
“It may be from the time of King Jehoash, back in the ninth century,” he says. “It may be a later copy of an original stone that was in the Temple, or even an attempt to inscribe in stone an earlier tradition about King Jehoash’s repairs. Or it could be a forgery that’s only 100 years old. I really don’t know.”
For the moment, the Jehoash Tablet and the James Ossuary are being stored in a secure, undisclosed location.
“They aren’t at my home. Please write that,” he says.