According to popular lore, a young Bedouin shepherd was searching for a stray sheep during a routine jaunt in 1947 when he chanced upon a cave nestled in the steep cliffs surrounding the northwestern reaches of the Dead Sea. The shepherd threw a rock into the dark expanse and, after hearing the echo of shattering clay pots, ventured within for a closer look. Inside, he found a series of old parchments that ultimately led scholars to one of the 20th century’s most significant religious discoveries: the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of more than 900 manuscripts that represent the world's oldest and most complete version of the Hebrew Bible.
As Daniel Burke reports for CNN, the Washington, D.C.-based Museum of the Bible, which has been mired in controversy since opening last November, has long touted its 16 Dead Sea Scroll fragments as collection highlights. But new analysis by an outside group confirms what scholars have been saying—that five of these treasured scrolls appear to be forgeries, and further study of the remaining fragments may yield similarly disappointing results.
Authorized buyers for the Green family—owners of arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby Incorporated—purchased the 16 fragments between 2009 and 2014, according to Burke. At the time, the Green family was in the midst of acquiring a vast collection of some 40,000 artifacts, many of which were intended for the collections of a private museum of the Bible that they were planning. The spree of purchases “set dealers buzzing in the staid world of rare books,” a New York Times article wrote in 2010, noting that “[t]he buying has also spawned some skepticism about the overall quality of purchases made in such rapid-fire style.”
More problematically than the quality of the artifacts purchased, though, was the way they were initially acquired. As Joel Baden, a professor at Yale Divinity school and co-author of a book on the Greens, Bible Nation, summarizes to CNN's Burke, "Every antiquities seller knew the Greens were buying everything and not asking questions about anything."
Those early collecting practices ultimately landed Hobby Lobby in hot water with the U.S. Justice Department: As NPR’s Richard Gonzales reported last July, the company had to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts after the government determined those items had been smuggled into the country.
The museum first published details of its Dead Sea Scroll fragments in 2016. This occasion marked outside scholars' first chance to view the scrolls, Candida Moss, professor of theology at University of Birmingham, and co-author of Bible Nation, writes for the Daily Beast, and many expressed concerns that the museum could not provide detailed accounts of the papers' provenance.
According to a press release, after the museum learned there were questions surrounding the fragments’ authenticity, it sent five Dead Sea Scrolls to Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM). When the museum debuted in fall 2017, however, it kept some of the remaining Dead Sea Scroll fragments on view with a detailed note explaining that researchers were looking into their authenticity.
Trinity Western University paleographer Kipp Davis, who has been one of the fragments’ foremost investigators, was initially invited to look at the museum's then-unpublished fragments. After he raised similar concerns about their authenticity, the museum granted him funds for additional study of the fragments.
In the museum’s new statement, Davis says, “My studies to date have managed to confirm upon a preponderance of different streams of evidence the high probability that at least seven fragments in the museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls collection are modern forgeries, but conclusions on the status of the remaining fragments are still forthcoming.”
BAM, meanwhile, after conducting its own extensive array of tests, including 3D digital microscopy and X-ray scans of the ink, concluded the scrolls exhibited “characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin,” pointing to their status as modern forgeries.
The museum says that of its 16 total scrolls, seven will no longer be displayed, while nine will undergo additional testing. A spokesperson tells Burke that three of the nine earmarked for testing are currently on view alongside signs addressing issues of authenticity.
The forgeries are part of a larger saga of modern-day Dead Sea Scroll forgeries. As the Times of Israel’s Amanda Borschel-Dan writes, in 2002, the private antiquity market was suddenly flooded with purported fragments of the legendary manuscripts. Prior to this point, acquiring fragments was notoriously difficult, as the majority were held by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (the Times notes that in lieu of the announcement, the IAA was quick to point out that all of its scrolls have been thoroughly authenticated).
Some of these fragments came from the collection of William Kando, Borschel-Dan reported in a 2017 article for the Times. Kando, son of respected Dead Sea Scrolls dealer Khalil Eskander Shahin, sold selections from the family’s accumulated assortment of scrolls following his father’s death in 1993, timing their release to coincide with high demand across the antiquities market.
But as Davis explains to Borschel-Dan, these credible fragments weren’t the only ones to pop up toward the end of the century. He says, “I tend to think that the market changed sometime in the mid- to late-1990s, when suddenly all these very strange fragments started to appear that had no trace of any kind of provenance.”
Arstein Justnes, a bible studies professor at the University of Agder in Norway, was one of several scholars who voiced concern that the museum's acquisitions could be forgeries. As he tells the Guardian's Peter Beaumont and Oliver Laughland, a large proportion of the fragments that recently appeared on the market just so happened to contain books from the Bible. According to Nina Burleigh of Newsweek magazine, these passages addressed “sensational and pricey” h0t-button topics like homosexuality—subjects she writes were designed to appeal to the beliefs of wealthy American evangelicals, such as the Green family.
Justnes runs a website—the Lying Pen of Scribes—dedicated to revealing forgeries amongst the post-2002 alleged Dead Sea Scroll fragments. As he tells CNN’s Burke, findings outlined on the site suggest a staggering 90 percent of the more than 70 new arrivals are fake.
In a statement, the museum's chief curatorial officer, Jeffrey Kloha, reached for the silver lining in the report. "Though we had hoped the testing would render different results," he says, "this is an opportunity to educate the public on the importance of verifying the authenticity of rare biblical artifacts, the elaborate testing process undertaken and our commitment to transparency."