At Least Five Dead Sea Scroll Fragments at the Museum of the Bible Are Fake
The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. has announced some news that has shocked the archaeological community and scholars around the world. The museum has revealed that some of its most precious artifacts are forgeries. Five papyri fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls are now believed to be fake and modern forgeries. This is raising questions not only about the Museum’s policy but also demonstrates the sophistication of modern forgers of antiquities.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1948 in some caves in the West Bank. They are mainly papyrus scrolls produced by an Ancient Jewish sect and have allowed researchers to have a better understanding of the development of early Judaism and Christianity. Among the manuscripts in the Dead Sea Scrolls are some of the earliest copies of Biblical texts ever found, some of them date back to the time of Christ.
The cave of Qumran place of the dead Sea Scrolls where found. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Washington Museum of the Bible
The Museum of the Bible was founded by the Evangelical Christian billionaire Steve Green, who owns the Hobby Lobby retail chain. It is a cultural and educational institute that is dedicated to preserving ancient biblical texts and promoting the study of the Bible. The Museum is relatively new and was only opened in 2017 and it has spent many millions on biblical artifacts and texts.
Some of the most valuable exhibits in the institution were five fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is because the vast majority of the texts found in in the West Bank are on display in Jerusalem. The scrolls were purchased by the museum, in 2017, with the aid of its founder and his company Hobby Lobby, they are believed to have cost several millions of dollars. The scrolls were obtained from a private collector. It is no longer legal to purchase historical artifacts under a UNESCO Convention.
Replicas of Gutenberg Bible Printing Plates -- Front Entrance to the Museum of the Bible Washington (DC) February 2018. (CC BY 2.0)
Testing of the scrolls
However, even at the time of their purchase many experts doubted the authenticity of these scrolls, because of the fragment’s scribal techniques. This prompted the Museum to send fragments of the scrolls away to be dated. In April 2017, according to The Independent, it sent ‘five fragments to the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und-prüfung (BAM) a German Institute for analyzing materials. This institution is world-renowned and, according to the Daily Mail they used ‘3D microscopy and conducted material analysis’ to date the fragments and to determine the authenticity of the artifacts.
Researchers at BAM conducted a series of tests on the fragments’ papyrus and ink. The results were compiled by the German experts and sent to the American Museum. The Daily Mail is reporting that the tests 'show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origins’. In order words, the scrolls could not come from the period when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. CNN reports that this discovery of the forgeries, ‘could be part of the most significant sham in biblical archaeology since the “Gospel of Jesus' Wife” scandal in 2012.
Part of Dead Sea Scroll 28a from Qumran Cave 1. The Jordan Museum, Amman. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Search for authentic artifacts
The Museum of the Bible issued a statement that the tests by BAM raised serious questions about the authenticity of the scrolls and the scrolls have been removed from public display. The chief curator of the museum is quoted by the Guardian as stating that “we had hoped the testing would render different results.” The items were removed because the museum respects and upholds the highest ethical standards. The Washington D.C. museum still has at least two fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls that may be forgeries but it has not been conclusively proven that they are.
These are not the first fake Dead Sea Scrolls to have fooled the experts. CNN reports that since 2002, 70 Dead Sea Scroll fragments have appeared on the market, with “ninety percent of those” being fake, according to Arstein Justnes, professor of biblical studies at the University of Agder. The Green family bought theirs between 2009 and 2014, along with many other artifacts in their collection of 40,000.
- After 60 Years, Archaeologists are Thrilled to Find a Twelfth Dead Sea Scroll Cave
- Skeletons Found Near Dead Sea Scrolls Likely Belonged to an Enigmatic Religious Group
- One of the Last Two Known Dead Sea Scrolls Is Deciphered
This is not the first time that David Green’s, company’s acquisitions of historical artifacts have proven to be controversial. In 2010, the Hobby Lobby chain purchased over 5000 items that were of Iraqi origin. However, it appears that the vast majority of the artifacts were illegally smuggled into the United States and the Federal government fined the company 3 million dollars and forced the return some of the objects to Iraq. Hobby Lobby claimed that they relied on people who did not understand the law and that they were inexperienced in the antiquities trade.
The discovery that some of the Washington D.C. museum’s most precious exhibits are forgeries is worrying, to say the least. It is demonstrating the sophistication of modern forgers when it comes to faking ancient objects and media such as papyrus. Moreover, it shows that further caution is required over the issue of determining the authenticity of historical artifacts and that any overreliance on unregulated private individuals in the antiquities trade could be dangerous.
Top image: Part of Dead Sea Scroll number 109 (4Q109), also known as Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). From Qumran Cave 4 Source: CC BY-SA 4.0
By Ed Whelan