Scholars rush to check authenticity

Dead Sea Scrolls scam: Dozens of recently sold fragments are fakes, experts warn

Since 2002, collectors have paid millions for portions of ancient text. As DC’s Museum of the Bible prepares to open with several such pieces, evidence of fraud emerges

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

A Dead Sea Scrolls fragment from the book of Genesis, part of Museum of the Bible's Scholars Initiative research project published by Brill in 2016. Of the museum's 13 published scrolls, at least six are of dubious authenticity. (Image by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman and Marilyn J. Lundberg, West Semitic Research, courtesy of Museum of the Bible)
A Dead Sea Scrolls fragment from the book of Genesis, part of Museum of the Bible's Scholars Initiative research project published by Brill in 2016. Of the museum's 13 published scrolls, at least six are of dubious authenticity. (Image by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman and Marilyn J. Lundberg, West Semitic Research, courtesy of Museum of the Bible)

A Bedouin shepherd hears pottery break as he throws stones into a cave while searching for lost sheep among arid cliffs abutting the Dead Sea. He enters the cave and uncovers the find of the 20th century — 2,000-year-old Hebrew and Aramaic scrolls, then the earliest written record of the Bible.

Seven decades have passed since that Hollywood-esque discovery of some 900 manuscripts and up to 50,000 fragments in the 11 caves of Qumran. Now, accusations of dozens of million-dollar forgeries make for a worthy sequel.

It’s a whodunit involving a complex network of high-stakes deals with dubious provenance, and perhaps even academic obfuscation. The process by which the forgeries are being manufactured has yet to be fully exposed. The motive is entirely clear: The tiniest of ancient snippets sells for well over $100,000 per fragment in these private off-the-books sales.

Caves of Qumran (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Caves of Qumran (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Since 2002, the world’s private antiquities markets have been saturated with certified millennia-old leather inscribed with biblical verses by what, on expert inspection, appears to be a modern hand. This has led some scholars to believe one or more of their own has gone rogue and created a proliferation of fakes that are being peddled to a growing number of Evangelical Christian collectors.

The Museum of the Bible, set to open this November in Washington, DC, is foremost among those collectors who have been “duped,” to the tune of millions of dollars, scholars say. A series of recent articles in respected academic journals calls into question the authenticity of at least half a dozen in its trove of tiny scroll fragments.

Among those raising awareness of the allegedly forged fragments is paleographer Dr. Kipp Davis, a research fellow at Trinity Western University and associate of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at TWU.

“There is a growing emerging consensus among Dead Sea Scroll scholars that many of the fragments in the private collections are fakes,” Davis told The Times of Israel.

Dr. Kipp Davis, a research fellow at Trinity Western University and associate of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at TWU. (Jon Petter Thorsen)

In his latest article, “Caves of Dispute,” published in the Brill Dead Sea Discoveries series this month, Davis found that at least six of the Museum of the Bible’s 13 published fragments are forgeries. (“Published,” in this context, refers to artifacts that have been researched by experts, with their findings presented in academic journals. The Museum of the Bible collection includes three more fragments whose origin and content have not yet been published.)

In conversation with The Times of Israel, Davis said while he is convinced that six of the fragments are forgeries, “that number could be higher. There are people out there that think that all 13 of the fragments are fake. I’m not quite there, but I have colleagues who are fairly sure they are forgeries.”

Far from ignoring the forgery assertions, the Museum of the Bible is sponsoring Davis’s research and that of other scholars.

Årstein Justnes, a professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Agder, Norway, has built the blogsite The Lying Pen of Scribes to document for free public use the mounting evidence of forgeries in the post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll-like fragments.

In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, Justnes outlined the “silent message” of his blog. “To all: ‘Careful, they are fakes, and they belong together! They are part of the same game.’ To scholars: ‘Stop publishing (which de facto means authenticating) unprovenanced material.’ To students: ‘Learn by our mistakes.’ To journalists: ‘You seriously need to write about this. This story is the Gospel of Jesus Wife [a high-profile modern forgery using antique papyrus] saga, times 70.'”

This September 5, 2012, file photo shows a fragment of papyrus that divinity professor Karen L. King said is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. (AP/Harvard University, Karen L. King, File)

In the past, carbon dating the leather parchment would have been a sure way to test for authenticity. However, because it is suspected that many of these “new” fragments use ancient 2,000-year-old leather as their “slate,” old stand-by technology is insufficient.

“Carbon dating is no longer good. Ancient material can and almost certainly has been manipulated in modern times,” said Davis.

With carbon dating off the table, international scholars are turning to new, noninvasive testing for proving — or disproving — the authenticity of the “dubious” fragments in private collections. What they have turned up is startling.

A long history of fakery

The path from the greatest discovery of the 20th century to forgeries on the antiquities markets was direct. Immediately following their discovery in 1947-48, the original scrolls were quickly acquired by, among others, Hebrew University Prof. Eleazar Lipa Sukenik, the father of politician/archaeologist Yigael Yadin. They were purchased from the Bedouin who found them, or from the Palestinian Christian Arabs the shepherds sold to and deposited at the Palestine Archaeological (Rockefeller) Museum, then under British Mandate control. (The museum came under Jordanian control during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.)

According to archaeologist Pnina Shor, the curator and head of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scroll projects, the search for new Dead Sea Scrolls has always been “a race between the archaeologists and the Bedouin and who gets there first. Unfortunately, it’s always the Bedouin,” which removes provenance information for authentic scrolls and opens up the door to forgeries.

An Israel Antiquities Authority employee works on fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem on Friday, May 10, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

Father Roland Guérin de Vaux, the Dominican priest who led the initial excavations and acquisitions of the Dead Seas Scrolls (DSS), told colleagues and wrote in his journals about efforts to weed out early forgeries ahead of purchase.

“In the 1950s the first handlers of the DSS became aware of the existence of forgeries. Roland de Vaux included a series of seventeen personal journal entries in the second volume of Discoveries of the Judaean Desert, several of which describe attempted sales of forged scroll fragments,” according to the recent article, “Nine Dubious ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ Fragments from the Twenty-First Century.

The article explains that the first method of authentication of manuscripts has traditionally been comparative paleography — the study of ancient and historical handwriting’s forms and the processes of writing.

“De Vaux himself recognized the first forgeries he encountered accordingly, and described them consisting of ‘several lines in awkward square Hebrew characters which don’t make any sense, and are written in modern ink, on an old fragment of skin that didn’t have any writing on it,'” according to the article.

De Vaux, the director of Jerusalem’s Ecole Biblique, led the mostly Catholic team in initial research and documentation for the trove of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered and purchased in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Many of these purchases were made through a Bethlehem cobbler turned antiquities dealer called Khalil Eskander Shahin, aka “Kando.” According to many who spoke with The Times of Israel, any scroll purchased from Kando was considered credible.

Israeli soldiers in the courtyard of the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem during the Six Day War. (Government Press Office)

After the 1967 Six Day War, most of the Rockefeller collection of 40,000-50,000 fragments (minus some 25 fragments that were housed in Amman and remain there to this day) came into the ownership of the State of Israel. Since 1993 they have been meticulously documented, researched and conserved by the Israel Antiquity Authorities in Jerusalem. None of these fragments are suspected fakes, said Davis.

Since 2002 there has been a relative boom of private Dead Sea Scroll sales, in part through Kando’s son William, who took over the family business upon his father’s death in 1993. In the past two decades, William Kando has slowly released to the private market scroll fragments that were locked in a Swiss vault until soaring prices merited their sales.

William Kando’s fragments were not alone. “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,” said Davis.

In a conversation at the IAA’s Jerusalem Dead Sea Scroll labs, the leading research and conservation center in the field, Shor said the antiquities trade has been historically profitable among a few families with strong ties to the Bedouin, including the Kando family. The continued trade in both authentic and inauthentic fragments, said Shor, has to do with the fact that unlike most neighboring countries, Israel still allows antiquities dealing.

“To our sorrow, the Knesset hasn’t yet changed the law” that allows the lawful sale of artifacts discovered prior to 1978. That loophole, most Israeli experts, should be closed and all trading in antiquities should cease.

As the value of these objects rises, there is a proliferation of dealers whose items may or may not be authentic, Shor said. “The market may be contaminated with forgeries,” she said diplomatically. “There is a feeling that not everything is authentic.”

The foremost private collectors

As growing evidence points to a new preponderance of forgeries on the market, recent purchases made by private collectors are being closely scrutinized. Foremost among them is the Hobby Lobby company, an arts and crafts chain that is sponsoring the soon-to-open Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.

Between 2009 and 2014, Steve Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, purchased up to 16 fragments in the name of the company. They were donated for exhibition at the museum, along with thousands of other biblical artifacts. Hobby Lobby recently made headlines for “unknowingly” colluding in the smuggling of some 5,500 ancient artifacts, including about 1,000 clay bullae, out of Iraq via an international team of dealers. Eight Israelis were arrested in late July during the international investigation and the company paid a $3 million federal fine and forfeited thousands of artifacts.

Steve Green (far left), Father Gabriel Nadaf, MK Yoel ‘Yuli’ Edelstein, Speaker of The Knesset and Amanda Weiss, executive director of the Bible Lands Museum, were all present at a prayer book’s unveiling in September 2014. (Courtesy Bible Lands Museum)

Green said in a statement that the company cooperated with the US government and “should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.” Possibly the same could be said for his dubious Dead Sea Scroll fragment purchases.

Commendably, the Museum of the Bible and a few other private collections, including the London- and Oslo-based Schøyen Collection, are supporting authentication research of their own.

While preliminary results have been published in academic forums such as the Brill articles, more research is needed, said Dr. Martin Schøyen, who inherited the Schøyen Collection in 1962 from his father M.O. Schøyen. Then the collection held some 1,000 volumes of Norwegian and international literature, history, travel, science, as well as antiquities. Now, the collection numbers over 20,000 items as Martin Schøyen has added a number of ancient coins and antiquities, as well as early printed books and important manuscripts — including Dead Sea Scroll fragments.

Schøyen has become convinced that most of the Dead Sea fragments in leading private collections are fakes. To his dismay, he thinks almost one in six of the fragments in his own collection fall into that category.

“It is too early in the process in finding the truth about authenticity of some 15% of the fragments in my, and nearly all fragments in three other American university collections, and all in a Bible museum collection, and to reveal the name of the DSS scholar(s) who participated in eventually faking texts, to make a statement at this stage,” Schøyen wrote The Times of Israel in a carefully worded email.

In the meantime, both Schøyen and the Museum of the Bible have supported the research of a multidisciplinary cohort of young scholars looking into authentication. It is none too soon, scholars say, since the continuing international scholarship gleaned from these problematic fragments has infiltrated how the Bible is read today.

A tangled web was woven

Initially, no red flags were flown upon the appearance of “new” fragments on the market in the 1990s. Rather, they were greeted with a sense of excited discovery among “thirsty” scholars after a drought of several decades.

A husband and wife team, archaeologist/historian Hanan and epigrapher Esther Eshel, were among those who published the new finds and were tapped by buyers to verify the pieces.

Speaking with The Times of Israel this week, Esther, now a widow, said that at the time, there simply “wasn’t the option of forgery” among the Dead Sea Scroll fragments.

Scholars use top-of-the-line imagining equipment to study a papyrus from the Museum Collection. (Museum of the Bible)

In conversation, Davis echoed this sentiment: “Up until very recently, when it comes to the DSS, there was a longstanding belief that our discipline was free from artifice, that everything that we had was indeed genuine and one of the reasons for this was that there’s an enormous amount of confidence placed in the integrity of the Kando family.”

Things changed, said Eshel, now a Bar-Ilan professor, when “the market started to go crazy with people paying up to $800,000 for little fragments.” She added, “If there really was a forgery, it was worth doing it.”

Back in the 1990s and 2000s, the Eshels were on the forefront of DSS scholarship and, working off of photographs, published their findings at a rapid pace. Among their publications were several of the pieces sold in the post-2002 market boom.

“Virtually every one of these identifications have now been overturned in subsequent studies and nearly all the fragments are suspected also to be forgeries,” said Davis at a lecture this summer.

At the same time, Davis attributes the Eshels’ problematic scholarship to a “deep passion for discovery” and getting carried away in “the excitement of the moment.” He told The Times of Israel, “I cannot imagine that either of them have the psychological makeup or shortage of scruples to have involved themselves in this sort of fabrication of history.”

In a quick telephone conversation this week, Eshel said firmly, “We thought they looked ok… Nothing struck us as unusual, but everything was so small. I did my best then with what we had.”

Eshel said she remains unconvinced that all the dubious fragments are indeed fakes, but hasn’t revisited the pieces. Today as the head of the Jeselsohn Epigraphic Center for Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, she has learned lessons and moved on.

“I prefer to publish work that came from archaeological digs. When pieces are coming from the market, there are problems,” said Eshel.

Features of forgery

There are several theories among the scholars as to who is producing the forgeries.

“There’s enough people with a little bit of training in Hebrew, some expertise through a graduate program or something of the sort that they could possibly pull off some of these things,” said Davis. “I tend to think the forgers are likely a former grad student, or someone who worked their way through a PhD, and are unable to get a job in this draconian working climate,” he laughed.

But what is clear is that what has elevated the dubious fragments’ status — and value — is the seal of approval from scholars, which “create the stories and the vague pedigrees that these fragments come with,” said Justnes. Without the scholars’ increasingly questioned authentication, it would have been much harder to create a market for these fragments, he said.

And yet, according to Justnes, most of these forgeries “are rather primitive, and seem to have been made by amateurs.”

Davis agreed. “One of the things that is striking is that the fragments that we have suggested are the most suspicious, they’re not very well done… just good enough to sell,” said Davis. He said in some cases letters are oddly shaped or not straight, or they appear to conform to the edge of the fragments and other “bizarre-looking features.”

‘Va’ashuv,’ from the Museum of the Bible’s Nehemiah 2:15 fragment, with an inset as the work appears in the 1937 edition of the Biblia Hebraica. (Image by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman and Marilyn J. Lundberg, West Semitic Research, courtesy of Museum of the Bible.)

One such “bizarre” feature is found in a fragment attributed to the Prophet Nehemiah, which is found at the Museum of the Bible. In particular, the Hebrew word va’ashuv is written with an extra squiggle after the final letter, which looks like a small, superscripted Greek letter alpha (α), and “eerily similar,” according to Davis, to a diacritical notation that was printed in the 1937 edition found in the Biblia Hebraica.

“We can’t know the source of this apparent error on MOTB.Scr.003175 [the Nehemiah verse], but the absence of any reliable knowledge about this fragment’s provenance should give us dramatic pause, especially in the light of its possible relationship to a modern printed edition,” writes Davis.

An even more bizarre finding was uncovered through scanning a fragment from the Schøyen collection at extremely high magnification: Common modern table salt crystals were discovered sprinkled on the surface of the fragment — and the ink from the scribed verses appears on top of the grains.

Common table salt crystals appear to have been sprinkled on top of an ancient parchment on this fragment from the Schøyen collection, upon which modern glossy black letters have been written, over the salt. (With permission from Dr. Martin Schøyen)

“The crystals are of uniform size and dispersed in a manner consistent with dry common table salt sprinkled evenly on the object… Inspection at a higher magnification confirms that the crystal does not evolve from the plant material as it does not rupture the plant fibers, but rather sits on the ink surface touched up further with a glossy ink,” according to a recent article based on multidisciplinary research funded by the Schøyen collection.

“The writing and the deposition of the salts must have occurred in modern times,” the article summarizes.

Another point of contention among those who believe the fragments are forgeries is that, although it is impossible to know since there is no provenance information, it is likely the post-2002 fragments would come from disparate time periods and locations. However, according to paleographic analysis published in the scholarly research on the Museum of the Bible’s fragments which was performed by Dr. Ada Yardeni, a world-renowned Hebrew paleographer, there are remarkable similarities among them.

Those in the forgery school of thought point to Yardeni’s analysis that numerous post-2002 individual fragments were all written with “reed pens with worn nibs.”

A Dead Sea Scrolls fragment from the book of Nehemiah, part of Museum of the Bible’s Scholars Initiative research project published by Brill in 2016. (Image by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman and Marilyn J. Lundberg, West Semitic Research, courtesy of Museum of the Bible.)

This similarity is hardly conclusive: Yardeni has previously stated that many undisputed fragments come from scrolls written by the same scribe. In 2007, the grande dame of Israeli paleography concluded that more than 50 Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts were copied by the same scribe. Additionally, she has identified the handwriting of a single scribe on Qumran scrolls found in six Dead Sea caves, and even on scrolls found at the Masada fortress located further down the shore.

Underlining the complexities of authentification, Yardeni told The Times of Israel that she was recently asked to review certain Museum of the Bible fragments, possibly in light of the research performed by Davis and others, and again “gave a certificate of authentication.”

Despite the younger scholars’ convictions that many are fakes, “I still think the fragments are authentic,” Yardeni told The Times of Israel.

A scholarly scriptural ripple affect

If indeed the scroll fragments are conclusively found to be forgeries, quite apart from the financial malfeasance and the collectors’ embarrassment, the academic  consequences are significant because their content has become well-entrenched in scholarship, skewing statistical analyses and impacting upon how the Bible is read today.

In a recent lecture, Davis warned the academic community that it has an obligation to dig deeply into any new manuscripts that hit the market.

The “cautionary tale” of the Eshels’ role in verifying dubious fragments, said Davis, “should leave us all more acutely aware of our responsibility as scholars. The manuscript history of biblical texts and their cultural and social affects are too important for scholars to be anything but intentionally skeptical of such murky provenantial judgments.”

What Davis unhesitatingly called the incontrovertibly forged fragments have already influenced discussions “about the shape and condition of the text of Jewish scriptures in the Roman era.”

“Their inclusion has dramatically inflated numbers of copies of texts of Nehemiah, Tobit, and 1 Enoch among others, and provided false perspectives of at least these works,” he said.

This photo shows the Ten Commandments written on one of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem. (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

Davis pinpoints one of the challenges facing scholars and owners alike: “The problem is that a lot of private collectors have come into possession of some, or many, of their antiquities illegally or underhandedly. It is a tall order to expect owners with everything to lose to divulge their origins, but I do think that current pressures will push scholars at least to exercise greater care in their investigations of provenance and publication.”

New efforts toward authentication

As the Museum of the Bible finishes its final preparations ahead of its November opening, it is emphatically taking the dubious nature of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments into consideration.

Dr. Michael Holmes, a leading New Testament textual scholar and editor of early Christian writings, is the director of the museum’s Scholars Initiative, a forum which mentors university students while studying the fragments. Even as research continues on the museum’s 16 pieces, Holmes said that due to their purchase on the open market with no provenance, he would be unsurprised if some of the fragments were found to be forgeries.

The Museum of the Bible’s Scholars Initiative Director Dr. Michael Holmes (Museum of the Bible)

Holmes’s initiative has supported Davis’s work, and it was as an editor on the 2016 “Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection,” an authoritative edition describing 13 of the museum’s holdings, that Davis tipped the museum off to the possibility of forgeries. His troubling paleographic findings propelled the Scholars Initiative to continue its research into their authenticity, said Holmes.

In the fall of 2016, the Scholars Initiative also invited Prof. Ira Rabin, of the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und-prüfung (BAM), to investigate the fragments using the German institute’s creative and high-tech methods of multi-spectral material analyses to determine their physical characteristics. Holmes said Rabin examined five fragments in her lab this past April-June and is currently in the process of writing up her findings. The other fragments are scheduled for examination in 2018, he said.

“In short, Dr. Davis is researching the paleography (handwriting) of the fragments, while Dr. Rabin is conducting multi-spectral material analyses of the fragments to determine their physical characteristics. The combined results of these two approaches will help determine whether any of the MOTB fragments are inauthentic,” said Holmes.

Today, the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls lab is also collaborating on research which could help authenticate scrolls, from DNA tests of the parchment to the development of ink analysis.

The Museum of The Bible, set to open in Washington DC in November 2017 (Courtesy)

The forgery market will presumably continue as long as the lure of owning a piece of the word of God tempts the growing Evangelical Christian community, which doesn’t always have the scholarly means to verify their high-ticket purchases.

While the wealthy Green family and the Museum of the Bible employees appear to be able to take a philosophical approach to the risk of forgeries, there are other smaller Evangelical Christian collectors and centers — including some Christian universities in the US — which bet the farm to own ancient scripture.

Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the oldest known surviving biblical manuscripts dated between 150 BCE and 70 CE, on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the oldest known surviving biblical manuscripts dated between 150 BCE and 70 CE, on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The sellers of these fragments have preyed on the well-meaning faith of Evangelical Christians who are compelled by the idea of owning a piece of ‘the Bible that Jesus read,'” said Davis.

“This is more than a simple form of manipulation,” said Davis. Given how seriously Evangelicals “are committed to their notion of sanctity of scripture,” he warned, “there is a danger of inflicting collective psychological harm.”

Interestingly, for the Museum of the Bible’s Holmes, the controversy actually adds to the discussion surrounding the topic of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Holmes said.

“I have been informed by colleagues working on the Museum displays that a few of the fragments whose authenticity has been questioned will probably be on display in the Museum when it opens in November,” Holmes wrote in a followup email. “In every case, both the printed exhibit information and the audio guide will identify and briefly discuss the question of authenticity.”

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