Five proven Dead Sea Scroll forgeries only the tip of the iceberg, scholars say
The Museum of the Bible’s announcement it will pull fragments from display is to be lauded, but is only a first step as accusations fly over dozens of others in global collections
Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.
The Museum of the Bible announced on Monday that five Dead Sea Scroll fragments from its collection were proven forgeries. Removed from display, these fragments may prove to be the bellwether of the Washington, DC, institution’s entire 16-piece fragment collection, and beyond.
In the wake of similar accusations, other global institutions and private collectors are now likewise struggling with how to address their own questionable fragments.
The clock is ticking as potential forgeries’ content increasingly skews and pollutes scholarly research. As the corpus of Dead Sea Scrolls material is dissected with surgical precision, any and all information from the presumed scribes is included in numerous scholarly articles, data banks and dictionaries. Correcting these statistical and contextual fallacies could take generations.
In the spring of 2017, five of the Museum of the Bible’s 16 Dead Sea Scroll pieces were sent to Prof. Ira Rabin at Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) for “a battery of tests,” according to a museum press release. The tests “concluded that the five fragments show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin,” and are therefore modern forgeries.
This is merely a first batch of forgery results for the museum, said paleographer Dr. Kipp Davis, a research fellow at Trinity Western University and associate of the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at TWU, who initially questioned their authenticity.
“The plan at MOTB was always to test all their fragments. Yesterday’s results were just for the first lot. There will be more to come,” Davis told The Times of Israel.
Numbering around 900 fragments, the Dead Sea Scrolls represent the oldest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible and date from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE. The bulk of the provenanced scrolls — those with secure origin stories and bills of sale — were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in the Qumran caves above the Dead Sea. Since 1967, the State of Israel has been the repository for the vast majority of the scrolls.
In a strange turn of events, circa 2002, the world’s private antiquities markets became saturated with Dead Sea Scroll-like leather fragments, largely of unknown origin, inscribed with biblical verses.
With a growing number of predominantly Evangelical Christian collectors willing to pay upwards of six figures for the tiniest snippet of “holy” text, there is a clear motive for forgery. Increasingly upon expert inspection, these fragments are thought to have been written by a modern hand.
In the summer of 2016, Davis noted a number of red flags upon the scientific publication of some 30 of these newly purchased — and unprovenanced — fragments from the Museum of the Bible collection, as well as the private Schøyen Collection.
With funding and support from these collections, after careful analysis, Davis found that at least nine of the Schøyen Collection‘s fragments should be “deauthenticated,” along with some seven (other scholars put the number much higher) of the 16 held by the Museum of the Bible. (The Times of Israel published an in-depth report on Davis’s findings, as well as the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their trade, in October 2017.)
“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 in 2017. “This is more than a simple form of manipulation,” he said. Given how seriously Evangelicals “are committed to their notion of sanctity of scripture, there is a danger of inflicting collective psychological harm.”
Since Davis’s discovery of almost certain forgeries, the Museum of the Bible and another major collector, Azusa Pacific University, have fully cooperated with his efforts to prove — or disprove — their fragments. The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is sponsoring authentication research of its own, said Davis.
In the meantime, until further results are announced, the Museum of the Bible has removed the forgeries, and replaced them with three other items, alongside a statement explaining their questionably authentic nature.
“Though we had hoped the testing would render different results, 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,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kloha, chief curatorial officer for Museum of the Bible in the press release.
“The museum continues to support and encourage research on these objects and others in its collection both to inform the public about leading-edge research methods and ensure our exhibits are presenting the most accurate and updated information,” said Kloha.
The head of the London- and Oslo-based Schøyen Collection, Dr. Martin Schøyen, did not respond to an inquiry from The Times of Israel about his collection’s plan by time of publication. However, in 2017 correspondence he indicated that he believes most of the Dead Sea fragments in leading private collections are fakes, including 15 percent of his collection.
According to the museum, Germany’s BAM institute completed 3D digital microscopy, scanning X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX) material analysis of the ink, sediment layers and chemical nature of the sediment.
In an email to The Times of Israel, Davis emphasized that the determination of forgeries requires a nuanced, holistic approach.
“While the scientific tests are extremely valuable and have helped immensely in my study of the MOTB material, the determination of authenticity for the manuscripts in my orbit is made on the basis of a combination of a range of features specific to each individual fragment. These tests are supplemental to much ongoing work and careful examinations of codicological, scribal, textual, and also modern historical features,” he said.
Other institutions are following the Museum of the Bible’s lead.
“Azusa Pacific University has extended their full cooperation with my project, but we likely will not subject their fragments to the same BAM tests, due to the very high expense. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is running their own program, and likewise have had their fragments tested by the BAM, but we are still waiting for any sort of announcement concerning their results,” said Davis.
Authenticity is not the only issue in question, however. In a joint response, two scholars emphasized the importance of institutions insisting upon a pristine provenance for new acquisitions.
Archaeologist Dr. Josephine Munch Rasmussen and Årstein Justnes, professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Agder, Norway, wrote in an email, “Rather than more physical testing, the provenance and legality of the post-2002 ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ fragments in the MOTB and the Schøyen collections need to be critically addressed.”
Justnes runs the blog site 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.
“Our concern is that as long as museums and collectors do not the disclose full history of ownership and origin, it is really of secondary importance whether objects are authentic or not. Authenticity does not preclude foul play. Physical testing is often used in an attempt to establish authenticity but, needless to say, it does nothing to prove the legality and ethical soundness of current ownership. The objects may still be dubious, whether they are so-called authentic or not,” wrote Rasmussen and Justnes.
Responding to a flurry of press inquiries following the Museum of the Bible’s announcement, the Israel Antiquities Authority — the major repository of Dead Sea Scrolls — released a statement saying that the institution is aware of the proliferation of forgeries in the international antiquities market.
“It is important to emphasize that the scrolls deposited with the Antiquities Authority are authentic — their origins have been dated through the development of the script as well as carbon-14 dating, which has placed their writing to some 2,000 years ago,” said the authority.
The authority stated that the scrolls, “under the protection of the Antiquities Authority for the public and the next generation,” were given directly to researchers immediately after they were unearthed and found, said the authority. In contrast, the origins of those that have reached the market in the past few years are unknown.
The Antiquities Authority further stated that it has taken upon itself the responsibility of protecting and guarding the cultural treasure, and invites the public to enter the website of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls digital library to view the “true archaeological finds, the most important of the 20th century.”