A US museum announced Monday that five artifacts it had said were fragments of the ancient manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls are in fact fake, and will no longer be displayed.
Washington’s Museum of the Bible — which stirred controversy last year for its financial backing from a billionaire evangelical Christian — removed the pieces from exhibition after a German research institution concluded they weren’t old enough.
“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,” the museum’s chief curator Jeffrey Kloha said in a statement.
“As an educational institution entrusted with cultural heritage, the museum upholds and adheres to all museum and ethical guidelines on collection care, research and display.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the oldest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, date from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD.
Numbering around 900, they were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in the Qumran caves above the Dead Sea.
The five removed fragments had been exhibited in the sprawling museum since it opened in November 2017, but were labeled with explanations that research on their legitimacy was underway.
In April last year the museum sent five of its 16 Dead Sea Scroll pieces to Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) for testing after previous studies questioned their authenticity.
One researcher, Kipp Davis of Trinity Western University, had published work saying “at least seven fragments in the museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls collection are modern forgeries.”
The museum has removed the five pieces tested in Germany from display and replaced them with three others, which are also the focus of further analysis.
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.
Among those who had raised awareness of the 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 last year.
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.
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.
“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.”
Far from ignoring the forgery assertions, the Museum of the Bible sponsored Davis’s research and that of other scholars.
The Museum of the Bible raised eyebrows even before opening its giant bronze, Latin-inscribed gates: its primary financial backer is billionaire Steve Green, whose arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby has supported conservative causes in Washington.
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.
Just months before the museum opened the company was forced to pay a $3 million settlement and give up 5,500 artifacts — including ancient clay cuneiform tablets from Iraq — that the US Justice Department said were illegally imported. Eight Israelis were arrested during the international investigation.
The Green family’s Christian convictions and the smuggling debacle had skeptics questioning both the museum’s ideological aim and the provenance of its antiquities.
At the opening Green, who chairs the museum’s board, said the institution aims only to “present the facts.”
Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.