After an in-depth scientific investigation revealed that all 16 Dead Sea Scroll fragments at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. are forgeries, two main questions beg to be asked. First: How many fakes still remain out there, and do the findings in any way call into question the authenticity of the iconic manuscripts owned by Israel? Second: Who is responsible for these forgeries that duped major museums, collectors and scholars around the world?
The answer to both these questions can be summarized in a single word: provenance. This term indicates the chain of custody for an ancient artifact from its discovery onward. Experts consider precise knowledge and documentation regarding when and where an object was unearthed and what was subsequently done with it as more revealing of authenticity than many scientific tests – which, by the way, may wind up verifying an artifact that they simultaneously damage.
So, to understand how many probable forgeries are still out there, we need to look at the provenance – or lack thereof – of the fragments acquired by Steve Green, the owner of the Hobby Lobby chain and founder of the Museum of the Bible.
The first Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden in caves around the ancient settlement of Qumran and discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947. Tens of thousands more fragments of parchment and papyrus, mostly dated to between the 2nd century B.C.E. and the 2nd century C.E., were unearthed during the subsequent decades by archaeological digs around Qumran and other settlements along the Dead Sea. These texts are considered to be the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible.
In contrast, the confetti-sized parchments that Hobby Lobby donated to the Museum of the Bible ahead of its grand opening in 2017 were part of a group of around 70 fragments that had mysteriously surfaced on the antiquities market around 2002. These were snapped up for millions of dollars by collectors and institutions, even though it was unclear how they had made their way from the Judean desert into the hands of antiquities dealers.
For many experts, their sudden appearance on the market was a red flag, indicating that the artifacts might be fake or, if authentic, may have been looted and illegally exported. But other scholars were swept up in the excitement of a new discovery and published academic papers and books corroborating the scrolls’ authenticity.
As questions mounted, the Museum of the Bible admitted in 2018 that tests had shown five of its fragments were fake, prompting the institution to test all its scrolls.
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Given that 16 out of 16 are now confirmed forgeries it seems likely that all or almost all the scrolls that emerged after 2002 are not authentic, says Arstein Justnes, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Agder, Norway, who also runs The Lying Pen of Scribes, a blog that investigates the suspicious fragments.
As for the most famous and complete scrolls, namely the seven that are displayed at the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, there is “no reasons to suspect” that they are forgeries, Justnes adds.
It is true that those first scrolls were found by shepherds and then sold to antiquities dealers before being acquired by the Israeli state, which doesn’t make for the smoothest chain of custody. But, besides the fact that these artifacts have been scrutinized for the better part of a century, just starting a couple of years after their initial discovery, researchers were able to confirm their provenance when they began excavating the caves around Qumran, says Pnina Shor, curator for the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
“When the archaeologists came to those same caves, they found small fragments that perfectly matched the scrolls found by the Bedouin, and which had fallen off with time or when they were moved, so it was clear that the scrolls were authentic,” Shor says.
During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands more partial manuscripts emerged in digs by Jordanian and Israeli expeditions (Jordan then controlled the West Bank, including the area around Qumran, while Israel could excavate at Masada and other sites in the south of the Judean desert).
The Jordanian finds were stored at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem, which fell into Israeli hands during the 1967 Six Day War. Altogether, the Dead Sea Scrolls now count some 100,000 fragments belonging to nearly 1,000 different texts. They contain copies of biblical books and also letters, documents as well as apocryphal texts and religious treaties written by the communities that authored the manuscripts.
These finds have given scholars a unique understanding of the diverse facets of Judaism in the Second Temple period as well as many of the ideas and beliefs that would go on to shape rabbinical Judaism and Christianity.
After the initial, global enthusiasm over their discovery, interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls faded, partly because only a small group of scholars had access to them, leading to a painstakingly slow process of publication.
Only at the beginning of the 1990s, the Israel Antiquities Authority granted broader access to the scrolls, ensuring discoveries were published within a decade. It also built a conservation lab to preserve the fragile manuscripts, many of which were inadvertently damaged by early attempts at restoration. The IAA also raised the public profile of the finds, allowing some scrolls to be exhibited abroad, and later began digitizing the whole collection for free, online viewing, Shor says.
‘Proving a stolen car is a car’
Unfortunately, an unforeseen and involuntary side effect of all these activities may have been to spur demand for new scrolls on the antiquities market and encourage forgers and dealers to satisfy that demand by any means possible, she suspects.
“As the attention grew and people realized the importance of the scrolls for the history of Judaism and Christianity, their value increased and that’s when suddenly fragments started to appear again in the market,” Shor tells Haaretz. The main problem, she adds, is that there are scholars who cooperate with dealers and buyers and grant their seal of approval to unprovenanced artifacts.
Justnes, the Norwegian researchers, adds that continuing lab tests to find out exactly which of the post-2002 fragments are authentic is only a small part of the puzzle facing experts.
“We need to figure out where these fragments came from, because conducting testing without due diligence on provenance means just doing a favor to the market,” he says. “If some of the fragments turn out to be authentic, they are still problematic. Think of it like this: if someone steals my car it’s not helpful to test it to see if it’s a real car – you need to find who stole it and who it belongs to.”
Details on which dealers sold the fragments to the Museum of the Bible and other buyers are still fuzzy. Fingers have been pointed at various traders, including William Kando, the son of a Palestinian cobbler from Bethlehem who was the first to buy the scrolls from the Bedouins back in 1947. There have been reports that the new fragments came from a family vault in Zurich that the younger Kando had unlocked.
But it is extremely difficult to prove who fabricated the forgeries and whether the middlemen knowingly peddled fakes. While emphasizing that most of the scholars who published the fragments and supported their authenticity were working in good faith, Justnes cannot shake off the suspicion that one or more researchers may have knowingly cooperated with forgers.
“It’s kind of hard to believe that Kando or anyone else had the resources to put this whole thing up on their own,” Justnes says. “They must have had help from scholars.”
This would not be the only case in which a respected scholar has been charged with betraying his mission of protecting the relics of the past. Just recently, an Oxford professor was accused of selling without permission ancient fragments of the New Testament and other artifacts that are part of the collection of the Egypt Exploration Society. In that case as well the buyer was Hobby Lobby, which then passed on some of the acquisitions to the Museum of the Bible, an institution which, in its short history, has become a magnet for controversy.
And while, after much pressure from researchers, the museum did cooperate with the scientific tests that revealed the truth about its Dead Sea Scrolls, there are still many unanswered questions about its ties to the grey world of the antiquities market.
“There is much to be done about these fragments, but not in the lab,” Justnes says. “We need to start asking questions."