Five of its Dead Sea Scroll fragments are fake, the Museum of the Bible in Washington was forced to admit last week. The embarrassed institution may be in good company: Out of at least 70 fragments ostensibly from the Scrolls held in various collections around the world, scholars warn that all are probably forged.
As the experts ponder who is responsible for the scandal in the Museum of the Bible, which may be the largest case of antiquities fraud in years, some researchers are placing a big chunk of the blame on a surprising culprit: themselves.
Biblical scholars have played an unwitting but key role by publishing scientific articles and papers about dubious fragments. Though that isn’t their intent, they confer an academic seal of approval to the artifacts, which pushes prices up and also encourages eager collectors to buy.
“The museum didn’t buy these manuscripts without the positive opinion of some learned professors,” says Amir Ganor head of the Israel Antiquities Authority robbery prevention unit, which also deals with forged artifacts. “There is cooperation between people who understand the professional archaeological material, people who can produce the artifacts people who know how to market them, and collectors who are either naïve or have some financial interest.”
“Without the scholars, we would not have this big scandal,” agrees Arstein Justnes, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Agder, Norway, who also runs the blog The Lying Pen of Scribes, which tracks the suspicious scroll fragments.
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But how could this have happened? How difficult is it to establish that a fragment of pottery or scroll is genuine? The answer is, not as difficult as you might think.
Suddenly, more scrolls
The original scrolls were discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947 in the caves surrounding the ancient settlement of Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea. Written around 2,000 years ago, they are the oldest known copies of the Hebrew Bible (based on even older texts that have not been found), and have revolutionized our understanding of Second Temple Judaism and the environment in which Christianity arose.
Most of the scrolls are owned by the Israel Antiquities Authority and some are displayed in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
But early this century, a new batch of fragments has made its way into the antiquities market, allegedly sourced from the same Palestinian family of antiquities dealers in Bethlehem that sold the original scrolls. The tiny bits of parchment were snapped up for millions of dollars by private collectors and institutions, many of them linked to evangelical Christians eager to own a piece of the Bible from Jesus’ time, and some have been displayed in more than 40 exhibitions around the world, according to Justnes’ blog.
Sixteen fragments were acquired by the Green family, the evangelical owners of the Hobby Lobby crafts chain in the United States, which established the Museum of the Bible in Washington. Since opening last year, the private institution has already been under fire for purportedly pushing a view of the Bible rooted in religion rather than in scientific and archaeological scrutiny.
“It’s so easy to say that the evangelical Americans are naïve, or that antiquities dealers are unscrupulous,” Justnes, the Norwegian scholar and scrolls blogger told Haaretz. “But this scandal is really created by the scholars, scholars who have marketed this, who have not conducted due diligence, who have not cared about provenance, but just wanted to publish the new fragments.”
Multiple publications have vouched for the authenticity of the fragments since they surfaced around 2002, Justnes says. Among the first, were articles in 2005 and 2007 by top Israeli archaeologist Hanan Eshel and his wife, the epigraphist Esther Eshel.
Hanan Eshel passed away in 2010, while Esther Eshel, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, declined to comment for this article when contacted by Haaretz.
It is important to note that none of the experts and authorities interviewed for this story claimed that scholars had knowingly authenticated fake artifacts or otherwise worked with forgers.
“I have made mistakes myself,” Justnes acknowledged, noting that he had participated in the study and publication of purported scroll fragments bought by the Norwegian collector Martin Schoyen. Already then, he and his colleagues had expressed doubts about the authenticity of most of the fragments, and those that later underwent scientific tests were all proven to be fake, he said.
‘Scroll’ on a sandal
Kipp Davis, a research fellow of Hebrew Bible at Trinity Western University, near Vancouver,
studied both the Schoyen and the Bible Museum fragments, and he too has some qualms about having participated in the publication of the museum’s fragments in 2016, despite being among the first to raise questions on their authenticity in his introductory chapter.
“It’s something I continue to grapple with,” Davis says. “I am not sure I made the right decision.”
Scientists can check, for example, whether the composition of the ink confirms the writing is ancient, or whether the layer of sediments covering the text matches that on the rest of the parchment.
These costly, and often destructive, lab tests, can definitively prove whether an artifact is authentic or not, but in most cases of the scroll forgeries, there were multiple red flags that scholars should have seen, the experts say.
Forgers often write on ancient parchments or pieces of animal skin found in the desert to try to fool carbon-14 tests. But this means the ink doesn’t absorb well into the dried and hardened material, giving the letters a fuzzy and splayed appearance, Davis says. Some of the new scroll fragments even appear to have been written on the remains of ancient sandals or other pieces of leather, rather than actual parchment, he notes.
Both Davis and Justnes pointed out that in some cases, the letters appear to squeeze or curve to follow the borders of the fragment, suggesting the texts were not written on a complete scroll.
The content of the would-be Qumran manuscripts also indirectly gives away that they could not have been penned by the Essenes, the ascetic Jewish sect believed to have produced the original scrolls between the 3rd century B.C.E and the 1st century C.E., but by modern scribes obedient to the laws of supply and demand.
Only around 25 percent of the authentic Dead Sea Scrolls contain biblical verses. The rest are non-canonical texts and various writings connected with Essene religious life, says Justnes.
Yet bizarrely: “Over 85 percent of the new Dead Sea Scrolls fragments are biblical,” the Norwegian expert says. “It’s probably because the market wants to buy biblical fragments: they are worth more, because Christians, mainly evangelicals, really don’t care so much about compositions written by Essenes as they care about the Bible.”
Encouraging every looter
Many museums and private collectors tend to not fully reveal the provenance of items they acquired on the antiquities market. They do not disclose who they bought them from, or where those sellers themselves obtained the piece.
Why would scholars jump the gun and give their seal of approval to artifacts of dubious origin?
Part of it may be enthusiasm clouding their judgment, Davis said. Peer pressure also played a role for him as a young scholar who had just started his career when he was invited to edit the volumes on the Schoyen and Bible Museum fragments.
“I felt I was in a more vulnerable position, where the pressures were high to accept every publishing opportunity given to me,” he says. “I didn’t feel I could afford to say no.”
Today, he realizes, there should be “fierce scrutiny before publication,” and scholars need to insist that collectors divulge information about the provenance of their artifacts “before we even start accepting something as possibly legitimate.”
The issue of the provenance – the origin – of ancient artifacts has been roiling the world of museums and researchers for more than a decade, and is not limited to the question of whether a piece is authentic or fake.
‘Unprovenanced’ artifacts are those that don’t surface in an archaeological dig but in the antiquities market, meaning their origin is unclear. While they may have been legitimately in the possession of a collector for generations, they may also have been stolen or dug up by looters and exported illegally. Over the last years, top museums from around the world have been forced to return scores of artifacts that had been looted from Greece, Italy and other archaeologically rich countries.
Earlier this year, Steve Green, the head of the Hobby Lobby chain and the Bible Museum’s main patron, returned thousands of looted clay tablets and other artifacts to Iraq. His company also paid a $3 million dollar fine to settle a lawsuit over its role in smuggling the antiquities into the United States.
Even if some of the newly discovered Dead Sea Scrolls fragments are ultimately deemed authentic, that just opens a whole new can of worms, experts say.
In his opinion, Justnes says, if the fragments in the Bible Museum had turned out to be genuine, they still shouldn’t have been displayed unless the museum divulged their provenance and proved they were legit.
But by uncritically publishing the scroll fragments, the scientific community “sent a strong signal to the antiquities market that it really didn’t care too much about provenance,” he says. “This really stimulated the antiquities market, and it was an encouragement to every looter under the desert sun. For over 15 years, several prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholars have effectively laundered unprovenanced material.”
But should scholars completely ignore any treasure whose origin cannot be precisely pinpointed?
“On one hand, it feels like the simplest and best solution is to shut down the entire market,” Davis, Justnes’ colleague, ponders. “But would that put an end to the looting and to the illegal sale of antiquities? I highly doubt it. If anything it might push it further underground.”
Jesus wasn’t here
Back in Israel, authorities feel they have had some success in tempering the enthusiasm of scholars for potentially fake or looted antiquities, says Ganor, the Israel Antiquities Authority anti-looting czar. This is mostly thanks to the recent, decade-long prosecution of a top collector accused of forging famed artifacts including an ossuary, an ancient burial box, inscribed with the words “James, brother of Jesus.”
Though the collector was acquitted on most counts of forgery in 2012, the evidence the prosecution brought convinced the scientific community that the inscription initially hailed by some experts as the oldest archaeological trace of the existence of Jesus, had in fact been added onto an authentic ossuary by a modern hand, Ganor said.
The dead giveaway was the analysis of the patina, a nacreous layer of sediment left by water and humidity on an object over time – which showed traces of fluoride, says Uzi Dahari, former IAA deputy director. Ergo, the patina over the inscription had apparently been faked using modern tap water, to which fluoride is added to improve dental health.
Following that trial, forgeries, including of manuscripts, became rarer for a while, Ganor says. He suspects however that pieces faked in the past and held until the dust settled, are now coming out. But even so: “The ethics are changing both in Israel and the rest of the world, and researchers tend to give credit to something that comes from the market only after it has been scientifically checked,” Ganor sums up. “A find that has no mother and father, and you don’t know where it comes from, is always suspect.”