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Fright at the museum: scrolls are fakes

The Museum of the Bible has recently announced that 16 fragments in its collection that it had thought to have been examples of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls are forgeries. Steve Green, the owner of American chain Hobby Lobby, is the major financial backer of the museum and significant money was paid to acquire the fragments.

Chris Sinkinson

Figure Image
Great Isaiah Scroll facsimile. | photo: Wiki

The authentic Dead Sea Scrolls came to light in 1946 when Bedouin boys found ancient biblical manuscripts from the first century hidden in a cave in the Judean wilderness. Subsequent excavations have identified 12 caves, thousands of fragments and 900 manuscripts. These include sections of almost all books of the Old Testament and many other religious writings as well. The scrolls are of enormous value in providing evidence for the reliability of the copying tradition of the Bible.

However, the scrolls that were discovered are only a fraction of the original writings. They are thought to be the library of a Jewish group living at Qumran near the Dead Sea. Other scrolls were probably lost, stolen, decayed or remain to be found. In 2018, new caves were found in the region that had once stored scrolls but had evidently been looted about 40 years ago. Such scrolls probably made their way on to the black market.

In 2002, about 70 fragments came onto the market and the Museum of the Bible acquired 16 of them. By 2017, five of these acquisitions had been tested by Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and demonstrated to be fake. The Museum then submitted the remaining fragments in its collection to analysis. Art Fraud Insights, who carried out this testing over six months, have concluded: ‘None of the textual fragments in [the] Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scroll collection are authentic’. The leather upon which they are written is from the Roman period and the handwriting mimics the appropriate style of that time. However, close analysis reveals many faults in the forged scrolls. The wrong kind of glue is used. There is evidence that whoever forged them copied from later manuscripts and even misread some of the characters. One letter seems to be a modern notation from a 1937 copy of the Hebrew Bible. Analysis of how the ink pooled when wet shows that the leather was already ancient and cracked when they were written upon.

The Museum of the Bible have now withdrawn the scrolls from display. None of this casts any doubt on the authenticity of the collection of Dead Sea Scrolls housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Indeed, this story has helped to confirm their authenticity because it has demonstrated how robust scientific analysis can be. Artefacts are subjected to increasingly sophisticated levels of scrutiny that enable us to discern and dismiss fakes and fabrications.

The rise of ISIS across the Middle East also led to a increase in the sale of dubious, often looted, artefacts on the antiquities market. In 2016, Hobby Lobby agreed to return 5,500 cuneiform tablets and cylinders that it had purchased from an unnamed dealer in Iraq. This is good for the Christian faith, as the search for evidence should not conflict with honesty and integrity. It may also mark a shift away from paying vast sums of money for artefacts with unknown provenance to more interest in funding proper archaeological excavations under controlled supervision.