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Visitors tour the "History of the Bible" exhibit during a media preview of the new Museum of the Bible, a museum dedicated to the history, narrative and impact of the Bible, in Washington, DC, November 14, 2017
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Five of Museum of the Bible's Dead Sea Scrolls are forgeries

With the museum’s support, scholars are racing to understand the disputed Biblical texts.

This story has been updated to reflect the latest news.

The Museum of the Bible, which opened to the public on November 17, 2017, is a $500-million monument to the world’s most popular book. Few artifacts capture the scripture’s timelessness more than the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known copies of Biblical text—which is why the museum’s founders are rumored to have spent millions of dollars to obtain 16 of them for their collection.

However, research suggests that some of the fragments that visitors will encounter may be modern forgeries. On October 22, 2018, the Museum of the Bible announced that five of its 16 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments are probably modern forgeries, based on analyses conducted by Germany's Federal Institute for Materials Research. The report corroborates concerns raised by biblical scholars in 2017, just before the Museum of the Bible opened.

"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 Jeffrey Kloha, chief curatorial officer for Museum of the Bible, 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 spotlights on the Museum of the Bible burn especially bright. The museum’s founder Steve Green, who owns the Hobby Lobby craft chain, has faced intense public scrutiny for his company’s antiquities purchases, including 5,500 ancient clay tablets that U.S. authorities claim were illegally smuggled into the country. In July, Hobby Lobby reached a settlement on the tablets with the Department of Justice. The company has returned the artifacts to Iraq.

While some scholars have derided the museum for aggressive acquisition practices, Green and museum officials stress that they received poor advice in their early collecting days, and that the Museum of the Bible abides by academic best practices.

Widely respected Biblical scholar David Trobisch now directs the collection—and the Museum of the Bible has supported the very work on the Dead Sea Scrolls which has uncovered evidence of forgery.

“Anybody who thinks that in a gigantic museum that there’s going to be no item [with disputed authenticity], it’s like believing that there’s no amoeba in your water,” says New York University Biblical scholar Lawrence Schiffman, who consulted the museum on its presentation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “The museum did everything they’re supposed to do.”

Is the Word Good?

Discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in the caves of Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls consist of passages of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, that range from 1,800 to more than 2,000 years old. They comprise the oldest copies of Biblical text ever found. (See digital copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls.)

From 1947 to 1953, many of the scrolls were purchased from Bedouin by the local merchant Khalil Iskander Shahin (also known as Kando), who then sold them to collectors and academic institutions. But once the 1970 UNESCO convention on cultural property kicked in, the illicit excavation and selling of newfound scrolls was made illegal.

Today, many of the Dead Sea Scrolls—which total some 100,000 fragments—are housed in the Shrine of the Book, part of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The private market fights for the literal scraps grandfathered into current law, mostly pieces that entered private collections before 1970.

In the early 2000s, about 75 grandfathered-in fragments—most no bigger than large coins—were put up for sale, many by Kando’s relatives. Sixteen of the fragments were purchased by the Green family from 2009 to 2014. Many of these “post-2002” fragments aren’t academically revelatory: Their texts mirror content known from earlier Dead Sea Scrolls. Nevertheless, museums and private collectors jumped at the chance to claim physical ownership of some of the earliest known Biblical texts.

"Any reputable Bible museum almost has to have Dead Sea Scrolls," said Trobisch, the museum’s director, in a 2017 interview with CNN’s Daniel Burke.

At the time of these purchases, Schiffman says that the post-2002 fragments were largely considered authentic. But this consensus began to unravel in early 2016, when University of Leuven researcher Eibert Tigchelaar challenged the authenticity of several fragments held by Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen. Tigchelaar’s efforts quickly snowballed.

“It took a long time to come to the point where I became convinced… [that] a few of these are probably not authentic—at least a few,” says Kipp Davis, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert at Trinity Western University who has closely studied post-2002 fragments.

In interviews last year, Schiffman and Davis noted that while the field is now wary of forgeries, some highly respected scholars still believed the new fragments to be genuine. Schiffman said that at least a few of the post-2002 fragments must be real, since they fit into authentic Dead Sea Scrolls like puzzle pieces. (Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?)

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This Dead Sea Scroll-like fragment, one of 16 in the Museum of the Bible's collection, contains part of the Book of Genesis. At present, isn't one of the suspected forgeries. Like authentic Dead Sea Scrolls, its text runs in largely parallel lines, and its lettering marks the handiwork of a skilled scribe.

In a 2017 interview with CNN, leading Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Emanuel Tov said that he didn't think the fragments are fake. "I will not say the Museum of the Bible has no inauthentic fragments," he said at the time. "I will say I have not seen the proof."

Other scholars, however, err on the side of forgery. “I think that over 90 percent of the post-2002 fragments most probably are modern forgeries,” says University of Agder researcher Årstein Justnes, who leads the Lying Pen of Scribes project, which monitors the post-2002 fragments.

Detectives on the Hunt

If some of the Museum of the Bible's Dead Sea Scroll fragments are in fact forgeries, how did they come about?

For starters, while at least one post-2002 parchment fragment in another collection has reportedly been carbon-dated—a result that Davis finds suspicious—microscopic mistakes in the writing suggest that the ink was laid down in modern times. (Recently, archaeologists discovered blank parchment in one of the Dead Sea Scroll caves.)

In some examples Davis has examined from the Norwegian Schøyen Collection, ink sits atop the ancient parchment’s patina, or bleeds over the fragments’ tattered edges, as if the ink was laid down centuries or millennia later. One manuscript was even found covered in modern table salt, which forgers apparently used to mimic the salty crust on authentic Dead Sea Scrolls.

Research on the Museum of the Bible’s fragments continues; scholars took their first stab at them in 2016, in a 236-page volume co-edited by Tov and Davis. Even then, researchers supported by the museum, including Davis, had flagged possible signs of forgery in some of the museum’s fragments—including one that was on display when the museum first opened.

In that fragment, a passage from the Book of Jonah, one Hebrew character is squeezed into a corner that wouldn’t have been there when the parchment was whole. The lines of text also seem to follow the contours of the fragment’s torn edges. “These [lines of text] are probably not authentic,” says Davis. “It looks more like the letters were applied to something that has already deteriorated.”

In a separate Museum of the Bible fragment that’s not currently on display, the Hebrew text—a portion of the Book of Nehemiah—is interrupted by what looks like the Greek letter alpha. The Greek letter appears in the same passage in a Hebrew Bible published in 1937; the character denotes a footnote.

As scientific work continued, the museum had installed placards under each of the fragments that were on display, which read:

“In 2002, dozens of previously known ‘Dead Sea Scroll’ fragments began appearing with antiquity dealers. Universities, museums, and private collectors acquired many of these ‘new’ fragments. As scholars began to study them, some noted puzzling features and labeled them as forgeries.

“[The Museum of the Bible] published the initial research on its scroll fragments in 2016, but scholarly opinions of their authenticity remain divided. Scientific analysis of the ink and handwriting on these pieces continues.”

Now, the Museum of the Bible says that all five fragments that were on display were probably forgeries. It has now replaced them with three other fragments that haven't been chemically analyzed yet. Placards will still be displayed beside them.

Schiffman, who wrote the placard text, said at the museum's opening that its staff had done their job to be transparent with visitors. Now, it’s a matter of uncovering the fragments’ true origin story.

“What we need now is a detective,” he said.

This article was first published on November 17, 2017.