Essays

Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of the Bible Revealed as Forgeries

The museum, not unfamiliar with scandal, failed to perform due diligence before showcasing the scrolls.

A fragment of a Dead Sea Scroll housed at the Museum of the Bible, Numbers 8:3-5 (courtesy Museum of the Bible)

This week, the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) announced that five of its purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments are, in fact, modern forgeries.

The museum is directed by Hobby Lobby’s president Steve Green and features the craft store’s collection of antiquities and manuscripts. Between 2009 and 2014, Hobby Lobby purchased a total of 16 fragments claimed to be from 2,000-year-old scrolls hidden in the Qumran caves by the Dead Sea. 13 of these fragments were published by a set of respected Dead Sea Scrolls scholars in 2016, in the first volume of a series from prestigious academic publisher, Brill. That same year, MOTB opened and put a selection of these fragments on display.

The news media’s presentation of the forgery announcement furthers a dubious narrative: that scientific testing has definitively proven what text scholars can only guess at —the authenticity or forgery of ancient artifacts. While material analysis of scrolls can help show that material is modern, the results are often not as assured as they are presented to be, and material analysis certainly cannot prove authenticity. Testing that suggests parchment or ink is ancient is not wholly decisive.

As some epigraphers have warned, forgers are quite skilled and are suspected to use practices that can pass scientific tests — for instance, by using blank scraps of ancient scrolls as writing surfaces for their forgeries. Radiocarbon dating and additional testing of the widely-heralded “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” fragment — now universally known to be a forgery — suggested that the fragment was ancient. In that case, the forgery was proven by a study of the text, and especially by provenance research.

In fact, for the MOTB scroll fragments, the evidence of forgery was fairly clear all along.

The material is unprovenanced; it consists of small scraps that can be easily forged; and almost all of the texts (92%) come from biblical books, while only 23% of the authentic Qumran material is biblical.  The text in the fragments also shows a number of anomalies, such as what appears to be a superscript alpha after one Hebrew word, copied from a 20th-century critical edition.

The authentic scrolls were discovered by the Bedouin and by subsequent archaeological excavation in the 1940s and 1950s. After the initial discovery, no further scrolls appeared until 2002. Since that time, more than 75 purported Dead Sea Scrolls (including the MOTB purchases) have appeared on the antiquities market. The sudden appearance of so many fragments, all with the same problematic characteristics, is highly suspicious. So it is not surprising that scholars have publicly warned that at least some of the post-2002 scroll fragments are fake.

Jonah 4:2-5 (courtesy Museum of the Bible)

To be fair, these concerns have only become a consensus since the scholarly community gained access to material following the MOTB’s 2016 publication, and through the work of the Lying Pen project over the last two years. And MOTB now points to the role that Kipp Davis, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert on their publication team, has played in revealing forgeries.

It is a good thing when a museum communicates with the public about the nature of its collection. However, Hobby Lobby was negligent in failing to conduct due diligence on scroll purchases it made over the course of five years.

Only after the fragments were published and put on display did Museum of the Bible begin to study their authenticity in depth. By this time, Hobby Lobby had donated them to the museum, and the Green family had likely received their tax break for their donation. In their 2017 book Bible Nation, biblical scholars Candida Moss and Joel Baden report that, for their philanthropic activities, the Green family follows a set ratio of appraised value-to-purchase price of 3:1 — that is, an appraised value (and therefore a tax write-off) at least three times the purchase price. This ratio is reportedly followed for all of their various donations, including antiquities. Due diligence after the donation is convenient, in that the profit has already been made.

Tax breaks for donation to museums are a common device to encourage philanthropy. What makes MOTB unique is that the Greens are donating the artifacts to their own museum — which is legally a separate entity from Hobby Lobby. To put it another way, the government is effectively paying the Greens to amass a collection of dubious antiquities.

Despite questionable circumstances, news of the forgery was not the subject of an exposé, but first announced by MOTB itself in a press release. It is particularly remarkable that, despite its history of questionable antiquities collecting, the museum now says it can use this incident “to educate the public.” This is not the first time that MOTB has taken its lack of due diligence and turned it into a promotional opportunity.

The Museum of the Bible (image via Wikimedia Commons)

In August, the museum announced that it was returning a medieval manuscript that it had determined was stolen from the University of Athens. Theodora Antonopoulou, Professor of Byzantine Literature at the University of Athens, had discovered that the stolen manuscript was in MOTB’s collection. But MOTB put out a press release announcing: “Museum of the Bible solves mystery of missing Greek manuscript.” The museum also put together a new exhibit (Lost and Found: The Return of Manuscript 18) to display the text and praise its own conduct in the case, posting a promo video of the exhibit on its Facebook page.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that MOTB appears to be skilled at turning its own dubious purchasing history into PR successes. Somewhat unusually for a museum, MOTB does not have its own media or publicity department, but has hired an outside PR agency, DeMoss.

DeMoss specializes in handling publicity for conservative Christian organizations, such as the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, Chick-fil-A, and Wheaton College (as well as Israel’s Ministry of Tourism). DeMoss’s founder, Mark DeMoss, sits on MOTB’s board.

Some may celebrate the latest news as a vindication of their criticisms of MOTB or Hobby Lobby. But, as with the prior series of scandals with which they’ve been involved — the forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and other artifacts smuggled into the country; the issuing of fake receipts for purchases along with tax evasion and money laundering; or the funding of an archaeological excavation in the West Bank in violation of international law — this is not really a loss for MOTB.

Considering how the story has been told to date, it is a PR coup. More than that: based on the Greens’ 3:1 model for purchase and donation, and exorbitant purchase prices for the post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll fragments (tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each), they have likely made millions of dollars in profit just from their “altruistic” donation of these 16 fragments. Given that this profit consists of public funds (in the form of tax breaks), the real losers, in this case, are us.

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