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Museum's Collection Of Purported Dead Sea Scroll Fragments Are Fakes, Experts Say

An authentic 2,000-year-old scroll fragment found at Qumran near the Dead Sea.
Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority via AP
An authentic 2,000-year-old scroll fragment found at Qumran near the Dead Sea.

A months-long analysis of alleged pieces of the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls that are on display at a privately funded museum in Washington, D.C., has revealed them to be clever forgeries, according to a team of researchers examining the fragments.

Using 3-D and scanning electron microscopes and microchemical testing, a group of independent researchers concluded that all 16 fragments housed at the Museum of the Bible purported to be part of the collection of ancient Hebrew manuscripts were inscribed on leather rather than the ancient parchment used in the authentic scrolls, which date within a few centuries of the birth of Jesus Christ.

"After an exhaustive review of all the imaging and scientific analysis results, it is the unanimous conclusion of the Advisory Team that none of the textual fragments in the Museum of the Bible's Dead Sea Scroll collection are authentic," the researchers commissioned by the museum wrote in their report dated November 2019, but made public only in recent days.

"Moreover, each exhibits characteristics that suggest they are deliberate forgeries created in the twentieth century with the intent to mimic authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments," they said.

The Museum of the Bible, funded by Steve Green, the billionaire president of Hobby Lobby, opened in 2017 with the scroll fragments as its centerpiece. However, questions about the authenticity of the artifacts quickly emerged. In October 2018, the museum acknowledged that five of the 16 fragments had been discredited as fakes by a team of German researchers, who concluded they had "characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin."

While those fragments were removed, the remaining 11 stayed on public display pending further investigation.

In the report, the investigators said that ink used on the manuscripts did not match ink used on authentic scrolls and that "[m]any anomalies observed in the application of the ink reinforce the theory that degraded fragments of archeological leather, most likely ancient and already covered with a variety of mineral deposits from the environment, were used as substrates for writing."

After discovering that the remaining fragments were fakes, the investigators turned to the question of how they might have been fabricated.

"One interesting possibility is that pieces of Roman-era leather shoes, which have been found at a number of archeological sites from this period, might have served as the substrate for some of the forgeries," they said.

The first of the genuine Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 in a cave in Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank. More manuscripts were found in subsequent years. The texts, mostly in Hebrew, but some in Aramaic and Greek, have been of intense interest to scholars for their ability to shed light on the origins of the Hebrew Bible and the time period encompassing the emergence of Christianity in ancient Palestine.

Most of the authentic scroll fragments are housed at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

However, beginning in 2002, some 70 additional fragments appeared on the antiquities market and were eagerly sought by collectors despite doubts about their provenance. The Museum of the Bible's collection came from this "post-2002" lot.

Through Hobby Lobby Inc., the family-owned craft store chain known for supporting conservative Christian causes, the Green family amassed some 40,000 biblical artifacts that became the foundation of the museum's collection.

In 2017, Hobby Lobby was found to have violated federal law when it purchased 5,500 objects from dealers in the United Arab Emirates and Israel that were later smuggled into the U.S. In a settlement with the Department of Justice, Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit the objects and pay a $3 million fine.

Harry Hargrave, the Museum of the Bible's CEO, said in commissioning the investigation into the suspect artifacts, the institution was "trying to be as transparent as possible."

"We're victims — we're victims of misrepresentation, we're victims of fraud," he was quoted as saying by National Geographic.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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