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Bible Museum says five of its Dead Sea Scrolls are fake

The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC says five of its most valuable artifacts -- once thought to be par...

Posted: Oct 23, 2018 12:47 PM
Updated: Oct 23, 2018 12:47 PM

The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC says five of its most valuable artifacts -- once thought to be part of the historic Dead Sea Scrolls -- are fake and will not be displayed anymore.

German-based scholars tested the fragments and found that five "show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed at the museum."

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CNN raised questions about the museum's Dead Sea Scroll fragments in an article published last November, as the Green family prepared to unveil their new, $500 million museum. At 430,000 square feet, and with views of the Capitol, the Bible museum represents a significant investment for its evangelical founders.

Now scholars say the Dead Sea forgeries could be part of the most significant sham in biblical archeology since the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife," a fiasco that hoodwinked a Harvard scholar and made worldwide news in 2012. Some scholars estimate that as many as 70 forged fragments have hit the market since 2002.

Oklahoma billionaires, the Greens are best-known for their chain of Hobby Lobby craft stores and their religious freedom battle with the Obama administration over covering contraception in company health care plans.

"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, the chief curatorial officer for Museum of the Bible.

"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."

But some scholars have been raising questions about supposed Dead Sea Scroll fragments for years, saying that unscrupulous antiquities dealers are preying on evangelicals like the Greens, making millions in the process.

Those same scholars questioned the Greens' fragments even before the museum opened with splashy ceremonies last year, including an event attended by Vice President Mike Pence.

Monday's revelations are not the first time the Greens have courted controversy with their artifacts collection. In 2017, the Green family's company, Hobby Lobby, agreed to pay $3 million and return artifacts smuggled out of Iraq as part of a settlement with the Justice Department.

Steve Green, the Bible museum's evangelical founder and chairman, would not say how much his family spent for the 16 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments in its collection. But scholars say even small fragments with little text can fetch millions in the antiquities market.

Through a spokesperson, Green declined to comment on the news about his museum's five fake scrolls. As to the 16 fragments: 7 will not be displayed, 9 will be tested further. Three of those 9 are currently on display at the museum with signs addressing the questions about their authenticity, the spokesperson said.

On the website, "The Lying Pen of Scribes," scholars and scientists have identified more than 70 purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments that have surfaced on the antiquities market since 2002. Ninety percent of those are fake, said Arstein Justnes, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Agder in Norway, including the Museum of the Bible's.

Kipp Davis, an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls at Trinity Western University in Canada, was one of several academics who has tried to warn Christians, including the Green family, about the forgeries.

Davis, who studied the fragments for the Museum of the Bible, said Monday's news about the fakes felt like bittersweet vindication. His takeaway: Evangelicals and others whose faith motivates them to collect artifacts should be very careful with antiquities dealers eager to pique their interest in supposedly ancient scraps of scripture.

"These good intentions that draw from a place of faith are subject to some really gross manipulations," Davis said, "and that is a big part of what has happened here."

The scholar said he believes 2-4 of the Greens' 16 fragments may be authentic, but that at least 8 are fake.

In April 2017, Bible Museum sent five fragments to the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und-prüfung (BAM), a German institute for analyzing materials, where scholars tested for 3D digital microscopy and conducted material analyses of the ink and sediment on the papyrus.

Scholars have theorized that forgers write on top of ancient scraps of papyrus or leather, making the scrolls appear authentic until the ink is tested.

Their report, which the Bible Museum said they recently received, "further raises suspicions about the authenticity of all five fragments."

Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered 70 years ago, the earliest and most complete version of the Hebrew Bible was from the 9th century.

But then Bedouin shepherds stumbled on the scrolls, hidden away for nearly 2,000 years in caves in Qumran, on the western shore of the Dead Sea.

The discovery was so vast, with more than 900 manuscripts and an estimated 50,000 fragments, it took six decades for scholars to excavate and publish them all.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority keeps a tight hold on most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, displaying them in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem. For decades, it was almost impossible for private collectors to get their hands on even scraps from the famous archeological find.

But in 2002, new fragments began mysteriously appearing on the market. The Greens bought their fragments between 2009-2014. At the time, they were deeply involved in the antiquities trade, amassing a collection of some 40,000 artifacts.

Some scholars accused the Greens of buying too many artifacts too quickly, without being sure exactly where they came from, or who had owned them in the past.

"They made it widely known that they were buying everything," said Joel Baden, a professor at Yale Divinity school and co-author of "Bible Nation," a new book about the Greens.

"Every antiquities seller knew the Greens were buying everything and not asking questions about anything."

In an interview before the Bible museum opened last Fall, Steve Green told CNN that wasn't sure who sold his family the Dead Sea Scroll fragments.

"There's been different sources, but I don't know specifically where those came from."

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