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After Bible Museum scandal, more American Christians suspect they bought fake Dead Sea Scrolls

Days after the Museum of the Bible acknowledged purchasing forged Dead Sea Scrolls, more American Christians...

Posted: Oct 28, 2018 11:45 AM
Updated: Oct 28, 2018 11:45 AM

Days after the Museum of the Bible acknowledged purchasing forged Dead Sea Scrolls, more American Christians say they now suspect that they, too, have bought pricey fakes.

Steven Ortiz, a professor of archeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said that he believes several fragments purchased by the seminary since 2010 may not be authentic.

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"We suspect that maybe three of our 10 fragments are forgeries," Ortiz said. "The seminary trustees are asking: What are we doing with our scrolls?"

Ortiz said his seminary has sent eight of its fragments to the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung (BAM), the same German laboratory that tested the Museum of the Bible's fragments. The test results were inconclusive with three of the seminary's fragments, Ortiz said, and they are awaiting further results.

Robert Duke, dean of the School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University in California, said the Christian school is considering testing the five fragments it purchased in 2009.

"With this new information, we have a new direction for due-dilligence research," Duke said. "In some ways, we all need to lean into the news this week. We will be meeting to assess next steps, including possible testing with BAM."

On Tuesday, the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, announced that 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.

The news was not unexpected, as multiple scholars, including one who worked for the museum itself, had raised serious doubts about their authenticity. CNN wrote about the questionable artifacts last November.

Germany-based scholars tested the museum's fragments and found that five "show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin," the Museum of the Bible said in a statement.

Of the museum's 16 fragments, 7 will not be displayed and 9 will be tested further, a spokesperson said.

Found 70 years ago in caves in Qumran, on the western shore of the Dead Sea, the scrolls are considered one of the 20th century's most important archaeological discoveries. With more than 900 manuscripts and an estimated 50,000 fragments, it took six decades for scholars to excavate and publish them all. Some scrolls contain the earliest known fragments of what would become revered as Jewish and Christian Scripture.

In 2002, new fragments began mysteriously appearing on the market, where many were scooped up by evangelicals eager to own a piece of biblical history and find tangible evidence attesting to their belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Some evangelicals' idolization of Scripture made them easy marks for unscrupulous dealers, scholars say.

"It was the fertile soil that made the sale of forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments not just easy but extremely profitable," said 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 Bible Museum, about potential forgeries.

"My hope is that this is something that prompts these institutions to approach these questions with a more critical eye."

Since the Bible Museum announcement, controversy has focused on the Green family, the evangelical billionaires behind the Museum of the Bible. 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. Scholars have repeatedly questioned their approach to procuring artifacts.

But many scholars, particularly those who work with antiquities, say issues with evangelicals and artifacts extend beyond the Greens.

Since 2002, more than 70 fragments purportedly part of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were sold, many to American evangelicals, according to Norwegian scholar Arstein Justnes. Some of those scraps have reportedly cost millions. Justnes believes that 90% may be forgeries, based on analysis of the text and handwriting.

For years, Justnes and other scholars have been calling on the Greens and other evangelicals to reveal how and from whom they acquired the Dead Sea Scroll fragments. 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." A spokesperson said Green was not available for comment about the German test results.

"They should tell us where they bought them and show their papers," Justnes said. "The physical tests are super sexy and what the public wants to hear about, but without an object's provenance, it is just unethical. And it helps the illicit market."

Like Justnes, Davis said he hopes the scandal will encourage evangelical collectors to be more up-front about the provenance of their Dead Sea fragments.

"There has to be a stronger focus now on how to handle questions of provenance. That's really where the massive failure in this has taken place."

That may be easier said than done.

Duke and Ortiz said their institutions were told their fragments were connected to the Kando family, who for decades had been trusted middlemen between buyers and the Bedouins who found the Dead Sea Scrolls. For years, the thinking among scholars has been: If an artifact came from Kando, it's likely legit.

"It's important to remember that the world of Dead Sea Scroll scholarship is reliant upon artifacts Bedouins found," Duke said. "They were not part of provenanced archaeological dig."

But even before the Bible Museum's tests, Ortiz said he and other scholars had doubts about their supposedly ancient artifacts, based on analysis of the handwriting and text.

For one, many of the fragments bear snippets from the Hebrew Bible, which is unusual because less than a quarter of all known Dead Sea Scrolls pertain to Scripture. But evangelicals and others are known to pay higher prices for them.

For what it's worth, even scholars at Harvard University have been fooled by a forgery, Ortiz said, noting the infamous "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" scandal, a fiasco that hoodwinked a respected scholar and made worldwide news in 2012.

Ortiz said he did not know how much Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary had paid for the fragments. Charles Patrick, a spokesman for the seminary, said the fragments were purchased with donor gifts and "privacy policy does not permit me to release the amount of donor gifts."

Ortiz and other experts say even tiny fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls can fetch six figures, depending on their perceived historical, and, for some evangelicals, spiritual value.

"My biggest concern with any of the academic institutions buying these scrolls is that they excite the market, and when you excite the market, you excite forgers."

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