Tech & Science

Newly Discovered Dead Sea Scrolls are Skillfully Crafted Fakes, Experts Suspect

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10/28/16
In the Magazine
An employee of the Israel Antiquities Authority sews fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls in a preservation laboratory at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on July 20, 2015. Eddie Gerald/Getty

While most Americans are riveted by a tumultuous presidential campaign, archaeologists and experts in ancient writing have been focused on some newly discovered bits of ancient history: 70 alleged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The fragments reference some of the verses found in the Old Testament, and antiquities dealers and owners claim they were created by a desert-dwelling, ascetic Jewish sect called the Essenes in the centuries just before the birth of Christ.

Like all archaeology in and around the conflicted, contested Holy Land, the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls is intensely political. Bedouins stumbled upon a trove of them in 1947, in a cave in a desert cliff high above the baked, sere shores of the Dead Sea, in what was then Jordan. A scholar at Hebrew University began looking at them later that year—in the same month that the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, effectively acknowledging the new state of Israel.

Eventually, many of the scroll fragments were collected into one public display in a Shrine of the Book on the grounds of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The shrine is underground and capped by a massive cement cone that can be ratcheted down to protect them in the event of any attack or bombardment.

The origin of the newest Dead Sea Scroll fragments, some of which are being sold in batches for tens of millions of dollars, is unclear. Many emerged from a private collection of the descendants of an Arab collector in Bethlehem who acquired and sold the first set of scrolls. But even the private collectors in Europe and the United States who have bought them are uncertain of their provenance.

American Steve Green, the evangelical Christian heir to the Hobby Lobby craft chain fortune and the force behind the Museum of the Bible, an endeavor Newsweek covered earlier this year, has spent millions on the new finds. One fragment sold to the Southwestern  Baptist Theological Seminary conveniently refers to the biblical prohibition against homosexuality in the Book of Leviticus.

The problem is, experts suspect many of these sensational and pricy new fragments are expertly crafted fakes. For example, the fragment references passages in Leviticus 18 and 20 that contain the two strongest condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible. Such a strong coincidence is a flag of fakery.

“It is extremely unlikely that a small Dead Sea Scroll fragment would preserve text from both chapters” of Leviticus, says religion scholar Arstein Justnes, at University of Agder in Norway, who called the new fragments “amateurish” imitations that seem to have been copied from modern textbooks about the scrolls. “I think this fragment was produced for American evangelicals.”

Justnes  is creating an international multidisciplinary research project called the Lying Pen of Scribes to bring together scientists and scholars to systematically analyze the flood of new fragments for authenticity. “There is a real danger that an increasing number of forgeries is accepted into the datasets on which we base our knowledge of the ancient world,” Justnes says. “There is an urgent need for the development of strategies and methods with which to counter this threat.”

In recent years, scholars have exposed many high-profile fakes in Biblical archaeology, including pieces in the Israel Museum, the James Ossuary (touted as the first archaeological evidence of Jesus Christ and covered in a book I wrote) and recently, the “Jesus wife” fragment, which an investigation traced to a Florida-dwelling German émigré.

While the newfound  fragments contain references to the Old Testament’s books of Leviticus and Nehemiah, none so far refer to a possibly pertinent passage in Job, specifically 13:4 which states: “But ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value.”