Museum of the Bible announced today that independent scientific testing on five fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls on display at the museum had been completed and that the tests “concluded that the five fragments show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed at the museum.”
In other words, they are forgeries.
Museum of the Bible, a charitable museum dedicated to biblical artifacts and history, opened in Washington, D.C., in November 2017. The museum’s opening was shrouded in controversy in part because of its association with the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby, Incorporated.
Hobby Lobby had been investigated by the federal government for importing ancient Mesopotamian artifacts to the U.S. In July 2017 Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit these artifacts that, it was revealed, had been illegally imported from Iraq. They also agreed to pay a $3 million forfeiture for similarly imported goods no longer in their possession. The revelation that they have been displaying forgeries only further damages the reputation of the museum. The museum’s donors have also been accused of exploiting the financial value of Torah scrolls for tax purposes.
The original Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves at Qumran (near the Dead Sea) 70 years ago. Given that many Dead Sea Scrolls were copies or commentaries on books of the Bible, they have been important to Museum of the Bible’s message because of the textual evidence they present about the transmission of biblical texts in antiquity.
In an interview that I and my co-author Joel Baden conducted with Steve Green in 2015, Green told us that “God, I think, protected the Dead Sea Scrolls for when he was ready for them to be revealed.” They were important, he added, because they testified to the accuracy of the transmission of biblical texts.
Since the original discovery of 800-900 documents, approximately 70 more “scrolls” have filtered onto the market in the past 15 years. None of these new scrolls have a reasonable provenance: Unlike the original Dead Sea Scrolls, we don’t know which cave at Qumran they were discovered in, much less where they have been since then.
Now, it is revealed, the five small scraps purported to be parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are forgeries. This isn’t news to scholars, though, who have been objecting to the presence of the fragments in the museum for roughly two years. In 2016, the museum published details of its Dead Sea Scroll fragments in the book Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection (Brill, 2016). This was the first time that scholars not involved with Museum of the Bible were able to view and evaluate their scrolls. Many were concerned that the museum could not account for the provenance (origins and chain of ownership) of these scrolls.
Almost immediately, Arstein Justnes, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Agder in Norway, identified the Museum of the Bible fragments as forged. Justnes is not alone in his evaluation of the scrolls. Numerous others, including Kipp Davis, a scholar at Trinity Western University in Canada who was involved in the museum’s publication of the scrolls, have concurred with Justnes' judgment. And now a battery of scientific tests (3D digital microscopy, scans of X-ray fluorescence [XRF] and energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy [EDX] material analysis of the ink) have confirmed his findings.
In 2017, when Museum of the Bible decided to exhibit the forged fragments, they did acknowledge the controversy surrounding the inclusion in the exhibit itself. Signage accompanying the fragments noted that testing was underway and that “scholars continue to debate the authenticity of this fragment.” Some (full disclosure: I was among them) felt that the scrolls should not have been exhibited if the museum could not account for the authenticity or origins of these fragments.
Though it is disappointing that it has taken nearly a year for scholarly warnings to be heeded, it is commendable that Museum of the Bible is doing the right thing now and removing the scrolls from their exhibit. They could have saved themselves some money and public embarrassment if they had listened to academics like Justnes over a year ago.