Are the Dead Sea Scrolls historical documents or collectible items? How you answer that question may determine how you feel about new revelations that fragments of scrolls in private collections that their owners have paid millions for are probably fakes … well-made forgeries, but fakes nonetheless. One of the victims of these frauds is the Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in Washington DC in November 2017. In a new article in Dead Sea Discoveries by paleographer and Dead Sea Scrolls expert, Dr. Kipp Davis, many of the “scrolls” to be displayed in that facility are questionable at best, fakes at worst.
Forgeries have been a problem with the Dead Sea Scrolls since the first ones were found in 1947 by Bedouin shepherds in a cave near what is now known as the Qumran site. Eventually, 11 (some say 12) caves were found housing some 900 manuscripts and up to 50,000 fragments in forms ranging from full scrolls to minute pieces. As they contain the contents of the Hebrew Bible, competition between scholars and collectors to possess the scrolls was immediately fierce, costly and fraught with frauds. Eventually, carbon dating of the leather they were written on eliminated fakes that weren’t around 2,000 years old.
That test is no longer enough, says Kipp Davis. Counterfeiters have been able to obtain old leather for forgeries. In an interview with The Times of Israel, Davis says experts must now consider things like the quality of penmanship.
“One of the things that is striking is that the fragments that we have suggested are the most suspicious, they’re not very well done… just good enough to sell.”
He watches for odd-shaped letters and says some conform to the shape of the fragment, revealing they were written on the piece, not a scroll. Sometimes the letters contain features that weren’t used until much later. In one case, extreme magnification showed modern table salt crystals on the leather and the ink on top of them … pretty obvious fakery.
The Museum of the Bible is controversial because its charter seems to be more religious than historical, especially with its association with the owners of Hobby Lobby. That connection drew criticism recently when the museum was forced to relinquish artifacts that had been smuggled out of Iraq. The latest controversy surrounds the thirteen Dead Sea Scroll fragments which the museum possesses and reportedly spent millions to obtain. Davis says he’s certain that 6 are fakes and the other seven are questionable. To its credit, the museum has made its collection available to Davis for further study.
For now, the best place to see rigorously authenticated pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls are at exhibits sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority. If you see them for sale on eBay or Craigslist, don’t fall for it.