When Washington DC’s $US500 million Museum of the Bible held its grand opening in November 2017, attended by Vice-President Mike Pence, there were questions even then about the authenticity of its centrepiece collection of Dead Sea Scrolls.
- German scholars reveal five of the Bible Museum’s 16 Dead Sea Scrolls fragments are apparent forgeries
- Around 2002, a wave of new fragments of the scrolls began mysteriously appearing on the market
- The Green family, which owns the museum, went on an archaeological acquisition spree in years leading up to museum’s opening
Now the museum has been forced to admit a painful truth: technical analysis by a team of German scholars has revealed that at least five of the museum’s 16 scroll fragments are apparent forgeries.
The announcement has serious implications not only for the Bible Museum, but for other evangelical Christian individuals and institutions who paid top dollar for what now seems to be a massive case of archaeological fraud.
Jeffrey Kloha, chief curator for the Museum of the Bible, said in a statement that the revelation 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.”
The scrolls are a collection of ancient Jewish religious texts first discovered in the mid-1940s in caves on the western shore of the Dead Sea in what is now Israel. The massive cache of Hebrew documents is believed to date back to the days of Jesus.
With more than 9,000 documents and 50,000 fragments, the entire collection took decades to fully excavate.
“In 2002, dozens of previously known Dead Sea Scroll fragments began appearing with antiquity dealers. Universities, museums and private collectors acquired many of these ‘new’ fragments. As scholars began to study them, some noted puzzling features and labelled them as forgeries.
“MOTB [Museum of the Bible] published the initial research on its scroll fragments in 2016, but scholarly opinions of their authenticity remain divided. Scientific analysis of the ink and handwriting on these pieces continues.”
Most of the scrolls and fragments are tightly controlled by the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
But around 2002, a wave of new fragments began mysteriously appearing on the market, despite scepticism from biblical scholars.
These fragments, they warned, were specifically designed to target American evangelical Christians, who prize the scrolls.
That appears to be exactly what happened; a Baptist seminary in Texas and an evangelical college in California reportedly paid millions to purchase alleged pieces of the scrolls.
Also eagerly buying up fragments was the Green family — evangelical Oklahoma billionaires who run the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores and who famously sued the Obama administration on religious grounds, saying they didn’t want to pay to provide their employees access to the morning-after pill or intrauterine devices.
The Greens are the primary backers of the Museum of the Bible and went on an archaeological acquisition spree in the years leading up to the museum’s opening.
In addition to the alleged Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, the Greens ran afoul of the Justice Department, which said they had acquired thousands of smuggled artifacts looted from Iraq and elsewhere. The family agreed last year to return those artifacts and pay a $US3 million fine.
Steve Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, said the museum was not designed to evangelise. (AP: Jacquelyn Martin)
Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, had previously said the museum was non-demoninational and was not designed to preach.
“[The] museum is for all, when we say our mission statement is to invite all people to engage with the bible, it is for all,” he said.
“Even if you’re an atheist, we want you to feel comfortable coming in here realising that we’re not pushing our agenda, our faith.
“We just want you to learn about this book and be inspired to open it up and read it when you leave.”