Well, this is awkward. The Museum of the Bible in Washington has had to release a statement admitting that at least five fragments in its Dead Sea Scroll collection are probably forgeries.
A spokesperson announced on Monday that five of the museum's 16 fragments had to be removed from the display after the results of an analysis last April found they are most likely fake. Tests on the "scrolls" were performed by German-based company Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung, who used 3D digital microscopy and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) as well as material analysis of the ink, sediment layers, and chemical nature of the sediment to determine their origins.
"My studies to date have managed to confirm upon a preponderance of different streams of evidence the high probability that at least seven fragments in the museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls collection are modern forgeries, but conclusions on the status of the remaining fragments are still forthcoming," said Kipp Davis, an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls at Trinity Western University in Canada who examined the scroll fragments.
It won't be welcome news for Steve Green, the evangelical craft store billionaire whose family founded and own the museum. Green hasn't revealed exactly how much the family shelled out for the Dead Sea Scroll fragments (the stars of the $500-million museum's entire collection) but others have paid in the millions for similar snippets of the ancient text. Last year, US customs seized 5,500 ancient artifacts illegally looted from Iraq and smuggled into the US, bought by Green under the family's company, Hobby Lobby, for $1.6 million, all of which had to be returned to Iraq.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are thought to be some of the oldest surviving Judeo-Christian texts, with carbon dating suggesting some are more than 2,000 years old. In total, around 1,200 or so manuscripts – from tiny fragments to complete books from the Old Testament – have been found in the caves surrounding the Dead Sea since 1945. Before then, the earliest, most complete version of the Hebrew Bible (the Aleppo Codex) dated to the 10th century CE.
The majority of scrolls are kept in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, but more recently private collectors have been able to get their hands on a piece of the pie after a suspiciously large influx of "new" Dead Sea Scrolls hit the market in 2002. Experts have warned that as many as 90 percent of these new texts could be fakes. The Greens are said to have purchased their collection between 2009 and 2014.
"Though we had hoped the testing would render different results, this 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," chief curatorial officer for Museum of the Bible Jeffrey Kloha said in a statement.
"As an educational institution entrusted with cultural heritage, the museum upholds and adheres to all museum and ethical guidelines on collection care, research, and display."
The museum has said the removed fragments will be replaced by three other fragments – but first, these will have to undergo their own testing to prove their legitimacy.