The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 stunned archaeologists and transformed religious studies. The scrolls became some of the most highly sought items for museums. Too highly sought, as it turns out, with the discovery that all the scrolls held by the Museum of The Bible in Washington DC are forgeries made to resemble the actual scrolls, most of which are held in the Shrine of the Book in Israel.
The Museum opened in 2017, with 16 fragments claimed to have been found in the Qumran caves close to the Dead Sea as prime attractions. From the very start, there were question marks over their authenticity. The following year, the Museum reluctantly admitted five of the fragments were forged and removed them from display, but still had faith in the other 11, even though experts were already deeply suspicious of two of these.
Now, however, they have been forced to admit they’ve been hoodwinked about the whole lot. “The Museum of the Bible is trying to be as transparent as possible,” CEO Harry Hargrave told National Geographic. “We’re victims – we’re victims of misrepresentation, we’re victims of fraud.”
The Museum was established by Hobby Lobby founder Steve Green, who has poured a considerable portion of the wealth he obtained from craft stores into buying Middle Eastern antiquities.
Nevertheless, it’s not the worst thing that has happened to Green in his personal hobby. In 2016, he was fined $3 million for having spent $1.6 million buying 5,500 ancient artifacts that were looted from Iraq in the chaos after the 2003 invasion and illegally smuggled into the United States. The acquisition of Iraq’s stolen cultural heritage by wealthy Americans has been less than helpful to diplomats attempting to soothe Iraqi anger against the nations that participated in the invasion and subsequent occupation.
The vast majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been verified as genuine, being carbon dated as 1,900-2,300 years old. Most are copies of texts found elsewhere, principally the Torah/Old Testament of the Bible, roughly doubling the age of the oldest physical copies of these holy books. Consequently, anyone wishing to make a forgery could easily select a piece of biblical text to copy. Black market forgeries have been identified since 2002, but none have been displayed so prominently.
Nevertheless, the Museum was not entirely naive. Art fraud investigator Colette Loll reported the ink used on the scrolls was modern, but the leather they were printed on is of roughly the right age. Exactly how someone gets hold of 2,000-year-old leather to make a forgery like this is unclear, although one bears some resemblance to a piece of Roman sandal. The forgers' effort to find something suitably ancient is a testament to the price collectors like Green will pay if they think a fragment might be authentic.
The fragments were some of 70 or so sold by William Kando, son of antiquities dealer Khalil Shahin, who obtained many of the real scrolls in the 1950s from the Bedouin who found them and sold them on to museums and collectors. Green bought some directly from Kando, and others from other collectors.