‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
Months of testing confirm earlier suspicions that the fragments were made in modern times. What happens next?WASHINGTON, D.C.On the fourth floor of the Museum of the Bible, a sweeping permanent exhibit tells the story of how the ancient scripture became the world’s most popular book.
A warmly lit sanctum at the exhibit’s heart reveals some of the museum’s most prized possessions: fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient texts that include the oldest known surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible.
But now, the Washington, D.C. museum has confirmed a bitter truth about the fragments’ authenticity. On Friday, independent researchers funded by the Museum of the Bible announced that all 16 of the museum’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments are modern forgeries that duped outside collectors, the museum’s founder, and some of the world’s leading biblical scholars. Officials unveiled the findings at an academic conference hosted by the museum.
“The Museum of the Bible is trying to be as transparent as possible,” says CEO Harry Hargrave. “We’re victims—we’re victims of misrepresentation, we’re victims of fraud.”
In a report spanning more than 200 pages, a team of researchers led by art fraud investigator Colette Loll found that while the pieces are probably made of ancient leather, they were inked in modern times and modified to resemble real Dead Sea Scrolls. “These fragments were manipulated with the intent to deceive,” Loll says.
The new findings don’t cast doubt on the 100,000 real Dead Sea Scroll fragments, most of which lie in the Shrine of the Book, part of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. However, the report’s findings raise grave questions about the “post-2002” Dead Sea Scroll fragments, a group of some 70 snippets of biblical text that entered the antiquities market in the 2000s. Even before the new report, some scholars believed that most to all of the post-2002 fragments were modern fakes.
“Once one or two of the fragments were fake, you know all of them probably are, because they come from the same sources, and they look basically the same,” says Årstein Justnes, a researcher at Norway’s University of Agder whose Lying Pen of Scribes project tracks the post-2002 fragments.
Since its 2017 opening, the Museum of the Bible has funded research into the pieces and sent off five fragments to Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research for testing. In late 2018, the museum announced the results to the world: All five tested fragments were probably modern forgeries.
But what of the other 11 fragments? And how had the forgers managed to fool the world’s leading Dead Sea Scroll scholars and the Museum of the Bible?
“It really was—and still is—an interesting kind of detective story,” says Jeffrey Kloha, the Museum of the Bible’s chief curatorial officer. “We really hope this is helpful to other institutions and researchers, because we think this provides a good foundation for looking at other pieces, even if it raises other questions.”
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
To find out more about its fragments, the Museum of the Bible reached out to Loll and her company, Art Fraud Insights, in February 2019 and charged her with conducting a thorough physical and chemical investigation of all 16 pieces. Loll was no stranger to fakes and forgeries. After getting her master’s in art history at George Washington University, Loll went on to study international art crime, run forgery investigations, and train federal agents on matters of cultural heritage.
Loll insisted on independence. Not only would the Museum of the Bible have no say on the team’s findings, her report would be final—and would have to be released to the public. The Museum of the Bible agreed to the terms. “Honestly, I’ve never worked with a museum that was so up-front,” Loll says.
Loll quickly assembled a team of five conservators and scientists. From February to October, the team periodically visited the museum and pulled together their findings. By the time their report was finalized in November 2019, the researchers were unanimous. All 16 fragments appeared to be modern forgeries.
First, the team concluded that the fragments were seemingly made of the wrong material. Nearly all the authentic Dead Sea Scrolls fragments are made of tanned or lightly tanned parchment, but at least 15 of the Museum of the Bible’s fragments were made of leather, which is thicker, bumpier, and more fibrous.
The team’s best guess is that the leather itself is ancient, recovered from scraps found in the Judean desert or elsewhere. One tantalizing possibility is that they come from ancient leather shoes or sandals. One of the fragments has a row of what look like artificially made holes, somewhat similar to those found in Roman-era shoes.
In addition, testing led by Jennifer Mass, the president of Scientific Analysis of Fine Art, showed that the forger soaked the fragments in an amber-colored concoction, most likely an animal-skin glue. The treatment not only stabilized the leather and smoothed out the writing surface, but it also mimicked a signature, glue-like feature of the real Dead Sea Scrolls. After millennia of exposure, collagen in the ancient parchment broke down to form gelatin, which hardened to give some parts of authentic fragments a gummy, glue-soaked appearance.
Most damningly, careful microscopic analysis showed that the fragments’ scripture was painted onto already ancient leather. On many of the pieces, suspiciously shiny ink pools in cracks and waterfalls off of torn edges that wouldn’t have been present when the leather was new. On others, the forgers’ brushstrokes clearly overlie the ancient leather’s bumpy mineral crust.
“The material is degraded, it’s so brittle, so inflexible,” says team member Abigail Quandt, the head of book and paper conservation at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum. “It’s no wonder that the scholars were thinking these were untrained scribes, because they were really struggling to form these characters and keep their pens under control.”
Possibly to correct for the anachronism, the forged fragments also look like they were dusted with clay minerals consistent with sediments from Qumran, where the original Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
Even more detailed chemical analyses led by Buffalo State College conservation scientist Aaron Shugar raised additional red flags. By shining x-rays on the fragments, the researchers could map different chemical elements across the fragments’ surfaces, which revealed that calcium had soaked deeply into the leather pieces.
The element’s distribution strongly hinted that the leather had been treated with lime to chemically remove its hair. While recent evidence suggests at least a few authentic Dead Sea Scrolls may have been prepared with lime, scholars have long thought that the technique caught on only after the authentic Dead Sea Scrolls were made.
THE FORGERIES’ MISSING SOURCE
Though the report delves into the fragments’ makeup, it does not investigate their provenance, or the proven chain of ownership tracing back to their place of origin. For Justnes, the post-2002 fragments’ missing backstories pose a greater concern than any chemical evidence of forgery.
“We should perhaps really hope that [the post-2002 fragments] are fakes … If they are fakes, we have been duped,” he says. “But if they are authentic, unprovenanced artifacts, they must have been looted, they must have been smuggled—they were tied to criminal acts in some way.”
The authentic Dead Sea Scrolls trace back to 1947, when Bedouin herders found clay jars in Palestine’s Qumran caves that held thousands of parchment scrolls more than 1,800 years old, including some of the oldest surviving copies of the Hebrew Bible.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are inarguably the most important biblical discovery of the last century,” Kloha says. “That pushed our knowledge of the biblical text back one thousand years from what was available at the time, and showed some variety—but especially the consistency—of the tradition of the Hebrew Bible.”
Through the 1950s, a Bethlehem-based antiquities dealer named Khalil Iskander Shahin, better known as Kando, acquired many fragments from local Bedouin and sold them to collectors around the world. But in the 1970s, a new UNESCO convention on cultural property and a new Israeli law on the antiquities trade restricted sale of the looted scrolls. Today, private collectors bid for the scraps grandfathered into current law, mostly fragments that entered the private market in the 1950s and 1960s.
However, the landscape suddenly shifted around 2002, as antiquities dealers and biblical scholars started to unveil snippets of biblical text that looked like long-lost pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many of the shriveled brown fragments—most no bigger than large coins—reportedly traced back to the Kandos, who were rumored to be selling pieces they had long ago spirited away to a vault in Switzerland.
EXPLORE THE EVIDENCE
By decade’s end, the trickle of post-2002 fragments turned into a flood of at least 70 pieces. Collectors and museums jumped at the chance to own the oldest known biblical texts, including Museum of the Bible founder Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby. Starting in 2009, Green and Hobby Lobby spent a fortune buying up biblical manuscripts and artifacts to seed what would become the Museum of the Bible’s collection. From 2009 to 2014, Green bought a total of 16 Dead Sea Scroll fragments in four batches, including seven fragments he bought directly from William Kando, the elder Kando’s son.
Initially, some Dead Sea Scroll experts thought the post-2002 pieces, including Green’s, were the real deal. In 2016, leading biblical scholars published a book on the Museum of the Bible’s fragments, dating them to the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But months before that book’s publication, doubt had started to creep into some scholars’ minds.
In 2016, researchers including Justnes and Kipp Davis, a scholar at Canada’s Trinity Western University who co-edited the 2016 book, began discussing signs that some post-2002 fragments in Norway had been faked. Davis then published evidence in 2017 that cast doubt on two Museum of the Bible fragments, including one that was on display when the museum opened in 2017. One fragment’s lettering squeezed into a corner that wouldn’t have existed when the writing surface was new. Another appeared to have a Greek letter alpha where a 1930s reference Hebrew Bible used an alpha to flag a footnote.
In the wake of the new report, researchers say they must next focus on the fragments’ convoluted routes through the global antiquities trade. “When you have a deceiver and a believer, it’s an intimate dance,” Loll says. “You don’t need as much of a knowledge of the materials as you need a knowledge of the marketplace.”
Despite being purchased at four different times from four different people, the report finds that all 16 of the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments were forged the same way—which strongly suggests that the forged fragments share a common source. However, the identity of the forger or forgers remains unknown. It’s possible that the fragments’ sellers were themselves duped when they originally acquired the pieces from other dealers or collectors.
National Geographic tried to contact the three Americans who sold Dead Sea Scroll fragments to Green. Bookseller Craig Lampe, who sold Green four fragments in 2009, did not respond to requests for comment sent through his business partner. Neither did collector Andrew Stimer, who sold four of the fragments to Green in 2014.
Michael Sharpe, a book collector formerly based in Pasadena, California, sold one Dead Sea Scroll piece to Green in February 2010. In a Thursday interview with National Geographic, Sharpe expressed shock and disbelief that the piece he had sold—and that he had bought earlier for his own collection—was inauthentic. “I feel kind of sick,” he says. “I had zero idea, none!”
Sharpe was first introduced to the world of Dead Sea Scrolls by William Noah, a Tennessee-based physician and exhibit curator, because of a lawsuit involving the late manuscript dealer Bruce Ferrini. In late 2003, Noah sued Ferrini, alleging that Ferrini had embezzled funds related to Noah’s attempt to buy a 1,700-year-old papyrus piece of the Gospel of John for a traveling exhibit he was curating. Ferrini eventually went bankrupt from Noah’s and others’ lawsuits.
In the fallout, Noah acquired two fragments in Ferrini’s possession that belonged to the Kandos: a tiny portion of the Book of Jeremiah, and a small fragment of rabbinic commentary about the Book of Genesis. “’Dead Sea cornflakes’ we used to call them, they were so small,” Noah says.
Noah attempted to return the fragments to the Kando family, but the Kandos instead agreed to sell the fragments at a discount to Noah and Sharpe. According to Noah, the transaction is how Kando and Sharpe met. Years later, Kando directly sold to Sharpe the larger Genesis fragment that made its way to the Museum of the Bible.
Noah and Sharpe both say that leading scholars threw their support behind the fragments they bought. Records provided by Nat Des Marais, Sharpe’s former business partner, say that Dead Sea Scrolls scholar James Charlesworth, who retired from the Princeton Theological Seminary in 2019, helped validate the Genesis fragment’s authenticity.
“How could these be phony? How could these be fraudulent?” Noah says. “That’s really the story. How did this happen? How did all these world experts miss this?”
In an email, Charlesworth noted that when he described the fragment to other scholars in the past, he reported that it was probably authentic but not from the same time and place as the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran. But after another look at a picture of the fragment, Charlesworth voiced fresh skepticism. “I am bothered by the handwriting; it now seems to be suspicious,” he says.
Charlesworth also says he has seen pieces of blank, ancient leather in circulation. “In the past, when I told the Bedouin that a piece was worthless because it had no writing, I inadvertently suggested how to make it valuable,” he says.
At press, William Kando, who sold seven pieces to Green, did not respond to an email request for comment. In a past interview with National Geographic contributing writer Robert Draper, Kando denied that any fragments he had sold were inauthentic. (Read more from Draper’s story in National Geographic magazine.)
The Kandos’ many alleged connections to the forged fragments have not escaped scholars’ attention. “All roads lead to Bethlehem,” said Lawrence Schiffman, a Hebrew scholar at New York University and adviser to the Museum of the Bible, at the Friday conference.
TURNING THE PAGE?
Fallout from the report could land far and wide. Not only does the report correct the Dead Sea Scroll corpus, but it also defines a procedure to test other post-2002 fragments’ authenticity. Other such fragments reside at academic institutions around the world, such as California’s Azusa Pacific University and Texas’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Talk about making lemonade, right?” Loll says.
The report may also lead to a reevaluation of Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection, the 2016 book that introduced the museum’s fragments to the scholarly community. Leading biblical scholar Emanuel Tov, one of the volume’s main editors, reviewed the new report for National Geographic and provided the following statement:
I will not say that there are no unauthentic fragments among the MOB fragments, but in my view, their inauthenticity as a whole has still not been proven beyond doubt. This doubt is due to the fact that similar testing has not been done on undisputed Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts in order to provide a base line for comparison, including the fragments from the Judean Desert sites that are later than Qumran. The report expects us to conclude that abnormalities abound without demonstrating what is normal.
Brill, the book’s publisher, is standing by to learn more. “If it is confirmed that all fragments are forged, the volume will be retracted and no longer offered for sale,” Brill said in a statement.
In the meantime, scholars also called for more dramatic action. “All the material has documentation proving that the documents were exported previously under relevant antiquities laws,” Schiffman said on Friday. “So the victims—despite the fact that it’s embarrassing to admit that you were duped—have to go and explore all criminal and civil remedies with U.S., Israeli, and international authorities.”
The announcement also draws the spotlight back onto how the Museum of the Bible assembled its collection in the first place. In 2017, U.S. officials forced Hobby Lobby to return 5,500 illegally imported clay tablets to Iraq and pay a $3-million fine. In 2019, museum officials announced that 11 papyrus fragments in its collection had been sold to Hobby Lobby by Oxford professor Dirk Obbink, who is accused of stealing the fragments from a papyrus collection he oversaw.
Green and museum officials have long maintained that they received poor advice at the time of the purchases and that they assembled their collection in good faith. Now, a humbled Museum of the Bible is working to reset its relationship with scholars and the public. In 2017, Kloha joined the museum to oversee its collections, and in November 2019, the museum brought in Hargrave, who helped direct the museum’s construction, to serve as its third CEO in two years.
In interviews with National Geographic, the Museum of the Bible’s new leadership team voiced hope that the analysis would help Dead Sea Scrolls scholars around the world. Kloha and Hargrave add that the museum is considering a revision of its Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit to focus on how researchers uncovered the forgery.
“I was hoping to have one real [fragment], because then you could show, Okay, here’s a real one, here’s a fake, can you tell the difference?” Kloha says. “Our job as a museum is to help the public understand, and this is a part of the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls now, for better or for worse.”
The museum is also reevaluating the provenance of all the material in its collection, and it is prepared to return any stolen artifacts to their rightful owners. In 2018, the Museum of the Bible determined that a manuscript in its collection sold several times beforehand had in fact been stolen from the University of Athens in 1991. The museum promptly returned the artifact to Greece.
Christopher Rollston, a specialist on Semitic texts at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., welcomes the effort to set things right. “The Museum of the Bible did some really bad things eight to 10 years ago, and they were rightly criticized severely,” he says. “I believe that they’ve made a number of attempts in recent years to right the ship.
“If there’s any theme that’s present in the Bible, it’s the theme of forgiveness and the possibility of redemption, after someone finally comes clean,” he adds. “There’s true penitence there.”
This article first appeared in National Geographic