In an article posted online earlier today, National Geographic reported something that is not that surprising to many of us who have been following this story: All 16 of the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls” owned by the Museum of the Bible are fakes. To be clear, suspicions about these fragments have been voiced by scholars like Eibert Tigchelaar and Arstein Justnes for a number of years now. This report is not so much “exclusive” news as it is simply another confirmation of everything these scholars have been saying.
I encourage people to read the whole article. For the moment, I’ll just mention three things jumped out at me.
First, National Geographic reports that these findings have been known for many weeks:
“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.”
So, the results of the investigation have been known since November. By coincidence they have been made public months later when the world is in the grip of an unprecedented pandemic.
Second, I am somewhat taken aback by the statements from the scholars responsible for authenticating the pieces in the first place, namely James Charlesworth, former George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary and Emanuel Tov, emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Other scholars were involved in authenticating the fakes, such as Hanan Eshel (1958-2010) and Esther Eshel of Bar-Ilan University, who jointly published some of the suspect fragments, but only Professor Charlesworth and Professor Tov are quoted in this article. Here are the comments of Professor Charlesworth about a fragment with text from Genesis:
“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.
I am uncertain whether the Genesis fragment in question is the same one that Professor Charlesworth himself reportedly owned at one point.
And here is the statement that Professor Tov, who edited the volume of fake Dead Sea Scrolls for the Museum of the Bible, provided to National Geographic:
“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.”
As the former Editor-in-Chief of the international Dead Sea Scrolls publication project, Professor Tov is presumably in a position to strongly encourage such testing to be carried out on undisputedly authentic Dead Sea Scrolls. I hope that he is doing so.
Third and finally, when it comes to the dealers selling the fakes, there are a lot of names that will be familiar to people who have been following other manuscript stories in the news. One of the sellers of the fakes is California collector Andrew Stimer, chairman and CEO of Hope Partners International (HPI), “a Christ-centered international ministry,” who also bought stolen Oxyrhynchus papyri. Other Museum of the Bible fakes also passed through the infamous collection of Bruce Ferrini. The article also mentions the fakes that were part of the collection of William Noah, the force behind the “Ink & Blood” travelling exhibition.
The origin of these forgeries remains a mystery. So, there is still more work to be done.