A couple days ago, Christianity Today reported that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is closing what it calls “the nation’s leading evangelical archaeology program.” At the same time, the Seminary itself issued a statement explaining the shuttering of the program, but the bulk of that statement focused on the fate of the Seminary’s supposed “Dead Sea Scrolls,” which the Seminary (along with most scholars) now suspects are fakes:
“The current administration’s lack of confidence in the fragments’ authenticity has been confirmed by an October 2018 report prepared for the seminary’s Board of Trustees by faculty associated with studying the collection. That report, which was recently provided to the current administration, found that by as early as 2016, some seminary faculty had become convinced at least some of the fragments were possible forgeries. More recently, the independent investigation of the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls collection concluded its fragments were not authentic, which gives us even less confidence in our collection since they share a similar provenance to the MOTB collection. We would welcome an independent investigation of the seminary’s fragments, although the institution is unable to fund such an effort.”
The statement notes that the fragments were purchased by “the prior administration” and that “significant institutional resources were expended on the acquisition and promotion of the likely fraudulent fragments.” The prior administration was headed by former Seminary president Paige Patterson, depicted below (with his wife Dorothy) (and their dog) in a stained glass window (recently removed from the Seminary).
Where did the Pattersons acquire these fake fragments? There is a rather detailed account of the acquisition of many of these fragments by the Pattersons and a group of wealthy donors in a short book written by Armour Patterson, the son of the former Seminary president (some of the story is summarized here). Årstein Justnes has quoted several telling passages in a recent publication (available open-access here).
According to the younger Patterson’s book, the seller of the fragments was William Kando, son of the more famous Kando, Khalil Iskander Shahin, the dealer through whom many of the real Dead Sea Scrolls were purchased. The younger Kando, however, seems to be the ultimate source of many of the fake scrolls currently in circulation. But as was frequently the case with the sales of these fragments, academic authenticators were involved at an early stage. According to Patterson:
“On the evening of July 4, 2009, the Pattersons, their small tour group, and SWBTS archaeologist Steve Ortiz met at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem with Dead Sea Scrolls specialists, Hanan and Esti Eshel. There they compared the lists of fragments and photographs given to Dorothy by William Kando with the list in the hands of the archaeologists in Jerusalem. The list in the hands of the Eshels matched perfectly the list the Pattersons had been provided by William Kando, a crucial first step in authenticating the fragments. Weston W. Fields also verified the affirmation of the Pattersons that the Kando family could have genuine fragments and that they were trustworthy.”
Thus, the Eshels (Bar-Ilan University) and Weston Fields (executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, which funded the publication of recent volumes of the DJD series) seem to have been involved in “authenticating the fragments” that other scholars would come to regard as forgeries.
As Justnes has pointed out, the Seminary’s collection contains perhaps the most brazen of the forged fragments, a piece that was seemingly tailor-made for an American evangelical Christian buyer. It is a single tiny fragment that, remarkably, is said to contain parts of two (non-continuous) chapters of Leviticus that both happen to be highly important to conservative American evangelical identity politics, Leviticus 20 and Leviticus 18, which both treat the topic of sexual relations (the fragment is number 17 in the list maintained by The Lying Pen of Scribes project).
According to a 2012 report in The Houston Chronicle, this particular fragment cost at least a half-million dollars.
The topic of prices brings us back to another important feature of the Seminary’s announcement, the possibility of legal action against the dealer:
“We are contemplating legal remedies to seek restitution of payments made by the seminary, as authorized by the prior administration.”
As far as I know, this is the first public suggestion that any of the purchasers of fake Dead Sea Scrolls might seek redress in the courts. At first, I was surprised that we haven’t seen more of this, but upon reflection, I think I can see the reasons. In the case of the Green family and Hobby Lobby, a lack of legal action might be understandable. They presumably already regained all the money they spent on the fake fragments along with a hefty profit (at the expense of American taxpayers) by donating the items the the Museum of the Bible and claiming a deduction for charitable giving. In the case of the Seminary (and presumably also Azusa Pacific University), the purchases seem to have been made without the extra step of donation (although I am unsure about this). But if any of these other buyers do take legal actions that make it to trial, we may get more insights into the inner workings of the antiquities market and the trade and production of forgeries.