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Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments of Dubious Authenticity

March 15, 2018

In November last year, the popular press featured news of scholarly doubts about the authenticity of many of the numerous putative scroll fragments from the Dead Sea area that had come on the antiquities market in the last fifteen years or so:  e.g., here, and here.  Yesterday, I finally got around to perusing the published scholarly studies that generated these news stories.  The key publications are two lengthy articles in the journal Dead Sea Discoveries, which I heartily recommend to anyone seriously interested in the topic:

Kipp Davis et al., “Nine Dubious ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ Fragments From the Twenty-First Century,” Dead Sea Discoveries 24.2 (2017):  189-228.

Kipp Davis, “Caves of Dispute: Patterns of Correspondence and Suspicion in the Post-2002 ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ Fragments,” Dead Sea Discoveries 24.2 (2017): 229-70.

Davis has been a key figure in the analysis of these fragments, and these articles reflect an impressive scholarly effort that drew upon a variety of disciplines and technology.  So, e.g., detailed analysis showed that, although the writing material was old, in some cases the ink of the writing had been written on top of the sediment that had accrued on the writing material.  This leads to the conclusion that someone obtained blank pieces old writing material (e.g., parchment or papyrus) and forged the writing on it.  In at least one other case, analysis showed that ordinary table salt had been used to “fix” the writing.

But I was also (perhaps even more) impressed with the forensic analysis of the writing itself.  There was “bleeding” of the ink into the writing material (something you don’t see in truly ancient manuscripts).  In some papyrus fragments, the writing was across the (vertical) fibers, whereas the more common (and the easier) way to copy on papyrus was to write along the (horizontal) fibers.

Also, Davis and others noted the curious way that the fragments all contained sufficient text to allow readily identification as portions of biblical texts.  Having worked myself on the nineteen Greek fragments from Qumran Cave 7, only one of which has sufficient text to permit it to be identified with some confidence, this certainly added to my suspicions.

Over the last fifteen years or so, some wealthy private collectors have been keen to obtain ancient manuscripts, even fragments of ancient manuscripts.  Perhaps the most salient of these efforts is reflected in the recently opened Museum of the Bible (Washington, DC).  It now seems likely that at least some of the recently acquired fragments that purport to come from the Dead Sea area and are held by the Museum and some other collectors are fakes.  To be more precise, they are forgeries in the legal sense of the term:  fakes produced in order to make money from their sale.  The various collectors were duped.  Eager to acquire items, and naive about how to do so, they were taken in.

To their credit, the Museum administration apparently put notices on the relevant items on display indicating that there is scholarly debate about their authenticity.  But, along with the now notorious “Jesus’ wife” fragment, these dubious Dead Sea Scroll fragments warn us that there are people out there who are very ready to produce items that they perceive will appeal to this or that scholarly or collector’s interests.*  It’s another reason why we need to continue to develop scholarly expertise in the technical matters required to assess such items.

*It is sad and disappointing to see that the Harvard Divinity School web pages on the “Jesus’ wife” fragment here still (as of today) make no reference to the studies that demonstrate conclusively (in the minds of most others) that the fragment is a fake.  See the Atlantic story on the guy who produced it here, and Professor King’s acknowledgement that the item is likely a fake here.  Among decisive scholarly work showing the item a fake is Christian Askeland’s article here.

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  1. Griffin permalink

    The thing that always bothers me: aren’t the very same experts who are capable of detecting a fake, also capable, often, of producing a for-the-time undetectable fake, if they were so inclined?

    • Griffin: If that’s what “always bothers” you, then take a deep breath and relax. The one putative attempt to commit the academic crime that you fear, the now-infamous “Secret Mark”, is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. And, it would appear, from the first there were reasons to question this item. So, the inclination isn’t really there generally, and the putative attempts haven’t been all that successful.

  2. Two other texts that have been referred to as related to the Dead Sea scrolls seem dubious.

    a) The “Gabriel Vision,” sometimes called “a Dead Sea Scroll on stone,” came to public notice after the 2003 publication of a brief Hebrew religious text on limestone excavated by De Vaux and published by A. Lemaire, “Inscriptions du Khirbeh, des grottes et de ʻAïn Feshkha.” Pp. 360-2 in Khirbet Qumrân et de Khirbet Qumrân et ʻAïn Feshkha. II. It has been analyzed as likely not genuine by Årstein Justnes:

    b) The “Angel Scroll” was partly described based on a claimed transcription in Jerusalem Report, October 11, 1999. The scroll, which unnamed persons reportedly asserted was kept secretly by Benedictines, has not even had photos published.

  3. Unfortunately, the policy of the HDS doesn’t surprise me in the least. I’ve had a rather dubious experience with them last year, namely with their journal HTS—where I don’t intend to send any submissions in the foreseeable future.

  4. Bobby Nemeth permalink

    “It’s another reason why we need to continue to develop scholarly expertise in the technical matters required to assess such items.”

    Just a clarifying question, what areas of expertise?

    • Bobby: I have in mind particularly expertise in manuscripts, palaeography, etc., to say nothing of relevant languages.

  5. WAYNE BRINDLE permalink

    Question: You said that “There was “bleeding” of the ink into the writing material (something you don’t see in truly ancient manuscripts).” Why don’t you see it in ancient manuscripts? A difference in quality or kind of ink, or what?

    • In ancient writing on ancient writing material, the ink “sets” on the material. In these forgeries, it’s modern-produced ink that “bleeds” because it’s been put on writing material with surface-aging.

  6. Please note this webpage (in French) of one of the authors (M. Langlois) of the first article you mentioned.
    (also with the PDF of the article).

    Ths site is bilingual, just click on the “EN” icon on the upper right if needed.
    F. Giannangeli

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