Wednesday, October 04, 2017

More on Forged Dead Sea Scrolls, or ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife saga times 70’

The Times of Israel has a lengthy article out yesterday on forged Dead Sea Scrolls in the Museum of the Bible collection, the Schøyen collection, and elsewhere. Here are a few snippets, but the whole article is worth reading. One scholar working on it calls this the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife “times 70” in terms of its importance.
MOTB’s Nehemiah fragment
In his latest article, “Caves of Dispute,” published in the Brill Dead Sea Discoveries series this month, [Kip] Davis found that at least six of the Museum of the Bible’s 13 published fragments are forgeries. (“Published,” in this context, refers to artifacts that have been researched by experts, with their findings presented in academic journals. The Museum of the Bible collection includes three more fragments whose origin and content have not yet been published.)

In conversation with The Times of Israel, Davis said while he is convinced that six of the fragments are forgeries, “that number could be higher. There are people out there that think that all 13 of the fragments are fake. I’m not quite there, but I have colleagues who are fairly sure they are forgeries.”

Far from ignoring the forgery assertions, the Museum of the Bible is sponsoring Davis’s research and that of other scholars.

Årstein Justnes, a professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Agder, Norway, has built the blogsite The Lying Pen of Scribes to document for free public use the mounting evidence of forgeries in the post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll-like fragments.


“The sellers of these fragments have preyed on the well-meaning faith of Evangelical Christians who are compelled by the idea of owning a piece of ‘the Bible that Jesus read,’” said Davis.

“This is more than a simple form of manipulation,” said Davis. Given how seriously Evangelicals “are committed to their notion of sanctity of scripture,” he warned, “there is a danger of inflicting collective psychological harm.”
A couple reflections. It is good to see the Museum and the Schøyen collection investing in the effort to vet their own collections here even if that means they turn out to not be what they thought. It is not so good, however, to see Evangelical schools being duped into buying these. I remember being at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when they unveiled some of their fragments and it was all quite exciting. It’s obviously not so exciting if they turn out to be forged.

For more from the blog on all this, see our past posts on the MOTB DSS publication, DSS forgeries in Bible software, curious DSS recently bought in the US; and various current projects on forgery.


  1. In financial terms this may be bigger than the Gospel of Jesus's Wife (though there was probably big money potentially through National Geographic for that), but in terms of significance it's 70x smaller. Much more intellectually was at stake in the other case, there was more media abuse, worse failures of peer review, and far more egg on the face of those in prestigious academic positions. When DSS = Dead Sea Scrap, not much is at stake.

  2. As I read the article, I thought of the NT papyri purchased by the Museum of the Bible and wonder if these have a confirmed provenance or were these also fakes, purchased on the antiquities market?

    My assumption had been that P129, P130, P131 and P135 were recovered from the mummy masks...does anyone know for sure?

  3. It's worth looking at the series of tweets Michael Press put up when this article surfaced (

    As he suggests, investigation (by Schøyen and MOTB) AFTER purchasing is still far from ideal - especially since there's a lot we don't know about the MOTB/Green collections and their acquisition/provenance.
    It's frustrating that investigation by the institutions themselves are prompted only by questions of authenticity, and not apparently by questions of legitimacy (legal and ethical) in their discovery/excavation, dealing, acquisition.

    Yes, it's a big problem if schools/institutions are being duped. One of the good things about this recent high-profile MOTB case is that it has made it a little harder to put the problem of illegitimate artefact trade down to just the activity of looters. Dealers and especially buyers (those who really control the nature of the market) have a responsibility to ensure the legitimacy (authenticity, legality, ethics) of their purchase before they buy.

  4. Alex, do you have any proof that "investigation by the institutions themselves are prompted only by questions of authenticity, and not apparently by questions of legitimacy"? Could it be that MOTB and Schøyen were already investigating for these reasons, and we just didn't hear about it? It is relevant to remember that Kipp Davis (who Press mentions in those tweets as the one who acknowledges the the legal and ethical problems) is one of the MOTB's editors for these scrolls. That they might be fake is nothing new; see Davis' own statement in the Brill volume of MOTB DSS last year: "These disruptions in the patterns of letter formation for each manuscript are most clearly evident when set side-by-side for comparative purposes as they appear in the above chart. They raise suspicions about the authenticity of these fragments." (Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection, p. 23)

    I don't think I would ever be frustrated when an institution that has already spent a lot of money would willing spend more money to hire people to determine whether or not their items are fakes, which, if true, has the potential to damage their credibility for owning fake items, and then letting them speak when they determine that there indeed might be some fakes there. That itself is respectable. It takes some real integrity to make the decision to do that, because it's much easier and cheaper to try to sweep things under the rug or keep a lid on what those investigations determine. That they're investigating at all is a victory, because there are probably many more institutions/collections that aren't/won't.

    1. Hi Elijah. Thanks - those are fair comments, and I agree. There are things in my comment which probably don't offer a good representation of how things stand. There are absolutely real positives here. I haven't followed Schøyen much, but RE the Green/MOTB situation, there are several positive factors:
      * David Trobisch seems to be listening to concerns expressed by those like Roberta Mazza, and seems to be taking a positive approach; he has approved the investigation of the whole collection for a couple of years now, with provenance in mind.
      * It seems that since Trobisch came on board, acquisition practices have been taken seriously.
      * I trust Trobisch and his team are clear and honest in this.
      * As you mention, there are others like Kipp Davis working on the MOTB collection who are alert to the problems of dubious (incl. legally/ethically) artefacts.
      * These are good signs. As it presently operates, MOTB is probably up to scratch.

      On the other hand, my frustration comes from these factors:
      * The problem with the forged DSS papyri is not just their authenticity; it proves that they did not have good verifiable provenance.
      * MOTB says they don't accept things without good provenance documentation, BUT the acceptance of those Green DSS fragments means that they have accepted spurious provenance documentation at least once.
      * There's also that weird case noted by Jones/Mazza. It went (from Robinson collection?) via Christies to an unknown collector, then somehow via a questionable eBay seller, to another collector, and then via a reputable dealer to Greens and MOTB. Sale at Christies is not guarantee of good provenance. Likewise, no information about the trusted dealer has been shared. The eBay seller operates from Turkey(!) and sells papyri from Egypt(!). It's unfortunate the MOTB collection is associated even indirectly with that kind of dealing.
      * MOTB has put funding (15k) towards an institution which has connection to West Bank excavation.
      * Given the size of the Green collection, the questionable approach of Scott Carroll in the past, the "mistakes" and lack of care that Steve Green admits (especially the fact that they received but apparently ignored guidance from an antiquities law expert) the whole situation with the federal investigation, and the problematic cases mentioned above, it's hard not to wonder whether parts of the Green collection have ethically or legally questionable acquisition history.
      * If I understand correctly, the $3m settlement paid by Green was in lieu of $3m of artefacts that no longer owned. We can't know, but might those artefacts now be MOTB artefacts? It seems possible, given their other connections and donations.
      * I believe that Trobisch and others are sincerely investigating, and I believe that he won't display material that they find to have uncertain provenance. All the same, I'm troubled by the lack of public information. Tthere was hope after SBL 2014 that a database with all information would be made available, but this has not surfaced. Questions being asked by people like Moss, Baden, Mazza have often gone unanswered.
      A lot of these issues are in the past or somewhat indirect.

      Things are looking up and I'm glad to see these institutions doing what they are.
      Nonetheless, I still think:
      * it's fair to say that these things are "far from ideal"
      * these past issues means that current investigations are "after the fact"
      * the whole Green saga has had some connection with questionable or illicit antiquities trade
      * it is "frustrating" that a museum which seems like an exciting project is surrounded by so much controversy due to its association with all this.
      It's possible that I've misunderstood things. In some ways, I hope that is the case! Please feel free to correct me, or offer a different reading of things.

    2. I should note again that you're right; they haven't only been investigating RE authenticity, they have been looking at provenance and so on for a while. Perhaps it would be more accurate for me to say that in conversations I have seen/heard, plenty of people seem more concerned about the authenticity than about the accompanying questions of acquisition ethics.

  5. Also possibly falsely associated with ancient Qumran:
    a) Two objects sold as if each were a pen or stylus--though these palm items could possibly be genuine ancient tools of some other sort.
    b) Some silver coins in an Amman museum not from Qumran mixed in with coins from the de Vaux dig, potentially misleading about the Qumran silver hoard(s) date(s), in three jars. See, e.g., Bruno Callegher, "The Coins of Khirbet Qumran from the Digs of Roland De Vaux: Returning to Henri Seyrig and Augustus Spijkerman," ch. 15, pages 221-237 in The Caves of Qumran: Proceedings of the International Conference, Lugano, 2014, ed. Marcello Fodanzio, Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 118, (Leiden: Brill, 2016)
    c) The "zink coffin" found in burial site that may have been previously dug. Almost-pure zink (zinc) was quite rare in ancient times, and zink coffins were evidently unknown (or, otherwise yet undiscovered) then, nor, I think, amounts sufficient for a coffin. This find was not box-shaped, was found without a skeleton onside, etc. Further, a 2005 paper by A. Shimron et al. delivered at a British Museum conference noted a layer containing barium, possibly indicating a modern paint.