Sixteen forgeries have been discovered so far in the collections of unsuspecting evangelicals. Experts have suspicions about many more.
Mark Lanier thinks if you were going to fake a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls to sell to an unsuspecting evangelical collector, you wouldn’t pick Amos 7:17. Psalm 23, maybe. Or Jeremiah 29:11. Even Proverbs 3:13. But not Amos 7:17, which says, “Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword.”
Except maybe that’s exactly what a forger—trying to pass off a scrap of distressed leather as an ancient bit of the Bible preserved in desert caves for two millennia—would want you to think. So in 2013, Lanier made sure an antiquities dealer had legal documentation of the authenticity of three pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls before he bought them to donate to the Lanier Theological Library in Houston.
“We passed up purchasing a number of other fragments on this issue,” said Lanier, a Texas trial lawyer and philanthropist. “We did due diligence and were assured of the provenance.”
A shadow of suspicion has spread across antiquities collections at US evangelical institutions in recent years as a small team of Dead Sea Scrolls detectives has raised concerns about modern forgeries. The Museum of the Bible reported that all 16 of its prized fragments were fakes, and experts wonder: How many more are out there?
More than 70 pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been offered for sale on the antiquities market in the past two decades. It seems unlikely a criminal would produce and sell 16 forgeries and then just stop.
“Whoever was manufacturing these was responding to the market,” said Kipp Davis, an expert in biblical archaeology and Dead Sea Scrolls forgery. “That market was, for the most part, wealthy evangelicals.”
The Museum of the Bible purchased Dead Sea Scroll fragments in four different lots from four different dealers between 2009 and 2014 as part of its push to collect the most important artifacts from the history of Bible. The scrolls are “the most significant archaeological discovery of the 20th century,” according to Jeffrey Kloha, the museum’s chief curator. They are important to the museum’s mission to tell the story of the sacred text.
The museum invited a team of scholars to study them. When the scholars started to examine them closely, they noticed some of the fragments didn’t look right
“They looked like they had been written by unpracticed scribes, or scribes who weren’t very good,” said Davis, who was part of the team.
The museum decided to have all 16 tested by Art Fraud Insights. Under the microscope, experts saw that the text had not been written on fresh parchment, which then decayed over time, but on old leather, distressed to look like it was an ancient manuscript. Colette Loll, CEO of Art Fraud Insights, said the ink going into the cracks and over the broken edges was a telltale sign.
The museum announced the findings in March and apologized for poor judgment in building its collection. It launched a new exhibit displaying the forgeries in October, which tells the story of one of the most amazing archaeological discoveries of the 20th century—and a still-unfolding story of greed and deception.
Scholars praised the museum for its transparency. Other evangelical institutions, however, were left wondering about the legitimacy of their own collections of Dead Sea Scrolls artifacts. All of these collections, built in the past few years as new fragments came up for sale on the antiquities markets, now had red flags, according to Davis.