The Dirt on the Dubious Dead Sea Scrolls:

curiosities to consider as more information emerges

In studying Christian origins, we pay close attention to the ways that early Jesus communities engaged with their Jewish background. How did Jewish followers of Jesus understand their own heritage and roots? And what place had the traditions, history, and scriptures of Israel for those non-Jewish peoples who nonetheless found themselves partisans of a Jewish Messiah.

These questions remain interesting and important in part because they are not purely historical. In our own time, millions of people see significance in engaging with the Jewish scriptures.

This past weekend, Macquarie University hosted a conference entitled “Imagining the real: Alternative (arte)facts from antiquity to the present day.” This served as part of a project funded by the Australian Research Council and conducted by researchers from Macquarie and Heidelberg. One of the keynote speakers was Professor Årstein Justnes of the University of Agder in Norway. Justnes is a leading authority on the supposed Dead Sea Scrolls fragments which have surfaced on the market and in collections since 2002 — many of which have been published as authentic, but most of which he claims are modern fakes, forgeries. I’ve been following this saga as it unfolds for a while now, and it’s too complicated to related here. Head over to the blog and facebook page Justnes posts from, or his twitter feed, to pick up the story.

Prof. Årstein Justnes discussing a supposed DSS fragment published by Charlesworth.

Put simply, everyone thought that all the manuscripts and fragments from Qumran had been excavated and sold; the dominant dealer (known as Kando) suggested that the days of buying and selling DSS material were past. Nonetheless, since 2002 when an American dealer was offered an opportunity to buy more DSS, we have seen some 76 fragments come through the market for huge prices — hundreds of thousands of dollars, up to tens of millions. They seem to have come largely via one of Kando’s sons. Many of these are now in the collection of Martin Schøyen, and others are owned by various American evangelical institutions including the SouthWestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the new almost-open Museum of the Bible backed by the Hobby Lobby family (the Greens). All these fragments were bought on the premise that they were authentic antiquities, and volumes publishing the Schøyen fragments and the Museum of the Bible fragments have been published this year — but some of those papyri have been proven to be fake! In numerous instances this is through papyrological/palaeographical methods, but in some cases (i.e. six fragments from the Schøyen collection) scientific testing has been conducted and confirmed the verdict of the scholars. This raises all sorts of questions including questions about how documents with no legitimate provenance information came into such collections.

To those following the story, none of this is new. Nonetheless, off the back of recent discussions, there are a few things that I think are worth noting.

  1. The fact that only some papyri were removed from Brill’s publication of Schøyen DSS on account of forgery should not be taken as proof of the authenticity of the published fragments. Only the six which were scientifically tested and those prepared by Professor Justnes were removed — others have not been tested, and have been published nonetheless.
  2. It seems that many have fallen prey to naivete in this. Buyers have trusted the Kando name, but it has not proved trustworthy. Scholars have not been attentive enough to the problems of provenance and authenticity. But there must be some players somewhere who are actively deceptive.
  3. James H. Charlesworth has a curious role in this, active in this space since the 90's. He himself has published some of the DSS material, he has seen 40 or more scrolls in private collections, and he seems to have been involved in purchase deals involving the Kando family. There are competing stories about just what he has been involved with; someone suggesting he authenticated a fragment, him saying he doesn’t remember it and so on. Perhaps he too has been deceived. His prominence and his curious centrality in this makes him someone worth watching as things unfold.
  4. The Museum of the Bible is an enigma. The Green family and those associated with them have some shady history in the antiquities market, but the appointment of David Trobisch and the involvement of scholars like Tov and Davis suggests they are trying to do things properly. There’s a rumour that MotB said they weren’t interested in hearing about the possibility that some of their collection was forged. Others who should know have claimed that this would not have happened. Trustworthy scholars working for MotB, suggest that the museum is doing everything right — but those scholars are not allowed to share material (e.g. good-quality images) with collaborators for other projects. MotB has not been particularly public with provenance example despite the suggestion at SBL 2014 that this information might become available. But the museum is not alone in keeping its information close. There are also rumours that MotB is still buying papyri. Much of this is hearsay and “he said, she said” kind of stuff. Again, watch this space.
  5. There’s another enigma, a group with a cluster of related entities: “Ancient Discovery Investment Group”, “The American Judeo-Christian Heritage Foundation”, the “Artifact Research and Translation Foundation.” They want to bring a “priceless” collection of Dead Sea Scrolls — that is, the rest of William Kando’s scrolls — to America and thus “prove that mankind once enjoyed a relationship with deity.” The price is upward of THREE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS! Despite the lack of overt reference to the fact, they seem to be a group of Mormons. Charlesworth is their authenticator.
  6. There is more information known than people are able to let on. At one level this is obvious; there is at least one forger, and presumably others are in on the game. But there’s also material that we can’t and won’t see due to its private nature; some people in the right situations and with the right connections have access to records that they can’t share with us, even though they might add useful information.
  7. Finally, there is a complicating factor — Qumran cave 12. Earlier this year we received the surprising announcement that a team from the Hebrew University and Liberty University had found a 12th cave, which was a scroll cave but now has no scrolls. In other words, it’s been looted. That means that it’s possible that there are other authentic Deas Sea Scrolls floating around somewhere. Could any of those 76 post-2002 fragments be from cave 12? Have they snuck into private collections without us knowing? Are dealers sitting on them, driving up value? Or are they lost?

I’ll be looking for further updates on these matters in coming months, but you could do worse than following Justnes on twitter if you want the latest updates.