Home ArchaeologyScience Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
ArchaeologyBy Trista -

Have you heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Discovered in the 1940s and 1950s, they were among the most important archeological finds of the twentieth century. The scrolls were written by ancient Jewish communities between about the third century BCE and first century CE, though some a bit later and some a bit earlier. Moreover, they were remarkably well-preserved, giving scientists and other researchers a glimpse into life in ancient Palestine.

A scandal erupted at The Museum Of The Bible in Washington, DC, which claimed to have several fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, these fragments proved to be fake. In turn, many came to question the integrity of the museum and the scrolls. But is such a reaction justified, and what does science have to say? Read on to learn more about the authenticity of the Dead Sea scrolls.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
A couple young boys found the Dead Sea Scrolls by accident. Shutterstock

The Dead Sea Scrolls Were Discovered In The 1940s

The story behind the Dead Sea Scrolls is as legendary as the documents themselves. A Bedouin boy and his friends were throwing rocks into a cave in Palestine, near the Dead Sea, and heard smashing sounds. When the boy went inside to see what he had broken, he found clay pots that he had accidentally shattered.

Inside the clay pots were ancient fragments of scrolls written between the fourth century BCE and the second century CE. These scrolls are what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
The Dead Sea is a salt lake that borders Israel, Jordan, and West Bank. Shutterstock

The Dry Air Preserved Them

The best-preserved ancient relics in the world come from dry climates, where the aridity prevents artifacts from decomposing. Ancient Sumer had a civilization that might have been at least as developed as Ancient Egypt’s. However, we have more Egyptian artifacts (and therefore a better understanding of Egyptian history) because the desert preserved more.

The air around the Dead Sea is sweltering and dry, due to the high salt content of the Dead Sea and the fact that the Dead Sea basin is the lowest land place in the world. The Dead Sea scrolls were not perfectly preserved, but many of the fragments are readable.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Over 900 manuscripts were discovered at the site. Shutterstock

There Are Thousands Of Fragments

When the Bedouin children went back home to show what they had found, a horde of archeologists, antiquities dealers, and black-market peddlers descended on the caves to see for themselves. They found thousands of fragments – to date, at least 15,000 – spread across 11 caves.

Those 15,000 fragments are part of approximately 800 to 900 manuscripts. Many of the scripts are books of the Hebrew Bible (for Christians, the Old Testament) or variations of those books, as the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls do not always correspond with the version of the Bible. The Dead Sea Scrolls also include other religious writings of ancient Jewish communities. 

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Pottery on display at the Qumran cave. Shutterstock

The Qumran Community Probably Owned the Scrolls

Qumran was a village near the Dead Sea and close to the caves that house the Dead Sea Scrolls. The site was abandoned around 68 BCE, and many of the scrolls have been dated to about the time that the Qumran community was occupied.

There were probably several other communities that wrote and owned the scrolls that survived 2000 years in the caves. They were perhaps all Jewish communities, as all of the manuscripts are either about the Hebrew Bible or other Jewish religious beliefs and practices.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
The Qumran cave in Israel where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. Shutterstock

Many Of The Scrolls Belonged To Essenes

The Essenes were a Jewish sect in ancient Palestine that lived ascetic lives in the desert. They did not engage in public life, such as in the proceedings of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling body) or the Temple (the seat of Jewish worship). They also had rigorous observance of Jewish law.

Some scholars have suggested that one of the essential characters in the New Testament, John the Baptist, may have been an Essene. Like the Essenes, he lived out in the desert, away from the public life of first-century Palestine. As an ascetic, he ate locusts and wild honey, and he clothed himself with camel skin.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
The Dead Sea scrolls were discovered throughout 11 different caves.

The Qumran Community May Have Been Essenic

The scrolls of Cave 4, out of the 11 Dead Sea caves that have been found to contain ancient scrolls, seem to be an Essenic library. They have an almost complete Hebrew Bible, minus the book of Esther, and many sectarian writings that are consistent with what we know about the Essenes.

The texts found in Cave 4 shed insight into Essenic practices from ancient Palestine. They had traditions, customs, and rituals that lay outside of what many other Jewish communities held to. Like other Jewish communities of the time, they used texts outside of the canonical Hebrew Bible to support their beliefs and practices.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Archaelogoists have found over 15,000 fragments of the scrolls. Shutterstock

Archeologists Discovered New Dead Sea Scrolls Through The 1960s

The original Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1947. Once their authenticity had been verified, archeologists began working hard to search for other possible ancient finds in the surrounding areas. 

They continued finding scrolls in the caves around the Dead Sea through the 1960s. Archeologists had to verify the authenticity of the scrolls they were finding because unethical treasure hunters could have put fake scrolls in the caves to give the impression that they were worth a lot of money. The black market in antiquities is no joke.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Fortress of Herad the Great in the Judaean desert. Shutterstock

Some Scrolls Are From The Bar Kokhba Revolt

The Bar Kokhba Revolt was a Jewish revolt against Rome that occurred in about 132-135 CE. The Roman Empire occupied Palestine and had already destroyed the Jewish Temple in about 70 CE. The Bar Kokhba Revolt was an unsuccessful attempt to force the Romans out of Palestine, and it led to the expulsion of nearly the entire Jewish community from the land.

The armies wrote some scrolls of the revolt, and they provide historical insight into the experiences of those soldiers. Some letters may have been from Bar Kokhba, the leader of the revolution, and legal documents from that particular era.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
The Dead Sea scrolls have both biblical and non-biblical manuscripts. Shutterstock

There Are Scrolls That Have The Same Text As The Bible

One scroll that archeologists found contains the texts of the 12 minor prophets, each with a book in the Hebrew Bible. The scroll was remarkably well-preserved, and the writings of the minor prophets were almost identical to the text that has been preserved in the canonical Bible.

Other books of the Hebrew Bible, such as Isaiah, were also found among the scrolls, though texts varied from the traditional version of the Bible. These variations provide insight into the Jewish communities’ beliefs and practices that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Shrine of the Book from the Israel Museum has portions of the scroll on display. Shutterstock

Other Scrolls Were In Very Poor Condition

While some of the scrolls were preserved in remarkably good condition, some of them were not. The Essenic library of cave 4 is one such example; many of the fragments have been pieced together by experts and deciphered, but doing so took an immense amount of time, money, and skill.

Some other scrolls found include the Temple Scroll, which provided detailed instructions for building the ideal Jewish Temple, and the War Scroll, which has many Gnostic ideas in its text that may have led to the mystical system of Kabbalah. There are also commentaries on books of the Hebrew Bible, such as the Psalms.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Can you imagine putting together tens of thousands of pieces of paper in the correct order? Shutterstock

All Of The Scrolls Have Been Published

Piecing together the brittle fragments of hundreds of 2000-year-old scrolls was a monumental undertaking. It required cooperation among many research universities and the antiquities authorities of both Jordan (which oversaw the West Bank, where the scrolls were discovered, until 1967) and of Israel.

The immense effort has paid off. All of the scrolls have been pieced together and deciphered, and the resulting texts have been published. If you are interested in reading the Dead Sea Scrolls, you can look at one of many online databases. But be forewarned – there are nearly 1000 scrolls.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
You can see the scrolls in various museums throughout the world. Shutterstock

Access To The Scrolls Themselves Has Been Extremely Difficult

The Jordan and Israel departments of antiquities have faced criticism for not allowing researchers access to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Complaints suggested that the authorities only allowed local researchers, not international teams, access to the scrolls.

Without independent teams from outside also studying the scrolls, there was no way to verify what the Jordanian and Israeli teams were saying. When the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls were published in 1991, Israel lifted the veil of secrecy over the scrolls and provided researchers with more access. Today, anyone who has internet access can read the texts.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
The Dead Sea scrolls describe historical events from thousands of years ago. Shutterstock

Today, Most Of The Dead Sea Scrolls Are In Israel

The Shrine of the Book is a museum in Israel that houses artifacts related to the ancient Hebrew Bible. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are located there, and some are on display. Many of the scrolls are housed at a similar institution, the Israel Museum.

However, if you do not have the opportunity to go to Israel and still want to see the scrolls, there are other places where you can see them. Moreover, if all else fails, you can take a virtual tour online to “see” them for yourself and learn as much as you want to about the ancient Jewish communities that produced them.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
You can see the scrolls for yourself in Israel, and other areas. Shutterstock

Scrolls Are In Universities And Museums Around The World

Many researchers from different fields at numerous universities have conducted tests and studied the Dead Sea Scrolls. They have been at various institutions, especially universities and museums, where researchers can review them.

Some of the scrolls are on display at The Jordan Museum in Amman, the capital of Jordan, because Jordan has custodianship of some of the scrolls. Others have had temporary homes at places like Yale University and the British Museum. There have also been reproductions of the Dead Sea Scrolls made for display at institutions around the world.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
If you can’t get to the Qumran caves in Israel, maybe you can catch a local exhibit. Shutterstock

There Are Traveling Exhibits For People To See The Scrolls

Some people have been able to see the Dead Sea Scrolls because of traveling exhibits that have featured the scrolls. Often these exhibits feature reproductions of the scrolls, but the prints are made with exquisite detail to make them as close to the original as possible.

But if you want to see the Dead Sea Scrolls for yourself, your best option is to go to Jerusalem and see them at The Shrine of the book, or else go to the other side of the Jordan River and visit The Jordan Museum in Amman.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Manuscripts from the Dead Sea scrolls on display at the Museum of the Bible. Shutterstock

For A While, There Were Dead Sea Scroll Fragments At The Museum Of The Bible

The Dead Sea Scrolls have gone a long way in showing the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible. They prove that the text is much older than the third century BCE, as some critics of the Bible have suggested. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest known copies of the Hebrew Bible. 

Because of their central role in supporting the authenticity of the Bible, The Museum Of The Bible fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls featured in the entryway to the museum, but they are no longer there.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
The Museum of the Bible is located in Washington, D.C. Shutterstock

The Museum Of The Bible Is Dedicated To Demonstrating The Bible’s Authenticity

The Museum Of The Bible, located in Washington, DC, has been open since 2017. Hobby Lobby, the national craft franchise that is well-known for its conservative Christian views, was a vital funder in the museum’s opening and the National Christian Foundation.

Over 1000 artifacts at The Museum Of The Bible demonstrate both its historical authenticity and its significance to modern society’s development. There is one problem with the exhibit: the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls featured in the entryway.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
The Dead Sea scrolls on display in D.C. were fake. Shutterstock

The Scrolls There Were Forgeries

The Dead Sea Scrolls are real. The Bible is real. How the actual Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate, the authenticity of the Bible is real. However, the fragments that were on display at The Museum Of The Bible were not genuine. They were forgeries.

When there were some questions raised about the authenticity of the fragments in question, The Museum Of The Bible hired an expert in art fraud, Colette Loll, to see what she could find. She performed many tests on the artifacts and found that they were fakes.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
People go to painstaking lengths to create fake versions of infamous relics. Shutterstock

Many Of The Dead Sea Scrolls Hit The Black Market In The 1950s And 1960s

When a significant archeological discovery happens, looters sometimes beat archeologists to the scene. That is what happened when the Bedouin boy first smashed the pot in a cave and unwittingly discovered the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many of the scrolls’ fragments were sold by a dealer known as Kando. He sold them to institutions worldwide, as universities and museums could not get enough of the most important find of the twentieth century. 

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Although discovering ancient artifacts has benefits, it also exposes fraudulent behavior. Shutterstock

After The 1960s, Antiquities Laws Made Buying The Scrolls Very Difficult

Nevertheless, the selling of the Dead Sea Scrolls came to an end around 1970, when the United Nations implemented new cultural property guidelines, particularly regarding antiquities. Israel also instated strong laws protecting its antiquities, so getting artifacts out of the country became much more difficult.

Following Kando’s dealings with institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, the Dead Sea Scrolls could no longer be bought or sold. They remained mostly in Israel and Jordan, with some lending to international institutions for research and exhibits.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Archelogists already discovered the Dead Sea scrolls, so these were more fakes. Shutterstock

However, New “Fragments” Appeared Around 2002

Around 70 alleged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls mysteriously entered the market around 2002. Many were the size of small coins, and they were on material that strongly resembled the scrolls that researchers had been studying.

Antiquities dealers tried to claim that the fragments were from the ones that Kando sold in the 1950s and 1960s and that they had been stored in a vault in Switzerland. Collectors scrambled to be able to buy the fragments they believed were original documents produced by the ancient Jewish communities that lived near the Dead Sea.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
This discovery wasn’t the first time someone forged a historical relic. Shutterstock

Those Fragments Were Forgeries

When determining the authenticity of artifacts that an institution possesses, scientists look at the chain of custody. The chain of custody says who has owned the artifact from the time it was discovered. The 2002 fragments did not have a reliable chain of custody.

Some of the fragments were found to be forgeries, so researchers and analysts concluded that they are probably all forgeries, made from the same person or group of people. Ultimately, all of the fragments that appeared in the early 2000s are forgeries. They are not from the fragments that Kando sold to dealers during the 1950s and 1960s.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
The fake versions fooled some of the most elite organizations. Shutterstock

The Museum Of The Bible Fragments Came From Those Forgeries

Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and founder of The Museum Of The Bible, was one of the many collectors who managed to get his hands on the alleged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He, like many others, believed that the pieces he acquired were legitimate. Those fragments became the central feature of The Museum Of The Bible. 

Green and Hobby Lobby had come under fire in the past to acquire antiquities in such a way that defied international law. In particular, Green had purchased antiquities that had been smuggled out of Iraq.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Several lab studies had to determine the authenticity of the Dead Sea scrolls. Shutterstock

Determining That These Were Fakes Took A Lot Of Scientific Investigation

How does one tell if an artifact is real or fake? Beyond verifying a chain of custody, modern science has a lot to contribute. Dating materials, determining the kind of material on which the text was written, and examining the ink used to write it all helped Colette Loll in her investigation.

One cannot merely look at a historical artifact and tell if it is real or fake. There are tiny details that can easily be missed – things like using a kind of ink that would not have been available to the writers of the real Dead Sea Scrolls, or using a writing material that is inconsistent with the other scrolls.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
One way to test the authenticity of the Dead Sea scrolls is through its ‘paper’ material. Shutterstock

The Material That The Dead Sea Scrolls Were Written On Is About 2000 Years Old

Loll was able to determine that the material on which the fragments owned by The Museum Of The Bible was as old as the real Dead Sea Scrolls. However, it was not parchment, as was used on the other scrolls. It was leather, leather that had been preserved for two millennia.

The leather may have come from scraps that were uncovered in the Judean desert. Some evidence suggests that it may have come from Roman-style shoes, dating back to the first century. The forgery certainly was an elaborate one.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Both the ink and the writing style of the fake scrolls were noticeable errors. Shutterstock

But The Text Had Been Written Recently By Black Market Peddlers

One thing that tipped off the people investigating the fragments was the text itself. One clue was that the text was written in a corner in a way that the earliest Jewish writers did not write. Another clue was that the ink used was not the same kind of ink used in the real Dead Sea Scrolls.

Using very sophisticated equipment, Loll was able to determine that the ink had been applied recently – it was not nearly as old as the leather on which the text was written. Furthermore, it did not have the same age-related patterns seen on the real Dead Sea Scrolls.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
You can visit this museum, but the scrolls aren’t there. Shutterstock

The Museum Of The Bible Removed The Forgeries

Representatives from The Museum Of The Bible quickly removed the forgeries and made sure to preserve the museum’s integrity. They acknowledged that the fragments were not authentic and that the tests done on their pieces would help other researchers working on the real Dead Sea Scrolls.

The incident was certainly an embarrassment for Hobby Lobby and The Museum Of The Bible. Nevertheless, they acknowledged their error instead of trying to cover up a forged collection. The museum’s curators also took the opportunity to review all of the museum’s items, test for authenticity, and see which ones may have been smuggled.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Even though forgeries were created, there are real versions of the epic Dead Sea scrolls. Shutterstock

The Real Dead Sea Scrolls Are Authentic

Stories like the ones from The Museum Of The Bible, in which artifacts that demonstrate the Bible’s authenticity are proven to be forgeries, tend to dampen people’s trust in the Bible itself. Nevertheless, the fact is that the real Dead Sea Scrolls are not forgeries.

Even more importantly, they do provide relevant evidence in determining how old the Hebrew Bible is. What happened at The Museum Of The Bible should not change people’s views towards the Bible, and the leadership should be commended for acknowledging the forgeries.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Sometimes people get history wrong, but science can help us determine its realness. Shutterstock

Science Helps Determine Whether Historical Artifacts Are Authentic

There are some things that science cannot prove, such as whether or not the beliefs of the Essenes and other ancient Jewish communities are objectively and universally true. There are some things that science can prove, such as whether fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls are real or fake.

Whether artifacts are in the realm of religion, geology, biology, or any other field, science can help determine how old they are and uncover valuable information. Something that science cannot do is apologize for getting something wrong – people have to do that. And the leadership at The Museum Of The Bible did.

Science Tries to Discover the Authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls 
Without science, the world may never understand the authenticity of these ancient scrolls. Shutterstock

Science Helps Us Understand The Real Dead Sea Scrolls

Being able to tell the real Dead Sea Scrolls from fake forgeries is a hallmark of modern science and how science and religion can work together. Moreover, science can help us better understand the real Dead Sea Scrolls because they have a lot to teach us about the Bible and ancient Jewish life.

Science and religion do not have to live at odds with each other; the two fields can support each other, as long as scientists and people of faith commit to demonstrating integrity and working together. Furthermore, both scientists and people of faith have to own up to their mistakes when they get something wrong.

Sources:

“Dead Sea Scrolls.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 

“Museum Of The Bible.” Wikipedia. 

“’ Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries,” by Michael Greshko. National Geographic. March 13, 2020.

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