American evangelicals have fueled a multimillion-dollar trade in fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient scraps of Judean manuscript that include some of the earliest-known drafts of the Old Testament.
There’s just one big problem: Leading experts in antiquities say that a lot of what they’re buying is probably fake.
“A few of these fragments have been proven real, and a few have been proven fake,” Lawrence Schiffman, professor of Hebrew Judaic studies at New York University, told VICE News. “And it’s most likely that a lot of the rest are also fake.”
One scholar told the Guardian newspaper that up to 90 percent of the recently traded pieces could be forged.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were originally discovered in caves by a Bedouin shepherd shortly after World War II, who reportedly then sold them for $35. Starting in 2002, 75 fragments were sold into the private market, some for over $1 million, according to Schiffman.
“Whoever was faking it got away with very, very big money,” Schiffman said.
The $500 million Museum of the Bible, which opened to great fanfare last Saturday in Washington, D.C., boasts 13 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls among its most cherished displays. Six of those are suspected to be fakes, experts said.
Museum founder Steve Green, also owner of the U.S. arts and crafts retail chain Hobby Lobby, has come under scrutiny for his purchases of antiquities. In July, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit thousands of ancient clay objects found to have been smuggled into the U.S. from Iraq.