Scrolls replaced with others, which will also be tested for authenticity
Five Dead Sea Scrolls in Washington Bible Museum fake, admit staff
The Dead Sea Scrolls are some of the world's most valuable religious artifacts. Dating back two millennia, they include scraps of the early, Hebrew Bible and offer an insight into the world from which Christianity emerged.
So when the billionaire businessman and evangelical Christian Steve Green opened the Bible Museum in Washington DC last year, five scroll fragments took centre stage.
Just one problem. They were fakes.
A team of German experts analysed five of the museum's 16 pieces after doubts were raised two years ago and announced this week they had “characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin”.
The museum immediately withdrew the five pieces from display and replaced them with another three, which will in turn be tested for authenticity.
It was, said museum staff, something of a teachable moment.
"Though we had hoped the testing would render different results, this is an opportunity to educate the public on the importance of verifying the authenticity of rare biblical artifacts, the elaborate testing process undertaken and our commitment to transparency," said Jeffrey Kloha, chief curatorial officer for the museum.
It marks the latest embarrassing setback for the museum, highlighting the difficulty in determining authenticity of fragments of the scrolls which can sell on international markets for more than $1m.
The 430,000 square feet museum cost $500m when it opened last November. Its views of the Capitol were said to demonstrate the commitment of its evangelical founders – and sparked concerns that the project was part of a plan to persuade America’s leaders to put Protestant, Christian values at the heart of policy.
In all, Mr Green and his family amassed a collection of some 40,000 biblical artifacts and manuscripts.
But the exhibits attracted controversy even before they went on display.
Last year Hobby Lobby, the company owned by the Green family, agreed to pay $3m and return 5,500 artifacts smuggled out of Iraq as part of a settlement with the US Justice Department. At the time, Mr Green said his company should have conducted more “oversight” on the origins of the clay tablets and seals, for which he paid dealers more than $1.6m.
The Dead Sea Scrolls offer another example of the fraught nature of buying and selling antiquities.
Their discovery in the middle of the last century shook up the study of the early Bible. Bedouin shepherds stumbled on the fragments of parchment and papyrus tucked inside jars in caves in what is now the Palestinian West Bank.
The collection came to about 900 manuscripts and an estimated 50,000 fragments. It took scholars six decades simply to excavate and publish the texts.
They offered a version of the Hebrew Bible that was almost a thousand years older than the earliest known example.
Most of the pieces are held by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which displays them in Jerusalem. Only a few pieces – some of those sold on by the lucky shepherds to a local cobbler-cum-antiquities-dealer - entered private hands.
That changed in the early noughties. New fragments began appearing on the market, and the trade expanded rapidly, fuelled in part by wealthy, evangelical collectors with a thirst for Bible artifacts.
As a result, many experts have warned that the new pieces were exactly that: New.
Joel Baden, co-author of Bible Nation, a book about the Greens, said the family may have failed to check the authenticity of items they were buying.
“They made it widely known that they were buying everything,” he told CNN.
“Every antiquities seller knew the Greens were buying everything and not asking questions about anything.”