Biblical fraud led to painful self-searching
Biblical fraud led to painful self-searching

Biblical fraud led to painful self-searching

Biblical fraud led to painful self-searching

Small pieces of parchment and papyrus presented as fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls fooled the entire research world. The textual researchers allowed themselves to be beguiled by the forgers but are now putting things right.

Josephine Munch Rasmussen and Årstein Justnes
Josephine Munch Rasmussen, archaeologist at the University of Agder (UiA), and Årstein Justnes, professor of biblical studies at UiA. (Photo: Eva Kylland)

This article was first published in Norwegian on April 24, 2020.

‘Looking back from a 2020 perspective, it seems idiotic that we were deceived in the way we were, but our approach seemed perfectly sensible at the time. It was a different time. We were trapped in a research tradition that explains many of our actions’, says Årstein Justnes, professor of biblical studies at the University of Agder (UiA).

Justnes tells of the discovery that was to turn the research he was involved in on the Dead Sea Scrolls a few years ago on its head.

The Dead Sea Scrolls include the oldest surviving handwritten copies of the books of the Hebrew Bible, also called the Old Testament. The original manuscripts of these books no longer exist, so the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s and 1950s was revolutionary for the field of research. Perhaps they could offer new insight into the early Bible?

Some of the scrolls were well preserved, but many were in small pieces. The work of sorting, transcribing, translating and photographing the manuscripts took over 50 years and filled 40 volumes, and it was not until 2001 that all the Dead Sea Scrolls had been scientifically published.

In 2002, however, various new, purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments began to surface on the antiquities market. Museums, collectors, research and educational institutions and researchers embraced them. Many of the fragments were sold for staggering sums. One of the first buyers was the Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen, whose private manuscript collection is among the largest in the world.

Identified as counterfeits

In 2012, a Norwegian-led project was seeking funds to conduct research on parts of the Qumran Caves Scrolls (see the fact box) discovered in the late 1940s. When the researchers heard about the arrival of new fragments in Norway, they decided to include these in their funding application.

The scrolls were found in the 1940s and 1950s in 11 caves near Qumran on the West Bank, northwest of the Dead Sea. They are dated from between 250 BC and 70 AD.

Some had been stored upright in clay jars and were well preserved. The Isaiah scroll, for example, was 7.4 metres long. Most of the scrolls had, however, ended up on the cave floor, and only small fragments of them were left, under layers of soil and faeces from rats and bats.

Bedouins found the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and many of them surfaced on the antiquities market with an unclear ownership history and uncertain circumstances of discovery.

‘At the time, researching these fragments was not at all controversial in biblical circles’, says Justnes, a member of the research group.

Funding was granted and the project went ahead. International researchers were called on to help examine the new fragments. After a few years, it began to dawn on the researchers that something was amiss. In the period 2014–16, Justnes was part of a team who discovered that nine of the fragments in the Schøyen Collection were fake. The researchers suspected that many more of the post-2002 fragments were also fake. The international research community, including Justnes, had uncritically been willing to accept the scrolls as genuine.

Justnes had to call a halt to six research articles he had in the works on the fragments. The lid was finally lifted on the forgeries in 2017 through several other published papers from the project. By then, researchers around the world had already published various articles about several of the fragments in the belief that they were the real deal.

No provenance

According to the Guidelines for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences, Humanities, Law and Theology, researchers should avoid conducting research on cultural artefacts whose provenance is disputed. If they are nevertheless faced with such material, there must be transparency regarding provenance.

Researchers and research institutions must not be involved in any other way with looting, theft or dubious trade in protected objects. They must be particularly attentive to provenance, show due care caution and not acquire (for themselves or others) cultural artefacts that have not been procured in a transparent, honest and verifiable manner.

The professor believes that the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls at least partly explains why false fragments were so easily accepted. The majority of the original Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin shepherds and strictly speaking have no provenance. Ever since the first scrolls were found, there has also been a strong link between the antiquities market and researchers.

‘In 2012, when we started this project, this was not even an issue. The question of the origin of various manuscripts, also known as provenance research (see the fact box), was of little interest to those researching the Dead Sea Scrolls. Consequently, they were ill-equipped to deal with forgeries’, says Justnes, referring to his book De falske fragmentene og forskerne som gjorde dem til dødehavsruller [the fake fragments and the scholars who turned them into Dead Sea Scrolls]. Today, he is convinced that at least 90 per cent of the more than 100 Dead Sea Scroll fragments that have surfaced since 2002 are fake.

The blind spot in research ethics

Researchers who work with objects of questionable origin are helping to legitimise and strengthen the illegal market for such cultural artefacts. This could in turn lead to more sites being plundered and destroyed, or more forgeries appearing.

The more fakes that are accepted as genuine, the less reliable the production of knowledge becomes. The revelations in the Norwegian project have helped increase the focus on such issues among textual researchers.

Textual researchers often try to comment on early texts they know have existed but which have not been preserved. The physical manuscripts that researchers work with may be 500–1500 years newer than the original, intangible text they want to understand.

Textual researchers can be found in a range of fields, such as religious studies, theology, history, art history, literary studies and classical subjects.

For Justnes, the intoxicating feeling of being one of the ‘clever’ researchers who uncovered forgeries was rapidly replaced by some sober self-searching. He has channelled this into heading up a new research project entitled ‘The Lying Pen of Scribes: Manuscript Forgeries, Digital Imaging, and Critical Provenance Research’.

One of the goals of the project is to establish better research practices within the field of textual research. This is not an indication that the guidelines have been inadequate: the Guidelines for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences, Humanities, Law and Theology are clear (see the fact box on provenance).

What is it about the textual research tradition that has led to scholars often having a blind spot when it comes to established research ethics?

‘Textual researchers have primarily been interested in the content of the manuscripts as opposed to the cultural artefacts themselves, which is rather different to archaeological practice’, explains Justnes.

‘Completely ground-breaking’

Josephine Munch Rasmussen is an archaeologist at UiA. She provides some details about the difference between the tradition she comes from and that of Justnes.

‘Archaeologists have an advantage because they are so closely focussed on the circumstances surrounding the find, and the archaeological interpretation depends on the access they have to relevant information. A plundered excavation site is, in a way, ruined. Archaeologists learn this as part of their basic training in methods. However, this doesn’t mean that we hold the key to textual research’, she says.

Munch Rasmussen also believes there is a divide between the traditions in disciplines that investigate how cultural heritage is managed and put to use in the modern world, and disciplines that seek to understand ancient history.

‘The recognition of the more recent history of the objects – the biography, if you will, varies considerably and guides our interpretations’, she says.

The questions that Justnes and his colleagues ask about method, how they obtain material and the legitimacy of the material they are dealing with, are viewed by Munch Rasmussen as an opening into her own field.

‘I think this is completely ground-breaking. No other textual researcher had dared to do this before’, says Munch Rasmussen.

She has provided important input for Justnes. In the preface to the book about the fake fragments, Munch Rasmussen is thanked for giving the author the painful key to understanding history. The key for Justnes was understanding the researchers’ role. Munch Rasmussen is also a member of the ethics board for the project headed up by Justnes.


The archaeologist describes an ongoing shift in the manuscript research field in the form of a critical reorientation, which cannot solely be linked to the exposure of the fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments. Munch Rasmussen believes that we will not start to understand the ethical blind spot of textual researchers until we consider the discussion on decolonising academia.

‘Some research traditions are still tied up in various forms of colonial appropriation. This is a historical phenomenon that has persisted, but in a new guise. In colonial times, people went around taking things for themselves. This now happens more indirectly through organised plundering’, says the archaeologist.

The plundering feeds the demand of collectors, museums, educational institutions, researchers and others in an international market. Munch Rasmussen considers the standard argument of ‘my research is so important that it trumps everything’ problematic.

‘Because it doesn’t stop there. For instance, what should we do with the material afterwards? Should it be handed back? To whom? And what can you actually learn from material of questionable origin?’

The archaeologist notes that if no light can be shed on the circumstances surrounding the find, the risk of forgery will always be there. Research based on material with no documented provenance therefore has credibility issues.

However, Munch Rasmussen well understands how a researcher may find it difficult to accept that the data material is not considered valid because of its unknown origin.

‘I can sympathise with the pain’, she says.

Not ashamed

Liv Ingeborg Lied is a professor at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society. She is a scholar of religion and researches Jewish texts from antiquity that have been handed down in manuscripts to Christian minorities in the Middle East. Lied heads one of the work packages in ‘The Lying Pen of Scribes’ project.

Like Justnes, she points out that textual researchers have always been interested in the intangible aspects of text, i.e. not as archaeological objects or cultural artefacts.

This has led to important research ethics perspectives taking a back seat – until now.

‘We have not felt compelled to deal with the issues that archaeologists, for example, have been talking about for a long time. The situation has led to us overlooking the fact that the manuscripts that give us access to the text belong to a third party’, says Lied.

In 2008, she wrote a book about early Jewish texts in which she made no mention of the tangible aspects of the manuscripts.

‘The criticism I level at the field as a whole is also therefore aimed at myself. I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of. Researchers who have worked with material culture are not morally superior. It’s about them being forced to look at these problems in research and teaching. This isn’t something that has been seen in textual research until now’, she says.

Banished to the introduction

Lied says that textual researchers who use medieval manuscripts to study Jewish texts from antiquity have been aware of the methodological problem since the early 20th century, and to a growing extent since the 1950s. However, there have been no implications for the conducting of research.

‘No one has changed their practice. Textual researchers have only seen fit to mention such information in introductions and introductory chapters. We need to liberate these methodological and ethical issues from the corner they have been placed in, and incorporate them into our analyses. This will pave the way for new, interesting studies’, says Lied.

She believes the solution is to find a balance between the focus on tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and points out that this development is already underway. A material change has taken place in the field in the last decade, partly due to the steady digitisation of collections. This enables researchers to read the manuscripts in their original form.

‘If you travel around the world and ask the older generation of Bible scholars, you will discover that many of them have never seen a manuscript – only the published text. It’s understandable, because this has long been standard practice in the traditions in their discipline’, says Lied.

The legend of a goat

Now Justnes and his colleagues also want to take a critical perspective on the origins of the so-called authentic Dead Sea Scrolls. Far too much attention has been given to the goat that supposedly led to Bedouin shepherds finding the first cave in 1946–47, and its legendary status has helped obscure the facts.

Lied believes it may be wise to wait until researchers have gained a better overview of the implications of this shift before any main conclusions are drawn.

‘Research tends to change at regular intervals. Then things settle down a bit, and you work out how to deal with the changes. We can always find acceptable ways to work with much of the material, but there will always be something that is problematic. An emphasis on provenance is absolutely essential’, she says.

Provenance is not, however, the only challenge for textual researchers here, according to Lied. If, for example, they can no longer study Jewish texts from antiquity, they risk ignoring the Jewish literary heritage. The point of contention is therefore whether they should accept working with material with no provenance or not, and Lied believes there are authoritative voices on both sides of the argument.

Munch Rasmussen is eager to see how this will develop, and what implications the debate will have for academic practice.

‘I hope for the best, but I fear that it will be brushed aside using learned phrases and obligatory reverential gestures. In which case we will end up going back to the exact same practices we have always used.

Translated from Norwegian by Carole Hognestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.

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