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  • Kipp Davis

Gleanings from the Cave of Wonders? Fragments, Forgeries, and “Biblicism” in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Kipp Davis on the treasures of Qumran

“Remember, boy. First fetch me the lamp. And then you shall have your reward . . . . . . Your eternal reward.”

Any child of the 1980s or ‘90s or self respecting Disney animated film buff will recognize the “Cave of Wonders” as the fabled treasure cave in the 1992 blockbuster hit Aladdin. The film was a loose adaptation of folk tales in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The Cave was the secret horde of treasure belonging to a bloodthirsty band of thieves that was unwittingly uncovered by a poor woodcutter named Ali Baba. The story of Ali Baba and his wealthy brother Cassim is in part a moral tale about greed, and this theme is also reflected in the film: At one point of the movie the protagonist is provided entry along with his boon companion—a monkey named Abu—into the Cave, but is then restricted from even touching any of the limitless treasure within. Unable to quell his own greed Abu breaks this prohibition and he and Aladdin are consequently swallowed by the magic cave.

Fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls from The Schøyen Collection were recently published under the catchy title Gleanings from the Caves, and this drew my attention to adolescent memories of the Disney film, largely for how these small manuscripts resonate with some of its subtle themes: where did the fragments come from? Why are they esteemed such monetary value? Why is their own history shrouded in (modern) mystery? (Much like the discovery narrative of the actual Dead Sea Scrolls between 1947–1953 the film also features a glaring cultural trope that should not be overlooked in the unwitting Arab scavenger.) The story of unprovenanced Dead Sea scroll fragments in private collections occurs within a larger story of secrets and mystery, and much like the tale of Ali Baba, also potentially mirrors portraits of avarice. As I have come to suspect, patterns and similarities between a number of fragments from several private collections leads one to adduce their origins from an analogous—perhaps modern—“Cave of Wonders” all their own.

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My story begins with the online publication of a short review of Gleanings from the Caves by Eibert Tigchelaar during the summer of 2016. In it he raises serious questions about the omission of a handful of scroll fragments from the Schøyen publication, and in turn also draws attention to patterns within the published fragments that leads him to doubt their authenticity:

In spite of the tentative 4Q name, there is nothing, apart from the involvement of the Kando family, that links these fragments to Qumran Cave 4. Rather, one should assume a different provenance . . . . This could be one (or multiple?) different find-place(s) where multiple small fragments of biblical books and an occasional pseudepigraphic work, many written in those hesitant and inconsistent hands, were preserved. Or, one can hypothesize the involvement of modern forgers, trying to produce on small fragments Hebrew text in an ancient hand.

Tigchelaar is troubled by the discovery narrative of the Schøyen Dead Sea Scrolls fragments (DSS) that was passed along by the collector himself. But he also makes a salient point about the perplexing composition of Martin Schøyen’s collection. Interestingly enough, Emanuel Tov made a similar observation in his introduction to the unprovenanced DSS fragments in the Museum of the Bible collection (MOTB): “The Museum of the Bible collection of thirteen fragments contains twelve Scripture texts (92%), which is exceptionally high, much higher than the percentage of Scripture texts at Qumran (23%).” This unusually high distribution parallels also The Schøyen Collection where 27 fragments out of 33 texts are scripture (82%), Azusa Pacific University’s collection of four scripture fragments in Azusa CA (APU), and those exhibited by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth TX (SWBTS; eight of nine fragments, or 90%). Tov goes on to say, “[i]t is remarkable that in all instances where there is legible text, virtually every fragment in private collections has been identified with a previously known composition.”

The surprising disparity in The Schøyen Collection that is at odds with the statistical distribution of texts in the Qumran scrolls prompted Tigchelaar to muse about a common place of discovery for these fragments, but Tov’s discussion punctuates the peculiarity with figures from several collections. Moreover, as Tov reminds us, “One should . . . not expect any features common to these texts.”

What are we to make of the unusual makeup of these private collections, and how deep does this consistency run? This strong predilection in the private collections for “biblical” texts is no accident: Schøyen, MOTB, and other institutions like APU and SWBTS have been ravaging antiquities markets, and they all enter with their own agendas and expectations intact. Their extravagant spending habits are guided by a strong, overarching theological interest in the text and formation of the Bible. They aim to produce eclectic collections of artefacts that project quite a specific narrative about the bible’s truth and reliability. For example, SWBTS acquired fragments in 2009–2010, which they featured in a public exhibition in 2012. Their collection includes an especially unusual fragment containing four lines of text that preserves parts of Leviticus 20:24 and 18:28-30 subsequently, in that order. The second passage stems from a notorious proscription against homosexuality, widely regarded as a significant theological touchstone by many Evangelical Christians. Bruce McCoy, the director of the Seminary’s exhibition said in a 2013 interview that this fragment commanded an especially high purchase price precisely because “the particular passage is a timeless truth from God’s word to the global culture today.” This is a special case, but it illustrates an important reality in today’s market for “biblical antiquities”: private collectors are willing and able to pay exorbitant costs to own even small scraps of the history of the Bible, and they are willing to pay an even higher price for fragments that refer to touchstones of contemporary political debates. Furthermore, some believe that their philanthropic endeavors satisfy a confessional directive to ensure and promote the integrity of the Bible. This rings true in Martin Schøyen’s tribute to his own collection of 32 DSS fragments:

The early witnesses to the Holy Scriptures published in this volume are as close one can get to such sacred objects. They should be treated with due respect and veneration both by their keepers and those scholars who handle them [emph. add.]. As their present custodian the undersigned is privileged and honoured, not really to own, but for a very limited time to be their humble keeper; not based on perusal virtues, but Soli Deo Gloria [to the glory of God alone.]

Schøyen sought “sacred objects” unto the singular glory of God. The patrons of SWBTS, we are led to believe, were more inclined to employ their purchases to practical use. “Armour”—the son of SWBTS President Paige and Dorothy Patterson—has produced a first-hand account of the surprising acquisition by the Texas seminary of Judaean Desert manuscript fragments: “the building of an antiquities collection is congruous with the greater mission of theological education, and particularly so with the building of a department of biblical archaeology, which had long been one of Paige’s foremost objectives.” Armour elucidates the importance of this mandate in typically tortured run-on prose:

The task at hand could have been nothing less than daunting and unlikely, but for the first time in their ministries, the Pattersons were well acquainted with laymen and laywomen who not only were blessed financially but who also shared their passion for Scripture and for the pursuit of all that could further enhance the training of young men and women for ministry and that might also bring before more eyes, hearts, and minds the timeless foundation, veracity, and comfort of Holy Scripture.

Glorifying God and to educating apologetic Evangelicals helps some to justify the nearly prohibitive cost of amassing private collections of biblical antiquities. But Armour’s elaboration is even more consequential than that. To his credit, he sees the incredulity of critics toward building such programmatic collections of small scraps of ancient literature. He calls it an understandable “knee-jerk reaction” to simply assume that such is borne of an obsession by Christian fundamentalists with the historicity of the Bible. There is rather a good deal more at stake for those who hold fast to their belief in the Bible’s truthfulness:

The history and precepts recorded upon the Dead Sea Scrolls introduced a personal God . . . . The mere possibility of the kind of God revealed in the Hebrew scrolls, for all people in every place and time, changes everything. It changes the relevance of daily choices, actions, and decisions of heart and mind, and it changes momentously those ultimate stakes with ramifications of eternity.

An inherent urgency resounds in Armour’s appeal that dwarfs the monetary value of the small parchments themselves. But do these particular scroll fragments really satisfy his lofty claims? In addition to the scrap of controversial rhetoric from Leviticus, the remaining fragments in the SWBTS exhibit comprise bits of legislation against bribery and exploitation (Exodus 23:8–10), prostitution and ceremonial impurity (Leviticus 21:7–12), rules for sacrifices (Leviticus 22:21–27), a petition by Moses to sooth God’s wrath (Deuteronomy 9:25–10:1), a prescription for temple sacrifices (Deuteronomy 12:11–14), a poem of anxious hope in the face of death (Psalm 22:4–13), and portions of a vision ascribed to the prophet Daniel about the end of the world, which features descriptions of terrifying mystical creatures (Daniel 7:18–19). The truth of the matter is that the Bible fragments at SWBTS—much like those belonging to Schøyen, MOTB, and APU—are too small to be of much scholarly, historical significance: they are curios. Despite his claims to the contrary, it seems more probable that a fundamentalist obsession with the Bible is indeed what lays behind an underwhelming collection of inscribed leather and papyrus bits.

With such well-heeled and willing spenders among Evangelicals eager to promote the fidelity of the Bible, there were bound to be opportunities for profiteers to market counterfeit or forged manuscript fragments. And it appears increasingly so that this has already occurred in the sale of DSS fragments to The Schøyen Collection and to the MOTB. I began working with the international team that published Schøyen’s Judaean Desert artefacts in 2012, and was invited to provide consultation and editorial assistance to the MOTB publication in 2014. I was eventually added to the team of scholars working on the MOTB fragments, and became one of the editors of the published editions from the collection. This set me in a unique position as someone who has had the good fortune to closely examine material from two private collections over a period of two years. In the course of our work I and my colleagues began to notice troubling discrepancies beyond the unusually high number of scriptural texts represented by the small and presumably disconnected fragments. These fragments also seemed to align with some parts of a description of fragments that were offered for sale in 1952 to Roland de Vaux, then director of the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem, during the halcyon days of discovery in the Judaean Desert:

Hassan ‘Eid arrives and he says that he had forgotten a fragment yesterday that he is bringing me now. He says this is a fake: several lines in awkward square Hebrew characters which don’t make any sense, and are written in modern ink, an old fragment of skin that didn’t have any writing on it. I don’t say anything and I take it just to see what happens.

De Vaux records a similar encounter the following week:

Hassan ‘Eid, Mahmud Hsein, and again, Abed. Mahmud present me with a fake, similar to the one I had accepted from Hassan. In turn, Abed takes one out of his pocket. I tell him that these are fakes, and bombarded with questions, Mahmud admits that he bought his, but he says that he bought it from another Ta’amireh, who also couldn’t write, and what is more, it was even less likely that he had written it, since it was in Hebrew. This was proof for him that it was authentic. Who was at the bottom of this crude trick? [translations by Weston W. Fields]

De Vaux identified these fragments as forgeries straightaway—the writing itself was nonsense, but he also recognized important differences in their quality and composition when compared to manuscripts that were being excavated from the Dead Sea caves.

In his examination and dating of scripts in the Schøyen fragments, paleographer Michael Langlois also noted several troubling inconsistencies which led him to question the authenticity of a few of the manuscripts. One such fragment carries with it a cautious rejoinder from its editor, Torleif Elgvin:

There are some suspicious features that possibly cast doubt on the authenticity of this text. First, in a few instances strokes of ink appear to follow the contours of damage . . . . Second, there are possibly two places in line 2 where there are small traces of ink on the underlayer where the surface has flaked off . . . . Finally, along the bottom edge there is a very well preserved trace of ink where the surface is obviously worn.

These were patterns that I was also seeing among a good number of the MOTB fragments, which I discussed briefly in my own introduction to the volume of text editions: “Several of the letters, which occur along the edges of the fragments, contain troubling anomalies. When grouped together . . . these anomalies become especially prominent. A number of these letters are unusually sized, oddly shaped, and contain pen strokes that are substantially out of character for the hand of their respective fragments.” I deduced from these problematic patterns that a thorough, comparative review was needed of all the published fragments together from The Schøyen Collection and MOTB. In my survey I noticed at first that many of these unprovenanced fragments were uncharacteristically very small in size, strikingly dark in color, and exhibiting unusually coarse and uneven writing surfaces. Unlike the smooth and frequently legible manuscripts that were discovered in the Judaean Desert in the 1950s, these fragments to the naked eye appear predominantly as tiny lumps of ancient, shriveled leather. This suggested to me initially a compatibility among them that might be attributed to a common find place, but I was also disturbed by the ringing of De Vaux’s journal entries in the back of my mind—“old fragment of skin” containing “several lines in awkward square Hebrew characters.”

My analysis continued with the scripts of 17 fragments—11 from The Schøyen Collection and six from MOTB—that I had distinguished from the rest on the basis of their shabby appearance. I managed to isolate from these the following six exceptional scribal characteristics:

1) Rudimentary scribal skill: An unusually large number of fragments appear to have been written by fairly unskilled and novitiate scribes, but which also attempt to mimic stylized, formal book hands common among more exquisite “scripture” scrolls. 10/17 of these fragments (six from Schøyen; four from MOTB = 59%) exhibit writing that has been described as hesitant, poor, or unpracticed. 2) Bleeding letters: A handful of fragments contain writing with extensive, stray tendrils of ink that bleed outside of letter frames in a manner that is uncommon among other Judaean Desert manuscripts. This type of bleeding is a product of especially coarse writing surfaces. For those fragments on which the ink has bled outside of letter frames, 4/5 (two each from Schøyen and MOTB = 80%) are also among those that are coarse in texture, especially dark in color, and exhibit hesitant writing. 3) Misaligned lines or letters: Several fragments contain lines of text on top- and bottom-edges that align more closely to the contours of the fragment than they do to straight lines of text in the middle of the fragment. For those fragments where lines appear to correspond with the contours of fragment edges, 3/4 (two from Schøyen; one from MOTB = 75%) are also exceptionally coarse in texture, especially dark in color, and exhibit hesitant writing. 4) Paleographic anomalies: As Tigchelaar pointed out for one of the unpublished fragments from The Schøyen Collection, several other Schøyen and MOTB fragments likewise contain “a remarkable variety of letter forms, with all kinds of unusual ways in which the letters and even the strokes are written.” These problematic paleographical inconsistencies seem to have been affected by post-deposit conditions, and 6/10 of these fragments (three each from Schøyen and MOTB = 60%) are also exceptionally coarse in texture, especially dark in color and exhibit hesitant writing. 5) Scribal inconsistencies on fragment edges: In much the same fashion as lines on some fragments tend to follow the contour of the edges, so also letters are often described as “squeezed in” to fit within the damaged edges of a fragment. These are not mere paleographic anomalies, but rather irreconcilable scribal inconsistencies that are judged to be clear products of centuries of post-deposit deterioration experienced by the manuscript. For those fragments with oddly written letters along the edges all are also exceptionally coarse in texture, but only one of the four (MOTB = 25%) is especially dark in color and with hesitant writing.

These patterns of compatibility are significant since they comprise convergence of several different lines of evidence. To put it another way, of the seven criteria in my analysis (dark color, poor condition, and the above listed five scribal features), eight fragments exhibit at least four, three of which exhibit five, and one six. This is the sort of observed pattern that should lead any scholar to agree that these fragments at least are too problematic to be judged authentic, but there is more in the offering from the texts themselves.

[dropcapI[/dropcap]t is unsurprising that many of the fragments in the private collections contain textual variants, as this fits clearly within the matrix of manuscript production in the late Second Temple period. However, it is striking that also variants that were only suggested by editors of modern Hebrew Bible editions in the absence

of any corroborating manuscript evidence might be “documented” for the first time among a few of the unprovenanced fragments. I noted one instance where a surprising and creative emendation offered by the Biblia Hebraica (BHS) editors of Jeremiah to explain the variance between the Hebrew textus receptus and an ancient Greek translation was happily preserved for the first time in one of the Schøyen fragments—a veritable “text critical smoking gun” that this fragment is likely a forgery. But perhaps the most unusual textual “variant” in a supposedly ancient manuscript appears in an MOTB fragment of text from Nehemiah. This fragment is largely benign, but even an untrained eye can readily detect in the image below that it seems to have reproduced a diacritical annotation (a Greek letter alpha [α]) from the corresponding text of Nehemiah in the 1937 edition of Rudolf Kittel’s Biblia Hebraica (BHK). It remains an open question, but the absence of any reliable knowledge about this fragment’s provenance—as with others with similar problems in private collections—should give us dramatic pause to carefully consider the real possibility that it could be a modern fake.

Drawn from image produced by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman and Marilyn J. Lundberg, West Semitic Research Project (WSRP). Courtesy Museum of the Bible all rights reserved. © Museum of the Bible, 2017

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I embarked on my investigation from Eibert Tigchelaar’s observation about the question of provenance for the recently published Schøyen DSS fragments: there is nothing linking them to Qumran, and they contain a variety of features that strongly suggest a different place of discovery: “This could be one (or multiple?) different find-place(s) where multiple small fragments of biblical books and an occasional pseudepigraphic work, many written in those hesitant and inconsistent hands, were preserved.” If the fragments in the collections were removed from the same location, then they represent an unusual corpus of largely small scrolls containing texts penned by especially novitiate scribes who had access to little more than extremely poorly prepared parchments and leather. Moreover, and more problematically when factoring in the high number of dubious paleographical anomalies and the existence on at least two fragments of highly suspicious textual features, this is also a group of scribes who appear to have had access to twentieth century text editions! Tigchelaar suggested as an alternative that a number of these fragments might have been produced by modern forgers—unscrupulous thieves toiling within a Cave of Wonders to manipulate the goodwill combined by philanthropic support for academic research and religious faith.

At the most recent meeting of the International Organization for Qumran Studies, Daniel Falk drew a very interesting word picture in a panel review session of the Schøyen DSS editions by riffing on the title of the volume, Gleanings from the Caves:

It’s an oxymoronic image, if you think about it: “gleaning” in caves? That’s not normally where one gleans. It is also an ironic image: gleaning is the practice of gathering of the leftovers after the commercial crop has been harvested, and is enshrined in the biblical laws the right of the poor. And there is an intentionality in leaving—allowing significant leftovers: the prohibition against picking up droppings; the requirement to not harvest the corners. Applying the metaphor to the Schøyen scrolls [and I would add to all the scrolls in modern, private collections] the image is ironically inverted: who are the “gleaners”? Not the Bedouin, but the wealthy collectors, and the beneficiaries in this topsy-turvy trickle-up/trickle-down economy are the scholars, gathering what they can. There is the issues [sic.] of legality which are reversed as well, and intentionality, where it’s required by law to be intentional in leaving stuff to be gathered; here, you really get a sense of how hard both collectors and scholars work to try to gather what scraps they can.

If there is one thing that the post-2002 DSS fragments have in common, it is the symbiotic relationship they represent that is forged between religiously motivated private collectors and desperate and eager scholars as they endeavor together to preserve and enrich a shared cultural heritage.

How fragile.

There are undoubtedly authentic artefacts of extremely high importance in both The Schøyen Collection, the MOTB, and in other private collections, which have a tremendous role to play in achieving this objective. But my own experience should sound a cautionary alarm: we would be naive to imagine that biblical datasets are free from pollution. Scholars would be remiss in their failure to exercise due diligence and ensure that they remain in service of the common good, and not as a repository for the wares of profiteers hoping to capitalize on the misplaced zeal of well-meaning Evangelical biblicists.


Kipp Davis is a Scholar in Residence at Trinity Western University and a member of their Dead Sea Scrolls Institute.



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