When Washington's $ 500 million Museum of the Bible held its grand opening in November 2017, attended by Vice-President Mike Pence, there were questions even then about the authenticity of its centrepiece collection of Dead Sea Scrolls.
Now the museum has been forced to admit a painful truth: Technical analysis by a team of German scholars has revealed that at least five of the museum's 16 scroll fragments are apparent forgeries.
The announcement has serious implications not only for the Bible Museum but for other evangelical Christian individuals and institutions who paid top dollar for what now seems to be a massive case of archeological fraud.
Jeffrey Kloha, chief curator for the museum, said in a statement that the revelation 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."
An analysis by a team of German scholars found five of the 16 scroll fragments are forgeries. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
The scrolls are a collection of ancient Jewish religious texts first discovered in the mid-1940s in caves on the western shore of the Dead Sea in what is now Israel. The massive cache of Hebrew documents is believed to date back to the days of Jesus. With more than 9,000 documents and 50,000 fragments, the entire collection took decades to fully excavate.
Most of the scrolls and fragments are tightly controlled by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. But around 2002, a wave of new fragments began mysteriously appearing on the market, despite skepticism from Biblical scholars.
These fragments, they warned, were specifically designed to target American evangelical Christians, who prize the scrolls. That appears to be exactly what happened; a Baptist seminary in Texas and an evangelical college in California reportedly paid millions to purchase alleged pieces of the scrolls.
Also eagerly buying up fragments was the Green family, evangelical Oklahoma billionaires who run the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores and who famously sued the Obama administration on religious grounds, saying they didn't want to pay to provide their employees access to the morning-after pill or intrauterine devices.
The Greens are the primary backers of the Museum of the Bible and went on an archeological acquisition spree in the years leading up to the museum's opening. In addition to the alleged Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, the Greens ran afoul of the Justice Department, which said they had acquired thousands of smuggled artifacts looted from Iraq and elsewhere. The family agreed last year to return those artifacts and pay a $ 3 million US fine.