Do Fake or Forged Biblical Manuscripts Exist?


I want to address several related issues in this article:

  • Are Authentic Manuscripts Legally Available for Sale?
  • Are Biblical Manuscripts Sold Illegally?
  • What Are Unprovenanced Biblical Manuscripts?
  • Do Fake or Forged Biblical Manuscripts Exist?

Are Authentic Manuscripts Legally Available for Sale?

I did a quick search on Google and found several web sites that sell old Biblical manuscripts and fragments. Most of the manuscripts I found for sale are up to a few hundred years old, but I didn’t see any manuscripts 1,000 to 2,000 years old. Some are hand written, while others are printed. Some are complete Bibles, while others are just a page. Some are famous printed Bibles (i.e. King James Version published in 1611), while others were simple family Bibles or even Torsh scrolls used by a Synagogue1. I don’t know if the web sites I found are legitimate or not, so I’m not providing names of any of them.

There are also companies which sell reproductions of famous books, including the Bible2. A genuine King James Version of the Bible printed in 1611 (called the Authorized Version at the time) would be quite expensive (on one web site, the price was $350,000), but people can buy a reproduction for a few hundred dollars. Reproductions are legal, as long as they’re not sold with the claim to be originals.

Are Biblical Manuscripts Sold Illegally?

Yes, there have been illegal sales of manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts have been stolen from war zones, collectors, museums, the archaeologists who conducted the digs, or from the organizations that funded the archaeological digs.

In my last article, What is “First Century Mark”?, I wrote about a manuscript, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 5345 (P.Oxy 83.5345)3, that was allegedly stolen from Egypt Exploration Society (EES) by Dr. Dirk Obbink. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only one that disappeared from the EES archives. On  14th October, 2019, EES released a press statement:

With the help of photographs provided by the MOTB [Museum of the Bible], the EES has so far identified thirteen texts from its collection, twelve on papyrus and one on parchment, all with biblical or related content, which are currently held by the MOTB…. These texts were taken without authorisation from the EES….

The Board of Trustees of the MOTB has accepted the EES claim to ownership of the thirteen pieces identified to date, and is arranging to return them to the EES. The EES is grateful to the MOTB for its co-operation, and has agreed that the research on these texts by scholars under the auspices of the MOTB will receive appropriate recognition when the texts are published in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series.

The MOTB has informed the EES that 11 of these pieces came into its care after being sold to Hobby Lobby Stores by Professor Obbink (EES), most of them in two batches in 2010. In August 2016 the EES did not re-appoint Professor Obbink as a General Editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri primarily because of unsatisfactory discharge of his editorial duties….4

Two of the 13 manuscripts which MOTB is returning to EES are 𝔓129 and 𝔓131. Andrew Stimer, a private collector, applied to Institute for New Testament Textual Research (INTF)5 for Gregory-Aland numbers6 for two manuscripts he owned. After INTF consulted several people, it appears Andrew Stimer’s fragments are actually parts of 𝔓129 and 𝔓131, fragments probably stolen from EES 70 years ago or more.7 Fortunately, ethical collectors will return stolen manuscripts to their rightful owners.

What Are Unprovenanced Biblical Manuscripts?

Some readers may be familiar with TV shows like Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars or American Pickers. These shows appraise valuables and sometimes buy them. Often the appraisers on these shows ask if there’s any documentation with the provenance of the artifact, or evidence of where it came from or who has owned it in the past. The provenance helps authenticate the item, and often there’s an interesting story that goes along with the item.

The most famous example of unprovenance Biblical manuscripts are the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1947, some Bedouin shepherds offered seven scrolls they’d found to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem, but the dealer didn’t buy them because he thought they might have been stolen from a Synagogue. In other words, they were unprovenanced. Over a period of about a decade, thousands of additional fragments were found in the same area.

Other unprovenance Biblical manuscripts exist in  churches, monasteries, convents and private collections. Many of these have been owned for centuries and there is no documentation who created them or who the previous owners were.

Do Fake or Forged Biblical Manuscripts Exist?

Yes, and the reason is obvious: money. High-quality reproductions of manuscripts can sell for thousands of dollars, while some reproductions (known to be reproductions, not reproductions claimed to be original) sell for tens of thousands of dollars8. Genuine Dead Sea Scroll fragments just a few square inches in size can cost over $500,000.

Unfortunately, there are people who create reproductions of manuscripts and try to sell them as originals. These are fake or forged manuscripts, and it is illegal. The Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1947, and within five years people were already making forgeries. Most of the early forgeries were very crude, and only fooled people without expertise in manuscripts (e.g. tourists). Some modern forgeries are so good that even world-leading experts and museums can be fooled.910 Museum of the Bible bought manuscript fragments which were believed to be genuine Dead Sea Scrolls, but we’re later proven to be forged.

Many physical anomalies  observed  in the  application  of  the  ink reinforce  the  theory that degraded  fragments  of  archeological  leather, most likely ancient  and already covered with a variety  of  mineral  deposits from the  environment, were used as substrates for writing. In all  of  the  fragments  that contained writing, we observed examples where modern ink was applied  atop  preexisting surface  deposits and across  cracks  and areas of  delamination already present on the repurposed material.

We  were  able  to  confirm  the  mineralogy  of  the  surface  deposits  is  consistent  with  the Dead  Sea  region,  and with other  geological  sites in the  Middle  East.  In some cases, a variety  of  loose mineral deposits  were also scattered over the forgeries  after  writing, and while  the  ink was still  wet,  in order  to  give  the  impression that  these  were  authentic Dead  Sea  Scroll  fragments  that  had come from the  Qumran  caves. It  is our  opinion that all of  these methods were utilized with an express intent to deceive. 11

Carbon dating, which can give a reasonably accurate date for the media, is often useless with high-quality forgeries, because the forgeries are made on ancient papyrus or parchment. There are millions of ancient manuscripts which are essentially worthless to historians, museums and collectors, but are a treasure trove to forgers. The existing text can be erased on some manuscripts, while other manuscripts have wide margins that are blank. This media can be reused in forgeries, but still pass common scientific tests that are done on it.

Some forgers are obviously well-studied in the types of documents they’re working on. They need to know the type of media and ink in use during the time period the manuscript is supposed to be from. They need to know the language, spelling and writing styles. They need to know the cultures and habits of the supposed authors. Photographing a Forgery? describes how one manuscript was found to be a forgery because the forger hasn’t done enough research.

There’s enough people with a little bit of training in Hebrew, some expertise through a graduate program or something of the sort that they could possibly pull off some of these things…. I tend to think the forgers are likely a former grad student, or someone who worked their way through a PhD, and are unable to get a job in this draconian working climate…12

Summary

The high value of legitimate ancient manuscripts means some people will try to illegally make money off the situation. Some people forge manuscripts, while other people will steal them. Genuine ancient manuscripts can be purchased, but there are very few available, and collectors are willing to pay exorbitant prices for them. Any manuscript for sale should be treated with suspicion, as it may be a forgery or illegal.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. I don’t know if Jewish religious laws allow old Torah scrolls to be sold, but I found web sites selling them
  2. AP Manuscripts, Biblical Reproductions, Facsimile Editions, Facsimile Finder, Reproduction Bibles
  3. Over 500,000 papyrus manuscripts and fragments were found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, during the late 1800’s-early 1900’s.
  4. Egypt Exploration Society. Professor Obbink and missing EES papyri (Egypt Exploration Society, 14th October, 2019) Accessed 24-Feb-2020.
  5. What is the Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments?
  6. What is the Gregory-Aland Numbering System?
  7. Paulson, Greg. Updates to P129 and P131 (Institute for New Testament Textual Research (INTF) Blog, 15-10-19) Accessed 24-Feb-2020.
  8. High-quality reproductions can take months of meticulous work to make them look original, and the time involved can be very expensive.
  9. Greshko, Michael. ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries (National Geographic, March 2020). Accessed 16-Mar-2020.
  10. A Journey for the Truth: Investigating the Recent Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments (Museum of the Bible)
  11. Museum of the BibleDead Sea Scroll Collection: Scientific Research and Analysis (Art Fraud Insights, LLC, 2019) Page 2-3.
  12. Davis, Kipp. Quoted in: Borschel-Dan, Amanda. Dead Sea Scrolls scam: Dozens of recently sold fragments are fakes, experts warn (The Times of Israel, 3 October 2017) Accessed 18-Jan-2020.

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