The Museum of the Bible is once again playing defense. After a series of embarrassing setbacks that struck at the heart of its credibility as a museum, two recent revelations have dealt additional devastating setbacks.
Early in April 2020, the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments were scientifically proven to be fakes . All of them. A study —commissioned by the museum itself—determined that the scroll fragments, which had served as the crown jewels of the museum’s many exhibits, were all modern forgeries.
About the same time, the museum announced that an additional 11,500 artifacts—5,000 papyri fragments and 6,500 clay objects—were found to have been stolen from Iraq and Egypt and sold to Museum Chairman of the Board and chief benefactor, Hobby Lobby billionaire President Steve Green. He paid an undisclosed sum of money to acquire the goods from the antiquities market for his private collection, with the intention of donating them to his museum. After news broke that these items were stolen, Green agreed to return the objects to Iraq and Egypt.
These two recent revelations confirmed what many scholars, both friends and critics of the museum, have been suggesting since before the museum opened its doors: The danger of buying unprovenanced antiquities from black market dealers is that they may be stolen or forgeries. The Museum of the Bible has been forced to come to terms with the realization that they are now the latest, and perhaps most prominent, example of this truth.
All of this has cast the Museum of the Bible in a dark light.
Why? Because those affiliated with the Green Collection were warned—repeatedly—about specific problems pertaining to their purchase and exhibition of unprovenanced, black-market antiquities. Each time they were warned—by top scholars in the field—they ignored these warnings and proceeded to attempt to ship the objects to the U.S. or display them in the Museum of the Bible.
University of Birmingham’s Candida Moss and Yale Divinity School’s Joel Baden warned them in a series of articles and with an entire 2017 book, Bible Nation, detailing the problems with the Museum of the Bible’s collection and specifically the lack of provenance of its museum pieces. DePaul University’s Patty Gerstenblith, an expert in cultural property law and consultant to Hobby Lobby, DePaul’s Morag Kersel, an authority on the illicit trade of antiquities, and University of Manchester’s Roberta Mazza, a papyrology expert on the illegal trade of ancient documents, all warned them repeatedly in their publications.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency warned them in a very costly and embarrassing way: They seized thousands of objects (1,500 cuneiform tablets, 500 cuneiform bricks, 3,000 clay bullae, 13 extra-large cuneiform tablets, and 500 stone cylinder seals) from Mr. Green, who forfeited an additional $3 million to the government for breaking multiple U.S. import laws after they were caught smuggling objects into the U.S. and falsifying customs forms.
And I warned them, both personally in visits to the museum prior to its opening and publicly in a 2017 blog post , that their purchase of illicit antiquities not only promoted the looting of the Holy Land, but also risked the viability and credibility of their entire museum as there was no guarantee that their scroll fragments were authentic.
In the end, all of these scholarly warnings proved correct.
Following the disclosure of the test results that determined the museum’s scrolls to be fakes, Mr. Green released a statement conceding that he had “trusted the wrong people to guide me, and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers” when buying the items.
But the consequences of these mistakes cannot be avoided. For instance, Brill has since removed from its website the 2016 volume—Dead Sea Scroll Fragments in the Museum Collection, edited by Emanuel Tov, Kipp Davis, and Robert Duke—that published the museum’s scroll fragments.
And now police in the U.K. are investigating Oxford University papyrology expert Dirk Obbink, who was detained on suspicion of stealing papyri of biblical texts from the Sackler Library in Oxford and selling them surreptitiously to the Museum of the Bible. Upon learning that the manuscripts were stolen, the Museum of the Bible returned the manuscripts to the Sackler Library.
It took being caught, fined, having objects seized by the feds, and now knowing that millions were spent on forgeries to realize what many scholars have been saying all along: Purchasing and displaying unprovenanced objects is not worth the risk.
This was originally published online in BHD on May 20, 2020
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