Deja Vu all over Again: The Antiquities Market, the Shapira Strips, Menahem Mansoor, and Idan Dershowitz

10 March 2021

Déjà vu all over Again:

The Antiquities Market, the Shapira Strips, Menahem Mansoor, and Idan Dershowitz

By Christopher Rollston, George Washington University



Idan Dershowitz has authored an article entitled “The Valediction of Moses: New Evidence on the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments,” ZAW 133 (2021): 1-22. In his article, Dershowitz states that he offers “new evidence and arguments against the prevailing theory that Wilhelm Moses Shapira forged his infamous Deuteronomy fragments.” He considers the Shapira Strips to be authentic, basically, the first of the real Dead Sea Scrolls. That’s quite a claim.  In fact, he also believes that “The Shapira fragments are not only authentic artifacts, but are unprecedented in their significance: They preserve a pre-canonical antecedent of the Book of Deuteronomy” (p. 22 of his article). He also has a forthcoming monograph dealing with this subject, which will include a full transcription of the Shapira Strips, replete with translation and copious notes.

First and foremost, I would emphasize that Idan Dershowitz is doing the scholarly community a great service in producing a very useful transcription of the Shapira Strips, replete with copious annotations. This will be of much value for those interested in the history of modern inscriptional forgeries.

But I believe that his work will convince very few epigraphers (i.e., scholars who specialize in actual, ancient inscriptions) that the Shapira Fragments are authentic, ancient documents. And I do not believe that his work will convince all that many text scholars (i.e., scholars who primarily work not with actual ancient inscriptions, scrolls, papyri, but rather with edited texts in print editions) that the Shapira Strips are ancient…although I suspect some text scholars will find Idan Dershowitz’s proposal alluring, especially since it seems to “confirm” the things some of them have believed about the textual transmission of Deuteronomy in its earliest forms.

Nevertheless, the totality of the extant empirical evidence continues to demonstrate that the Shapira Strips are modern forgeries, and they reflect the same basic tendencies and problems which are present in most modern fakes and forgeries of the past two, three, or four centuries. I will discuss some of the evidence in this blog post, but in a more detailed fashion in a print publication.

Finally, I should also mention that I was an invited participant in the symposium at Harvard Law which was held in 2019 in which Idan Dershowitz presented his views. As I emphasized in that meeting, the evidence against authenticity is compelling: the Shapira Strips are indeed modern forgeries, modeled mostly on the book of Deuteronomy, with the sort of “forger’s flourishes, augmentations, and additions,” that are hallmark features of forgers’ methods…time and time again through the centuries.

NB: In this blog post, I reference a number of my articles.  Most of these (but not all) are available on  I have included bibliographic data for these in the “for further reading” section at the end of this blog post.  I would have liked to have integrated all of these references into this blog post, but since the New York Times article appeared today, and I wanted to get this post up rapidly, I am just including these as an addendum at the bottom of this blog post.

The Setting in the 19th centuy: 1868-1884

The Shapira Strips surfaced on the Antiquities Market in ca. 1883, and were shopped around far and wide by Moses Wilhelm Shapira (1830-1884) who had an antiquities shop in Jerusalem.  If they had been deemed ancient in 1883, they would have been by Shapira’s own statements) worth an absolute fortune. A decade prior to the surfacing of the Shapira Strips, Shapira had been closely connected with the Moabite Forgeries (ca. 1873, 1874, etc.).  The Moabite Forgeries were inscribed terra cotta and stone objects, with inscriptions modeled rather poorly on the great Mesha Stele Inscription, discovered in ca. 1868 (of which Salim al-Kari, an associate of Shapira, had made a squeeze prior to the famous shattering of the Mesha Stele by heating it and pouring water on it).  Although a number of scholars at the time deemed these Moabite Forgeries to be ancient (e.g., the great Semitist Konstantin Schlottmann), the archaeologist and epigrapher Charles Clermont-Ganneau rapidly debunked them as modern forgeries.  Clermont-Ganneau was absolutely correct.  In fact, the Moabite Forgeries would not fool even a beginning student of Northwest Semitic inscriptions today. 

It is also worth noting that many forgeries were surfacing in this era, in the wake of discoveries such as the Mesha Stele and the Temple Mount Inscription.  Clermont-Ganneau debunked many of them, authoring articles and even a monograph on the subject.  And, of course, Clermont-Ganneau was among the first to debunk the Shapira Strips as well, along with Christian David Ginsberg. Notably, Konstantin Schlottman asserted that the Shapira Strips were forgeries!

Also important to mention is that Shapira was very familiar with aged scrolls (e.g., from the Middle Ages), as he sold a number of them to the British Museum, especially from the region of Yemen.  It should also be emphasized that the Shapira Strips are no longer extant. After Shapira himself committed suicide in the Netherlands (after the Shapira Strips were declared to be modern forgeries), the Shapira Strips were later sold at auction and are often presumed to have later been burnt in a tragic house fire. At the very least, they have never surfaced again.

Further notation: During the past three or four centuries, many hundreds of forged inscriptions have appeared on the antiquities market.  These modern forgeries come in all shapes and sizes and are written in a number of languages, including Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. Some of these modern forgeries were quite poor, some of them were quite good.  But the production of textual forgeries in the modern period is quite a common thing, and it has often been quite lucrative for the forgers and for those who sell forgeries.  It is a major problem in the field and has long been so.


I. Not the first, not the last.

Idan Dershowitz is not the first scholar to attempt to contend that the Shapira Strips are ancient, and he will not be the last. That is, most famously, Menahem Mansoor (University of Wisconsin, 1959 “The Case of Shapira’s Dead Sea [Deuteronomy] Scrolls of 1883) argued at length that the Shapira Strips were not modern forgeries, but actual ancient Dead Sea Scrolls. But the convergence of epigraphic evidence is squarely against the Shapira Strips. However, I would emphasize that when one thinks about the long history of textual forgeries (going back many centuries), the Shapira Strips are quite good, especially for their time (i.e., late 1800s), but not nearly good enough to be considered ancient. That is, they are modern forgeries. I do not know if Shapira himself forged them.  But I am quite certain that they are demonstrably modern forgeries, not at all ancient.

II. A Methodological Imperative: Dramatic Claims Require Dramatic and Compelling Evidence (and we just don’t have dramatic, compelling evidence)

From the outset, I would emphasize that dramatic claims require dramatic and compelling evidence. Phrases such as: “Could it be?” “What if?” or “Might it be the case?” are simply not good enough.  Speculations about possibilities, or specious arguments about what a forger would have known, could not have known, might have done, might not have done, could have forged, could not have forged, could have written in his forgery, could not have written in his forgery…well, these have been demonstrated time and time again to be fruitless speculations, certainly not empirical evidence. And when scholars mount such arguments, time and time again they are demonstrated to have been wrong in their assumptions about all of these things that a forger could or could not have done, or could or could not have known.

Let’s now frame this in a very pragmatic fashion.  If the Shapira Fragments were to surface today, the leather would be subjected to carbon 14 tests; the ink would be subjected to chemical analyses (e.g., using a scanning electron microscope equipped with an EDS); there would be very careful analyses, using magnification, of the script itself, its morphology, the stance of the letters, and the ductus (i.e., the number of strokes forming a letter, the direction of those strokes, and the order of those strokes); the patina on the surface above the ink would be analyzed for modern contaminants in it and under it; there would be analyzes of the ways in which the ink had or had not flowed into the current cracks in the leather itself (much as was recently done with the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls Forgeries). But the Shapira Fragments are lost to history. They were presumably destroyed. So there is no way to do these sorts of basic, benchmark, empirical analyses. And without these sorts of analyses today, no inscription would be declared ancient by a serious scholar trained in epigraphy.

But, in essence, Idan Dershowitz is essentially asking that we forget about all that, and consider the Shapira Strips to be ancient manuscripts, not modern forgeries.  But since the Shapira Strips have disappeared, and are presumably gone forever: (a) there can be no carbon 14 tests of the leather, (b) there can be no laboratory testing of the chemical composition of the ink (e.g., using a Scanning Electron Microscope equipped with an EDS), (c) there can be no careful palaeographic analysis of the script using magnification of the inscriptions themselves, (d) there can be no laboratory analysis of the patina which is present on the leather or on the ink, (e) and there can be no analyses of the ways in which the ink has adhered to the leather (e.g., when someone attempts to forge a manuscript today, the ink will often “leak” into ancient cracks in the leather…and that is very telling, of course).  Moreover, looking at a photo or a hand-copy of an inscription is absolutely not the same as holding an inscription in your hands. There is just no substitute for being able to look at a manuscript oneself and to collate it oneself.  Thus, for someone to attempt to declare the Shapira Strips ancient or authentic in spite of the fact that none of these analyses (such as those listed above) can be done is an absolute deal breaker.  We simply must be able to analyze the Shapira Strips themselves (i.e., the actual documents) before anyone can make a compelling declaration of antiquity.

To put it differently, if an inscription appeared on the antiquities market today, a smart, methodologically savvy, trained epigrapher (i.e., a scholar trained in the actual ancient media, ancient writing technologies, ancient media, etc.) would not declare an inscription to be ancient without first subjecting the inscription to the examinations mentioned above.  Thus, to ask us today to accept as ancient the Shapira Strips when such analyses cannot be done is a bridge too far, way too far.  And, of course, on top of all this, the evidence (mentioned already back in 1883 and 1884 is quite damning, including, but not limited to, the anomalies with the script).  The Shapira Strips are modern forgeries.

Dramatic claims require dramatic, compelling evidence, and we just don’t have it with regard to the Shapira Strips. Rather we have hypotheticals, and circumstantial evidence, at best. And that’s just not going to make the cut, alas, in light of the insurmountable problems with the script (and the eerie parallels to the Moabite Forgeries).

III. Motives: Economic in part, but also in part to Bolster the Traditional View that Deuteronomy was Ancient, not a Pious Forgery of the late 7th century BCE.

There was a strong economic motive for the production of the Shapira Forgeries.  After all the Shapira Strips were stated (by Shapira, among others) to be worth a fortune. But there was more: The Shapira Strips were intended by the forger to Bolster the Traditional View that Deuteronomy was very ancient, and not a pious forgery of the late 7th century BCE. Of course, the forger also knew that any “find” that could bolster the traditional view would garner much attention, and be worth even more, in all sorts of ways.

Many within both Judaism and Christianity have long believed that the Pentateuch (also known as the Torah, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was written by Moses, who lived during the 13th century BCE.

The Shapira Strips are largely taken from the book of Deuteronomy (and modeled on the script of the Mesha Stele, which hailed from the 9th century BCE). Thus, if the Shapira Strips were ancient, they would be dated much closer to the time of Moses than any manuscripts of the Pentateuch available in the 1800s (or even now).  For this reason, some people really wanted (then and now) the Shapira Strips to be ancient and authentic, since that would put them much closer to the time of Moses (again, the script of the Shapira Strips was modeled on the Mesha Stele, which did come from the 9th century BCE).    

Now, let’s put all of that in context, in the 1800s.  “Biblical Criticism” was gaining a great deal of headway during the 1800s and was embraced by many scholars and laypeople, but it was repudiated by many others as heretical.  In terms of Biblical Criticism of the 1800s, note that W.M.L. DeWette had argued in the early 1800s that the book of Deuteronomy was a pious forgery from the 7th century BCE, not from the time of Moses in the 13th century BCE.  Please allow me to emphasize that date: EARLY 1800s (decades prior to the forged Shapira Strips)….in other words, this view that Deuteronomy was a pious forgery had been circulating for several decades…and many traditionalists were still upset about it, and they longed for hard evidence to the contrary.

Similarly, the first edition of Julius Wellhausen’s book entitled “The Composition of the Hexateuch” (note: Hexateuch is a way of referring to the first six books of the Bible, namely, Genesis through Joshua) was published in 1876-1877, and in this volume Wellhausen also argued for a “late date” for the composition of Deuteronomy (among other books).  

Again, many in Christianity and Judaism had long believed that Moses (who lived during the 13th century BCE) was responsible for Deuteronomy as well as the rest of the Pentateuch.  But scholars such as DeWette, along with many other scholars in the 1800s, were dating Deuteronomy to the 7th century BCE, that is, around 500 or 600 years after Moses.  Many traditionalists (even many scholars) believed that to be absolutely heretical. 

Indeed, the traditionalists believed that the Bible itself was under assault from Biblical Criticism and its late-dating of Biblical texts. 

Now….enter the Shapira Strips!! They solved everything and vindicated the Bible….that is, The fact that the Shapira Strips seemed to demonstrate that Deuteronomy could be dated much closer to the time of Moses than scholars such as DeWette had contended was widely hailed as absolutely marvelous. And the Shapira Strips could demonstrate that Deuteronomy was much older than the late 7th century….after all, the script of the Shapira Strips was very similar to the script of the Mesha Stele, and the Mesha Stele was 9th century…more than two hundred years prior to DeWette’s dating of Deuteronomy! 

Of course, it should always be remembered that modern forgers (and ancient forgers) know their market.

And it’s also worth emphasizing again that the Shapira Strips were being touted as priceless…and for this reason the price Shapira was asking for them was indeed a fortune. 


IV. Textual Forgeries: A very old story

(1) There is a long history of talented, unscrupulous people (including scholars, antiquities dealers, and disgruntled students) producing textual forgeries (as well as other types of forgeries, of course, as well).  Thus, we have textual forgeries from the ancient, medieval, and modern world….that is, from ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, as well as ancient Israel and Early Christianity, from the Middle Ages (e.g, the Donation of Constantine), and from the modern world (I deal with this in a print article on the long history of textual forgeries).  Thus, it’s a very old tactic. (2) During the past few centuries, modern forgeries revolving around the Bible and Biblical World have surfaced on the antiquities market. These have generated (even before, during, and after the time of Shapira) a great deal of money.  These forgeries are in various languages, including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic.  (3) Forgers have often patinated their works so as to cause them to appear ancient.  And also, the forgers will, when possible, use older or ancient media as well (e.g., ancient pots, ancient papyri, parchment). In short, forgers have long been quite sharp, quite knowledgeable. (4) Forgers and dealers often produce forgeries that will peak the interest of scholars and collectors….that is, forgers know the market…they know their target-audience, “marks” well. They know what people want, and they produce fakes with the desired content. (5) Forgers and dealers often go to “text” scholars, rather than to epigraphers, palaeographers, and papyrologists….they do this because text scholars are accustomed to working more with edited texts than with ancient written artifacts (this was the case with the Jesus’ Wife Papyrus, and with countless other modern forgeries). (6) These text-scholars often take the bait, as it were (in my two Maarav articles, I deal with some of this….and the ways in which various scholars ultimately “authenticated” inscriptions which were actually modern forgeries).  (7) Shapira either produced himself, or commissioned the production of, the Moabite Pottery Forgeries and the Moabite Stone Forgeries. These are pretty bad forgeries…and would not fool anyone in the field today, but they fooled quite a few people in the 1870s.  I’ve written about these some (e.g., see the articles in the Finkelstein volume and the Naveh volume, in which I deal some with Shapira, especially his pottery and stone forgeries).  (8) The Shapira Strips were declared modern forgeries in the 1880s on the basis of strong and compelling evidence.  Thus, Ginsberg and Clermont-Ganneau were quite right (that is, long ago, at the time the Shapira Strips surfaced).  (9) Shapira had means, motive, opportunity. .  


V. Basic Principle: After the discovery of a truly sensational ancient inscription, forgers will often produce modern forgeries which are similar in terms of script or content to the authentic, ancient one. The Mesha Stele (discovered in 1868, and often called the Moabite Stone) was just such an inscription…it dates to the 9th century BCE, is written in the Old Hebrew script (because, as the inscription itself mentions, that King Omri of Israel had subjugated the Moabites and held hegemony over them), it is written in the Moabite language (remember: language and script are two different things), and it contains content which dovetails with the Bible’s description of King Mesha of Moab (e.g., 2 Kings 3). The Mesha Stele is a truly sensational, ancient inscription.  

It has been clear for more than a century that he Moabite Clay forgeries were largely the product of Shapira’s friend and business associate Salim al-Kari (Salim had made a squeeze of the Mesha Stele, hence, he knew what the script looked like), while the Moabite Stone Forgeries were the product of Martin Boulos, but the fact remains Shapira himself is also definitely and deeply connected with these blazing forgeries of the early 1870s. In fact, Shapira or an associate of his would sometimes take would-be buyers to a site, state that some of these clay and stone “inscriptions” had recently been found at this or that site, and then he would invite the would-be buyers to dig around…and lo and behold they would find some in the ground.  Of course, these had been “planted” there so that they could be found, but it was a very effective tool in the toolbox of Shapira.

The Shapira Strips are also modeled on the script of the Mesha Stele.  The script of the Shapira Strips is considerably better than that of the Moabite Forgeries.  This is not surprising, as a decade had passed between the time of the production of the Moabite Forgeries and the Shapira Strips.  Scholars had been quite critical of the script of the Moabite Forgeries, and this was all documented in journal articles of that time.  The forger of the Shapira Strips was reading those articles, especially those published in ZDPV.

Of the many similar stories is this more recent one: The Tel Dan Stele Inscription was discovered on the excavation at Tel Dan in 1993 and 1994. This inscription mentions the “House of David” (i.e., the Dynasty of David), is written in Aramaic, and dates to the 9th century BCE. Less than a decade after the discovery of the Tel Dan Stele, a modern forgery (which also fooled a number of scholars) known as the Jehoash Inscription surfaced on the antiquities market (in ca. 2001).  I collated this inscription in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, a day or two before my testimony for the prosecution in the Israel Forgery trial in the 2000s.  Again, the point is that in the wake of the discovery of a bona fide sensational inscriptional find, forgers begin to produce very similar fakes…and these can, and sometimes do, sell for vast amounts of money.

There is also a very similar situation with a Greek inscription from the Temple Mount, discovered in 1871.  It is a truly fascinating inscription which contains a warning to any foreigners who might venture too far into the Temple complex in Jerusalem.  And not long after this discovery, a forged Temple Mount inscription appeared on the antiquities market. 

In short, the appearance of the Shapira Strips and the Moabite Forgeries follows an established pattern, a pattern that is attested in the periods before and after Shapira’s time.


VI. A few words about the Script

The script of the Shapira Strips is not the same as the bastardized script of the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries sold by Shapira. Indeed, the script of the Shapira Strips is much better than the script of the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries, but the script of the Shapira Strips has a handful of eerie similarities to the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries. 

Idan wishes for us to dismiss this evidence, or to assume that those producing the hand-copies of the Shapira Strips were utterly inept.  But, with all due respect to Dershowitz, we have enough good hand-copies, and even script charts, to be able to state that the script of the Shapira Strips is flawed, and these flaws are similar to the sorts of flaws often found in modern forgeries through the decades.  This evidence cannot simply be dismissed.

  Also relevant: we can state that the script of the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries and that of the Shapira Strips is similar (in a few tell-tale ways) because we have some fairly good hand-copies of the Shapira Strips (hand-copies which were made by scholars after Shapira announced the Shapira Strips in ca. 1883), and, of course, many of the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries are still in existence today (especially in England and Israel).  In short, the script of the Shapira Strips is a better than that of the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries, but the hallmark features that demonstrate the script is forged are present in both groups (i.e., the Moabite Clay and Stone Forgeries as well as that of the Shapira Strips).

VII. Forgers often model their forgeries on ancient literary texts (e.g., the Bible, or some other ancient literary text), or on some ancient inscription.

Especially relevant for the Shapira Strips: In this connection it is useful for me to emphasize another standard method of forgers: forgers often model their forgeries on the script and words of actual ancient texts.  They do this for a number of reasons, one of which is to attract the attention of scholars and the public (as people will often say about these that “they authenticate the Bible”).  But there is another reason as well: it is hard for someone in the modern period to produce a fake which contains no errors with regard to the script, spelling, syntax, and word-meanings (when compared to actual ancient texts), but if the forgers mimic some of the words, sentences, spelling, or syntax, of a genuine inscription or an ancient literary text, it is much easier to avoid mistakes…and so forgers often mimic or copy the words from ancient texts..  Thus, many forgers borrow quite heavily from genuine ancient texts (either inscriptions or literary texts).  The forger of the Shapira Forgeries is very heavily dependent on the book of Deuteronomy.  The forger of the Shapira Strips picked and chose this text and that text (as forgers often do), but the dependence is crystal clear.  Idan Dershowitz wishes to claim that a forger could not have done that. I have learned, in part the way, that making assumptions about what a forger could or could not do, is perilous. For centuries, they have really been quite good, much smarter and better than we thought.

VIII. Modern Forgeries dismissed early on by a consensus of scholars, with some scholar or scholars coming along later and arguing that these were not forgeries after all: We’ve seen this previously too.

After the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (beginning in 1947), some people began to suggest that the (now lost) Shapira Strips might have been authentic and were, basically, the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  As already noted, among those who contended this was Menahem Mansoor of the University of Wisconsin.   

This sort of thing happens from time to time with regard to forgeries.  For example, there is a modern forgery known as the “Brazilian Phoenician Inscription.”  This surfaced during the late 1800s and was rapidly dismissed as a modern forgery, that is, it was deemed not to be ancient Phoenician, but rather a modern forgery.  However, during the 1960s, Cyrus Gordon, then of Brandeis University began to contend (in an article published in 1968) that the Brazilian Phoenician inscription was ancient.  Frank Cross of Harvard rapidly wrote a rejoinder (published also in 1968) demonstrating that the Brazilian Phoenician Inscription was a modern forgery, and not a particularly good one. In short, it’s nothing new for someone to come along and suggest that some modern forgery is actually ancient.  It happens.

In the case of this most recent attempt by Idan Dershowitz to suggest that the Shapira Strips are ancient, I would simply note that this has been attempted in the past, and without success (e.g., Menahem Mansoor).  

In Professor Dershowitz’s case, he is attempting to contend that the contents of the Shapira Strips (the things included as well as the things excluded) corresponds with just what scholars would expect for an early version of the book of Deuteronomy. I would counter that it is always precarious to argue that an inscription from the market must be considered ancient based on what we think a non-extant (!) proto-biblical text might have said! That’s putting the cart before the horse in all sorts of ways.


I will be including a long discussion of the Shapira Strips in my forthcoming volume entitled (tentatively), Pious Forgeries: Forging History in the Ancient World of the Bible & the Modern World of Biblical Studies. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Forthcoming. I look forward to continuing this conversation, and to providing additional, detailed evidence against the Shapira Strips.


Christopher Rollston (

For Further Reading:

“Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests.” Maarav 10 (2003): 135-193.

“Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic.” Maarav 11 (2004): 57-79.

“Navigating the Epigraphic Storm: A Palaeographer Reflects on Inscriptions from the Market.”  Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 69-72.

“The Antiquities Market, Sensationalized Textual Data, and Modern Forgeries.” Co-authored with Andrew Vaughn. Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 61-69.

“The Public Display of Forgeries: A Desideratum for Museums and Collections.”  Written with Heather Dana Davis Parker. Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 75.

“Who Wrote the Torah according to the Torah?” (August 2017).

“Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period.” Pp. 176-197 in Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, eds. Matthew Rutz and Morag Kersel.  Joukowsky Institute Publication Series of Brown University, Oxbow Books, 2014.

“The Ivory Pomegranate: The Anatomy of a Probable Modern Forgery.” Pp. 238-252 in Epigraphy, Philology and the Hebrew Bible: Methodological Perspectives on Philological and Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of Jo Ann Hackett, eds. Jeremy M. Hutton and Aaron D. Rubin. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015.

“The Bullae of Baruch ben Neriah the Scribe and the Seal of Ma‘adanah Daughter of the King: Epigraphic Forgeries of the 20th Century.” Pp. *79-90 (English) in Eretz Israel 32: The Joseph Naveh Volume, eds. Joseph Aviram, Shmuel Ahituv, et al. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2016.

“The Putative Authenticity of the New ‘Jerusalem’ Papyrus Inscription: Methodological Caution as a Desideratum,” Pp. 321-330 in Rethinking Israel: Studies in the History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel in Honor of Israel Finkelstein, ed. Oded Lipschits. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2017.

The Forger Among Us: The Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scrolls and the Recent History of Epigraphic Forgeries

15 March 2020

The Forger Among Us:

The Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scrolls and the Recent History of Epigraphic Forgeries

Prof. Christopher Rollston (Ph.D. Johns Hopkins University)

Dept. of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

George Washington University


On March 13, 2020, the Museum of the Bible held a symposium in Washington, D.C.  The focus of the symposium was the presentation of various laboratory tests (on the basis of physical characteristics, elemental and molecular analysis, chemical analyses; using, for example, FTIR analyses, XRF analyses, SEM-EDS analyses, etc.) performed on sixteen fragments, putatively of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are part of the Museum’s holdings.  The point-person for the laboratory tests was Colette Loll (of Georgetown University), founder and director of Art Fraud Insights, the firm responsible for the laboratory report (which is 212 pages long).  The hard-science team included (in addition to Colette Loll) Abigail Quandt (of the Walters Art Museum), Aaron Shugar (of the State University of New York), Rebecca Pollak (SAFA Senior Research Conservator), Jennifer Mass (Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture), and Thomas Kupiec (Founder of the Kupiec Group and CEO of ARL, Bio Pharma and DNA Solutions).  The respondents at the symposium (the symposium was entitled “A Journey for the Truth: Investigating the Recent Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments”) were, in order of presentations: Dr. Greg Bearman (Cal Tech), Dr. Christopher Rollston (George Washington University), Dr. Kipp Davis (Trinity Western University), Dr. Sidnie White Crawford (University of Nebraska and Princeton Theological Seminary), and Dr. Lawrence Schiffman (New York University).  Respondents were given access to the full laboratory report (i.e., all 212 pages) during the weeks prior to the symposium.   

              Dr. Jeff Kloha (Chief Curatorial Officer of the Museum of the Bible; Ph.D. University of Leeds; Kloha joined the Museum of the Bible in 2017) began the symposium with a brief welcome, and Dr. Michael Holmes (Director of the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative; Ph.D. Princeton Theological Seminary; Holmes joined the Museum in November 2014) provided a brief history of research on the “Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scroll Fragments” (including the fact that these “fragments” were said to be, in part or in whole, from the Kando family, that is, the family of Khalil Eskander Shahin, who was a broker and seller of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered during the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s).  Among the things that Kloha and Holmes indicated in their remarks was the fact that they fully accept the verdict of Art Fraud Insights: all sixteen Dead Sea Scroll fragments are actually modern forgeries, not ancient.  Based on the constellation of evidence (palaeographic, laboratory), it is (from my perspective, previously and also now) readily apparent that all sixteen of the Museum’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments are indeed modern forgeries.  This seemed to me to be the clear consensus of all of the respondents.

              The conclusions of Art Fraud Insights were preceded by prior laboratory tests (on a smaller selection of the Museum’s Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, tests which also suggested that these fragmentary materials were modern forgeries) and the assessments of various Biblical Scholars and Epigraphers (e.g., Dr. Kipp Davis, Dr. Arstein Justnes, Dr. Michael Langlois, among others).  Thirteen of these Dead Sea Scroll fragments had been published in a volume entitled Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection (eds. Emanuel Tov, Kipp Davis, and Robert Duke; Leiden: Brill, 2016, 236pp).  The morning of the symposium, a National Geographic article authored by Michael Greshko was published online (

              It is important to put the Museum’s sixteen modern forgeries in a broader framework.  (1) First and foremost, it should be emphasized that textual forgeries have a very long history, going back to Ancient and Medieval times.  For example, the Famine Stele was an ancient Egyptian forgery (hailing from the Ptolemaic Period but purporting to come from the time of the Egyptian Old Kingdom), the Manishtushu Cruciform Monument was an ancient forgery (purporting to hail from the time of Sargon the Great’s son in the late 3rd millennium BCE, but in reality hailing from the Neo-Babylonian Period, some fifteen hundred years later), and the Donation of Constantine was a Medieval forgery (and in reality not from Constantine the Great, but a forgery from the Middle Ages which purported to be from Constantine the Great; for discussion of these, see Rollston, “Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period,” 2014, pp. 177-184, and the earlier literature cited there).  (2) Textual forgeries (in Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, etc.) also abounded during the late 19th century and the early 20th century, with the Shapira Forgeries (some on stone, some on pottery, and some on parchment), the Brazilian Phoenician Forgeries, and “the Messerschmidt Clay Forgeries” ( ).  (3) Furthermore, during the final decades of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century, epigraphic forgeries continued to abound, with the Hebron Philistine Documents, the Moussaieff Ostraca, the Jehoash Inscription (all dealt with in Rollston 2003, Rollston 2004, Rollston 2005, as well as in some later articles of Rollston), the Ma’adanah Seal, the Baruch Bullae (both dealt with in Rollston 2016), the Ivory Pomegranate (dealt with in Rollston 2015), the Ya‘akov [James] Ossuary, the Jesus Wife Papyrus, the Jerusalem Papyrus (the latter two dealt with in Rollston 2017) being some of the most famous.  (4) And the list could go on.  But the point is that these forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments are part of a much broader phenomenon.  It is also important to mention that all of these forgeries of the past 150 years are connected with the Antiquities Market in some fashion. (5) The methods of forgers are varied, but can be fairly well ascertained without much difficulty.  Forgers have a multitude of tools at their disposal (see Rollston 2003, pp. 137-139, forgers can and do use the best of our lexica and grammars, the best of our epigraphic and palaeographic discussions, the best of our historical and cultural discussions.  (6) They also read our discussions of laboratory analyses (cf. Rollston 2003, pp. 182-191, for discussion of various protocols and procedures for laboratory tests, and the failings of some laboratory scientists as well), including the chemical composition of inks and patinas (and forgers will read this superb analysis by ArtFraudInsights, alas, and they will learn much from it so as to produce better forgeries on a variety of media).  And, of course, forgers can and do use ancient media (e.g., ancient potsherds, stones of Levantine quarry, ancient papyrus, ancient vellum; for fuller discussion, see Rollston 2003, pp. 138-139; Rollston 2004).  Indeed, only the most foolish of forgers would not use some ancient medium (e.g., with the hope that a carbon test on the medium may be performed and thus “authenticate” the inscription itself).  (7) And forgers have also (since at least the time of the Shapira Forgeries) attempted to create fake patinas (see Rollston 2003, pp. 183-186).  (8) Furthermore, modern forgers are also becoming quite adept at duping even some fairly good hard-scientists by salting things such as carbonized remains into their fake patinas (as was the case with the Jehoash Inscription; see Rollston 2003, pp. 183-186 et passim), and by using ancient carbonized remains (e.g., from the remains of beams burnt in antiquity) to make inks which can pass laboratory tests (dealt with especially in Rollston 2017, pp. 322-323).

              The motives of the forgers are varied.   Here are the ones which I have contended (in various publications, including Rollston 2003, pp. 191-193; Rollston 2014, pp. 176-177) are most common during the past 150 years, but many (if not all) are also part of the ancient world in some fashion. Some have suggested (or assumed) that the primary motive for forgers is economic.  True enough, venality is certainly a motive through all time.  However, I am confident that a larger number of motivations can be posited, based on known forgeries: (1) Venality (i.e., greed); (2) Hubris (i.e., the forger’s belief that he or she is too good to make mistakes, detectable or otherwise); (3) “Sour Grapes” (e.g., of a doctoral student purged from a program, or a veteran scholar who feels he or she has been slighted by another scholar); (4) Professional Rivalry (e.g., the production of a forgery which confirms something which said scholar has previously said in print); (5) Pranks (i.e., an outright joke); (6) Professional/Personal Aggrandizement (e.g., fame for being associated with some stunning new inscription from the market); (7) Religion and Politics (especially the desire to prey on the sincere beliefs, hopes, and fears of good people).  I have discussed all these in greater detail in various places through the years (again, Rollston 2003; Rollston 2004; Rollston 2014).

As an ancillary note, and as a modus operandi of forgers: namely, forgers of, dealers of, and owners of forged antiquities often seek out scholars whom they believe will “authenticate” their finds.  Along these lines, forgers, dealers, and owners know which scholars most frequently “authenticate” inscriptions (including some forgeries) from the Antiquities Market and they especially seek out the opinions of those scholars (because they want their own inscriptions to be authenticated). 

Similarly, forgers, dealers, and owners will often approach scholars whom they know do not work with epigraphic remains, but are rather “text scholars” (i.e., scholars who mostly work with edited texts rather than the actual physical objects…and so these scholars do not intimately know the look and feel of something which is actually ancient). 

It is important to mention that although some have suggested that scholars are never the culprits, the facts on the ground demonstrate otherwise.  Note, in this connection, the famous forgery published by Princeton Professor Coleman-Norton (dealt with in Rollston 2003, pp. 192-193), a forger who was outed by his own student, Bruce Metzger.


              The Forger of the Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scroll Forgeries: With this basic summary of some of the early history of forgeries, I should like to return, in earnest, to the forger of the Museum of the Bible’s forgeries.  I shall be fairly forthright here.  Here is a profile of the forger: I believe that the forger of these Dead Sea Scrolls forged fragments is a trained scholar in our field, with access to actual ancient scrolls.  I believe that the forger forged them during the course of a few months, or more likely, a couple years (this also accounts for some of the variation in the script).  I believe that venality (indeed, outright and blatant greed) is a primary motivation (literally, netting the forger millions of dollars for these Museum of the Bible forgeries), but greed is not the only motivation.  I believe the scholar of these forgeries is particularly hubristic, and assumed he (or she) could fool all other scholars (and also probably delighted in this assumption).  I do not think that these were forged as some sort of a joke (as was the case in the Coleman-Norton forgery and in the case of the Hebron Philistine Documents). Clearly, I believe that the forger is amoral.  Also, I believe that the forger worked primarily alone, but could have included a paid friend or associate who had at least a high-school level knowledge of chemistry (these forgeries are not sophisticated enough to have included the assistance of a trained scholar in chemistry). 

              Also, I believe that a good investigative journalist should be capable, given the resources (e.g., several months of compensated work) of a good newspaper or learned society, should be able to discover the identity of the forger.  I hope that the weight of all of the relevant national and international laws is brought forth against this forger (although, as a realist with regard to conviction rates, I suspect that the most that can be hoped is that the identity of the forger will be discovered).

              Some final reflections: The Museum of the Bible (and its precursors, associated entities, etc.) engaged in some lamentable and egregious actions, as well as lapses of professional ethics, some of which were also breaches of the law (hence the US Dept. of Justice case, of course).  This cannot, and should not, be forgotten (for all sorts of reasons).  It was bad, and it was wrong (I’m thinking here of, among other things, the purchase of many objects, including cuneiform tablets, from conflict zones in the Middle East).  And the Museum has paid a price for those actions, not only in the serious tarnishing of the reputation of the Museum and the surrender of pillaged objects and inscriptions, but also substantial financial penalties from the US Dept. of Justice.  But I have also long said, and long believed, in the possibility and importance of true penitence and the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.  Indeed, I do believe in the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, on a personal scale as well as for organizations, learned societies, and even nations. 

              So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think in this case of these forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments now in the custody of the Museum of the Bible, and some of the broader implications.  These were purchased with the understanding that they were known prior to the enactment of the “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – 1970” (e.g., that they came from the Kando family and so the chain of custody was secure).  Frankly, I believe those advising the Museum at the time of the purchase were (at the very least) naïve, but that’s another story for another time.  The thing that I wish to emphasize here is that the Museum of the Bible ultimately came clean: They rapidly acknowledged that these scroll fragments might be modern forgeries and that the lore (and documents) associated with their origins might be a fabrication (indeed, I have long said that I put zero credence in any “statement about the antiquity” or “documentation” that is shown to me by an owner, collector, or dealer, as they have so many reasons to prevaricate).  Then, the Museum funded the very extensive laboratory tests (I have no idea what this must have cost, as the laboratory reports were numerous, conducted by first-tier scientists, and are reported in a tome that exceeds 200 pages….the final sum for all this work must be in the five figures, and I would not be surprised if it was in the low six figures).  And then, to top it all off, major people in the current senior leadership at the Museum (e.g., Jeff Kloha and Michael Holmes….and many others, I believe as well) have embraced the results of the laboratory report: All sixteen of these Dead Sea Scroll fragments are modern forgeries.  I would imagine that this was, and is, a tough pill to swallow.  And frankly, I’m impressed that they publically and unambiguously stated that they accept this conclusion.  Indeed, I’m impressed.  I’m not surprised, as I have come to know Jeff Kloha and Michael Holmes some during the past few years.  These are honest people, good and kind people, and smart scholars.  Frankly, I have come to like and appreciate them. 

              One final point: I have believed for a long time (and said in print long ago, after a comment to me from mentor and friend, the late Frank Moore Cross), museums should have forgery exhibits so as to raise the awareness of the public and of scholars about the problem of modern forgeries (see Rollston and Parker 2005).  The Israel Museum did this a number of years ago with regard to the Shapira Forgeries.  It was a marvelous exhibit, drew a lot of attention to the problem, did a lot of good, and my earnest hope is that the Museum of the Bible will allocate space, as a signal of its further desire to right wrongs, for an exhibit of these forged Dead Sea Scroll fragments.  And, along those same lines, since many museums have modern forgeries in their holdings (including the Smithsonian and the Met), perhaps the Museum of the Bible could work with such museums to produce a first-class exhibit about the problem of the antiquities market and the problem of modern forgeries.  That’s an exhibit I would love to see.  It’s unusual, it’s important…and, of course, the Museum does have the forgeries.

Select Bibliography

Rollston, Christopher A. “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests.” Maarav 10 (2003): 135-193.

______.  “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic.” Maarav 11 (2004): 57-79.

______.  “Navigating the Epigraphic Storm: A Palaeographer Reflects on Inscriptions from the Market.”  Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 69-72.

Rollston, Christopher; Heather Dana Davis Parker.  “The Public Display of Forgeries: A Desideratum for Museums and Collections.”  Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 75.

Rollston, Christopher.  “Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period.” Pp. 176-197 in Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, eds. Matthew Rutz and Morag Kersel.  Joukowsky Institute Publication Series of Brown University, Oxbow Books, 2014.

______“The Ivory Pomegranate: The Anatomy of a Probable Modern Forgery.” Pp. 238-252 in Epigraphy, Philology and the Hebrew Bible: Methodological Perspectives on Philological and Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible in Honor of Jo Ann Hackett, eds. Jeremy M. Hutton and Aaron D. Rubin. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015.

______.  “The Bullae of Baruch ben Neriah the Scribe and the Seal of Ma‘adanah Daughter of the King: Epigraphic Forgeries of the 20th Century.” Pp. *79-90 in Eretz Israel 32: The Joseph Naveh Volume, eds. Joseph Aviram, Shmuel Ahituv, et al. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2016.

______.  “The Putative Authenticity of the New ‘Jerusalem’ Papyrus Inscription: Methodological Caution as a Desideratum,” Pp. 321-330 in Rethinking Israel: Studies in the History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel in Honor of Israel Finkelstein, ed Oded Lipschits.  Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2017.