Since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, these fragile parchment relics have intrigued scholars, religious leaders, and profiteers alike. The 2,000-year-old scrolls include the oldest-known versions of the Hebrew Bible and hold vital clues about the birth of Christianity. While certain scrolls have survived intact, others have been ravaged by time—burnt, decayed, or torn to pieces—and remain an enigma. Now, scientists are using new technologies to read the unreadable, solve mysteries that have endured for millennia, and even discover million-dollar fakes. (Premiered November 6, 2019)
Dead Sea Scroll Detectives
PBS Airdate: November 6, 2019
NARRATOR: Hidden in caves for millennia, the Dead Sea Scrolls…
PNINA SHOR (Israel Antiquities Authority): I think it’s kind of a miracle that these scrolls survived.
NARRATOR: …a thousand years older than any other Hebrew bible. But the ravages of time and decades of mishandling threaten to destroy them. And as some fragments in private hands are exposed as forgeries…
LENNY WOLFE (Antiquities Dealer): You have people that are straight and you have people that are crooked.
NARRATOR: …scientists and scholars’ race to separate the real from the fake and make the invisible visible.
BRENT SEALES (University of Kentucky): You can see the writing appear, line after line after line.
NARRATOR: Can we preserve this priceless legacy and save the scrolls before it’s too late? Right now, on NOVA.
Along the banks of the Dead Sea, near the Israeli-Jordanian border, is the site of one of the greatest archeological finds of all time…
AUDIO FROM MOVIETONE NEWS: The manuscript remained in the cave near Jericho for about 2,000 years, the oldest known Bible manuscript in the world.
NARRATOR: …the Dead Sea Scrolls.
PNINA SHOR: We’re talking about a corpus of about 1,000 manuscripts that are comprised of thousands and thousands of fragments.
NARRATOR: Created from about 250 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., the scrolls include laws, prayers and documents written by a radical sect that provide intriguing clues to the Jewish origins of Christianity.
JOEL BADEN (Yale Divinity School):The Dead Sea Scrolls are giving us a sense of, sort of, the cultural milieu that Jesus and early Christianity arose in.
NARRATOR: These remarkable scrolls also contain the earliest versions of the Hebrew Bible, more than a thousand years older than any other known copies, like this 24-foot masterpiece that is the book of the prophet Isaiah, dating to around 125 B.C.E.
The scrolls revolutionized our understanding of how the Bible became the book we know today, a question of passionate concern to scholars and the faithful alike, but the scrolls have always stirred up controversy and intrigue.
And now, more than 70 years after their original discovery, they are once again making headlines. More than a hundred mysterious new fragments have recently come up for sale. And a closer look is calling their authenticity into question.
JEFFREY KLOHA (Museum of the Bible):Their movement to the market is a little bit mysterious. Who had them? How did people know that they were available? And unfortunately, the lack of transparency leads to questions.
NARRATOR: How can private collectors know if their fragments are fake? And can new technologies help preserve and decipher the original scrolls, cultural treasures threatened by the ravages of time?
OREN GUTFELD (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem):We are in the lowest place on Earth. It’s about 1,200 feet below sea level. We are on the northern part of the Dead Sea.
NARRATOR: Archeologist Oren Gutfeld is searching for clues, and perhaps even more scrolls, in the place where it all began.
OREN GUTFELD: So, it all started over here. Over here, on the left, is where Mohammed ed-Dibfound the first scroll in Cave Number 1.
JOEL BADEN: The story goes, in 1947, some Bedouin kids were playing around in some caves by the Dead Sea and threw a rock into the cave and heard a clink they weren’t expecting. They went inside the cave and discovered these jars with this amazing collection of 2,000-year-old scrolls that contained books of the Bible and also writings that no one had ever seen before.
NARRATOR: Scholars believe the scrolls were part of a vast religious library, stored in caves and abandoned by Jews during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, in 70 C.E. They reflect centuries of religious scholarship, including bitter conflicts among Jewish sects over everything from which texts and rituals to follow, to the nature of the Messiah. And they provide a unique window into the tumultuous time that gave birth to both modern Judaism and Christianity.
LAWRENCE H. SCHIFFMAN (New York University):We’re talking about a period, the entire basis of the religious traditions of the west were being laid.
JOHN J. COLLINS (Yale Divinity School):The Dead Sea Scrolls suddenly put this huge pile of texts in front of us. It was like a feast. We had a whole trove of literature that we never suspected existed.
NARRATOR: During the period the scrolls were being created, the Hebrew Bible, for Christians the Old Testament, was still a work in progress.
JOHN COLLINS: The Bible existed in multiple forms and was not finalized. Probably even in the time of Jesus, there were somewhat different forms of the text in circulation.
JOEL BADEN: The Dead Sea Scrolls tell us that the notion of sort of “the” Bible is sort of a fake one.
NARRATOR: The scrolls give us a window into this formative time, including glimpses of alternative versions of well-known bible stories we never knew existed. For example, when we read the Bible today, Sarah, the wife of Abraham, is beautiful, but few other details are given.
JOEL BADEN: She almost never speaks. I mean, Rebecca puts her to shame, Rachel puts her to shame. They are far more interesting than Sarah.
NARRATOR: But an alternative version, found among the scrolls, paints a fuller picture.
JOHN COLLINS: (Reading)“How graceful are her eyes and how precious her nose.”
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN:(Reading)“How lovely is her breast, and how beautiful her white complexion.”
MATTHIAS HENZE (Rice University):(Reading)“And her legs so perfectly apportioned.”
JOEL BADEN: The idea that we should have this about Sarah, who is among the most bland and boring, tells us something about how willing they were to play around with that text.
NARRATOR: The documents reveal clear signs of the human hand behind the texts, like this copy of Psalms.
PNINA SHOR: You can really see the scribe behind this. Every time he made a mistake, he scrapped it out. But this actually brings the scribe, you know, back to life. He’s so human.
NARRATOR: Over a decade, seven large scrolls and tens of thousands of smaller fragments were found by Bedouin and archaeologists inside 11 different caves.
OREN GUTFELD: We need to, to climb from here, by foot.
NARRATOR: And archaeologist Oren Gutfeld believes still more are hidden somewhere in these hills.
OREN GUTFELD: In general, we know of about 600 caves along the cliffs above the Dead Sea. This is the Dead Sea. The cliffs, only a few, maybe two or three percentage of them, were really excavated.
The “Holy Grail” is a scroll with text. I’m sure it’s out here, and I think it’s just a matter of time. It’ll pop up.
NARRATOR: It may seem like a needle in a haystack, but Oren is targeting his search to caves close to a mysterious ancient settlement, called Qumran. These unusual ruins might hold clues to who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.
JODI MAGNESS (University of North Carolina):The site of Qumran is not really comparable to any other site that we have. It doesn’t have any private houses in it, for example. All of the rooms in the settlement were used either for communal purposes, like communal dining room, or as workshops.
NARRATOR: One of the most distinctive features is the unusually high number of what appear to be communal baths.
JODI MAGNESS: Many scholars, including myself, identify some of the pools at Qumran as pools that were used for the purposes of ritual immersion, what we call Jewish ritual baths. So the Qumran community was concerned with the observance of a high level of Jewish ritual purity.
NARRATOR: A concern with purity may also explain this: an on-site pottery workshop.
JODI MAGNESS: According to Jewish law, pottery is something that can become impure through contact with something that is impure. So, if a lizard crawls across your pottery dish, the dish becomes impure. There’s no way to purify it. You have to simply smash it and acquire a new piece of pottery. So, they were concerned with manufacturing their own pottery in connection with the observance of ritual purity.
NARRATOR: Or it could just be that keeping the faithful well fed means you’ll need to make a lot of plates.
Among the considerable amount of pottery found in and around the site were the same unique jars found in the caves with the scrolls. It’s what leads some scholars to think this could be the place where many of those documents were created.
But perhaps the most revealing clue to who lived here lies in this cemetery, filled with more than 1,000 bodies. Nearly all those studied so far are adult males.
JODI MAGNESS: Which suggests that this was not like an ordinary settlement of families but that it was a community that consisted overwhelmingly of adult men.
JOHN COLLINS: This was clearly the product of a sectarian movement that looked, for all the world, like monastery, where people go in, hand over all their possessions and live by a rule, very tightly regulated.
NARRATOR: Strict rules, likely written for this community, were listed in some of the scrolls, including one that lays out harsh penalties for those who spit or even laugh. Another scroll refers to an imminent apocalyptic battle between the forces of light and dark.
MATTHIAS HENZE:The people at Qumran never revealed their true identity. They called themselves the “Sons of Light.” And they think that they live at the end of time, and that what will mark the transition from this world to the next will be a battle, end time battle, between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness.”
NARRATOR: It’s a foreshadowing of later Christian themes that would appear in the New Testament and just one example of the radical writings found in the Qumran caves.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN:It looks like we have the site where some sectarian Jewish group lived, having basically walked out on the dominant society of Jerusalem, which they regarded as impure and conducting itself improperly.
NARRATOR: Many evangelical Christians are drawn to the site and its likely former inhabitants, a group historians call “the Essenes,” whose writings seem to anticipate beliefs of early Christianity.
AMERICAN CHRISTIAN TOUR GROUP LEADER AT QUMRAN:We believe that it’s very possible that here in Qumran, Jesus walked this area, so that is very relevant to our faith here at Qumran. And that’s why we have to make this stop on the pilgrimage, coming through so that we can connect the dots of the Bible to Jesus Christ and his walk here at Qumran.
NARRATOR: While there is no evidence that Jesus or his followers were ever at Qumran, evangelicals interested in artifacts from the time of Christ are drawn to the scrolls.
MATTHIAS HENZE:These texts express a Judaism that Jesus and his followers were familiar with.
NARRATOR: Among evangelicals, passages identical to our modern Bible are particularly prized. And with more than 100 fragments recently hitting the market, this passionate interest has become big business.
JOEL BADEN: Almost every sale of a Dead Sea Scroll is private, and so we don’t have any sort of firm numbers, but a good estimate is probably between half a million and a million dollars, per fragment.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN:Very, very big numbers. But after all, if you could have the earliest text of Genesisthat exists, how much would you pay to have a piece this big of the earliest text of Genesis? And that’s what’s been going on here.
NARRATOR: While only about a quarter of the original Qumran scrolls match books found in our modern bible, nearly all of the fragments sold to collectors in recent years contain biblical text. And some of them include passages that seem made to order.
JOEL BADEN: My favorite of these is Southwestern Baptist Seminary purchased some Dead Sea Scroll fragments, and one of the fragments contains the two parts from Leviticus that seem to prohibit homosexuality. And what’s strange about that is, in the Bible, those mentions are two chapters apart from each other, but here they are right next to each other on a single scroll, as if somebody in antiquity thought, “Let me get all of the homosexual laws in one place.” And not only did they do that, but it happened to be preserved, and happened to be offered to the Southwestern Baptist Seminary. The overlap between the content and the ideological interests of the purchaser are just too on the nose to be believable.
NARRATOR: One of the largest collections of these newly available scroll fragments is on exhibit at the Museum of the Bible, in Washington, D.C.
JOEL BADEN: So, Museum of the Bible was created by the Green family of Oklahoma City, who are mostly famous for owning Hobby Lobby, the crafting chain. And they began collecting biblical artifacts at a furious rate, 40,000 within the first couple of years…
STEVE GREEN(President, Hobby Lobby):We have items from Gutenberg portions to fragments, papyri fragments.
JOEL BADEN: …with the intent of putting them, eventually, in this museum that they were going to build and that now exists. And among the items that they collected were some Dead Sea Scroll fragments.
JEFFREY KLOHA:Of course, if you’re going to have a museum of the Bible, you really want to be able to tell the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And when they became available, they were purchased and then later donated to the museum, between 2009 and 2015.
NARRATOR: But from the beginning, the fragments raised questions. Where did they come from? And why did it take 50 years for them to reach the market?
JOEL BADEN: Nobody knows, because that information is simply not public.
NARRATOR: These questions lead back to the original discovery of the scrolls. Soon after they were found in 1947, they were brought to an antiquities dealer in nearby Bethlehem.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN:Khalil Eskandar Kando, lived in Bethlehem and he had two businesses going, a shoe store and an antiquities business.
When the first seven scrolls were discovered, the Bedouin turned to Kando as the intermediary to sell those scrolls.
NARRATOR: Through Kando, four scrolls were sold to the archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. Three others made their way to Jewish archeologist Eleazar Lipa Sukenik. He bought the scrolls on a historic day.
AUDIO FROM CANADIAN PARAMOUNT NEWS: The partition of Palestine ends seven months of deliberation by the United Nations and 2,000 years of political homelessness for the Jews.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN:This was the U.N.’s approval of the establishment of the State of Israel. So, for Sukenik, the entire thing was seen as a kind of fateful event in which he was receiving the words of the ancient prophet at a time when they were being fulfilled.
ELEAZAR LIPA SUKENIK DRAMATIZATION:“My hands shook as I started to unwrap one of them, and I suddenly had the feeling that I was privileged by destiny to gaze upon a Hebrew scroll which had not been read for more than 2,000 years.”
PNINA SHOR: So, he said, “Look how symbolic. As we’re voting here for the creation of the State of the Israel, we have,” in Hebrew it’s called “dash,” “drishat shalom,” “a “hello” from Second Temple times.
NEWSREEL: Arab opposition to the partition scheme has been violent. The call for a holy war against the Jews went out from Cairo.
NARRATOR: In the ensuing chaos of partition, the Syrian archbishop took his four scrolls to the U.S. and tried to sell them.
NEWSREEL: At a ceremony in the Library of Congress in Washington, His Grace, Mar Samuel, Metropolitan of Jerusalem, unrolls a scroll, said to be the oldest known Bible manuscript in the world.
PNINA SHOR: They exhibited them in different venues, but they didn’t manage to sell them. And so, it was June 1, 1954, I think, they published an advert in the Wall Street Journalsaying “Four Scrolls for Sale, very nice present to a religious institute.”
NARRATOR: But by chance, Sukenik’s son happened to be in the U.S. at that time and bought the scrolls.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN:Because of this Wall Street Journalad, Israel now owned the seven complete scrolls that had been found by the original Bedouin boy.
NARRATOR: The treasures were brought back to Israel, where “scroll fever” had scholars and looters combing the desert to find more.
OREN GUTFELD: What we see from here is Cave Number 4 that was uncovered in 1952. In this particular cave, more than 15,000 fragments of scrolls were found. It was like a race between the Bedouins and the archaeologists. But unfortunately, the Bedouins were first, always.
The Bedouins were looting Cave Number Four, and fill their sharwal, their dresses, their clothes, with hundreds of fragments of scrolls.
NARRATOR: Desperate to study the scrolls, scholars began buying the looted artifacts, many through the same original broker, Kando. But unlike the seven original scrolls, many of these were in tatters, eaten by worms or coated in bat droppings. And there was another problem.
OREN GUTFELD: When the Bedouins realized that Kando is paying them by the piece, they started to rip the scrolls into small pieces, and to sell it by the piece.
NARRATOR: The piecemeal discovery of tens of thousands of fragments from hundreds of scrolls makes it impossible to know exactly where each piece came from. And without an accurate inventory, it’s hard to know if the fragments recently put up for sale are real.
JOEL BADEN: The caves were empty long ago. It’s always, of course, possible that Kando or his descendants have been holding onto pieces and selling them piecemeal. That wouldn’t be entirely surprising. It’s a good, steady source of income. At the same time, there have been so many that have shown up in the last 12, 15 years, that it seems like there’s got to be some new source of these somewhere out there. My understanding is most are sold by Israeli antiquities dealers. But nobody’s about to say where they bought their Dead Sea Scrolls from.
LENNY WOLFE: Like any other business you have to be careful of the charlatans and mind your back.
NARRATOR: Lenny Wolfe is one of Israel’s top antiquities dealers and has been asked to broker Dead Sea Scrolls.
LENNY WOLFE: In the past 20 years, I’ve been offered by different people, some half a dozen times, but the price was off the wall. And I said, “Thank you very much, that’s out of my league.”
PETER YOST (Producer):Can you say what that is, roughly?
LENNY WOLFE: No. There’s an old Jewish custom: you don’t mention names, and you don’t mention sums. It’s against the evil eye.
NARRATOR: Very little is known about these highly secretive transactions, but we do know who the buyers are. Many are wealthy American evangelicals, who are willing to pay top dollar for these rare pieces of biblical history.
LENNY WOLFE: Having an interest in the Bible, it’s natural that, also they want a Dead Sea Scroll or two or three or four. It’s quite simple: if there is not enough supply to satisfy the demand, then you have people start working and creating, and that’s it.
JODI MAGNESS: When a museum or a private collector acquires any kind of artifact or document that does not have a, an archeological chain of custody, so to speak, you are potentially putting yourself in a position where you might be acquiring something that is forgery, that is not authentic, which was produced precisely for the purpose of feeding the market. And that is a phenomenon that we see that affects the Dead Sea scrolls, no less than any other kind of archaeological artifact.
FOX NEWS CLIP:Hobby Lobby agrees to forfeit more than 5,000 artifacts smuggled out of Iraq.
NARRATOR: In 2017, Hobby Lobby, the company behind the Museum of the Bible, was fined millions by the U.S. government for buying thousands of ancient clay tablets and seals, smuggled illegally out of war-torn Iraq.
PBS NEWSHOURNEWS CLIP: The company argues that this was really, sort of a rookie mistake.
PBS NEWSHOURNEWS CLIP:We hope that there are not other “rookie mistakes” that they have made within their Bible museum.
NARRATOR: The controversy has fueled questions about the museum’s Dead Sea Scroll collection.
JEFFREY KLOHA:Ancient artifacts do not have a barcode to tell you, you know, “Bam, this is where it came from.” And so, there’s various methods to determine whether or not any given artifact is in fact authentic.
NARRATOR: The Museum of the Bible has hired a team of outside experts, including scroll scholar Kipp Davis, to study their fragments. They have acquired 16, but he’s focusing on a handful that seem most suspect.
KIPP DAVIS (Trinity Western University):The fragment ofNehemiah, from the Museum of the Bible collection, preserves a couple of verses from Chapter 2. The word here, “Ashuv,” is clear, and it’s supposed to be followed by another word “Va Avo.”
NARRATOR: At first glance, the fragment looks fine. But there’s a strange mark next to one of the Hebrew letters.
KIPP DAVIS: We were all going to great pains to try and explain what was going on with this odd looking letter.
NARRATOR: Then Kipp stumbled on a key clue, hidden in an out-of-print Bible from 1937.
KIPP DAVIS: Right at the top of page 1303, this tiny little mark here, which is not Hebrew, this is actually a superscripted Greek letter “alpha.” And it corresponds to a footnote that the editors added. And down here you can see the note: “Verse 16.”
This, in my opinion, is a, a forger’s error, where he didn’t know his Hebrew well enough to recognize that what he was, he was marking in here and quite accidentally reproduced a text-critical note on his ancient fragment.
NARRATOR: The copied footnote seems to be a smoking gun. Separating real fragments from forgeries is painstaking work. But Kipp’s task is made easier by advanced technology and access to decades of scholarship, a situation very different from the early days after their discovery, when study was monopolized by a tiny, closed group.
JOHN COLLINS: There was DeVaux, Cross, Milik; Patrick Skehan was on it. There was a German named Claus-Hunno Hunzinger, an Englishman named Allegro, and Strugnell. How many is that? And maybe it was…and Starcky, I’m forgetting Starcky.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN:So, for about 40 years, this means that less than 10 people were the only ones with access to what many think is the greatest archeological discovery in the 20th century.
PNINA SHOR: So, very little was known about all the massive amount of material. And this is why the scholarly world was so aggravated, to say it mildly. You know, “Why does such a group hold these rights?”
NARRATOR: When pressured to open the scrolls to others, the leader of the team, John Strugnell, was dismissive.
JOHN STRUGNELL (Chief Editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Television Interview): We seem to have acquired a bunch of fleas who are in the business of annoying us.
JOHN COLLINS: John Strugnell had a brilliant ability to read texts, but he was bipolar. He was also alcoholic. A clamor started to let other people in on the game of publishing these. What eventually broke the thing open was that he gave an interview, and he was quoted as saying that Judaism is a horrible religion that ought not to exist. It looked very bad.
NARRATOR: So, in 1990, the Israel Antiquities Authority fired Strugnell, began opening up access to the scrolls and instituted modern preservation techniques.
PNINA SHOR: There was no awareness of the conservation and preservation needs of these scrolls. You have old photographs where you see the scholars sitting there with their cigarettes, with their sandwiches, with tape.
Every two fragments that they thought matched, they taped. And every so many fragments that they thought belonged to the same manuscript, they put in between two glass plates. And thus, they created over 1,200 glass plates. The residues of the tape penetrate the parchment and papyrus, and cause their disintegration.
Now, of course, they did not mean to cause damage to the scrolls; everyone realized their importance. But, along the way, a lot of damage was caused, more damage in these last 70 years than in the 2,000 in which they were in the caves.
NARRATOR: Though the scholars didn’t know it at the time, light is particularly harmful to the scrolls.
PNINA SHOR: I think it’s kind of a miracle that these scrolls survived. First of all, they were hidden in caves, okay? For 2,000 years, they were lying in caves. But they were preserved, because they were in the dark.
NARRATOR: Today, the scrolls are only displayed in darkened galleries, and of the thousands of pieces in storage, only a handful are shown at any time.
ADOLFO ROITMAN(Shrine of the Book, The Israel Museum):As a curator, I have a responsibility to make sure that the scrolls will be preserved for the coming generations; most of them written on animal skin, ancient parchment, very fragile materials, organic materials. And that’s the reason why we have to rotate the manuscripts. After three months, we have to take them out from display to bring them back to the safe room to give it a chance to recover.
PNINA SHOR: We don’t exhibit them for more than three months at a time or 15,000 lux hours, whichever comes first. And we then let them rest for five years.
NARRATOR: Most scrolls are kept in the conservation lab at the Israel Antiquities Authority, where they work to repair past damage.
PNINA SHOR: Okay, this is one of the original plates. Okay, you see they spread them along these long trestle tables. So, this is one of the thousand-two-hundred-something glass plates. The majority of let’s say 25,000 fragments were taped, unfortunately.
So, what you can see here is the damage that the original tape caused. Residues penetrate the parchment and cause its disintegration. And, as a matter of fact, you see that now, in this particular plate, why can’t we open it? Because everything is so gelatinized that we are afraid that if we open the glass plates, it will just simply disintegrate in our hands. Therefore, we are waiting to see if we can find better ways of opening this without causing any damage.
You know, it’s painstaking. You really need to understand this material and to know it in order to be able to try and treat it.
NARRATOR: Though some of the fragments have been cleaned and remounted…
PNINA SHOR: You see it’s completely clean.
NARRATOR: …many are too delicate to handle. But conservators are using a new set of tools to bring the scrolls back to life. This camera system, designed by NASA engineers, images each fragment in 12 wavelengths, including infrared, a region of the spectrum invisible to the naked eye.
PNINA SHOR: We also do 28 exposures, each from a different angle. And so you get all the surface of the scrolls, both for preservation measures and for scholarship.
NARRATOR: The multispectral imaging system does more than just provide a photographic archive, as Pnina demonstrates with this scroll from the Book of Psalms.
PNINA SHOR: The jar was probably sitting on the floor of the cave and humidity penetrated. And so, slowly and slowly, the humidity also affected the edges of this scroll, and a few lines and the edges became gelatinized. It looks like burnt, but it’s not, it’s gelatin. And therefore, they become completely illegible.
Now, with our new imaging system, all of the writing comes back to life.
There has been quite a few new readings, because of these new images.
NARRATOR: Including fragments from a mysterious sectarian text scholars are working to assemble that promises a “mystery revealed” to one who “seeks understanding.” Other fragments include a long-lost solar calendar, likely used by the Essenes.
Back at the Museum of the Bible, Kipp Davis is also relying on powerful imaging. He wants to uncover whether fragments that have recently reached the market are fake.
When Kipp looked at this fragment, owned by a Norwegian collector, he discovered a problem.
KIPP DAVIS: When some fragments have been sitting in the Judean Desert region, in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea, lots of them have collected salt on the surface. And they look kind of cool and fairly random in shape. They look like these great big crystals from a distant planet or something, right?
One of the fragments that we examined in Norway was really intriguing, because it appears that somebody had attempted to mimic this on the fragment but used table salt, which has a different chemical composition and appears much different underneath the microscope.
When we examined the fragment under, under the microscope, it revealed a very even distribution of salt right across it. Like someone had taken a salt shaker…This really was a smoking gun moment in the case of this particular fragment, that it could not have been produced in antiquity, when there was no table salt.
NARRATOR: And there was something else off about the fragment.
KIPP DAVIS: We saw ink, not just lying underneath the particles of salt, but at high magnification, you can see ink has been applied right over top of some of the individual salt kernels.
Ink is put on top of a table-salted fragment is an indication that this was produced after the invention of table salt.
NARRATOR: The evidence seems to suggest it’s a fake, but a good one, written on ancient papyrus.
JODI MAGNESS: The people who do these kinds of forgeries can do all sort of things. They can take ancient scroll fragments and they can write on them.
JOEL BADEN: You could go on EBay right now and purchase a blank piece of ancient parchment.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN:These things passed Carbon-14 dating, and that’s why they were able to be offered for sale. And no one dreamt that they were forged.
NARRATOR: But Pnina is confident that the scrolls in her collection are authentic.
PNINA SHOR: This was the first question of course, “Are your scrolls fake?” No. They can’t be fake, they came from the field. And the Bedouin themselves, you know, brought them to, to the archeologists because they realized they were worth a lot of money.
NARRATOR: The importance of some of the scrolls is obvious.
PNINA SHOR: Okay, and that’s the first chapter of Genesis. And it says here, “When God created the skies and the earth.”
NARRATOR: But one of the most important recent discoveries was only revealed when modern technology was applied to this box of charred remains.
PNINA SHOR: What you’re seeing here are the charcoals from the synagogue of Ein Gedi.
NARRATOR: Located near the bank of the Dead Sea, Ein Gedi is the site of a synagogue that burned nearly 1,500 years ago. During excavations, in 1970, archeologists found these charred pieces where the Torah platform once stood. Believed to be the burned remnants of ancient scrolls, they sat in a closet at the Antiquities Authority for nearly half a century, until…
PNINA SHOR: One day, there’s a knock on the door, and the guy who actually excavated the synagogue of Ein Gedi in 1970 walks in with these boxes of charcoal and says, “I was told you can image this.” And I looked at him and said, “You must be joking. This is charcoal.”
Okay, you see here, the chunk…
NARRATOR: Unlikely as it seemed, Pnina was intrigued.
PNINA SHOR: So, maybe in all these chunks there’s still parts of scrolls of the Bible.
NARRATOR: Could it be possible to find text in this? She found her answer in a very unlikely place.
BRENT SEALES: Kentucky’s a flyover state. It is far away from Jerusalem. And so Pnina heard about us, because we were really the only ones who were crazy enough to imagine that that’s actually possible.
NARRATOR: Computer scientist Brent Seales and his artist friend, Tim Vetters, had spent years trying to develop a way to digitally read ancient scrolls too damaged to physically unroll.
TIM VETTERS (Clear Creek Designs):I just cut the papyrus in strips and rolled it up.
NARRATOR: They conduct their experiments on test scrolls they create.
BRENT SEALES: As I worked with Tim, creating proxies, doing science on those proxies, I became a believer in our ability to solve this problem.
TIM VETTERS: Yes, the edges have turned to ash already.
BRENT SEALES: And once it’s ash, it’s done.
NARRATOR: Normally, a fire will fully combust and burn a scroll away to nothing.
BRENT SEALES: It’s oxidation, right? Which means it’s converting from papyrus into ash, I mean, gone.
So, something else happened in Ein Gedi.
NARRATOR: Why wasn’t the scroll at Ein Gedi completely consumed and turned into indecipherable ash…
TIM VETTERS: So, we load the box with the scrolls.
NARRATOR: …like these test scrolls that Tim puts in a metal box before burning?
It’s possible that the Ein Gedi scroll was inside a holy ark when it burned. There, deprived of the oxygen needed to fully consume the scroll, the fire instead carbonized it.
BRENT SEALES: Carbonization is not the same thing as combustion, right? Combustion completely consumes what’s there to ashes. The material’s gone.
TIM VETTERS: They’re cooled down now.
BRENT SEALES: Yeah, look at that…definitely carbonized.
Carbonization is this intermediate process that leaves the structure of the material even though it changes it. You see all the wraps and all the structure’s still there. And the miracle of Ein Gedi is that that scroll was carbonized, and that meant that those items potentially still had text available inside them.
NARRATOR: Though Brent had spent years perfecting a technology that could extract text from a carbonized scroll, he had never successfully used it on the real thing.
BRENT SEALES: What we did in the lab was that we created materials that were of no value at all, purely for the scientific inquiry. But what we wanted was to apply it to a really authentic thing.
NARRATOR: Back in Washington, Kipp Davis is getting his first look at a final, prized fragment in the Museum of the Bible’s collection.
KIPP DAVIS: This is a fragment that contains text from Genesis, Chapter 32, and it’s supposedly from the first century B.C. or the first century C.E. I’m checking the surface of it, because when manuscripts have been lying around in the desert for hundreds of years, the top layer will start to flake away and, with it, it takes the inks.
You can see very clearly here, the edge of the top layer, and all the blurry stuff behind it is the under layer. The ink is broken sharply along with, where the skin has peeled off, the ink has come off with it.
So, this is, this is what we would expect to see on any Judean Desert fragment that has been sitting out in a cave for 2,000 years.
NARRATOR: Could this really be a 2,000-year-old copy of Genesis? Kipp keeps digging.
KIPP DAVIS: When we go down to this part here, this is problematic. You can see the same edge of the top layer, here, is the part that is in focus, and the under layer is all blurry behind it. This black is the ink. However, there is a small spot here, where the ink actually appears on the under layer.
This fragment was already damaged, and that top layer had already peeled off, when this letter was penned onto, onto the surface. My suspicion is that it’s probably not authentic. It’s the kind of, it’s the, the kind of mistake that somebody would make without knowing that they made it. And it’s almost impossible to avoid, just because you’re working on such a small scale.
This one hurts, ‘cause it’s…this is one of the fragments that I had been holding out hope was authentic. Some of the other ones, it’s really, really obvious, but this one, no, it’s a much better looking forgery then some of the other fragments.
FOX NEWS CLIP:The Museum of the Bible confirmed today that five of its 16 Dead Sea Scroll fragments are not real.
NARRATOR: Further lab tests reveal that the chemical signatures of the sediments and inks found on the fragments don’t match those typically found on authentic scrolls, confirming Kipp’s suspicion that they are likely fakes.
JEFFREY KLOHA:We have reached the conclusion that at least some of the fragments do show characteristics that are inconsistent with ancient origin, that they were produced more recently, probably much more recently than 2,000 years ago. And so, we’ve chosen not to display those fragments because, you know, scholars and scientists have determined that these are legitimate questions.
NEWS CLIP: As for the rest of this museum’s fragment collection, they say they will get them tested and the results will be released.
KIPP DAVIS: In some ways it feels good, because this confirms, helps to confirm, suspicions that I’ve had about some of the fragments for a long time.
NARRATOR: But if the fragments aren’t real, who made them?
JEFFREY KLOHA:Who did the fragments, if they’re not ancient, is a great question. We’ve documented what we can about the ownership history, but, going back beyond that, we really don’t have any information. So, the museum, at this point, doesn’t have any ideas. That’s not a real helpful answer, but we just don’t know.
PETER YOST: Do you know who did this?
LENNY WOLFE: No idea. No idea. And if I did know, I wouldn’t tell you.
It’s a problematic market, a very problematic market. And anyone who who wades in deeply and doesn’t know what they’re doing, they’re in serious danger of getting burnt. And that’s it. Thank you.
NARRATOR: The only thing that’s certain is that, after 2,000 years, the scrolls remain cloaked in intrigue.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN:So, here’s the interesting thing, the Qumran sectarians wanted to keep their teachings secret, and then you had the scholars who wanted to keep the scrolls secret. Now, we’re in the business of opening up secrets, but the funny part about it is that there’s some secrets that we can’t penetrate. And one secret we don’t seem to be able to penetrate is who forged the forgeries. But there’s always hope that someone will find out who did it, and then we’ll know where some of these came from. But I think it’s pretty clear that some of them are forged.
PNINA SHOR: Here’s one that also has a shape like that.
NARRATOR: There is no question that the charcoal from Ein Gedi is authentic. And although reading what was in it seemed like a long shot, Pnina wanted to give Brent’s technology a try. But there were skeptics.
PNINA SHOR: I still remember the, the, my conservators saying, you know “This is charcoal.” And I said, “Take, take just a piece. Let’s see what happens.”
NARRATOR: To read the scroll, first Brent needed something that could see inside the charred remains. A high resolution C.T. scanner could work, but there was a problem.
BRENT SEALES: There was no way that Pnina would take that scroll, put it in a box and FedEx to me the scroll. The scroll from Ein Gedi was scanned in Israel, for us. I would say this was 100- to 1,000-times better than the scan that would come from a medical scanner.
NARRATOR: C.T. scanners normally distinguish bone from tissue, but here the trick was to separate writing from parchment, by identifying traces of metal in the ink.
BRENT SEALES: The data we got for a scroll that turns out to be about three or four inches long had over 4,000 slices. That’s a thousand slices per inch. Really the resolution is very, very fine, like the width of a human hair.
And as we put the slices on the left together, the shape of the actual scroll comes out on the right. This is the process of stitching it together.
NARRATOR: Using the data from the scan, Brent’s program makes a 3D virtual model that allows him to see the scroll’s inner structure.
BRENT SEALES: And the software helps us go in and map out everything about that three-dimensional world. And that mapping process is definitely complicated by the fact that the shape of that world is completely unpredictable.
NARRATOR: Layer by layer, Brent breaks the three-inch scroll into about 100-million triangles, allowing him to precisely map every twist and turn.
BRENT SEALES: And we just capture that and model it, for the purpose of the computer algorithms, by using these triangles. And that forms the geometric back plate for everything.
NARRATOR: With the interior of the scroll modeled, he can then place the ink points detected during the scan onto the surface of each layer of the scroll.
BRENT SEALES: The ink is more dense. That means it shows up as brighter. You can see the writing appear, line after line after line.
NARRATOR: Finally, he flattens the layer to make the writing legible.
BRENT SEALES: And that’s when you can see, definitively, that the characters are Hebrew, right? It must be a text.
So, you see, we do layers individually and then unwrap them individually. And then, all of those unwrapped layers all line up. Not sure of the significance of the text, but absolutely certain of the significance of the technology. You know, the text could have been anything, right?
NARRATOR: But Pnina knew right away what it was.
PNINA SHOR: So, I write back to Brent, and I said to him, “You won’t believe what you found!”
BRENT SEALES: (Reading email) “What you have deciphered is the first chapter of the Book of Leviticus,” three exclamation points. “After the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is the earliest Bible ever found. And if that’s not enough, it’s the first time ever a Bible has been found within an excavated synagogue.”
I mean how would you feel if you got that email, right? We were walking on air.
NARRATOR: The text dates to the third or fourth century C.E., more than a century after the last Dead Sea Scrolls were stashed in the caves at Qumran, and matches our modern version of Leviticusalmost exactly.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN:The big deal about the Ein Gedi find is it shows us that the text really was set.
NARRATOR: This suggests that the Bible, as we know it, may have been fixed as early as 1,800 years ago. No one knows exactly what accounts for the survival of one version of the Bible over another, but the lesson that Pnina draws from Ein Gedi and from the last 70 years conservators have worked with the scrolls, is clear.
PNINA SHOR: We shouldn’t interfere, and we shouldn’t do what we don’t know how to do, because, you know, technology develops all the time, and this is a proof that if we just wait patiently, we can preserve all this material for the benefit of us and future generations.
NARRATOR: And in the meantime, Oren Gutfeld believes there are still other scrolls out here to be found. In this cave, near Qumran, he recently found remnants of a straw bed, pottery matching the jars believed to have once held the scrolls, and even a tiny piece of parchment.
OREN GUTFELD: I mean, it’s better than nothing. It’s much better than nothing. No, I’m not going to give up, as long that I can still climb to this, the cliffs to the caves, I will continue do that.
JOHN COLLINS: I think, surely, there must be other caves out there that have stuff in them. Nobody ever thought we’d find these.
JOEL BADEN: There’s really no way of predicting what the next discovery is going to be or where it’s going to come from. I think it’s fairly reasonable to guess there will be something. Surely there will be something.
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A NOVA Production by Pangloss Films LLC for WGBH Boston
© 2019 WGBH Educational Foundation
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This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content. Some funders of NOVA also fund basic science research. Experts featured in this film may have received support from funders of this program.
Original funding for this program was provided by Draper, the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the George D. Smith Fund, the Estate of Gwenn Therrien and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
(Pina Shor of the Israel Antiquitites Authority lifts fragment of a dead sea scroll)
© 2019 WGBH Educational Foundation
- Joel Baden, John Collins, Kipp Davis, Steve Green, Oren Gutfeld, Matthias Henze, Jeffrey Kloha, Jodi Magness, Adolfo Roitman, Lawrence Schiffman, Brent Seales, Pnina Shor, John Strugnell, Tim Vetters, Lenny Wolfe