The Museum of the Bible has been a source of controversy since well before it even opened. Many people don’t understand what biblical scholars actually do, and this leads to misunderstandings and not infrequent accusations. Turning no basic critical thinking skills toward a museum intended to champion certain social causes (claimed to be “biblical”), those who support it can’t understand why a “biblical” scholar would object. What do biblical scholars do all day, anyway? We’ll come back to that in a moment. The reason I’m writing about the Museum of the Bible in the middle of a pandemic is an article on National Geographic’s website, “‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries,” by Michael Greshko. The Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the public imagination for decades now. Having seen the collection at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, I know it can be an awe-inducing experience. One thing biblical scholars do is ask questions.
Artifacts are becoming increasingly easy to fake. Some biblical scholars were fooled by these fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments. Now, my own specialization was Ugaritic. Ugaritic is a cuneiform language with clay tablets as the substrate. One of the things that you learn from looking at a specialized body of material closely and for a long time is how they were written. Some of the Ugaritic tablets have writing along the edges, like marginal scrawls. Some are written with large characters in a clumsy hand, while others are clearly done by a professional. With some practice you can learn to recognize handwriting even in cuneiform. The Dead Sea Scrolls, mostly written on vellum or leather, are similar: specialists know just how they were written and close examination can reveal if they were made in antiquity or simply made to look antique.
Biblical scholars often get accused of taking the life out of things. Would it be better to believe in something that is exposed as a fake? Not exactly debunkers, scholars are those who ask pointed questions of unstated assumptions. If some antiquities dealer claims to have access to material kept out of official hands, and is willing to charge you a lot for it, it’s best to call in the skeptics. It works the same in most fields that keep our society going. We need to trust those who’ve studied a subject in depth for many years. Devoted their lives to it, in fact. Many museum items around the world are forgeries and fakes. It’s not too often, though, that someone specializing in really old stuff gets called in to make an evaluation. There’s a risk involved—the risk of learning the truth.