Forged in the fires of history


A week ago, the new Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, DC, just round the corner from the Smithsonian Institution. It was set up by billionaire Steve Green — head of the family business Hobby Lobby, a craft-store chain.

The museum has something like 40 000 biblical texts and artefacts, though there has already been some trouble in this department.

First of all, Green and Hobby Lobby were charged with illegal importation of artefacts when about 5 500 ancient clay tablets from Iraq were smuggled into the United States. According to The Washington Post, there were a few warning signs that not all was above board.

“The company never met the dealer, and wired payments to seven different bank accounts. The items arrived in 10 packages at three different Hobby Lobby addresses, labelled only ‘ceramic tiles’ and ‘clay tiles (sample)’.”

The US government seized about 3 000 of these illegal items, which were probably looted from Iraqi sites at the time of the US invasion. It is, at any rate, illegal to export antiquities from Iraq. Most Middle Eastern countries have such laws. (Israel is the exception.) Green and Hobby Lobby were fined $3-million. The Iraqi artefacts originally cost them about $1.6-million.

Green said he and Hobby Lobby had “learned a great deal” from the case, presumably including how to check the law on stolen goods before spending millions of dollars on them. Hopefully they have also achieved some insight into the honest description of the contents of their shipments.

The Museum of the Bible has a bit of a problem, too, with the 13 fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls it owns. The problem is that they are likely to be forgeries. Since 2002, when Israel changed its law for collectors of antiquities, 75 or so fragments have popped up and been sold. As The Guardian reported this week: “One scholar said the problem was so serious that up to 90% of the 75 fragments sold since 2002 could be fakes.”

Spending about $40-million, Green bought at least half his fragments from William Kando, scion of the family that has done most of the distribution of such fragments since they first started being discovered in 1948.

Kando says scholars questioning the authenticity of the fragments are “stupid”.

Surely Green et al did their research first? Large numbers of fakes have appeared on the antiquities market over the past few years. One was the ossuary claimed to have housed the bones of James, brother of Jesus; another was an ivory carving of a pomegranate, believed for two decades to be the only surviving relic of the first temple in Jerusalem (circa 900 BCE).

In 2005, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem admitted the pomegranate was old but that the inscription linking it to the temple had been faked.

It’s in the Bible, actually: by their fruits shall you know them.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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