Origins Forum: Discovery and Interpretation of First-Millennium Manuscripts.

Jennifer Barry and Eva Mroczek on the Origins Forum

The lure of new discovery is powerful, and some of the most celebrated finds of the last century have been religious texts from the distant past. The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Cairo Geniza, the “Gnostic” codices from Nag Hammadi – these names spark a moment of recognition in the minds of a wide variety of historically interested publics. Although the particular contents of these discoveries are known, for the most part, only to specialists, the aura of myth and mystery that surrounds them extends far beyond the strictly academic world. It affects scholars, religious institutions, the public, and private collectors. Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen, famous for purchasing a wide variety of notable antiquities, including biblical manuscripts, reflects on his own experience of “chasing” ancient texts – in this case, fragments of lost Dead Sea Scrolls:

In those years I joined the scholars chasing numerous “ghost scrolls”: fragments that were rumoured to exist, but that no one had ever actually seen, and which never surfaced even in photographs.

[One] scroll … was first said to be in Jordan, then Kuwait, but it has never surfaced. Another famous example is the “Angel Scroll” claimed to have been found east of the Dead Sea, and now said to be in a Benedictine monastery on the German-Swiss border. This scroll has never been seen by anybody—not even in photographs—the intriguing Enoch-like text is known only from a transcription (Gleanings from the Caves, 27).

In this collector’s account, colorful rumors of smuggling and concealment create a feverish hope that new discoveries of ancient words are always just around the corner. And indeed, many important manuscripts from the first millennium have been unearthed in recent decades, often in dramatic fashion, and have caused seismic shifts for how we understand the history of the Bible, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But how do we make sense of these finds and the mythology that surrounds them? Why are they so compelling, even beyond the scholarly world? And how can we be sure that new discoveries are authentic?

Tales of the discovery of allegedly ancient texts, and the ensuing media frenzy, illustrates how finding new manuscript evidence from the first millennium incites considerable attention, particularly when those discoveries relate to the origins of faiths that are still embraced today. Very recently, the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” received a great deal of critical acclaim at an international level, and it resulted in a great deal of shame when it was discovered to be a forgery. Tellingly, though several scholars put forth technical arguments based on paleography, orthography, and grammar that the fragment could not have been authentic, it was journalist Ariel Sabar’s investigation in The Atlantic of the fragment’s provenance – its origin story, which he traced from the anonymous seller back to the probable forger himself – that tipped the scales to convince a wider public that the fragment was fake.

More recently still, there was great fanfare surrounding the illegal acquisition and transfer of Iraqi manuscripts and artifacts by the Green family, the founders of both the national franchise Hobby Lobby and leadership behind the Bible Museum located in Washington, D.C. Their nefarious dealings were first called to account by Candida Moss and Joel Baden in another The Atlantic article last year (and published in their co-authored book, Bible Nation), and now these dealings have been analyzed by one of our contributors, Roberta Mazza, in Bible History Daily. The Green family was eventually fined $3 million in a settlement with the Justice Department for their part in the illegal Iraqi smuggling ring. Both of these examples point to the growing responsibility of scholars to continue to engage, question, and answer to a public audience concerning these “new” discoveries, whether sensational or not.

This forum is sponsored by the First Millennium Network in connection with The Lying Pen of Scribes: Manuscript Forgeries and Counterfeiting Scripture in the Twenty-First Century, the Norwegian project on forgery and provenance. Throughout the course of the forum, contributors will address the scholarship and the politics behind the discovery, interpretation, and diffusion of such “new” texts. Panelists, experts in a range of fields within manuscript studies, will seek to answer questions such as: How can scholars actually tell if a manuscript is authentically ancient or forged in the new age of greater scientific possibilities? What are the ethical issues surrounding collecting, owning, and publishing items that hold religious/cultural value for a wider, non-academic audience? How much do these new finds really challenge our understanding of our own origin stories?

The First Millennium Network

In October of 2015, the First Millennium Network hosted a panel discussion on the recent “discovery” of the Birmingham Qur’an at the Freer/Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. Scholars will know that the Birmingham Qur’an was not recently discovered, but it has recently come under public scrutiny in light of media interest in scholarly efforts to re-evaluate its antiquity. The panelists – Behnam Sadeghi, Maria Dakake, Sidney Griffith, and Ahmet Karamustafa – discussed the implications and general questions surrounding such a “discovery.” Panelists consistently raised issues with the reliability of carbon (C14) dating and its implications for the humanistic enterprise. The scientific evaluation of carbon dating is not as clear cut as we might, or like to, think. Based on carbon dating of the Birmingham Qur’an, for instance, the manuscript could be even older than the historical Prophet Mohammed: quite a controversial claim given that the Qur’an was supposed to have been revealed directly to the Prophet. Panelists went on to discuss issues such as: What is the significance of claiming that a religious text is “the earliest version”? How do geographical locations influence the reception history of texts? What do we do with ancient texts that are transmitted without an historical context? And finally, how do later narratives help us to read religious histories back into earlier periods? These are just a handful of questions raised by the “discovery” of an ancient religious text. Given the large turnout for the event these were also questions that inspired the broader D.C. community to engage with a topic that might have otherwise been restricted to a small, scholarly audience.

In short, these discoveries sparked not only the scholarly imagination, but the public imagination as well. This shared interest then inspired a greater question for me as one of the organizers of the event: how do these discoveries help the scholar bridge the gap between the academic and the public? What role do experts play in the popularization of such tantalizing finds, and how does public interaction challenge the scholarly enterprise? Many of these questions were not peculiar to the D.C. area, but were also being considered in an entirely different context. More specifically, scholars from across the world came together to discuss the consequences of such fantastic, if not fantastical, discoveries.

The Lying Pen of the Scribes

“The Lying Pen of Scribes” is a quotation from Jeremiah 8:8:

“How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us,” when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie?’”

It is an apt title for the project on Manuscript Forgeries and Counterfeiting Scripture in the Twenty-First Century, an ongoing research group at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway, involving an international team of scholars. Under the leadership of Årstein Justnes, the project has focused most closely on the issue of the “Dead Sea Scrolls” fragments that have turned up since 2002. Members of the team have worked directly with the fragments using both traditional paleographical training and new technology to ask and answer questions about these texts’ authenticity. But the fact that these fragments have ended up in the hands of private collectors, without clearly documented provenance and often murky origin stories, has opened up broader questions about the ethics of the antiquities market, the importance of provenance, and the conditions for the creation, sale, and detection of forgeries. The “Lying Pen” project has hosted two conferences in Norway. The second of these conferences – “Fragments of an Unbelievable Past? Constructions of Provenance, Narratives of Forgery,” September 14-16 – tackled the problem of origin stories head-on, with a particular interest in the role of the public reception of provenance, including the place of non-scholarly institutions, private collectors, and popular journalism. Many of the conference presenters have contributed to this forum.

Fragments, Scholars, and Imagined Histories

The forum is broken down into four clusters that focus on overlapping themes and discoveries. In the first round of essays, our contributors revisit a significant find for scholars working on second temple Judaism and early Christianity. The discovery of the Qumran (or “Dead Sea”) scrolls in the 1940s and 50s has once again broken into the public consciousness, with the recent attention to previously unknown fragments that have surfaced in private collections since 2002, including at the Museum of the Bible, the project of the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame, and in the even more recent discovery of the 12th cave at Qumran, where only a blank sheet of parchment was found.

To inaugurate this first round of essays, Årstein Justnes presents a dazzling array of sensational narratives of hiding and smuggling scrolls that have circulated about these “new” fragments from Qumran. It was these stories that created an atmosphere of anticipation that may have contributed to a ready market for new forgeries. Next, Kipp Davis brings the technical expertise of a skilled paleographer to show us how modern forgeries can be detected, and takes us on our ownjourney of discovery in the Schøyen and Museum of the Bible collections. Davis’s contribution illustrates how misplaced religious zeal may help line the pockets of smugglers, forgers, and other profiteers. Finally, Eva Mroczek continues the theme of the allure of discovery from a broader, even folkloristic perspective. All three contributors note the structural similarity and shared motifs of many discovery narratives. The Dead Sea Scrolls are far from the first story of Arabs discovering scrolls in a cave with the help of an animal, and shared motifs of contamination, mishandling, and colonialist racism provide revealing glimpses of how we think about the possibility of accessing and preserving the past.

Provenance and Profit

To begin our second cluster, Tommy Wasserman tells the story of one of the most notorious forgers in history, the ninteteenth-century fame-chasing eccentric Constantine Simonides, who was active during the infancy of critical biblical scholarship. Simonides claimed to have found a New Testament autograph – that is, the original manuscript – dictated by Matthew the Evangelist only fifteen years after the death of Jesus. While his papyri are (rather obvious) fakes, he also apparently lied about his birthdate, faked his own death, and, in the greatest irony of all, has been accused of forging a manuscript that is probably actually real. Roberta Mazza returns us to the present state of papyrology, illustrating what happens when cultural heritage objects become commodities – perhaps we might call them relics – that are bought and sold for profit. Murky acquisition histories not only create problems for specialists who want to trace a manuscript’s history. Private purchases do not only put ancient texts at physical risk, as we see with a newly discovered fragment of Sappho that was possibly extracted from a mummy or industrial cartonnage by the collector himself, a person untrained in the process, risking irreversible damage to the fragment and whatever else may also have survived. No, it is even more serious: Mazza reminds us that people have been killed for such acquisitions, such as three Egyptian guards shot to death in 2016 by a looter at Dayr al-Barsha, and the connection between antiquities profiteering and the current bloodshed in Iraq and Syria. The antiquities trade is not just an abstract problem for scholars; often, it is literally a matter of life and death. To conclude this section, Nicola Denzey Lewis turns to consider the well-traveled and much-discussed texts found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, commonly called “Gnostic.” These texts most famously introduced the world to a dizzying variety of early Christian literature outside of the common orthodox canon, including decidedly non-orthodox speculation on topics like feminine divinity and primordial cosmic forces. But Denzey Lewis focuses on the sensationalized – and, indeed, fictional – narratives about how the texts were discovered (including colonialist tall tales of blood-revenge where the Egyptian discoverers kill a man and eat his heart), and on reconstructing the codices’ provenance as they traveled through the back alleys of the antiquities trade.

Material Culture and the Sociology of Knowledge

Nils Hallvard Korsvoll continues to call our attention to the problem of provenance in a study of Mesopotamian incantation bowls. These inscribed artifacts, most of them Jewish, seem to reveal a great deal about lived religion in Late Antiquity, but almost all of them have been acquired through the antiquities market, and not through controlled excavation. Their lack of provenance not only limits what we can know about how and where these objects were used, but also raises ethical questions of looting and smuggling the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria. But in this context, another problem is usually ignored: as Korsvoll argues, scholars study the texts inscribed on the bowls in a basically disembodied way, analyzing their genres and links, and largely ignoring the fact each text is inscribed on an individual material artifact with its own history of creation, use, deposit, discovery, and sale. In this cluster of essays we also encounter broad methodological questions related to discoveries of apparently non-religious artifacts such as the Staffordshire Hoard, an early medieval collection of Anglo-Saxon military apparel and weapons. As Samuel Collins will discuss, this discovery was reported as alien, somehow divorced from any modern reality we might experience, unlike the way in which newly discovered religious texts are often perceived as somehow relevant, or translatable, to religious communities today. Collins explores how religious texts often appear capable of traversing time and context, while the material wealth, and the wealthy individual discovered in Staffordshire Hoard, engaged in a process of othering that placed the past at a comfortable distance.

Beyond Western Canons

Finally, the fourth cluster takes a more comparative focus, as we look through various finds that seemed to rewrite orthodox narratives in a flash of sensational discovery. Daniel Hirshberg, will start us off with the accidental discovery of Tibet’s Sole Cache, seventh- through tenth-century Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts found in Dunhuang, northwest China. This turn-of-the-twentieth-century find is reminiscent of many of the other discoveries discussed by contributors to this forum. As Hirshberg points out, this particular discovery affirms many of the references only available on steles after the collapse of the Tibetan Empire in the ninth century.

Our forum concludes with an essay by Alba Fedeli on the discovery of the Birmingham Qur’an, the object that formed the initial inspiration for this forum. As Fedeli emphasizes, the Birminghan Qur’an was not a “new” discovery. But after the use of radiocarbon analysis, word got out that this particular manuscript was the oldest Qur’an. Once the public heard about the “discovery,” the media refused to acknowledge that this text has been known for quite some time. The appeal of its antiquity and the need for an origin story overshadowed the fact it was not a new discovery at all. The sensational story, however, was just too good to let go. Control over these narratives thus points out the consequences of the scholarly enterprise and how it influences, is appropriated, and then lives on in the public imagination.

The public interest in origin stories provides each of these scholars with an opportunity to explain the complexities of how manuscripts are dated and interpreted. Yet, as this forum will explore, the interest and level of public investment in such texts continue to pose challenges to responsible scholarship. We seek to explain how we as scholars understand such manuscripts in a way that responds to public enthusiasm while remaining attentive to the caution required in our academic endeavors.

Jennifer Barry is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Mary Washington and a Steering Committee Member of the First Millennium Networkin the greater Washington, D.C. area. Barry’s forthcoming monograph, Bishops in Flight: Exile and Displacement in Late Antiquity, is on clerical exile and heresiology in late antiquity.

Eva Mroczek is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of  The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity(Oxford, 2016) and is working on a new monograph about manuscript discovery narratives.