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Christopher A. Rollston,

Toyozo Nakarai Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies, Emmanuel Christian Seminary


            Forgeries have been produced for many centuries (Metzger 1997, 125-139; Rollston 2003; 2004; 2005; 2012; Ehrman 2011) and it would not be prudent to believe that the future shall be different from the past in this regard.  After all, there are timeless, discernible motives for the production of forgeries, and these motives can be detected on the basis of actual forgeries from Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Modern Period.  (1) Of course, venality is certainly a motivation for the production of forgeries.  During the modern period, for example, non-provenanced inscriptions (i.e., from the antiquities market) routinely sell for four, five, and even six figures.  Some recent non-provenanced inscriptions have been valued at seven figures.  Prior to the modern period, forgeries also garnered substantial amounts of money as well (cf. Metzger 1997, 125-126).  (2) Some forgeries are arguably the result of “sour grapes” (e.g., a student purged in the modern period from an epigraphy program) or professional rivalry, with the forger hoping to “dupe” or “correct” the “offender.”  (3) Similarly, sometimes a forgery can be a prank, a Witz of some sort (e.g., Coleman-Norton’s “Agraphon”).  (4)  Moreover, there is a certain amount of prestige associated with being the person who “collects,” “vets,” or “finds” a significant “ancient epigraph” from the market.  Indeed, the public (and even scholars within the field) can sometimes lionize such people because of “sensational” non-provenanced epigraphs (e.g., William Shapira; cf. Silberman 1990, esp. 132-140).  For this reason, it is my position that forgers throughout history sometimes produced (i.e., forged) inscriptions so as to be lauded as the one who “found” “vetted,” or “owned” a sensational epigraph.  (5) Religio-Politico matters are sometimes strong motives for the production of a forgery (e.g., the Comma Johanneum of 1 John 5:7-8; cf. Metzger 1968, 101; the Shapira Fragments, the Jehoash Inscription).  (6) Ultimately, forgers are arguably motivated by a combination of such factors, and, of course, with each success, hubris is fostered.  The main point is that forgers have now, and always have had, substantial “motive.”  At this juncture, I shall turn to a brief consideration of some of the most interesting forgeries of the past.


During December of 1970, some inscriptions appeared on the antiquities market and they were “reported to have been found in the region of Hebron.”  William Brownlee and George Mendenhall considered them ancient, and even argued that they were “Philistine” (Brownlee and Mendenhall 1970; Mendenhall 1971).  During the initial presentation of these “finds” at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Frank Cross was present, noted the striking similarities with the Siloam Tunnel Inscription, and declared the “Hebron Documents” to be modern forgeries.  In response, Mendenhall replied in print that: “It is very difficult to believe that scholars capable of putting such an enormous range of information into these documents would also be capable of such irresponsible misuse of learning.”  He then went on to say that “those who perpetuate the rumors have the obligation of common decency to produce the evidence concerning those alleged forgeries if in fact they do exist” (Mendenhall 1971, 101-102).  Mendenhall also countered that some of the laboratory tests were consistent with antiquity (Mendenhall conceded that the 14C tests yielded a modern date, but he argued that the 14C tests were compromised because of variable storage and handling practices).  He noted that attempts at decipherment continued, and he was able to affirm that progress had been made.  He also indicated that the alphabetic signs used in these “Hebron Inscriptions” numbered approximately thirty-one.  Regarding orthography, he stated that there was not a “rigidity of alphabetic forms and rules of spelling,” but attributed this to the fact that the documents were early, non-professional exemplars of the alphabet.  Computer analyses were employed and were said to be very helpful in “isolating morphemes” (Mendenhall 1971, 99-100).  Although nearly all scholars had accepted Cross’s conclusions (i.e., these documents were modern forgeries), some persisted in contending that these documents from the “antiquities market” were actually ancient.

During the early 1980s, therefore, Joseph Naveh did a detailed analysis of one of the “Hebron Philistine Documents,” demonstrating at length that these were modern forgeries.  In fact, he demonstrated that the forger had, in essence, simply copied large portions of the Siloam Tunnel Inscription, but had done so (essentially) from left to right, that is, basically “backwards”! (Naveh 1982, 53-58).  Naveh also affirmed that the document (he analyzed one in particular) had been done by a “clumsy hand,” an incisive reference to the poor forger.  Because all of the documents were similar (in terms of medium, script, and content), it was readily apparent that all were forgeries.  It should be emphasized that Mendenhall is a gifted scholar, but his defense of the antiquity of these texts was simply wrong.  They were modern forgeries, and rather poor ones at that.

One of the most intriguing twentieth-century forgeries was, according to the late Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary, produced by Paul R. Coleman-Norton, a classics scholar at Princeton University (who was sometimes accustomed to enlivening his classes with a humorous anecdote or wisecrack).  Basically, Coleman-Norton claimed to have found a copy of a Greek translation of a portion of the Latin Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum (a collection of some fifty-four homilies on the canonical Gospel of Matthew) in a mosque in the North African town of Fedhala in 1943.  He said he found it there during his time in the United States Army and that he had made a hand-copy of it then.  Especially significant was the fact that this Greek text contained a unique reference to weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Here is Coleman-Norton’s translation: “And behold, a certain one of his disciples standing by said unto him, ‘Rabbi’ (which is to say, being interpreted, Master), “how can these things be, if they are toothless?”  And Jesus answered and said, “O thou of little faith, trouble not thyself:  if haply they will be lacking any, teeth will be provided!” (Coleman-Norton 1950).  It is imperative to note that this “plus” is not only absent from the Latin text of the Opus, but is also without parallel in patristic literature!  In any case, some years after returning to the States, Princeton’s Coleman-Norton prepared an erudite discussion of “the Greek text” and its plus (though the original manuscript itself “disappeared”).  He submitted his article to Harvard Theological Review, then the Journal of Biblical Literature, and Chicago’s Journal of Religion.  The article was rejected by these journals.  Ultimately, it was published in Catholic Biblical Quarterly (Coleman-Norton 1950). Metzger, however, noted in his autobiography that before World War II (and thus before the “manuscript discovery” with the unique plus), he (Metzger) had been in class when Coleman-Norton told the students about a query of someone who had been puzzled by Jesus’ announcement that the wicked would suffer amid weeping and gnashing of teeth.  “But Master,” asked a disciple, “what if a man has no teeth?’  The response of Jesus was “teeth will be provided.”  Metzger concludes by stating that he “is convinced that this is a pia fraus” (Metzger 1997, 136-39).

Sometimes forgeries are primarily about venality and the pursuit and retention of power (e.g., political, religious), rather than as humorous or satirical ploys.  Such is the case with the famed document called the “Donation of Constantine.”  According this document, the Emperor Constantine the Great, on the fourth day after his baptism (ca. 337 CE), “yielded his crown, and all his royal prerogatives in the city of Rome, and in Italy, and in Western Parts, to the Church (see Coleman 1922, 11).  Within the Donation of Constantine itself, it is stated that Constantine’s conferral is noted in the “Acts of the Blessed Sylvester,” that is, Pope Sylvester I (314-335 CE).  Significantly, the wording of the Donation of Constantine readily conveys the document’s import and purpose.  For example, it is stated that “Constantine…conferred this privilege on the Pontiff of the Roman church: that in the whole Roman world priests should regard him as their head, as judges do the king” (Coleman 1922, 12-13).  The Donation continues with words such as the following: “the Sacred Seat of the Blessed Peter shall be gloriously exalted….we ordain and decree that he shall have the supremacy as well of the four principal seats, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, as also over all the churches of God in the whole earth.”  Furthermore, the Donation notes that “we have granted him [Peter] of our property in the east as well as in the west, and even in the northern and southern quarter; namely, in Judea, Greece, Asia, Thrace, Africa, and Italy and the various islands” (Coleman 1922, 15).  Along those same lines, the Donation of Constantine also states that “We give over and relinquish to the aforesaid our most blessed Pontiff, Sylvester, the universal Pope, as well our palace, as has been said, as also the city of Rome, and all the provinces, places and cities of Italy and the western regions, and we decree by this our godlike and pragmatic sanction that they are to be controlled by him [Pope Sylvester] and by his successors, and we grant that they shall remain under the law of the holy Roman Church….and we decree…that all these things…we have established and confirmed, remain inviolate and unshaken unto the end of the world” (Coleman 1922, 17).  The Donation concludes by stating that “all the emperors our successors, and all the nobles, the satraps also, the most glorious senate, and all the people in the whole world, now and in all times still to come” shall not be allowed to “break these decrees.”  Those that do “shall be subject and bound over to eternal damnation” (Coleman 1922, 18-19).  Thus, according to the Donation of Constantine the Church was to govern the Roman Empire.

Nevertheless, the brilliant Italian humanist scholar named Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457 CE) was convinced that it was a forgery, that it was certainly not from Constantine, and that it did not hail from the 4th Century CE.  Valla’s devastating critique of the Donation of Constantine is entitled “De falso Credita et Ementita Constantini Donatione Declamatio” (written ca. 1440 CE), translated into English as “The Discourse of Lorenzo Valla on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine” (Coleman 1922).[2]

Valla began his historical-critical analysis with the following words: “I have published many books, a great many, in almost every branch of learning.  Inasmuch as there are those who are shocked that in these I disagree with certain great writers already approved by long usage, and charge me with rashness and sacrilege, what must we suppose some of them will do now!  How they will rage against me, and if opportunity is afforded how eagerly and how quickly they will drag me to punishment!  For I am writing against not only the dead, but the living also, not this man or that, but a host, not merely private individuals, but the authorities.  And what authorities!  Even the supreme pontiff” (Coleman 1922, 21).  Although the words of Valla may seem to be laden with hubris, one could also frame them as an apologia of sorts.  After all, he was about to besiege a font of power and wealth, and he anticipates that he will endure the ire of those that wish to cast doubt on his demolition of the Donation’s authenticity.  In any case, at that juncture, Valla throws down the gauntlet in a decisive fashion: “I know that for a long time now, men’s ears are waiting to hear the offense with which I charge the Roman pontiffs.  It is indeed, an enormous one, due either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion.  For during some centuries now, either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it, and their successors walking in the same way of deceit as their elders have defended as true what they knew to be false” (Coleman 1922, 27).  Valla then begins in earnest to argue against the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine.  And his critique is both brilliant and cogent.  It is philological and historical in nature, demonstrating that the content is entirely implausible and also that the Latin used in this document is full of features that are not fitting for a document from the 4th century CE.  And although some resisted his conclusions at the time, I know of no modern scholar who considers the Donation of Constantine to hail from Constantine himself.  Rather, it is clear that its origins were from centuries after Constantine, and it certainly hailed from those within the Church who had a vested interest in the money and power the content of the Donation could produce.

It is instructive to emphasize certain aspects of these three forgeries, one Northwest Semitic, one Greek, one Latin.  (1) Forgeries have been produced in a number of ancient languages, not just one or two.  (2) The argument that “no one with the knowledge of producing a forgery would ever do so” is a romantic, naïve notion.  Mendenhall simply did not think it realistic to believe anyone would do this, but the Philistine Hebron Documents demonstrate that someone did.  Moreover, the same is true for Coleman-Norton’s “Agraphon.”  (3) Forgeries are often purported to hail from particular places.  This is true of the Hebron Philistine Documents, and it is also true of Coleman-Norton’s “Greek translation of a portion of the Latin Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, said to have been found in a mosque in the North African town of Fedhala in 1943.  Naturally, forgers and those marketing them have a vested interest in suggesting that a forgery came from a particular region or site.  After all, making a confident statement about the origin of an inscription is often understood to lend credence to its authenticity.  Such “find spots” are basically “smoke and mirrors,” intended to give these documents a legitimate pedigree, fictive though they are.  (4) Forgers of inscriptions often attempt to model their logia on those of actual ancient texts.  After all, this is the easiest way to do it, and helps to ensure that the forger does not produce an inscription with glaring philological or syntactic errors.  Fortunately, forgers often still make mistakes (e.g., with regard to lexemes, syntax, idioms, orthography), but that does not change the fact that they often attempt to mask their forgeries by using phrasing from actual ancient texts.  Such is the case with the Jehoash Inscription (Greenstein 2012, 83-92; cf. Rollston 2003, 146-158, 175-182) and also with the Donation of Constantine.  (5) Forgers sometimes produce forgeries that are intended to be satirical (and sometimes obvious) jokes.  That is, it seems most reasonable to suggest that the forger of the “Hebron Philistine Documents” was not making a serious attempt to produce a fine forgery (i.e., one which would be difficult to detect).  After all, it is not that hard to determine that an inscription that is basically the Siloam Tunnel Inscription written backwards is a forgery.  Obviously, Princeton’s Coleman-Norton intended for his forgery to be a joke (although Harvard’s rejection of his manuscript must have been most disappointing to him!).  (6) Those that wish to consider an inscription ancient will sometimes disregard good laboratory evidence, with statements about the “variable handling and storage practices” (for more discussion of laboratory testing, see Rollston 2003: 182-191).  (7) Sometimes forgeries can fool, at least for a time, even the best of scholars (e.g., the Hebron Philistine Documents).  (8) At this juncture, I wish to turn in particular to inscriptions that hail from the modern antiquities market in order to discuss some basic methodological protocols for these inscriptions.


            Fortunately, although forgers now have numerous tools at their disposal (e.g., very fine lexica, grammars of ancient languages, reliable palaeographic discussions, sophisticated software to assist in script production), they normally still make mistakes.  Trained scholars can normally detect these mistakes through detailed analyses, and they can then expose such texts as forgeries.  Nevertheless, certain protective measures are useful so as to ensure the purity of the dataset upon which constructs about the past are based.  That is, because some forged inscriptions may not always be detected, it is of critical importance to have some protective measures in place to differentiate inscriptions that hail from a secure context (e.g., a scientific excavation) from those that “appear” on the antiquities market (and thus are potential forgeries).  I have discussed such things in some detail in the past and shall summarize them here.  Readers may wish to consult the more detailed statements for fuller analyses of these proposed methodologies (Rollston 2004, 71-79; Rollston 2005, 71-72).  Moreover, it should also be noted in this connection that the principles that I am suggesting are similar to those which have been used in the field of classics for some time (cf. Metzger 1997, 125).

A. The principle of Separation.

(1) First and foremost, it is readily apparent that those discussing (a) specific non-provenanced epigraph(s) should articulate the fact that the source of such (an) epigraph(s) was not (a) controlled archaeological excavation(s).  Nevertheless, scholars have sometimes been remiss in this regard (e.g., within various treatments of the Ivory Pomegranate).  This practice is particularly problematic because some readers might reasonably conclude, therefore, that such inscriptions are definitively provenanced and ancient.  Ultimately, I would suggest that those discussing an epigraph should clearly refer to the “circumstances of discovery and recent history” in a precise manner so as to avoid causing readers to make erroneous conclusions about the actual or putative origins.  (2) For some time, there has been a tradition of including non-provenanced epigraphs side-by-side with provenanced materials.  Not separating provenanced and non-provenanced materials was a convenient utilitarian practice in the past.  However, I would posit that combining the data in this fashion is problematic: it implicitly (and erroneously) suggests to many readers that the data from non-provenanced materials and provenanced materials are on a par.  Therefore, I would argue that at this juncture, for methodological reasons, provenanced and non-provenanced epigraphs should be separated, placed in distinct sections of handbooks and collections, and be given descriptive labels such as “Provenanced Epigraphs” and “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs.”  In short, the field must simply be(come) very intentional about “presentation” in handbooks and collections.

B. The Principle of “Flagging”

Within certain types of works (e.g., lexica), it may not be practical to “present” the provenanced and non-provenanced materials separately (i.e., with completely separate entries of some sort for the provenanced and non-provenanced evidence).  Therefore, I would suggest that non-provenanced epigraphs cited in the entry be “marked” or “flagged” in some fashion so as to signify their status as non-provenanced.  This system will allow the reader immediately to understand that this non-provenanced epigraphic data may need to be weighted differently (i.e., it is not necessarily of the most pristine sort).  Several potential methods of “marking” are possible.  For example, the reference could be preceded (or followed) by the mathematical symbol Ø, signifying in this case the absence of provenance.  Hence, “ØMoussaieff Ostracon 1” would convey to the reader that this particular ostracon is non-provenanced, as would something such as “[non-prov]Moussaieff Ostracon 1.”  The section on sigla or abbreviations within the volume or article could be used to communicate the author’s system of flagging.

C. The Principle of Relegation

It is readily apparent that epigraphic materials without secure provenance and without certain antiquity are normally compromised, problematic, and precarious bases for “reconstructing” the past (e.g., scripts, orthography, languages, religion and culture, etc.).  Nevertheless, scholars sometimes do continue to base certain conclusions about various aspects of antiquity on non-provenanced materials.  It seems prudent to suggest that constructs about the past should normally be based on the purest data, that is, inscriptions that are known to be absolutely authentic (e.g., from a scientific excavation).  There are always exceptions (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls), but for the most part it seems quite prudent to relegate data from the market to a secondary or tertiary status.

D. The Principle of Categorization

Although several caveats and provisos must be present, I would suggest that specialists must begin to begin to be more intentional about categorizing non-provenanced inscriptions.  That is, although it is not pragmatic to ignore non-provenanced inscriptions, neither is it prudent to assume that all non-provenanced inscriptions are of equal status (e.g., in terms of possible authenticity).  I would propose the following categories of assessment regarding the antiquity or modernity of (an) inscription(s): (1) Modern Forgery, (2) Probable Modern Forgery, (3) Possible Modern Forgery, (4) Probable Ancient, (5) Ancient.  Inscriptions that reflect no real aberrations (in terms of script, orthography, etc.), and for which it is certain that laboratory anomalies are absent, can be considered probable ancient, or ancient inscriptions.  Inscriptions that reflect serious or egregious problems or deviations from the provenanced corpus are to be considered modern forgeries or probable modern forgeries.  Scholars will sometimes differ on such things, and this too should be noted in all discussions.


In sum, forgeries have been produced for some time.  Forgers have long had the means, motive, and opportunity for the production of forgeries.  Furthermore, very fine scholars have sometimes been fooled into declaring that a forged inscription is actually genuine.  However, trained epigraphers, palaeographers, and philologists have always had a substantial counter-arsenal; therefore, they can normally ferret out forgeries; moreover, the history of the field is replete with many demonstrations of this fact.  Nevertheless, because it is important that our constructs about ancient history, society, language, and script be based on the best possible evidence, rigorous protocols are important to put in place so as to protect the purity of our datasets about antiquity.  That is, methodological doubt and rigorous protocols are desiderata now more than ever.  Caveat Eruditus.


Brownlee, W. H. and George E. Mendenhall
1970. An Announcement Published by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the Archaeologists Dr. William H. Brownlee and Dr. George E. Mendenhall regarding the Decipherment of Carian Lether Manuscripts found in 1966 in the Hebron area, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 15:39-40.

Coleman, Christopher B.
1922. The Treatise of Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine. Renaissance Society of America Reprint Texts 1. University of Toronto, Toronto.

Coleman-Norton, Paul
1950. An Amusing Agraphon. Catholic Biblical Quarterly 12:439-449.

Ehrman, Bart
2011. Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. HarperOne, New York.

Greenstein, Edward L.
2012.   Methodological Principles in Determining that the So-Called Jehoash Inscription is Inauthentic.  Pp. 83-92 in Puzzling Out the Past: Studies in Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures in Honor of Bruce Zuckerman, eds. M. Lundberg, S. Fine, W.T. Pitard.  Leiden: Brill.

Mendenhall, George E.
1971. The Philistine Documents from the Hebron Area: A Supplementary Note.  Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 16:99-102.

Metzger, Bruce M.
1968.   The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2nd ed.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Metzger, Bruce M.
1997. Reminiscences of an Octogenarian. Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Naveh, Joseph
1982. Some Recently Forged Inscriptions. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 247:53-58.

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

2004. Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic. Maarav 11 (1):57-79.

2005. Navigating the Epigraphic Storm: A Paleographer Reflects on Inscriptions from the Market. Near Eastern Archaeology 68:69-72.

2012. “Forging History: From Antiquity to the Modern Period.”  Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology and Ethics, eds. Matthew Rutz and Morag Kersel.  Joukowsky Institute Publication Series of Brown University, Oxbow Books, forthcoming.

Silberman, Neil A.
1990.   Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archaeology, and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1799-1917.  New York: Doubleda

[1] This article is a much condensed version of the following detailed articles: Rollston (2003; Rollston 2004; Rollston 2005).  The detailed articles from 2003 and 2004 should be consulted for full bibliography and argument.  Some of the material in this post on the ASOR blog is a condensed version of Rollston (2012).  A detailed monograph of mine on “the history of forgeries from antiquity to the present” will be published in 2013.

[2] The dating of Valla’s document to ca. 1440 CE is based on the fact that the assassination of Vitelleschi occurred in March 1440 and Valla mentions this event (Coleman 1922, 163).


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