Ultra-orthodox Jewish men and children in Purim costumes read the Biblical Book of Esther during the feast of Purim, a carnival-like holiday to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to exterminate them, on March 17, 2022, in Bnei Brak, Israel ( AFP / Menahem Kahana)

Discovery claim of biblical scroll in Iran is fake

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Videos shared on social media claim to show a recently discovered original scroll of the Book of Esther, a biblical text which recounts the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to exterminate them in the 5th century BC. But experts say the video shows a document with random Hebrew letters and no indication of a genuine antiquity.

"The original book of Esther was recently found in Iran by a Jew who lived there. The scroll is from 1500 years ago. The beauty is everything written in pure gold," says the text accompanying a YouTube video posted on March 19, 2022 and viewed more than 3,000 times.

Screenshot of a YouTube video taken on April 20, 2022

The same video was shared elsewhere on YouTube as well as on Facebook and Twitter along with comments about the impressive gold lettering.

But experts said the object in the video -- in which an unidentified person is seen unfurling the scroll without gloves or any other preservation technique -- is clearly not the Book of Esther nor is it from that period, based on the writings and markings on the scroll.

"This is a forgery," said Lawrence Schiffman, a professor and director of New York University's Global Network for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies. 

"We have an arbitrary arrangement of Hebrew letters. We don't have the Book of Esther."

Schiffman said a number of forged antiquities have surfaced in the Middle East in recent years, but that this item is not likely to fool anyone with knowledge of Hebrew or Jewish history.

The text is "gibberish" and the Hebrew vowel markings underneath the letters came into use much later, in the Tiberian era, Schiffman told AFP.

Moreover, he said there do not appear to be any corrections in the scroll, which is unusual for a hand-scribed manuscript from ancient times.

"I would have to see corrections; nobody writes a text in the first version without corrections," he said.

The Book of Esther recounts the story of the Jewish queen who helped prevent a planned annihilation of the Jewish population during the reign of  Xerxes I, the king of Persia from about 486 to 465 BC. The Old Testament text inspired the carnival-like Jewish festival of Purim and was later incorporated into the New Testament.

One of the oldest verified Esther scrolls -- also referred to as megillah -- was gifted last year to the National Library of Israel. It is believed to date from around 1465.

The scroll in the video cannot be credibly linked to an ancient document from that period, said Jodi Magness, an archaeologist and professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina who has worked extensively in the Middle East and who is a past president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

The use of the star of David suggests the scroll is not even a good forgery, Magness told AFP.

"The star of David did not become a symbol of Judaism before the Middle Ages," the archaeologist said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

"It doesn't look ancient, but in any case you wouldn't be able to date it any earlier than the Middle Ages."

Significantly, the video offers no evidence of the provenance of the object, making it impossible to verify as an antiquity, Magness said.

"Without any documentation of its origins it's a non-starter for archaeologists," she said.

"Archaeology is like (the TV show) CSI. You have to have a chain of custody. You need to know where it was discovered and under what circumstances or there would be no way to verify it."

Based on the lack of apparent evidence that it is genuine, Magness said it would not be worth submitting it for scientific analysis, and that archaeologists could not do this lacking provenance without violating their code of ethics.

"I wouldn't waste my time trying to authenticate it," she said. "It looks like something one of my students would do for a class assignment."