I just finished reading an advance review copy of a fascinating new book by Ross K. Nichols titled The Moses Scroll that will be published in early March. I have known Ross for over 25 years, traveled to Israel with him numerous times, and excavated with him in both Jerusalem and the Negev. I am very pleased to recommend this finely crafted book with great enthusiasm. It is high adventure, detective sleuthing, and good solid historical and linguistic scholarship all in one. It is truly a page-turner. I could not put it down. It addresses the core question that many have long ago dismissed–was a Dead Sea Scroll purportedly discovered by the Bedouin in the 1870s a genuine artifact of antiquity or a clever forgery? Nichols also has spent considerable time tracking down the details of our last trace of the scroll–in March 1889–and what might potentially lie ahead for this “cold case” effort to find the scroll so it could be examined with modern scientific methods and viewed in light of 75 years of Dead Sea Scroll research. But even more important, Nichols seeks to “restore” the scroll, as much as might be possible, based on the 19th century academic evaluations, in a critical Hebrew edition, with English translation and exhaustive notes. His painstaking work in this regard allows us for the first time to examine the scroll as a whole in a way that will be accessible to the average reader, but also very useful for critical scholars. And then there is the content of the scroll itself–what does it say? Readers will find this every bit as intriguing as the story surrounding its discovery and disappearance.
Perhaps you have heard of the infamous 19th century figure Moses Shapira. In graduate school we knew him, as many do today, as “Shapira the Forger.” In the year 2000 the Israel Museum sponsored a special exhibit in Jerusalem titled “Truly Fake: Moses Wilhelm Shapira Master Forger,” in what is now known as the Ticho House (formerly Aga Rashid Castle), where Shapira and his family once lived in Jerusalem. For years I just assumed that Shapira’s most notable claim, to have come into possession of this Scroll, was a classic case of forgery in the shadowy world of biblical antiquities.
The Moses Scroll tells the dramatic story of the 19th-century controversy surrounding the discovery and debate over this manuscript. The scroll consisted of sixteen leather strips described as a shortened form of the Book of Deuteronomy but with some exciting and surprisingly different readings. Jerusalem antiquities dealer and agent of the British Museum, Moses W. Shapira, came in possession of the manuscript. He presented the leather strips to leading European scholars for examination. They produced and published transcriptions of the scroll’s words. The debate about the genuineness of the manuscript was highly publicized and fiercely debated in the leading newspapers of the day worldwide. Ultimately, the scholars declared the manuscript a clever forgery. Among their reasons was a doubt that any leather manuscript could survive from antiquity in a cave near the Dead Sea. The entire drama, from the time that the manuscript was presented to Europe’s top scholars until Moses Shapira was found dead in a hotel room in the Netherlands, played out on a world stage in the single fateful year 1883-1884.
Although several scholars and researchers over the years, including, Menahem Mansoor, John Allegro, Helen Jefferson, Shlomo Guil, and Yoram Sabo, have suggested the case for the authenticity of the Shapira “Moses Scroll” be reopened, the label of “forgery” seems pretty solidly embedded in the academic world. However, this is beginning to change I think. I know a half dozen colleagues who have told me they are convinced the Shapira scroll fragments might well be authentic, and the 19th century judgment seems very questionable since we now have the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the main objections of the time was that it would be impossible for any manuscript to be preserved for several thousand years in the Dead Sea area–which we now know is not the case, especially in the desert. Readers will recall when our Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered this was also the objection first brought against them by several scholars who argued they were from Medieval times.
For readers not that familiar with the controversy I highly recommend the Sabo film (linked in note below) as a place to begin, along with Chanan Tigay’s personal quest to find the scroll as recounted in his 2016 book, The Lost Book of Moses. Although Tigay ends up supporting the “forgery” case, his book touches on just about every bit of evidence we have in terms of the core Shapira story, and his book is a thrill to read–truly high adventure as he recounts his search to find the lost scroll. Then, digging deeper, I recommend these major studies hyperlinked below. Menahem Mansoor, “The Case of Shapira’s Dead Sea (Deuteronomy) Scrolls of 1883,” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters (1958): 183–225; John Allegro, The … Continue reading
Eight decades after the reported discovery of Shapira’s Moses scroll, the world learned that Bedouin had discovered leather manuscripts in caves near the Dead Sea. These turned out to be more than 2,000 years old. We must now ask – were the 19th-century scholars wrong about Shapira’s scroll? The Moses Scroll reopens this most controversial case in the history of biblical scholarship, telling the dramatic story from the 19th-century accounts and weighing the evidence against what we know today. The book also contains an accurate transcription of the manuscript as seen through the eyes of some of the top 19th-century Hebraists and a new English translation of its words.
I encourage my readers to sign up for notifications and further information on this new book at the web site: TheMosesScroll.com.
|↑1||Menahem Mansoor, “The Case of Shapira’s Dead Sea (Deuteronomy) Scrolls of 1883,” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters (1958): 183–225; John Allegro, The Shapira Affair (New York: Doubleday, 1965); Helen G. Jefferson, Helen G. “The Shapira Manuscript and the Qumran Scrolls.” Revue De Qumran, 6, no. 3. 23 (1968): 391–99; Shlomo Guil, “The Shapira Scroll Was an Authentic Dead Sea Scroll.” Palestine ExplorationQuarterly 149, no. 1 (2017): 6–27; and Yoram Sabo, who has produced an important investigative film, “Shapira and I” and written one of the most comprehensive books on the subject, though presently published only in Hebrew: Soḥer Ha-Megilot Masaʻ Be-ʻiḳvot Ha-Otsar Ha-Yehudi Ha-Avud [trans. The Scroll Merchant: in Search of Moses Wilhelm Shapira’s Lost Jewish Treasure ] (Bene Beraḳ: ha-Ḳibuts ha-meʼuḥad, 2018).|