Author Embarks on Globe-trotting Adventure in Pursuit of 'Oldest Bible'

Chanan Tigay’s search for the truth about a flamboyant forger who ended in disgrace is a gripping tale and a well-researched history that raises questions about the meaning of deception.

Benjamin Balint
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A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.
A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls at an Israel Antiquities Authority conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, October 19, 2010.Credit: AP
Benjamin Balint

“The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible,” by Chanan Tigay, Ecco / HarperCollins, 368 pp., $28

One morning last August, I found myself ushered into the vast basement storerooms of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. An archivist plucked from the shelves a clay jar the size of a watermelon covered in oddly angled ancient Hebrew lettering. Despite its apparent patina of antiquity, she said, the artifact was in fact by several centuries the newest among the thousands housed there. It was a 19th-century forgery from the collection of Jerusalem’s most notorious antiquities dealer, Moses Wilhelm Shapira.

Shapira, the subject of a compelling new book by journalist Chanan Tigay, was born to Jewish parents in Kamenets-Podolski, in Russian-annexed Poland (today Kamenets-Podilskiy, Ukraine) in 1830. Baptized at the age of 25, he arrived penniless in Jerusalem in 1856, the same year the first European-financed archaeological excavations in the city were getting under way. After apprenticing at the vocational school run by Jerusalem’s Anglican mission, the first Protestant church in the Middle East, Shapira opened a souvenir shop offering photographs, pressed “flowers from the Holy Land,” mother-of-pearl necklaces and olive-wood Bible covers. Baedeker’s “Guide to Palestine and Syria” recommended the shop to pilgrims.

Beginning in 1871, riding the gathering wave of interest in biblical archaeology aiming “to prove the Bible right,” Shapira expanded into antiquities. He amassed a collection of ancient Moabite statuettes, fertility figurines and vessels with indecipherable inscriptions, like the one at the Rockefeller. Nothing like them had been seen before.

In two consignments, Shapira persuaded the Royal Museum in Berlin to purchase 1,600 of the pieces for an amount — partly donated by the German Kaiser himself—that made him one of the richest men in Jerusalem. The London Daily News reported on “the transfer of a goodly sum from the gorged money bags of Berlin to the lean and hungry coffers of Jerusalem.” With his newfound fortune, Shapira moved his family into one of the first villas built outside the old city walls (later to become known as the Ticho House).

But Shapira’s high ambitions for wealth and social status would soon crash into low realities. A dragoman for the French consulate in Jerusalem, Charles Clermont-Ganneau, exposed the Moabite collection as what he called a “colossal deception,” clumsily fabricated by Shapira’s partner, Salim al-Kari. Shapira insisted that he had sold his collection in good faith and had been duped by his erstwhile partner.

To rehabilitate his reputation, Shapira began purveying hundreds of genuine Hebrew manuscripts to the British Museum, including rare volumes he had acquired from Jews in Yemen and from Karaites in Iraq and Egypt. He proudly added a title in gold letters to the white sign above the shop door: “Correspondent to the British Museum.”

Still, as Tigay reports, Shapira’s ambitions vaulted higher. A decade after the Moabite scandal, he claimed to have come into possession of a hitherto unknown version of the book of Deuteronomy, some 2,000 years older than any known biblical manuscript. In Shapira’s telling, Bedouin tribesmen had taken refuge in a limestone cave overlooking Wadi Mujib, on the east side of the Dead Sea. “They found there several bundles of old black linen,” Shapira said. “They peeled away the linen, and, behold, instead of gold, which they expected to find, there were only some black inscribed strips of leather.”

Written in ancient Canaanite Hebrew script (also called Phoenician) on 15 leather strips, 7 inches in length, this “short unorthodoxical book of the last speech of Moses in the plain of Moab,” as Shapira called it, purportedly dated from the First Temple period. It departed from the traditional text, including an altered version of the Ten Commandments.

As his daughter would write in an autobiographical novel, Shapira and his family put great hopes in the discovery. “Now, at last, he would be free to shed his humble bookseller’s garb. No more need to spend long days in the stuffy shop, engraving texts on olive-wood covers for prayer-books and albums! ... He would be given a chair in some European university as an Orientalist; and last, but by no means least, he would score a victory over that insolent dragoman.” The Shapira household began to spend lavishly in anticipation of a large profit. “Is it not so, Papa,” his daughter asked, “that when you have sold the Deuteronomy you will buy all Palestine?”

Moses Wilhelm Shapira. His high ambitions for wealth and social status crashed into low realities.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1883, Shapira took his find from Jerusalem to Berlin and presented it to a group of scholars. In 90 minutes they reached their verdict: The manuscript was a “clever and impudent forgery.” They refused to purchase it for the Royal Library.

Undaunted, Shapira hastened to London and offered his scrolls to the British Museum. His asking price: 1 million pounds (about $250 million today). He first approached Sir Walter Besant, secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

Besant recounted: “A certain Shapira, a Polish Jew converted to Christianity but not to good works, came to England and called upon me mysteriously. He had with him, he said, a document which would simply make students of the Bible and Hebrew scholars reconsider their ways; it would throw a flood of light upon the Pentateuch. ... It was nothing less than a contemporary copy of the book of Deuteronomy written on parchment.”

The scrolls caused a sensation. Two of the fragments, displayed at the British Museum, attracted enthusiastic crowds. Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone came to inspect the texts and to meet Shapira. The Times of London featured translations.

Once more, however, Shapira’s euphoria would be cut short. Two experts — leading Bible scholar Christian David Ginsburg and Shapira’s nemesis, Ganneau — denounced the manuscripts as forgeries inked on strips cut from the blank lower margins of old Torah scrolls. Worse, the debunkers implied that Shapira, now caricatured in the satiric magazine Punch with a hooked nose as “Mr. Sharp-Eye-Ra,” was himself the forger. The scrolls and the man both stood accused of having passed themselves off as something they were not. The cunning baptized Jew had forged himself.

A view of the excavation of the City of David, just south of Temple Mount, in Jerusalem. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Disgraced and humiliated, Shapira abandoned his spurious specimens at the British Museum and fled to Holland. Before leaving, he sent a note to Ginsburg: “I do not think that I will be able to survive this shame.”

But the shame would outlive him. Six months later, in March 1884, Shapira fatally shot himself in a seedy hotel in Rotterdam. “What cost him his life,” his daughter wrote, “was the thought of being viewed in the eyes of the world not as the deceived but as the deceiver.” He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave outside Rotterdam. “Like his biblical namesake,” Tigay writes, “no one knew where he was buried.”

Reopening the Shapira case

Six decades later, a Bedouin shepherd followed a stray goat into a cave at Qumran, near the Dead Sea. There he discovered seven scrolls of animal hide, wrapped in linen and stuffed into an ancient jar. Struck by the remarkable similarities between the Qumran documents and the Shapira Deuteronomy, scholars including Menahem Mansoor and John Marco Allegro reopened Shapira’s case and wondered whether his scrolls had been too hastily dismissed. J.L. Teicher of Cambridge University went so far as to argue that in light of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we are led to “the inescapable conclusion that the Shapira manuscripts were genuine.”

Others disagreed. “Since several scholars have compared the new Scrolls to the so-called archetype of Deuteronomy, offered by the notorious forger Shapira to the British government for a million pounds,” said William F. Albright, dean of biblical archaeologists, “it should be emphasized that there is nothing whatever in common between them except the fact that texts of the Hebrew Bible written in ancient scripts are involved.”

In the meantime, the evidence that might have vindicated Shapira, the scrolls themselves, had mysteriously vanished, leaving scholars, Tigay writes, “like detectives investigating a murder where no body has been found.”

The heart of Tigay’s book is a gripping account of his quest — to Jordan, Australia, England, Holland and Germany — to find the lost scrolls. After Shapira’s suicide, the scrolls were auctioned at Sotheby’s to a London book dealer named Bernard Quaritch for a mere 10 pounds, 5 shillings. Quaritch displayed them at the Royal Albert Hall, and then put them up for sale. In his catalog, the fragments “which led the religious world of England to sing hallelujahs” are advertised for 25 pounds.

Some conjecture that Quaritch sold them to Sir Charles Nicholson, whose estate north of London, scrolls perhaps included, burned down in 1899. Others suppose Shapira’s widow took them from Jerusalem to her house in Stockhausen, Germany, also destroyed by fire that year. With the help of a fellow sleuth in Australia, Tigay traces them instead to Philip Brookes Mason, a natural-history enthusiast from Burton-on-Trent, England, who exhibited the fragments in 1889. But there the trail runs cold.

A modern fetish for authenticity

Tigay’s narrative of his detective work occasionally slips into banality — “I shot off an e-mail”; “while I waited, I grabbed coffee and an astounding scone”; “after another day of failed Internet searches, I took my dog out for a walk,” etc. But at its strongest, this admirably researched book offers a fine occasion to understand Shapira as a product of a modern fetish for authenticity and a rivalry between European nation-states obsessed not just with colonial expansion but with their own origins. In Shapira, their obsessions were made visible.

Straitlaced Victorians may have regarded forgers as a menace to history. But not all falsifications are equally unforgivable. The irony is that Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah, may itself be a kind of inspired forgery, miraculously “found” in the reign of King Josiah in the late seventh century B.C.E. (reported in 2 Kings 22), and attributed to Moses to enhance its authenticity.

That morning in the Rockefeller, I wondered why the museum kept Shapira’s Moabite forgeries among its genuine treasures. Perhaps because the history of a lie is itself a truth. Like any forger, Shapira imprinted the pattern of his own period on a past he hoped to make real. In archaeology, as in psychology, we come to know ourselves by understanding our self-deceptions. What is forgery, after all, if not the intimacy of knowledge and deception?

Benjamin Balint, a writer and translator living in Jerusalem, is the co-author of “Jerusalem: City of the Book” (forthcoming from Yale University Press).

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