Mystery in History Moses Shapira and the Lost Bible Manuscripts

About the enigma of Moses Shapira who claimed to find an ancient copy of Biblical texts, history and possible solutions to the mystery.

A CHRONOLOGY OF MYSTERIOUS HAPPENINGS IN HISTORY

The Event: The Enigma of Moses Shapira

When: 1883

Where: The Hills of Moab

The Mystery: Moses Shapira, a dealer in antiquities in Jerusalem, came to London in 1883 to submit for expert opinion a sheepskin manuscript he had bought from an Arab who said he had found it in a cave in the Moabite hills to the east of the Dead Sea. It consisted of 15 strips of parchment measuring 3 1/2 in. by 7 in. Shapira was convinced that they represented a version of the Book of Deuteronomy dating from the 9th century B.C. If he was correct, this was the oldest biblical manuscript in the world (the earliest known copies at that time dated from the 9th century A.D.) and of immense value. The discovery of the Moabite Stone in the same area in 1868 had launched an age of biblical research in which Shapira hoped to win fame and fortune. But he suffered a serious handicap. Acting innocently, he had sold in Germany certain pieces of Moabite pottery which had been exposed as modern fakes. Thus, anything he presented was certain to be treated with suspicion and skepticism.

While his manuscript was on exhibition at the British Museum, it was examined by two acknowledged experts, Dr. Christian Ginsburg and Col. Claude Conder. It was also examined secretly by Charles Clermont-Ganneau, the man who had obtained pieces of the genuine Moabite Stone for the Louvre and who had exposed Shapira's Moabite forgeries. Conder considered it impossible that ancient sheepskin could have survived for 3,000 years in a damp cave. Ginsburg questioned the lettering, which was Phoenician script (like the inscription on the Moabite Stone) rather than the Hebrew characters of traditional biblical texts. A modern forger, he concluded, had copied the letters from the Moabite inscription. Clermont-Ganneau, following his brief inspection, claimed that the parchment had been cut from a synagogue roll at the most 300 years old.

Exposed and shamed as a dealer in spurious antiquities, Shapira shot himself in a hotel in Rotterdam. His precious manuscript was bought by an antiquarian bookseller for pound 10.

In 1947 the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves at Qumran, across the Dead Sea from the hills of Moab. They had survived for 2,000 years under the same climatic conditions as, and bore certain similarities to, Shapira's version of Deuteronomy, which paraphrased the last words of Moses and supplied a new version of the Ten Commandments.

Were the 19th-century experts wrong in rejecting Shapira's manuscript?

Possible Solutions: Lacking the radiocarbondating tests now available, and given Shapira's undesirable reputation, the 19th-century experts found it easier to disbelieve the merchant than to believe him. The campaign to rehabilitate Shapira started in 1957 when Dr. J.L. Teicher of Cambridge stated that the evidence led "to the inescapable conclusion that the Shapira manuscripts were genuine." It has been carried further by John Allegro, an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, in his book The Shapira Affair (1965). He visited the site of the manuscript's discovery, possibly the abode of an unorthodox Jewish sect (like the later Essenes at Qumran) which paraphrased sacred texts, adopting a variety of textual forms and employing the ancient Phoenician script, similar to that used to inscribe the undoubtedly genuine Moabite Stone.

The enigma of Moses Shapira may be resolved, but not the tragedy. The experts' rejection of his manuscript ruined him and his family. Rather than return home discredited, he killed himself after selling for pound 10 what he was sure was the "oldest Bible manuscript." If it could be found today, it would probably be worth more than pound 1 million.

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