Infamous Biblical Shapira Scroll Deemed A Forgery May Be Real!

The Shapira scroll, a purported ancient biblical manuscript that had been previously dismissed as a hoax,  is actually authentic , says an Israeli-American scholar who has been carefully studying drawings and transcriptions of this lost artifact. The Shapira Scroll was named in honor of Wilhelm Moses Shapira, an antiquities dealer who tried to sell the scroll to the British Museum for one million pounds back in 1883. 

The Complicated Story Of The Shapira Scroll And Scholarly Doubt

What Shapira presented to British Museum officials included 15 fragments of faded paleo-Hebrew script printed on aged pieces of paper, which he claimed had come from an almost unimaginably ancient copy of the Book of Deuteronomy. This is the fifth book of both the Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament and includes the text of three sermons given by Moses to the Israelites shortly before they entered the Promised Land.

Shapira said he’d obtained the weathered manuscript from a Bedouin tribesman, who’d discovered it hidden in cave not far from the Dead Sea in Jordan. 

In the end, the museum refused to purchase the Shapira Scroll, officially labeling it a forgery and ruining Shapira’s reputation in the process. But according to Idan Dershowitz, a professor in the Biblical Studies Department at the University of Potsdam in Germany, this verdict was both incorrect and slanderous.

Ginsburg’s facsimile of the Shapira Strips (Shapira scroll) from 1883 AD. (Ginsburg /  Public domain )

Based on his in-depth analysis of the scroll’s text, and of Shapira’s activities in connection with the scroll, Dershowitz asserts that the manuscript was a legitimate artifact from ancient times, and in fact represented the oldest authentic biblical manuscript ever recovered. He furthermore dismisses the accusations against Shapira as a grave miscarriage of justice (and it was an especially tragic one if Dershowitz was right, since Shapira committed suicide one year after being publicly humiliated).

The original manuscripts are no longer in existence, having “disappeared” shortly after the time they were declared a hoax. But 19 th-century recreations made from the original are still extant, and Dershowitz relied on these images and writings to reach his stunning and surprising conclusion.

“It’s mind-boggling that for almost the entire existence of the discipline of Bible studies this text hasn’t been part of the conversation,” Dershowitz  told the New York Times .

Details from Shapira’s private papers, published in the Scientific American in 1883, showing the extensive notes he made. (Scientific American, October 27, 1883 /  Public domain )

The Shapira Scrolls Reconsidered

In an article  entitled “ The Valediction of Moses: New Evidence on the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments ,” which appears in the latest edition of the German journal ZAW (Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft), Dershowitz lays out his case in support of the Shapira Scroll’s authenticity. 

He argues that the style of writing in the document is thoroughly consistent with ancient biblical script, in the form that was used during the time of King Solomon (known as the  First Temple period ). This could mean it was composed as long ago as the 10th century BC, which would make it by far the oldest such manuscript ever found. 

The document’s content is particularly revealing, according to Dershowitz. It diverges from the Book of  Deuteronomyas it currently exists in notable and important ways, which strongly indicates that it was a precursor to or ancestor of that work. Only through modern source-content analysis is it possible to make such a determination, Dershowitz asserts, and therefore no 19th-century  forger would have had the knowledge necessary to produce an alleged earlier version of Deuteronomy that was fully consistent with current understanding of that book’s literary evolution. 

Dershowitz also puts great stock in the fact that Shapira’s personal, private papers include handwritten notes he made while apparently trying to decipher and interpret the scroll text on his own. There would have been no reason for him to be engaging in such an activity (and making mistakes while doing it), Dershowitz declares, if he had forged the documents himself and already knew what they were supposed to say. 

One coincidental or prescient aspect of these events is the obvious parallel between Shapira’s tale and the story of the  Dead Sea Scrolls . The latter were actually discovered hidden in a cave by Bedouin shepherds, in a location not far from the Dead Sea (hence the name). As was the case with the Shapira Scrolls, the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls diverged from the content of the traditional canon in important and interesting ways. Accusations of forgery were also made, and recently an entire collection of supposed Dead Sea Scrolls held at a museum in Washington, D.C. were  revealed to be fakes

The remarkable similarity between these two stories could be counted as circumstantial evidence in favor of the authenticity of the Shapira Scrolls. Then again, it could also mean that in addition to his skills a forger, Wilhelm Moses Shapira was also  psychic and possessed the ability to see into the future.

Punch magazine illustration covering the Shapira scroll story showing expert “Detective” C. D. Ginsburg getting the upper hand on Sharp-Eye-Ra (Shapira). (w:Punch (magazine) /  Public domain )

The Case Against The Shapira Scrolls 

After coming into possession of the Shapira Scroll, the  British Museum  called in a famed biblical scholar named Christian David Ginsburg to evaluate its authenticity. 

It didn’t take long for Ginsburg to declare the fragments Shapira produced as forgeries. He concluded that Shapira had created them by slicing blank sections from authentic Torah manuscript pages, and then printing his fake scripts on top of them. This is why he delivered his scroll in fragments rather than in whole form. 

While leafing through Shapira’s personal collection of biblical manuscripts, which is currently in the possession of San Francisco State University Library, writer and researcher Chanan Tigay uncovered  evidence that seemed to verify this theory . Among Shapira’s collection, Tigay found 10 script pages that were missing their blank bottom sections, indicating that Shapira had sliced them neatly off with a sharp instrument.

Aware of this so-called smoking gun evidence of fakery, Dershowitz claims (not altogether convincingly) that Shapira only did this because the pages in question were suffering from water damage, and that the bottom sections had to be sliced off to prevent it from spreading further.

Another difficulty that undermines Dershowitz’s thesis of authenticity is that Wilhelm Moses Shapira was in fact a confirmed forger of ancient artifacts. He was a prolific collector and dealer of antiquities, yet Shapira’s reputation in the field at the time was less-than-stellar. In one notorious incident, he sold 1,700  fake figurines  to a museum in Berlin, at a price that was high enough to allow him to purchase a new home.

A lithograph of one of the “original” Shapira Scroll fragments from The British Library collection dated to 1883-84 AD. (Christian David Ginsburg /  Public domain )

The Difficulty Of Challenging Established Narratives

Regardless of what one chooses to believe, there is little doubt that in disputing accepted history, Idan Dershowitz is swimming against a powerful tide.

Since the original copy of the Shapira Scrolls is not available for study, most biblical scholars are unlikely to accept Dershowitz’s case as compelling. But even if it were available for study, the vast majority of religious historians would likely continue to default to the previously rendered verdict, which would represent the safest route and the path of least resistance. 

Nevertheless, when Dershowitz’s upcoming book on the topic is released, it should be a brisk seller among those who are intrigued by  historical mysteries  and admire maverick researchers who aren’t afraid to challenge establishment narratives. This may not be the audience Dershowitz is trying to reach, but it may be the only one that is most open to his hypothesis.

Top image: Like the Dead Sea Scrolls pictured here, the Shapira scroll (and remember the original fragments have “disappeared”!) has both its champions and sceptical experts who doubt key details in the “story.”               Source:  vadiml / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde


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