The hunt for Shapira’s scroll

Was it really the oldest version of the book of Moses? Or was it a scam? A journalist sets out to unearth the mystery behind what could possibly have been the oldest biblical parchment extant

Published - July 02, 2016 04:20 pm IST

Pradeep Sebastian

Pradeep Sebastian

In 1883, an antiquities dealer from Jerusalem, called Moses Wilhelm Shapira, came to London and announced that he had discovered the world’s oldest Bible scroll. The parchment, a fragment of the Torah, was 3,000 years old, predating every biblical manuscript in existence then. He offered it to the British Museum for a million pounds. It was big news, but what followed was more sensational: a renowned biblical scholar pronounced the scroll a fake, a forgery, and Shapira, aged 53, unable to bear the humiliation, committed suicide. In 1947, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered, scholars looked back and realised that what Shapira had gotten hold of was probably the first Dead Sea Scroll.

Chanan Tigay, a journalist, first heard the story of the disgraced manuscript dealer from his father, a rabbi and Talmudic scholar. As the years passed, the story became an obsession with Tigay. Piqued, the journalist began wondering: who was Shapira? Was the scroll a fake or could it have been real? And whatever happened to Shapira’s scroll? It had disappeared. No one seemed to know what he had done with it after he had been accused of forgery. Tigay began a journey to locate the scroll and learn more about Shapira. He tells the story in The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible , in an account that is gripping, suspenseful and humorous.

In the process, Tigay presents a rich, vivid and colourful portrait of Jerusalem then, with Jews, Christians and Muslims jostling with each other daily, sharing the city, and partaking of the other’s religion, culture and history. The city had just become very big on archaeology, digs had started everywhere, private and government funds were available to pursue artefacts, giving rise to a new and fascinating line of business: dealing in antiquities. This is how Shapira himself had begun, dealing in pottery. He was working hard to support his family with a little antiquities shop in the Jerusalem market.

From just dealing in pottery shards, Shapira soon expanded his business to ancient Hebrew manuscripts. By 1877, he had a nice trade in biblical manuscripts going, having sold as many as 40 Torah manuscripts to the British Museum. “The texts Shapira sold them,” writes Tigay, “were not only unquestionably authentic — they were extremely rare. Their acquisition was a coup. Whatever their reasons, the sale buoyed Shapira. In England, he wrote letters home “in the most exuberant spirits.” On his return he brought with him trunk-loads of gifts… Over the next six years he travelled extensively, collecting Hebrew manuscripts from across West Asia and establishing himself as perhaps the British Museum’s top purveyor of such works.”

It was in 1888 that the dealer first got wind of the Deuteronomy scrolls when he heard a story about Bedouins on the run who had stumbled on ancient leather scrolls in a cave in Dhiban, an ancient Moabite city. To Shapira, the tale rung true, and over a period of time, using his negotiation skills, he managed to acquire the entire cache of these leather strips inscribed in ancient Hebrew from the Bedouin dealers. If he was correct, these were at least 3,000 years old, possibly the oldest biblical parchment he — or anyone else — had ever laid eyes on.

Eventually, to his astonishment, Shapira discovered that what he had with him was a variant edition of one of the books of Moses, containing a slightly different version of The Ten Commandments! Since this manuscript was the oldest extant, what he was looking at — though it contradicted the traditional text — was the first and more correct rendering of Moses’ famous commandments. As Tigay notes, “These laws form the foundation of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which shapes the worldview of nearly a third of the planet’s population. Any changes to the text were shocking.”

It was for this reason that even scholars would end up dismissing his find instead of examining it without prejudice or bias of faith, leading to Shapira’s tragic end. Tigay’s journey to find these scrolls takes him all over West Asia, Europe and even Australia. Will he find the scroll? And when he does, what will they reveal? Was Shapira a conman or a maverick scholar-dealer who had beaten Bible scholars at their own game? As Tigay’s quest becomes every bit as interesting as Shapira’s own quest for the oldest biblical manuscript in the world, the book turns into an enjoyable and unusual historical mystery that leads us into the rarefied world of biblical scholarship, personal obsession and religious antiquities.

Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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