The Dead Sea Scrolls get all of the love and publicity these days when it comes to old documents rumored to be ancient biblical texts, so it’s easy to forget that other manuscripts have been discovered that bear equal scrutiny. One in particular was found in 1883 in a market by an antiquities dealer who believed he had uncovered a copy of the Book of Deuteronomy – the fifth book of both the Hebrew bible and the Christian Old Testament which contains something that even atheists know about … the Ten Commandments. Because the leather fragments predated the accepted date of the writing of the Book of Deuteronomy, the dealer was accused of forgery. Now, a scholar has revisited the so-called “Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments” and built a case that they are indeed the real deal. Well, WERE the real deal … more on that in a minute.
“In this article, I offer new evidence and arguments against the prevailing theory that Wilhelm Moses Shapira forged his infamous Deuteronomy fragments. I begin by providing historical background on Shapira and his manuscripts. Next, I discuss the negative evaluation of the manuscripts in 1883, review existing objections to the arguments for forgery, and offer new objections of my own. I then address more recent paleographic arguments against the authenticity of the manuscripts and show that they rest on dubious evidence and are methodo-logically problematic.”
In a paper titled “The Valediction of Moses: New Evidence on the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments” published in the journal Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, and in a recently published book "The Valediction of Moses: A Proto-Biblical Book", Idan Dershowitz, the chair of Hebrew Bible and its exegesis at the University of Potsdam, Germany, defends Wilhelm Moses Shapira and his disputed discovery. After Shapira was called a fraud by German biblical scholars, he tried to sell the texts to the British Museum for one million pounds (they declined) before taking his own life. His wife sold the texts to a bookseller and by 1900 they had disappeared. Fortunately for Dershowitz, Shapira’s notes and transcripts of the texts survived and they convinced him that Shapira was not a forger, but what he had found was not the Book of Deuteronomy.
“The book is considerably shorter. This text, which I call The Valediction of Moses lacks the law code, as well as the poems that appear at the end of Deuteronomy. But there are also myriads of more subtle differences.”
Dershowitz tells The Jerusalem Post the texts are different, but close enough that Shapira’s could have been an earlier version of Deuteronomy – which would explain why it’s missing poems and even whole stories, like story of spies scouting the land of Israel. He believes the missing manuscript was several centuries older than the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date back to about 2700 BCE, making it “Deuteronomy’s ancient forebear.”
"According to Shapira's testimony, it was in the summer of 1878 that he first heard about some ancient leather manuscript fragments that had been discovered by Bedouins in a cave near the Dead Sea, above Wadi al-Mujib."
Dershowitz gives many more insights to support his case. The Dead Sea scrolls were not discovered until the 1940s, so Shapira didn’t know about them. The Bedouins had no reason to forge them in the 1870s because they were not yet valuable. However, other experts told Live Science that Dershowitz’s case is full of “hypotheticals and circumstantial evidence, at best” and Shapira’s descriptions of the texts match known forgeries of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Dershowitz is undaunted and tells The Jerusalem Post he believes the Shapira Deuteronomy fragments will eventually be found and prove his case. If that happens, does it mean the other books of the Hebrew bible have earlier versions as well? What about the document that would predate them all – the stone tablets?
So many caves, so little time.