Lost biblical scroll may have been 2,700 years old, Israeli scholar says

“The text is very reminiscent of the book of Deuteronomy, and anyone who is familiar with it would feel it. But there are also some differences,” Dershowitz said.

Sections of the ancient Dead Sea scrolls are seen on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 14, 2008. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Sections of the ancient Dead Sea scrolls are seen on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 14, 2008.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
A lost biblical manuscript discovered in 1878 – long believed to be a forgery – was authentic and likely predated the Dead Sea Scrolls by hundreds of years, making it the most ancient biblical scroll ever known in the modern era, Israeli scholar Prof. Idan Dershowitz has suggested.
In his book, The Valediction of Moses, Dershowitz, chairman of Hebrew Bible and Its Exegesis at the University of Potsdam in Germany, looked into the story known as “the Shapira affair” and revealed how it might offer unprecedented insights into the genesis of the Bible.
In 1878, an antique dealer named Moses Wilhelm Shapira laid his hands on a bunch of artifacts that he considered very promising; some members of a Bedouin tribe had uncovered what appeared to be linen-wrapped ancient parchments in a cave in the desert by the Dead Sea.
Shapira – a Russian Jew who had converted to Christianity before moving to Jerusalem and opening a souvenir and antique store in the Old City – had the reputation of someone who could offer authentic and valuable artifacts as well as well-crafted forgeries.
“He sold objects made out of olive wood, postcards and so on, but he also dealt in manuscripts that he sold to many different institutions, including the British Museum, which still has a huge collection of Jewish texts obtained from Shapira,” Dershowitz explained to The Jerusalem Post.
Shapira did not know how ancient the manuscript was, but he understood that it looked somewhat similar to the Book of Deuteronomy. The finding was offered to the British Museum, which exhibited it, attracting huge crowds, Dershowitz further explained.
At the time, the most ancient Hebrew bible manuscripts ever found only dated back to the Middle Ages. The museum expressed interest in buying the Shapira manuscripts, as long as scholars who the institution trusted confirmed their authenticity. While they were still working, however, another scholar, French Orientalist and diplomat Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau briefly examined the artifacts and immediately announced publicly that the documents were forgeries.
As Dershowitz explained, Clermont-Ganneau was a longtime nemesis of Shapira. Years before, he had exposed him for forging some allegedly ancient pottery figurines. After his statements, other experts followed suit. A few months later, a disgraced Shapira committed suicide. The manuscripts were auctioned by Sotheby’s and bought by a bookseller, Bernard Quaritch, who, in turn, sold them to scientist Philip Brookes Mason, at the turn of the century. From that moment, the location of the manuscripts remains unknown.
“I heard stories about the Shapira affairs, and I found them interesting,” Dershowitz, who received his doctorate in biblical studies from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained. “After a couple of years, I became curious to see the text of the manuscripts.”
The scholar pointed out that for all the attention that the dramatic events have received through the decades, the content of the manuscripts themselves did not seem to be considered important.
For this reason, he started to work on the partial transcriptions of the manuscripts by two of the 19th century scholars who examined them, and he eventually also uncovered the transcriptions by Shapira himself.
“I immediately felt it could not be forgery,” Dershowitz said.
One of the reasons experts believed Shapira had manufactured the texts was that they thought the premise of Bedouin finding scrolls in a cave ludicrous. Little did they know that only 70 years later, some 25,000 fragments would be uncovered in caves near the Dead Sea, in what is considered to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all times.
“The transcription by Shapira, which I found in an archive in Berlin, also offers important proof that he did not forge the manuscripts. You can see that he was studying them hard, trying to figure out all sorts of things, writing questions in the margin. If he had created them, he would have not needed to do something like this,” Dershowitz pointed out.
However, some of the more crucial elements the scholar identified entered into delving into the content of the text itself.
“The text is very reminiscent of the book of Deuteronomy, and anyone who is familiar with it would feel it. But there are also some differences,” he said.
“The book is considerably shorter,” he said. “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.”
Among others, the name of God Y-H-W-H is only used at the beginning and at the end, contrary to what appears in the last of the five Books of Moses as we know it today. Moreover, the episode of the spies scouting the land of Israel is also not included.
“What is interesting is that in 2002, an Israeli scholar named David Frankel, suggested that the story of the spies was a later addition to Deuteronomy, based on a close reading of the text, and he offered an alternative story similar to the one that is actually featured in the manuscript. How could Shapira have known, some 120 years earlier?” Dershowitz pointed out.
The expert believes that what Shapira encountered was an earlier version of the biblical text.
“If Deuteronomy as we know it, according to most scholars, dates back to the end of the First Temple period, this version must be even more ancient,” he said.
Therefore, if Dershowitz is right, the manuscript was several centuries older than the Dead Sea Scrolls which were written between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century CE, at the end of the Second Temple period.
“Obviously I’m talking about the text and not the artifact itself. It might be that an ancient text was reported on a more recent manuscript, from around the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But my opinion is that also the manuscript itself was likely older,” Dershowitz reveals.
Asked whether he believes that the objects will ever resurface, he said that he believes they might.
In the meantime, his research on the text continues.
“I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface so far,” he concluded.
The book “The Valediction of Moses” is open access and available to download here.