Books: A biblical hunt

Chanan Tigay conducts an international search for the world’s oldest Bible.

Chanan Tigay (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Chanan Tigay
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the summer of 1883, Moses Wilhelm Shapira, an antiquities dealer based in Jerusalem, declared that he had discovered 15 leather strips, containing three copies of Deuteronomy, that could well have been written in the time of Moses.
William E. Gladstone, the profoundly religious prime minister of England, examined the manuscripts, which had been put on display in the British Museum, peppered Shapira with well-informed questions, and (rumor had it) came away committed to raising £1 million (about $250m. in 2015 dollars) to purchase “the world’s oldest Bible.”
Within months, archeologists and biblical scholars pronounced the scrolls a fraud.
Shapira – whose reputation had been sullied a decade earlier by a scandal involving the sale of Moabite pottery – fled to the Netherlands and committed suicide. At an auction in 1885, one Bernard Quaritch bought Lot 301, “Deuteronomy in Hebrew, 7 numbered and 8 unnumbered Fragments, written on leather,” for £10.
More than six decades later, following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some scholars began to wonder whether Shapira’s scrolls might be authentic after all. But no one could find them.
Chanan Tigay, a journalist and professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University, learned about Shapira from his father, a rabbi, biblical scholar, and the author of a commentary on Deuteronomy. In 2010, he embarked on a search for the scrolls that would take him to Australia, England, France, Germany, Holland, Israel and Jordan.
Tigay knows how to build suspense. The Lost Book of Moses is filled with promising leads that go nowhere, searches in museums, musty attics, caves, and gorges, serendipity, and a surprise ending. Most importantly, the book provides a fascinating portrait of the immensely complex Shapira and the evolving practices of archeology and biblical scholarship in the late 19th century.
Shapira’s critics, Tigay explains, used the discrepancies between the texts in the leather parchments and what was believed to be the immutable, sacred text handed down from God to Moses to “prove” that the new “old” Bible was a forgery. In Shapira’s scrolls, they pointed out, Deuteronomy was much shorter than in the traditional rendition. It referred to God as YHWH only twice and used the awkward and redundant phrase “I am God, your God.”
And the Ten Commandments merged the prohibitions against worshiping other gods and constructing idols into a single edict and added an exhortation (associated in the traditional Bible with Leviticus) not to “hate thy brother in thy heart.”
In the 1870s and ’80s, however, this approach was giving way to a view (which gained added force in the 1940s with the translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls) that the Bible had been written by at least four authors (a Jehovist, an Elohist, a Priestly writer, and a Deuteronomist) after Moses’s death and assembled by later, unidentified editors. If, then, the Pentateuch was a “living organism that began its life as a series of shorter books and grew in length over the course of centuries as these disparate texts were organized,” then Shapira’s “abridged” Deuteronomy might be one of those texts.
Tigay notes as well that one of Shapira’s two principal antagonists, Christian D. Ginsburg (a convert to Christianity), alleged that Shapira (who converted as well) himself was the forger (aided by two scribes, a chemist and a compiler), because of a linguistic tick (using the letters “het” and “kaf” interchangeably) he picked up studying Hebrew in Kamenets-Podolsk.
And Punch, a popular English humor magazine, published a cartoon depicting Shapira (“Mr. Sharp-Eye-Ra”) with a large hook nose and black beard, holding tightly to his scrolls as “Detective” Ginsburg (with a button nose) arrests him on the steps of the British Museum.
The racist illustration, Tigay writes, can only have highlighted Shapira’s status as an outsider among Christians and Jews.
To Jews, he was “a pathetic apostate.” For Christians, “he remained an oily Jew.”
The Lost Book of Moses has lots more twists and turns. They include an email from a Shapira sleuth in Australia, with credible information about the scrolls; and a visit to the largest private library in the United States, located, of all places, in San Francisco. Recognizing that it was his last chance, “the final corner left to search,” leaving nowhere to go if he came up empty, Tigay had availed himself of any excuse to stay away (“work, laundry, cleaning out the refrigerator”) from the relevant collection housed there.
Early in 2015, with 10 days remaining until the deadline to complete this book, Tigay walked from his office in the Humanities Center at San Francisco State to the Adolf Sutro Collection. In a gray box, he made a discovery of a deformed book that stopped him in his tracks. It was not what you think – but it solved the mystery of Shapira’s scrolls. 
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.