Biblical Archaeology Review 23:3, May/June 1997

Tracking the Shapira Case: A Biblical Scandal Revisited

By Fred Reiner

Moses Wilhelm Shapira, a well-known Jerusalem dealer in antiquities and ancient manuscripts, offered to sell fragments of a scroll of Deuteronomy, including the Ten Commandments, to the British Museum, a regular customer.1 Thus, in July of 1883, began one of the most celebrated incidents in the history of Biblical scholarship, a saga that continues to this day.2

The 15 Deuteronomy fragments offered by Shapira were written in almost the same ancient Canaanite Hebrew script (also called Old Hebrew, or Phoenician) that appears on the Mesha Stele, or Moabite Stone, discovered in ancient Moab, east of the Jordan, in 1868, just 15 years earlier. Significant differences between the scroll’s text and the standard Biblical text made the Shapira strips, as they came to be called, extremely interesting to Victorian Bible scholars. The possibility that an original, or at least ancient, manuscript of Deuteronomy had been discovered created enormous public interest. At the time, the oldest known Hebrew versions of Deuteronomy were medieval copies.

The basic facts of the incident are simple. Shapira first visited Sir Walter Besant, secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund. Besant later recounted:

A certain Shapira, a Polish Jew converted to Christianity but not to good works, came to England and called upon me mysteriously. He had with him, he said, a document which would simply make students of the Bible and Hebrew scholars reconsider their ways; it would throw a flood of light upon the Pentateuch … It was nothing less than a contemporary copy of the book of Deuteronomy written on parchment.3

On July 26, 1883, Besant gathered a group of experts to view this manuscript that might have been written by Moses himself. Among those present was Christian David Ginsburg, a prominent Biblical and Masoretica scholar (and also a Jewish convert to Christianity), who was asked to examine and evaluate the manuscript for the British Museum.

Ginsburg did much more, however. He published a hand transcription of the fragments in the weekly journal the Athenaeum, promoting even greater public interest in them.4 While Ginsburg performed his review, some of the fragments were displayed at the British Museum; even Prime Minister William Gladstone, a friend of Ginsburg’s and a supporter of his research, came to look, as did scholars from across Europe. Among them was Charles Clermont-Ganneau, the well-known French scholar and diplomat—and an antagonist of Shapira.

On August 22, 1883, Ginsburg reported, “The Ms of Deuteronomy which Mr. Shapira submitted to us for examination is a forgery.”5 The next day Shapira wrote to Ginsburg: “[Y]ou have made a fool of me by publishing and exhibiting them [the fragments], that you believe them to be false. I do not think that I will be able to survive this shame. Although I am not yet convince [sic] that the ms. is a forgery unless M. Ganneau did it. I will leave London in a day or two for Berlin.”6 Shapira disappeared for more than six months. On March 9, 1884, he committed suicide in a Rotterdam hotel.

The Shapira fragments have since disappeared, but the incident remains one of the great scholarly controversies of all time. In the 1950s, after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, American scholar Menahem Mansoor suggested that the Shapira scroll may have been authentic, for Shapira had claimed his Deuteronomy fragments were discovered near the Wadi Arnon on the east side of the Dead Sea, opposite the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Moreover, according to reports by Origen in the early third century C.E., and by Timotheus around 800 C.E., scrolls had been found not far from this site, in Jericho. Further reports come from Kirkisani, the Karaiteb historian who wrote around 950 C.E. about residents of the area who had hidden some of their books in a cave.7

Presented in a paper at the 1956 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Mansoor’s research was featured in the New York Times and was both attacked and defended.8 Among those who believed that the question of the authenticity of the Shapira fragments should be revisited was Professor Shmuel Yeivin, an early director of the Israel Department of Antiquities.9

When Ginsburg died, on March 7, 1914, the Times of London retold the story of “the fraudulent Shapira manuscript of part of the Book of Deuteronomy.”10 Three decades after the incident, Ginsburg was still being portrayed as having saved the British public expense and embarrassment; Shapira was remembered as a swindler and purveyor of fraudulent manuscripts.

Before 1883, however, Shapira had not been considered a swindler, nor even disreputable.c Moses Shapira was a major supplier for and a “Correspondent to the British Museum.”11 Several sources support Shapira’s position as a reputable supplier of manuscripts. Jacob Leveen and George Margoliouth’s Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the British Museum refers to the “145 volumes acquired from Shapira in July 1882, which at one stroke raised the Karaite section of the Hebrew manuscripts to one of outstanding importance.”12 Reinhart Hoerning describes Shapira as “the well-known antiquarian bookseller of Jerusalem” and states that this collection of Karaite manuscripts “raises the library of the British Museum to one of the vast storehouses of information concerning the history and literature of this curious and powerful sect.”13

At the time of the sale of these Karaite manuscripts, Shapira wrote two articles for the Athenaeum about the texts and their importance to Biblical scholarship.14 He was enough of a scholar to praise Ginsburg’s work on the Masorah (the history of the text of the Hebrew Bible),15 and he had also written on the Jerusalem Siloam Inscriptiond and tangled in the Athenaeum with two prominent scholars—Adolf Neubauer and Archibald Henry Sayce—concerning the paleography and grammar of the inscription.16

The relationship between Ginsburg and Shapira dated back at least to January 1872, when Ginsburg went on an expedition to Moab. In his journal, Ginsburg wrote, “I also saw another inscription of a similar character [to the Moabite Stone(?)] but of a much older date and therefore of greater importance. This Mr. Shapira possess [sic] and has kindly promised me a squeeze.”17 Dealings between Ginsburg and Shapira continued from 1877 through 1882, when Shapira was helping the British Museum build its Hebrew manuscript collection. By the time Shapira came to London with his Deuteronomy fragments and Ginsburg was asked to evaluate them, the two had known each other and collaborated for more than 11 years.

To better understand Shapira’s role in this episode, we need to look at events leading up to his presentation of the strips to the group in London.

On May 9, 1883, Shapira wrote a ten-page letter to leading German Judaica scholar Hermann Strack describing “a curious manuscript written in old Hebrew on [sic] phoenician letters upon small strips of embalmed leather and seems to be a short unorthodoxical book of the last speech of Moses in the plains of Moab.”18 (For a comparison of the text of the Shapira fragments with the standard text, see Comparison of the Commandments in the Shapira Strips vs. the Standard Version.) Shapira described an encounter he had with some Bedouin in July 1878. The Bedouin had told him of scrolls discovered several years before in caves above the Arnon River in Moab. These scrolls had been found by Arabs in the late 1860s, well before Shapira’s trip to the east side of the Dead Sea in 1875.

In his letter, Shapira told Strack he had sent a transcription to a Professor Schlottmann in 1878, five years before he wrote to Strack. Schlottmann had rebuked Shapira: “How I dare to call this forgery the Old Test[ament]? Could I suppose even for a moment that it is older than our unquestionable genuine Ten Commandments?” In response to Schlottmann’s judgment, Shapira told Strack, he had asked himself “if it is by all means a forgery, who could have been such a learned and artful forger? And for what purpose? As the money I paid for the manuscripts was not worth the speaking of.”

To Strack, Shapira speculated that the date of the manuscript, “judging from the form of the letters … an early time, as between the date of the Mesa [Mesha] stone and the Siloam inscription, or about the sixth century B.C. But one must be very cautious … the date may be very late. The question will of course be for scholars to decide.” Shapira went out of his way to emphasize problems in the manuscript, to raise different viewpoints and to describe the flaws in the document. Shapira told Strack, finally, that Strack will “be better able to find the faults and virtues of it than I. I will also ask pardon for all my daring suggestions, and ask to give me some candid opinion about it.”

Then he added a postscript: “Dr. Schroeder … German Consul in Beiruth, is now here [in Jerusalem] and has seen a strip and thinks that the manuscript is unquestionable [sic] a genuine one, his chief proves [sic] are the beautiful Phoenician writing as well as the pure grammatical Hebrew and the outward look of it.” Schroeder had offered to buy the fragments, but Shapira declined the offer and sought scholarly verification instead. Strack’s immediate verdict, however (without even seeing the fragments), was that the document was a forgery.19

Undaunted, the persistent Shapira took the scroll fragments to Berlin in late June or early July 1883 to show them to Strack, who remained unconvinced.20 Shapira then took the fragments to Halle and Leipzig, where he met with Hermann Guthe, a prominent Hebraist at the University of Leipzig. Guthe published a pamphlet on the fragments, including his transcription, in August 1883. With this, the fragments achieved published scholarly recognition.

Shapira then returned to Berlin and presented the scroll fragments to a group of scholars convened and hosted by Richard Lepsius, a leading Egyptologist, who was the keeper of the Royal Library in Berlin. In 90 minutes they reached their decision: The manuscript was a “clever and impudent forgery.”21 They refused to purchase the manuscript for the Royal Library.

Shapira next went to London, where the more notorious part of his odyssey began. At the first meeting with Walter Besant, secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund, on July 20, 1883, Shapira refused to show him the documents. But the following week, “[Shapira] returned, and, in the presence of Captain Conder and Mr. Walter Besant, he produced the manuscript, and with it an account in writing of the manner in which he acquired it.”22

Yet another group of scholars viewed the manuscript on July 26 at Besant’s invitation: Edward Bond, principal librarian of the British Museum; Ernest A. Wallis Budge, keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities at the British Museum; Captain Claude R. Conder, a leading archaeologist and officer of the Palestine Exploration Fund; Ginsburg; Professor Lewis Hayter; William Simpson, an artist with the Illustrated London News who also served on the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Executive Committee; and Professor Aldis Wright of Oxford University. There may have been about ten people present. William Simpson later offered an eyewitness account of the meeting:

Mr. Shapira produced a small glazed bag—the small “carpet-bag” of the period, from which he drew forth the pieces of very dark looking leather, and threw them in a very jaunty manner on the table, round which we all stood. With them were some fragments of Hebrew MSS., one of which was rolled up in a rude way, and suggested from its shape and colour the unsmoked half of a gigantic cigar, which I suggested must have been left by Og, King of Bashan.e …[A]s the letters on the Deuteronomy MS were not very distinct, Shapira produced a bottle of spirits of wine and a hair pencil, and he washed them over with this so that the characters could be more clearly seen. To any one accustomed to precious documents, the rude way Shapira handled and rubbed these pretended old fragments was, had one believed them to be real, a sight to make one shiver. The grand performance of Shapira, however, was when one of the gentlemen put a question about the leather, and Shapira to shew him what it was like, tore off a fragment nearly an inch in diameter and held it out in his hand. This he really did to a document he declared to be as old as 900 B.C.—Mr. Bullen was standing beside me, and I whispered in his ear, “See there is a precious fragment worth at least five hundred pounds torn off.”—This estimate was of course based on Shapira’s valuation of a million for the whole. At one time the bottle of spirits of wine tumbled on the table, and made a great mess,—the MS. getting a full share of it.—Of course nothing could be settled regarding the claims of the manuscript at such a meeting, and it was finally decided that Dr. Ginsburg should take them in charge and keep them in the British Museum, while he inspected them. Dr. Ginsburg carried them off,—and the documents while I write are still in the Museum.23

The first reports of the Shapira Deuteronomy manuscript soon appeared in the press. The Times of London, on Friday, August 3, described “fifteen leather slips” being offered to the British Museum. On the same day, the Jewish Chronicle carried a notice of this “new version of Deuteronomy.”24 Ginsburg published the first translation of the manuscript the following Wednesday, August 8. The first account of the origin of the scroll appeared in the Jewish Chronicle the following Friday, and the first of three articles appeared in the Athenaeum the next day.25 The first article in the Athenaeum contained the new version of the Decalogue, in Hebrew and English, as well as a commentary. Ginsburg wrote, “In the next issue I hope to give the other portions of the text in their proper sequences, commencing with the beginning of Deuteronomy.” The commentary in the Athenaeum article is followed by a letter from Shapira describing the history of the scroll and his acquisition of it.

In the second Athenaeum installment, Ginsburg treats the manuscript as potentially legitimate, giving only a few textual notes at the end of his presentation of the manuscript’s Hebrew text and a translation of the beginning of Deuteronomy.26 In the last of the three articles, Ginsburg comments, “I have designedly abstained from making any remark or calling attention to any anomalies in the Hebrew text, as my report, which is to appear next week, will contain a full account of all the peculiarities of the MS. and the conclusion I have arrived at about its genuineness.”27

Through these three articles in such a respected journal, Ginsburg lent an aura of authenticity to the manuscript and claimed his impartiality. Since Ginsburg saved the numerous press accounts, which appeared daily in newspapers throughout England, it may be safe to assume that he relished the controversy.28 His comments in the Athenaeum led to subsequent articles in the Times, the Academy and a host of newspapers throughout England.29 Nowhere was mention made of Shapira’s visit to Europe, the judgment of the German scholars or Shapira’s offer to sell the scroll to the Berlin Royal Library.

Ginsburg’s reticence regarding the scroll’s genuineness was noticed by William Simpson, who made an undated entry in his journal:

From that meeting [July 26] the pieces of leather … were removed to the British Museum, where Dr. Ginsburg has since been busily engaged transcribing the characters into their Hebrew equivalents, and also in translating the whole into English. This is now nearly completed and will be presented to the Trustees of the museum. Dr. Ginsburg has been very reticent while so engaged, and has not expressed any opinion as to the genuineness of the manuscript; but he is understood to be making a report on it for the Trustees, to guide them as to whether they should enter into negotiations with Mr. Shapira for the purchase of the document … The pieces of skin have become very much darker since they were first exhibited at the Office of the Palestine Exploration Fund. On the few parts of the leather where the characters could be easily seen they have now become so darkened that it is with difficulty they can be made out.30

A subplot began to unfold on August 15, when French diplomat and archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau visited London. Clermont-Ganneau had previously proved that the pieces of Moabite pottery Shapira had sold to the German government were forgeries. Clermont-Ganneau had actually found the workshop where the pottery had been made. It belonged to Selim al-Khouri, who has been described as “Shapira’s good right hand and the middleman in most of Shapira’s dealings with the Bedouin across the Jordan.”31 Whether Shapira was himself duped by Selim or was a party to the forgery remains uncertain. In any event, it is clear that Shapira regarded Clermont-Ganneau as an enemy.

The personal animosity between Shapira and Clermont-Ganneau has been widely recognized. No one, however, has pointed out the connection between Clermont-Ganneau and Ginsburg. Both were deeply interested in and had published versions of the Moabite Stone, whose inscriptions were similar to the early Hebrew, or Phoenician, script on the Shapira fragments.

The Moabite Stone was discovered by Reverend F. Klein of the Church Missionary Society in 1868.f As word passed among German and English archaeologists, Clermont-Ganneau—then at the French Consulate in Jerusalem—saw the importance of making a “squeeze,” or impression, of the stone. He also was determined to outbid the representatives of the other countries and obtain the stone for France.

Ginsburg describes, in his own commentary on the Moabite Stone, how Clermont-Ganneau acted “with more enthusiasm than discretion” and “employed several agents to obtain squeezes, and even the Stone itself.” By offering a large sum for the stone, Clermont-Ganneau created “too great a temptation and a bait for the different chiefs, each of whom naturally wished to obtain the prize … The Moabites … sooner than give it up, put a fire under it and threw cold water on it, and so broke it, and then distributed the bits among the different families … ” Ginsburg laments that “the very oldest Semitic lapidary record of importance yet discovered, which had defied the corroding powers of more than 2,500 years, was at last broken up, through the unwise measures adopted by a young French savant [that is, Clermont-Ganneau], who, in spite of knowing that others were first in the field bidding for it, was determined to outbid them, in order to secure it for his own nation.”32 After Clermont-Ganneau’s success in obtaining the Moabite Stone (restored, it is in the Louvre to this day), he became involved in new archaeological controversies and took particular interest in forgeries.

In a long letter to the Times of August 21, 1883, Clermont-Ganneau describes his visit to the British Museum to look at the Shapira strips: “I reached London on Wednesday last, entrusted by the Minister of Public Instruction in France with a special mission to examine Mr. Shapira’s manuscripts, at present deposited in the British Museum, and which have, for some time past, excited such great interest in England.”

Clermont-Ganneau notes his background in the matter, implying his expectation to be welcomed and included in the investigation of the manuscript:

My studies of the stone of Mesha, or “Moabite Stone,” which I conveyed to the Louvre, and reconstructed in its entirety, my decisive disclosures with regard to the fabrication of spurious Moabite potteries purchased [from Shapira] by Germany, and my labours in connexion with Semitic inscriptions generally, gave me, I ventured to think, some authority upon the question; and caused me to hope that the favour would be shown to me, which was accorded to other scholars, and to persons of distinction, of making me acquainted with these documents; which, if they should prove to be authentic, would unquestionably be of incalculable value.

He admits to having “entertained in advance most serious doubts” of the manuscript’s authenticity and says he came to London “in order to settle these doubts. But I thought it my duty to pronounce no opinion until I had seen the originals.” He continues:

Dr. Ginsburg was good enough to allow me to glance at two or three of the fragments which were before him, and postponed until the next day but one (Friday), a more extended examination. He showed, however, some degree of hesitation; and finally expressed himself as uncertain whether it would be convenient or not to submit the fragments to me. It was agreed that I should have a decisive answer on Friday. I fancied that Dr. Ginsburg feared some encroachment on my part, in the matter of the priority of publication of a text which he has deciphered with a zeal, which I am happy to acknowledge, and which he has had the honour of first laying before the public.

Through this letter, of course, Clermont-Ganneau had done just that: undermined Ginsburg’s announcement of his verdict. Though he claims he was “ready to bind myself to refrain from … publishing anything whatsoever on the contents of the fragments,” he continues:

On Friday, I went again to the British Museum, and Mr. Bond, the principal librarian informed me … that he could not, to his great regret, submit the fragments to me; their owner, Mr. Shapira, having expressly refused his consent … In these circumstances, the object of my mission became extremely difficult to attain, and I almost despaired of it.

Clermont-Ganneau persisted in his mission and based his conclusions on the “hasty inspection of two or three pieces” he had handled on his first visit and “the examination of two fragments” on public display. On Friday and Saturday, Clermont-Ganneau stood with “the crowd of the curious pressing round these venerable relics” to reach his scholarly conclusion:

The fragments are the work of a modern forger … I am able to show, with the documents before me, how the forger went to work. He took one of those large synagogue rolls of leather, containing the Pentateuch, written in the square Hebrew character, and perhaps dating back two or three centuries, rolls which Mr. Shapira must be well acquainted with, for he deals in them … The forger then cut off the lower edge of this roll—that which offered him the widest surface. He obtained in this way some narrow strips of leather with an appearance of comparative antiquity, which was still further heightened by the use of the proper chemical agents. On these strips of leather he wrote with ink, making use of the alphabet of the Moabite stone, and introducing such “various readings” as fancy dictated, the passages from Deuteronomy which have been deciphered and translated by M. Ginsburg, with patience and learning worthy of better employment.33

Clermont-Ganneau even noticed the seam and the thread holding two panels together.

While Ginsburg was patiently deciphering, transcribing, translating, editing and publishing this manuscript, Charles Clermont-Ganneau came to his conclusion without even examining the manuscript closely. In the same issue of the Times that included Clermont-Ganneau’s letter, Claude Conder also wrote, “I have no hesitation in concluding that the supposed fragments of Deuteronomy were deliberate forgeries.”

How distressing it must have been for Ginsburg to have these opinions appear before his officially solicited judgment, especially since his previous encounter with Clermont-Ganneau concerned who would control the Moabite Stone. The issue regarding the Shapira fragments had been, What if England bought something that Germany judged a forgery? The issue now was control of the decision regarding the authenticity of the Shapira fragments.

What took Ginsburg so long in coming to his conclusion? Why didn’t Strack and the other German scholars share their negative judgment at the time they evaluated the manuscript? In writing to the Times, Strack explained that “nothing of this was then made public, because no one in Berlin for a moment supposed that the codex in question would be the object of further discussion.” Strack was either unaware of the monograph Guthe published on August 14 or simply chose to ignore it.

To understand why Ginsburg took so long to release his verdict, we can turn to a letter Ginsburg wrote his daughter Ethel on September 3, 1883:

My darling Ethel … The excitement about the ms. has by no means ceased. You will probably have heard that last Saturday the Spectator[,] the Saturday Review and other periodicals had still articles on the subject.

I do not think that the month which I spent on the ms. is time thrown away though it is a forgery and though the deciphering of it has nearly blinded me. Though I was sure the first week of my examination that it was a forgery yet the extraordinary cleverness and skill displayed in the production of it as well as the fact that a company were engaged in it made it absolutely necessary thoroughly to make it out, to translate it and to publish it before I gave the verdict and before publishing the Report. By so doing I made it impossible for this clever band of rogues to practice any more impositions.

Mr. Shapira has disappeared and the ms. is still here. I do wish you could come up to town to see it for it is so wonderfully clever. If I could afford it I would give £200 for it. There is such a demand for my Report that the British Museum have decided to reprint it with the original and my translation … Your affectionate father.34

Ginsburg obviously took great pride in his new notoriety. His claim that he, too, recognized that the manuscript was a forgery from the beginning, however, is not compelling. If the manuscript was clearly a forgery, why did he spend a month’s time on it when he was producing his volumes on the Masorah? If deciphering the manuscript was so difficult, why did he bother to “make it out, to translate it and to publish it” rather than just present his scholarly opinion that the work was a forgery?

Clearly, Ginsburg saw the opportunity to create public interest in this manuscript and establish himself as defending the British people from fraud and forgery. Magnifying public interest in the manuscript also popularized Ginsburg’s fields of scholarly interest, Biblical studies and archaeology. Creating a public event served the interests of the Palestine Exploration Fund, the British Museum and Ginsburg himself. Symbolically, it established British scholarship in this field.35 All of these reasons are more compelling than Ginsburg’s statement that he “made it impossible for this clever band of rogues to practice any more impositions.”

Less than two years later, in July 1885, the British Museum sold the manuscript at Sotheby’s for £10, 5sh. to Bernard Quaritch, an antiquities dealer. Notice of the manuscript appeared in the 1886 Quaritch catalogue:

BIBLE. The most original MS. of Deuteronomy, from the hand of Moses … as discovered by the late Mr. Shapira, and valued at £1,000,000; 15 separate fragments … written in the primeval Hebrew character on strips of blackened leather, £25.

Ante Christian 1500—A.D. 1880.36

It is surprising that the Quaritch catalogue does not refer to the manuscript as a forgery.

The following year, when Quaritch exhibited the unsold manuscript among other Anglo-Jewish manuscripts at Royal Albert Hall, his description of the manuscript confirmed its symbolic value to England:

These are the famous fragments which Dr. Ginsburg so painfully deciphered and published in the Times, and which led the religious world of England to sing hallelujahs. The scoffing atheists of Germany and France had refused to acknowledge them genuine.37

The manuscript may have been acquired subsequently by Sir Charles Nicholson and lost in a fire in his home near London.38

The Shapira manuscript incident was one of the most celebrated scholarly controversies of the 19th century. An examination of the historical context reveals that Ginsburg did more than simply expose a forgery. The episode symbolized the scholarly competence of the British in matters of Biblical archaeology. The British emerged triumphantly as careful and thorough investigators, not bested by the French or by the Germans. Thus did an 1883 London encounter between two Polish-born Jewish converts to Christianity, Shapira and Ginsburg, destroy one man and establish the other as a guardian of the reputation and the resources of the British people.