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.

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