The Shapira Affair, 1965

In the late summer of 1883, an antiques dealer from Jerusalem called Moses Wilhelm Shapira had arrived at the British Museum with some documents he thought would interest them. Carefully he unwrapped fifteen frayed and faded strips of parchment inscribed in ancient Hebrew characters. He had spent much of the summer deciphering the text and found it to be part of the book of Deuteronomy, though with some divergence from the standard recension. Shapira said he had bought the strips from some Arabs, who had found them wrapped in cloth and hidden in a cave in the side of a rocky gorge of the Wadi Mujib, which runs into the eastern side of the Dead Sea. He wanted one million pounds for them.

The Museum commissioned a Bible scholar, David Ginsburg, to examine the manuscripts and judge their authenticity. Ginsburg was intrigued. He pored over the text for weeks and found it to be Deuteronomy mixed with other verses from the Pentateuch. The script was one of the most ancient he had ever seen, perhaps as early ahs the ninth century B.C., for it was similar to that found on a Moabite tablet recently discovered in Dibin, above the Arnon gorge. The Times caught onto what Ginsburg was doing and published his translation in installments under excited headlines. But some critics were skeptical about the scrolls’ authenticity, and Ginsburg hesitated.

Then Clermont-Ganneau, a French scholar working in the same field,arrived in London. Clermont-Ganneau knew of Shapira: He had already come across some pottery that Shapira had presented as pre-Christian and had proved it spurious. Though denied access to the manuscripts, Clermont-Ganneau condemned them as forgeries because of the aberrant passages of text and because they had been written on strips cut from the lower margin of old law scrolls, themselves of unproven origin. And no parchment, he said, could survive two thousand years of the winter rains of Palestine. Ginsburg immediately agreed; the manuscripts and their owner were publicly vilified.

However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls undermined Clermont-Ganneau’s arguments for dismissing Shapira’s manuscript. The scribes who wrote the scrolls had used similar techniques: patching together second-had pieces of parchment, adopting a venerably antiquated Phoenician script, and using variant forms of biblical texts with many additions and omissions. And the caves of the rift valley had certainly preserved the Scrolls from the weather.

Shapira believed absolutely that the Deuteronomy strips were as ancient as they appeared. He did not have enough formal training in archeology or paleography to prove it, but he staked his reputation and the livelihood of his wife and daughter on finding experts who could.

When Ginsurg and Clermont-Ganneau found against him, Shapira could not bear his disgrace. One August 23, 1883, he wrote to Dr. Ginsburg:

You have made a fool of me by publishing and exhibiting things you believe to be false. I do not think I shall be able to survive this shame. Although I am not yet convinced that the manuscript is a forgery – unless Monsieur Ganneau did it. I will leave London in a day or two for Berlin.

Yours truly, Moses Wilhelm Shapira

For some weeks he wandered inconsolate through the Low Countries, leaving a trail of discarded clothing and unposted letters. At last, in the Hotel of the Valley of Flowers in Rotterdam, he put a pistol to his head.

A scholar, a shopkeeper, a dreamer, a hunter of ideas – one can see why John was drawn to Moses Shapira. Believing his manuscripts were genuine, he was not afraid to stand out from the crowd and ask questions that went beyond conventional wisdom. His book The Shapira Affair was published by Doubleday and Company in 1965 and was generally well received, though not everyone was convinced that Clermont-Ganneau had been mistaken.

The Shapira Affair was published by:

W.H. ALLEN, 1965. First Edition
Doubleday, Garden City, 1965, First US edition
Proquest, Book-On-Demand reprinted from microfilm edition, hardcover, In print, special order only – Order Here