The following account is an excerpt from The Moses Scroll (pages 82-85). On the heels of the publication of Ginsburg’s forgery declaration, the pace of attacks from all quarters of the Academic world increased. News out of Germany hit the papers on 28 August 1883. Meanwhile, Shapira wrote a lengthy rebuttal to Ginsburg’s published report of 27 August from Amsterdam.

On Tuesday, 28 August, The Times published news out of Berlin reporting that the Germans had supposedly known all along that Shapira’s manuscript fragments were forgeries. Everyone reading this news had one burning question. If the Germans had decided against the authenticity of the manuscript on 10 July, why were they only now sharing this news? It wasn’t like the examination of Shapira’s manuscript at the British Museum was being done in a vacuum. People began to suspect that something was amiss. A publication of the Palestine Exploration Fund later said this: “It only has to be added that it is now said that the German Professors in Berlin to whom Shapira showed the skins, immediately discovered that the writing was a forgery. That may be so, but no one thought fit to publish his opinion until there was no longer any doubt on the subject existing among English scholars.”[1] The meeting with the scholars in Berlin had taken place on 10 July in the home of Richard Lepsius, head of the Royal Library. The tardy report, as told by a writer for The Times, said:

[Lepsius] at once convened a committee of the most learned of his colleagues to examine into their [the fragments’] nature and value.… The committee met at the house of its convener, Professor Lepsius, on the 10th July last; while Mr. Shapira, of Jerusalem, was waiting in expectant trepidation in an adjoining room, spent exactly one hour and a half in a close and critical investigation into the character of the goatskin wares. At the end of the sitting they unanimously pronounced the alleged codex to be a clever and impudent forgery. There was some thought of calling in a chemist to look at the matter from his particular point of view; but so satisfied were the committee with the general internal evidence against the presumption of the antiquity of more than 2000 years claimed for the strips, that they deemed it unnecessary to call for further proof.[2]

But truth be told, they didn’t bother to let Shapira in on their little secret. No one informed him that in an hour and a half they unanimously determined his leather fragments to be a “clever and impudent forgery,” not even Adolf Erman, who was in the room and was a supposed ally to Shapira’s cause. As Erman admitted in his letter to Meyer, “I feel very lacking in courage … Shapira visited me when it was all over, I did what had to be done under these circumstances and advised him to keep [the manuscript] until the publication [of Guthe] was out and the question had been resolved.”[3]Furthermore the British wondered if rumors were true that the Germans offered to buy it. Why would they have offered to buy the manuscript if they were “so satisfied” it was a forgery?

The Times correspondent in Berlin wanted to confirm the rumors that the Germans had made an offer to purchase the fragments, “notwithstanding their verdicts,” but that the price offered was not acceptable to Shapira.[4] The German scholars admitted that they had indeed put forward a proposal, but according to them, this was so it could serve as “an example of what could really be in the way of literary fabrication.”[5] As to why they didn’t inform the British scholars that they had deemed the scroll to be a “clever and impudent forgery,” Neubauer reported to The Athenæum that it was because they were on vacation.[6] Hermann Strack would later suggest a reason for silence on the part of the Germans: “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.”[7] One lone scholar, Franz Delitzsch, claimed that when the manuscript reached London he shared his assessment with “some English friends,” informing them that he had already read it several years earlier. But it remained unclear who those friends were.[8] If the message reached any of his English friends, they elected to keep the matter secret or disregard the warning. No one ever mentioned hearing anything whatsoever from anyone in Germany regarding the authenticity of the scroll. It is also interesting to note that none of those who offered excuses for the silence on the part of the German scholars were in the meeting! Moses Wilhelm Shapira had presented his leather strips to the best scholars in Germany and England. They had all come to the same conclusion.

As the scholarly world lined up to declare their condemnation of Shapira’s manuscript, each claiming he knew it was forged all along, Shapira arrived in Amsterdam. On Tuesday, 28 August, he wrote a lengthy letter to Edward Augustus Bond, chief librarian for the British Museum, countering many of the points Ginsburg had proffered as evidence of forgery. His previous note to Ginsburg, as well as this note to Bond, revealed Shapira’s state of mind. Despite the growing number of opinions against the authenticity of the manuscript, he remained convinced. He would do his best to convince someone of the same.

Shapira began, “You will excuse my troubling you again with my bad English, but the thing seems to me to be of such big importance that I chose to write again begging you to let the MS be examined by several scholars and archaeologists of different schools or doctrines. The sin of believing in a false document is not much greater than disbelieving the truth. The tendency of showing great scholarship by detecting a forgery is rather great in our age.” Shapira’s plea for another look at the manuscript indicates that he suspected a bias on the part of Ginsburg. He also rightly pointed out that detecting forgeries was a method whereby one might advance his career.

Shapira then directly countered the arguments of Ginsburg. First on the list was Ginsburg’s theory that the forger, or part of Ginsburg’s hypothetical team of forgers, was a Polish Jew. The specificity of Ginsburg’s theory clearly intended to narrow the search for the guilty party. What Polish Jew might Ginsburg have had in mind as the forger? Strangely, Ginsburg himself was a Polish Jew, born in Warsaw! But this was no confession of forgery by Ginsburg.

Shapira provided several paragraphs intended to show the absurdity of the Polish Jew theory. Ginsburg’s point was that certain misspellings in the manuscript were due to mispronunciations by one member of the forgery team dictating to the scribe and the scribe recording what he heard. Shapira composed a lengthy refutation, arguing that this was an impossibility and that even a “schoolboy” would not make such confusions in writing. 

An example of one of Ginsburg’s arguments was, “In the north of Europe, moreover, the Jews pronounce alike the letters teth and tau. This accounts for the otherwise inexplicable spelling in this document of the word rendered ‘frontlets’ in our Authorized Version.” Shapira countered this in several ways. First, this word is repeated in prayer by religious Jews three times daily. Not even an “ignorant Jew if he only knew to read a little Hebrew would have mistaken and miswritten that word.” He then made the point that even though the word appears three times in the Bible (Exod 13:16; Deut 6:8; 11:18), no one even knows what it means. He said that the translation of “frontlets,” was “by imagination.” Shapira argued that this word, as it appears in the Bible, may not even be of Hebrew origin. Additionally, the word in question is difficult to read in the manuscript, a point that Ginsburg and Guthe both noted in their transcriptions. Finally, Shapira asked why a Polish Jew and the forgery team would only make the teth and tau mistake in a single word and not throughout the entire scroll.

Shapira demonstrated an erudite knowledge of Hebrew as he countered other points of Ginsburg’s statement.[9] At the end of the letter he said, “I am not convinced that the manuscripts are false. Nevertheless, I do not wish to sell it even if the buyer should take the risk for himself (I have such offers), unless to authorities.”[10] Clearly, this letter shows that Shapira still believed in the genuineness of his manuscript. It was no longer about the money. He had tried the path that might lead to what Meyer had called “a colossal sum,” but now he wanted only to save his good name.

[1] “The Shapira Manuscripts,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement (Oct. 1883), 206.

[2] The Times, 28 August 1883.

[3] Letter from to Adolf Erman to Eduard Meyer, 10 July 1883, “Der Briefwechsel zwischen Eduard Meyer und Adolf Erman (188–930),” Unter Mitwirkung von Yasser Sabek und Sascha Winkelmann bearbeitet von G. Audring Vorbemerkung.

[4] Mansoor, “The Case of Shapira’s Dead Sea (Deuteronomy) Scrolls of 1883,” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters (1958), 18–25, 193 n 49.

[5] The Times, 28 August 1883.

[6] A. Neubauer, “The Shapira MSS.” The Athenæum, no. 2915, 8 September 1883, 306.

[7] The Times, 4 September 1883, letter from Dr. Hermann L. Strack dated 31 August 1883.

[8] Franz Delitzsch, “Schapira’s Pseudo-Deuteronomium, no. 36 (7 Sept 1883), 846.

[9] Many of these points deserve careful consideration but are of such a technical nature that they should be discussed in a different format. This writer intends to address these points more fully in a series of articles.

[10] Letter from Shapira to Bond, dated 28 Aug. 1883, from Amsterdam, is contained in British Library Add. MS. 41294.