On Tuesday, 21 August 1883, readers of The Times would read the opinions of Monsieur Clermont-Ganneau and Claude Conder in regard to Mr. Shapira’s Manuscripts.[1]

The following is a translation of a letter we have received from M. Clermont-Ganneau:

“I reached London on Wednesday last, instructed 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.

My studies of the stone of Mesha, or ‘Moabites Stone,’ which I conveyed to the Louvre, and re-constructed in its entirety, my decisive disclosures with regard to the fabrication of spurious Moabite potteries, purchased by Germany, and my labours in connection 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.

I will not conceal the fact that I entertained, in advance, most serious doubts as to their authenticity, and that I came here in order to settle these doubts. But I thought it my duty to pronounce no opinion until I had seen the originals.

As soon as I had arrived I went to the British Museum, where my learned and obliging friend, Dr. S. Birch, was kind enough to introduce me to Dr. Ginsburg, whom I found in the Manuscript Department, engaged in studying the fragments, in company with Mr. Shapira. 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. I endeavoured to reassure him in this respect, by informing him that I only wished to concern myself with the external and material state of the fragments; that I should examine them exclusively with this object in view, in his presence; and that I was ready to bind myself to refrain from examining the text, properly so called, and from publishing anything whatsoever on the contents of the fragments.”

On Friday I went again to the British Museum, and Mr. Bond, the principal librarian, informed me, in the presence of my distinguished friend Mr. Newton, that he could not, to his great regret, submit the fragments to me, their owner Mr. Shapira, having expressly refused his consent. There was nothing to be said against this; the owner was free to act as he pleased. It was his strict right, but it is also my right to record publicly this refusal, quite personal to me; and this to some extent is the cause of this communication. I leave to public opinion the business of explaining this refusal. I will confine myself to recalling one fact, with comment. It was Mr. Shapira who sold the spurious Moabite potteries to Germany; and it was M. Clermont-Ganneau who, ten years ago, discovered and established the apocryphal nature of them.

In the circumstances, the object of my mission became extremely difficult to attain, and I almost despaired of it. I did not, however, lose courage, and I set to work with the meagre means of information which were at my disposal: (1) The hasty inspection of two or three pieces which M. Ginsburg had allowed me to handle for a few minutes on my first visit; (2) the examination of two fragments exposed to public view in a glass case in the Manuscript Department of the British Museum – a case very ill-lighted and difficult of approach, owing to the crowd of the curious pressing round these venerable relics. I devoted to this unpleasant task both Friday and Saturday, and had the satisfaction of obtaining an unhoped-for results.

These are my conclusions: The fragments are the work of a modern forger. This is not the expression of an à prioriincredulity, a feeling which many scholars must, like me, have experienced at the mere announcement of this wonderful discovery. 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 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, and has sold to several of the public libraries of England sundry copies of them, obtained from the existing synagogues of Judea and of the Yemen.

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.

Graphic representation of M. Clermont-Ganneau’s theory, published in Revue politique et littéraire: revue bleue 3rd series, no. 13 (September 29, 1883): 389.

That which put me on the scent was the presence—ascertained by me at first sight—on the fragments of an important detail, of which I had not at first understood the full significance. The lines of Moabitish writing are arranged in the shape of columns, separated by vertical creases in the leather—that is to say, by creases perpendicular to the general direction of writing. On the right side and left of each of these folds I had noticed two vertical straight lines, drawn with a hard point, as guides for the vertical margins, starting from the upper edge of the strip, and extending to the lower edge, which they do not always reach. The Moabitish forger had not paid much attention to these extremely fine lines, which have scratched the leather in an almost invisible but indelible manner; and the lines of Moabitish characters, instead of being confined by this drawing, have no relation to it. Sometimes they pass over the lines, sometimes they rest on the inner sides of them, both at their beginning and ending. The forger was obviously guided in observing the limits of his space, not by the vertical marginal lines, but by the intermediary creases. If, however, we compare these strips of leather with one of the synagogue rolls of which I spoke just now, the explanation of this mystery will be made plain to us at once.

These rolls consist of large pieces of leather (generally sheepskin) sewn end to end, forming enormous strips, which may be 30 or 40 mètres [98–131 feet] in length, and with a breadth of 16 centimètres [6¼ inches] or more.

The text of the Pentateuch, in the square Hebrew characters, is arranged in regular parallel columns containing some fifty lines each. At the top a horizontal margin is left, and at the bottom another horizontal margin, everywhere wider than the upper one, both extending for the entire length of the roll. This lower margin, to take an example, on a roll in the British Museum coming from Jerusalem and bearing the number 1460, measures 8 centimètres [3 inches] in height. The columns of the text separated by intervals, which in the roll instanced by me by way of comparison, measure about 4 centimètres [1½ inches], are marked out with the stylus. The horizontal marks along which the square Hebrew characters are brought into line are confined on the right and left by two long vertical lines, traced in the same manner, which, for the most part, cross the first and the last horizontal line, and jut out into the upper and lower margin. This is not all. Between each column and the next one, the leather has a vertical crease which runs from top to bottom of the roll. It is these ends of the vertical lines drawn with the stylus and the peculiar creases which divide them which we meet with on the long narrow Moabitish strips whereon the forger has written his Moabitish characters.

There is more yet. I have said that the large pieces of leather of the synagogue rolls were sewn end to end. Now, among the Moabitish strips, I saw at least one where this seam still exists. I need not point out how interesting it would be to examine the character of the thread. Finally, one sees that on the Moabitish strips one of the two edges, either the upper or the lower, is fringed and ragged. It is the original edge of the roll which furnished the raw material to the forger. The second edge, on the other hand, is sharply cut with a penknife or scissors; it is the cutting made by the forger immediately under the last line of the square Hebrew characters.

I advise all the impartial scholars who would thoroughly inform themselves as to this gross imposition, and to whom may be permitted an examination which is denied to me (I know not, or rather, I know very well why), to take the suspected strips, and to lay them against the lower edge of one of the synagogue rolls preserved at the British Museum. The trick will stare them in the face. I will also beg my more favoured fellow students to be kind enough, in order to throw complete light upon a problem (which is no longer one to me), to make certain important investigations, especially the following:

(1) To ascertain whether, by chance, there does not remain on the upper portion of the strips traces of the tails of the square Hebrew letters, especially of the final letters which, as we know, descend below the normal line.

(2) To see if the back of the leather does not materially differ in appearance from the face of it, and whether it has not been left in the raw state, as on the synagogue rolls.

(3) To take the average height of all the strips, in order to obtain from them the greatest height, which will enable us to determine the height of the original margin of the roll (or the rolls) that supplied the forger. I can at once affirm that on this roll the column of square Hebrew characters were from 10 to 11 centimètres [3.9–4.3 inches] in breadth, and were separated by blank intervals of about 4½ centimètres [1¾ inches] in breadth.

(4) To ascertain the description of the leather, and above all of the thread in the seams.

Nothing is more easy than to effect the experimental examination which I suggest. Let there be given me a synagogue roll, two or three centuries old, with permission to cut it up. I engage to procure from it strips in every respect similar to the Moabitish strips, and to transcribe upon them in archaic characters the text of Leviticus, for example, or one of Numbers. This would make a fitting sequel to the Deuteronomy of Mr. Shapira, but would have the slight advantage over it of not costing quite a million sterling.

Who is the forger? That is a question which it does not concern me to answer, nor even to raise. I will merely call attention to the fact that he can only be a person familiar with Hebrew, and who has had before his eyes exact copies of the Moabite Stone.

One word in conclusion. It would be interesting to learn whether the forger has completely destroyed the synagogue roll from which he has cut the strips required for the imposition. Certainly elementary prudence would have required the annihilation of the corpus delicti.[2] Nevertheless, the Hebrew text remaining intact, after the abstraction of the lower margin, and these synagogue rolls having a fixed market value, it is not impossible, although it would have been at a serious risk, that the forger should have tried to make something by it, and to “kill two birds with one stone.” If ever a synagogue roll should be met with without a lower margin, it will be well to try if, by chance, the Moabitish strips would not fit it.

Clermont-Ganneau, 42 Great Russell Street, 18 August

This was followed by Claude Conder’s letter to the editor. It read:

“Sir, as my name has been mentioned in a letter published in the Times concerning this manuscript, I should be glad to be allowed to make a few remarks on the subject. I have no remembrance of having seen the fragments in question before they came to London, but have since had an opportunity of an examining them, and, after comparing them with other manuscripts, true and forged, which I have seen in the East, I had no hesitation in concluding that the supposed fragments of Deuteronomy were deliberate forgeries. During the course of my visit to Moab in 1881-2, I had frequent conversations with the Bedawin [sic] concerning the Moabite Stone and other antiquities, and I collected four Nabathean texts, which are shortly to be published. I never heard any Arabs speak of the supposed find of Mr. Shapira’s manuscript, but what I did hear from all the Arabs was that persons from Jerusalem had buried pottery in Moab, which they afterwards dug up in the presence of Europeans, and represented to be ancient. They showed me the places where these articles were buried, and named the persons concerned. The pottery in question was pronounced in 1873-4 by English and French savants to be forged. The alphabet of the pottery inscriptions was the same as that in the present manuscript, save for the introduction in the former of Himyaritic letters among the Phœnician forms. Some fragments of similar pottery have been shown to me by Mr. Shapira, and I understood that the Arabs represented these is having been found with the manuscript.

Forgeries of coins, inscriptions, and manuscripts are common in Jerusalem, Nâblus, Beyrout [sic], Sidon, &c., and are often attributed to the poorer class of Jewish adventurers in those towns. In the present instance, it would be satisfactory to know the name of the tribe which discovered the manuscript. The only name yet given is that of Sheikh Mahmûd Arekat, who is not a Bedawin [sic] chief, but only a fellah chief of Abu Dis, near Jerusalem. The names of the Moabite chiefs and tribes I have carefully ascertained, and could say whether the district east of Aroer on Arnon belongs to any one of them or not.

The use of square Hebrew by the Jews we have now traced in Palestine to a period earlier than the Christian era, and we know that the Palmyrenes and other trans-Jordanic peoples were using similar alphabet about that time. The manuscript under consideration is therefore (if it be genuine) more than 2,000 years old. I do not think any archaeologist will suppose that leather, as limp and supple as that on which this manuscript is written, could exist for such a length of time in the damp atmosphere of a country which has a rainfall of 20 inches. Having explored many hundreds of caves and tombs, I know well the mouldy smell of such excavations, and the rapid decay of frescoes not more than 600 years old on their walls. We know that the Accadians and Assyrians used papyrus and parchment, but not a fragment of their books is known to remain. The tattered fragments of our oldest Hebrew manuscript are not older than the seventh century A.D., and the condition of the famous oldest Samaritan roll at Shechem (a document which I have three times examined, and which, from the character of its letters, is not older than, perhaps, the sixth century A.D.) contrasts in an extraordinary manner with that of Mr. Shapira’s leather leaves, supposed to be at least 1,400 years older, as does the faded colour of the letters with the very distinct black ink of the Shapira manuscript. It is only in the dry, rainless Theban desert that really ancient papyri (some 3,000 to 4,000 years old) have been found, or are likely to have survived, and the condition of such papyri before they are unrolled is very different from that of the supple leather of the new manuscript, which, however, is not unlike the forged manuscripts which have been offered for sale at Nâblus.…

A more improbable set of assumptions could hardly be conceived, yet the difficulty of the great age which it is necessary to suppose leather to be able to attain without rotting in a damp cave is even more fatal to this clever forgery.

CLAUDE R. CONDER, R. E. Guilford, August 18

The appearance of these two articles seems to have pushed Dr. Ginsburg to hurry his own official statement on the question of authenticity. The next day he gave a written report to Bond, but his report would not be made public until it appeared in The Times, 27 August 1883 edition.

[1] Clermont-Ganneau, “Mr. Shapira’s Manuscripts,” The Times, 21 August 1883. Claude Conder, “To the Editor of The Times, 21 August 1883.

[2] The body of evidence that constitutes objective proof that a crime has been committed.