On 20 July 1883, Moses Wilhelm Shapira arrived unannounced at 1 Adam Street in London, the headquarters of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). He was greeted by Walter Besant, the secretary of the PEF. Shapira informed Besant that he had brought a manuscript to London written “on sheepskin in characters closely resembling those of the Moabite Stone, and with many and most important variations.”[1]

Shapira claimed that the manuscript strips would “make students of the Bible and Hebrew scholars reconsider their ways” and “throw a flood of light upon the Pentateuch.”[2] Besant was initially impressed at what he saw and later recalled, “It was written in fine black ink, as fresh after three thousand years as when it was first laid on, and in the Phoenician characters of the Moabite Stone.”[3]

On Monday, 23 July 1883, Besant crafted an invitation on paper bearing the PEF letterhead. It read, “Mr. Shapira of Jerusalem has brought to England an Old Hebrew Manuscript apparently of great antiquity containing the text of Deuteronomy with many important variations. He will bring the M.S to this office on Thursday next the 26th … at 12:00 A.M. and will be very glad if you can meet him in order to see it.”[4]

On Tuesday, 24 July 1883, Shapira returned to the PEF headquarters, where he met with Captain Conder and Walter Besant. He brought the manuscript and an account of how he came to possess it. After the meeting, Conder told Besant, “I observe that all of the points objected to by the German critics have vanished in this new and epoch-making trouvaille. The geography is not confused, and Moses does not record his own death.”[5]

On Thursday, 26 July 1883, at the appointed time, invitees began to fill the headquarters of the PEF. Besant later recalled that “Ginsburg considered that the invitation included his friends, and so the whole of the British Museum, so to speak, with all of the Hebrew scholars in London turned up.”[6] With the room full of Semitic savants, “Shapira unfolded his manuscript amid such excitement as is seldom exhibited by scholars.”[7]

One of those in attendance was William Simpson. Simpson’s illustrious career had already spanned decades as both an artist and a correspondent, much of which he did in the service of the Illustrated London News. Simpson was also a member of the PEF Executive Committee, and he later provided an account of this 26 July 1883 meeting.[8]

Simpson’s Account

“The circular of the Palestine Exploration Fund was the first notice I had of the Shapira M.S. – It had been shown to W. Besant and Captain Conder previously, but the meeting at the Pal. Ex. Fund Office may be called its first appearance in England, at which I attended, and I propose here to give a few notes of what took place on that occasion, as it was not described in any of the published notices at the time. – Mr. Bond and Mr. Bullen of the British Museum were of the small party, Dr. Ginsburg, Mr. Aldis Wright, Mr. E. Budge, and others – perhaps about ten persons altogether. Mr. W. Besant, Professor Hayter Lewis, and myself, – as well as Mr. Aldis Wright of the Executive Committee of the Pal. Ex. Fund, were present.

            Mr. Shapira produced a small glazed bag, – the small “carpet-bag” of the period, from which he drew forth the pieces of the very dark looking leather, and threw them in a very jaunty manner on the table, round which we all stood. With these were some fragments of Hebrew M.S.S., 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. With them were also some small cups, or bottles, seemingly of stone, with Phoenician characters on them. I assumed that all these were authentic, and were meant to give an air of reality to the whole. As the letters on the Deuteronomy M.S. 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 anyone 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 £500 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 M.S. getting a full share of it. – Of course nothing could be settled regarding the claims of the M.S. 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. William Simpson 23. Jan. 1884” [End of Simpson’s Report]

The meeting of the brightest minds in London lasted nearly three hours. Besant later reported that one of the attendees remarked that the manuscript was a “remarkable illustration of the arts as known and practiced in the time of Moses,” and another, “a professor of Hebrew, exclaimed with conviction, ‘This is one of the few things which could not be a forgery and a fraud!’”[9] As the meeting came to a close at 3:00 p.m. that Thursday afternoon in late July, Dr. Christian David Ginsburg took custody of the manuscript along with the assumed responsibility to examine Shapira’s leather manuscript strips. Ginsburg’s task was to determine if the manuscript strips dated to “800 BC or from AD 1880.”[10]

[1] “The Shapira Manuscripts,” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement, (Oct. 1883), 195.

[2] Walter Besant and Samuel Sprigge, Autobiography of Sir Walter Besant, with a Prefatory Note, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company), 1902, 162.

[3] Besant, Autobiography, 162.

[4] The invitation is included in “Papers Relative to M.W. Shapira’s Forged MS. Of Deuteronomy (A.D. 1883-1884),” Add. MS. 41294(London: British Library). The invitation clearly reads “12:00 A.M.,” but it is confirmed in a later note by Besant that the meeting took place at noon and not at midnight.

[5] Besant, Autobiography, 163-4. Trouvaille is a French term meaning a “lucky find” or “windfall.”

[6] Besant, Autobiography, 163.

[7] ibid

[8] “Shapira MSS. Documents,” OR 14705 (London: British Library).

[9] Besant, Autobiography, 163.

[10] “Literary Gossip,” The Athenæum, no. 2910, 4 August 1883, 147.