The story of Moses Wilhelm Shapira contains plots and subplots. The dramatis personae include heroes and villains, a list of who’s who in nineteenth-century biblical scholarship, adventurers, and explorers. These are presented against the backdrop of some of the most significant archaeological discoveries. The details of this story have attracted scholars, skeptics, and storytellers, which have been shared in articles, books, and films. Shapira has played the part of a hero as well as a swindler. His story stands between history and mystery, and this is why it is often told and will likely be told many times more. Thanks to Mary F. Burns’ newest book, it is told in a new Historical Fiction book, The Eleventh Commandment. After a sixteen-hour day of researching and writing, I walked into my house to find the Amazon package containing The Eleventh Commandment. Even though my eyes were tired, I opened it up and began to read. I would have read it straight through if I had not fallen to sleep from exhaustion. I woke up this morning, made my way to my office, and read it in one day, taking notes as I read.
In, The Eleventh Commandment, author Mary F. Burns incorporates the Shapira story into her popular John Singer Sargent / Violet Paget historical mystery series. She describes them to her readers at the beginning of the book.
Violet Paget was born on 14 October 1856. She is Welsh-English and loves to travel Europe, keeping company with artists, writers, intellectuals, and the social elite. She is also a writer who writes using her pen name Vernon Lee. She has been friends with John Singer Sargent since they were children, having met when they were only ten years old.
John Singer Sargent was born on 12 January 1856 to American parents living in Florence, Italy. Sargent is the most sought-after portrait painter in America and Europe.
From the book’s page on Amazon, we learn that “John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget face their most perplexing case yet, as they become involved in investigating the death of Moses Shapira—and determining the fate of the Shapira Scrolls.”
In what she calls a true story that reads like fiction, she presents a fun read for anyone who enjoys a good historical mystery. As an author who writes non-fiction, and one who studies and reads hundreds of pages each week, mainly academic articles, biblical texts in Hebrew and English, and research papers related to my current research/writing projects, it was a pleasurable read, and a change of pace. I especially enjoyed Mary Burns’ book since I have spent a considerable amount of time delving into the facts surrounding the life and times of Moses Wilhelm Shapira.
I smiled when I reached her Author’s Note at the close of the book. It was as if she anticipated the reaction of people like me. She said, “I have tried to write close to the facts of the Shapira case, but the involvement of John and Violet is a fantasy all my own. However, I have little doubt that they were aware of the scandal at the time. But I like to say, History tells the Facts, and Novels tell the Truth. So, my apologies to scholars who will notice with raised eyebrows some deviations from absolute fact, but I hope that my own deep regard for finding the true humanity in every person’s story will lend credibility to this mystery.”
Mary writes that she was introduced to the Shapira story in Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times article of 28 March 2021, “A Fake? Or Biblical Gold?” This opened the door to the works of Idan Dershowitz. Within a short time, she was deeply engrossed in the story and “almost immediately realized that [she] had the basis for [her] next Sargent/Paget mystery!” She acknowledges Matthew Hamilton for his enormous help. Everyone who enters the world of Shapira knows Matthew. He is by far the leading authority on the subject in the world. She rightly says that he has helped us all to understand Moses Shapira. She also lists Chanan Tigay, whose book, The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible, was what introduced me to Shapira and ultimately led me to write my own book. She mentions Yoram Saba, the man who has spent more time than anyone researching, writing, and even producing a documentary on Shapira. And she mentions me. She says, “Ross K. Nichols’ The Moses Scroll (2021) covers much of the same ground as Tigay, but with added facts and perspectives that, for me as a novelist, provided rich ground for my imagining who Moses Shapira was and what happened 140 years ago, much of which still remains a mystery.”
As someone who has researched the Shapira story, and is still deeply into it, presently writing another book on the Shapira saga, with at least one more planned, I recognized where she learned many of the details for the story in her book. As a novelist, Mary could say things that a non-fiction writer can’t say. So, while her book, in her own words, at times deviated from the absolute fact, some of her ideas may bring us closer to the truth. After all, her book is historical fiction!
I enjoyed the book and am pleased to have it in my library among my other Shapira-related books. I will place it on the shelf next to the work of two other authors: (1) Myriam Harry’s The Little Daughter of Jerusalem (1919). Myriam Harry was the pen name of Maria Rosette Shapira, Moses Shapira’s daughter. In 1903, Myriam received France’s first Prix Femina literary award. (2) The pioneering work of Shulamit Lapid’s As a Broken Vessel (1984). Shulamit Lapid is a celebrated Israeli author and mother of Yair Lapid, Israel’s current Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
(The summary from her Amazon book page)
A True Story that Reads Like Fiction
In 1856, young Moses Shapira entered the Jaffa Gate of old Jerusalem, determined to make his fortune any way he could. By 1872, he was widely recognized as the foremost antiquarian dealer in Europe. Tourists from around the world came to his shop in the Street of the Christians. Museums fought to buy his Moabite figures and pots, excavated with the help of Bedouin tribes, deep in the caves above the Wadi Mujib in Moab.
In 1883, he revealed his greatest find—sixteen strips of hand-inked, leather-like documents—3,000 years old. They told an earlier version of the Last Words of Moses to the Hebrews: what became known as the Book of Deuteronomy. But this version had an extra commandment: Thou shalt not slay the soul of thy brother.
He offered them to the British Museum for a million pounds. The London papers could talk of little else than “The Shapira Scrolls” for three months. But were they authentic? Everything hung on the judgment of two scholars, Christian David Ginsburg, a friend to Moses, and Charles Clermont-Ganneau, his arch-enemy. By the end of the summer, both men declared the scrolls were a forgery, and Moses Shapira left London in disgrace.
Six months later, he was found in a shabby hotel in Rotterdam, a bullet through his head.
But was it suicide, as the police seemed to think—or was it murder?