In early 1883, Moses W. Shapira came upon a book by a German scholar named Friedrich Bleek, published in 1860 under the title, Einleitung in das Alte Testament, [Introduction to the Old Testament]. The book presented a critical, academic approach to the study of the Hebrew Scriptures. This work changed everything for Shapira. When he read Bleek’s book, he realized that a mysterious manuscript that he had acquired nearly five years earlier might in fact be ancient and authentic after all.
The manuscript was written in Paleo Hebrew on sixteen blackened leather strips. Shapira had purchased the strips from a Bedouin through the agency of a well-known Sheik from Abu Dis in series of meetings on the road between Bethany and the so-called Fountain of the Apostles in the summer of 1878. The strips had reportedly been discovered by Bedouin in 1865, in a cave east of the Jordan, high up the northern cliff wall of the Wadi Mujib (the Biblical River Arnon).
Over the course of several weeks and with great effort, Shapira slowly began to read, transcribe, and finally grasp the message of his newly acquired manuscripts. The leather strips appeared to contain a version of the Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy, but with significant variations. Nonetheless, Shapira came to believe that it was ancient and authentic. He prepared a transcription and sent it to Professor Konstantine Schlottmann at the University of Halle. The reply from Schlottmann was in the form of a rebuke and contained a sharp denouncement of the manuscript as a forgery. Simply put, the manuscript was at variance with the authorized version of the Bible. Shapira deposited his rejected leather strips with the Bergheim Bank in Jerusalem’s Old City where they would remain hidden away until Bleek’s words caused him to retrieve them.
As Shapira thoroughly reexamined his manuscript strips with his newly acquired understanding, he observed that they conformed in many ways to academic views of a proto biblical book. He prepared a new transcription with the intention of presenting the manuscript to the world. In May of 1883, Professor Paul Schroeder, an expert in ancient Phoenician language and scripts visited Jerusalem where he examined the leather strips. Schroeder informed Shapira that in his opinion, the manuscript was unquestionably genuine and valuable. With this affirmation of the genuineness of the manuscript, Shapira made plans to take his manuscript to Europe to seek the endorsement of other scholars. He planned to begin with Hermann Strack, an assistant professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Semitic Languages at the University of Berlin and on 9 May 1883 Shapira sent Strack a letter.
What follows is a transcription of the letter that Shapira wrote to Strack dated May 9th, 1883. The original is contained in “Papers Relative to M.W. Shapira’s Forged MS. of Deuteronomy (A.D. 1883 – 1884).” Add. MS. 41294 (London: British Library). No attempt was made to correct spelling or grammar. Words in [brackets] represent an attempt to interpret/present an illegible letter or word. Words in superscript appear above the line of text in the original, words in subscript appear below the line of text in the original. Words
struck through represent the same in the original letter.
Jerusalem May 9th 1883
My dear prof. H Strack
I was very grived to hear of the great loss you & your family has on the departure of your dear father.
You will excuse me dear prof.! if I shall trouble you now with a very long letter. I hope you will read it with interest in spite of you having so little time to spare, over bourdened as you are, with such abundence of work of high scholarship. I am going to surprise you with a notice and a short description of a curious manuscript written in Old Hebrew or Phonician letters
upon upon small strips of embalmed leather and seems to be a short unorthodoxical book of the last speech of Moses in the plain of Moab.
Allow me dear prof, before intering into a description of it, to tell you how I got it & why I have been quite about it till now?
In July 1878 I met several Beduin in the house of the well known Sheque Mahmud el Arakat, we came of course to speek of old inscriptions. One Beduin asserted, that the antiques brings blessedness to the place where it lays & begins to tell an history to about the following effect.
“Several years ago some Arabs had occasion to flee from their enemies & hide themselves
in caves high up in a rock facing the Moujib (the river Arnon) they discovered there several bundles of very old rugs. Thinking they may contain gold they peeled away a good deal of old cotton or Linen & found only some black charms, & through them away! But, one of them took them up & since having the charms in his tent, he became a wealthy man having sheep &c, – As I knew well the place the Beduin spook of having been there, with prof. Almqvitz in the year 1875 & having seen that it is an old burial place, perhaps of some Egyptians settled there & having found there some small piece, which seemed to us, to be, of embalmed bodies and we marveled of the dryness off the place. (the Arab told us, that no rain are able to approch this
plc place, as, the north south high rock sheltered it from rain) and we thought at that time, that such a dry land may preserve for us the oldest documents being alike the Egyptian soil. I therefore took an interest in the story of the man and asked the sheque to persuade the man to bring-as a prove- a small piece of that leather. I, of course thought of papyrus. The sheque told me that he know a man that will rub or steel away any antiquities of his country, without caring a bit, for their blessedness for a few Medjidesx (marginal note says-x, a Medjide equal to about 3 ½ mark) well that man whose name (I mean his family name) I never camed to know brought me slowly all I now possess which seemed to me to belong to 3 different documents, one nearly complete, one a very little wanting & of one I have only a very little piece & much decayed. Have there been or are there yet some more? It is imposible for me to tell as the only interporter between me & the Beduin Salim who brought them to me
died soon & every trace of its history was lost to me & is still so.
I soon begin to study the M.S.S. & found it a very heavy task for my eyes. The blackness of the leather which may have been caused by the penetration of the Asphalt, & most probable made worst by oil which seemed the last owner oiled them to make them smooth, the decaying away of the ink & leather which seems to be done by some insects or saltpetre which are to be found in abundance on these nooks. & lastly the wanting of any stop, or space, between the words (beside at the decalogue) all these did hurt my eyes very much & I were only enabled to read it all of cause with many suggestions at a study of full 4 weeks –
The method I did implow to read the letters was in the beginning, to make weet a few words with water, in which case I could distinctly see the forms of the letters through the lustre of the water, but, this was only the case for a moment, soon, the leather became weet & the lustre went away & I could see nothing more & I had to wait a long time to try that method again after all were again dry & I was also afraid of spoiling the M.S. by doing so again tried the same method with spirit which helped me a few moments to read a few letters & transcribe them as long as the lustre lasted &
th as the spirit became soon dry I weeted it again and again till I transcribed, the most into Hebrew letters & try to read them, & compare them between themselves & our usual Bible & found very interesting varriation, as hereafter – – –
The letters are of the oldest form nearly the same as thos of the Mesa-stone only less anchine, as it seemed to me, the only difference are the ז & כ
the the ז are instead so [Fig.1] so [Fig. 2] & the כ instead so [Fig. 3] so [Fig. 4] as in the pottery (the only one) & in old coins. The ט which are not to be found neither in the Mesa – nor Siloam, inscription are here about so [Fig.5] (I could not make it exact)
The writing itself seems to have been done by a steady & running hand, as if, the man have written a good deal Phonician in his lifetime. There are some stiffness to be remarked in the writing of the decalogue, but this may have been caused, by the scribe’s being, forced to stop after every word & make a point, counter to his accustomed way of running on from one end to the other, without leaving an empty place or a stop.
The ink are nearly undestroyable neither, by rubbing, nor by washing with water or spirit a thing not usual in oriental M.S.S. –
Now you will ask why I have been quite about it till now? The reason are,
I have send a transcription of the most of it, to prof. Schlottmann in 24 Sept 1878 asking him his opinion – to which I got only a rebuke saying, “How I dare to call this forgery the Old Test? Could I suppose even for a moment that it is older than our unquestionable genuine ten commandments”? That it is not genuine he went on, he can prove 1st that it contradict the Bible – (It has Elohim instead of Jehova) 2 – That the writer was ignorant not to know that עמן are of the בני לט not עשו as in that M.S. (it stand Lot & not עשו I must have made a
misinscription & wrote עשו instead of לט in my transcription. 3. It was in my transcription אבמ (אבים) על אבם (בנים) instead אבת על בנם which Prof. S. thinks as the chief prove of a forgery – (well; as I did
ex examine my M.SS anew I found that in one of them are realy אבת, but, one seems to me to have אבם although the mem is not fully distinct.
4th. It stand in our M.S. אשר החרתך מארץ מצרם which word as חרית are Aramaic & not Hebrew. That, I felt rather strong although we possess an Hebrew root for it in חרר–חורי–חורים but always as freemen, not as freedom. Prof. Schlottmann added that
it this is also the opinion of Prof Delitzsch.
I confess; that when getting prof. S. letters I begin to totter in my opinion, not so much for the last reasons as for the general reason the prof. gives, that it contradics our Bible; Of course, my 1st question I had to ask myself was, if it is by all means a forgery who could have been such a learned & artful forger? & for what purposes? As the mony I paid for the M.S.S. was not worth the speeking of
f. I at that time became irresolute. thinking should the Author not be Dr. Landsberg? Who was that [so nemes] in Jerusalem & unite himself with Selim el Kare to [force] out from me some money (he had not to pay his Hotel bill and seemed to me to have been an adventurer of the lowest class. I But I have been mistaken) pretended that he & Selim wished to go to Moab, to search for pottery & had not money enough to cover their expenses; of course, I told him that I did not care a bit for all his falsehood & he became my
my greatest enemy & said he will hurt me everywhere and will write & do everything to prove that my Moabite pottery are false, & so, I, begain to think at that time that perhaps he Dr. L. laid a trap for me by forged that M.S.S. & played these into my hand, & thought better to wait till he will came out in any way with it. Although in the other hand I had reasons enough, for the imposibility of Dr. Landberg’s, being the Author of the M.S.S. 1st because he was not at all well versed in Hebrew. 2nd. The different hand writings of my MS. seems to me, to be, the laubor of more than one man. 3. The steady handwriting & materal seems to exclude the idee of an imitation. 4 & chiefly, Dr. L putting a trap for me could only have a real meaning and effect if; the letters of the M.S.S. should have been similiar to those letters & especially to thus very much disputing letters (as the א י מ) of the Moabite pottery, but none of them are so. (beside the כ as mentioned above which are also in many coins &c). Dr. L, has also been again in Jerusalem in 1879 in my absence & Baron Von Münchhausen told me, that he punished severly Selim el Kare for speaking against me, &c &c but, not a word of a M.S.S. was mentioned, which would not have been likely the case if he Dr L should have had any knowledge of it. Nevertheless, the [s]trong reverence I always had for
all our Bible which did not agree with the narative of our M.S.S. made still the M.S.S somewhat doubtful in my eyes & that was the reason I did not published anything about it tl till now.
A short time ago a book called “Einleitung in das Alte testament von Friedrich Bleek in Berlin 1860, came into my hands & what a change came over my mind after studying the above book I see now that the most of the varreations between our M.S.S. & the Bible are of such a character, as are, already used by many eminent scholars as a prove that our Deuter was not written by Moses or about his time; all such passages are not to be found in our M.S.S. as per example עד היום הזה & כאשר צוך יהוה, הכהנים הלוים the choice of ערי מקלט the forbidding במות &c &c no
reap repeating & misplaced passages, are to met in our M.S.S. especialy in a topgraphical point of view. The order of the last journies & battles are in the best order. So. 1st through שעיר, then through the Wilderness of Moab, then through Moab which seems to lay between the brook of זרד & ארנון (see remarks of appendix) then the passage over Arnon, the Battle with Sihon & taking his land from Arnon into יבק the passage over יבק to the land of עמן, the Battle of יעזר and then the Battles forced battle with עג מלך הבשן then, the returnies southward to ערבות מואב oposite (בת פער) בית פעור then a a love affair, with the daughters of Moab & women of Midian & the sacrifice to פער & lastly the battle with the Midianites –
The writing is always חסר the י ו beside when it served as a pronoun & when it belongs to the roots or in הוא יום מים or, in some p.n. on exception are
אכ אנך which are without a יוד although all the other 1st personal pronouns , are with a י as per Ex. עשתי. נתתי. ברתי, perhaps the word have to be
pronounced Anak or Anoch the kaph with a shwa שוא –
The greatest difficulty remains the decalogue as well, in the forms of the words. The order of the Commandments the close formul[a] of every Command with אנך הים אלהם היך אלהך as also, that there are a new Commandment, or forbiding “You shall not hate your brother” (the forms of the Commandments rem
ainds one, on Lev. 19, & that the 10nt Commandment are also there verse 17 only these the Closeal form are always אני א יהוה אלהיכם and there אנך אלהם אלהך (which are so strange.) The order of the Comandments and especially the forbidings seems to begin with great sins & doing down to lesser & lesser sins.
1st לא תעשה your shall have no other gods.
2. 2 & 3 are מצות עשה Sanctify the 7th day & Honor father and mother.
4. You shall not kill the soul נפש (or body) of thy brother.
5. “ “ “ comit adultery with thy neighbours wife.
6. “ “ “ Stell the property of the brother
7. “ “ “ Swear in my name falshly
8. “ “ “ bear false witness
9. “ “ “ Covit thy neighbours wife
10. “ “ “ Hate thy brother in thy heart.
More marviously are, that the Blessings upon Mount Garizim, which are fully written out, & the curses upon Mt Ebal, are also only for keeping or disobaying the 10 Comm. Shall we suppose, that that M.S. belonging to a sect or school, which believed only that the 10 Coments are from God? Or should we be allowed to say; that, that M.S.S. belongs
to Jews who dwelt in the east of the Jordan where the M.S.S. are suposed to have been found? And that they believed only in Elohim although the western Jews must have had long before, known & used the word יהוה? & that, may also account for the exactness of the topographia which put סיחן between Moab and Amon and Amon between סיחן & עג? Again as there are in the 1st verse & the last word mentioned על פי יהוה & never in the midst of the book. Could we supose that the first & last verse are adding by a Jehovistic scribe who copied an Elohistic M.S. (perhaps for a tomb of an Elohistic believer) & put his own heading & closel form? I confess the last suggestion does not well satisy me. It would be expected, that an Elohist will not bury his dead with a M.S. which
hath has the word יהוה even in the title page.? You will ask me dear prof. What I supose to be the date of our M.S.S.?
To this, I will say, judging from the form of the letters, one will be inclined to give to this unorthodoxical manuscript such an early time, as between the date of the Mesa stone & the Siloam inscription, or about the 6th century B.C. But, one must be very cautious. Who knows? May it not be that they used old forms of letters in writing
such copying such documents & especially for using them as a talisman for the dead bodys or as charms. Only with very old forms of letters even if such letters are commonly not used at all more? & if so, the date may be very
late. The question will of course be for scholars to decide (if agreed to my sugestion) How late, we may put a Jewish colony of unorthodoxical doctrines as of the 10 tribes or of the Rechabites &c &c before or after Christ?
I will only add that I have not compared the 2 manuscripts only partly. Not all, as it hurts my eyes very much. I will once a transcription of most of the M.S. in Hebrew, and I will put here and there a remark. You will dear prof. be better able to find the faults & virtues of it than I. I will also ask pardon for all my daring suggestions, and ask, to give me your candid opinion about it should you or your friends find it so interesting as I flater myself to be. You may send me a telegram with a few words upon my expences. –
I think to go soon in a few days for a short time to Egypt for examining some M.S.S. if posible & then G.W. very soon to Berlin with my M.S. Excuse also my very bad writing done in great haste.
Allow me to remain yours truly & obedient servant
M W Shapira
N.B. Prof or Dr Schroder who is now German Genr. Counsel at Beirut is now here, & has seen a few strips & thinks that the M.S.
in is unquestionable a genuine one, his chief proves are the beautiful Phonician writing, as well as, the pure grammatical Hebrew, and the outward look of it, and the old Linnen found in some pieces in the back. M W Shap. –
*NOTE – A PDF of this transcribed letter from Shapira to Strack is available for download from my Academia page here.