“Dort in einem Geldschrank, unter anderen Werthsachen, blieb die Handschrift unberührt liegen bis Ostern 1883.” [There, in a safe, among other valuables, the manuscript remained untouched until Easter 1883.]

In the summer of 1878, Moses Wilhelm Shapira came to acquire sixteen leather strips reportedly discovered by Bedouin around 1865, east of the Dead Sea, in a remote cave high above the Wadi Mujib. Through the agency of Sheik Erekat of Abu Dis, Shapira met an Arab intermediary on the road between Bethany and the so-called Apostle’s Fountain in a series of meetings until he finally possessed the whole of the discovery.

By the end of August 1878, Moses Shapira set to work deciphering the texts of the leather strips. The deciphering was difficult due to their condition, but slowly and with great effort, and with the help of a special concoction of spirits, he slowly began to read, transcribe, and finally grasp the content of his newly acquired manuscript. The writing was in a Paleo Hebrew script similar to the recently discovered Moabite Stone. It seemed to be a form of the Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy but with significant variations from the received text. Shapira soon came to believe that he possessed an ancient and authentic manuscript.

On 24 September 1878, after nearly a month of work, Shapira sent professor Konstantine Schlottmann of Halle University his transcription of the newly discovered – and in his mind, potentially the oldest – version of the sacred text along with a commentary detailing the variants between his manuscript and the traditional text of the Bible. Schlottmann consulted with Franz Delitzsch, and the two of them sent a scathing rebuke to Shapira, declaring in no uncertain terms that the manuscript was a fraud. Schlottmann’s reasons were written in a letter dated 17 October 1878, chief of which was that the manuscript did not agree with the Biblical texts. Shapira later reported that Schlottmann said, “How dare I call this forgery the Old Testament? Could I suppose for one minute that it is older than our genuine ten commandments?” Schlottmann also made it clear that his objections were shared by Prof. Delitzsch. The rebuke made Shapira reconsider his positive assessment of the manuscript. Perhaps the two German scholars were correct. Largely out of respect for the texts of the Bible and the traditional view, Shapira became irresolute, and he decided to secure the manuscript in the Bergheim and Company Bank, where the leather strips would remain for nearly five years.

Sometime in the early spring of 1883, Moses Shapira came upon a book that made him reconsider the objections of Schlottmann and Delitzsch. As he put it in a letter to Hermann Strack dated 9 May 1883, “A short time ago a book called Einleitung in das Alte Testament [Introduction to the Old Testament] von [by] 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 variations between our MSS & the Bible are of such a character as are already used by many eminent scholars as a proof that our Deuteronomy was not written by Moses or about his time; all such passages are not to be found in our MSS.”

With his newly acquired knowledge from reading Bleek’s book, Shapira was determined to retrieve his manuscript and examine it again. Shapira could never have imagined what the next year would hold for him. This decision would alter the course of Shapira’s life and put him at center stage in one of the most significant religious debates of modern times.

Sunday, 25 March 1883, was Shushan Purim on the Jewish calendar, the 16th day of Adar II. It also coincided with Easter that year. At that time, according to reports, Moses Wilhelm Shapira made his way along David Street in Jerusalem’s Old City to Bergheim and Company Bank to withdraw his manuscript from the vault. In less than a year, on 9 March 1884 or 12 Adar on the Jewish calendar, Moses Shapira would be found dead in a hotel room in the Netherlands. The whole affair took place on a world stage in the span of a single year.

Interestingly, the Torah reading for the Sabbath of his death was Ki Thissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), which ends with Moses in possession of a second set of stone tablets containing the words of the covenant. Moses Shapira also had presented to the world a second set of those words. Moses Shapira’s remains were taken to a burial place in Rotterdam reserved for those drowned at sea, where he was placed in an unmarked grave. Like his namesake, “no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6). According to tradition, the biblical Moses, too, had died in the Jewish month of Adar.

It is fitting that I write this blog post today, 141 years after that fateful Easter of 1883.

“Dort in einem Geldschrank, unter anderen Werthsachen, blieb die Handschrift unberührt liegen bis Ostern 1883.” [There, in a safe, among other valuables, the manuscript remained untouched until Easter 1883.][1]

[1] Hermann Guthe, Fragmente einer Lederhandscrift enthaltend Mose’s letzte Rede an die Kinder Israel (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von Breitkopf & Härtel, 1883), 6. An English translation of Guthe’s work is now available in paperback and Kindle. See Hermann Guthe, Fragments of a Leather Manuscript Containing Moses’ Last Words to the Children of Israel (Saint Francisville: Horeb Press, 2022). As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases made through links on this site at no extra cost to you.