In February of 2020, just before the world shut down in response to Covid, Dr. James Tabor and I were in Israel together. Our schedule included an archaeological project at Biblical Tamar Park and a tour that we were co-leading. We also were researching Moses Shapira, which involved a meeting with leading Shapira researcher Yoram Sabo. I had arrived a week early to coordinate things with the Israel Antiquities Authority. 

On 15 February, I made the three-hour drive from Biblical Tamar Park in the Aravah to Ben Gurion Airport to pick up Dr. Tabor. As I waited for him to process through passport control, he called me. I assumed that he was calling to inform me that he was on his way to meet me, but instead, he excitedly told me that Professor James Charlesworth had arrived on the same flight. He further said to me that when he informed Charlesworth of our plans, mentioning our work on Shapira, he responded, “Well, you know his scroll is authentic don’t you? It needs to be reexamined.” I knew that Dr. Tabor was inclined to consider the possibility of the manuscript’s authenticity; I was excited to learn that Professor Charlesworth held a positive view of Shapira’s manuscript too.

Ross Nichols, Professor James Charlesworth, Dr. James D. Tabor – 15 February 2020, Ben Gurion Airport

We all discussed my ongoing work on the book, and I showed Professor Charlesworth my transcription of Shapira’s manuscript. He told me that he looked forward to reviewing the work when it was complete, and so as soon as I received my author’s copies, I mailed him one. Here is what he sent me.

For decades I and others have known about the Shapira Scroll. Many of us were thrilled to read Ross K. Nichols’ The Moses Scroll (Horeb Press, 2021). 

The name Moses Wilhelm Shapira is often associated with forgery due in part to his involvement in selling Moabitica items that were ultimately declared forgeries. These items, made of clay, should fool no one as they were obviously produced by one who lacked skill. I have personally studied these forgeries, and quite frankly, they are lousy. 

On the other hand, for decades, I have pondered that the “Deuteronomy” scroll he presented to the world in 1883 was not fake. And the scroll is in Palaeo-Hebrew. I am convinced that no one in the late 19th century could have faked such a complex work on Deuteronomy. No one knew then about the numerous versions of the Pentateuch that were regnant before 70; that was proved by the work on the DSS, notably by Professors Cross, Talmon, and Tov.  

Shapira claimed that his 16 leather strips of a version of Deuteronomy were bought from Bedouin, who found them, they claimed, in a cave east of the Jordan.  

Well, maybe Bedouin did not disclose where the cave is located. Could it have been on the western side of the Dead Sea not far from Qumran? For decades, I have noted how Bedouin hide where they find “treasures.” I was featured in a movie in which Bedouin showed me caves near Qumran and claimed they helped de Vaux excavate and found fragments of leather scrolls “in the synagogue.” 

In fact, no Arab or Jewish antiquity dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem believes the “revelations” by the Bedouin from whom they buy antiquities. For millennia, the Bedouin lead their flocks of sheep and goats over the areas west of the Dead Sea; they have ample time to explore every crevice for buried treasures. Personally, I wonder what we might have learned if de Vaux had found Cave I. I also am distressed at the dozens of full scrolls destroyed or torn to repair sandals. Now, the Bedouin who found the caves and excavated Qumran have passed on, taking treasured memories with them. 

Recall that ancient and precious manuscripts had been found in the third and tenth centuries, and they also seem to be “Dead Sea Scrolls.” The closed minds of scholars have tended to reject new claims that shatter what they once were taught.  

I recommend those interested in the early versions of our biblical text and Christian Origins purchase numerous copies of Ross K. Nichols, The Moses Scroll.  He is now a leading authority on Shapira’s discovery, and he concludes that the so-called Shapira scroll is authentic. He presents a text and translation. 

James H. Charlesworth
President, Foundation on Judaism and Christian Origins
Director and Editor, Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project
George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature Emeritus 

Professor Charlesworth is the George L. Collard Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, the President of the Foundation on Judaism and Christian Origins, and the Director and Editor of the Princeton Dead Sea Scrolls Project. See Professor Charlesworth’s academic profile and curriculum vitae here.