The popular blog of well-known epigrapher, Professor Christopher Rollston has an ongoing academic discussion on the question of the authenticity of Shapira’s manuscript. This is the direct result of Professor Rollston’s blog post titled, “Déjà vu all over Again: The Antiquities Market, the Shapira Strips, Menahem Mansoor, and Idan Dershowitz.” Within hours of the release of Professor Dershowitz’s book, The Valediction of Moses: A Proto-Biblical Book, Forschungen, zum Alten Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021), Professor Rollston went public with his own critique. For a rebuttal of his views, see Maria Metzler, “Christopher Rollston’s Critique of the Shapira Arguments by Idan Dershowitz.” Professor Rollston’s blog is gradually attracting the comments of other scholars who are now submitting their input into the debate. As with my book, so with my blog; I hope to contribute to the topics discussed even if for a smaller audience. 

One of the topics that has come up on Professor Rollston’s blog so far is the Siloam inscription. There is an obvious inference that the famed Siloam inscription may have served as a model for the forger (insert the name, Moses Wilhelm Shapira). This comes primarily from the comments of Professor Ron Hendel, Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Berkeley. It seems to him that “the Shapira Strips not only emulate (inexactly) the Mesha script, but also emulate (inexactly) the orthography of the Mesha and Siloam inscriptions.” For Hendel, one of the “obvious ‘tells’ of forgery” evidenced by the orthography is that “Siloam has the odd form r’w, ‘his companion’ (three times), perhaps indicating an unusual contraction. The forger may have thought this was the normal pre-exilic form in Hebrew.” Hendel goes on to express his “disappointment that Dershowitz doesn’t acknowledge this problem.”

Dershowitz responded. He said, “I confess that I do not understand the relevance of the Siloam inscription. You say that the forger used the Siloam inscription’s רעו as a template, and yet the form of that very word in V [Valediction of Moses] is always רעהו, never רעו. (Benjamin Suchard has already noted on Twitter that the spelling רעהו in V undermines this point.) More fundamentally, barring time travel, I don’t see how an inscription discovered in 1880 could have served as the template for a (putative) forgery that was already extant in 1878.” Hendel then wrote, “As for whether the Shapira Strips were extant in 1878, all we have is a report that Shapira sent a transcription to Schlottmann then, which he later revised. He made the Strips public in 1883. Siloam comes in between.” And again, replying to his own comment, Hendel adds, “As Chris [Rollston] suggests, Shapira knew the Siloam inscription. He writes about it in the Athenæum, July 30, 1881, p. 144, where he states that he examined it ‘several times with Mr. Schick (Conrad Schick, who announced its discovery the previous year.) Shapira knew the details of the Siloam inscription intimately.”

Several questions arise from the current discussion. I hope that my points can contribute to a well-informed debate of the topics at hand. I humbly submit what follows. (1) Shapira possessed the fragments from 1878 and we have more to confirm this than “a report that Shapira sent a transcription to Schlottmann;” (2) Shapira (as suggested) knew the details of the Siloam inscription intimately, and (3) Hermann Guthe discusses Shapira’s manuscript strips in great detail, including many points that are relevant to the current academic debate. [1]

The account of how Moses Shapira came to possess the sixteen leather strips is covered adequately in The Moses Scroll, but beyond Shapira’s own statements that he possessed the sixteen leather strips since 1878, Guthe records with confidence that this is the case. [2]

“Schapira schon vor Jahren über die An-gelegenheit nach Europa geschrieben hat. Letzteres kann durch Dokumente erwiesen werden; Schapira’s doppelte Kopieen, die ich selbst gesehen, sprechen dafür, auch habe ich von anderer Seite über jenen früheren Briefwechsel Schapira’s gehört. Es ist daher als zweifellos zu betrachten, dass die Lederstreifen sich seit dem Jahre 1878 im Besitze Schapira’s befinden.”

“Shapira already wrote about the matter to Europe years ago. The latter can be confirmed through documents; Shapira’s doubled copies, which I saw myself, speak for it. I have also heard from other parties of various previous letter exchanges of Shapira’s. It is thus to be regarded as doubtless, that the leather strips have been in possession of Shapira’s since the year 1878.”

As Professors Rollston and Hendel suggest, Shapira knew the Siloam inscription intimately. According to the account of Shapira’s daughter Maria Rosette, writing under her pen name Myriam Harry, we read, “Mr. Benedictus [Shapira], who had set off early that morning to copy a certain inscription at Siloam, a village which was notorious for the fanaticism of its inhabitants.” [3]

Shapira was one of several who made, or attempted to make, a copy of the Siloam inscription. Aside from The Athenæum article provided in the comment of Hendel, we find several others. In one of these, we read the words of Shapira relating his experience in acquiring a usable copy. He said, “Neither the attempt of Mr. Schick, nor that of Professor Sayce, nor that of Dr. Guthe, who has been sent out from Leipzig by the committee of the Deutsch Palästina Verein to copy the inscription, has been successful. I myself tried three times and found that I was only making every time another blunder.” [4] He goes on in this same article to say, “we must admire the talents of the learned scholars of Europe, and especially that of Prof. Sayce, who have been able to tell us so much from such bad copies.” Shapira continued to tell of his consultation with Hermann Guthe as they worked together to interpret the letters and make sense of the inscription. Guthe told a similar story.

“Während meines Aufenthaltes in Jerusalem Frühjahr und Sommer 1881 hatte ich seine persönliche Bekanntschaft gemacht; das Interesse an der damals noch nicht sicher gelesenen Siloahinschrift führte ihn mehrmals zu mir,” [5]

“During my stay in Jerusalem in the Spring and Summer of 1881, I had made his [Shapira’s] personal acquaintance; interest in the then not yet securely read Siloam inscription led him many times to me.”

In the 13 July 1881 edition of The Athenæum, Shapira also provided his initial reading of the inscription along with his interpretation. This set off a debate among several other learned Hebraists of the day. Among those who weighed in was Adolf Neubauer, the Hungarian-born, former Austrian consul of Jerusalem and Oxford scholar. [6] Neubauer cautioned the readers of The Athenæum against accepting prematurely “Shapira’s readings.” He pointed out several reasons for his recommended caution and then suggested that he “could point out other irregularities in Mr. Shapira’s readings.” The following week, Shapira responded. He carefully worked through Neubauer’s objections, challenging his points in an erudite manner. He closed his article informing his readers that Guthe is “not inclined to give away a copy of his gypsum [squeeze] [7] and wishes to publish himself.” [8] The following week, Neubauer responded to Shapira. After apologizing to the readers for taking up space “with a controversy which I consider useless,” Neubauer took up two columns of space disputing Shapira’s previous remarks point for point during which he offered support for the monograph of Professor Sayce. He then closed his article by saying, “I think your readers will have heard enough at present about the Siloam inscription, and I shall not trouble you anymore about it until the casts and squeezes of it are at our disposal.” [9]

The following week, Professor Archibald Sayce finally entered the debate in the columns of The Athenæum. [10] He stressed that he had “hitherto refrained from replying to Mr. Shapira’s letter on the Siloam inscription, as I thought it useless to enter into a controversy about hypothetical readings.” He went on to explain that he was coming forward because Lieuts. Conder and Mantell had “been enabled to take a squeeze of the inscription” due to a proper cleaning. This new inscription he believed had allowed him to “clear up several of the doubtful passages in the inscription.” He also related that he had worked closely with Neubauer on this, and he closed his article with his new and improved reading. But rather than support Sayce’s reading, Claude Conder supported Shapira’s. In an article published in the July 1881 Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly, Conder said, “Mr. Shapira gives a different interpretation to the text, explaining it as referring to the cutting of the tunnel from two opposite ends. This we know was really how the excavation was effected, and Mr. Shapira’s intimate acquaintance with the Hebrew idiom (as a Talmudist of 20 years’ education) seems to render his opinion worthy of consideration.” One wonders if this public debate in any way contributed to the negative assessment of Shapira’s manuscript in 1883 by Sayce and Neubauer.

As to the current discussion on the orthography of Shapira’s manuscript, it should be pointed out that Hermann Guthe covers this specifically in his work in the section, “Die Orthographie,” pages 69-80. It is interesting that the point made by Hendel and countered by Dershowitz is specifically mentioned by Guthe and deserves a place in the present debate.[11]

Dagegen unterscheidet sich unsere Handschrift von dem Schreibgebrauch des Mesasteines dadurch, dass sie auslautendes ô niemals durch ה, sondern stets durch ו darstellt. Das ist ja auch die vorherrschende Weise im A. T., der sich die Form רעו auf der Siloahinschrift an die Seite stellt. Der vokalische Auslaut der 2. Pers. Masc. Sing. Perf. (â) ist in der Handschrift niemals besonders bezeichnet, z. B. ידעת, יצאת ebenfalls nicht der gleiche Auslaut der 2. Pers. Fem. Plur. Impf. ותקראן (Stück D, Lage b). Daran wird niemand Anstoss nehmen. 

“Against this, our manuscript differentiates itself from the writing usage of the Mesha Stele by presenting pronounced ô never by ה, rather consistently by ו. This is indeed also the predominant means in the O.T., which puts the form רעו on the Siloam inscription alongside itself. The vocalic pronunciation of the 2nd pers. masc. sing. perf. (â) is never especially denoted in the manuscript, e.g. יצאת ,ידעת , likewise not the same pronunciation of the 2nd pers. fem. plur. impf. ותקראן  (Fragment D, Column b). To this, no one will take umbrage.” 

Thanks to the work of Idan Dershowitz, Menahem Mansoor’s appeal to the academic community may finally be realized. It pleases me to see some of today’s best and brightest scholars discuss these important matters. Menahem Mansoor closed his article, “The present writer believes that, in the light of recent discoveries and of what has been stated above [in his lengthy paper], neither the internal nor the external evidence, so far as yet published, supports the idea of a forgery. Therefore, this writer firmly believes that there is justification in his suggestion for the re-examination of the case.” [12] As I said in my book, quoting the words of Moses Shapira, “The question will be for scholars to decide.” I can only hope that the scholars presently engaged in this reexamination will carefully consider the evidence and offer their particular skills to make a fair assessment. I also hope that those scholars who do weigh in on the discussion make themselves familiar with the details of this interesting case.

The debate surrounding the Siloam inscription was but one that Moses Wilhelm Shapira involved himself in. His arguments were part of the debate in 1881. Let us not forget that he made many valuable contributions to that discussion then. Perhaps we have yet to learn all that Shapira had to teach us. Perhaps we are yet to appreciate just what Moses Shapira contributed to Biblical studies.

1 See Hermann Guthe, Fragmente einer Lederhandschrift enthaltend Mose’s letzte Rede an die Kinder Israel (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von Breitkopf & Härtel, 1883). The English translation of this work was produced by Mitchell Golde and generously funded by David and Patty Tyler during the research of my book, The Moses Scroll. It was published as Hermann Guthe, Fragments of a Leather Manuscript Containing Moses’ Last Words to the Children of Israel, Translated by Mitchell Golde, with Preface and Hebrew Text by Ross K. Nichols. It is available on Amazon here.

2 See Nichols, The Moses Scroll, 1-7; Guthe, Fragmente, 7.

 3 Myriam Harry, The Little Daughter of Jerusalem, trans. Phoebe Allen (New York: E.P. Dutton & Complany, 1919), 126.

4  M.W. Shapira, “The Siloam Inscription.” The Athenæum, no. 2803, 16 July 1881, 80.

5 Herman Guthe, Fragmente, 1.

6 A. Neubauer, “The Siloam Inscription.” The Athenæum, no. 2804, 23 July 1881, 112.

7A squeeze is a copy of an inscription produced by placing damp paper over it and pressing it into the engraved surface. Once the paper is dry, it is carefully removed, and the result is a reversed impression of the inscription.

8 M.W. Shapira, “The Siloam Inscription.” The Athenæum, no. 2805, 30 July 1881, 144. Guthe did in fact later publish. See Hermann Guthe, “Die Slioahinschrift,” in Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 36 (1882), 725-750.

9 A. Neubauer, “The Siloam Inscription.” The Athenæum, no. 2806, 6 August 1881, 176.

10 A. H. Sayce, “The Siloam Inscription.” The Athenæum, no. 2807, 13 August 1881, 208.

11 Guthe, Fragmente, 73.

12 Mansoor, “The Case of Shapira’s Dead Sea (Deuteronomy) Scrolls of 1883,” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters (1958), 225.