On Friday, 10 August 1883, The Jewish Chronicle featured two articles, both bearing the same title, “The New Manuscript of Deuteronomy.”[1]

The New Manuscript of Deuteronomy p. 9

The remarkable “find” of Mr. Shapira, described in another column, comes as a climax to the Biblical discoveries made in the Holy Land of recent years. The Moabite Stone now standing in the Louvre was in itself the most astonishing side-light on Biblical history. Then came the Siloam Inscription, adding nothing of importance to our knowledge, but leading us to expect further inscriptions. And now come these mysterious strips of parchment, dark with age or imposture, which claim to be the most ancient Biblical M.S. in the world. And not only have they this claim to our notice, but if this claim is substantiated, the MS., judging from the specimens of its contents which we give, raises some of the most fundamental questions of Biblical criticism.

The first question, however, that will have to be settled, before the relations of the new to the received text of Deuteronomy can be discussed, is the age of the M.S. It is tolerably certain that the MS. either dates from B.C. 800 or from A.D. 1880; in other words, it is either a most invaluable discovery or a most shameless piece of imposition. It is impossible for anyone who is not skilled in Semitic palæography to say a word as to the authenticity of the manuscript. Even those who could determine the age of a medieval Hebrew MS. from the character of its writing would be completely at fault with the present document, which is written in the old square characters found on the Moabite stone, and on the money of the Jews, and nearly identical with the original Phoenician alphabet from which the characters in which we write nowadays were originally derived. Only a few men in England like Dr. Ginsburg, Profs. W. R. Smith, A. H. Sayce, and W. Wright have had acquaintance with this character, and we must wait for their report before any decision can be come to as to the real age of the MS. At present Dr. Ginsburg is engaged in the laborious task of deciphering the obscure records, and his verdict will be awaited with the greatest possible interest

Meanwhile, we may point out the extraordinary character of the Biblical text presented to our notice in this MS., if it’s genuineness is established. The opening chapters of Deuteronomy, of which we give translations both in the new version and in that of the Massoretic text, are now before us, and we see that the new text is considerably shorter than the old. This need only indicate that the scribe was only making excerpts from our present text as nothing but a single verse, “Then we turned and went up the way to the brook Jabbok“ is added. But it is, to say the least, curious that the new text, by its curtailments, avoids just those geographical difficulties which have led scholars to cast doubt on the genuineness of our present text as referring to authentic facts. Judging from the additions made in the Targumim, it seems likely that the chief variations of the Biblical text have been made by additions, and therefore there seems to be an à priori presumption in favour of the age of a shorter version. Judging merely by the first two chapters, one might conclude that the text of the recently discovered version is older than the Massoretic one.

This conclusion is, however, rendered extremely doubtful when we take into account the remarkable text of the Ten Commandments contained in the new MS. Though in the main this contains the Ten Words, it does so in such a very different way from the Biblical text that one cannot imagine that both refer to the same series of enactments. We must wait till we have before us the context of these Commandments before coming to any conclusion about them, even if the genuineness of the MS. is established.

Even in this case, the position of Judaism is unassailed by the new discovery, if it be one. Knowing as we do the remarkable memory of man unaccustomed to much reading and the elaborate study of the Torah among the Jews of the Prophetic period, it can never be definitely proved that this text was not written from memory but some pious scribe of the time. R. Meir is said to have written out the Book of Esther from memory (Megillah, 18b) and it is quite possible that there were men from before R. Meir who attempted the like feat. It is too early to state definitely that this is the history of the MS. just brought to this country by Mr. Shapira. The first thing that must be done before we need resort to any such hypotheses is to determine whether this MS. is the most valuable are the most worthless of Biblical texts.

The New Manuscript of Deuteronomy p. 10-11

As mentioned by us last week, a remarkable MS. of Deuteronomy has been brought to this country by Mr. Shapira, a gentleman well known for the large number of MSS. he has obtained from the Arabs of South Palestine and brought to Europe. Some of these include Biblical MSS with the Babylonian punctuation, the vowels written above the text, a unique copy of Maimonides’s Arabic Commentary on the Mishna and other valuable spoils of time. His name is also connected with some pieces of Moabite pottery which are now generally recognized as forgeries, though Mr. Shapira appears to have been more sinned against than sinning in this matter.

His recent “find,” the value of which he estimates at £1,000,000 sterling, consists of fifteen leather slips on which are written forty columns of Hebrew apparently in the old Phoenician character well known to scholars from the Moabites stone, which would date the documents about 800 B.C. This date seems to be in a way justified by the appearance of the leather folds which are black and impregnated with the odour of funereal spices. Each fold is six or seven inches long by three-and-half inches broad, and contains about ten lines. The line of characters are not at first visible, only an oily surface being presented to the eyes of the investigator. This fact unfortunately prevents any photograph of the writing being made. It only becomes visible on being wetted with spirits of wine applied with a camel hairbrush. So far as they have yet been deciphered, the leather slips contain either a different recension or copious extracts from the Book of Deuteronomy.

The beginning of the MS. runs as follows, being a shortened form of the narrative contained in Deut. i and ii., the parallel verses in which, according to the Authorised Version, we placed side by side with the extract from the MS.:

[Here, in the original article, a selection of Shapira’s MSS was juxtaposed with the corresponding texts of the Authorised Version’s first two chapters of Deuteronomy.]

It is impossible to do justice to the remarkable variations of the new text from the Massoretic text without a careful collation of the whole of the first two chapters of Deuteronomy. The omissions are even more striking than the variations. All that relates to Moses’s own feelings is left out as well as the descriptions of the various conflicts in which the Israelites were engaged. Only in one case a direct opposition to the present narrative occurs. In Deut. ii. 37, it is said, “Only…thou camest not unto any place of the river Jabbok,” whereas in the new version it is distinctly stated “then we turned and went up the way of the brook Jabbok.“ It is clear at least from this opening specimen that if any imposture has been attempted, the imposter is one of remarkable skill who has carefully carried out the problem of giving a new text sufficiently independent of the received one to attract the attention of scholars.

One variation from the received text deserves special notice. The Tetragrammaton does not occur throughout, “Elohim” being used instead. This variation comes into special prominence in the version of the Ten Commandments which occur in the following form in the MS.:

[Here in the original article, the version of the Ten Commandments reflected in the Shapira MS are presented.]

Here the separate Commandments are divided by the curious refrain “I am God, thy God.” The first thing to notice is the variation in the order of the Commandments. Representing those of the MS. by Roman figures and those of the Authorised Version by Arabic numerals we get the following parallelism:

I = 1 and 2; II = 4; III = 5; IV = 6; V = 7; VI = 8; VII = 3; VIII = 9; IX = 10; X = cf. Lev. xix. 17.

Thus the first and second Commandments are run into one, the third is placed seventh, and the tenth Commandment is added at the end made out of the text is Leviticus xix., 17.

The curious refrain “I am God, thy God” is another variation which distinguishes the text of the new MS from the Massoretic text; although it is found in the form of “I am the Lord thy God” as a refrain to the precepts in Leviticus xix and xx. It is quite clear that these variations imply quite a different version of the Ten Commandments than that contained in the Bible. How these arose need not as yet be discussed till the authenticity of the MS. is decided by palæographic experts. In the meantime, it will be interesting to read the following statement which Mr. Shapira made on Monday to the authorities of the British Museum:[2]

“He first heard of the fragment in the middle of July 1878. A Sheikh, with several Arabs of different tribes, came to him at his place of business in Jerusalem on other matters. The Sheikh had nothing to do with antiquities. They spoke of some little black fragments of writing in the possession of an Arab. They had been found in the neighbourhood of the Arnon. One of the Arabs spoke of them as talismans, smelling of asphalte.

The day following Shapira was invited to dinner by the Sheikh, and heard more about the fragments. About the year 1865, at a time of persecution, certain Arabs had hid themselves among rocks. There, on the side of a rocky cavern they found several bundles wrapped in linen. Peeling off the covering they found only black fragments, which they threw away. They were picked up by one of the Arabs believing them to be talismans. He kept them as such, and became rich, as he thought, in consequence. This was probably ten years or more before Shapira heard of them. Captain Conder knows the exact time. Shapira promised the Sheikh a reward if he would bring to him an Arab he spoke of who would be able to get hold of the fragments. This happened on the day of the dinner. The Sheikh fell ill, and afterwards died.

About 10 or 12 days after the dinner a man of the Ajaya tribe brought to him a small piece, containing four columns. A few words only were legible. A week after, on Sunday, he brought 14 or 15 columns containing the clearer writing. The next Sunday he brought 14 or 15 more columns, in another character of writing, but not all of one form. Ten days after, on Wednesday, he brought three or four columns, very black. Shapira saw nothing more of him.

After an interval of four or five weeks Shapira wrote Professor Schlottmann, on the 24th of September; soon after, also, to Dr. Rieu. The writings were (some of them) in better condition than at present. Schlottmann wrote that they were fabrications, and blamed Shapira for calling them a sacred text. He never saw the writings themselves, only Shapira’s copy. Schlottmann wrote in similar terms to the Consul at Jerusalem, Baron von Münchausen, and desired him to prevent Shapira from making the find public. Then Shapira wrote or telegraphed to Dr. Rieu that the writings were forgeries, and that he was to take no steps in respect to them. This he did in consequence of Schlottmann’s judgment of them, and the reasons on which it was founded. He placed him in a bank in Jerusalem.

Subsequently he began to reconsider Schlottmann’s objections, and he found that they were partly grounded on mistakes Shapira had made in deciphering the writing. He felt better able to judge of them himself because he had had more experience in manuscripts. It was before Easter of the present year that he re-examined them, and he deciphered them a second time. Professor Schroeder, Consul in Beyrout, saw them in the middle of May, 1883, and pronounced them genuine. He wanted to purchase them. Shapira took the writings to Leipzig at the end of July to have them photographed. Professors there saw them. Dr. Hermann believed in them, as did Professor Guthe, who intends to write about them. They had been smeared with asphalte originally as a kind of embalmment. They became subsequently further darkened by the use of oil and spirit. The oil was used by the Arabs to counteract the brittleness, and to prevent their suffering from wet.”

Meanwhile, The Athenæum was going to print with the first of three installments from Dr. Ginsburg. Each of these publications would contain a Hebrew transcription and an English translation of a section of the manuscript strips. The first of these would appear the next day, Saturday, 11 August 1883.

[1] “The New Manuscript of Deuteronomy,” The Jewish Chronicle, (10 August 1883) 9, 10-11.

[2] The account provided to the readers of The Jewish Chronicle was the same that was published in The Times on 8 August 1883.