As the second week of Ginsburg’s analysis came to an end, and with public interest on the rise, two of the leather strips were placed on display in a poorly-lit glass case in the King’s Library of the British Museum. Each day, between the hours of ten and four, under the watchful eye of an assigned guard, crowds of people visited the exhibit to cast their eyes upon the celebrated scroll fragments.

King’s Library, The British Museum

On Monday, 13 August, British Prime Minister William Gladstone took the opportunity to examine the display.[1]Not only was Gladstone interested in biblical matters, but it also seems that he was invested particularly in the work and research of Christian David Ginsburg. An article appearing in The Times on Friday, 3 August 1883, referred to Ginsburg as the “well-known Semitic scholar [who received] a grant of £500 from the Prime Minister towards the production of his important work on the Massorah.”[2]

The report published the day after the visit said, “Mr. Gladstone visited the British Museum … for the purpose of inspecting the now famous Shapira Manuscript of the Book of Deuteronomy. The Premier was met at the museum by Dr. Ginsburg and Mr. Bond, the Principal Librarian, and also by Mr. Shapira. The latter repeated the story of his discovery of the manuscript among the Arabs east of the Jordan, and was closely questioned by Mr. Gladstone, who carefully examined the rolls, and expressed himself much astonished at the close similarity of the writing to the writing of the Moabite Stone and the Siloam Inscription at Jerusalem.”[3]

Meanwhile, Ginsburg’s work began to elicit opinions from other scholars who, despite having not seen the scroll, felt obliged to opine and thereby get in on the attention that the Phoenician fragments were attracting. On the same day that the British prime minister viewed the scroll, two scholars, Adolf Neubauer and Archibald Henry Sayce would weigh in against its authenticity.[4]


August 13th, 1883

“From the very outset, when I did not as yet know a word of the contents of Mr. Shapira’s Moabite Deuteronomy (as I must call it, since it was discovered in the land of Moab, and is reported to be written in characters similar to those on the Moabite stone), I held it to be a forgery. Mr. Shapira seems to have undergone for the second time the fate that befell him (according to his own statement) in the case of the Moabite pottery which now adorns the Foreign Office at Berlin (the Municipal Museum having refused to accept it). Judging from two inscriptions published by Dr. Schlottmann, of Halle, I then declared in the Academy all this pottery to be a modern fabrication. That I was right is now acknowledged on all sides. I am not now going to imitate Professor Kautzsch, who wrote a big book in order to prove the mistakes of grammar and idiom in the inscriptions on the pottery; with this a few instances would have been sufficient, as they will also be in the present case.

We have now the original text of the Decalogue as contained in the Shapira sheepskins, published by Dr. Ginsburg, with a few remarks, in the last number of the Athenæum. Here we find the first two Commandments of the received text fused into one in the Moabite text. There can be no doubt as to this, since each Commandment in the new version concludes with the words, ‘I am God, thy God’ (I shall have to say a word or two about this apostrophe later on). This is not, however, a new idea; it was already mooted by mediæval Jewish writers. Next we are struck by the άπαξ λεγόμενον, ההרתך, ‘I liberated thee.’ The usual verbs employed for liberating from Egypt and from the house of bondage, in the historical as well as the prophetical books of the Bible, are either yatsa in the Hiphil form (as the receive text has it here) or padah. The roots harah or hur are not used his verbs in the Old Testament, but only in the Targum, and in the Talmud, and then not in the Hiphil form, or with the particle min. It is difficult to understand how both texts of the Decalogue, in Exodus as well as in Deuteronomy, should have no trace of such a word, but employ uniformly instead of at the root yatsa. In all the other Commandments of the Moabite text, moreover, Israel is addressed in the second person singular; why, then, do we find in the First Commandment ‘Ye shall not have,’ ‘ye shall not bow down?’ I shall not say much about the omission of the words ‘before me’ and the passage beginning ‘for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God,’ and ending with verse 10.  This last passage we shall find in another Commandment of the new text. If, however, we have already found a strange idiomatical expression, we have as yet come across no grammatical mistake. For this we must wait until we reach the Second Commandment, which refers to the keeping of the Sabbath. It runs thus: ‘Sanctify… for in six days I have made the heavens and the earth, and all that is therein, and rested the seventh day, therefore rest thou, also thee, and the cattle, and are that thou hast.’ ושבתי, ‘and I rested,׳ is ungrammatical; it ought to be ואשבת. Evidently the Moabite writer did not make use of Dr. Driver’s excellent work on the Hebrew tenses. The root shaboth does not mean ‘to rest,’ but ‘to cease from work,’ and in this sense only it is found in the Old Testament. The forger made a blunder in not leaving the root noah as in the received text. The word gam ought to be repeated according to classical Hebrew: cf. Exod. xvii, 31, 32, and elsewhere. The expressions ‘and all thou hast’ and ‘anything that is his’ are not classical Hebrew. The Fourth Commandment runs thus: ‘Thou shalt not murder the person of thy brother.’ But this is not Hebrew, as can be seen from the passage urezaho nefesh (Deut. xxii, 26). Here a clumsy use has been made of the Chaldee paraphrase. The Fifth Commandment says: ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery with the wife of the neighbour.’ cf. Lev. xx, 10. The Sixth Commandment reads: ‘Thou shalt not steal the wealth [not property] of thy brother.’ Hon is not to be found in the Pentateuch, the word haïl being employed there instead of it in the sense of ‘wealth.’ Now what is the meaning of these paraphrases of the last three Commandments? It is usually supposed that concise texts are the early ones, and paraphrases the later. Why is the word ‘brother’ employed twice, and the third time ‘neighbour?’ Is that a slip of the pen? We come now to the Seventh Commandment, the composition of which does no great credit to the author of it. Here we read: ‘Thou shalt not swear by my name falsely [Lev. xix 12], for I shall be jealous [Dr. Ginsburg translates ‘I visit;’ but can kanâ be used in that sense, or is it a miss reading?] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third generation who take my name for a lie’ (not ‘in vain,’ as Dr. Ginsburg renders it). I have already pointed out the strange – I should rather say the impossible – use of the root kanâ; but the expression lenosey is rabbinical; in classical Hebrew we would expect laish asher yissa. The word eduth, ‘witness,’ is equally a rabbinical form. Such is the grammatical and idiomatic character of the new Moabite text of the Decalogue. I will now pass on to some other points. Dr. Ginsburg informs us ‘that every Commandment begins a fresh line.’ This is a modern idea of writing; in the Siloam Inscription a word even does not end with a line. Dr. Ginsburg goes on to say that the words ‘that thy days may be prolonged’ (in the Fourth Commandment) are absent on one of the slips, but occur on the duplicate. He adds: ‘This is either due to an omission on the part of the scribe, or indicates that it is intended as a different recension.’ The account which Mr. Shapira gives of the way he came into possession of this treasure is rather contradictory, in somewhat damaging to the authenticity of the fragments. He says at the end of his letter addressed to Dr. Ginsburg: – 

‘In about twelve days I got [from an Arab near Aroer] four or five columns, with a few Phœnician [?] letters visible upon them; in eight days more he brought me about sixteen beautifully written columns; in eight days more about fifteen, not so well written; in eleven or twelve days more four or five well-written columns; and I have not seen the man again. The Sheikh died soon, and I lost every trace that would enable me to follow the object further.’

The end of the story is tragical; death sometimes comes when it ought not. But where are these beautifully written columns? From the report in the Times, I gather that all the slips are not so easy to decipher. One point more. I have mentioned that the Decalogue begins and ends with the words ‘I am God [Elohim, not Jehovah, Lord], thy God,’ and that at the end of every Commandment these words occur again. This is certainly the cleverest thing in the new Deuteronomy, as it turns the fragments into an Elohistic text. (Dr. Ginsburg, by the way, states from memory that the expression אלהים אלהיך, ׳God thy God,’ does not occur in the Old Testament. It does, however, occur in the Elohistic Psalms, xlv, 8 and l, 7. The last quotation might have served as a model for the new Decalogue.) Unfortunately, the Moabite Moses has blundered at the very beginning of the book by using the following words: – ‘These be the words which Moses spake according to the mouth of Jehovah’ (so, at least, we read in the translation given in the Times). The rest of the chapter has only Elohim. This and the following chapters of the new Deuteronomy might be criticised with as damaging an effect as the Decalogue, but it is not worth our while to do so; ab uno disce omnia. The omissions and the additions in this part are made without even a superficial knowledge of the result of modern criticism. I shall only point out one oversight: i, 9 of the new text reads ‘because I have given unto the children of Lot the city for a position.’ Instead of city the Authorised Version has Ar. The new text must consequently have עיר instead of ער. Now in the Decalogue, as well as upon the Moabite Stone (for the scriptio of דיבן, Dibbon, Dr. Nöldeke rightly suggests that it was most probably pronounced Daybon), and also in the Siloam Inscription, the scriptio defectiva is general; how, then, does it happen that עיר is written plene? Is it a slip of the pen again? I give my opinion on this grave question without being able to take any notice of the palæography of the sheepskins. But I am certainly not very anxious to study the ‘beautifully written columns’ of the new Moabite scribe, as I am convinced from the text itself that the whole is a forgery.”

A. Neubauer

Queens College, Oxford,

August 13th, 1883

“We learn from the Times, as well as from Dr. Ginsburg‘s communication to the Athenæum, that the fragments of the Book of Deuteronomy which Mr. Shapira has brought to England are written in characters resembling those of the Moabites Stone. Now the discovery of the Siloam Inscription has shown that these were not the characters used in Judah (and therefore presumably in the northern kingdom of Israel) in the pre-exilic period. Consequently, if the fragments were genuine, they would belong to a Moabite and not to a Jewish Book of Deuteronomy, and the opening verse of the book would contain the name Chemosh, and not of Yahveh or Jehovah.

It is really demanding too much of Western credulity to ask us to believe that in a damp climate like that of Palestine any sheepskins could have lasted for nearly 3,000 years, either above ground or under ground, even though they may have been abundantly salted with asphalt from the Vale of Siddim itself.”

A. H. Sayce

Dr. Ginsburg had not expressed his opinion as to the authenticity of the manuscript strips. One would think that had he any doubt in their genuineness, he would have shared this information with the British Prime Minister. The world eagerly awaited Ginsburg’s final decision. Meanwhile, another scholar, full of doubts about the authenticity of Shapira’s leather strips, was making his way from France.

[1] For references to Prime Minister Gladstone’s visit to the British Museum, see, “The Shapira MS. Of Deuteronomy,” The Jewish Chronicle, 17 August 1883, 10; “The Shapira Manuscript,” The Standard, 14 August 1883; The Rock, 17 August 1883; The Record, Friday, 17 August 1883, 820. In The Record, and The Rock, it is stated that Gladstone visited on Tuesday, 14 August 1883.

[2] Estimated at nearly $60,000 in 2021.

[3] “The Shapira Manuscript,” The Standard, Tuesday, 14 August 1883.

[4] The opinions of Neubauer and Sayce were the first to officially come out against the authenticity of the manuscript strips. Both of their letters were published initially in “The Shapira MSS. of Deuteronomy,” The Acadamy, 18 August 1883 – No. 589.