After the meeting of Thursday, 26 July 1883 at the office of the Palestine Exploration Fund, Dr. Ginsburg was placed in charge of the manuscript strips brought to England by Moses W. Shapira and tasked to examine them at the British Museum. The following Friday, 3 August 1883, the first two news stories broke. One appeared in The Times, and the other appeared in The Jewish Chronicle. These are transcriptions of the original reports.[1]

The Times, Friday, August 3, 1883

The surprises of archæology are magnificent and apparently inexhaustible. It is continually bringing forth things new and old, and often it happens that the newest are the oldest of all. Whether this or the exact converse is the case in regard to the latest discovery of Biblical archæology is a question not to be determined offhand; but the interest and importance of the question can hardly be overrated. There are now deposited in the British Museum fifteen leather slips, on the forty folds of which are written portions of the Book of Deuteronomy in a recension entirely different from that of the received text. The character employed in the manuscript is similar to that of the famous Moabite stone and of the Siloam inscription, and, therefore, the mere palæographical indication should give the probable date of the slips as the ninth century B.C., or sixteen centuries earlier than any other clearly authenticated manuscript of any portion of the Old Testament. The sheepskin slips are literally black with age and are impregnated with a faint odour as of funereal spices; the folds are from six to seven inches long and about three and a half inches wide, containing each about ten lines, written only on one side. So far as they have yet been deciphered, they exhibit two distinct handwritings, though the same archaic character is used throughout. In some cases the same passages of Deuteronomy occur in duplicate on distinct slips, as though the fragments belonged to two contemporary transcriptions made by different scribes from the same original text. At first sight, no writing whatever is perceptible; the surface seems to be covered with an oily or glutinous substance, which so completely obscures the writing beneath that a photograph of some of the slips – which we have had an opportunity of examining side-by-side with the slips themselves – exhibits no trace of the text. But when the leather is moistened with spirits of wine the letters become momentarily visible beneath the glossy surface. These extraordinary fragments were brought to England by Mr. Shapira, of Jerusalem, a well-known bookseller and dealer in antiquities. Mr. Shapira’s name will be remembered in connexion with certain archæological problems which have been solved by some scholars in a manner not altogether creditable to his sagacity. The Moabite Pottery which reached Europe through Mr. Shapira’s agency and is deposited in the museum at Berlin is now commonly regarded as a modern forgery; but of this forgery, if it be one, it is asserted that Mr. Shapira was the dupe and not the accomplice. The leathern fragments now produced by Mr. Shapira were, as he alleges, obtained by him from certain Arabs near Dibon, the neighbourhood where are the Moabite stone was discovered. The agent employed by him in their purchase was an Arab “who would steal his mother-in-law for a few piastres,” and who would probably be even less scrupulous about a few blackened slips of ancient or modern sheepskin. The value place by Mr. Shapira on the fragments is, however, a cool million sterling, and at this price they are offered to the British Museum, where they have been temporarily deposited for examination. Dr. Ginsberg, the well-known Semitic scholar – whose receipt of a grant of £500 from the Prime Minister towards the production of his important work on the “Massorah” we announced with much satisfaction yesterday – is now busily engaged in deciphering the contents of the fragments and examining their genuineness. On this latter question we refrain from pronouncing an opinion. When Dr. Ginsburg’s report appears we shall be able to judge whether these extraordinary fragments are really 2,500 years old or have been compiled within the last few years.

No complete account of the contents of the fragments can yet be given. To decipher them is a work of time and of infinite patience and skill, as will readily be inferred from the account we have given above of the appearance and condition of the slips. But enough has been deciphered to show that the text employed in them exhibits discrepancies of the most remarkable and important character as compared with that of the received version of the Mosaic books. In the first verse of the ninth chapter of Deuteronomy, where the received version reads, “Thou art to pass over Jordan this day, to go in to possess nations greater and mightier than thyself,” the corresponding passage of the fragments substitutes the plural for the singular, “ye” for “Thou,” while for “g’dôlîm,” the word translated “greater,“ it reads “rabbîm.” But a far more complete idea of the variations of text and signification may be obtained from a comparison of the text of the Decalogue as it appears in the received version in the sixth [sic] chapter of Deuteronomy with that contained in the fragments so far as they have yet been deciphered. The version of the fragments, literally rendered, runs as follows: – “I am God, thy God, which liberated thee from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Ye shall have no other gods. Ye shall not make to yourselves any graven image, nor any likeness that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth. Ye shall not bow down to them nor serve them. I am God, your God. Sanctify….in six days I have made the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and rested on the seventh day, therefore rest thou also, thou and thy cattle and all that thou hast: I am God, thy God. Honour thy father and thy mother…..: I am God, thy God. Thou shalt not kill the person of thy brother: I am God, thy God. Thou shalt not commit adultery with the wife of thy neighbor: I am God, thy God. Thou shalt not steal the property of thy brother: I am God, thy God. Thou shalt not swear by my name falsely, for I visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children onto the third and fourth generation of those who take my name in vain: I am God, thy God. Thou shall not bear false witness against thy brother: I am God, thy God. Thou shalt not covet the wife….or his manservant, or he is maidservant, or anything that is his: I am God, thy God. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart: I am God, thy God. These ten words (or commandments) God spake.” Several points may be noted in this version. The singular refrain “I am God, thy God” – which does not appear at all in the received version – occurs ten times, being, as it were, a solemn ratification of the Divine sanction given at the end of each separate precept. If this be so, the first two commandments as they are commonly reckoned, are here fused into one, and the tenth place is taken by a commandment which does not appear in the received version of the Decalogue. It will further be observed that the distinctive Jewish name for the Almighty, “Jehovah” or “the LORD,” does not appear at all, the familiar phrase of the received version, “the LORD thy God,” being replaced throughout by “God, thy God.” On the many variations in arrangement and detail we need not dwell; they speak for themselves. But we have quoted enough to show that these fragments present problems of the utmost importance and interest both to criticism in exegesis, unless, indeed, they are to be regarded as the ingenious fabrications of some Oriental Ireland, who, knowing the interest felt by scholars in variations of the Sacred Text, has set himself, with infinite pains and skill, to forestall a growing demand.

Until this preliminary question is resolved to the satisfaction of all competent scholars no further questions need be raised. In any case the primâ facie presumption must be held to be enormously against the genuineness of the fragments. Such a presumption rests on the improbability of finding manuscripts older by at least sixteen centuries than any extant manuscripts of the same text, on the comparative ease with which such fragments can be forged, and on the powerful motives to such forgery attested by the price placed by Mr. Shapira on his property. All that we know of the provenance of the fragments is that Mr. Shapira obtained them from an Arab of doubtful character; and that Arabs of doubtful character have driven a splendid trade in Moabite antiquities ever since the discovery of the Moabite stone. On the other hand, the forger, if forgery there be, is assuredly no clumsy and ignorant bungler, as the makers of the Moabite pottery were confidently alleged to be by those who disputed its genuineness. It is, of course, part of his craft, and not, perhaps, much more than the ‘prentice part, to give to the sheepskins on which the text is inscribed an appearance of immemorial antiquity. But a good deal more than the skill required to make a new sheepskin look like an old one has gone to the production of Mr. Shapira’s fragments. If they are forged, the fabricator must have known what scholars would be likely to expect in genuine fragments and have set himself to fulfill their expectations. In these days of scientific palæography and minute textual scholarship no forger of ancient manuscripts could hope to take in scholars unless he were a scholar himself. Variations of text would be looked for as a matter of course; palæographical accuracy would be exacted to the minutest turn of a letter. Now, to vary a text so as to furnish a different recension without betraying ignorance or solecism requires scholarship of no mean order, while it is very far from an easy thing to write currently in an archaic and unfamiliar character in such a manner as to deceive experts in palæography. But the fabricator of these fragments, if fabricated they are, has attempted and accomplished a good deal more than this. He has in some cases produced two identical texts written in different hands, both preserving unimpaired the archaic character of the letters. This implies either the employment of two scribes or else an almost incredible skill in the single scribe employed, and in either case it doubles the probability of detection. If, moreover, the supposed fabricator is also himself the scribe, it is evident that he is not only a very ingenious artist, but also a very accomplished scholar, and one can only regret that he has engaged in an industry which has placed him at the mercy of an Arab who would steal his mother-in-law for a few piatres, and is likely, therefore, to enrich no one but Mr. Shapira. We should expect to find, however, that his extraordinary ingenuity has at some point or another overreached itself. Familiar as he must be with the labours of modern Biblical critics – for otherwise he would hardly have ventured to impose upon them – it would be strange if he were not betrayed into some more or less suspicious coincidences with them. In any case, the problem presented by the fragments is one of profound interest, and the whole world of letters will resound with the controversy they are certain to excite.

The Jewish Chronicle, Friday, August 3, 1883[2]

A very curious Phoenician copy of Deuteronomy, or at least a part of that book, has been brought to London. A number of Semitic savants met the other day in the office of the Palestine Exploration Fund, where the document was to be seen. The word document ought not perhaps to be used, for it consists of a number of small pieces of parchment, in a very decayed and dirty condition. On some of them Phoenician letters are distinctly visible, while on others spirits of wine must be passed with a camel hair pencil before the letters can be seen. The writing has been to a certain extent deciphered, and is part of the Book of Deuteronomy: it is said to be as old as the Moabite stone, which is generally supposed to date back to about 900 before the Christian era.

It need scarcely be stated that if this turns out to be correct, these pieces of leather will possess a high value, not only in money, but also in a literary sense, for they contain some curious variations in the reading, among which we have an extra commandment, which is, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart”—by joining the first and second commandment into one, this becomes the tenth in the Phoenician version. In chapter vii. 20, instead of “hornet” the copy gives “leprosy.” There is also an important variation in chapter xxviii, in relation to the “Blessings,” and the death of Moses is omitted.

This singular relic of the past has been brought to this country by Mr. Shapira, of Jerusalem, who was introduced to the meeting by Mr. Besant, and he explained how he became possessed of it. Five years ago he received information that some Arabs near Diban, in Moab, the same locality where the Moabite stone was discovered, had a rare talisman to which they attributed all the good luck which befell them. Mr. Shapira, thinking it might be something ancient, employed some Arabs to aid him, and he described their character as “people who would steal their own mother-in-law for a few piasters.” By this means the talisman was carried off, and from a cave in the Wadi Mojib it now appears in the Strand, subject to the anxious scrutiny of men learned in Hebrew and Assyrian writing.

The previous reputation of “Moabite Pottery,” which had the name of Mr. Shapira connected with it, naturally tends to make people careful in their judgment on Moabite manuscripts. After the Moabite stone was accepted as authentic, other Moabite stones were found which had to be rejected; and savants are now inclined to be skeptical of anything coming from the eastern side of the Dead Sea. Before this copy of Deuteronomy can pass as genuine, it will have to undergo a very minute scrutiny, and be subjected to a careful examination. It is now under this process, and Dr. Ginsburg’s report as well as that of others who are engaged on it, will be looked for with great anxiety by all Biblical scholars. Mr. Shapira talks of a million sterling as the value of this discovery. Purchasers at that sum will probably be scarce.

[1] For more information and the context of these reports in the unfolding Shapira Saga see, Ross K. Nichols, “The Hero of the Hour,” in The Moses Scroll, (Saint Francisville: Horeb Press, 2021), 53-56. A copy of the 3 August 1883 article from The Times can be found in “Papers Relative to M.W. Shapira’s Forged MS. of Deuteronomy (A.D. 1883-1884),” Add. MS. 41294 (London: British Library).

[2] “A New Version of Deuteronomy,” The Jewish Chronicle, 3 August 1883, 13.