In The Moses Scroll, I presented evidence that Moses Wilhelm Shapira was involved in early efforts to decipher the Siloam Inscription.[1] His daughter reported his work in copying and producing a “tracing” of the inscription, but as this article will show, Moses Shapira was the first to recognize the meaning of the Siloam Inscription and was correct about one specific reading when other scholars were initially wrong.[2] A careful review of contemporary reports is now necessary to set the record straight and to give, as we say, credit where credit is due.

A PDF version of this article is posted on my Academia page – click here to download it.

Toward a Timeline – The Siloam Inscription

In June of 1880, a Sephardic boy named Jacob Eliyahu (1864-1932), a student of Conrad Schick, discovered the Siloam Inscription.[3] Schick reported the discovery to scholars in Germany in a letter dated 22 June 1880, and Albert Socin published the news of the recently discovered inscription in an article dated 7 July 1880.[4] Walter Besant, Secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund, was informed of the discovery on 3 August 1880, and an article by Schick appeared in the pages of the Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly a short time later.[5] In January of 1881, Schick “succeeded in procuring a copy of the inscription; this was not a squeeze, but a so-called facsimile, in other words, it had been copied from the rock by the light of a candle. Tracings were made of the facsimile and sent to various scholars, but no one ventured from such slender materials to attempt a reading.”[6] The French Consul at Jaffa appointed Monsieur Clermont-Ganneau to examine the inscription, but illness delayed his participation.[7]

On 1 February 1881, a “facsimile copy” arrived at the offices of the Palestine Exploration Fund, and according to Walter Besant, “tracings [were] sent to various Hebrew scholars, but it was still too imperfect to be read.”[8] On 7 February 1881, Reverend Archibald Sayce wrote a letter from Jerusalem in which he related that he, along with Mr. John Slater, had examined the inscription. He also reported that after two visits to the inscription, he had succeeded in producing a copy. The letter, including a line-by-line transcription, was published in The Athenæum.[9] The same edition of The Athenæum provided an update from Sayce dated 26 February 1881. In his update, Sayce reported, “I now have as perfect a copy of this inscription as can well be obtained,” adding further that upon his return to England, he would pass his copy to the Palestine Exploration Fund. Sayce then proceeded to correct some of his statements from his previous letter of 7 February 1881. He informed his readers that the inscription was “not Hebrew, as I imagined, but Phœnician.” Therefore, he continued, “I have little hesitation in assigning it to the age of Solomon, or possibly David (2 Sam. V. 11), when Phœnician workmen were employed in the construction of the public buildings at Jerusalem.” Sayce attributed his new insights to the improved conditions resulting from Schick’s successful reduction of “water flowing through the rocky channel.”[10] The notes from Sayce were reprinted by the Palestine Exploration Fund with the first published drawing of the Siloam Inscription.[11]

Walter Besant reported that on 1 March 1881, “a somewhat improved copy of the inscription arrived.” He said tracings were distributed, “but no one has ventured on a reading from materials so imperfect.”[12] Sayce was apparently excluded in the statement of Besant. He must have meant that “no one” else has ventured on a reading. 

In March of 1881, the Deutschen Palæstina-Vereins determined to send Hermann Guthe to Jerusalem, in part to lead in the efforts of securing a better copy of the inscription. He consulted archaeologists and chemists on how best to clean the stone, but “no definite advice” was given by those he consulted, “but everyone warned me to be careful.”[13] Before he left, Herrn Professor J. Gildemeister in Bonn gave him a copy of the newly, and one might add providentially, published booklet by Ernst Willibald Emil Hübner on making mechanical copies of inscriptions.[14] He arrived in Jerusalem on 23 March 1881.[15] After visiting the inscription to assess the situation, Guthe proceeded in his initial attempt to make a copy of the inscription. Between 26 and 31 March, he made his first copy.[16]

During his time in Jerusalem, Hermann Guthe made the acquaintance of Moses Shapira, the “famed antiquarian and bookseller” over their joint “interest in the then not yet securely read Siloam Inscription,” an interest that “led him many times to me, and I visited him repeatedly in his shop on Christian Street.”[17] Guthe continued to study and produce drawings of the inscription. On 3 May 1881, a cast was delivered to Guthe. While it turned out better than he expected, the cast “lagged behind” his drawings “in clarity and completeness.”[18]

At the end of May 1881, Lieutenant Conder arrived in Jerusalem after a six-year absence. In his report dated 28 May 1883, Conder related that Guthe gave him a personal tour of the inscription. Conder wrote, “It is thought in Jerusalem that Professor Sayce’s copy and translation may prove too hasty to be of any value. Mr. Shapira gives a different interpretation to the text, explaining it as referring to the cutting of the tunnel from the 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.”[19]

By the end of May, Guthe had revised his drawing to correct mistakes and oversights. His repeated visits to the inscription allowed him to recognize letters “whose real shape had been unclear” to him. It became apparent to Guthe that he should proceed to attempt a cleaning based upon Hübner’s work. He read that in cases of “dirt, clay or lime earth, silicates and the like, on or in the writing surfaces, then hydrochloric acid can be used without danger, diluted according to the strength of the dirt.”[20] Guthe reported that before he began the cleaning process, he made a plaster cast to be on the safe side. On 11 June 1881, Guthe did his first washing based on Hübner’s advice. He wrote that he used “hydrochloric acid, half diluted with water, I first applied with a brush to those places and letters on the stone which had previously been unequivocally established in my copy … After a favorable observation, Mr. Paulus and I coated the whole stone with hydrochloric acid and noticed from second to second how the letters became clearer, but how new cracks, which had been previously filled and covered by dirt, became visible to the eye. Nevertheless, the plaster cast that was now made proved how extraordinarily advantageous the treatment with hydrochloric acid had been for the clarity of the inscription.”[21]

Work continued in June to improve the conditions of the Siloam tunnel. Guthe reported, “for two days, June 22nd and 23rd, I had three workers clean the southern end of the old Siloam canal, bringing out stones and mud so that the water could drain away quickly and freely,” and that on the 23rd, “the last large stone between the current and the old water outflow channel was lifted. Immediately, all water drained through the old canal, and the pool became completely dry.”[22]

Professor E. Kautzsch reported that on 25 June 1881, “through the mediation of Prof. Strack in Berlin, we received a new transcription of the inscription in Hebrew letters together with an attempt at an interpretation of the first two lines, both from the hand of the bookseller Schapira in Jerusalem.” Kautzsch thanked Shapira and affirmed his agreement with some of his readings.[23]

Meanwhile, Sayce and others began to suggest that Guthe’s cleaning had somehow damaged the inscription since some of what was observable before the washing was no longer discernable. Guthe responded, “Professor Sayce’s imagination, which is so powerful, seeks to elevate them [cracks or holes in the stones presented by him as letters] to higher significance. One could just as well look for a secret in other cracks in the rock under the sixth line.”[24] Assured of his ability to clean the inscription safely and confident that another cleaning would help, Hermann Guthe performed his second washing on 9 July 1881.[25]

On 13 July 1881, from the Cannon Street Hotel, Moses Shapira penned a piece for publication in The Athenæum.[26] He began, “The interest your paper and English readers took in the discovery of the inscription found in the lower pool of Siloam will excuse my writing to you. Neither the attempt of Mr. Schick, nor that of Prof. Sayce, nor that of Dr. Guthe, who has been sent out from Leipzig by the committee of the Deutsche 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. So that we must admire the talents of the learned scholars of Europe, and especially that of Prof. Sayce, who have been able already to tell us so much from bad copies.” He then provided his translation which differed from other published translations on several points. In reference to his translation of line 5, he wrote, “1,200 (not 1,000), I read במאתי(ם ו)אלף.” This would set off a series of responses from members of the academic community.

On 14 July 1881, Guthe dated his “Über die Siloahinscrift [About the Siloam Inscription].” In that work, he provided an outline of his efforts to improve the situation, thus allowing for a better reading. He concluded his work by saying of Shapira, “I have seen some other copies here in Jerusalem; Mr. W. M. Schapira, in particular, was kind enough to let me see the one he had prepared, which also contained Professor Sayce’s variants and conjectures. I understand that the latter has now published his copy with translation and explanation. As the same has not yet come into my hands, a comparison was not possible for me. With regard to what I have seen from Mr. W. M. Schapira, I remark that my copy gives a far more accurate and clear picture of the inscription. I let myself be guided by the principle of not sending unfinished and uncertain material to my friends in Germany, thereby causing them to make hasty interpretations, but I waited until the completion of my copy, about which I gave an account above. I am now presenting these and the plaster casts in the hope of creating as firm a basis as possible for the deciphering work and a tolerable knowledge of what the makers of the inscription once engraved.”[27]

On 16 July 1881, Neubauer objected to Shapira’s readings, including his “1,200 cubits.” In his submission from “Bodleian Library, July 18, 1881,” he said, “It would, therefore, be premature to discuss Shapira’s readings, given in his letter to the Athenæum.” “Mr. Shapira was probably misled…” He concludes, “’ Two hundred and thousand,’ line 5 (why does Mr. Shapira write ‘one thousand and two hundred’?) is not Hebrew; the thousands are always before the hundreds. I could point out other irregularities in Mr. Shapira’s readings.”[28] Neubauer’s comments were met with a response from Shapira in the following edition of The Athenæum. He wrote, “Of the words’ two hundred and one thousand,’ I have only to say that I consulted about them the most eminent Oriental scholars in Berlin and Leipzig, and they all think that, although it is not usual Hebrew to put the hundreds before the thousands, it is nevertheless possible, and that this is the real reading.”[29] In the same edition of The Athenæum, there is a short notice that says, “The Trustees of the British Museum have thanked Mr. Shapira for the valuable MSS. he has brought from Arabia, and which the Trustees have purchased for something over 800l. The Bodleian has also acquired some MSS from Mr. Shapira.” 

The following week’s paper included Neubauer’s response to Shapira. After apologizing for taking up space “with a controversy which I consider useless … I feel bound to give an explanation on some points mentioned in Mr. Shapira’s letter.” He then goes on to take up space. Among his comments, he turned to the debate as to whether the inscription says one thousand or twelve hundred cubits. He said in point three, “I am not surprised that ‘the most eminent Oriental scholars in Berlin and Leipzig’ think that it is possible to place ‘hundreds’ before ‘thousands’ in Hebrew, since they are so anti-Semitic there at the present moment. For my own part, I take my stand on Scriptural Hebrew, where no example of the kind is to be found. Besides, if Col. Warren’s measurement of the tunnel, 1,708 feet in length, is right, Mr. Shapira’s 1,200 cubits would show that its constructors could not measure correctly.” He signed and dated his submission, “Bodleian Library, August 1, 1881.”[30]

Guthe later addressed Neubauer’s remark, confirming Shapira’s reading. He said, “The plaster cast demonstrates by its points with certainty about the division of words. In front of the narrow crack below the larger crevice, my copy shows the unmistakable remains of a מ which cannot be perceived with the same certainty on the plaster cast. The following letter is of course almost entirely destroyed; only individual lines have survived from the head, and they confirm the assumption that a ו can be read before אלף. One cannot translate other than: ‘The water went (flowed) from the spring to the pool 1,200 cubits.’ The connection of the numbers [hundreds before thousands] is like Numbers 3:50 שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת וָאֶלף. It is striking that the preposition בְּ seems to be used here for the expansion in space, but it will be based on the idea: The water flowed within the space of 1200 cubits indicated by the previous words. Sayce doubts the existence of the מ in front of the crack that cuts vertically through the fifth line and assumes that the group במאתי consists of the preposition בְּ and the word מָתַי ‘expansion’ written with א as a marker (scriptio plena). He therefore translates: ‘And there flowed the waters from their outlet to the pool for a distance of a thousand cubits.’ But since the מ is certainly there, a refutation of this artificiality is superfluous.” 

Guthe also added a footnote to his reference to Numbers 3:50. It said, “This eliminates Neubauer’s misgivings about this combination of numbers, which he wrote in the Athenæum 1881, July to December, p. 176 with references to Shapira’s words: ‘I am not surprised that, the most eminent Oriental scholars in Berlin and Leipzig think that it is possible to place hundreds before thousands in Hebrew, since they are so anti-Semitic (!) there at the present moment. For my part, I take my stand on Scriptural Hebrew, where no example of the kind is to be found.’ Who was ‘anti-Semitic’ in this case? (As I have just seen, Kautzsch has already cited passage Num. 3:50, but without making an impression on Sayce [Quarterly Statement 1881, p. 283] so it won’t hurt if I put them on again above.)[31]

After the end of July 1881 (not dated), Prof. E. Kautsch in Tübingen published his article titled, “Die Siloahinscrift.” He says in his opening, “Since our last report (ZDPV. 1881, p. 102 ff.), the Siloam inscription has been the subject of keen efforts on and on. On June 25th, through the mediation of Prof. Strack in Berlin, we received a new transcription of the inscription in Hebrew letters together with an attempt at an interpretation of the first two lines, both from the hand of the bookseller Schapira in Jerusalem. Since Herr Schapira has in the meantime published his readings himself (Athenaeum, July 16 and 30, 1881), we content ourselves here with thanking him for allowing us the copy; what has proved valid from his readings will be noted later.”[32]

In the same article, Kautzsch wrote, “In order to do all justice, we also register that in the transcription that Schapira has communicated to us, new correct readings can be found: End of the 3rd line ובים ה (it seems; I don’t know how Schapira interpreted this, since the Athenaeum of July 16 is not at hand; our reading was made independently of that transcription on the hand of the plaster cast); furthermore הכו in line 4 and in line 5 the correct assumption. That במאתי אלף still has to be supplemented by מ ו in the middle of both words.” 

On 8 August 1881, Sayce entered the debate between Shapira and Neubauer. In his letter to The Athenæum, published on 13 August 1881, he said, “I have 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. Now, however, the lime with which the letters were filled has been removed by means of hydrochloric acid, and Lieuts. Conder and Mantell have thus been enabled to take a squeeze of the inscription, a tracing of which is at present lying before me.” He then went on to say that he could “now safely criticize Shapira’s readings.” One of his points, his third said, “There is a point after במאתי, as in my copy, so that Mr. Shapira’s ungrammatical ‘two hundred and a thousand’ falls to the ground. I hope Mr. Shapira will remember in [the] future that skill in reading Talmudic literature does not necessarily imply epigraphical skill as well.”[33]

In an article published in the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Sayce acknowledged Kautzsch’s support of Shapira’s reading of line 5. He said, “I need say no more on this distasteful subject, but will turn to the disputed readings as to which Dr. Kautsch and myself still differ. In line 5, he follows Mr. Shapira in reading במאתים . ואלף .. Apart, however, from the grammatical difficulty already urged by Dr. Neubauer against Shapira (Athenæum, August 6th, p. 176), neither Lieut. Conder’s squeeze nor the Berlin cast show any trace either of ם or ו. On the contrary, both have a point in the place where Dr. Kautsch puts his mêm. This was very evident on the Berlin cast, as M. Halévy and others agreed with me in seeing. Consequently we must read מאתי, for which I can find no other possible rendering than that which I have already suggested. There is certainly room for a waw before אלף in the break in the rock which occurs here, supposing this to have been subsequent to the engraving of the inscription, but I satisfied myself when in the spot that such was not the case, the break having existed before the letters were cut. The actual length of the tunnel, however, precludes Dr. Kautsch’s reading, which would make it longer than it really is.”[34]

Support for Shapira’s reading grew gradually after the publications of Kautsch and Guthe, until finally, in 1883, after two years of silence, Sayce finally admitted that he was wrong. He said of the reading, “the casts leave no doubt that I was wrong and Dr. Guthe right.”[35] He never acknowledged Shapira but instead preferred to credit Guthe with the reading; even though Shapira first published it, everyone knew it, and Sayce and Neubauer criticized Shapira alone for the reading. S. Beswick said in 1884, “All former translations of the text have given us 1,000 cubits, but the latest are unanimous in making the number 1,200 cubits.”[36] By March of 1884, Shapira was dead, but his reading (though he was never credited) was unanimously accepted as the correct one.

In the matter of the Siloam Inscription, according to Lieutenant Claude Conder, it was Shapira who first recognized that the text of the Siloam Inscription was “referring to the cutting of the tunnel from the 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.” But no one remembers Shapira as the first to interpret the Siloam Inscription correctly. Shapira proposed that line 5 read 1,200 cubits when all others supported the reading of 1,000 cubits. Even after Shapira’s reading of 1,200 was beyond doubt, he never received recognition as the one who read line 5 correctly. I take great pride in presenting these facts on 13 July 2022, 141 years after Shapira published his article in The Athenæum. It is time to set the record straight and to give, as we say, credit, where in this case, credit is LONG overdue.

[1] Ross K. Nichols, The Moses Scroll, (Saint Francisville: Horeb Press, 2021). See especially pages 29-31.

[2] Myriam Harry, The Little Daughter of Jerusalem, trans. Phœbe Allen (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1919), 126-8.

[3] Jacob was adopted on 9 July 1883 by the Spafford family who founded The American Colony in Jerusalem. See the account of the discovery in Bertha Spafford Vestor, Our Jerusalem: An American Family in the Holy City, 1881-1949, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1950), 90-92.

[4] See A. Socin, “Eine neue Entdeckung in Jerusalem,“ Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palaestina-Vereins, (Leipzig:1880), 54-55. For an English translation of the announcement see, Ross K. Nichols, “A New Discovery in Jerusalem – 7 July 1880,” –

[5] See Walter Besant, “The Oldest Jewish Inscription,” The Athenæum, No. 2786, 19 March 1881, 395. See also C. Schick, “Phœnician Inscription in the Pool of Siloam,” PEQ, 12:4, 238-9.

[6] A. H. Sayce, “The Inscription at the Pool of Siloam,” PEQ 13:2, 69-73.

[7] Ibid. See also on Clermont-Ganneau’s illness, “Notes and News,” PEQ 13:2, 64. “M. Clermont-Ganneau, who arrived in Jaffa in February, had proposed to visit Jerusalem immediately on his arrival in order to examine the newly found inscription in the Pool of Siloam; but he has unfortunately been laid up with an attack of fever, therefore we have not yet received any of his promised letters.”

[8] See Walter Besant, “The Oldest Jewish Inscription,” The Athenæum, No. 2786, 19 March 1881, 395.

[9] A. H. Sayce, “The Oldest Jewish Inscription,” The Athenæum, No. 2785, 12 March 1881, 364.

[10] A. H. Sayce, “The Oldest Jewish Inscription,” The Athenæum, No. 2785, 12 March 1881, 365. For more on Schick’s work to reduce the water and improve conditions inside the tunnel see, A.H. Sayce, “The Ancient Hebrew Inscription Discovered at the Pool of Siloam,” The Athenæum, No. 2799, 18 June 1881, 809; An expanded version appeared with the same title in PEQ 13:3, 141-157. The PEQ article also included a drawing, or “Copy of the Inscription of Siloam.” See also PEQ 13:2, 73, and PEQ 13:3, 142 where a claim is made that the English paid for the work with no assistance from the Germans – a point contested elsewhere by the Germans. Guthe also reported favorably of Schick’s efforts. See Hermann Guthe, “Die Siloahinscrift,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenlädnischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 36, No. 3/4 (1882), 726.

[11] A.H. Sayce, “The Inscription at the Pool of Siloam,” PEQ 13:2, 69-73. The drawing with the label, “Inscription Found at The Pool of Siloam” appeared on page 70 and left much to be desired. See also, “The Ancient Hebrew Inscription discovered at the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem,” No. 2799, 18 June 1881, 809, where it says, “Anyhow, whatever corrections or suggestions may hereafter be made, Prof. Sayce will always have the credit of furnishing the first intelligible copy and translation.”

[12] Walter Besant, “The Oldest Jewish Inscription,” The Athenæum, No. 2786, 19 March 1881, 395. 

[13] Guthe, „Über die Siloahinscrift,“ Zeitscrift des Deutschen Palæstina-Vereins, 3/4, 251.

[14] Ernst Willibald Emil Hübner, Über mechanische copien von Inscriften, (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1881). 

[15] Hermann Guthe, “Die Siloahinscrift,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 36, No. 3/4 (1882), 727. Also, „Über die Siloahinscrift,“ Zeitschrift der Deutschen Palæstina-Vereins, 3/4, 251.

[16] Hermann Guthe, „Über die Siloahinscrift,“ Zeitschrift der Deutschen Palæstina-Vereins, 3/4, 250.

[17] Hermann Guthe, Fragmente einer Lederhandscrift enthaltend Mose’s letzte Rede an die Kinder Israel, (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag Breitkopf & Härtel, 1883), 1. See also the newly pubished English edition, Hermann Guthe, Fragments of a Leather Manuscript Containing Moses’ Last Words to the Children of Israel, (Saint Francisville: Horeb Press, 2022).

[18] Hermann Guthe, „Über die Siloahinscrift,“ Zeitschrift der Deutschen Palæstina-Vereins, 3/4, 251.

[19] Claude R. Conder, “Lieutenant Conder’s Report: From Beyrout to Jerusalem,” PEQ 13:3, 192-9, 28 May 1881. The quote about Shapira’s contribution is on page 198.

[20] Hermann Guthe, „Über die Siloahinscrift,“ Zeitschrift der Deutschen Palæstina-Vereins, 3/4, 252.

[21] Ibid. 

[22] Ibid. 

[23] Professor E. Kautzsch, “Die Siloahinscrift,“ Zeitschrift der Deutschen Palæstina-Vereins, 3/4, 260.

[24] Hermann Guthe, „Über die Siloahinscrift,“ Zeitschrift der Deutschen Palæstina-Vereins, 3/4, 258.

[25] Hermann Guthe, “Die Siloahinscrift,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 36, No. 3/4 (1882), 734.

[26] See M. W. Shapira, “The Siloam Inscription,” The Athenæum, No. 2803, 16 July 1881, 80.

[27] Hermann Guthe, „Über die Siloahinscrift,“ Zeitschrift der Deutschen Palæstina-Vereins, 3/4, 259.

[28] See Neubauer, “The Siloam Inscription,” The Athenæum, No. 2804, 23 July 1881, 112.

[29] M.W. Shapira, “The Siloam Inscription,” The Athenæum, No. 2805, 30 July 1881, 144.

[30] See Neubauer, “The Siloam Inscription,” The Athenæum, No. 2806, 6 August 1881, 176.

[31] Hermann Guthe, “Die Siloahinscrift,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 36, No. 3/4 (1882), 741.

[32] Professor E. Kautzsch, “Die Siloahinscrift,“ Zeitschrift der Deutschen Palæstina-Vereins, 3/4, 260.

[33] A. H. Sayce, “The Siloam Inscription, The Athenæum, No. 2807, 13 August 1881, 208.

[34] A. H. Sayce, “The Ancient Hebrew Inscription in the Pool of Siloam,” PEQ 13:4, 283.

[35] A. H. Sayce, “The Siloam Inscription,” PEQ 15:4, 210.

[36] S. Beswick, “The Siloam Inscription, PEQ 16:4, 255.