A Biblical Mystery and a Reporting Odyssey

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As a reporter covering intellectual life for The New York Times’s Culture Desk, I’m particularly fascinated by archives and documents, and the way we piece together fragments and traces to make sense of the past.

Often, my mind roams in 19th-century America. But sometimes, I get pulled way back in time. Which is what happened earlier this year when I heard about an intriguing piece of biblical research that was about to become public.

A scholar named Idan Dershowitz was arguing that 15 manuscript fragments that had surfaced in 1883 and that initially were said to contain an alternate version of the Book of Deuteronomy were indeed authentic ancient documents, and not the forgeries they were later denounced as.

And he was making an additional, even bolder statement. The fragments, he argued, actually preserved a text far older than the Deuteronomy we have — making it the only biblical source text yet discovered.

It was a bombshell claim — if correct, potentially more consequential, several scholars told me, than the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And it also came with a wild back story involving a 19th-century Jerusalem antiquities dealer named Wilhelm Moses Shapira, who had offered them to the British Museum for 1 million pounds and then committed suicide after they were deemed fake. And oh, the original fragments had … disappeared.

Forgery! Skulduggery! Philology! How could I resist?

While reporting the story, I talked with a number of scholars who had previewed Mr. Dershowitz’s research at a confidential seminar two years ago, including some who were intensely skeptical (to put it mildly).

But I also became intrigued by another layer of the tale. As it turned out, the mysterious Shapira had made a number of fleeting appearances in The Times over the years, starting even before the Deuteronomy affair.

In the late 19th century, biblical archaeology was a booming business, with all manner of reports on new discoveries and controversies reported in The Times’s narrow, almost unreadably dense columns. Shapira’s name first popped up in the 1870s, in a column headlined “Explorations in the East,” which cast a skeptical eye on some of those digging up (and hawking) “questionable” discoveries.

“Prof Shapira, of Jerusalem” (no first name given) was a leader in the often dubious trade, the anonymous correspondent wrote. “He sells a hundred things dug up out of the ground — tiles, pots, vases, tablets and pieces of statuary with inscriptions.”

A year later, in 1874, The Times reported that a large cache of supposedly ancient Moabite pottery sold by Shapira, “the Great Showman of the East,” had been revealed as “a colossal swindle.” And in 1883, after the Deuteronomy manuscripts were declared forgeries, the paper ran a scathing denunciation (laced with the anti-Semitism that often colored discussion of Shapira, a Jewish convert to Christianity).

“The finding of anything genuine by Mr. Shapira,” the paper declared, “was intrinsically improbable.”

Six months later came a brief (and more sympathetic) report noting that “the unfortunate man” had committed suicide in a hotel in Rotterdam. That, it might have seemed, was that. But then, in 1956, Shapira popped up again — on the front page, no less — when The Times reported that Menahem Mansoor, a respected scholar at the University of Wisconsin, was reopening the case.

Mansoor’s claim was modest. He did not argue that Shapira’s Deuteronomy manuscript was definitely genuine. He merely suggested that it should be considered anew in view of the recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with which it had some similarities. And the fragments, he suggested tantalizingly, might actually be languishing somewhere in the vaults of the British Museum.

But many of his academic colleagues weren’t having it. Six months later, The Times reported from a fractious meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, where Mansoor’s claims had “disturbed the scholarly calm.” Elsewhere, one skeptic accused The Times of “sensationalism.”

Today, Mr. Dershowitz’s claims have provoked a similarly hot debate among scholars, who are already organizing various conferences and responses. And since my article appeared online two weeks ago, readers have had another, more basic question: What happened to the fragments themselves?

A few years after Shapira’s suicide, at least some of them were sold at an auction for a pittance. Over the years, various “Shapira-maniacs” have explored various theories about what happened next. (Were they lost in a London house fire?)

Here, the Times archive holds some enticing clues (or red herrings?), like this one-line bulletin from 1895: “There’s a grim humor in the fact that the bundle of Shapira manuscripts, recently valued at $5,000,000. was bought on Thursday for 80 cents by Dr. Ginsburg, who examined the manuscripts for the British Museum.” (Christian David Ginsburg, a British scholar, was among the experts who had deemed them fake.)

Mr. Dershowitz, a professor at the University of Potsdam, told me that he thought it was entirely possible some of the fragments could surface. If they did, carbon dating and other analysis might support his claims — or prove him embarrassingly wrong. But whatever the next chapter of this story brings, I’ll be following along.

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