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Has the mystery of the Shapira Scroll finally been solved?

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Ancient manuscript dismissed as a fake since 1883 is actually the oldest known Biblical script, expert claims

  • Antique dealer Moses Willhelm Shapira released the scroll to the world in 1883  
  • The 15 fragments claim to contain words from the biblical book of Deuteronomy
  • He sold them to the British Museum for £1 million but they were branded as fake
  • The museum sold the fragments at auction for £25 and they disappeared forever 
  • A new study into the linguistics and structure of the words based on drawings and writings from the 18th century suggests it may actually be an ancient text 

The Shapira Scroll, an ancient manuscript first discovered in 1883 and dismissed as fake is 'actually the oldest known Biblical script', an expert claims.

Jerusalem antiquities dealer Moses Willhelm Shapira told the world of the discovery of 15 manuscript fragments, said to have been found in a cave near the Dead Sea.

The paleo-Hebrew script on the pieces of the manuscript was nearly illegible as they had been blackened with a pitch-like substance, but Shapira claimed they were the 'original' book of Deuteronomy - maybe even the copy owned by Moses.

This was disputed and after selling them to the British Museum for £1 million experts declared them fake - after which they were sold by the museum and disappeared.

In a new book, Israeli-American scholar Idan Dershowitz claims to have both archival, linguistic, and literary evidence that prove the pieces were a true ancient artefact.   

Reconstructing the text from the original 19th-century transcriptions and drawings, Dershowitz claims the pieces date back to the time of the First Temple - as early as 957 BC, making them the oldest known biblical artefacts ever discovered.

Jerusalem antiquities dealer Moses Willhelm Shapira told the world of the discovery of 15 manuscript fragments, said to have been found in a cave near the Dead Sea

Jerusalem antiquities dealer Moses Willhelm Shapira told the world of the discovery of 15 manuscript fragments, said to have been found in a cave near the Dead Sea

When Shapira first announced his discovery biblical scholarship was a relatively new field of academic research - with the concept that the first five books of the bible weren't all written by Moses a new concept. 

The 19th century was littered with biblical forgeries coming from Jerusalem and elsewhere due to the demand for pieces.

Shapiro had already sold some 260 'genuine' pieces of Hebrew manuscripts to the British Museum by the time he announced the Deuteronomy fragments in 1883.    

There was much excitement about the discovery and he sold the papers to the British Museum for £1 million.

The museum put two pieces on display to the public - with visitors including then Prime Minister William Gladstone flocking to see the ancient biblical texts.

The excitement was short-lived though, as French archaeologist and 'nemesis' of Shapira, Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau, visited the museum to view the fragments on displays and quickly declared them a forgery.

Museum experts were studying the remaining pieces and soon after Clermont-Ganneau made his damning verdict, they too declared them a fake. 

However, the question of their authenticity has remained largely unsolved as the fragments were sold for a pittance in 1885 and quickly disappeared altogether.

Dershowitz, a scholar at the University of Potsdam in Germany, has been gathering as much information on the works to prove their authenticity.

He says he has taken transcripts, drawings, and other work from 19th-century scholars and reconstructed the texts on the pieces of the manuscript.

The academic said not only are they real but they date to before the Babylonian Exile, from the First Temple which was built under King Solomon's reign - serving as a religious building and a place of assembly for the Israelites. 

If he is correct then they would present an 'unprecedented window' into the origin and evolution of the Bible as it would date to the earliest days of the work.

He said the dismissal of the manuscripts as a fake 140 years ago was a 'tragedy' for both Shapira and the 'entire existence of the discipline of Bible studies.'

Speaking to the New York Times, Dershowitz said: 'It's mind-boggling that for almost the entire existence of the discipline of Bible studies this text hasn't been part of the conversation.'  

Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s a number of biblical scholars have re-examined the Shapira Scrolls but with little success.

Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered - which date to about the 2nd century BC, the earliest bible manuscript was from the 10th century AD.

'As someone who spends all day reconstructing source texts, I've often daydreamed about actually finding one,' Dershowitz told the New York Times. 

'But I didn't think about it as something that could actually come true.' 

In the Bible Deuteronomy contains Moses' farewell sermon to the Israelites before they enter the promised land, recalling their history and the importance of the ten commandments - including restating them as they appear in Exodus.

The paleo-Hebrew script on the pieces of manuscript were nearly illegible as they had been blackened with a pitchlike substance, but Shapira claimed they were the 'original' book of Deuteronomy - maybe even the copy owned by Moses

The paleo-Hebrew script on the pieces of the manuscript was nearly illegible as they had been blackened with a pitch like substance, but Shapira claimed they were the 'original' book of Deuteronomy - maybe even the copy owned by Moses

Dershowitz calls the Shapira fragments the 'Valediction of Moses' and it includes the history but no laws beyond the core ten commandments.

The text may be older than Deuteronomy, a pre-cursor to the book, as it doesn't contain the divine laws and it would be hard to believe somebody would delete them,' according to Shimon Gesudheit of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Gesudheit said the Shapira version reads 'smoother' and looks more original than the actual Deuteronomy as included in the Bible, adding that the laws in the 'real' book 'interrupt the narrative flow between the beginning and the end'.

Even the ten commandments, as shown in the Shapira version, are different - declared in the first person as if from God, rather than the third person. 

Dershowitz said he didn't feel it was possible that the works were a forgery as it was something that could be possible for that period of time, adding there were too many features that lined up with discoveries about the bible evolution.

These discoveries weren't made or even theorised until decades later with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Noah Fieldman, a professor at Harvard Law School as originally sceptical about the discovery, but later helped fund Dershowitz's research into the fragments.

'I said, 'You're crazy, I don't want to hear it, you're going to destroy your career, go away,' Feldman told the New York Times. 'He would keep emailing me details, and I would reply TGTBT — too good to be true.' 

Dershowitz travelled the world investigating the validity of the scroll, including reading through Shapira's manuscripts in Berlin - discovering handwritten sheets showing the collector had attempted to decipher the fragments.

'It's amazing because it gives you a window into Shapira's mind,' Dershowitz said. 

'If he forged them, or was part of a conspiracy, it makes no sense that he'd be sitting there trying to guess what the text is, and making mistakes while he did it.' 

Reconstructing the text from the original 19th century transcriptions and drawings, Dershowitz claims the pieces date back to the time of the First Temple - as early as 957 BC, making them the oldest known biblical artefacts ever discovered

Reconstructing the text from the original 19th-century transcriptions and drawings, Dershowitz claims the pieces date back to the time of the First Temple - as early as 957 BC, making them the oldest known biblical artefacts ever discovered

Dr Na'ama Pat-El, a linguist from the University of Texas, has since studied the text and is working on a lexicon and syntax with Dershowitz.

She said it is pretty standard biblical Hebrew, similar to the 7th or 6th-century texts, with some features similar to those seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

University of Chicago professor, Jeffrey Stackert, an expert in the book of Deuteronomy said he was 'cautious' about the findings, saying he would like [Dershowitz] to be right' that they are real biblical texts.

Dershowitz believes some of the fragments may have survived and could one day resurface, allowing scholars to read a true biblical fragment. 

The research has been published in the journal Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft in a paper titled: The Valediction of Moses: New Evidence on the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments. 

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