When we first meet Moses Wilhelm Shapira, he has been found dead in a seedy Rotterdam hotel. The year is 1884 and Shapira’s suitcase is stuffed with old manuscripts. Shapira’s business card reads: “M.W. Shapira, Book Seller and Antiquarian, Agent of the British Museum, Jerusalem.”
Shapira, once a purveyor of valuable biblical artifacts, some of them authentic and others allegedly forged, has put an end to his life as well as to the constant charges that he is the world’s greatest con man. His latest crime, his critics claim, is an attempt to sell a recently discovered scroll of the fifth and final book of the Five Books of Moses.
In The Lost Book of Moses (Ecco, April 2016) by Chanan Tigay, we fall under the spell of this original Dead Sea scroll. “It was nothing less than a contemporary copy of the book of Deuteronomy written on parchment … handwritten more than three thousand years earlier.” Yet this copy of the ancient book was quite different from that known for generations. The “narrow strip of leather tattooed in ancient script” was “rife with passages that were different – sometimes very different – from the traditional version.” The biggest deviation of all was the fact that this manuscript contained an eleventh commandment.
Asking the British Museum an astounding one million pounds sterling for his discovery ($250 million today), the manuscript was ruled a cleverly fabricated forgery. Shapira’s reputation was irreparably tarnished and the universal condemnation of his forgery eventually led to his suicide.
The story of the infamous antiquities dealer is only part of the story told in The Lost Book of Moses, for the book also recounts the author’s efforts to trace the scroll that Shapira tried to sell. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 in very similar circumstances had led to a partial rehabilitation of Shapira’s reputation. Perhaps his lost scroll was real after all?
As the author states: “Over the past three years, I had searched ceaselessly for these scroll fragments. I had logged endless miles on treks through Europe, the Middle East, and North America. I had conducted hours of interviews; read and reread dozens more books, essays, and articles; examined hundreds of manuscripts in a long litany of libraries and archives. I had engaged translators and transcribers. Sought out archaeologists and epigraphers. Hunted down rabbis, conservators, and antiquities dealers. I had thought and talked and pried and dug. And yet, to that point, I had succeeded only in ruling out a series of theories as to the scroll’s whereabouts.”
This hunt for the world’s oldest Bible reads like a mystery on two levels. Was Shapira an “innocent man fleeing a scholarly world that seemed hell-bent on vilifying him?” Will Tigay discover what happened to the scroll that Shapira tried to sell, a scroll that could prove that there were eleven commandments given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai?
University of Iowa archaeologist Roger Cargill states: “Religious relics are a huge business” as they “offer a form of spiritual ‘evidence’ that confirms one’s beliefs.” In the case of Shapira’s mysterious scroll, our beliefs will either be confirmed, or upended.
Chanan Tigay is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Middle East, 9/11, and the United Nations for numerous magazines, newspapers, and wires. Born in Jerusalem, Tigay holds degrees from Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania and was a recent Investigative Reporting Fellow at U.C. Berkeley. He is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.