In a recent journal article, Idan Dershowitz highlights new evidence which he argues demonstrates that the Shapira Strips are authentic ancient artifacts and that they preserve an early version of the Book of Deuteronomy. The text of the manuscript, which Dershowitz calls the Valediction of Moses or “V” differs from the canonical book of Deuteronomy in that it excludes the laws beyond the ten commandments, which appear in a different order, and include one extra commandment. The Shapira Strips were discovered in 1883 and purchased by Jerusalem antiquities dealer, Moses Wilhelm Shapira; they consist of 15 manuscript fragments of Deuteronomy supposedly discovered near the Dead Sea. He attempted to sell them to the British Museum for a reported one million pounds, before they were determined to be fake. In his article, Dershowitz questions the verdicts of scholars from the 19th century who unanimously declared them to be forgeries, suggesting that things like “poor light” and lack of time studying the manuscripts were to blame for their erroneous conclusions. Modern scholars, he asserts, have mistakenly based their verdicts on poor drawings of the manuscripts, since the originals have mysteriously disappeared. He further argues that the fact the Shapira strips were supposedly discovered wrapped in linen bundles and covered with a bituminous substance, similar to the way some Dead Sea Scrolls were found, lends credibility to Shapira’s account of their discovery. Finally, Dershowitz examined some private papers that once belonged to Shapira, in which the 19th century antiquities dealer attempts to decipher the text. He concludes that this private transcription questions the narrative that Shapira intentionally faked the manuscripts. Moreover, he notes that the contents of the manuscript correspond to no scholarly opinion or theory that existed at the time.
The consensus of modern scholars has been that the Shapira Strips are forgeries. Epigrapher Christopher Rollston, from George Washington University, has written a lengthy rebuttal, concluding that Shapira’s manuscripts have all the hallmarks of modern forgeries. He points out that Shapira was involved in the sale of other forgeries, either producing or commissioning the Moabite Pottery Forgeries and the Moabite Stone Forgeries. (Another scholar has noted that, in 1883, Shapira sold a forged leather manuscript to a collector in Philadelphia). Rollston also states that the Shapira strips are modeled on the script of the Mesha Stele, a common tactic among forgers, whereby they base their forgery on a known authentic work. Furthermore, Rollston reminds scholars that manuscripts need to be subjected to a wide range of tests before declaring them authentic. In the case of the Shapira Strips, which have disappeared, it is not possible. Despite this, Rollston contends, Dershowitz is asking the scholarly community to forget testing and, despite not having the manuscripts themselves, consider them to be authentic artifacts anyway. Rollston concludes, “I believe that his work will convince very few epigraphers (i.e., scholars who specialize in actual, ancient inscriptions) that the Shapira Fragments are authentic, ancient documents. And I do not believe that his work will convince all that many text scholars (i.e., scholars who primarily work not with actual ancient inscriptions, scrolls, papyri, but rather with edited texts in print editions) that the Shapira Strips are ancient…although I suspect some text scholars will find Idan Dershowitz’s proposal alluring, especially since it seems to ‘confirm’ the things some of them have believed about the textual transmission of Deuteronomy in its earliest forms.”
Several further observations should be made:
· Even in the 1880’s, scholars in Halle, Leipzig, Berlin and London, without knowing of each other's investigations, all came to the same conclusion that the Shapira Strips were forgeries.
· Shapira gave contradictory accounts regarding how he obtained the fragments.
· Dershowitz presented his findings to selected scholars at a closed-door seminar at Harvard in 2019, which Christopher Rollston attended. All of the epigraphers who attended agreed that the Shapira Strips are forgeries.
· After researching the Shapira Strips, Dershowitz stated, “I felt like it couldn’t be a forgery…it’s hard to put my finger on it. It just didn’t match with something I thought could be possible [for the 19th century].” This is hardly the empirical evidence demanded by modern scholars. Further, Rollston and others have shown these sorts of forgeries could be produced in the 19th century.
· Dershowitz argues that the opinions of modern epigraphers cannot be trusted since they don’t have the original manuscripts to study, yet he is ready to declare the Shapira Strips to be authentic without the original manuscripts to study. This seems to be a contradiction in standards.
In conclusion, Dershowitz’s work will certainly add to what is known about the Shapira Strips, especially the private notes of Shapira which he managed to track down. However, until the manuscripts themselves reappear and are subject to the rigors of modern scholarship, it is impossible to declare them authentic.
LINKS THAT DISPUTE THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE SHAPIRA STRIPS:
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