The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible
by Chanan Tigay
(New York: Ecco/Harper Collins, 2016), 352 pp., $27.99 (Hardcover)
Reviewed by Rehav (Buni) Rubin
In the second half of the 19th century, the Middle East became an arena of vigorous competition among the European powers over strategic positions in the declining Ottoman Empire. Eretz-Israel/Palestine, being the land of the Bible and the cradle of Judeo-Christian civilization, served as a central part of this arena, and Jerusalem was its focus. There, pilgrims and missionaries, consuls and archaeologists struggled over a foothold in the holy places and over archaeological objects that were sent to museums in European capitals.
In 1856 Moses Shapira, a Polish-born Jew and a recent convert to Christianity, arrived in Jerusalem and joined the Anglican community of Jewish converts at Christ Church, near Jaffa Gate. By 1860 he became Moses Wilhelm Shapira, a Protestant, a Prussian citizen, husband of Rosette, father of two daughters and owner of a book and antiquity shop, which was described in a Baedeker guidebook as the best in Jerusalem. This shop soon became a popular destination for the many scholars and tourists who visited Jerusalem.
Shapira became famous when he sold about 2,000 items—figurines and pottery vessels bearing Moabite inscriptions—to Berlin’s Altes Museum. Unfortunately, the items were soon recognized as forgeries. Years later, having restored his reputation with great effort, he offered the British Museum several scrolls written in early Hebrew script for a million pounds, claiming that they were an early version of Deuteronomy—allegedly from the time of Moses. These manuscripts drew much international attention, but after a thorough examination they also were identified as forgeries, and in 1884 Shapira committed suicide at a hotel in Rotterdam.
The story of Shapira and his manuscripts is famous and has been told and recounted over time by his daughter Myriam Harry (French journalist and writer), Shulamit Lapid (Israeli novelist), John Marco Allegro (English archaeologist and scholar) and Yoram Sabo (Israeli filmmaker), among others.
Author Chanan Tigay originally went on a quest to find Shapira’s lost scrolls, traveling to seven countries and four continents. When starting this journey, Tigay thought that perhaps the lost scrolls were not forged after all. This idea grew from Shapira’s claim that his scrolls came from near the Dead Sea; eerily similar Dead Sea Scrolls were found near the Dead Sea in 1947.
This well-written book allows readers to take part in Tigay’s adventures all the way to their surprising end. Tigay, however, goes beyond telling the story of the scrolls. As a great storyteller, he succeeds in integrating three different circles in perfect harmony. In the first circle stands Shapira, his life, business and family. Through the book Shapira becomes a close acquaintance, and the readers follow him in his rise and decline.
In the second circle, Tigay skillfully describes Jerusalem of that time, depicting the European community, missionaries, scholars, pilgrims and travelers, on one hand, and the Arab population of the city and the Bedouin of Moab and the desert, on the other. Moreover, he tells the story of the beginning of archaeology in the Holy Land, carried out by people who held a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other—often acting not only as scientists, but as delegates of rival countries.
At that time, Bible scholarship gained great momentum in Germany, Britain and France with the development of the “documentary hypothesis” in Biblical studies. The author emphasizes the connection between growing Bible scholarship and interest in archaeology, noting especially the inscriptions and manuscripts that could have been topics for discussion.
The third circle is Tigay’s globetrotting hunt to famous cities and remote sites via airplanes, trains, cars and on foot. Not less important is Tigay’s personal quest for answers originating not only due to his fascination with the leading figure of a 19th-century enigma, but also because Tigay is the son of a renowned Biblical scholar whose life’s work was on the study of Deuteronomy.
This multi-layered journey is very well told right down to the minute details: from Jerusalem to the River Arnon in Jordan, to the back rooms of the British Museum, to the Louvre in Paris and to the museum in Berlin; from a small town in northern England, to the police station in Rotterdam, to the private study of an Australian scholar and elsewhere.
By the end of this long voyage, after having read century-old catalogs of bookdealers and cooperating and competing with other “Shapira-maniacs,” Tigay found the surprising answer in the least expected place—but that is for the readers to find out.
A native of Israel, Rehav (Buni) Rubin is a professor in the Geography Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of more than 70 articles and books, including Image and Reality: Jerusalem in Maps and Views (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1999).