The Shapira Scrolls—Authentic or Forged?

Scholars debate the scrolls’ authenticity in Biblical Archaeology Review

Moses Shapira around the time the Shapira Scrolls were acquired

This portrait of Moses Shapira dates to c. 1880, around the time that the scroll fragments came into his possession. Photo: Public Domain.

Do the Shapira Scrolls contain an authentic biblical manuscript or forged text?

These scroll fragments surfaced at the end of the 19th century to much fanfare. In 1883, antiquities dealer Moses Shapira presented to the watching world several scroll fragments that he claimed were an ancient biblical manuscript, an early version of the Book of Deuteronomy. If authentic, this would be a proto-biblical text.

The discovery seemed too good to be true, and many leading scholars of the day said just that: They cried forgery and said that the scrolls did not contain an ancient text. Disgraced and discredited, Shapira and his scrolls went down in infamy.

Does this 19th-century verdict still stand today, or should it be overturned?

Earlier this year, biblical scholar Idan Dershowitz of the University of Potsdam gained international attention as he argued that the Shapira Scrolls do, in fact, preserve a genuine proto-biblical text, which he calls The Valediction of Moses. In his book The Valediction of Moses: A Proto-Biblical Book, he reassessed the Shapira Scrolls with the tools of modern biblical scholarship. Although he made a strong case, many scholars remained unconvinced. Two vocal dissenters were biblical scholars Ronald Hendel of the University of California, Berkeley, and Matthieu Richelle of the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium. They believe the verdict of forgery still stands.

Watch this debate unfold in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. On one side, Dershowitz and archaeologist James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte defend the scrolls’ authenticity in their article “The Shapira Scrolls: The Case for Authenticity.” On the other side, Hendel and Richelle contend that the scrolls are 19th-century forgeries in “The Shapira Scrolls: The Case for Forgery.

Both articles analyze the scrolls’ discovery, script, and content.

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The Scrolls’ Discovery

The Shapira Scrolls were not found in an archaeological excavation—but rather appeared on the antiquities market in the late 1870s. Reportedly, Bedouin had discovered the 16 scroll fragments in a cave east of the Dead Sea, in biblical Moab in what is today Jordan. The fragments looked like dark lumps of leather with Paleo-Hebrew writing. Moses Shapira bought the fragments from the Bedouin. After analyzing them, he presented his findings and initial translation to the public in 1883.

To publicize the discovery of the Shapira Scrolls, this drawing appeared in several publications, including Scientific American on October 27, 1883. It hints at the scrolls’ ancient Hebrew script and reported findspot. Drawing: Public Domain.

This origin story of the scrolls caused many scholars—both in the 19th century and today—to approach the scrolls with skepticism. Artifacts that don’t come from controlled excavations (often called unprovenanced artifacts) are divorced from their greater context. Much information that could have been gathered about these artifacts is lost. Further, there is always the possibility that such artifacts are not genuine but, rather, fabricated for monetary or personal gain.

In their analysis, Hendel and Richelle point out that Shapira had peddled forgeries before. Whether intentionally or not, Shapira had sold artifacts, which later had been exposed as fakes, to collectors and institutions. Thus, the scrolls and their origin story deserve careful scrutiny.

Archaeologist James Tabor also digs into the scrolls’ origin story. He notes the strong similarities with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Heralded by many as the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century, the Dead Sea Scrolls were initially found by Bedouin in caves west of the Dead Sea in the 1940s and 1950s, about a century after the Shapira Scrolls had surfaced. Subsequent excavation exposed more scrolls in these caves, and decades of analysis have proven the Dead Sea Scrolls to be authentic. Thus, Tabor posits that the origin story of the Shapira Scrolls should not immediately discredit their validity.


The Scrolls’ Script

Scholars should also assess the scrolls’ script and content. Unfortunately, the Shapira Scrolls themselves have vanished, so they cannot undergo scientific tests, which might provide a conclusive answer on validity. For their analysis, then, scholars must rely on 19th-century photographs, script charts, notes, and drawings of the scrolls.

If authentic, the script of the Shapira Scrolls should resemble that of ancient Hebrew inscriptions. There are indeed many similarities between the scrolls’ script and inscriptions from the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E. Dershowitz believes these similarities point to authenticity. Hendel and Richelle, however, note key “differences of letterforms, stance, and cursive combinations,” as well as spelling and grammar. They believe these differences are sufficient grounds to dismiss the Shapira Scrolls as forgeries.


The Scrolls’ Content

The scholars also disagree about the scrolls’ content, which supposedly records Moses’s last words, an early version of the biblical Book of Deuteronomy. Dershowitz contends that the content lines up nicely—but, admittedly, not perfectly—with 21st-century theories about Deuteronomy’s composition. The content of The Valediction of Moses is what many scholars would expect an early version of Deuteronomy to look like. Dershowitz believes that this is the strongest line of argument in favor of authenticity.

Hendel and Richelle are convinced that the scrolls’ author was aware of the Book of Deuteronomy in its final form. They view the text not as an early version of Deuteronomy but a rewritten and abridged version with elements of the canonical book’s various compositional stages.

After analyzing the scrolls’ discovery, script, and content, the two sets of scholars come to dramatically different conclusions. Dershowitz and Tabor contend that the scrolls must be viewed as authentic biblical artifacts, whereas Hendel and Richelle maintain that the scrolls cannot. Since the scrolls themselves have disappeared, the debate likely will never be settled definitively. Nevertheless, you can weigh the evidence yourself in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. See the full arguments in “The Shapira Scrolls: The Case for Forgery” by Ronald S. Hendel and Matthieu Richelle and “The Shapira Scrolls: The Case for Authenticity” by Idan Dershowitz and James D. Tabor.


Subscribers: Read the full articles “The Shapira Scrolls: The Case for Forgery” by Ronald S. Hendel and Matthieu Richelle and “The Shapira Scrolls: The Case for Authenticity” by Idan Dershowitz and James D. Tabor in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Read more about the Shapira Fragments in BHD:

The Shapira Fragments

All-access members, read more about the Shapira Fragments in the BAS Library:

Tracking the Shapira Case: A Biblical Scandal Revisited

Book Excerpt: The Shapira Affair

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