The Shapira Fragments
An artifact of 19th-century Jewish Christianity
Jonathan Klawans April 21, 2022 12 Comments 11194 views
Followers of this blog may have heard that the 19th-century Shapira Affair has resurfaced again. In March, 2021, a biblical scholar at the University of Potsdam, Idan Dershowitz, has urged scholars to accept the authenticity of the so-called Shapira fragments, brought to the public’s attention in The New York Times article, “Is a Long-Dismissed Forgery Actually the Oldest Known Biblical Manuscript?”
A Bit of Background: Shapira’s Deuteronomy
Moses Shapira (1830–1884) was a Jewish convert to Christianity who settled in Jerusalem and operated a novelty shop in the Christian Quarter. In addition to souvenirs, he sold antiquities. He also peddled in forgeries: In the wake of the 1868 discovery of the Moabite Stele, Shapira sold hundreds of clay tablets inscribed in a similar alphabet. These were soon determined to be fake, and Shapira maintained he was duped by his suppliers. To be sure, not everything Shapira sold was fake, and he restored his reputation by procuring medieval manuscripts for clients as important as the British Library. In his more successful years, he moved from Jerusalem’s Old City to the mansion now known as Ticho House (today the villa serves as a free-standing outpost of the Israel Museum, tucked right behind Zion Square).
In 1883, Shapira hoped to sell—for 1 million pounds sterling!—a lot of leather fragments inscribed in a paleo-Hebrew script, which were claimed by their purveyor to be an early version of the Book of Deuteronomy. Although taken seriously for a short time, the fragments were soon dismissed as forgeries. Despondent and debt-ridden, Shapira tragically took his own life in 1884. The manuscripts have since disappeared.
I have long been intrigued by this story, and I would encourage readers who want to know more to read John Marco Allegro’s The Shapira Affair (Doubleday, 1965) and Chanan Tigay’s The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible (Ecco, 2016). Allegro makes the case for authenticity, and Tigay makes the case against. But, to my mind, they and most others reviewing the matter lost track of one key fact that, at least to me, tips the balance decidedly away from authenticity. The version of Deuteronomy peddled by Shapira is not only unparalleled, but also suspiciously commensurate with his own religious background and commitment. Let me explain.
Shapira’s Jewish Christian Identity
Shapira was something of a Jewish-Christian. Born Jewish in eastern Europe, Shapira converted to Christianity, became a German citizen, and then moved to Jerusalem, where he married a Lutheran nurse. Shapira and his wife attended Christ Church, right inside Jaffa Gate. Founded in 1842 by another Jewish convert to Christianity (Bishop Michael Solomon Alexander), Christ Church was operated as part of a joint Lutheran-Anglican bishopric, albeit one that saw itself as a “Hebrew-Christian Church.” The congregation reached out to local Jews. Christ Church then, as now, espoused a form Christianity that celebrates Jesus’s Jewishness and even utilizes some Hebrew language in worship. Its leaders translated Christian texts into Hebrew. A plaque in the apse displays the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments (following Exodus 20)—in Hebrew.
By all accounts, Shapira was a believing Christian and was viewed as an apostate by local Jerusalem Jews. Yet Shapira’s Jewishness was not entirely sublimated. Interestingly, he continued to use his Jewish-sounding name. At times, he was reminded of his Jewishness by European anti-Semitism (see image of anti-Shapira cartoon—in BAR May/June 1997, p. 34). At other times, Shapira spontaneously reclaimed his Jewish identity, including when he traveled to Yemen in 1879 and procured authentic Hebrew manuscripts in the persona of Rabbi Moshe ben Netanel Shapira. When he sold these manuscripts, he did so as Moses Wilhelm Shapira, “Correspondent to the British Museum.” Shapira knew which side of his divided self to display when and where.
Shapira’s Jewish Christian Deuteronomy
And what does Shapira’s Jewish-Christian hybrid identity have to do with the fragments of Deuteronomy he peddled? Well, perhaps everything.
Certainly, the most striking thing about Shapira’s Deuteronomy fragments is that they contain the Ten Commandments—but with some fascinating alterations. Before we examine the changes, we need to contemplate the idea of a version of Deuteronomy that contains no laws other than these ten. Imagine: a shortened Deuteronomy, shorn of all those commandments—like the dietary laws (Deut 14)—that Christians no longer follow, while highlighting only the ones that Christians still revere. A Jewish Christian dream come true?
But there’s more. Shapira’s Ten Commandments display some interesting differences from the traditional versions. Each commandment is followed by a liturgical refrain: “I am God your God.” In addition to encouraging antiphonal recitation, the repeated refrain allows readers to count the commands easily, something that the traditional texts don’t lend themselves to. The first commandment in Shapira’s text clearly includes the “I am” assertion (the first commandment in the Jewish tradition) as well as the “You shall not have other gods” and the following idol prohibition (both combined as the second commandment in many Jewish countings). So the Shapira Deuteronomy is unique in presenting a version of the Ten Commandments that explicitly counts the first command in accordance with Shapira’s own quasi-Lutheran/Anglican Christianity (the Lutheran and Anglican traditions similarly combine these initial commands; again, see BAR May/June 1997 p.35; scroll down until you see the chart.)
The command against taking God’s name in vain is moved from the third slot to the seventh, where it appears reformulated as a prohibition against false oaths, followed by a punishment clause drawn from the idolatry commandment (“visiting the iniquity of the fathers onto the children to the third and fourth generations….”). The Sabbath commandment is significantly shortened. But the real drama comes at the end. At this point, the traditional Lutheran, Anglican (and Catholic) numerations—following the paragraph break noted in the Masoretic Text of Deuteronomy 5:21—count two distinct coveting commands: a ninth commandment concerning the wife of one’s neighbor, and a tenth concerning anything else of one’s neighbor. The Shapira fragments, however, present a single comprehensive coveting command as the ninth, followed by a new closer, imported from Leviticus 19:17, “Thou shalt not hate your brother in your heart.”
What motivates this change? The answer lies in another even more original facet of the manuscript. In the Shapira fragments, the Levites gather on Mt. Gerizim and utter ten blessings corresponding to the Ten Commandments (cf. Deuteronomy 27:14). The first, “Blessed be the man who loves God,” corresponds to the first commandment. The tenth, “Blessed be the man who loves his neighbor,” corresponds to the (newly added) tenth commandment.
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John Marco Allegro (who believed the fragments were ancient) decades ago emphasized the distinctly Christian nature of these changes: “Thus the beginning and end of the divine Law [i.e., the Ten Commandments] is summarized by our text as ‘loving God’ and ‘loving one’s neighbor,’ a conception which will have a familiar ring to the Christian reader.”
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
As Allegro notes, the “peculiar form of the Ten Commandments presented in the Shapira manuscript” has a “Christian ring about it” (p. 136). And he was not the first to say so. Allegro quotes some 19th-century precursors to his own analysis, including the important German scholar Hermann Guthe.
In Allegro’s day, J.L. Teicher, accepting the fragments as genuine, thought similarly: “their contents are most fittingly described as representing the Book of Deuteronomy which was re-drafted for liturgical and catechetic purposes in the Jewish-Christian Church” (see Allegro, Shapira Affair, p. 136).
Teicher, it should be recalled, was among those who thought that all the Dead Sea Scrolls were Jewish Christian. For Allegro, the fragments need not have been Jewish Christian exactly, but he did note that the juxtaposition is “too close to be accidental,” and invites comparison with the New Testament above all (p. 137).
The Jewish Christian nature of these fragments has long been recognized, but more recently forgotten. As we recall and reconsider this important connection, our approach to the fragments can move one step further. What was once an argument for late Second Temple period authenticity should now become an argument for 19th-century fabrication. This indeed has been argued at least once before, by Oskar Rabinowicz, in a review essay criticizing Allegro’s book.
Scholars and students of forgery quickly learn that forgeries have a tendency to make their way to scholars keenly interested in their content. Shapira claimed to have been duped into peddling the Moabite forgeries, and his daughter seemed to think the same may have happened to him with the Deuteronomy fragments. I suppose it’s also possible that Shapira forged the documents himself. But if we remain focused on the fragments; the question of the forger’s identity recedes behind the suspicion aroused by the coincidences we have surveyed here.
To my mind, scholars should remain on the highest level of alert regarding the authenticity of the Shapira fragments, if only for the reservations we have resurrected here. Shapira’s strange manuscripts display Christianizing tendencies that are suspiciously aligned with his own curious mix of backgrounds and commitments. There is more than one explanation for this coincidence—and if Shapira was duped a second time, he would be innocent of any crime. But an authentic pre-Christian find is not among the possibilities.
Jonathan Klawans is Professor of Religion at Boston University. He specializes in the religion and religious literature of ancient Judaism.
Professor Klawans is also co-editor (with Lawrence M. Wills) of the recently-released Jewish Annotated Apocrypha (New York: Oxford, 2020).
 See Idan Dershowitz, “The Valediction of Moses: New Evidence on the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 133.1. (2021), pp. 1–22, and also The Valediction of Moses: A Proto-Biblical Book (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021).
 See Hershel Shanks, “Fakes! How Moses Shapira Forged an Entire Civilization,” Archaeology Odyssey, Sep/Oct 2002.
 See the historical survey, authored by Kelvin Crombie, posted online at https://www.cmj-israel.org/christchurch/ourhistory
 For this part of the story, see Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint, Jerusalem: City of the Book (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), esp. pp. 217–218.
 See Ronald F. Youngblood, “Counting the Ten Commandments,” Bible Review, December 1994.
 J. L. Teicher, “The Genuineness of the Shapira Manuscripts,” Times Literary Supplement, March 22, 1957, p. 184.
 See, e.g., Teicher, “Jesus in the Habakkuk Scroll,” Journal of Jewish Studies 3.2 (1952), pp. 53–55.
 Oskar Rabinowicz, “The Shapira Scroll: A Nineteenth Century Forgery,” Jewish Quarterly Review 56.1 (1965), pp. 1–21, esp. pp. 16–17.
 The most insightful work on the history of forgery—and the roles of scholars witting and unwitting—remains Anthony D. Grafton, Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Modern Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); see also Christopher Jones, “The Jesus’ Wife Papyrus in the History of Forgery,” New Testament Studies 61.3 (2015): 368-378.
 See Tigay, Lost Book, pp. 310–311.