Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Shapira Strips

(You have no idea how difficult it was to find a photo of this!)

An interesting ma'aseh sh-haya. Once upon a time there was an antiquities dealer named Moses Wilhelm Shapira (1830-84). He lived in Jerusalem and one day popped up with 15 leather strips with ancient writing on them. What was unique about the writing is that they were passages from the Bible. Or, more accurately, they resembled passages from the Bible. Click the link to read two panels of the strips. This is an alternate version of the Ten Commandments.

His finding creating quite the stir. He tried to sell them to the British Museum for a million pounds. While they considered, he let them exhibit two of the strips. Thousands of people saw them. Bible scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau saw them and quickly concluded they were forgeries. For one thing, one of the edges of the streps were smooth, as if they'd been recently cut. For another, the orthography resembled Phoenician rather than proto-Hebrew inscriptions. Next, an even more distinguished scholar Christian David Ginsburg proved they were forgeries. It was he who showed that the parchment had been cut from a larger Yemenite Torah scroll that Shapira had sold earlier to the British Museum. Shapira was disgraced and shot himself a few months later. The strips themselves changed hands a few times and eventually disappeared.

What is interesting about this forgery is the tantalizing thought that they weren't forgeries. Now, I'm not saying that they aren't. Some scholars believe that he actually had made a discovery of the type previously unimagined, but less than 70 years later were to prove a reality, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. It proved that in fact given sufficient conditions scrolls could survive intact for more than 2000 years. When they were discovered some tried to resurrect the issue of the Shapira strips with little success, particularly as they didn't exist anymore.

In any case, its interesting to see a pretty good early forgery of what someone who almost got away with it imagined a secret ancient Bible text to look like. Read it.

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