Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Shapira scrolls again (updated 9/17/14)

MICHAEL PRESS: “The Lying Pen of the Scribes”: A Nineteenth-Century Dead Sea Scroll (The Appendix). A long and interesting article on the Shapira affair which is worth reading in full. Dr. Press does not dispute that the Shapira scrolls were forgeries, rather he mostly attempts to psychologize the specialists at the time and up to the present who rejected the authenticity of the scrolls. This is worth trying, I suppose, but a little of it goes a long way. One excerpt:
We see the potential, realized with [nineteenth-century scholar Konstantin] Schlottmann, for even scholarly response to be entangled with religious belief. This should not be surprising: modern biblical scholarship has been overwhelmingly Protestant, both in its origins and in its practitioners. Its roots are found in the two towering movements of the Renaissance and the Reformation, with their mottos ad fontes (“to the sources”—not only classical antiquity but also biblical antiquity) and sola scriptura (“by scripture alone”). The Protestant background of biblical scholarship has been long acknowledged. But this is mostly a neutral observation, or a positive praise of its critical tools; it has rarely been acknowledged that this origin might have a negative side.

The development of historical context and perspective, from the perspective of “to the sources” and “by scripture alone,” has led to a near obsession with origins, and specifically with origins of Scripture. Discovering the original documents behind the Pentateuch, establishing the (single) original form of the biblical text, reconstructing the (single) source (Vorlage) of a biblical translation—these have been among the most important goals of modern scholarship. Perhaps this may explain how, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were first brought to the attention of scholars, before archaeological excavations at Qumran confirmed their authenticity, they were generally accepted by scholars: unlike the Shapira scroll, they did not claim to be original versions of biblical books but part of a later stage in the process of transmission. Consider the reaction of biblical scholar Harry Orlinsky to the Dead Sea Scrolls: he believed them to be of limited importance for biblical studies, because they had little bearing on the original form of the biblical text.
There is certainly validity to this criticism of modern Biblical Studies (I have made it myself in print), but it applies much less to the field in the last generation. First, the attempts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to reconstruct original sources behind the biblical documents have come up against limitations that are very hard to overcome. There is, for example, broad agreement that the Pentateuch includes a Deuteronomic stratum and a Priestly stratum, plus some other stuff, but attempts to refine these generalizations has led to a welter of mutually incompatible theories each held by only one scholar. And second, on the positive side, reception history has become one of the most productive sub-fields in biblical studies in recent years.

As for the Shapira scrolls, they are lost now and probably destroyed, but we still do have quite a bit of information about them. This has been weighed by scholars many times and always found wanting. If someone wants to make a new case for their authenticity, that option always remains, but the current state of the question is certainly still that they are forgeries. Dr. Press would not, I think, disagree with me here. I see that I have made the same point here in greater detail, with links to more background.

UPDATE (17 September): Reader Matthew Hamilton in Sydney Australia e-mails the following:
Some content in the article “The Lying Pen of the Scribes”, was out of date as of 1 August. On that date there was the first screening in Israel of the documentary film “Shapira & I” by Yoram Sabo. The documentary includes in part a short interview of myself by Yoram where the claim of Alan David Crown that Sir Charles Nicholson purchased the Shapira Scroll is debunked. The actual purchaser of the Shapira Scroll was a Philip Brookes Mason (1842-1903), a doctor and amateur naturalist from Burton-on-Trent, and he exhibited the Scroll before the Burton-on-Trent Natural History and Archaeological Society on 8 March 1889.

The whereabouts of the Scroll after 1889 is still being investigated, but it was certainly not in the possession of Sir Charles Nicholson who was the owner of 3 and perhaps 4 other scrolls that had been owned by Shapira. These other scrolls and Crown’s hypothesis are the subject of a paper I’m currently preparing.
This is important and exciting news. If Sir Charles Nicholson did not have this Shapira scroll, then it wasn't destroyed in the fire in Sir Charles's study in 1899 and it may still survive somewhere today. If so and if it can be tracked down, it can be analyzed and its date established definitively. I look forward to seeing Matthew Hamilton's paper when it its finished.