Thursday, June 15, 2017

Was the Shapira scroll a real Dead Sea Scroll?

FORGERY OR THE REAL THING? The Shapira Scroll was an Authentic Dead Sea Scroll — by Shlomo Guil in the Palestine Exploration Quarterly 149 (2017), pp. 6-27.

Wilhelm Shapira astonished the European academic world in 1883 by offering for sale fifteen or sixteen leather fragments of an ancient Hebrew scroll containing parts of Deuteronomy, but in a version that deviated from the Masorah. The script of the scroll, known to us today as paleo-Hebrew, is an archaism of the pre-exilic Hebrew script. The sale offer was made to the British Museum and the asking price was one million British pounds. The British museum was willing to consider the offer and appointed Christian David Ginsburg to ascertain the authenticity of the scroll.

Ginsburg analyzed the fragments of the Shapira scroll for almost three weeks but it was Charles Clermont-Ganneau, the renowned French scholar, who publicly announced on 21 August 1883 that the scroll is a forgery. On the following day, Ginsburg wrote to Bond, the director of the British Museum, that the manuscript is in fact a forgery.

This article attempts to demonstrate that the Shapira scroll was an authentic manuscript by presenting circumstantial evidence in favour of the scroll. The evidence focuses upon physical characteristics of the scroll as well as upon paleographic aspects.
This journal requires a paid personal or institutional subscription for you to access the articles. But the author has posted this article at Also, G. M. Grena has posted a summary and discussion at his LMLK Blog: The 1883 Dead Sea Scroll.

Chanan Tigay published a book on the story of the Shapira scroll last year. For past PaleoJudaica posts noting the book (I have not read it) and discussing the Shapira fragments, start here and follow the links.

Shlomo Guil is an independent researcher in Israel and he has published a number of other articles. I don't know him or know anything else about him. But he has produced an article good enough to pass peer review in a reputable specialist journal. That means that the scholarly discussion of the Shapira scroll as a possibly genuine ancient artifact has now begun. The case is perforce circumstantial, since the Shapira fragments are now lost and presumed (entirely? mostly?) destroyed. But Guil does raise some circumstantial points in favor of the authenticity of the scroll based on material and paleographic factors. I don't doubt that there will be more social media commentary, but the real discussion needs to proceed in the peer-review literature and it will probably take years to reach any consensus. But Shlomo Guil has played by the rules and thrown down the gauntlet. It will be interesting to see the reactions of paleographers and specialists in the material culture of ancient scrolls.

There is some hope (see update) that at least one of the Shapira fragments still survives. It would be worth some effort to try to track it down. Meanwhile, Guil's article reproduces some drawings of the scroll made at the time and I have posted links to these and other images here. That is at least something to work with.

I remain to be convinced that the Shapira scroll was a real ancient document. If you want to read a case made against that idea which was published in 1965, after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have a look at Oskar K. Rabinowicz, "The Shapira Scroll: A Nineteenth-Century Forgery" Jewish Quartely Review 56 (1965), 1-21. It is available on JSTOR. You may also want to look at the detailed review of the story of the Shapira scroll posted by Michael Press in The Appendix: “The Lying Pen of the Scribes”: A Nineteenth-Century Dead Sea Scroll. He thinks it was a forgery too, but he weighs a lot of evidence pro and con.

Be all that as it may, the case is now reopened and we will see what happens.

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