Shapira Fragments

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SHAPIRA FRAGMENTS , portions of a manuscript of Deuteronomy, claimed to be of exceptionally early date, which were offered for sale in Berlin and London by Moses William Shapira (c. 1830–84), a Jewish-born Christian antiquarian from Jerusalem. The fragments consisted of 15 leather strips, brought to Europe in July, 1883. Shapira's story was that they had been found by Arabs some years previously in the Wadi Mujib in Transjordan, and that he had bought them from one of the finders. In 1878 he sent copies to Konstantin Schlottmann of Halle, who pronounced them fabrications. Shapira then placed them in a bank in Jerusalem, but on receiving new encouragement he took them to Leipzig in July, 1883, and submitted them to Hermann Guthe. Guthe in his turn concluded that they were forgeries, and in September of that year published a detailed study of them, entitled Fragmente einer Lederhandschrift, enthaltend Moses letzte Rede an die Kinder Israel, in which the complete text of the fragments was compared with the Masoretic Text. From Leipzig Shapira went to Berlin (July 10) and offered the fragments to the Royal Library. An expert committee was convened to examine them, consisting of A. Dillmann, E. Sachau, A. Ermann, and M. Steinschneider, who unanimously (apparently without knowing of Guthe's investigation) concluded that they were forgeries.

From Berlin Shapira went to London (arriving there on July 26) and offered his fragments to the British Museum for £1,000,000. The script on the fragments was closely similar to that on the Moabite Stone (c. 850 b.c.e.), and Shapira and many members of the British public, who were greatly excited by the fragments, were willing to ascribe a Mosaic date to them. Such a date would inflict a mortal blow, they thought, to critical theories of the composition of the Pentateuch; and insofar as these theories were founded on the distribution of divine names in the Pentateuch, it was noteworthy that the fragments, by exhibiting the reading Elohim where the Masoretic Text had yhwh, showed the precarious nature of this foundation. The British Museum appointed C.D. Ginsburg to report on the fragments. He too found them to be forgeries. His conclusions were that they were strips cut from the margins of old scrolls, treated with oil to give the impression of antiquity, and incribed with letters imitating those on the Moabite Stone by a northern European Jew in whose pronunciation of Hebrew there was no distinction between ḥet and undageshed kaf, or between tet and taf. (Oral tradition in the British Museum adds that the writing had been done with a steel pen.)

This adverse finding was the more bitter for Shapira because it was confirmed by C.S. Clermont-Ganneau, who saw some of the fragments in the museum; it was he in particular who first affirmed that they had been cut from old synagogue scrolls. Clermont-Ganneau, eleven years before, had exposed as fakes pieces of "Moabite" pottery which Shapira had sold to Germany. Suspicions of prejudice on his part can, however, be set aside in view of the unanimity with which other scholars decided against the authenticity of the fragments. Humiliated and discredited, Shapira committed suicide in a Rotterdam hotel on March 9, 1884.

More recently the question of the character of his fragments has been reopened in the light of the Qumran discoveries, particularly by M. Mansoor (see bibliography). It has been suggested that they might be comparable to biblical fragments in the Paleo-Hebrew script found in the caves, and that the textual deviations could be evidence of a paraphrase (such as the "Sayings of Moses" from Qumran Cave 1) rather than a transcript of the biblical text. The detailed internal evidence marshaled by Ginsburg seems conclusive enough, but doubts will probably not be silenced unless it is possible to secure and examine the Shapira fragments themselves, most of which appear to have been bought in 1885 by the bookseller Bernard Quaritch but have not been subsequently located.


J.M. Allegro, Shapira Affair (1965); Rabinowicz, in: jqr, 47 (1956/57), 170ff.; Mansoor, in: Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 47 (1959), 183–229; M. Harry, La petite fille de Jerusalem (1914), a fictionalized account by Shapira's daughter.

[Frederick Fyvie Bruce]