A few weeks ago, the archaeological community was all abuzz at the news of an exceedingly ancient find from the Holy Land: a scrap of papyrus dating back to the seventh century BCE that referred both to a woman and to Jerusalem. Doubts about its authenticity thickened the air — the rarified air, that is, of those who follow the latest goings-on within the field. The rest of us didn’t seem to pay it much mind.
Back in the late 19th century, an archaeological discovery like this one was likely to have generated intense interest among the general public — the stuff of newspaper headlines and the subject of avid dinner table conversation. At that time, the nascent enterprise of archaeology was synonymous with adventure, a byword for revelation. That it was also an exercise in colonialism, one in which Great Britain, Germany and France vied with one another to obtain the latest archaeological treasures for their respective national museums, added to its allure.
Then again, a lot more than geopolitics was at stake. For people of faith, the spade could either confirm or undermine their beliefs. Archaeology might shine what one clergyman called a “tremendously comforting light on the biblical record,” or spotlight its limitations.
Little wonder that expectations ran high in the summer of 1883, when Moses Wilhelm Shapira of Jerusalem, by way of Kamenets-Podolsk, an antiquities dealer whose emporium was hailed by “Baedeker’s Guide to Palestine and Syria” as the “best shop” in town for materials pertaining to the Holy Land, arrived in London. He brought with him a series of leather strips whose ancient script contained what appeared to be the oldest version of Deuteronomy, including the text of the Ten Commandments. As experts from the British Museum gathered together to examine Shapira’s treasures, they found it hard to contain themselves. One of them noted that the room was filled with “excitement as is very seldom exhibited among scholars.”
They weren’t the only ones. Fueled by the attentiveness displayed by the popular press, the general public was all agog at the prospect of an exceedingly ancient version of the Bible, perhaps even a “contemporary copy” dating to the time of Moses. That its account of the Ten Commandments differed, or, in the parlance of the time, “deviated” from the version followed by modern-day Jews and Christians, held out the possibility that from here on out, believers might have to “reconsider their ways,” or so related one God-fearing Englishman worried lest Shapira’s finds upset his faith.
In the end, after weeks of scrutiny, the antiquities dealer was sent packing, his allegedly ancient biblical text unmasked as a “wonderfully clever forgery” by C.D. Ginsburg, a celebrated Masoretic scholar. Pointing to orthographic inconsistencies, as well as to anachronisms in the text, Ginsburg and his fellow skeptics also questioned the text’s materiality. The likelihood that leather could have survived for thousands of years tested the limits of Western credulity, or so they said. Holding its collective breath as it awaited the verdict of the experts, the public eventually breathed a sigh of relief. The “religious world of England is singing halleluiahs,” the Times of London observed.
Halleluiah was not the last word on what became known variously as the “Shapira forgeries,” the “Shapira strips” and the “Shapira Affair.” The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls more than 60 years later, some of which were written on leather and contained variant accounts of the Bible, prompted scholars to reopen and reassess the case, generating reams of comparative studies. More recently still, the release of Chanan Tigay’s compelling new book, “The Lost Book of Moses,” brought the Shapira saga to the attention of a new generation of readers. I was among them.
Intrigued, I decided to take a look at some of the primary sources. As I made my way through these accounts, I was immediately struck by the subtle, and not so-subtle, tones of anti-Semitism that infused the proceedings. Long-standing cultural assumptions, stereotypical views, about the Jews leapt off the page. For starters, Shapira himself was suspect from the get-go. A Polish Jew who had long before taken up Protestantism, he was characterized repeatedly as “that converted Jew.” The press rarely missed the opportunity to point this out.
What’s more, many of his critics argued that the man was in it for the money. Although a few experts demurred from this characterization, claiming that the antiquities dealer brought a “genuine and real enthusiasm” to his finds, most clung to the notion that he, like many of his former co-religionists, was animated solely by mercenary motives. “He makes these discoveries of so-called antiquities very profitable,” one German biblical scholar noted snidely.
Adding fuel to the fire, Shapira’s critics also attributed some of the orthographic irregularities in the ancient text to the distinctive ways in which contemporary Polish Jews spoke Hebrew. Racializing language, they pointed an accusatory finger at Shapira himself. Variations in spelling — the use, say, of a tof when a tet was more the norm — “betrays the nationality of the compiler,” they charged.
The coup de grace came from an American source: The Independent, a wide-ranging, popular weekly newspaper “devoted to the consideration of politics, social and economic tendencies, history, literature and the arts.” Reflecting on the Shapira forgery, it noted proudly that it was “not unbelieving men but Christian scholars who detect[ed] this fraud. It is believing Christian scholars who guard against forgeries of old manuscripts of the Bible.” Surely it was not for nothing, The Independent concluded, that Ginsburg’s full name was “Christian D. Ginsburg.”
The paper seemed unaware of the fact that Christian David Ginsburg not only hailed from Warsaw, but also had converted to Christianity, just like his foil, Moses Wilhelm Shapira.
This story "Why Archaeology Used To Matter More" was written by Jenna Weissmann Joselit.