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Raiders of the Lost Scroll

By: Michael M. Rosen
January 23, 2017

ook at this,” sniffs Rene Belloq, Indiana Jones’s archrival in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “It’s worthless—ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless. Like the Ark.”

As fast as archaeologists uncover ancient treasures, forgers feverishly fabricate them, requiring would-be discoverers of major finds to divert energy toward distinguishing between the real and the fake. For every hardworking, diligent Jones, there’s a villainous Belloq, seeking fame and fortune the easy way.

Chanan Tigay is no Indiana Jones, but in The Lost Book of Moses, he swashbuckles his way across four continents in search of his archaeological prize, all while crawling through basements and attics, wading through shoulder-high wadi water, spelunking in caves near the Dead Sea, and perusing dusty tomes in musty university libraries.

The prize is a collection of parchment pieces containing what was rumored to be an early version of Deuteronomy, similar to the canonized version but subtly different in  historically and religiously important ways. Tigay’s quest was to determine the authenticity of the scrolls, which were lost soon after the ignominious death of Moses Wilhelm Shapira, their supposed discoverer. Tigay tries to discern whether Shapira was a real-life Belloq, who tried to forge his way to fame and fortune through staggering fraud, or a persecuted and slandered Jones, who exhumed a legitimate archaeological treasure, but was wrongly condemned by his peers and duped by unscrupulous Transjordanian tribesmen.

Tigay interweaves his own quest for this holy grail of historical truth with Shapira’s own life journey. To convey the ins and outs of these twin voyages would spoil their surprise destinations and the twists and turns along the routes. But the journey is populated by colorful contemporary characters in exotic locales, with whom Tigay connects through remarkable circumstances, and equally lively 19th-century figures whose historical legacies Tigay carefully assesses.

The central such figure was Shapira himself, an Eastern European born, British Jew-turned-Christian residing in Ottoman Jerusalem in the late 19th century. Shapira converted to Anglicanism during his journey to the Holy Land, but seemed never to gain full acceptance by his Christian brethren, even as he built a reputation as an antiquities salesman.

Tigay chronicles Shapira’s rapid ascent as discoverer and salesman of supposed Moabite-era pottery, followed by an equally swift—and painfully humiliating—decline when his ersatz antiquities were exposed as crude forgeries. But apparently there are second acts in archaeology, and Shapira “would boldly carve a niche for himself in a new line of work,” namely, the unearthing of ancient scrolls.

The most famous of these was what appeared to be an early version of the Book of Deuteronomy, in which an aging Moses, at the precipice of the Promised Land across the Jordan River, retells the story of the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert. The version Shapira found omitted many ritual laws, fused stories from other books in the Pentateuch, and even contained a different list of the Ten Commandments that included the prohibition against “hating thy brother in thy heart.” As Tigay puts it:

Imagine taking the Declaration of Independence’s pronouncement that all men are created equal, adding to it language from the First Amendment’s prohibition on abridging the freedom of the press, moving the new hybrid law two-thirds of the way down the document, and replacing it at the top with the Constitution’s rules on presidential power, and you’ll have a sense of the radical changes underpinning Shapira’s Ten Commandments.

While these significant changes were unusual, they also happened to mesh with the newly-emerging field of Biblical criticism—including the “Documentary Hypothesis,” which posited that the Bible was a composite work of multiple authors—while also appearing to undergird a Christian reading of the Bible that eschewed sacramental injunctions in favor of broader mandates of love and faith.

Shapira tendered his scrolls to the British Museum for verification of their authenticity, contingently proffering them for a million pounds sterling, an eye-popping sum at the time. The examination of the scrolls, the mysterious death of Shapira soon thereafter, and the subsequent disappearance of the scrolls and the hunt for their retrieval occupy the remainder of the book.

Another key figure is Charles Clermont-Ganneau, a Frenchman and Shapira’s archaeological nemesis responsible for recovering—if not exactly discovering—the Moabite Stone, a famous stele, now residing at the Louvre, that retells in the Phoenician language King Mesha’s version of his Moabite army’s victory over Judean forces in the 9th century BC. Ganneau, who played a significant role in destroying Shapira’s reputation by laying bare the latter’s fraudulent “Moabitica” collection, would later marshal his considerable resources to attempt to expose Shapira’s scrolls, persuasively documenting linguistic and physical flaws in the writing and parchment itself.

But perhaps the most interesting character is Tigay himself, a freelance journalist and creative writing professor at San Francisco State University who in his retelling of the Shapira story and his quest to get to the bottom of it somehow manages to fuse the wide-eyed wonder of an explorer with the skeptical scrutiny of a newspaperman. 

Tigay harnesses Shapira’s own (fairly self-aggrandizing) memoir; the semi-autobiographical novel of his daughter, the writer Myriam Harry; interviews with other descendants; and a wide-ranging, rollicking interrogation of the documentary record in an effort to examine the case anew, with fresh eyes unjaded by the petty jealousies of late 19th-century antiquities scholars.

The serendipities recorded in this journey range from the humorous to the incredible, and are replete with tales of derring-do, back-stabbing, and intrigue. And, like Dr. Jones’s fawning students, the reader comes away enlightened and enlivened.