When not found in a controlled excavation, any ancient inscription naturally raises the question, Is it genuine or is it a forgery? Usually, the task of deciding falls to experts in ancient inscriptions called epigraphers (although scientific tests of the materials can also be helpful in many cases). The epigraphers’ task is not an easy one, and sometimes even they will disagree.

Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the question has been raised once again about the authenticity of the so-called Shapira strips. Some scholars have suggested that they may well have been genuine.1 Therefore, the editor of BAR asked me to reexamine the matter, which I was pleased to do because I had long wanted to make my own judgment regarding this question, especially as I had twice recognized as genuine inscriptions that were called “forgeries” by the great German scholar Mark Lidzbarski.2 Perhaps the Shapira strips would be another case.

As the accompanying article by Rabbi Reiner makes clear, Clermont-Ganneau, whom Shapira regarded as his personal enemy, was neither the first nor the last to declare these fragments of Deuteronomy phonies. In 1878 Shapira had already sent copies of the fragments to Konstantin Schlottmann of Halle, Germany, who pronounced them forgeries. In 1883 Shapira brought the fragments to Hermann Guthe in Leipzig, who, after some delay, concluded they were forgeries. Later in 1883 Shapira offered the fragments to the Royal Library in Berlin, where an expert committee composed of several leading West Semitic scholars (August Dillmann, Eduard Sachau, Adolf Ermann and Moritz Steinschneider) concluded unanimously, within an hour and a half, that they were fabrications. From Berlin, Shapira went to London (on July 26), where no one but Adolf Neubauer was yet aware of the pronouncements of the German scholars. In London Claude R. Conder, Archibald H. Sayce and Neubauer came to the same conclusion as the German scholars. In the end, Christian David Ginsburg did too.

And of course there was the Frenchman Charles Clermont-Ganneau, who was doubtless pleased to humiliate Shapira. In short, sooner or later, all the scholars of the time who examined the fragments pronounced them fabrications.

This unanimity would seem to conclude the matter. However, in light of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the same region where the Shapira fragments are said to have originated, I welcomed the opportunity to make my own judgment.

Unfortunately, the originals are no longer available. But the Shapira dossier in the Oriental Manuscripts division of the British Library (Add. MS 41294) contains not only some nearly illegible photographs but a large facsimile prepared by Ginsburg, corroborated by what can be seen on the photographs. (One of Ginsburg’s drawings appears below.) This facsimile clearly confirms five external criteria—relating to the physical condition of the scrolls—noted by Clermont-Ganneau as well as by Ginsburg in his later, official report. They are as follows:

1. Each of the leather strips seems nearly straight on one side, as if made by a relatively fresh cut; the other edge is worn and ragged and looks ancient.

2. The leather strips are quite narrow, about 8–9 cm. This width corresponds generally to the width of the blank space left at the bottom of the oriental synagogue scrolls (primarily from Yemen) that Shapira sold to the British Museum.

3. The leather strips show traces of vertical folds that appear to have been used as references to mark the beginning and end of each line of writing. Such folds have no parallels in ancient scrolls, except on medieval scrolls of the Book of Esther (the Megillah, read in synagogues on the festival of Purim).3

4. The leather strips show traces of a frame that might have been used to pour a chemical product (wax or olive oil) evenly on the leather, giving it the look of a truly ancient manuscript.

5. There are clear traces of vertical margin strokes made with a dry point, as used in several other oriental (Yemenite) manuscripts bought from Shapira (Oriental 1452, 1453, 1454, 1457, 1459, 1465). However, the scribes did not respect the limits of the line but wrote well beyond, into the lower margin of the scrolls.

We can only conclude that these strips were taken from the margins of old scrolls dating several hundred years ago, but not earlier than the medieval period.

These are only external criteria, however. We shall now look at the internal criteria—involving the paleography, language and grammar of the text—most of which were mentioned by Ginsburg:

1. Paleographical analysis reveals the work of at least two different scribes. However, the letter shapes do not correspond exactly to any known ancient West Semitic script. It is neither Moabite (although most letters seem like imitations of Moabite writing in the Mesha Stele, which records the ninth-century B.C.E. Moabite king Mesha’s victories over Israel; photo and detail of drawing, below) nor “Canaanite” (West Semitic writing from about the 13th to the 11th century B.C.E.). It is neither the Hebrew script used during the First Temple period nor the archaizing paleo-Hebrew script found on coins of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 C.E.) and the Second Jewish Revolt (132–135 C.E.) and in several of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In truth, after a simple look at the facsimile, an experienced paleographer can see it is a forgery.

2. The text contains variants from the standard Hebrew text known as the Masoretic text that are easily explained as having been made under the influence of the Mesha Stele. For example, in the Shapira strips Deuteronomy 2:12 reads “The Horites lived in Seir from of old (M‘LMs),” instead of the Masoretic text’s “at one time (LPNYM).” This is based on line 10 in the Mesha Stela, which reads “The men of Gad lived in the land of Ataroth from of old (M‘LM).” Other variants in the Shapira text have been taken from other well-known Biblical manuscripts.

3. In several instances the text of the Shapira strips uses Elohim (God) where the Masoretic text has YHWH (Yahweh, usually translated Lord, the personal name of Israel’s God). (See “Why All the Fuss?”)

4. Some spelling variants in the Shapira strips reflect a confusion between H| and K and between T| and T. Such confusion is not attested in ancient times but is typical of Hebrew spoken by European Jews.

Thus, both external and internal criteria clearly show that these fragments were fakes. They also reveal how the fakes were made. The forgers (at least two) worked with a genuine oriental scroll.4 We can perhaps be even more precise and suggest that because of the traces of foldings, the strips came from a scroll of the Book of Esther. (The upper drawing, at right, shows such a scroll, made from pieces of parchment that have been folded vertically and sewn together.)

The forgers carefully cut off the blank margin at the bottom of the scroll. Then, trying to imitate the script of the Mesha Stele, the scribes wrote on this strip a text from Deuteronomy but with several variants intended to make the text both unique and archaic (as shown in the lower drawing, highlighted in white). Finally, they treated the strips with chemicals (perhaps wax or olive oil) to make them look ancient.

I do not think scholars have much to lament in the disappearance of these “Deuteronomy fragments”—except as evidence of a famous forgery and the infamous “Shapira affair.”