Moses Shapira’s mysterious Deuteronomy fragments created such a stir in London that the British Museum put them on public display even before their authenticity could be evaluated. Scholars from across Europe and such public figures as the British Prime Minister, William F. Gladstone, lined up for a peek at these overnight sensations. How could such obscure objects—usually of interest only to scholars—have been the cause of an early media frenzy?
The excitement over the strips may be attributed to the state of Bible scholarship in the late 19th century. The year 1883, when Shapira offered his manuscript for sale to the museum, was also the date of the publication of the second and definitive edition of Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel.a In this work, the German Bible scholar argued that the law of Moses dated not to beginning of the development of the religion of ancient Israel but to the end—to the close of the monarchy in the late seventh century B.C.E.
Wellhausen maintained that the Pentateuch, or the Five Books of Moses, was a compilation of four originally independent documents, which he identified as J, the Yahwist source (after this source’s use of the divine name Yahweh, in German, Jahweh); E, the Elohist source (for the use of the divine name Elohim); D, the Deuteronomic source (the narrative source of the Book of Deuteronomy); and P, the Priestly source (the source for many of the cultic regulations found in Leviticus). According to Wellhausen, D was a relatively late component, originating no earlier than the religious reforms instituted by King Josiah of Judah in 622 B.C.E.
Although little about Wellhausen’s brand of Pentateuchal criticism was new to 19th-century European Biblical scholars, among whom the documentary hypothesis in one form or another was already being widely discussed, Wellhausen’s presentation of the arguments was so forceful that it commanded the full attention of the scholarly world and created a popular sensation that transcended academic circles.
In this context, it is easy to understand why the Shapira strips excited such widespread interest. Here was a Hebrew document written in letters as archaic as those on the famous mid-ninth-century B.C.E. Moabite Stoneb yet containing passages of Deuteronomy, which according to Wellhausen should have been written no earlier than the end of the seventh century! Moreover, the Shapira strips consistently used the divine name ’_l_hiÆm “Elohim” or “God”—even in passages where the Tetragrammaton yhwh, “Yahweh” or “the LORD”—appeared in the Hebrew Bible. The documentary hypothesis generally associated Elohim with the later Pentateuchal sources.
Was this manuscript the discovery that would expose the clay feet of the proponents of the new Pentateuchal criticism?
The British public received an answer to this question almost as quickly as they had asked it, and the answer, which holds true today, was a resounding no. The manuscript turned out to be a modern forgery, with no bearing on the documentary hypothesis, the history of the text of Deuteronomy or even the study of ancient inscriptions.