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The Mysteries of Moses

Questions about an ancient set of scrolls—older than the Dead Sea Scrolls—led author Chanan Tigay around the world. Then the answer appeared in the library across from his office.

Beth Kissileff
April 11, 2016
Photo: Emanuele Dello Strologo
Chanan Tigay. Photo: Emanuele Dello Strologo
Photo: Emanuele Dello Strologo
Chanan Tigay. Photo: Emanuele Dello Strologo

It took a while for Chanan Tigay’s eureka moment to sink in.

He had spent four years on a quest to determine the whereabouts of a group of ancient scrolls that were purported to be the oldest text of the Bible in existence—older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. They might be a source of highly significant evidence of the most ancient state of the Bible for scholars, but no one had seen the scrolls since the suicide of their last owner in 1884. And their location was only one of the mysteries surrounding the scrolls: There was strong likelihood the scrolls were fake. Experts at the British Museum in London had disagreed over the age and provenance of the scrolls, and following sensationalist reports in the British press, all of London, including William Gladstone—the prime minister at the time of their appearance—had come to examine them. Over the decades since the scrolls’ disappearance, no lack of drama had been connected to them; the son of a rabbi and biblical scholar, Tigay was merely the latest individual to investigate.

When he first began to probe the mystery behind these ancient scrolls, Tigay had no idea the search would require hundreds of hours of research and take him to nine countries. After four years, he finally saw physical evidence that granted him answers he had been seeking, close to home—in the library of San Francisco State University, the very place where he teaches in the creative writing department.

San Francisco State housed a collection of manuscripts that had once belonged to Jerusalem-based 19th-century antiquities dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira. Tigay didn’t immediately appreciate the significance of what he’d found. It wasn’t the scrolls themselves, but what he discovered ultimately suggested a conclusion to his quest to find what and where the scrolls were and how and why their owner had acquired them. This discovery gave Tigay a satisfying conclusion after his years of research—including visits to Israel, the Netherlands, Australia, Jordan, Germany, England, and France. That painstaking research is the core of Tigay’s new book, The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible. (Read an excerpt here.)

Unfortunately, Tigay’s discovery in the library came just eight days before his book was due to the publisher; he had to quickly rewrite the ending based on what he’d found. Tigay’s goal was to “try to have the reader feel like they are in my shoes the whole way through,” he told me recently in a Skype interview from Boston. “At any given moment, the reader knows what I knew, not what I don’t know yet.” So, just as Tigay rode a “roller coaster of emotion” during his research, readers will also not know the outcome until the very end of the book.


Moses Wilhelm Shapira was a Jew from the town of Kamenetz-Podolsk in the Pale of Settlement who set off for Palestine with his grandfather in the 1850s. Whereas his grandfather died before they reached their destination, Shapira met up with a group of Christian missionaries in Bucharest on his way to Palestine and converted, becoming part of the Anglican community that met at Christ Church, still standing just inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. In Tigay’s telling, Shapira was a man on the make trying to raise his social status and make himself an important figure in the Jerusalem society of the day. By the end of his life, Shapira was an antiquities dealer living in what is now known as the Ticho House, a beautiful home in the center of Jerusalem, currently owned by the Israel Museum. Tigay describes how Shapira “made another small show of his wealth by acquiring an exotic pet—an eight foot tall ostrich with a singularly bad attitude.”

Shapira held Tigay’s fascination through the four years of writing the book. Shapira was important, Tigay says, because of his “genius for spotting historical forces at work, interpreting the mood of the public, identifying what it was they would want next and giving it to them—real or fake.” As Tigay describes, at a “time when archaeology was developing” and Europeans were able to visit the Holy Land in larger numbers, Shapira—whom Tigay calls “audacious, gutsy, dishonest, but interesting”—offered collectors what they valued. From his store near the Jaffa Gate, Shapira became the pre-eminent antiquities dealer for European tourists.

As Tigay writes in his book, the 1868 archaeological find by Frederick Augustus Klein of a “Moabite stone” that ended up at the Louvre in Paris “charted the course for the remainder of [Shapira’s] life.” This stone—an artifact dating back to the 9th century BCE—was found in Dhiban, east of the Dead Sea, written in 34 lines in the Moabite language using ancient Hebrew script. It became known as the Mesha stone because it confirmed a passage about a historical King Mesha from the perspective of his own Moabite side—not the Israelite one described in the Bible in Chapter 2 of II Kings. This was the first time evidence had been discovered, from outside the biblical text, that confirmed events the Bible described. Since this was the first time such evidence had been discovered, both archaeologists and tourists alike wanted more of the same types of material items.

While some relics Shapira peddled were real, however, others were not. “Once it became clear that the stone was valuable, a flood of relics from Moab surged onto Jerusalem’s antiquities market, feeding a growing frenzy for the stuff,” Tigay writes. “First it was more engraved stones. Next came pottery. Both found their way to Shapira’s shop.” Working with an Arab partner, Shapira forged pottery with inscriptions similar to the Mesha stone. According to Tigay, Shapira would “read the mood of the public to determine what it is they are after and give it to them by whatever means necessary.” Many of the fakes were recognized as such at the time, but Tigay found some of Shapira’s pottery still in the storage room of museums; the owners held on to the pottery even though they were aware that it was manufactured to follow a market fad, rather than an authentic antiquity. Tigay quotes geographer David Lowenthal: “Fakes advance our understanding no less than the truths which expose them.” For Shapira, the fakes revealed the extent of European fascination with ancient Near Eastern artifacts. However, according to Tigay, “the most confounding difference between the Moabite stone and the writings on Shapira’s pieces had to do with meaning—or the lack thereof. The Mesha stele, even in its damaged state, told a story. The writing on the pieces in Shapira’s collection made no sense at all.”

Though the fake pottery was exposed, Shapira’s career as a trader in antiquities was not ended. He continued to deal in antiques and became known for the valuable scrolls he filched from Jewish communities. Tigay quotes an account of Bertha Spafford Vester, daughter of Horace Spafford, the founder of Jerusalem’s American Colony, concerning complaints from the Yemenite Jews in Jerusalem about a Jew who called himself “Rabbi Moses” coming to Yemen and inquiring whether the community there had any old manuscripts. When “Rabbi Moses” saw one scroll, he offered to buy it, but “they said they would rather part with their eyes or their lives than with their beloved manuscript.” So, Shapira approached the Ottoman governor, negotiated a deal, and returned backed by soldiers to forcibly take the scroll and leave a nominal sum of money.

Shapira sold a number of texts to the British Museum in December 1879, three months after his return from Yemen, and made other sales in 1880 and 1881. In 1882, he sold the museum 145 Karaite manuscripts, those of Jews who follow biblical law without the rabbinic overlay of the Talmud and subsequent legal codes.

Shapira’s final attempt to sell manuscripts to the British Museum was the one that proved his undoing—and provided the story behind Tigay’s book. The “Lost Scroll of Moses” consisted of manuscripts of Deuteronomy that Shapira claimed were found by Bedouins in a cave in an embankment overlooking Wadi Mujib, east of Dhiban (where the Mesha stone had been found). From a man eager to give people what they wanted, these scrolls had a version of Deuteronomy touted as “a more original version of the Hebrew Bible” with which, Tigay said, Shapira was “hoping to make the Christian interpretation of the Bible seem to be the more authentic one.” If an older version of the text of Deuteronomy was one without certain laws, then the more “Judaized” version that included those laws could be viewed as less authentic and thus less significant for believers.

Obviously, the parallels are tantalizing between ancient scrolls that might give a more “original” version of a biblical text than the Masoretic one, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in 13 caves and containing 800-900 scrolls, 50,000 fragments in total. If the Mesha stone based on one biblical historical episode produced an immense competition for more archaeological finds, one can only imagine the comparable high value of a text with theological significance that shows a more “Christian” and less legal version of the text of the fifth book of the Bible.

Shapira brought the scrolls to London in 1883, and Tigay describes the press frenzy thus: “All at once, the papers exploded with wall-to-wall Shapira coverage. Suddenly the ‘little merchant of Jerusalem’ was garnering headlines at a rate that today might rival coverage of a celebrity divorce.” At the time, though there was much debate, the scrolls were declared a hoax, and the British Museum declined their purchase. Shapira traveled to Rotterdam, Holland, where he committed suicide. But why? Did Shapira take his own life because of his disappointment with the museum’s verdict? Or because he knew the decree to be true and was humiliated by his chicanery, now known round the world?

Despite the questions surrounding Shapira’s scrolls, scholarly interest might have ended there. But when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in Qumran in clay jars in 1947, scholars recalled the similar story of Shapira’s claim about the origins of his scrolls. Tigay mentions that “there were more copies of Deuteronomy found at Qumran than any other book of the Bible” and that some of these scrolls were leather, like the scrolls found by Shapira. One scholar, Menahem Mansour of the University of Wisconsin, suggested in 1956 that Shapira’s scrolls might have been genuine and forerunners of the Dead Sea Scrolls; Mansoor was interviewed on the BBC and in a front-page article in the New York Times the same year. In fact, J.L. Teicher, a professor at Cambridge University, suggested that Shapira’s scrolls were a copy of Deuteronomy “re-drafted for liturgical and catechetic purposes, in the Jewish-Christian church.” The problem with all these speculations is that the whereabouts of Shapira’s scrolls were still unknown. Mansour went to the British Museum in the summer of 1956 to investigate and was told by museum officials that they did not have them—they assumed the scrolls had been returned to Shapira’s family. But in fact, they had gone missing years earlier.


Tigay first heard the story of Shapira and his mysterious scrolls at his family’s Shabbat table when discussing biblical frauds, a subject Tigay had been writing about as a journalist. His father, Jeffrey Tigay, a Bible scholar and professor at the University of Pennsylvania (full disclosure: I studied with him in graduate school) and author of the Jewish Publication Society commentary on Deuteronomy, told his journalist son that there was a famous alleged fraud that scholars still wondered about: Could Shapira’s scrolls actually have been genuine? The only problem was that no one could track their whereabouts. Shapira’s widow had sold off his possessions and moved back to her native Germany after his death. Parts of the estate were sold to collectors, among them Adolph Sutro, a San Francisco resident who bequeathed 167 manuscripts to the San Francisco State library. When Tigay contacted the library in 2012, at an early stage of his research, another investigator, Rabbi Adam Rosenthal, told him that he’d seen the collection and the scrolls themselves were not in it. So, he didn’t visit—until four years later.

I asked Tigay why he waited till the end of his research to go to the library next door to his office, after treks to nine countries. He explained that he knew that he only wanted to go next door when he had pursued all his other options. He thought finding something in his university library was a “long shot” and “if the long shot led nowhere then the search was finished.” When Tigay finally did go the university library, he confirmed that the scrolls were not there. Parts of the Shapira collection had been sold to various collectors over the years; fires and other calamities had occurred in the different places where the items had been dispersed. Tigay tracked all the leads but still couldn’t locate the scrolls. But even without the scrolls themselves, the other documents in the library collection helped him make a discovery that provided what this reader found to be a compelling answer about whether the scrolls were fake or genuine.

The journey itself, though, is a fascinating one, about how archaeological finds are viewed and understood, what kinds of artifacts are preserved by what kinds of people, and how investigative journalists work. Though the place of the Bible in 21st-century America is not what it was in 19th-century Europe, the stories of what impact the Bible and artifacts connected to it remain just as compelling.


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Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at