Could the Greatest Forgery in the History of Biblical Studies Have Been Authentic?

March 12, 2021 | Jennifer Schuessler
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Many decades before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Moses Wilhelm Shapira—a dealer in antiquities based in Jerusalem—claimed to have in his possession fifteen fragments of the “original” book of Deuteronomy, which he tried to sell to the British Museum. But the museum’s experts concluded it was a hoax, Shapira committed suicide, and two year later, in 1885, the manuscripts disappeared. Biblical scholars since then have assumed the fragments were fakes, but a young researcher named Idan Dershowitz thinks they might be wrong. Jennifer Schuessler writes:

The text, which [Dershowitz] has reconstructed from 19th-century transcriptions and drawings, is not a reworking of Deuteronomy, he argues, but a precursor to it, dating to the period of the First Temple, before the Babylonian Exile. That would make it the oldest known biblical manuscript by far, and an unprecedented window into the origins and evolution of the Bible and biblical religion. Dershowitz’s research, closely guarded until now, has yet to get broad scrutiny. Scholars who previewed his findings at a closed-door seminar at Harvard in 2019 are divided, a taste of fierce debates likely to come.

[T]o reconstruct the full paleo-Hebrew text, Dershowitz first had to track down scattered transcriptions and a handful of drawings of one fragment. And once he pieced it together and began reading, he had an odd feeling.

“I felt like it couldn’t be a forgery,” he said. “It’s hard to put my finger on it. It just didn’t match with something I thought could be possible” for the 19th century. For starters, there were too many features that eerily lined up with discoveries and hypotheses about the Bible’s evolution that scholars would only arrive at decades later, after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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