Thursday, March 11, 2021

Dershowitz on the Shapira Deuteronomy

The New York Times has a piece highlighting a recent article and book by Idan Dershowitz arguing again for the authenticity of the Shapira Deuteronomy fragments. Looking briefly through the article and book, his argument is that 1) Shapira's private papers suggest he did not forge it; 2) paleographic and material arguments against its authenticity are not definitive; and 3) its text seems to reflect a an early precursor to the canonical form of Deuteronomy. While Dershowitz brings important information to the discussion, I doubt he will be able to convince many.

Dershowitz seems particularly enamored with the literary-critical arguments, suggesting that no forger at the time could have anticipated the ways the scroll corresponds to modern literary-critical reconstructions. Without going through his full argument, I must say that I am considerably less enamored with these types of literary-critical arguments in general. They tend to be very subjective and debatable, hardly to be considered solid evidentiary grounds. I have seen enough unwarranted suggestions that Dead Sea Scrolls were the sources for biblical texts to be quite skeptical in this regard. For instance, the lack of legal material can at least as easily be explained based on the interests of a 19th-century Christian target audience as an earlier form of the book.

So ultimately, I would stress that the epigraphic evidence must take precedence when it comes to questions of authenticity. As Christopher Rollston emphasizes, we don't have the material artifacts that would be necessary to conduct standard tests for authenticity, but the epigraphic evidence seems strongly against its authenticity. Dershowitz argues that we can't do a paleographic analysis based on inaccurate drawings, but we do have a number of independent visual records that all seem to point in the same general direction. With even a superficial glance: 1) script doesn't look typologically right for what we would expect from an authentic script from the period; 2) there's not a hint of evidence for a brush, which would probably have been used for ink writing; 3) it is the extremely sloppy work of an unskilled and/or careless writer (just look at the line arrangement, even if you don't trust the drawings of particular letter forms); 4) the column dimensions and proportions seem all wrong for what I would expect from a literary scroll; 5) would such a text even be written on ruled animal skin at that time, and why don't the lines respect the ruling? I haven't worked through all the details, but everything about it looks fishy to me, and I know others who have looked at it more closely suggest the same.


8 comments:

  1. Dear Dr. Longacre

    As someone who had been studying the Shapira MS since 2011 I found your dismissal of Dershowitz’s work to be with broad strokes but no specific details to support the dismissal – no specific part of Dershowitz’s work is referred to, no inscriptions or manuscripts are referred to, and the only citation is to be a blog post by Rollston.

    Looking at just one part of your blog post – “3) it is the extremely sloppy work of an unskilled and/or careless writer (just look at the line arrangement, even if you don't trust the drawings of particular letter forms); 4) the column dimensions and proportions seem all wrong for what I would expect from a literary scroll; 5) would such a text even be written on ruled animal skin at that time, and why don't the lines respect the ruling?” – I wondered if you have considered a manuscript such as B.M. 10258. That manuscript, against which Flight compared the Shapira MS in 1883:
    “3”. has line arrangement that might also be considered “the extremely sloppy work of an unskilled and/or careless writer (just look at the line arrangement”
    “4”. is a literary scroll with column dimensions and proportions that are not dissimilar to those in the Shapira MS
    “5”. is written on what might be described as “animal skin” (details on what constitutes “leather”, “parchment” and “animal skin” in Egypt at that time is a complex issue). Whether or not B.M. 10258 is ruled I have not yet been able to determine, not even in the clearest photo I’m aware of, for which see Die Lehre eines Mannes für seinen Sohn: Eine Etappe auf dem “Gottesweg” des loyalen und solidarischen Beamten des Mittleren Reiches, by Hans-W. Fischer-Elfert (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1999), Ägyptologische Abhandlungen Bd.60, upper half of plate 5.

    Ultimately perhaps the Shapira MS is a very famous forgery (I'm open to that possibility), or perhaps it is genuine manuscript of major significance to biblical studies (even if Dershowitz's work is found to have some flaws) - either way Dershowitz's work is worth reading very closely rather than hastily dismissed.

    Regards,
    Matthew Hamilton
    Sydney, Australia

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    1. Dear Matthew (if I may),

      Thanks for the comments and the reference to BM EA10258 (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA10258). I actually agree with you that people should look more closely at the issue and interact in greater detail with Dershowitz's work. I consider him to be a very competent scholar from what I know, and he has clearly put some careful thought into his study of the scroll. This post was never meant to be a substitute for more focused and specialized critique, but only an initial impression. I will leave it to others who work in this period to make fuller investigations.

      As far as the BM EA10258 as a comparandum, I agree there are similarities. I don't have an edition of the scroll right now, but I looked at the BM website. Column proportions indeed appear similar, though this seems to be a much shorter scroll. I haven’t spent enough time with Egyptian scrolls from this period to say what exactly would be “normal.” But ruled and creased animal skin certainly fits well with later practice, but I’m skeptical how well it fits earlier (though, of course, we have limited evidence for comparison). But the hand of EA10258 is clearly a much higher quality than the Shapira scroll, and the lines are considerably neater. Furthermore, it bears all the indicative marks of having been written with a rush brush (as was normal for ink writing in this period). Whereas all the drawings of the Shapira scroll I have seen have very thin, monotone strokes like the Moabite inscription, which is very suspicious to me. I’m definitely interested in hearing others who want to put more time into analyzing the case more closely, but it definitely looks fishy to me.

      Thanks,

      Drew

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    2. This is a little subjective but I would definitely not describe BM EA10258 that way. It is right-justified, so it does obey ruling. The lines are also much straighter than those in the Shapira facisimiles. To be honest, I don't know what Matthew's talking about.

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    3. Anonymous, BM 10258, column 1, lines 1 and 5 – do not appear to be right justified, when a ruler is laid horizontally over the lines they each fluctuate a small amount indicating they are not straight with the result the distance between lines also fluctuates slightly, end of lines in column 1 does not match start of lines in column 2 – it also appears that columns 1 and 2 differ in the number of lines in each column.

      Arguably most of these may just be the result of decay of the MS and the inability to fully flatten the MS before photographing, but that same argument is applicable to the Shapira MS – in addition to which when you analyse the range of drawings against each other you will find the drawings are of limited value for precise comparisons. For example, Strip E column a can be found in drawings with 8, or 9 , or 10 lines, and Strip E column d line 9 starts 2 letters to the right of the right vertical line in one drawing, yet in another drawing it is around 6 letters to the left.

      Matthew Hamilton

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    4. These are simple errors. Lines 1 and 5 actually start in the same place as the others, but the ink on the first few characters of each has faded -- you can even see this in the pictures if you look closely. Lines not matching up isn't suspicious to me in the Shapira MSS either, but wavy, unpracticed lines are, and not present in EA10258. We needn't rely on pictures for this analysis, because several scholars attested personally to the Shapira scribes' non-response to the column ruling.

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    5. Anonymous, whoever you are:

      “Lines 1 and 5 actually start in the same place as the others, but the ink on the first few characters of each has faded -- you can even see this in the pictures if you look closely” – the letters that you refer to as “faded” in line 1 begin around 2 letters to the left of any hypothetical right margin, while in line 5 there are nothing comparable to the “faded” letters of line 1, the letters begin around one third of the way into the column. (BTW: the “faded” letters in line 1, given that the most legible image is monotone, I wonder if they are in red ink)

      “wavy, unpracticed lines are, and not present in EA10258” – suggest you analyse the image of EA10258 more closely with a ruler under each line

      the images as well as what was "attested personally” are moderately reliable for the text, not so for layout – hence my point that “Strip E column a can be found in drawings with 8, or 9 , or 10 lines, and Strip E column d line 9 starts 2 letters to the right of the right vertical line in one drawing, yet in another drawing it is around 6 letters to the left”. But to further this point, this variation is by Ginsburg who had the most access to the strips, more than Guthe and Meyer, and far more than others who saw the strips for 90 minutes or less – and on the strip where there is the least amount of variation in the read text between Ginsburg and Guthe. If Ginsburg had problems with the right margin on what may have been the most studied strip, why would you assume others had less problems?

      Regards
      Matthew Hamilton

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  2. This is very interesting. To be honest, I've never even heard of the Shapira Deuteronomy fragments. I'm going to have to look into this.

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  3. People more familiar with Devarim than I will decide whether the Shapira ms will ever be accepted as ancient or not. A few observations.
    “It would surely be unusual for a forger to labor to understand a text that he himself had devised or inscribed.” (ZAW 19). In my opinion “Secret Mark” is a fake text, and Morton Smith in a learned, detailed book may be an example of such labor, including changed opinion about the liturgical setting.
    The article (1) names him Wilhelm Moses Shapira, though he went by Moses Wilhelm.
    The book bibliography has an article by Fred N. Reiner in in BAR, but not his “C. D. Ginsburg and the Shapira Affair…,” British Museum Journal 1995 109-27.
    Also missing: Truly Fake: Moses Wilhelm Shapira, Master Forger, the Israel Museum catalog from 2000.
    The purple ink pages (book ch. 2) are quite welcome. But are they transcription attempt or draft composition?
    Shapira’s letter to “Dear Dr. Ginzberg [sic]” said he was not yet convinced the ms is a forgery “unless M. Ganneau did it!” Not proof, but odd.
    The writing surface has been characterized as “thick” (7) and “stout” (8) and, though I can’t be sure, apparently more tanned than one might expect for writing. If one turns to try to compare the Shapira ms to Qumran mss, the closest matches appear to be to the claimed ones sold mostly after 2002—the thick hide, fake ones.

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