For several years, author Chanan Tigay sought to find the oldest Bible in the world. His quest spanned eight countries and four continents, and he ended up writing a book about it: “The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible.”
First published in 2016, the book tells the story of Moses Wilhelm Shapira of Jerusalem, who in 1883 told the British Museum that he had found a historic version of the Book of Deuteronomy – and requested a historic sum for it. After an expert declared the object a fake, Shapira committed suicide. Six decades later, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed, they showed eerie similarities to descriptions of Shapira’s artifact. But the artifact itself had vanished.
Born in Israel, raised in suburban Philadelphia and now a professor at San Francisco State University, Tigay is spending this academic year as a visiting fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. In his office, he spoke with the Jewish Journal about his book.
Tigay said he wanted to make “The Lost Book of Moses” a mystery accessible to everyone. “On the other hand, I also wanted people who were experts in this field to read the book and feel I got everything right,” he said.
His father, Jeffrey Tigay, is a rabbi and Bible scholar who taught at the University of Pennsylvania for 40 years, and whose longest work thus far is a 600-page commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy that took 16 years to write.
Visiting his father for a Friday-night dinner, the subject returned to Deuteronomy. Chanan Tigay was working on several stories about biblical frauds – including the purported discovery of Noah’s Ark by Turks on Mt. Ararat. This prompted Jeffrey Tigay to bring up what his son called “the original biblical hoax, Moses Wilhelm Shapira.”
Shapira was born Jewish in Kamieniec-Podolski, which was “at times part of Poland, Russia, Lithuania,” Chanan Tigay said. In the mid-19th century, Shapira left for Jerusalem, converting to Christianity along the way. He started a family and established a thriving antiquities business. Tigay credits him with “an important part in the development of a number of really important collections of old Jewish manuscripts.”
In 1883, Shapira visited the British Museum with what he called the oldest biblical manuscript ever discovered – “a very strange version of the Book of Deuteronomy,” Tigay said, adding, Shapira “was asking for £1 million for the document, an utterly astounding sum – $250 million today.”
Tigay said that the manuscript was “perhaps” as old as the Mesha Stele, a Moabite stone monument discovered in 1868 in present-day Jordan, which dated to the ninth century BCE. He added that some speculated that Shapira’s find “was the original Deuteronomy written by Moses himself. That’s how old people thought it could have been. Not everyone agreed, of course … It would have been the oldest Biblical manuscript ever discovered, older by centuries.”
For verification, the museum hired Bible scholar Christian David Ginsburg, who declared the manuscript “a fake, a fraud,” Tigay said. Six months later, in March 1884, Shapira committed suicide with a pistol in a Rotterdam hotel. “People thought that was the story’s end,” Tigay said.
In 1947, however, the newly found Dead Sea Scrolls paralleled Shapira’s account of his manuscript: They, too, “had been discovered by Bedouin in a cave near the Dead Sea, full of variant readings of the traditional text,” Tigay explained. “Not only that, Shapira’s manuscript was the Book of Deuteronomy. The Book of Deuteronomy was the second-most numerous of the biblical books discovered [in the scrolls].
“Some biblical scholars in the mid-20th century recalled Shapira’s story and wondered whether in fact he discovered the first Dead Sea Scroll decades before the rest,” Tigay said. Yet this object had “mysteriously disappeared,” he said. “After I heard about it from my father, I decided that I needed to start looking, to try to prove whether or not it was real or fake.”
His travels covered Israel, Jordan, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Australia, Britain and the U.S. He hiked into the Jordanian gorge of Wadi Mujib to “test the idea whether a leather manuscript could have survived,” but he ended up getting soaked in a flash flood. In Jerusalem, Tigay visited the home Shapira lived in after becoming wealthy, and went to the Christian church where Shapira worshiped, married and baptized his two daughters.
In the U.S., Tigay made one final stop – the Adolph Sutro Library at San Francisco State – and found what he called “the most important discovery of the entire journey,” eight days before the book was due. “I had to rewrite the entire ending.”
So how does the story end?
“I’m not giving anything away,” Tigay said. “I think it holds interest whether it’s real or fake.”