I am a sucker for stories about the search for lost documents, forgotten cities, hidden antiquities–fictional and non-fictional alike.* As a child I was spellbound by H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novels, John Lloyd Stephen’s account of his archaeological adventures in the Yucatan, and Heinrich Schliemann’s obsessive search for Troy. Enough so that when My Own True Love and I visited Turkey for the first time I insisted on visiting the archaeological site of Troy even though 1) I was hobbling along with my foot in a cast and 2) there really isn’t much to see.** Needless to say, I opened my review copy of Israeli journalist Chanan Tigay’s The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible” with high hopes. I was not disappointed.
In 1883, a Jerusalem antiquities merchant named Wilhelm Moses Shapira offered to sell the British Museum what he claimed was an ancient copy of Deuteronomy for the breathtaking sum of one million pounds. After initial popular and scholarly excitement, the scrolls were dismissed as frauds. Shapira committed suicide soon after and his scrolls disappeared.
Tigay first heard the story of Shapira’s scrolls in 2010. The tale caught his imagination, especially when he learned that Shapira’s manuscripts were strikingly similar in form and reputed provenance to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the discovery of which six decades after Shapiro’s death had fundamentally changed Biblical scholarship. A small group of scholars had come to believe that Shapira’s scrolls might have been authentic. But without the scrolls themselves no one could know. Tigay was hooked. (So was I.)
The Lost Book of Moses tells the story of Tigay’s attempt to locate Shapira’s missing scrolls, a four-continent, fifteen-year trail of red herrings, unexpected leads, and repeated dead ends that led him to academic archives, antiquarian booksellers, museum storerooms, a hotel attic, and a surprising number of Anglican church services. Tigay places his search against the background of not only Shapira’s life, but the broader context of the economic revival of Ottoman Jerusalem in the nineteenth century, venomous rivalries in the developing fields of Middle Eastern archaeology and Biblical textual criticism, and the art of faking antiquities.
The Lost Book of Moses is half treasure hunt, half research project, and wholly engaging.
The guts of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.
*I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Otherwise why would the Indiana Jones movies be so popular? Even the bad ones.
**Unless you count the giant wooden version of the Trojan horse.