Moses Wilhelm Shapira (Hebrew: מוזס וילהלם שפירא; 1830 – March 9, 1884) was a Jerusalem antiquities dealer and purveyor of fake Biblical artifacts. The shame brought about by accusations that he was involved in the forging of ancient biblical texts drove him to suicide in 1884. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947, in the same area he claimed his material was discovered, has cast significant doubt on the original forgery charges.
Moses Wilhelm Shapira was born in 1830 to Polish-Jewish parents in Kamenets-Podolski, which at the time was part of Russian-annexed Poland (in modern-day Ukraine). Shapira's father emigrated to Palestine and in 1856, at the age of 25, Moses Shapira followed. His grandfather, who accompanied him, died en route.
In Jerusalem, Moses Shapira converted to Anglicanism and in 1861 founded a store devoted to pilgrim trade in Christian Quarter Road. He sold the usual religious tourist paraphernalia and ancient pots he had acquired from Arab farmers.
Shapira became interested in biblical artifacts after the appearance of the so-called Moabite Stone, the Mesha Stele. He witnessed the schism and interest around it and may have had a hand in negotiations between German, British and French representatives. France eventually got the fragments of the original stone.
Shapira proceeded to create many fake Moabite artifacts – clay figurines, large human heads, clay vessels and erotic pieces, with inscriptions that had been copied from the Mesha Stele. His associate was a Christian Arab potter Salim al-Kari. To modern scholars, the products seem clumsy – inscriptions do not translate to anything legible, for one – but at the time there was little with which to compare them. He even organized an expedition to Moab where he had his Bedouin associates bury more forgeries. Some scholars began to base theories on these pieces.
Since German archaeologists had not gained possession of the Moabite Stone, they rushed to buy the Shapira Collection before their rivals. Berlin's Altes Museum bought 1700 artifacts with the cost of 22,000 thalers in 1873. Other private collectors followed suit. One of them was Horatio Kitchener, a British military officer, who bought eight pieces in his own expense. Shapira was able to move to Aga Rashid (modern-day Ticho House), outside Jerusalem city walls with his wife and two daughters.
Still various people, including a French scholar and diplomat Charles Clermont-Ganneau, had their doubts. Clermont-Ganneau suspected Salim al-Kari, questioned him and found people who supplied him with clay. He published his findings in Athenaeum newspaper in London and declared them forgeries, a conclusion with which other scholars concurred (cf. Emil Friedrich Kautzsch and Albert Socin, Die Echtheit der moabitischen Altertümer geprüft, 1876). Shapira defended his collection vigorously until his rivals presented more evidence against them. He made Salim al-Kari the scapegoat, played the role of innocent victim, and continued to do a considerable trade especially in Hebrew manuscripts from Yemen.
In 1883 Shapira presented what is now known as the Shapira Strips, fragments of supposedly ancient parchment he claimed to have found near the Dead Sea. Their inscriptions of ancient Semitic script hinted at a different version of the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy. Shapira sought to sell them to the British Museum for a million pounds, and allowed them to exhibit two of the 15 strips. The exhibition was attended by thousands.
However, Clermont-Ganneau also attended the exhibition; Shapira had denied him access to the other 13 strips. After close examination, Clermont-Ganneau declared them to be forgeries. Soon afterward British biblical scholar Christian David Ginsburg came to the same conclusion. Later Clermont-Ganneau showed that the parchment of the Deuteronomy scroll was cut out of a genuine Yemenite scroll that Shapira had also sold to the museum.
Shapira left London and wandered around Europe for months. He shot himself to death in Hotel Bloemendaal in Rotterdam on March 9, 1884.
The Shapira Scrolls disappeared and then reappeared a couple of years later in a Sotheby's auction, where they were sold for 10 guineas. In 1887 they were possibly destroyed in a fire at the house of the final owner, Sir Charles Nicholson. Shapira fakes still exist in museums and private collections around the world but are rarely displayed.
Despite the claims of Clermont-Ganneau, significant doubt about the Scrolls being a forgery has been raised. Some archeologists now believe the scrolls may have been the real artifact, and not a forgery as previously assumed. It is uncertain if the Scrolls were destroyed in a fire, as previously suggested.
The exact location of Shapira’s shop on Christian street in Jerusalem has now been identified.
- E. F. Kautzsch and A. Socin, Die Echtheit der moabitischen Altertümer geprüft (1876)
- Allegro, John Marco (1965). The Shapira affair. Doubleday.
- Vermès, Géza (2010). The story of the scrolls: the miraculous discovery and true significance of the Dead Sea scrolls. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-104615-0.
- Publisher's Marketplace; Publisher's Lunch (11/22/2011); author Chanan Tigay: Unholy Scriptures, Free Press
- Singer, Isidore; Joseph Jacobs. "SHAPIRA, M. W.". Jewish Encyclopedia. pp. 232–233.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Unsigned (1911). "Shapira, M. W.". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- Tigay, Chanan (2012). Unholy Scriptures. Ecco/Harper Collins.
- Guil, Shlomo (June 2012). "In the Footsteps of the Concealed Shop". Et Mol 223.