Thursday, January 19, 2017

Requiem for a Forger

Chanan Tigay, The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible (New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2016)





The tone for Chanan Tigay’s book is set by the cover: a colorized photograph of Jaffa Gate (Bab al-Khalil) of Jerusalem’s Old City in the late 19th century. Looking back at the camera, while the other figures in front of the gate go about their business, is Moses Shapira, the Jerusalem antiquities dealer and Tigay’s main character. Except there is one problem: Shapira did not appear in the original picture. Our cover photo is a fake.

Inside the covers we find the lengthy tale of the “world’s oldest Bible” in Tigay’s subtitle – not a complete Bible, but merely the purported original version of the book of Deuteronomy, with which Shapira showed up in London in summer 1883. Shapira asked the British Museum for a million pounds to acquire his Deuteronomy strips; instead, they were declared a forgery, with Shapira leaving the country in disgrace and committing suicide six months later. The manuscript itself was lost within a few years of the incident, but has been the subject of recurring interest since. This notorious incident has been retold many times, in both scholarly and popular versions, but journalist Tigay combines the tools of investigative reporting with some recent scholarship in this account of his attempt to find the strips and determine whether they were authentic.

Tigay’s version is a popular version, and it can be difficult to review a popular book as a scholar. The criteria to judge by and even the goals of popular books vs scholarship can be quite different. But this book, however broad an audience it’s reaching for, is still a contribution to our knowledge of the past – and it is this contribution in which I’m most interested. So let’s consider each aspect separately.

As a popular book: The Lost Book of Moses makes for fairly quick reading. It is engaging, other than a tendency to provide unnecessary or unwanted details. (These include several odd passages focusing on his and others’ undergarments or bodies.) In the end, though, the book is simply anti-climactic: (spoiler) Tigay doesn’t find the manuscript he spent four years looking for, and on top of this he concludes that it’s a forgery anyway.

As a work of scholarship: It is well-researched – both in terms of extensive investigative reporting and library research. Tigay uses most of the known (and some previously unknown) sources that are relevant to the strips. I’m glad that I read this book: I learned several things about Shapira and the Deuteronomy strips, even as someone who has researched and written on them before.

There are many minor errors, most of which do not affect the main conclusions or the course of the narrative. But there is one major exception to this: a cluster of errors around the influential Orientalist scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau.

Clermont-Ganneau makes two climactic appearances in Shapira’s life, and for each one Tigay has badly botched the sequence of events: Clermont-Ganneau’s announcement of Shapira’s Moabite pottery (the infamous “Moabitica”) as a forgery in 1873-74, and his announcement of the Shapira strips as a forgery a decade later. In both cases the effect is to make Ganneau appear to have rushed ideas into print, without care or “scooping” other scholars, or even “poison[ing] the well” (p. 250). In both cases Tigay cites and even quotes from the documents that provide the correct timeline and prove Ganneau mostly innocent of the charges.

Tigay also presents a series of cases in which he charges that Ganneau stole ideas or discoveries from others. It is true that Ganneau emphasized his role in the recovery of the Moabite Stone and neglected to mention F.A. Klein, the missionary who was the first Westerner to see it, in his publications on the stele. But in general the evidence for theft in these cases is flimsy or even nonexistent.

One claim deserves special attention: that Ganneau stole credit for the discovery of the first Gezer boundary inscription from Charles Tyrwhitt Drake, a scholar with the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Survey of Western Palestine. This is a remarkable claim, since that discovery (and its connection with the identification of Tell Jezar as Gezer) is one of the most important and famous of Ganneau’s achievements and is universally credited to him. Tigay’s sole source here is John Moscrop’s Measuring Jerusalem, which itself has a large number of errors (as noted in Rachel Hallote’s review in Religious Studies Review, 2004.) Moscrop in turn relies on a letter of Claude Conder, but the actual text of that letter – contra Moscrop and Tigay – makes clear that this claim of theft is merely a false rumor spread by Ganneau’s enemies in Jerusalem, and Conder declared it baseless.

These cases then set up a final charge, that Ganneau stole his proof for revealing the Shapira strips as a forgery from Christian Ginsburg. Here, the only evidence, besides the similarities of Ganneau’s and Ginsburg’s points – which Ganneau put into print before Ginsburg – is the recollection of Ginsburg’s son thirty years later. Looking at each of these charges on their own, there is little to no supporting evidence; so Tigay must present them together in order to suggest a pattern of bad behavior (to poison the well?).

Ironically, for someone employed in the French consulate, Ganneau was a remarkably undiplomatic person. He was apparently a difficult man to get along with. He emphasized his own role in discoveries and scholarship repeatedly, deemphasizing or ignoring the roles of others. He made many enemies. But Ganneau also had friends among scholars. And almost everyone respected him immensely for his abilities and his work. The PEF tried for two years to hire him before they were successful, and even after he resigned his commission they still promoted him publicly and published new articles of his for decades.

So, why does Tigay consistently make these errors?

Accounts of the Shapira affair typically present it as a contest between Shapira and Ginsburg (see Fred Reiner’s excellent contribution), or Shapira and Clermont-Ganneau, with the latter as Shapira’s long-term nemesis (from the Moabite pottery days). Tigay adopts this frame, but then does something astonishing: he makes the forger Shapira his hero.

Shapira is not presented in a wholly positive light – we see his sometime neglect of his family; his apparent affair – but Clermont-Ganneau’s presentation is almost completely negative, except for brief references to his skill and knowledge as a scholar. This presentation of Ganneau includes the most ungenerous readings, and even misreadings, of his work and the circumstances surrounding it. To be clear: I do not imagine that this treatment of Ganneau is intentional. Presumably, through his search for his strips Tigay has come (understandably) to identify with Shapira, and therefore casts Ganneau as the main villain – and this naturally but unfortunately leads to things like the use of unreliable sources without due diligence and sloppy analysis that consistently cuts against Ganneau.

Meanwhile, Shapira, in Tigay’s account, is “brilliant,” a “genius,” a “virtuoso forger,” and compared to Mozart. But there is little concrete evidence to support these praises beyond the much more subdued assessments in a trade school evaluation (p. 42). In fact, I think it is pretty clear Shapira was not a virtuoso forger. Certainly he was good enough to make money off some of them (the Moabitica, the Philadelphia scrolls). But I am aware of seven Shapira forgeries or groups of forgeries that have been identified: all were detected during his lifetime; they were all revealed during his lifetime too (except the Philadelphia scrolls that were first declared forgeries by Isaac Hollister Hall, not Cyrus Adler as Tigay has it, two months after Shapira’s death). Most of those who were qualified to judge his material were easily able to detect them as forgeries – if Adler is to be believed, an undergraduate did in one case. This is especially true with the Shapira strips: every single scholar who considered them (Ginsburg, Clermont-Ganneau, Conder, Sayce, Neubauer, Guthe, etc.) concluded that they were forged. The one possible exception is the German scholar of Semitics Paul Schröder – but here we only have Shapira’s word; Schröder later denied that he ever claimed them to be authentic. Compare Shapira’s record to actual virtuoso forgers whose work goes undetected for decades and fools multiple scholars.

Here we hit on the real problems with the book: romanticizing a forger and his frauds, with all of the ethical problems that result from this; and sensationalizing the study of the past, treating it as a whodunit to be solved (when instead scholars typically look at their work as trying to improve understandings of a never fully recoverable past). This involves the need to provide a sufficiently engaging plot, with a strong enough central conflict. Taking 300 pages to pretend that there is a real question about the authenticity of the strips when the overwhelming scholarly consensus has always been that they are obvious forgeries. Insisting that we need to find the strips, or conduct a multi-year search for them, to find out what kind of a person Shapira truly was, when we already knew that he built a career on making and selling forgeries and stealing manuscripts from Jewish communities in Yemen (pp. 195-197).

But this type of sensationalism is typical of public presentations of scholarship and the study of the past. Is this inevitable? Or can we do better?


Thanks to Felicity Cobbing for valuable assistance.

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