Thursday, June 28, 2018

First Century Mark and Nineteenth Century Moses

Abraham Shalom Yahuda as a young man.

One of the many effects that the Dead Sea Scrolls had was to lead some scholars to call for a reconsideration of the infamous Shapira Strips – the leather strips on which an ancient version of Deuteronomy was said to be written; which Moses Shapira had tried to sell to the British Museum in 1883 for a million pounds; and which scholars had universally denounced as a forgery. Menachem Mansoor of the University of Wisconsin made the front page of the New York Times in 1956 with a call to “reopen” the case. Jacob Leib Teicher, lecturer in rabbinics at Cambridge, argued that they were genuine ancient scrolls in the Times Literary Supplement a year later. Far from every scholar thought they were worth reconsidering, of course. Shortly after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, W.F. Albright dismissed any comparison with Shapira’s strips: “it should be emphasized that there is nothing whatever in common between them except the fact that texts of the Hebrew Bible written in ancient scripts are involved [emphasis in original].[1] Later, Mansoor was personally criticized for his views by scholars like Moshe Goshen-Gottstein and Oskar Rabinowicz.

In 1965, the eccentric Dead Sea Scrolls expert John Allegro published The Shapira Affair, another call to reassess the strips. Allegro’s book was appropriately the subject of criticism, if the tone was overly harsh, in a length review in Jewish Quarterly Review by Rabinowitz.[2] Among the many points Rabinowicz made was that Allegro was too quick to take Shapira’s story of how he found out about the strips at face value. Shapira, after all, had made a career out of dealing with forgeries and other dubious material (including Torah scrolls from Yemen that were probably stolen from synagogues and communities there); and he had given not one story of how he first heard of the strips, but three. Rabinowicz’s counters to Allegro here are correct. Shapira was unreliable. Rabinowicz even quotes biblical scholar Herman Guthe’s 1883 book on the Shapira Strips on not trusting what Middle Eastern antiquities dealers have to say about the merchandise they are trying to sell. But then Rabinowicz turns around and spends three pages quoting what he presented as the true story of the forgery – from the mouth of Shapira’s apparent accomplice Salim. Salim gave a lengthy account of how he helped Shapira forge the strips, repeating some information that was then widely known or believed, but adding much new information: in this account it is Salim who appears to be the master, teaching his student Shapira how to age the leather, for example.

If Shapira is (correctly!) seen as an untrustworthy source, then why believe his accomplice Salim? But it is worse than this. The account quoted by Rabinowicz was from an article by the Palestinian Jewish scholar Abraham S. Yahuda: according to Yahuda, he met a man claiming to be Salim in Palestine in 1902, 19 years after the Shapira affair. And Yahuda’s article was not published until 42 years(!) after this meeting.[3] Is Yahuda working from memory here? If so, how reliable is his memory? This is not an idle point, since Yahuda gets some details of his story wrong. He mistakes the American consul Selah Merrill for his wife Phila – his second wife of two years, who had died in 1870. He places the Semitic scholar George A. Barton at the University of Pennsylvania, where he did not teach until 1922 (in 1902 he was at Bryn Mawr). Is Yahuda telling his readers the truth? We have reason to wonder, when Yahuda claims to have been involved in a conspiracy to smuggle a supposedly ancient sarcophagus out of the country, until Yahuda himself discovered it to be a forgery. And when the point of Yahuda’s tale of his encounter with Salim is to serve as background for an odd, lengthy attempt to undermine the authenticity of the Mesha Stele, universally accepted as a genuine antiquity. Is Salim embellishing his own role here? The effects of distant memory or outright lies, or something in between, are hard to judge over the course of the 61 years between the Shapira affair and the publication of Yahuda’s article.

It is remarkable that Yahuda’s eccentric article was ever published by Jewish Quarterly Review. It is even more remarkable that a scholarly review would cite it as counterpoint to Shapira’s claim. But what we see here is something all too familiar: the rush to accept a dubious story or source as correct if it fits in any way with our preconceptions, and if it is critical of whom we dislike. Rabinowicz dismissed Shapira’s questionable account because Rabinowicz already believed the strips to be fake and because the account reflected positively on Shapira; but he accepted Salim’s (or Yahuda’s) questionable claims because it reinforced his belief that the strips were fake and because it reflected negatively on Shapira. I am not trying to suggest that the Shapira Strips were anything other than forgeries. I am only suggesting that both Shapira’s accounts and Salim’s detailed claims are worthless here, and neither should have been quoted approvingly for three pages in a scholarly review. The previously known elements of Salim’s story can be cited from other sources; and those not previously known cannot be corroborated. As a source Salim is no more reliable than Shapira.

I was reminded of this strange episode with the latest news of the supposed First Century Mark. Since 2012, rumors circulated of a fragmentary copy of the Gospel of Mark dating to the first century – a remarkably early copy that would be of both huge religious and huge scholarly significance. It was rumored that Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and director of the Museum of the Bible, owned or was looking to purchase this fragment. So it came as a surprise when the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) announced this past May that the fragment was actually a papyrus from the site of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, one that they owned and had recently published, and one that dated not to the first century but to the late second or early third century instead.

When Evangelical Textual Criticism blog contributor Elijah Hixson posted about this case, Scott Carroll – who had worked for the Museum of the Bible for several years and helped the Greens acquire their large collection of antiquities – left a comment that Dirk Obbink (a prominent papyrologist at Cambridge who has also been associated with the Greens) was trying to sell this fragment to the Green family in 2011 and again in 2013. The comment seemed to conflict with the EES announcement, but it seemed questionable on several fronts. Papyrologist Roberta Mazza, an EES trustee, and the EES itself both insisted that they had always owned the papyrus and had never offered it for sale. Scott Carroll, meanwhile, is infamous for being an unreliable source  Even worse, the online comment was merely from someone claiming to be Scott Carroll, but whose identity was unconfirmed. (But see update below.)

Nevertheless, several scholars rushed to believe the purported claims outright, or at least to give them serious consideration. Why the suspension of critical thinking? It appears that the answer is simply that the comments reflected poorly on the evangelical Museum of the Bible and their associate Dirk Obbink, both of whom are already – understandably – criticized by many academics for a lack of concern for ethics and legality in studying and acquiring ancient texts. But this alone does not mean that unsubstantiated claims about Obbink and the Greens, from an account claiming to be someone known as an unreliable source, are suddenly believable.

Sadly, this state of affairs is a general rule: we are much less critical about things that fit with our likes and dislikes than those that challenge them, no matter how questionable the claims or their sources. But certainly as scholars we should try to be more rigorous? We should weigh the reliability of sources in every case, not merely when it is convenient. Start with a set of principles, not teams that we root for and against. If provenance is important, then advocate for it everywhere, not just with the Greens. Based on this single online comment, scholars were worried that here we had a prominent scholar – Obbink – trying to illegally sell ancient texts. But we know for a fact that many scholars have been involved in the illegal antiquities trade, and they receive far less criticism. Let’s stop and reflect for a moment on why that might be, and whether we can do anything to change that.

UPDATE 7/1: Peter Gurry, a contributor to the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog, has informed me that Elijah Hixson did later contact Scott Carroll and confirm that he was the commenter on the post mentioned above (see here). It's worth noting, though, that the scholars who initially accepted the comment at face value would not have been aware of any confirmation.

[1] William F. Albright, On the Date of the Scrolls from ‘Ain Feshkha and the Nash Papyrus, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research115 (October 1949): 13.

[2] Oskar K. Rabinowicz, The Shapira Scroll: A Nineteenth-Century Forgery, Jewish Quarterly Review n.s. 56 no. 1 (July 1965): 1-21. See also Rabinowicz, Review of The Shapira Affairby John Marco Allegro, Jewish Social Studies27 no. 3 (July 1965): 196-197.

[3] A.S. Yahuda, The Story of a Forgery and the Mēša Inscription, Jewish Quarterly Review 35 no. 2 (October 1944): 139-164.


Anonymous said...

Hello Michael,

you are slightly off track here in your comments regarding Yahuda. There are several details in Yahuda's article (12 that I'm aware of not mentioned in your post) that show that rather than Yahuda innocently mis-remembering details decades later, it is much more likely that Yahuda simply made up the whole story of his encounter with Salim.

As an example - "in the pitch darkness of the cave ... by the dim light of a candle" Yahuda (about 25 at the time) found it "possible to read only a few letters". Yet at the same time "a hurried pencil drawing" was prepared by the more elderly Salim (age not known but at least in his 50s if not older) that includes 7 lines of text with clear letter forms, no hesitation or mis-steps in drawing details, lines that are perfectly straight, and shading. Unless Yahuda had an eyesight problem then this part of the story is unbelievable


Matthew Hamilton
Sydney, Australia

Michael said...

Hello Matthew,

Thank you for reading and for your comment. In the example that you give: the drawing accompanying Yahuda's article is labeled "Salim's sketch of the sarcophagus with inscriptions". While that caption might lead the reader to conclude that the entire image is Salim's work, that this is the intended meaning is not at all clear. The caption is only explicitly saying that the drawing of the sarcophagus is Salim's. In the text of the article itself Yahuda only says that Salim made a "hurried pencil drawing of the figure". Yahuda says nothing about Salim copying the inscription, and in fact when Yahuda describes his efforts to read the inscription, he refers only to the cast, and to the great difficulty of the work because the cast was unclear (since it was "made hastily") and he had only been able to make a few letters while only in the cave. I think the fairly clear conclusion is that Yahuda means that the drawing of the sarcophagus is supposed to be Salim's, while the text of the inscription was added separately (presumably by Yahuda himself). At the very least, it is entirely inconclusive.

In any case, at more than one point in my post I am clear that I there is a very real possibility that Yahuda made up some or all of the details of his story. It is completely unreliable for several reasons.