The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Old­est Bible

  • Review
By – December 9, 2015

In 1883, Moses Wil­helm Shapi­ra, an antiq­ui­ties mer­chant and invet­er­ate self-pro­mot­er, announced that he had come into pos­ses­sion of the world’s old­est bib­li­cal man­u­script. Sur­pris­ing the schol­ar­ly and antiq­ui­ty-col­lec­tor com­mu­ni­ties, Shapira’s announce­ment chal­lenged the divine author­ship of the Bible in a peri­od when new meth­ods in his­tor­i­cal crit­i­cism were already send­ing shock­waves across the fields of Bib­li­cal and Ori­en­tal Stud­ies. Denounced as a fraud, Shapi­ra fled and was found dead in Rot­ter­dam six months lat­er. The man­u­script was not to be found.

Despite its trag­ic end­ing, Shapira’s fas­ci­nat­ing life and the hunt for his con­tro­ver­sial man­u­script holds the reader’s full atten­tion in Chanan Tigay’s The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Old­est Bible. Tigay, fas­ci­nat­ed by the cast of char­ac­ters and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of redis­cov­er­ing a long-lost bib­li­cal man­u­script, began his own quest to uncov­er the mys­tery of Shapira’s man­u­script and his trag­ic death.

Tigay is a mas­ter sto­ry­teller, and his sub­ject is excel­lent mate­r­i­al for a scav­enger hunt that fol­lows the author around the world. At the book’s con­clu­sion, Tigay has solved the rid­dle of Shapira’s death and uncov­ered the final clues to the source of his con­tro­ver­sial man­u­script. After trav­el­ing to sev­en coun­tries on four con­ti­nents over the course of four long years, I had, at last, found the smok­ing gun. Remark­ably, it came not in Lon­don or Jerusalem, nor Berlin, Halle, or Rot­ter­dam,” writes Tigay in the final chap­ter of his book. With the mys­tery solved, Tigay takes the final pages of The Lost Book of Moses to reflect on his search and on Shapi­ra. He sees Shapi­ra as a com­plex char­ac­ter who was pushed by the events of his day to per­form­ing ques­tion­able acts, fash­ion­ing him­self a prime play­er in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ear­ly days of bib­li­cal arche­ol­o­gy. While many peo­ple aim sim­ply to sur­vive, Shapi­ra lived audaciously.”

The Lost Book of Moses is at its core a book about a man, rather than about a man­u­script, yet it is the search for the man­u­script that draws the author to his mis­sion and gives the read­er the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore the human con­di­tion in its com­plex­i­ty and ambi­gu­i­ty. The premise of this com­mend­able work of non­fic­tion alone would make The Lost Book of Moses an appeal­ing read, even if the secret of the man­u­script had nev­er been solved.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

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