But what if?

The world seems to be full of fakes – from film stars and presidents, to academic sources and recipes. Here’s a fascinating essay from The New York Times about some manuscript pieces found near the Dead Sea in 1883, written in ancient Hebrew, that might or might not be an alternative version of the Book of Deuteronomy. They might even have belonged to Moses himself. More fakes, surely?

Is a long-dismissed forgery actually the oldest known biblical manuscript?The New York Times
“I felt like it couldn’t be a forgery,” he said. “It’s hard to put my finger on it. It just didn’t match with something I thought could be possible” for the 19th century. For starters, there were too many features that eerily lined up with discoveries and hypotheses about the Bible’s evolution that scholars would only arrive at decades later, after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” […]

Still, claiming that a notorious forgery was the only known surviving source text for the Bible is not the kind of thing a young (and, at the time, untenured) scholar stakes his career on. When Dershowitz outlined his theory to Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School and chairman of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, where he was about to begin a fellowship, the older scholar warned him off. “I said, ‘You’re crazy, I don’t want to hear it, you’re going to destroy your career, go away,’” Feldman recalled. “He would keep emailing me details, and I would reply TGTBT — too good to be true.” […]

Knowledge of the past, especially the ancient past, always rests on fragments, shaped powerfully by contingency. We are dependent not just on what happened to survive, but on who finds those traces, and when, and what happens next. The Shapira story is trailed by a tantalizing swirl of what-ifs. What if someone with a less checkered reputation had found the fragments? What if Shapira hadn’t committed suicide? What if they hadn’t been lost — or had first surfaced 80 years later, after the Dead Sea Scrolls, when scholars might have viewed them differently?

Here’s a little more background on this remarkable tale.

A biblical mystery and reporting odysseyThe New York Times
While reporting the story, I talked with a number of scholars who had previewed Mr. Dershowitz’s research at a confidential seminar two years ago, including some who were intensely skeptical (to put it mildly). But I also became intrigued by another layer of the tale. As it turned out, the mysterious Shapira had made a number of fleeting appearances in The Times over the years, starting even before the Deuteronomy affair.

I need to remind myself to revisit this when they know more — could something that claims to be so old really be genuine? I hope so.