Welcome to Holy Days 2021: How to handle the latest sensational claim about the Bible

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The New York Times often ignores developments in religious scholarship, an especially serious deficiency of its Sunday Book Review (where Nash K. Burger, who was hired by fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty, long and carefully monitored the field until he retired in 1974).

Thus, hallelujahs should greet a huge article by culture reporter Jennifer Schuessler, posted March 10 and granted two full pages in the Arts & Leisure section of last Sunday’s print edition.  

The piece reports that young Israeli-American scholar Idan Dershowitz may have identified “the oldest known biblical manuscript by far,” which offers “an unprecedented window into origins and evolution of the Bible” and, in particular, the Book of Deuteronomy. If substantiated, some say, this “will be the most consequential Bible-related discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.”

Or not. Journalists assessing what’s hot should consider that across the years, manuscript frauds and ill-supported speculations about the Bible have been rife. 

The Times is known to sometimes “bury the lede,” and in this case it buried the news peg. The piece was nicely timed for Jewish Passover and Christian Holy Week when media often dig into biblical mysteries and controversies. But the news here is the April publication of Dershowitz’s book “The Valediction of Moses: A Proto-Biblical Book.” 

The book will fill in the missing element in the Times story and thus provide major fresh substance for reporters to develop: Which portions of Deuteronomy are involved in this discussion, and how do specific wordings and passages in today’s Bibles compare with the purportedly ancient texts Dershowitz cites? On that basis, what do the agreements and contrasts tell us and why?

Dershowitz seeks to rehabilitate Wilhelm Moses Shapira, whose 19th Century Jerusalem shop sold both tourist trinkets and allegedly valuable ancient manuscripts. He tried to sell these Deuteronomy fragments to a regular customer, the British Museum, but its expert and others declared them forgeries in 1883, based on what Dershowitz considers slipshod study.

Shamed, Shapira soon committed suicide in Rotterdam. The leather fragments themselves then disappeared.

This is the all-important deal-breaker for ever absolutely confirming the claims by either Shapira or Dershowitz. They can never be subjected to modern scientific tests and scholarly examination that would establish dating and authenticity. In addition to the Times article, writers can obtain background from Dershowitz’s article in the current issue of a scholarly journal and his interview here. There’s also this less sanguine version of Shapira’s history

Dershowitz thinks Shapira’s texts were written down 1,000 years earlier than the Dead Sea Scrolls and were an early version of material that later made its way into what we know as Deuteronomy.

That scenario might enthuse Bible believers, but Dershowitz is no conservative. He wrote a 2018 academic article theorizing that the Book of Leviticus allowed gay sex rather than forbidding it. As with the Shapira texts, he has a second new book “The Dismembered Bible,” proposing that ancient editors assembled pre-biblical texts and created scripture through cut-and-paste methods. 

In addition to those resources, reporters will need pronto an English-language review copy of Dershowitz’s book (priced at $139) from Mohr Siebeck, a venerable academic publisher in Tubingen, Germany with no U.S. marketing outlet (info@mohrsiebeck.com and 49-7071-923-0). Dershowitz can be reached at Germany’s University of Potsdam (dershowitz@uni-potsdam.de and 49-331-977-4361), where he chairs the Hebrew Bible department. 

Dershowitz allies to tap include Noah Feldman at Harvard Law School (not religious studies or divinity sectors), who hosted a private scholars’ confab to assess Dershowitz’s work and helped fund it (nfeldman@law.harvard.edu and 617-495-9140). Na’ama Pat-El of the University of Texas, a Near East linguist, provided technical material for the new book (npatel@austin.utexas.edu and 512-232-8292). 

George Washington University department chair Christopher Rollston (202-994-6701 and rollston@gwu.edu) is researching biblical frauds and posts this response. Another skeptic is Jewish studies Professor Ron Hendel (hendel@berkeley.edu) at the University of California, Berkeley. There’s also this from Boston University’s Jonathan Klawans.  

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