Intrigue aplenty in SFSU profs new book about infamous biblical forgery

It’s not every Jewish journalist who can compete with Indiana Jones.

Chanan Tigay, author of “The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible,” traveled for five years to eight countries on four continents to hunt down the cryptic documents, eccentric experts and shadowy archives that make his nonfiction work read like an old-fashioned adventure yarn.

With his book slated for publication next week, the Jerusalem-born Tigay, a creative writing professor at San Francisco State University, is about to launch a U.S. promotional tour that will take him to the JCC of San Francisco on April 20. Advance registration for the 7 p.m. talk is required.

Chanan Tigay, shown here in Venice, crisscrossed the globe to research his book. photo/emanuele dello strologo

Part of Tigay’s double-stranded narrative tells the story of Moses Wilhelm Shapira, an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem, who in 1883 offered to sell London’s British Museum what he claimed to be the oldest known scrolls from the Book of Deuteronomy.

But when Shapira’s nemesis, French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau, and others raised questions about the scrolls’ authenticity on the eve of a public exhibition, Shapira disappeared. Six months later, he turned up dead in a Rotterdam hotel. His scrolls faded into the mists of history, until the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls made scholars reconsider if Shapira’s “discovered” Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, really was authentic after all.

Tigay weaves the fascinating story of Shapira with his own quest to discover the true provenance and fate of the mysterious scrolls. The past and present tales come together in a denouement worthy of a classic detective story.

“This is not just a book for people who are fascinated by the Bible, or scholars, or archaeology buffs,” Tigay said. “I’m not a Bible scholar. I know what a Bible scholar does, and I don’t claim to have that kind of expertise. I really looked at it, as I wrote it, as a mystery.”

Tigay, 40, has worked for JTA, the Jerusalem bureau of Agence France-Presse, the Jerusalem Report and other media outlets, covering stories such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 9/11 and Iran’s nuclear program.

Four years ago, he was a fellow in the investigative reporting program of the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He and his wife, writer Molly Antopol, live in San Francisco with their 1-year-old daughter, Nellie, and their dog, Rocky.

Tigay grew up in Philadelphia, the third of four sons of a biblical scholar. Over a family Shabbat dinner a few years ago, Tigay related a hoax he had written about, in which a group of Chinese archaeologists purportedly had discovered Noah’s Ark.

“My dad launched into another story about another biblical hoax,” Tigay related. “It had to do with, allegedly, a fraudulent copy of the Book of Deuteronomy.”

Tigay found the Shapira mystery “totally intoxicating,” but at the beginning, “it never occurred to me I should go find his missing scrolls. It seemed ridiculous,” Tigay said.

But as he did more research, he learned he was in competition with an Israeli filmmaker on the same trail. His thought at the time: “If I can’t answer the central question, ‘Were these scrolls real or fake?’ I haven’t told the story to its fullest potential.”

And who, really, was Moses Wilhelm Shapira?

“I thought I was traveling around the world searching for this particular manuscript,” Tigay said. “Which I was. But, simultaneously, I came to realize I was trying to find this man, trying to understand him.” Shapira was born Jewish, converted to Christianity, was a renowned social climber and reportedly ended his life in 1884 with a bullet to the head.

“On the face of it, there’s much to dislike about him, beyond simply converting,” Tigay said. “[That was] a personal choice — [though] a choice I wouldn’t have made.”

Tigay said there were “shady aspects to his doings: whether or not the Deuteronomy scroll was real or fake, how he was at once a loving dad and totally ignored his family … In public, he was a great showman, and, in private, sort of insecure.”

Shapira was “very much a man of his time, taking advantage of the era in which he lived.” Before he moved to Jerusalem at age 25 in 1855, the city was “a backwater of the Ottoman Empire,” Tigay said. But around the time of his arrival, the neglected outpost of a crumbling empire was experiencing rising standards of living, including sanitation.

A growing number of Europeans and Americans arrived as diplomats, missionaries, archaeologists, scholars, soldiers and spies. In that environment, Shapira was “willing to risk everything to get ahead,” Tigay said. “By the end of the book, I realized I really liked this guy.”

Tigay called him “a situational genius” — he profited from the influx of pilgrims, many who wanted to “take home an actual piece of history.” And at that time, there “was so much buried right beneath the ground in Jerusalem, that when a contingent of British military engineers came to make water more potable, or do an ordnance survey, they began to stray into biblical archaeology.”

Shapira “was a really smart guy, born as a Jew in the Pale of Settlement, very well-versed in Jewish texts, living in the heart of biblical archaeology … He saw what all these people wanted, and began, in ways both legitimate and illegitimate, to give them what they wanted.”

Tigay crisscrossed the globe in his attempt to suss out whether or not Shapira’s Deuteronomy scrolls were real or bogus, but in the end, he might have found the  answer right under his nose — on the SFSU campus.

In an interesting and fateful twist, just eight days before his deadline for turning in the book to his publisher, Tigay was in the university’s Sutro Library looking over biblical manuscripts once owned by Shapira (see accompanying story).

“I found several which bore physical evidence pointing to whether or not they were authentic,” he hinted. The condition of those manuscripts, he said, “shined new light on the arguments” that were made against the authenticity of Shapira’s scrolls in 1883.

“The question that had been vexing me, driving me, over which I had obsessed for half a decade, turned out to have been sitting almost literally in my backyard,” Tigay said, sounding almost like Indiana Jones himself.

And just what did he find?

Tigay wouldn’t reveal it for this article. After all, he wants people to buy his book.

“The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible” by Chanan Tigay (368 pages, Ecco)

Chanan Tigay book talk, 7 p.m. April 20 at JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Free with advance registration to arts@jccsf.org or (415) 292-1233. www.jccsf.org