Chanan Tigay, shown here in Venice, crisscrossed the globe to research his book. (Photo/Emanuele Dello Strologo)
Chanan Tigay, shown here in Venice, crisscrossed the globe to research his book, "The Lost Book of Moses." (Photo/Emanuele Dello Strologo)

Journalist and SFSU professor Chanan Tigay wins Cowan literary prize for Biblical whodunnit

Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

Journalist and San Francisco State University associate professor Chanan Tigay has won the 2020 Anne and Robert Cowan Writer’s Prize for “The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible,” it was announced this week.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation established the prize in 2004 to recognize local writers who have made an exceptional contribution to literary arts through a uniquely Jewish perspective. Tigay gets a $5,000 grant, and he will be honored in an online award ceremony on Aug. 13.

His nonfiction book — a mix of historical drama and Biblical detective story published in 2016 — is about ancient scrolls allegedly discovered in Jordan in the late 1800s that might have been a version of the original Book of Deuteronomy, the last of the five Books of Moses. If they were what they seemed to be, their existence would upset the claim that the Old Testament text was the direct language of God.

Scholars ultimately judged the discovery to be a counterfeit, and the Jerusalem antiquities dealer who found them, Moses Wilhelm Shapira, experienced a hard fall from grace.

When Tigay heard this tale from his father, Biblical scholar Jeffrey H. Tigay, the investigative reporter in him was spurred to dig deeper.

“He gave me the details of the story as he remembered it, and, though I didn’t know it that night, he had just determined the next five or six years of my life,” Tigay told Howard Freedman, director of the Jewish Community Library, who will interview Tigay during the Aug. 13 online award ceremony.

Tigay, 44, spent several years following Shapira’s trail around the world in his attempt to discover if the scrolls — which disappeared after Shapira’s suicide — still existed and if they were truly an elaborate forgery.

“The idea that the original version of Deuteronomy could be out there in the world and that I could be the guy to find it was unbelievably tantalizing and meaningful,” he told Freedman.

Born in Jerusalem, Tigay is now a resident of Oakland and a creative writing teacher at SFSU, though this year he’s at Harvard University as a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He has degrees from Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania and was an investigative reporting fellow at UC Berkeley.

An award-winning writer and journalist, he has covered the Middle East, 9/11 and the United Nations for numerous magazines, newspapers and wire services. He wrote a compelling 2012 profile of Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert for the Atlantic and a 2017 BBC piece about the subject of his book, which was published in 2016.

In the course of his research, Tigay uncovered a San Francisco connection to this international mystery. In 1884, Adolph Sutro, the Jewish silver mining magnate who became mayor of San Francisco, purchased a collection of Judaic manuscripts from Shapira’s estate for his own library. These materials were bequeathed to the state of California in 1917 and eventually ended up in the Sutro Library at SFSU.

Amazingly, after five years of searching, Tigay ultimately made what he deemed a “most important discovery” in his own university library.

“Because of what I discovered there, I had to run home and rewrite the entire ending to the book,” Tigay said.

The online award ceremony and interview on Aug. 13 is free and open to the public. Register here. It’s scheduled to last 45 minutes.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.