The Bible and Beyond Podcast Episode

Are the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments (aka The Shapira Scroll or Valediction of Moses) Real or Forgeries?

Dr. Tony Burke, photo by Meghan Chartrand-Burke

Dr. Tony Burke, photo by Meghan Chartrand-Burke

An Interview with Dr. Tony Burke

When Idan Dershowitz broke the news last week that the extremely ancient Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments might not be forgeries, but actually authentic, Tony Burke agreed to discuss some of the public questions and concerns about it. Dershowitz, referring to the text as the ‘Valediction of Moses,’ claims it could be older than Deuteronomy. Although not directly involved in this case, Dr. Burke does have experience with modern forgeries and explains what’s at stake and what scholars study.

Tony Burke is a Professor in the Department of the Humanities at York University in Toronto. Much of his published work focuses on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. He is the co-founder of the North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature (NASSCAL). The society is currently involved in two projects: e-Clavis: Christian Apocrypha and the Early Christian Apocrypha series. Burke is the editor of Volumes 1 and 2 of the series New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures. It is a collection of little-known and never-before-published texts in English translation.

Dr. Burke’s WebsiteApocryphicity BlogDr. Burke on Twitter

Read the New York Times article about the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments (Valediction of Moses).

Read the article by Idan Dershowitz, “The Valediction of Moses: New Evidence on the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments,” on De Gruyter.

Read the Wikipedia article about the document (Shapira Scroll). This page also includes several pictures of the Shapira Scroll that illustrate information brought up in the podcast interview.

More information about the current conversation can be found on the PaleoJudica blog.

Read a critical essay and the very interesting discussion following it by George Washington University’s Christopher Rollston on his Rollston Epigraphy website.

Transcript

Narrator

Welcome to the podcast, Early Christian Texts: the Bible and Beyond. We explore historical and spiritual questions about Jesus, gender, women, salvation healing, and the meaning of life. Shirley Paulson is hosting a series of conversations with scholars who are able to unlock mysteries from extracanonical books, forgotten scriptures, so-called ‘gnostic’ gospels, and the Bible. We hope you’ll enjoy it. Here’s our host Shirley Paulson.

Shirley Paulson

I’m so grateful to our guest, Dr. Tony Burke, to come talk to us today on the special Bible and Beyond podcast. Several important news sources reported this week on what could be a rather startling development—if it turns out to be true. The Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments (aka the Shapira Scroll) have come to light after over a century of neglect because they were thought to be forgeries. But now a scholar in Jerusalem, Idan Dershowitz, is reconsidering them. He’s not so sure that discovery from so long ago was really fake news. So, I asked Tony if he’d be willing to help us understand what it means and what’s at stake. He’s a professor in the Department of Humanities at York University in Toronto, and his scholarly focus is on New Testament Apocrypha—or lesser-known texts after Jesus. But he’s also done important work on some modern texts that have been identified as forgeries.

And I hope he’ll tell us more about that too. Although the text we’re talking about today, that Idan Dershowitz is calling ‘The Valediction of Moses’ could be far older than the texts Tony specializes in, Tony’s experience dealing with ancient manuscripts is quite helpful. So welcome, Tony, and thank you so much for taking the time to drop everything and talk to us about the surprising news.

Tony Burke

Thanks for asking me to join you.

Shirley Paulson

It’ll be great to hear what you have to say. So even though you haven’t been directly involved in this current issue, could you just give us a brief overview of the story? What’s happening? And what’s The Valediction of Moses or Shapira Scroll about?

Tony Burke

Sure. Yeah. I remember hearing about this a few years ago when I was doing some work on modern Christian Apocrypha and in the wider discussion of believed forgeries from around the 19th century. So it’s nice to kind of reconnect with the story. As It goes in 1883, Wilhelm Moses Shapira was an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem. He was trying to sell fragments of a parchment manuscript that had portions of the biblical book of Deuteronomy. And it’s a really old script—what’s called Moabite script—which would place it around the ninth or 10th century BCE. So it’d be quite, quite old.

Shirley Paulson

Can you give us a little context of ninth or 10th century BCE? Like what else is happening then?

Tony Burke

King David’s reign was around the 10th century BCE. So then you would have Solomon’s reign shortly after and a parade of Kings. And somewhere around the eighth century BCE, we have the Assyrian conquest, which decimates the Northern tribes of Israel. And then around the sixth century BCE, we have the Babylonian exile, which removes many of the people from the Southern kingdom of Judea to Babylon. So, it’s smack in the middle of a high point in Jewish history and a very, very low point in that history.

Shirley Paulson

Okay, thanks. That’s helpful. So go on with the story then.

Tony Burke

Sure. What’s interesting about this parchment manuscript is what it contains, of course. And like I said, it’s portions of Deuteronomy, but the content is different from the standard book of Deuteronomy, including it lacks a good portion of the section known as the Deuteronomic code, which is a large segment of Deuteronomy, which gives additional legal requirements for the Jewish people. So, what we end up with is some narrative, but also the ten commandments. So, the Shapira Scroll reduces the law to the ten commandments. And then there’s also an additional eleventh commandment here, which is of course quite interesting. And that eleventh commandment says, in good biblical kind of English here, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart. I am God, thy God.”

Shirley Paulson

Oh, that’s a good commitment to add to the ten. All right, I’ll go there. Okay.

Tony Burke

So again, to continue the story: Shapira tried to sell the fragments to the British museum for a reported million pounds. He’d had a relationship with the British museum before. He’d sold them lots of other manuscripts. So this was not that remarkable. But the museum was understandably cautious, and they wanted to have scholars take a look at it first, especially since Shapira had previously been involved in a forgery scandal some years before.

Shirley Paulson

Okay. So let me stop you again. Give us a little point of history here. When was Shapira doing this?

Tony Burke

I’m not exactly sure of the date, but certainly before 1883, when this was going on. Yeah, there was some forced inscription, and it was revealed that it was actually created by a colleague of his.

Shirley Paulson

And so this was like over 140 years ago.

Tony Burke

Yes, yes.

Shirley Paulson

Yeah. All right. Okay.

Tony Burke

So the scholars who looked at The Valediction of Moses manuscript determined it was a forgery by their, you know, their judgment, and Shapira was quite shamed by this whole experience and soon after committed suicide.

Shirley Paulson

Oh no. Okay. That’s sad to hear. All right.

Tony Burke

The fragments were auctioned off after his death and apparently perished in a house fire. So we no longer have access to the original manuscripts, which is unfortunate. Since all this happened, several scholars, over the century and a half or so, have relitigated the case, looked at it again. Some claiming that it’s not a forgery after all, some claiming that it’s—yes, it is. So Dershowitz is really just the latest person to take a look at this again.

Shirley Paulson

Okay. All right. Well, that’s helpful to get a little bit of background on there. So, this really does sound like another example of playing around with fake news, in a way. Why? Can you tell us kind of like, why would anybody care about fake news related to religion and so long ago? Is there any point to forgeries other than money?

Tony Burke

Certainly, forgers usually commit their crimes in order to make money, particularly modern, or pre-modern forgers. Uh, they’re trying to get a museum or a university or some other organizations to buy their artifact and, you know, get as much money for it as possible. But let me back up just a little bit about the context for that. First off, I think it’s fair, should we examine the case? So your question about why do we care? I guess in light of the fact that Shapira’s claims about the manuscripts have been subsequently validated to some extent, he claimed that they were found by a Bedouin in a cave near the Dead Sea, and critics at the time could not believe that the parchment could survive in that climate. But the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1950s and 1960s shows that they certainly could. So to some extent, that aspect of it has been validated.

Shirley Paulson

Okay. Interesting. Okay.

Tony Burke

It’s also interesting to note that when the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered, some scholars at first believed that they had to be fakes precisely because they were so much like the Shapira fragments.

Shirley Paulson

Oh! Ok.

Tony Burke

So they all were kind of on their guard, right? They said, we’ve seen something like this before, and it was clearly fake. These must be fake too. But it actually ended up being that the situation has kind of been reversed. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been determined to be authentic. And in light of that, maybe the Shapira Scroll, what Dershowitz calls The Valediction of Moses, was authentic too. So that’s one aspect of how we need to look at this again. Dershowitz—he and a few others—he talks about recent epigraphic studies of the script. So this is the way of looking at the, the letter forms.

Shirley Paulson

So, what does epigraphic mean?

Tony Burke

You look at the letter forms, and you connect it to particular time periods. And if you have, say a letter form from say the ninth century BCE next to a seventh century BCE one, you think there’s something funny going on there. It wouldn’t be natural.

Shirley Paulson

Right, OK.

Tony Burke

But the problem with that is the epigraphic studies—because we don’t have the manuscripts—they’re based on drawings of the fragments that were made around the time that Shapira was trying to sell them. And those drawings are flawed, right? So, it’s not good science for scholarship to base paleographical analysis on a drawing of the original manuscript. You need the original manuscript.

Shirley Paulson

Tell us a little bit more about what do you mean by a drawing of a manuscript? I can’t envision what you’re talking about.

Tony Burke

Like someone made a copy. I’m not sure exactly why, but sometimes it’s because the print quality of something back 140 years ago of a photograph, wouldn’t be very good. So you just make a drawing of it. You make a copy. And it prints better.

Shirley Paulson

I see. Okay. But not like tracing, you just copy by looking at it.

Tony Burke

Yeah. Yeah. Trying to make your best copy of the actual script. But he shown that there are problems with that, with the copies that were made, they weren’t paying exact attention to the original texts. So, if we’re looking at something very fine detail, like the slope of a letter, well, it seems that the copy—the copyist—was not making those slopes exactly as he saw them, but more in the style that he would normally write them himself. So that’s the problem. It’s just not a very good, exact replica of the script. And if you go into study the script, you want the original, right. As of course, we don’t have that. So anyway, so it really is a lesson in how we need to be careful of the object of our study. And now we don’t have the manuscript and now we don’t even have very good photographs of it. So all we have are these handwritten copies, but they are not good enough to do a proper epigraphic study.

Shirley Paulson

And so when were these copies made that we’re looking at, or thinking about?

Tony Burke

At the same time that Shapira was trying to sell them to the museum, the sculptors who were evaluating them at the time made copies and published them.

Shirley Paulson

Right. But now in the news that’s come out about this. They’re talking about this particular manuscript, The Valediction of Moses, being like the oldest that there is, that is known now. So we’re talking about a copy of something that’s the oldest known manuscript, is that right?

Tony Burke

Yeah. Sure. We don’t have the actual manuscript. The other thing that Dershowitz has discovered that leads to evaluation of the artifact that the manuscript is he’s got access to notebooks that Shapira made.

Shirley Paulson

Oh.

Tony Burke

And these show that he was trying to figure out what the manuscript said and how to arrange the order of the fragments. So if he is the forger, that doesn’t make any sense, right? Because you create something exactly the way you want it to be, why would you need to figure out then how to translate or how to arrange the fragments? So this shows at least that Shapira was not the forger. And of course he’s an antiquities dealer. So he purchased it off somebody and then is trying to turn around and sell it. So, the issue of profit for forgery doesn’t quite work either because whoever sold it to them is not going to make the million pounds that Shapira wants for it.

He would’ve gotten a certain amount of money that Shapira thought would have been reasonable. And then he sat down and looked at it and said, “Oh, this is quite remarkable. I think I can get a lot of money for this.” And then he turned around and tried to do that, which is quite reasonable. What one would do as an antiquities dealer. So certainly we have a couple of layers here. It’s not Shapira forges the manuscript, created this thing and tried to sell it. It looks like somebody else, maybe somebody else forged it, or somebody else legitimately found it. And then Shapira was trying to resell it.

Shirley Paulson

Well, then why would he have been so shamed if he wasn’t the one who was directly doing this?

Tony Burke

Well, that hurts his reputation as a seller. So people are no longer going to trust him. It’s going to essentially ruin his business. It was very sensational at the time. It made a lot of press. So, it’s kind of hard to recover from that. I think that that was what the issue was.

Shirley Paulson

Okay. So you’ve given us some interesting ways in which scholars determine if something is fake or real, but then what happens next? Is there some kind of vote or who, who gets to decide whether it’s real or fake? How does that happen?

Tony Burke

Just a bit more about how scholars determine if something is fake or real because the natural question would be, can’t we just carbon date this thing?

Shirley Paulson

Yeah, yeah. Right.

Tony Burke

And certainly, that’s what often happens. You get these scientific tests to date the parchment, the actual writing surface and the ink that’s on it. But a good forger could use ancient materials. And this was precisely the accusation against Shapira—that he had taken off the margins, where there’s no writing on a very old Torah scroll, and therefore he has ancient materials. And then he just needs to create an ink. That would be the same type of thing that one would use in antiquity, which we have recipes for that. We know how to do that. And this is why the manuscript is in strips, right? So, normally you’d see a manuscript that is ancient and has been damaged over time would be, you know, a page with lots of little gaps and trimmings around the edges and so on, but this is strips. So that’s a bit suspicious. So scientific tests can only take so far, and of course, with this, we don’t have anything to scientifically test anymore. So what you go to then is content. Does what’s on the actual manuscript fit with what we know about the time period?

Shirley Paulson

Oh, OK.

Tony Burke

But that’s based on what we know about the time period. And everything we know is based on other discoveries. Our knowledge of the ancient world is fragmentary. So, a new discovery can change our knowledge. So you have to be careful with the circularity of that. You can’t dispense with something because it doesn’t fit the time period, because that can tell us something about the time periods. You have to be careful with that.

And then we look at things like anachronisms in the texts. Is this something that doesn’t fit? Is that maybe too good to be true? Because if we get something sensational like this—which is certainly sensational to claim—it’s like the 10th century BCE manuscript—this needs then to be heavily scrutinized, because of the size of that thing.

And the last thing to think about when we try to date things is provenance, which, which means where did this thing come from? And if a manuscript is found in a legitimate archeological dig, we know precisely where it’s been for the past, you know, 3000 years or whatever. Or if it’s in a library it’s been sitting there for centuries too. So we don’t have much doubt about its authenticity, but when things get sold on the antiquities market, like Shapira is doing, we have no idea where it truly came from. So we are right to be suspicious about that.

In the end, it’s the weight of arguments that scholars make, that can shift our opinions over time about, and this is why we can re litigate these questions, right? We have new knowledge. We look at the questions again, we examine, we examine. So it’s not necessarily the number of scholars who line up on each side of the issue, but the weight of the arguments and how good the arguments are.

Shirley Paulson

So I’m hearing lots of layers of issues related to this one question, whether it’s fake or real. It’s very, very interesting. Then how would somebody like Wilhelm Moses Shapiro, or even Idan Dershowitz even find something like The Valediction of Moses? I mean, it’s not just lying around and you say you sold it on antiquities market, but then where would he have found it? How does this come about?

Tony Burke

He says it was sold to him by a Bedouin who found it in a Dead Sea cave, just like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls as mentioned earlier. And other major discoveries that have been made are quite similar. So the Nag Hammadi Library, for example—well, those Christian Gnostic texts—they are said to have been found by a Bedouin digging for fertilizer. So it’s a very common kind of story. And it happens. It’s quite valid.

Shirley Paulson

So that’s believable then.

Tony Burke

Yeah, for sure. But sometimes, the elements of the stories are so similar to one another that we can get a bit suspicious at times about how these stories keep getting told. Other manuscripts get found in graves. We have others that get found in garbage dumps. Like the Oxyrhynchus papyri. So archeologists are excavating this garbage dump and through lots of, you know, old manuscript materials there. Another place you can find them is in genizahs. ‘Genizah’ is the singular. These are storerooms that are at the back of synagogues. And when a text is worn out, they get thrown in these storerooms until a time when it, when they can properly dispose of it. Because if it’s a religious text, they want to. . . I mean it’s got the name of God in there or divine things, then it needs to be disposed of in a very ritual, ritually correct way. So these genizahs have lots and lots of texts in them over centuries. So that’s another place we find them. So that’s usually where we find ancient Jewish materials: in caves, in garbage dumps, and genizahs. Christian texts for the most part are found in monastery libraries by scholars who are, who go to these various places, looking for something interesting.

So the codex Sinaiticus, for example—this is a full Bible manuscript—Old Testament and New Testament in Greek that was found in St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai desert. And it’s from the fourth century. So it’s a very, very old manuscript, but this is a Christian production. And so most of our Christian texts come from that kind of a context. So yeah, they’re not just lying around. People have to search for them. Again, you get these Bedouins who try to sell them to middlemen, like someone like Shapira is—and who would then sell it off to a major institution like he was trying to do.

Shirley Paulson

And then do Bedouins kind of realize what they have?

Tony Burke

No, they’re totally taken advantage of, for the most part.

Shirley Paulson

Oh dear.

Tony Burke

Someone will say, Oh yeah, we’ll give you a pittance for that. And you can go off and buy some food or something like that. They don’t realize; they can’t read the text. So they have no sense of what it is or what value it is. They just know that there’s a market for it. And so they find these things and they go try to sell it to someone. Then they get taken advantage of.

Shirley Paulson

I appreciate the fact that you are willing to talk about this very, very ancient world here, because I know that your focus is on really after-Jesus kinds of times. And, I know sometimes scholars don’t want to dab around in areas that aren’t necessarily their major focus, but I appreciate your doing this because I think your experience with forgeries is so helpful to us.

I want to know if you could just help us think a little bit about what would happen if the Shapira Scroll (Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments) could be thought of as authentic. How would that change things for us? Like what would it do to our thoughts about the Bible, for example?

Tony Burke

Well, according to tradition, Moses wrote the book of Deuteronomy somewhere in the 13th century BCE. So he wrote the first five books of the Bible—according to tradition. But scholars believed that the text, Deuteronomy, was found or probably written in the seventh century BCE, in the reign of King Josiah of Jerusalem. We have the story in the Bible about him finding this book of Moses and being quite surprised at its content. So likely it was probably written at that time. And then Josiah used it to enact some reforms in the Judaism of his time. So we think it was found in his time or created in his time. And then it got edited, enhanced somewhat, in the sixth century until we have the book of Deuteronomy that we have today. So the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments, in Dershowitz’s view, are evidence of an earlier version of Deuteronomy or materials that became Deuteronomy down in Josiah’s time.

So, depending on how you date the script could place the origins of the material prior to Josiah. So if it is a Moabite script of the ninth or 10th century, then it’s earlier than his day, which would put into doubt the prevailing scholarly opinion of when this text was created.

Now, the problem with all this is that the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments may actually reflect interest of someone living in the 19th century rather than antiquity.

Shirley Paulson

Oh, I see. Okay.

Tony Burke

What I said before about this large chunk of laws being missing, it’s material there that’s not of interest to Christians, right? It’s not part of Christian practice.

Shirley Paulson

Oh, I see. Okay.

Tony Burke

So it might suggest that whoever created this manuscript created it for a Christian audience because it doesn’t have these Jewish laws and that this eleventh commandment, you shall not hate your brother in your heart, might be a reaction to various turmoils of the 19th century.

Though you know, we always have wars and turmoil, but we do have these other texts from around the late 19th century, which, these other forgeries of the time, try to capture something about what’s going on. And the people who’ve created them feel that they have a message to bring to their contemporary audience. So maybe if this is a 19th century forger, he is—he or she—is again, trying to make this for a Christian audience who will be most. . . They’d be the widest interest they could get and trying to have a nice new message for the time.

Shirley Paulson

So you’re helping us to understand more of the motives besides money for why a forgery might take place. Well, then let’s go back a little farther then. If it were really an ancient, ancient piece, what would that mean to us then in terms of both Jewish and Christian understandings of it?

Tony Burke

Yeah. I’m not sure it changes a lot about what we do with book of Deuteronomy. It might make us rethink some of the theories about the composition of the Pentateuch, which came in various stages over time that we try to connect with certain portions of the text. So it might make us reevaluate some aspects of that theory. But the theory. . .again, theories are open to change with new evidence, it’s not that big a deal. I’m not sure it would overturn a whole lot. But there’s another way too, to think about this as an authentic text, in that it could be a real ancient text, but an adaptation of Deuteronomy rather than necessarily an earlier version of it. So it might not be quite as early as Dershowitz wants it to be. We have several non-biblical Jewish texts from antiquity that we call rewritten Bible.

An example is the book of Jubilees, which was composed in the second century BCE. And it’s basically exactly what it is. It rewrites earlier texts to reflect new interests and concerns. So a slightly different Deuteronomy might be another attempt at rewritten Bible. And just another example, just to maybe be more intelligible to some people, the book of Chronicles, which is in the Bible is also a rewritten Bible text. It rewrites the books of Kings and Samuel for a new audience several centuries later. So this is not a new thing. People are rewriting texts for new audiences all the time, and we might have something in this new Deuteronomy text [The Valediction of Moses], which again, could still be ancient, but not necessary in quite the same way that Dershowitz is claiming it is. And that in itself is an interesting thing to have.

Shirley Paulson

Yeah. So I think what you’re helping us see there is that it’s not necessarily thought of as a forgery than if it’s a rewriting kind of thing for a different reason.

Tony Burke

But forgery, then, is really in the eye of the beholder, right? People who believe in their Bible, who value Kings and Samuel just as much as Chronicles would never say Chronicles is a forgery in any sense. Similarly, we have letters of Paul that are, that we believe are authentic in the Bible and some that we believe are not. But generally we don’t use the term forgery for those ones. So we tend to reserve the word forgery for things that are not in the Bible — in a way to kind of make them seem less important and less truthful. But the material that we think has been rewritten or written in somebody else’s name that is in the Bible, we have a tendency to excuse it, which we wouldn’t for these non-biblical texts.

Shirley Paulson

That’s a very interesting way to help us think about our relationship to the Bible itself and to even just truth. Obviously, everybody wants to know though, what is the truth about The Valediction of Moses? Maybe you can tell us a bit about what scholars have to do in order to get at the truth. We’re so accustomed to fact-checking with computers, it’s a really strange feeling to think that there’s a huge question we can’t answer right away. And so, you’ve told us we can’t just carbon date. Do scholars sort of settle in on finding truth, or that doesn’t really matter so much to scholars?

Tony Burke

It can depend. I have a way that I usually deal with this question with students in my classes. I try to get across the idea to them that we don’t necessarily know where truth is with ancient literature because people felt freer in that time period to get ideas across without necessarily using factual truth. Some people do that today too, but generally we don’t like it when people do it today. So when we talk about, say, what the Bible says about Moses, we don’t necessarily say Moses did or said such and such a thing. What we can say and what we can prove is this text tells us that Moses said such and such a thing or did such and such thing. So it gives us a bit of a kind of a buffer between the texts and history, and allows us to be able to say things with certainty about what we have without being too speculative about what the text says. It’s good to try and reconstruct history from it, but we always need to be very, very careful about that.

Shirley Paulson

That’s helpful.

Yeah, because I think I’ve, I’m sorry. I think most of my church experience has been “Moses said this, and Jesus said that, and that’s that.” So your bringing us back to the text helps us to rely on a truth that’s really in the words that are written, rather than trying to figure out who actually said history.

Tony Burke

Right.

Shirley Paulson

That’s helpful. I understand that you’ve had experiences with some modern forgeries, that we would call forgeries, that you could shed some light on. How would you deal with these questions with modern forgeries?

Tony Burke

I’ll give you a couple of examples. So I have an interest in the Secret Gospel of Mark, which you may have talked about.

Shirley Paulson

No, we haven’t. If you could give us a little background on that, that would be helpful too.

Tony Burke

So in 1945, Morton Smith, a scholar, he was traveling around the Middle East cataloging manuscripts in monastery libraries. As I mentioned earlier, these scholars go around these monastery libraries and hope to find something quite remarkable. And he goes to the library of Mar Saba, which is in the Judean desert. And he finds there, among other things, he finds a 17th century book, a printed book. And copied in the back pages, which is typically blank, he finds handwritten in Greek, a letter, which is supposed to be written by Clement of Alexandria. And he was a third century writer. And in this letter, Clement mentions a longer version of Mark that was around in his day. And then he gives to. . . .

Shirley Paulson

A longer version of the Gospel of Mark as we know it?

Tony Burke

So that we call this Secret Mark—the Secret Gospel of Mark. And he gives two excerpts from it.

So we have a sense of what this longer Mark had. Now Smith, he comes home and he published his findings. But soon after there were accusations that he had created the text, that he had forged it. And most scholars today believe it is a forgery. But their arguments to me—and some other people have written on the text—are not very persuasive. So this kind of connects with the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments case a little bit. Now, including in the arguments are that some people say that there is no manuscript, that Smith’s book included photographs, but there is no actual manuscript. And this gets repeated often, but it’s not actually true. Smith photographed it. And then he left it in the library, which is what you’re supposed to do. He can’t just take it home with them. That would be theft. But now the library has lost it.

So we don’t have the manuscript, but it’s not Smith’s fault in a similar way that Shapira’s manuscript has gone missing, but it’s certainly no fault his own. Also with the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments manuscript—it’s a similar connection with Secret Mark is, uh, critics say that the text of the Secret Gospel of Mark fits Smith’s time. So the 20th century, because it has some certain homoerotic qualities to what Jesus is doing in the text that fit the 20th century context. But people who, like me, who think the text is authentic don’t think that this is the case: that homoeroticism is really in the eye of the beholder. Where Secret Mark comes into contact most I think with Shapira is this notebook that Dershowitz has found on Shapira’s. Because Smith did something very similar. We have in Smith’s archive, all of the materials he left behind after he died, his own notes where he’s trying to translate and decipher the manuscript.

So you don’t do that if you created the text. So Shapira and Smith are on the similar ground here. So I think the Secret Mark case then has some lessons we can apply to the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments.

And the one other example I want to give you is with the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, which I was involved with in a limited way. With this manuscript. . . okay, So this is similar to Shapira’s case in the sense that we have a strip of manuscript, almost like a business card size piece of papyrus with some writing on it. So the initial arguments for forgery, I thought were not strong, not the first ones. And these all came out on the internet. So with the internet now it’s not like Shapira’s time where people were publishing fairly slowly. These things are coming out rapidly. So sometimes people are just throwing things out there without thinking too much about them.

But one of the arguments, just one that I thought was very weak at the time was someone was mentioning that there’s a hole in the manuscript and the text has been written around the hole, which suggests to them that it’s a forgery, but really this happened all the time. Like an ancient papyrus would have some holes or ancient paper, and people would just write around it. So it’s not an argument for forgery. And I thought also that some of the arguments seemed theologically motivated. So people thought, well, Jesus, didn’t have a wife. Therefore this must be a forgery. And those kind of arguments I tend to react to. So anyway, these arguments, as I said, were made very rapidly on the internet, but soon stronger arguments came and they actually won the case.

And then where I actually more closely interact with this or intersect with this is, I led a conference at my university—York University in 2015, and we did a panel specifically on the text because it was such a timely thing. And we weren’t really interested in necessarily whether it was real or not, whether it was a forgery or authentic. We were interested in some other aspects of the text. And one of these is the reception of the text by the initial scholars who were interested in it and the media. So the types of arguments that were being made, and there was a somewhat slanderous comment made against Karen King, who was the one who initially published the manuscript. So we were interested in the account, the dynamic there. And we were also thinking about the text as a modern Apocryphon.

Shirley Paulson

And what do you mean by that?

Tony Burke

So any apocryphon would be an apocryphal text. So all apocryphal texts, no matter when they were written in history, they use biblical characters to address new concerns of Christian communities over time.

Tony Burke

So just think about Christian ones—Jewish ones are similar. So whether this text was written in the third century or the 8th century, or even the 21st century, it’s using those texts, those characters to deal with a new issue. And when the Gospel of Jesus’s wife became known to scholars, there’s a lot of talk about Jesus having a wife, thanks principally to The DaVinci Code. So this text, whether even if it’s a product of the 21st century is like any other apocryphal text in that it addresses contemporary concerns. So that to us is interesting in particular, since we can see it unfolding in front of our eyes, right.

Shirley Paulson

Can I stop you just one second? And have you explained just what is the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, since it’s so small? What does it actually say?

Tony Burke

It doesn’t say a whole lot. Jesus is in some kind of dialogue with his apostles or disciples or some group. And the name Mary is in there. And then it says, Jesus said, “my wife. . .” so the text is fragmentary, but that confluence of sayings of Jesus mentioning ‘my wife’ and having the name Mary close by, it seemed to validate some of the stuff that was mentioned in The DaVinci Code—that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene. So it was quite sensational at the time.

Shirley Paulson

And so then did you have any conclusions from your conference or what did, what did you decide?

Tony Burke

It was more discussing about how best to deal with such new discoveries and how people need to ‘behave’ to some extent, because it’s interesting that we have this text, which some say would feed into feminist discussions of Jesus. Well, that’s a bit dodgy in and of itself to think just because Jesus is married, is that necessarily a feminist arguing for feminist principles? But here we have this interest of feminist ideas connecting with Jesus, yet the scholarship arguing against its authenticity, had some real misogynist kind of qualities to it. So that was kind of showing a bit of the ugliness of the discipline. And from this, we run into discussions of the representation of women in the field. We talked about such things as properly establishing provenance of manuscripts and about how ultimately going back to one of our earliest statements there, the scientific tests have shown that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was authentic in the sense that it was a piece of ancient papyrus, and the ink matched. But it was scholarly humanistic. By humanistic, I mean, techniques of the humanities, which ultimately determined that this was a forgery—by looking into the documentation of its provenance, by looking at how it was similar to this critical edition of a text that was published fairly recently, which seemed to be kind of a source for the materials. [1]

So, by doing the kind of work that we do in, in looking at the style of the manuscript, the content in it, rather than the actual materials, it showed that what we do in our discipline can, in some ways, be much more valuable than using science as a way to date things.

Shirley Paulson

Right? Well, I’m intrigued in this whole story here, Tony, because I think you’re helping us understand the value of scholarship, understanding the way texts work and what they’re talking about, the theological meaning of things, and the way they fit together with the whole history of the religious development. So this is just a fascinating conversation on so many levels.

For those of us who lean heavily on the Bible for our guidance and inspiration, can you help us with some thoughts on what we do about ambiguity itself? Is there something we can trust to lean on while the scholars are doing all their work?

Tony Burke

I would suggest keeping a cool head and reserving judgment. Good scholarship takes time—thinking about the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife-thing, all the stuff that comes out on the internet very, very rapidly. It was the scholarship that took a little bit more time that really settled the case. With the issue of the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments, we’re going to get some arguments back and forth, and eventually the sensationalism tends to give way to more balanced viewpoints.

What’s unfortunate though, sometimes is the first mention of a discovery or a new major insight, like what Dershowitz is doing here, it tends to take up most of the space. So, like five years from now when solid scholarly work appears in an obscure journal, which few people read well, most people will remember only this New York Times report about it being the earliest ever manuscript of the Bible, which contains also this eleventh commandment.

So what’s best if you’re interested in this particular issue, it’s best if you try to follow it through and see where it goes. Because again, it tends to be this other scholarship that will come after, which is less sensational, but much more rigorous, which doesn’t get the attention that this initial discussion with Dershowitz’s work, The Valediction of Moses, is getting right now.

Shirley Paulson

Well, maybe you and I can have a podcast in about five years and revisit this run. Well, let me ask you then for a final question, what would you be looking for yourself as a scholar continuing to work on with the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments?

Tony Burke

I think what we’re going to get with it will be something similar to what developed with Secret Mark. Likely there will be some kind of an impasse, or a stalemate. You’ll get the sides with their entrenched opinions. People claiming it’s a forgery, or people saying it may not be. But at one point I’m sure it will be declared that nothing more can be determined without the actual manuscript. And that’s not a, that’s kind of fair. There’s only so much you can do with these inadequate images and so on. And of course, no one wants to stake their scholarly reputation on something that may turn out to be false.

Shirley Paulson

Right.

Tony Burke

So we’ll kind of observe it from afar for the most part, but not use it to make arguments with. So, no one’s going to, I think overturn their views of Deuteronomy as a result of a text, which may be a forgery and we no longer have a copy of.

Shirley Paulson

What is your takeaway yourself in terms of just this whole. . . all your research on forgeries and what it means as a scholar? What lessons have you taken from all this?

Tony Burke

I think it’s interesting to see these kinds of comparisons with Secret Mark. What’s actually unfortunate for me who believes Secret Mark is authentic, is that when a forgery case comes up again, people start saying, “Oh, it’s just like that Secret Mark.” But those people are the people who have not really looked deeply into the scholarship that argues for its authenticity. It just becomes this thing you throw out whenever something like this comes up.

There’s also another interesting aspect of it that we haven’t talked about. And one of the articles I read about the Shapira Deuteronomy Fragments is that there’s been four different versions of the discovery of the fragments. He’s told the story four different times. And this intersects with some recent discussions of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library—the Coptic Gnostic materials. That discovery story also was told several times over the decades.

And some scholars recently have looked at those different discovery stories. And now it’s kind of casting doubt about on where exactly these manuscripts came from. Because there are such differences in the accounts. It’s like some reevaluation then of many aspects of the original context for the manuscripts.

So for example, the Bedouin who found the Nag Hammadi Library said he found it in this jar, buried in the desert, but most manuscript discoveries like this tend to be in graves. But he’s not going to admit that he’s a grave robber. So he’s going to come up with this story, saying how he was digging for fertilizer.

And this again goes back to the story of Shapira and a better one found in a cave, which is possible, but it is also such a trope that it may be covering up for something else.

And just one other thing about Nag Hammadi: why it’s important is, if these texts were found in graves (the assumption would be that it’s now found in one grave, but it could be multiple graves), the cover story could be covering up multiple crimes. And this suggests that whoever had these in their grave valued these texts very much. And it casts a bit of doubt on this notion that some ‘gnostic group’ had this library and they buried it all in the desert to hide it. No, it seems more likely that these are individual manuscripts valued by probably monks who buried them in graves with them, because they thought they were valuable to them and they liked the stuff, the material that was in it.

So it makes it, this line between say orthodox, regular Christianity and heretical, ‘Gnostic’ Christianity, somewhat blurry, if monks, you know, who normally you would expect to be quite Orthodox in their viewpoints, are burying these things in graves with them.

Shirley Paulson

Oh, this is just wonderful to think about Tony. I, I love the way you’ve opened up the door for us to think more about the value of these ancient texts and how we just can’t make a snap judgment about them, but we just need to keep listening and learning and be grateful to scholars like you, who are willing to be patient and dig through all these things for us. It’s just tremendous to talk to you about this. So I want to thank you so much and maybe we will get together in five years and talk about it again.

Tony Burke

Thanks for the conversation. It’s great.

Shirley Paulson

Thanks so much.

Further reading about the controversy surrounding the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

One of Burke’s recent blogposts, “Some Reflections on Ariel Sabar’s Veritas” from his blog, Apocryphicity, discusses the important role of literary criticism and textual criticism in the context of studying claims of forgery.  (back to body of text)