Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Valediction of Moses: A 2,700-Year-Old Biblical Document Long Said to Be a Forgery Gains New Respect

A version of the book of Deuteronomy, long said to be forgery, has just been declared authentic after all, making it the most ancient biblical scroll known in the modern era. The original manuscript may be 2,700 years old. The news just came out in a story by Rosella Tercatin at the Jerusalem Post, "Lost biblical scroll may have been 2,700 years old, Israeli scholar says," March 22, 2021. (A hat tip to Noel Reynolds and John Robertson for sharing this news.) I've read part of the new book that points to authenticity (more on that in a moment) and find it convincing so far.

Drawing of part of the original manuscript from The Valedication of Moses.
Drawing of part of the now-lost leather scroll from Idan Dershowitz's new book,
The Valediction of Moses: A Proto Biblical Book (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2021).

There's a tragic story behind this ancient document. In 1878, Moses Wilhelm Shapira, a Russian Jewish man who had converted to Christianity and was selling antiquities in Jerusalem, obtained a very old manuscript from some Bedouins who claimed to have found it in a cave near the Dead Sea. This was before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and in that day, the strangeness of the story contributed to skepticism about the document. Being an antiquities dealer with a scandal or two in the past didn't help either.

He contacted the British Museum and they were willing to buy it, if it proved to be genuine. They put it on display and it attracted large crowds, as well as the attention of a scholar who was a nemesis of Shapira. That scholar declared it a forgery. Soon other scholars piled on. They were able to find about seven powerful reasons to reject the document as a forgery, including alleged mistakes in the Hebrew that only a European Jew like Shapira would have made, one scholar said, who also suggested that the manuscript was taken from Yemeni scrolls, for which Shapira was one of the foremost dealers. In other words, it was strongly insinuated that he created the forgery. There was soon a great deal of negative publicity. Shapira was outraged, shamed, and depressed, feeling his career was ruined. He left his family in Jerusalem and wandered about in Europe for a while, then committed suicide. Terrible.

Meanwhile, the British Museum sold it, but today, we don't know where it is. What we do have, however, are some photographs and Shapira's notebook in which he attempted to decipher the document. This notebook was recently found by a young rising scholar, Profesoor Idan Dershowitz, chairman of Hebrew Bible and Its Exegesis at the University of Potsdam in Germany. He calls the ancient document The Valediction of Moses. Information from the notebook and many other details in the story provide compelling reasons to accept it as authentic. Each of the many reasons once given to reject, once representing the consensus of scholars, turns out to be wrong or irrelevant. Some weaknesses, such as the crazy story of Bedouins finding it in a cave near the Dead Sea, now ring true. The bitumen material on the document that was once an anachronism also rings true as a material that the ancient leather of the scroll gradually turns into over time.

Dr. Dershowitz is publishing a book on his study of what we know of that ancient record and provides compelling arguments that overturn the reasoning that once was the consensus of scholars in rejecting The Valediction of Moses as a forgery. Dershowitz's book, The Valediction of Moses: A Proto Biblical Book (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2021) will be in print soon, but the great news is that he's offering the PDF for free right now via Academia.edu. I love that! Download your copy at https://www.academia.edu/45450947/The_Valediction_of_Moses_A_Proto_Biblical_Book

This breakthrough reminds me of the 1967 discovery of some of the papyrus fragments associated with the Book of Abraham, for which we also don't have most of the original papyri. In general terms, as a believing member of the Church and fan of the ancient Book of Mormon, I also see lessons to keep in mind about its unfortunate rejection by many and the way significant new evidence in its favor has come out in the past few years. As with the 1967 discovery of some of the papyri once belonging to Joseph Smith, the new information from scholars regarding The Valediction of Moses will likely be used to raise new challenges for us, but it may also reveal some treasures of knowledge. Embrace the opportunity, be patient, and let's learn all we can, even if we need to revise some old opinions. The Valediction of Moses has some differences from Deuteronomy and some of those differences seem to comply with some expectations of Biblical scholars using source criticism and other tools to try to understand what early biblical texts were like. It will be interesting to see how it changes thinking among bible scholars and others over time.

One of the lessons we can learn right away from this story is the danger that scholarly declarations of fraud and forgery regarding unusual purportedly ancient texts can be tragically wrong and can take many decades to reverse. What a terrible disservice was done by all those who pompously declared the manuscript to be a forgery without giving it a chance. Some of the weaknesses they pointed to actually have become strengths based on further analysis and new discoveries -- a theme that resonates with the unfolding story of the Book of Mormon. 

Exciting times! 

Update, March 25, 2020:

Dershowitz proposes that the Shapira manuscripts were authentic, even though we no longer have the originals for scientific testing. In evaluating them based on what we do have, eye-witness accounts and manual copies of the text with a couple of poor photographs, he applies some useful techniques, many centered on examining linguistic issues. Grammatical issues, word choice, spelling conventions, and the way particular words are used point to ancient origins in ways that would have been hard for even skilled scholars to fabricate. Dershowitz sees multiple lines of analysis converging in the same direction, creating "consilience" that favors authenticity of the text. This is not unlike the way modern scholars in the Church have examined the various issues with the Book of Mormon and found many issues converging in support an ancient origins, including apparent Hebraisms, word plays, ancient names, poetical forms like chiasmus, etc. Some of the issues Dershowitz explores, such as the usage of the term translated as "and also," may raise further issues for exploration in the Book of Mormon, though of course, we don't have the original text, so must deal with vestiges of the original language by examining the English translation.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a terrible disservice was done by all those who pompously declared the manuscript to be a forgery without giving it a chance. Some of the weaknesses they pointed to actually have become strengths based on further analysis and new discoveries....

So, Jeff, what you're saying is there's still hope for the Kinderhook Plates and the Salamander Letter?

-- OK

Anonymous said...

I can find the part where the leather was carbon dated to be nearly 5000 years old.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shapira_Scroll

Jeff Lindsay said...

The carbon dating has not been done because the physical manuscript has been lost (it may still exist in a private collection or old box in an attic somewhere). We don't know if the very old leather strips with paleo-Hebrew were the original document or a later copy preserving an archaic script, but the original document is dated to the First Temple period, likely 2,700 years old.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Cute, OK. In cases where all the evidence, including the forger's open confession, leave no room for further inquiry into the status of a clear forgery, the case is closed. With the Shapira manuscript, there were multiple strands of evidence for authenticity, including the information we obtained with the related discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, so for those examining the case, there was a tension between various strands of evidence that was not resolved, and upon further scholarship, new information emerged that moved objective judgement toward authenticity, not forgery. This is relevant to the Book of Mormon, where many intelligent voices dismiss it as an obvious forgery, but a closer look at the evidence shows that some of the key arguments against it have turned from weakness into strength, and there are increasing grounds for giving it a second chance I hope you'll be one of those objective people who one day will give the book a chance and test it with a more open mind. But I can understand not doing so -- scholars have over the decades declared things like Bountiful in Arabia to be ridiculous, ancient writing on gold plates to be unlikely, reformed Egyptian to be a silly notion, and the ancient Mesoamericans to be gentle, peaceful folk unlike the warlike peoples described in the Book of Mormon.

Jeff Lindsay said...

An interesting case study, OK, is the Bar Kochba Letters. There are precious ancient documents now widely known to be authentic, but in 1953 Solomon Zeitlin used linguistic grounds to make a "slam dunk" argument that at least one letter in the collect was a forgery. The letter begins with the letter mem followed by the name Simon, indicating "from Simon." But using mem in this way was "known" to be a developed from the Middle Ages, unattested in Hebrew around 150 AD near the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion. Dershowitz says "Zeitlin may well have been correct that prefixed mems were unattested in the relevant period, but the conclusion he drew from this fact was dramatically wrong, as we now know. Given the severe paucity of data regarding early Hebrew, countless features that were alive and well at the time – many of which are attested in later Hebrew chronolects – are unknown to us due to accidents of history. Occasionally, we are lucky enough to make discoveries that, if not incautiously disregarded, fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge" (Dershowitz, The Valediction of Moses, p. 130). Many of the anachronisms and blunders of the Book of Mormon have turned out to be like this as gaps have become filled in.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, the fact remains that if one takes the usual secular/scholarly standards -- the very same standards used to evaluate the authenticity of the Valediction of Moses -- and apply them to the BoM and BoA, those texts fail miserably. It's impossible, e.g., to believe that ancient texts discuss 19th-century Protestant theological concepts and disputes without also believing in some sort of miraculous prescience on the part of the author. It is only through recourse to the supernatural that such problems can be explained away and one can continue to believe these texts to be ancient. It doesn't really matter whether the text also displays features that were once dismissed as impossible but that new discoveries indicate might be ancient. So many elements of the BoM are, by the widely accepted standards of scholarship, so indisputably modern that, for all but the believer, the book's modernity becomes the context for understanding such features.

None of this is changed by the new secular scholarship on the Valediction of Moses. What you need is not a demonstration that a text once rejected by secular scholars is now accepted by them. What you need is for secular scholarship to explain how a 5th-century text can include discussions of 19th-century theology (and, of course, several other blatant anachronisms). Secular scholarship cannot do that, and the recent news about the Valediction offers us no reason to think otherwise.

-- OK

Anonymous said...

Jeff and his imaginary "weakness into strength". After two hundred years, the apologist's big list of evidences 'for' has overwhelmingly been out weighed by the critics evidences 'against', so much so, the truth is weak has become so super weak it is lame, not strength. Jeff confesses this reality, proving yet again he was never a believer, by expressing child like hatred for big lists of truths. Then again, Jeff has never been shy about declaring is lack of believe, opening rejecting as fraudulent the official doctrine of a global flood.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info, Unknown 9:31.

Back in 1835, $800 was a lot of money, something like $25,000 today. I'm not sure, but presumably Joseph Coe and S. Andrews were willing to help purchase the papyri because Joseph Smith said they contained the writing of Abraham "written by his own hand upon papyrus."

I wonder if these two men would have ponied up that cash if they'd been told instead what the Egyptologists and the Church alike are telling us today -- that the papyri are in fact just ordinary Egyptian funerary documents with no relationship to Abraham at all.

-- OK

Anonymous said...

Oops -- I posted my reply above in the wrong thread. My apologies. Feel free to remove it, Jeff.

-- OK

Stewart Anstead Art said...

Loving the boldness of anonymous responses.
You have zero credibility until you put your names on it.
(Your real names).

Anonymous said...

Not so, Stewart. The soundness of an argument has nothing to do with the identity of the person making it. Also, of course, pseudonymous writing has a long and honorable tradition that includes The Federalist Papers, the Epistle to the Ephesians, Ecclesiastes, etc.

--OK

Clinton said...

Re OK (2:07 PM, March 24, 2021)
"What you need is for secular scholarship to explain how a 5th-century text can include discussions of 19th-century theology (and, of course, several other blatant anachronisms)."
You say this as if its obvious and that everyone agrees with you.

Anonymous said...

Hey Stewart, the Founding Fathers you worship and the founding people of your church often wrote anonymously. It was even once part of the D&C! So shut your mouth and open your mind.
Besides, none of us here want to be called before a counsel of love for daring to question the veracity of Jeff's ridiculous claims. Slippery slope. Then we wont be able to go to our nephew's weddings! It's a weird-ass culture, but it's what we're stuck with!

Blake said...

The problem cowardly anonyomuse is that exactly the work explaining how, where and why anachronistic material appears in the Book of Mormon. You are just too lazy and pompous to deal with the actual evidence of genuinely ancient literary prophetic call forms, prophetic lawsuit forms, covenant renewal (Suzerain Treaty forms occurring at least 5 times in the text), ancient political ideas, genuinely ancient understanding of robber bands complete with Hebraic word-play on the notion of robbers and stones, resemblances between Israelite law, international treaties, and laws governing war and oath forms (Rasmussen 1982; R. Johnson 1982; Morise1982).2. Hebrew, Egyptian, and classical names which appear in the Book of Mormon but not in the Bible (Nibley 1973, 192-96; Nibley 1957, 242-54;Nibley 1948, 85-90; Carlton and Welch 1981; Tvedtnes 1977). Though many of these names could be biblical variants, others are difficult to explainas Joseph Smith's inventions. Paanchi, Pahoran, and Pacumeni, for example,are Egyptian names which are sometimes transliterated exactly as they stand in the Book of Mormon, while Korihor is a close variant of Herihor, predecessor to 'Amon-Pi'ankhy in about 734 B.C. (Baer 1973).3. Description of military, social, and political institutions of sixth-century Israel corroborated by the Lachish letter and other recently discovered sources (Nibley 1982b; Nibley 1952, 4-12, 20-26, 107-18; Nibley 1957, 47-111;R. Smith 1984).4. Accurate and consistent geographical detail (England 1982; Nibley1952,123-28).5. Ancient forms of government (Bushman 1976; Nibley 1973, 281-82;Nibley 1952, 20-26; Nibley 1957, 82-86).6. Evidence that the Book of Mormon assigned value to the cardinal directions with south representing the sacred and north the profane (Alma 22;46:17; Eth. 7:6). It also presents a social organization revolving around a ritual center from which government, territorial order, and communal sanctity flowed. The moral order of life and understanding of the covenant were also linked to territoriality (Olsen 1983). These symbolic aspects of territoriality are common in ancient societies.Some studies also conclude that the Book of Mormon's literary structure is uniform, not one that reveals expansions. For example, many of the book's messages are, like Hebrew scripture generally, imbedded in its structure rathert han in its discursive doctrines, as impressive as they may be. Some studies have demonstrated an ingenious structure characterized by literary typologies,or exposition of symbolic similarities between peoples, places and events (Tate,Rust, and Jorpensen, all 1981). Other unifying structures are the various forms of parallelism (synthetic,antithetic and synonomic) that are the basis of Hebrew poetry (Welch 1969and 1981). Steven Sondrup (1981) has demonstrated that the poetic paral1lelism of 2 Nephi 4 resembles poetic structure in the Psalms. Noel Reynolds(1982) has argued that chiasmus (inverted parallelism) is the organizing principle for the entire book of 1 Nephi.

Blake said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blake said...

Anonymous you haven;t made any arguments at all. You have made assertions as if they were established without evidence or argumentation. So hiding behind your pseudonym isn't a form of presenting convincing material behind a nom de plume, but a cowardly act o hiding your blustering incompetence. Let us know who you are so that we can assess if there is something more than mere assertion and bluster.

Blake said...

In fact I am willing to bet that anonymous is in fact Vogel himself.

Anonymous said...

Blake and the others who call for names only do so they can extend their ad hominems further just goes to further demonstrate the fruits of the theology - raw hate.

For those who are not lazy and pompous, explanations to Blake's 6:47 are easily found with the simplest internet searches. The mythology in the 6:47 is easily applied to any fan fiction.

As a young adult Smith was a fan of the Apocrypha. Later, Smith agreed with scholars and did not accept it as canon. The mere mention of the name of Jesus as the Messiah in the Apocrypha before Jesus is enough for scholars to consider it anachronistic. The methodology of 6:47 essentially asserts nothing can be an anachronism, for any pet theory can be found to exist with creative eisegesis.

Finding tidbits here and there to declare some idea pre-existing is as silly as saying sea shells on mountains is evidence of a global flood or the small amount of dust on the moon proves it is only 7000 years old.

Anonymous said...

Blake your keyboard should have a spacebar and an enter key to help break up your sentences and thoughts. Regardless of their validity, you owe your readers this very small favor. No one's reading your literal wall of text. It's stressing just to glance at, friend.

Toupee said...

Blake (if that’s even your real name),

Stating that anonymous posters are cowards is akin to saying middle age men who wear toupees are cowards.

At least you’ve refrained from swearing this time. On behalf of the children, I thank you.

Blake is a Coward said...

I like how Blake ( no last name given) comes here and accuses posters of being anonymous.

Um Blake, just posting a first name as common as “Blake” is identical to posting anonymously. How many Blake’s are there in the world? Millions?

As “Blake” would say, you sir are an anonymous coward.

Anonymous said...

Blake’s “ancient political ideas, genuinely ancient understanding of robber bands.”

What about the book’s discussion of modern political ideas such as democracy vs kingship, and rulers who rule voluntarily without remuneration? Compare King Benjamin to George Washington.

As to “ancient understanding of robber bands,” compare the anti-masonic sentiment in Joseph’s back yard just before the translation of the BoM to the secret societies described therein:

https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/232564353.pdf

These are in addition to the modern Christian doctrinal debates about infant baptism, resurrection, and original sin (to name a few) that OK alluded to.

There are also the overall themes of America as a promised land, American Indians being of Hebrew origin, and an explanation of the great earth works still present in New York and other areas in the country during Joseph’s time.

All of these items point to this being a 19th century American document.

Anonymous said...

Jeff,

Simple question. Why would god teach incorrect principles?