Biblical scholar Idan Dershowitz started a fellowship at Harvard's Society of Fellows in 2017, and he sent emails to its chairman about a theory he had about 15 manuscript fragments found more than a century ago. The response he got: "You're crazy, I don't want to hear it, you're going to destroy your career, go away. ... TGTBT—too good to be true." But what if it is true? That's the question Jennifer Schuessler asks in a lengthy piece for the New York Times on newly published research by Dershowitz, just 38, on those fragments. Antiquities dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira in 1878 learned they'd been found in a cave near the Dead Sea, acquired them, and touted them as perhaps the first Book of Deuteronomy. The British Museum's expert began examining them in 1883, and Shapira's rival Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau was permitted to look at them for a few minutes. Clermont-Ganneau declared them forgeries; the expert concurred. Shapira killed himself six months later.
The whereabouts of the manuscript fragments have long been unknown, but Dershowitz leans on archival, linguistic, and literary evidence in arguing they were more than real: He believes they were Deuteronomy's "ancient forebear"—and the oldest known biblical manuscript ever found. Dershowitz assembled all the transcriptions of the fragments he could find and says it deviates from canonical Deuteronomy in a telling way: The writing doesn't include any of Deuteronomy's many laws other than the Ten Commandments, and those take first-person form. Shimon Gesundheit of Hebrew University says those missing laws do suggest the fragments predate Deuteronomy. "The text was holy," he says, and those who copied biblical texts were known to add or aggregate versions but not delete. Still, there are many who aren't buying Dershowitz's theory at all. (Read the full story for their view and much more.)