Search for Lost Bible Scrolls brings San Francisco Author Back Home

The Federation is pleased to announce that its 2020 Anne and Robert Cowan Writers Prize will be given to Chanan Tigay for his book The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible.

Published in 2016, The Lost Book of Moses chronicles Tigay’s quest for the truth behind a rare scroll written on leather strips that was purported in the late 19th century to be a version of the Book of Deuteronomy from the era of its actual composition, with significant variations from the canonical text we have inherited. The discovery was announced to the world in 1883 by Moses Wilhelm Shapira, a dealer in antiquities who had moved from Eastern Europe to Jerusalem as a young man and converted to Christianity along the way. The fifteen Deuteronomy fragments were offered to the British Museum for an enormous sum of money. In the end, they were determined by scholars to be counterfeited, and a broken Shapira ended up committing suicide.

Tigay spent several years traversing the globe to walk in Shapira’s footsteps and attempt to solve the mystery as to whether the infamous manuscripts, which disappeared just a few years after Shapira’s death, might still exist and whether they were an elaborate forgery after all, as had been alleged.

For Tigay, who teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, this project came close to home.

His father, Jeffrey H. Tigay, is an esteemed scholar of biblical studies. Chanan notes, “My dad spent sixteen years of his life, which happened to coincide with the vast majority of my youth, writing a 600-page commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy. In my family, Deuteronomy was something like Goodnight Moon in other families.”

In fact, the genesis of The Lost Book of Moses was a conversation at his parents’ Shabbat table, when his father told the story of the scandal around Shapira’s forged manuscripts. “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. 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, and in the end, that’s what kept me going through those years. It was a deeply personal journey.”

Reflecting on the process of writing his book, Tigay says that “always in the back of my mind I reminded myself, ‘This story is a mystery.’ And my greatest concern when writing this book was whether I could create a narrative that would be entertaining and edifying for a general audience, but also would not rub scholars the wrong way. I did not want my dad‘s friends, some of the greatest Bible scholars of the 20th century, to say, ‘Tigay‘s kid really screwed this one up.’”

There is also a remarkable local dimension to the book.

In 1884, Adolph Sutro, the Jewish silver mining magnate who would later become the mayor of San Francisco, purchased a collection of Judaic manuscripts (primarily from Yemen) from Shapira’s estate for his own enormous library. Unlike much of Sutro’s collection, these materials survived the 1906 fire. They were bequeathed along with the remains of Sutro’s collection to the State of California in 1917 with the contingency that they had to remain in San Francisco. The Sutro Library has had a number of locations, and in 2012 it moved to the very university at which Tigay teaches.

Tigay notes, “This was the most shocking aspect of the entire journey for me, which is that after searching for five years, I ultimately made the most important discovery on the sixth floor of the J. Paul Leonard Library at San Francisco State University, where I happen to be a professor.” In fact, because the Sutro collection was being moved at the time Tigay was doing his research, he was not able to access it when he learned of its existence. He notes that “because of what I discovered there, I had to run home and rewrite the entire ending to the book.” Tigay adds that “the Sutro Library is an absolute gem, and it has never been properly cataloged. Bible scholars would be thrilled to have access to this material, and it would raise the profile of the Bay Area as a place to do biblical research. If somebody out there would consider funding its digitization, it would be of inestimable value.”

Tigay is now at work on a project that feels a bit like a sequel to The Lost Book of Moses, examining forgeries that have come to light in collections of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The $5,000 award will be presented in a virtual ceremony via Zoom on Thursday, August 13, at 5:00 pm, which will include Tigay in conversation with Howard Freedman, the director of the Jewish Community Library. Register to Attend

This award recognizes Bay Area writers who have made an exceptional contribution to literary arts through a uniquely Jewish perspective. Robert Cowan (1935-2018) established the endowed award in memory of his wife Anne, who passed away in 2004.

Categories: Awards


July 20, 2020


Howard Freedman