Chapters in the History of Modern Forgery: Professors Leopold Messerschmidt and Charles Torrey on a Hebrew Inscription
This post is a draft of a selection from my (forthcoming) volume entitled, Forging History in the Biblical World: Textual Forgeries from the Ancient and Modern Middle East, Medieval Europe and the New World
Professor Leopold Messerschmidt authored an article for Berlin’s Orientalistische Litteratur-Zeitung, a particularly prestigious German journal. The year was 1903. The article was about an inscribed piece of clay, about two inches in diameter, and round. The script of the inscription was written in ancient Hebrew, but poorly formed. Messerschmidt, however, could read it. He was a distinguished Semitist, well-known for his work in Assyriology, and with important contributions to the field of Hittite as well. The inscription was owned by Paul Mauersberger. He had purchased the inscription near a Jerusalem train, reportedly for a mere trifle. Quite understandably, he had brought the inscription to Leopold Messerschmidt because he wished for someone to read it.
The preceding decades had witnessed the production of hundreds of forged inscriptions, most from the antiquities market, but scores had actually been salted in archaeological tells. Shapira’s “Moabite Forgeries” were among the most notorious, but there were countless additional forgeries during the final decades of the 19th century. Therefore, caution was the modus operandi for most scholars, especially for those working on inscriptions in the languages such as Hebrew, Phoenician, and Aramaic, as well as for those working in Greek and Latin. Vigilance was mandatory. Messerschmidt had some concerns about the authenticity of this inscription, but he reasoned that it might just be ancient. He entitled his article “Fälschung?” (Messerschmidt 1903).
Because Messerschmidt was not a Hebraist, he contacted one of the most esteemed and prolific scholars of Northwest Semitic at the time, Mark Lidzbarski (1868-1928). Although still quite a young scholar, Lidzbarski had published the most authoritative collection of Northwest Semitic inscriptions, Handbuch der Nordsemitischen Epigraphik (1898), completed during his time in Kiel and still a useful compendium today. Lidzbarski had been born into an Hasidic Jewish family. His given name was Abraham Mordechai Lidzbarski, but he had converted to Christianity and so changed his given name. Lidzbarski’s verdict on Messerschmidt’s inscription was quite decisive: “Das Plättchen is nach meiner Ansicht sicher eine Fälschung,” a forgery modeled on the coinage of Hasmonean King John Hyrcannus (r. 134-104 BCE).
Although the inscription was brief, just five or six words on four short lines, Lidzbarski noted both palaeographic and orthographic problems. In fact, on this inscription the name “Yohanan” and “Jews” were both misspelled. Letters were grossly malformed. But Messerschmidt was not convinced that it was a forgery. After all, he wondered “why, if it were a forgery, would someone ever attempt to forge a coin out of clay?” And he also noted that this inscription was bought for a trifle. And in addition, its previous owner, the poor workman from whom Mauersberger purchased it, was not actually attempting to sell it. It was Mauersberger who initiated the sale. Do not these things, Messerschmidt asked, “gegen eine Fälschung zu sprechen?” That is, “Do these things not speak against it being a forgery” (Messerschmidt 1903, 241).
But even F.E. Peiser, the editor of the journal Orientalistische Litteratur-Zeitung in which Messerschmidt’s article appeared, appended a footnote at the bottom of the page on which Messerschmidt’s article concludes. Peiser succinctly and decisively states that “This clay disk is a part of a forger’s apparatus” basically, a modern mold which had been formed to produce forged metal coins. Messerschmidt, however, was not at all certain that Lidzbarski and Peiser were correct. Presumably his concern was that he did not wish to declare prematurely an important ancient inscription to be a modern forgery. In certain ways, some might reasonably suggest that his caution is commendable.
Charles C. Torrey of Yale University, however, was astounded that Messerschmidt might even attempt to consider this inscription ancient. Writing in the lofty Journal of the American Oriental Society, Torrey entitled his article “On a Palestinian ‘Forgery’” (Torrey 1903). He began his article with these words: “It is a disk of baked clay, about two inches in diameter, reproducing very clumsily and on a much enlarged scale a well-known coin of John Hyrcannus. Nothing more be said, of course, as to the value of this ‘antique’; it does not even deserve to be taken so seriously as would be implied in giving it the name ‘forgery.’”
Torrey then continues, however, writing that “The fact is, this is one of a class of objects not infrequently hawked about the streets of Jerusalem by certain vagabonds of a familiar type—half beggar, half rascal. The things are made by pressing clay into forms which some idler has amused himself by fashioning. The conditions which produce such works of art as this are a little spare time, a sense of humor, and the remote possibility of gulling some brother rascal, or perhaps even a tourist. It would take perhaps an hour to whittle out of wood such a form as the one from which this ‘coin’ was made. I have frequently been offered just such discs in Jerusalem, the would-be vender always accompanying his offer with a broad grin. One of these objects now in my possession (a clay disc, about two inches in diameter, pressed from a form) bears a representation of Eve and a serpent, with a few meaningless letters appended. Apparently there was never a thought of getting more than a few paras each for these ‘inscriptions.’ It is not surprising, then, that the native workman mentioned in this case did not show any great eagerness to turn his property into money.” Then Torrey concludes his article with this sentence, “As for this worthless Palestinian trinket, it is certainly a misuse of language to call it a ‘forgery’” (Torrey 1903, 209-210).
It would be permissible to suggest that Torrey’s retort is harsh. Indeed it is. But I suppose that it would also be permissible to suggest that Messerschmidt should have listened to Lidzbarski’s reasoned and detailed demonstration (all provided in a letter from Lidzbarski to Messerschmidt) that this inscription is a forgery of particularly modest quality. Messerschmidt, however, persisted. Often in the long history of forgery, Messerschmidt would have found good company.
Christopher A. Rollston
National Endowment for the Humanities Research Scholar
Albright Institute of Archaeological Research