Spring 2011, Vol. 13, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Month of the Condom

Political Islamophobia

Our Christian Nation

Sharia Isn't OK

The Religion Gap Abides

Not a Witch but a What?

The Fall of Eddie Long

No Goyim Need Apply

The Golb Affair

Praying for Christopher Hitchens



The Golb Affair
by James R. Davila

In March of 2009, a 49-year-old lawyer named Raphael Golb was arrested in New York on charges of identity theft, criminal impersonation, and aggravated harassment. The charges grew out of actions carried out entirely on the Internet. 

But what moved the case from the unusual to the bizarre was the motive:  Golb had created numerous online aliases, and forged false e-mail confessions of academic misconduct, in order to defend a theory about the Dead Sea Scrolls propounded by his father, Norman Golb, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Chicago.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a library of nearly 1,000 volumes that in the first century of the Common Era were left to rot in 11 caves near the Dead Sea at a site called Wadi Qumran. Most of them are written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. They contain books of the Hebrew Bible and various other ancient Jewish books, most new to us. Nearly all suffered severe deterioration during their 2,000 years of abandonment.  

The mainstream theory of the origins of the Qumran library is that it was left by a group of sectarians who lived at the site at the time of the Jewish war against Rome in 68 C.E.  It is widely accepted by scholars that these sectarians are to be identified as the “Essenes,” a quasi-monastic Jewish group previously known only through brief descriptions by ancient Roman and Jewish authors.

Since 1980, Norman Golb has propounded a rather different theory, first in a series of articles and then in a 1995 book, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

It is that at the time of the war against Rome a number of literary archives were smuggled out of Jerusalem and secreted in the caves at Qumran, a military fortress. In Golb’s view, the scrolls have nothing to do with the Essenes; they are the product not of a single sectarian movement but of a variety of Jewish groups.

Golb’s theory has convinced precisely no one in the field. Why? Whatever the actual explanation, in 2006 it became apparent that some person or persons had concluded that it was the result of a conspiracy against Norman Golb.

Late that year a number of blogs appeared under various names condemning a number of museum exhibitions for presenting the Essene theory as the scholarly consensus and neglecting or ignoring Golb’s theory.

In 2007, these blogs began to be supplemented by posts on message boards and discussion lists defending Golb’s views against the Essene theory and sometimes attacking specific scholars by name. The first posts were signed “Charles Gadda,” but soon others began appearing under different names. These names also appeared on e-mail protests sent to the museums and to others.

In the summer of 2008, the campaign took a new turn. Posts on blogs and message boards as well as e-mails to many individual scholars began to accuse NYU professor Lawrence Schiffman of plagiarizing Golb’s work. (I myself received two such e-mails.) Apart from the fact that Schiffman is a prominent specialist in the Dead Sea Scrolls who holds, by and large, to the mainstream theory, it is unclear why he was targeted.

Then the case took the strangest turn of all. After Schiffman ignored efforts by “Steven Fishbane” to draw him into a controversy about the plagiarism accusations, someone used forged e-mail addresses to send out messages in Schiffman’s own name to his students and colleagues confessing to the plagiarism and asking them to help keep it quiet. Schiffman went to the New York police, who decided that the online campaign had crossed a line into illegality.

Meanwhile, Robert Cargill, a young scholar at UCLA who had himself been targeted in the campaign, had been spending a good deal of time using computer forensics and literary analysis to track down the campaigners (see his website Cargill concluded that all 80 of the names were aliases of a single individual, whom he dubbed “the puppet master.” The puppet master had created all the posts and sent all the messages. Cargill shared his information with Schiffman and the New York police.

Half a year later, Raphael Golb was identified as the person behind the aliases, arrested, and charged on criminal counts for his impersonation of Schiffman. At one point he rejected a plea agreement because it included the condition of a period of probation. His trial began last September, with Golb representing himself and, without admitting to composing them, taking the position that the posts and messages were constitutionally protected expressions of free speech and parody.

During the trial, he eventually did confess to being the writer behind the numerous aliases but maintained the free speech defense and devoted much of his testimony to pursuing the plagiarism charges against Schiffman. In October, he was convicted on 31 of the 32 charges, and in November sentenced to six months in prison and five years’ probation.

He should have taken the plea bargain. But then again, the media accounts leave the impression that he was more interested in getting a platform for his views on the Dead Sea Scrolls and accusing Schiffman of malfeasance than in winning the case. Indeed, after the verdict his own lawyer told reporters, “He had to go to trial in this case in order to accomplish his goal.”

What are we to make of this story?

First of all, it must be placed in the context of the scholarly discussion about the Dead Sea Scrolls. While Golb has mounted the most thoroughgoing and sustained assault on the Essene hypothesis, other scholars have sought to modify it significantly or even reject it entirely. Schiffman himself, for example, argued in the 1990s that the Qumran sectarians were a radical offshoot of the priestly Sadducees, and that any connection with the Essenes must at minimum be completely rethought.

This and other theories continue to be advanced and they, along with Golb’s theory, are mentioned as part of the discussion in scholarly surveys. Yet such surveys usually go on to say why Golb’s is not a serious contender.

Among its many weaknesses, the crucial and fatal one is its denial that the Qumran library had a sectarian origin. The library contains a large number and wide range of texts that come from a sectarian movement with striking similarities to ancient accounts of the Essenes. Although many of the other texts in the library are not sectarian in this sense, none directly opposes the views of that sect or presents views clearly belonging to some alternative Jewish movement such as the Pharisees.

That said, Golb has sometimes raised important points. Chief among these was that the handwriting of the scrolls shows that they were copied by hundreds of different scribes, far more than could have been housed at a small community at the site of Qumran. There is now widespread agreement that many of them must have been brought to Qumran from elsewhere, although explanations for this fact vary and it is not regarded as incompatible with the consensus theory of sectarian/Essene origins.

It should be emphasized as well that the younger Golb’s accusations against Schiffman are without merit, as has been recognized by other scholars from the beginning. Schiffman’s cross-examination during the trial established only the point that he had once erred in writing that the elder Golb believed that the scrolls came from a single library in Jerusalem whereas in reality he said they came from multiple Jerusalem libraries. This is an easy error to make—I once made it myself in a class lecture on the Scrolls—and one that in any event has nothing to do with plagiarism.

Of wider interest is the role of the Internet in the story.

Anonymous and pseudonymous complaints and accusations have always been a dimension of written culture, but blogs, message boards, and e-mail lists allow ready communication with a vastly larger number of people than traditional paper media, and electronic texts appear, at least superficially, much easier to forge than traditional ones.

“Sock puppetry” is the term for the posting of comments on an online medium such as a blog under a pseudonym to make one’s own views look more widely held. This happens sometimes on blogs, message boards, and the like, but is considered poor form—“troll” behavior—and being caught at it will get you ridiculed and banned. Much of the puppet master’s campaign was built on sock puppetry.

Indeed, the Internet proved to be the puppet master’s downfall. Although it may seem that online communication can easily be made anonymous or pseudonymous, it leaves an electronic trail that ultimately makes the tracing of aliases back to the originator a straightforward matter for anyone who has a reasonably sophisticated understanding of how it works. Paper letters or pamphlets sent out under an alias do not have IP addresses and are much harder to trace.

Nevertheless, the Golb affair illustrates how the Internet can facilitate a whole new realm of harassment and identity theft with disquieting potential to harm reputations and damage lives.

Over and above its many other points of interest, this case brings us yet another wacky story about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The scrolls are no stranger to odd and high-profile scholarly controversies (such as a lawsuit over copyright claims for a reconstruction of one scroll), nor to conspiracy theories (such as the absurd contention that the Vatican was holding back their publication to prevent revelations embarrassing to Christianity).

But even by these standards, the Golb case is an unusually toxic brew of scholarly dispute, conspiracy theory, and cloak-and-dagger backstabbing.

We can only speculate on the personal relationship of Golb fils and père. The younger Golb’s obsession with his father’s theory and its rejection by other scholars clearly runs deep and appears to be longstanding. During the trial, Raphael said that he had been interested  in his father’s theory since the age of 15.

In October of 1986, when I was a doctoral student, I attended a lecture at Harvard by an Israeli scrolls specialist at which a young man identified himself as a son of Norman Golb, asked a question about Golb’s theory, and then stayed afterward to pass out copies of one of Golb’s articles to anyone from the audience who would take one. If he was Raphael, as seems likely, this may be an early manifestation of a filial piety that in time became a destructive obsession.

The scrolls themselves have always been objects of enormous public interest, perhaps more so than any other archaeological discovery.

They are lost treasures found in an Aladdin’s cave by roving Bedouin in a scene worthy of an Indiana Jones film. They are a library containing precious copies of ancient texts foundational to Western civilization and new documents bright with the potential to illuminate the origins of Christianity. That potential has been fulfilled to some degree, but at the cost of too many over-readings of the texts with that agenda in mind.

Given the seductive aura they cast over the sacred history of the West, it is perhaps not surprising that the Dead Sea Scrolls touch a nerve in many people and generate highly emotional responses.  To put it less delicately, they are a magnet for cranks and ideologues. 

In a March 6, 2009 interview with the National Post, Schiffman called this “the curse of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Indeed, in an article some years ago on treatment of the scrolls in the media, he speculated that the skewed worldview of the sectarians who wrote them sometimes rubs off on modern readers.

The facts behind this latest manifestation of the Curse of the Scrolls now seem to be in, although  we may never understand what led Raphael Golb down the path he chose. He has said that he intends to appeal the verdict and has posted a lengthy essay online which appears to lay the groundwork for the appeal (see

As for his father, he has posted a response ( to a document by Schiffman released during the trial, but has otherwise, as far I can ascertain, made no public statement in response to the trial or the verdict.


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