The Golb Affair
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
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
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
http://www.bobcargill.com/who-is-charles-gadda.html). 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
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
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
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
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
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
Over and above its many other points
of interest, this case brings us yet another wacky story about the Dead Sea
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
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
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
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
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
http://oi.uchicago.edu/pdf/schiffman_response_2010nov30.pdf) 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