Dead Sea Scrolls Go to Court: A brilliant young Harvard Ph.D. faces jail for impersonating a Bible scholar—and rival of his fatherJordan Kovnot '11 in Tablet Magazine, January 14, 2013
On Tuesday, Jan. 8, the New York Supreme Court convened for a hearing in the case of the People vs. Raphael Golb. The matter? That in July of 2008, Golb, a Harvard doctorate, created an email account in the name of Lawrence Schiffman, formerly professor at New York University and now vice provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University. From email@example.com, Golb sent emails to the dean, the provost, and the faculty of the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU where Schiffman was formerly the chair.
In the emails, the fictional Schiffman admitted to having plagiarized the work of Norman Golb, professor at the University of Chicago’s prestigious Oriental Institute, Dead Sea Scrolls scholar—and also Raphael’s father. “It is true that I should have cited Dr. Golb’s articles when using his arguments,” the email reads, “and it is true that I misrepresented his ideas. But this is simply the politics of Dead Sea Scrolls studies. If I had given credit to this man I would have been banned from conferences around the world.” It was signed—by some accounts, implausibly—“Lawrence Schiffman, professor,” with a lower-case “p.”
Raphael Golb admits to having sent the email, but he maintains that it was an act of parody, rather than criminal impersonation. “I was exercising my right to expose, condemn, and ridicule the misconduct of other people,” he says. “It says more about Schiffman than it does about me, that people might have believed that an informal email from a gmail account admitting to plagiarism, signed with a lower-case ‘p’ in professor, could have come from an NYU department chair.” The defense argued that Golb was well within his First Amendment rights and that the prosecution was trying to make hurting feelings into a criminal act. But the defense argument failed. In September 2010, Golb was convicted before Judge Carol Berkman of 30 counts of identity fraud, harassment, forgery, and criminal impersonation of Lawrence Schiffman.
Yet for impersonation to be criminal, benefit must be shown to the impersonator, or harm to the impersonated. (To see how common this otherwise is, try typing “Britney Spears” into a Twitter account search.) Jordan Kovnot, a privacy researcher at Fordham Law School, told me in an email interview that in “most computer hacking crimes involving unauthorized access, such as creating an email account under false pretenses, the law generally does require some showing of harm, unless the target was the U.S. government. That was not the case here.” In a recent telephone interview, Schiffman himself insisted that he suffered no harm; “the opposite, I got a big raise out of it,” he said—noting his recent move from NYU to YU, where he makes more money than he did at NYU—“though emotionally it was very difficult.” Without harm or benefit, it is difficult to understand how the prosecution managed to make the felonies stick.
Raphael’s father, Norman Golb, the subject of Golb’s email, was also shocked at the verdict. “Since when does a civilized society allow a prosecutor to invade the academic territory of learning and take sides?” he asked incredulously, in a recent interview. “Quarrels among scholars should be settled among scholars, not in court.” His son agrees: “Schiffman should have picked up the phone and called my father, not the FBI,” the younger Golb said in an interview after the hearing.
But Judge Berkman—herself an object of controversy, a judge whose verdicts have been rejected by appellate courts with terms such as “a gross miscarriage of justice”—insisted over and over throughout the trial that “neither good faith nor the truth is a defense” and based her decision, she wrote, on her sense that Golb’s email was “a parody over the line.” Golb argues that “she forbade me from defending the claim made in the email that Schiffman had plagiarized my father, and yet she allowed the prosecution to insist 170 times before the jury that I had made ‘false allegations.’ ”
Schiffman, of all people, corroborates this point. “I plagiarized him?” he asked me incredulously, reenacting the part he played on the stand. “I’ve published hundreds of books and articles, and he’s only published the same article over and over! I wasn’t supposed to talk about it at the trial,” Schiffman admitted. “But I realized no one would stop me, so I just went on and on, and the jury—they were eating it up.” Last Tuesday, Golb’s case was heard by five judges. He is now waiting to hear whether he will go to jail for six months as sentenced—in what might be seen by scholars, humorists, and devotees of the First Amendment alike as a gross miscarriage of justice.
And still, two important questions remain: Did Schiffman plagiarize Norman Golb’s work? And if so, why?
The Dead Sea Scrolls have sparked controversies of many kinds over the years since their discovery in Jordan in 1947. The story is now famous: the shepherd throwing a rock into a dark cave after an escaped goat, the sound of shattering, the hope for gold, the discovery of one of the 20th century’s most important archeological finds. There were seven scrolls in the first discovery, three of which were snapped up almost immediately by Prof. E.L. Sukenik of the Hebrew University, probably for a few hundred dollars. The remaining four scrolls eluded Sukenik’s grasp and were instead sold to Khalil Eskander, an antiquities dealer and shoemaker known as “Kando,” who sold them to a Christian clergyman—the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Mar Athanasius Samuel. Mar Samuel paid 24 Palestinian pounds for the scrolls, or $97.20, and smuggled them into the United States.
After failing to interest universities including Yale, Samuel placed an ad in the “Miscellaneous for Sale” section of the June 1, 1954, Wall Street Journal: “Biblical manuscripts dating back to at least 200 B.C. are for sale,” the ad read. “This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group.” Lucky for Mar Samuel, Yigal Yadin, son of Prof. Sukenik, was in the market for an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution. Yadin had recently retired as IDF chief of staff and was on tour in the United States promoting his book. Through intermediaries, Yadin managed to purchase the remaining four scrolls for $250,000 and delivered them into the hands of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Mar Samuel ended up paying the lion’s share of the $250,000 to the IRS.
Such is the story of the first seven scrolls. However, since 1947 many more have been discovered in caves in and around Qumran, but also in Masada and near Jericho. The scrolls purchased by Israel represent less than 5 percent of the total scrolls now in the possession of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Until 1967, the other 95 percent were in the Palestine Archeological Museum, nationalized by Jordan. When that museum was captured by Israeli paratroopers and renamed the “Rockefeller Museum,” the scrolls were moved to the Shrine of the Book.
For Norman Golb, the rescue—or seizure—of the scrolls by the State of Israel during the Six Day War was the crucial event of his scholarly life. Until 1967, there was an informal Christian monopoly in place: Father Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican priest in charge of the scrolls, restricted access to only a select few, and not a single Jewish scholar had access to the scrolls. In the interview I held with him in his hotel room in New York City, Golb recalled a trip to Israel in 1957 during which time he wrote a letter to Father de Vaux, asking for permission to visit Jordan to see the scrolls. Father de Vaux refused, saying his team was hard at work and not to be disturbed. With only seven scrolls at the Hebrew University, Golb did not feel that he had enough material to confirm any theory about the scrolls. After 1967, though, Golb and other Jewish scholars could finally read the scrolls for themselves.
Yet while Golb and other Jewish scholars rejoiced, others view the reallocation of the scrolls to Israel as a more complicated phenomenon. According to Weston Fields, executive director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, “the Dead Sea Scrolls are spoils of war. According to the Geneva Conventions, the scrolls were not allowed to be moved from East Jerusalem,” he elaborates. “Israel is ignoring international law and falsely advertising to museum visitors what they are seeing.” While Jordan continues to ask for the scrolls back—as recently as January 2010, Jordan filed a complaint with UNESCO suing for the scrolls—experts remain unsure whether the scrolls would get the same care from Jordanians that they do in Israel. And though Fields believes that Israel should not be profiting from the scrolls, he admits that “the conservation efforts have been very good, definitely better than the care they would have seen in Amman.”
Yet there are also those who allege that in fact, very little has changed since the monopoly on the scrolls was inherited by the IAA. As recently as 1991, the New York Times and the Washington Post reported on the “scroll cartel”—the fact that many of the scrolls remained unpublished and accessible only to a select few. Though this monopoly was broken later in the 1990s, museum exhibits continue to present a single view—supported by the monopolists and the IAA—regarding the scrolls’ origins. The original scholars who encountered the text assumed that an obscure ascetic first-century sect of 4,000 members known as the Essenes had authored the scrolls in their home in Qumran, and this theory (sometimes with slight variations) still enjoys a monopoly in the presentation of the scrolls on tour in the United States at museums such as the de Young, the Jewish Museum, the San Diego Museum, and the Library of Congress.
But in 1970, soon after the Christian monopoly on the scrolls ended, a different theory emerged. Once he had access to all the scrolls, Norman Golb began to question the Essene theory. For Golb Senior, the evidence for the Essene theory of origins simply didn’t add up. Firstly, there was scant evidence that anyone, including the Essenes, ever lived at Qumran, a site that is shaped more like a fortress than a settlement, as Golb argued in a 1985 article in The Biblical Archeologist titled “Who Hid the Dead Sea Scrolls?” Furthermore, if the scrolls were written in Qumran, why are there no originals with original signatures? Why do so few of the texts—out of over 800—reflect in any shape or form the ascetic principles of the Essenes? And why are there women buried in Qumran if the Essenes were celibate?
Pliny, the source material for what we know about the Essenes, insists that they were averse to weaponry, and yet weapons abound in the fortress in Qumran. Is it reasonable to think that a sect of 4,000 wrote thousands of scrolls? Is it reasonable to believe that a cohesive group was responsible for the variegated viewpoints represented in the texts? These are the sorts of questions that Golb felt could not be answered by the Essene theory, propagated by a band of Christian clerics and field archeologists without the proper scientific and historical training.
For Golb, the discovery that helped shape his own sense of the likely origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls were the scrolls found at Masada in 1965. “Josephus tells us that the Jews fled Jerusalem during the Jewish War in two directions, to Masada, and to Machaerus,” Golb said. The Masada scrolls forced Golb to look outside of Qumran for the scribes who penned the scrolls. “I never considered myself a Qumronologist,” he said. “My project has always been the history and culture of the Jews in antiquity and the Middle Ages.” Golb argued in a Jerusalem Post interview in 1970 and in an article in 1980 that the scrolls were copies, relocated from an intellectual hub, on the eve of the Jewish War in 69 AD. The absence of originals provides strong evidence that the texts were not penned in Qumran at all. What the scrolls reveal is a doctrinally divided Jerusalem in spiritual turmoil, a community with a wide variety of practices and beliefs. “The heart of the scrolls is the struggle of the Jews to survive,” Golb told me passionately.
Despite the scientific and logical nature of Golb’s work, it went largely unrecognized for decades and was actively excluded from the public eye. Though hesitant to speak ill of other scholars, Golb attributes the continued insistence on the Essene theory as a result of what he calls “Qumronology,” by which he means a myopic focus on Qumran, “nurturing a theory that is not a bona fide scientific phenomenon.” When asked if he thinks the marginalization of his work is personal, Golb shakes his head. “I don’t care if it’s personal or not personal. I only care about the lack of evidence for the Essenes. I’ve urged the Qumronologists to reconsider, but they refuse.”
Some have suggested that there is money involved in sustaining the Essene theory, but apart from large donations, it is difficult to substantiate such claims. Nevertheless, it is curious that Golb’s alternative theory would have been so painstakingly hidden from the public eye while international conferences and museum exhibits portrayed the Essene theory as incontrovertible. However in recent years a subtle shift has occurred: Golb’s theory has begun to approach the status of received wisdom, while Golb himself remains a pariah in the field. Many scholars seem now to be in agreement that some, many, or even most of the scrolls were not of sectarian origin and came from “elsewhere” (code in the field for Jerusalem).
When did this reversal occur? To a large extent, with the publication of Lawrence Schiffman’s 1990 article “The New Halakhic Letter (4QMMT) and the Origins of the Dead Sea Sect” and his book Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls (1994)—in which Schiffman misattributes to Golb the implausible theory that the scrolls exclusively represent the remains of the Jerusalem Temple library, while arguing in favor of one of Golb’s key points: that the scrolls reveal the variety to be found in inter-testamental Judaism. Schiffman, an Orthodox Jew who has accused Christians of trying “to Christianize the message of the texts,” performed a close reading of one of the scrolls to conclude that the texts were not the work of the Essenes but rather a breakaway, Sadducean sect who were solidly Jewish, proto-Pharasaic, even halachic in their practice and writing.
In 1993, Avi Katzman, an Israeli journalist, published an interview in Haaretz in which he pushed Schiffman on the similarities between his work and Golb’s previous writings.
“But you also, in different articles that you published, have not hesitated to appropriate portions of Golb’s theory without acknowledging as much, and without giving him appropriate credit,” Katzman asserted.
“This isn’t the issue,” Schiffman responded. “There’s no innovation in Golb’s theory. … Golb can say what he wants. The idea that we’re not dealing with a sect is self-evident. Does he think that he wrote the Bible?”
Golb’s son Raphael is a devoted child with a combination of awe and protectiveness when it comes to his father—but it is important to note that his admiration for his father’s work is not simply an act of filial piety. Schiffman has suggested that Golb was behind the attempt to tarnish his reputation, but to this, Norman Golb only laughs. “Raphael is brilliant. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard, and a law degree, and he’s written his own book. I wanted him to write in his own field, comparative literature, but he was interested in this. He likes the field.”
Golb bemoans the injustice being done to his son, but his work has been brought to wider public notice. He says his son was “rather rash, but brave to do it. And after seeing all that I had gone through, how they had tried to suppress my ideas, he had every right to do it.”