An academic quarrel over the Dead Sea Scrolls leads to jail time

Battles over scholarship are nothing new. The halls of academia are infamous grounds for feuds between professors and researchers with opposing ideas and theories. Rarely do these disagreements spill outside the campus walls or end up in court, but as the New York Times reports, a recent quarrel over the Dead Sea Scrolls has landed one person in jail.

Rafael Golb has, according to the New York Times article, been convicted of “waging an Internet campaign against his father’s academic rivals, including sending e-mails under a rival professor’s name.”

We recently published a biography of The Dead Sea Scrolls by John J. Collins. Listen in to a recent interview with Fresh Air, or read this quick excerpt from the book to throw some light on the recent news:


Rafael Golb

There would be yet another lawsuit relating to the Dead Sea Scrolls, arguably the most bizarre of all.

On November 19, 2010, the New York Times reported on page A24 that Rafael Golb, son of Norman Golb, was convicted in the State Supreme Court in Manhattan of establishing e-mail accounts pretending to be Lawrence Schiffman, and sending messages to university officials in which Schiffman supposedly confessed to plagiarism. Golb, a fifty-year-old real estate lawyer in New York, with a PhD from Harvard, said that the e-mails were merely parodies, but that he believed that Schiffman had plagiarized the work of his father Norman. (Schiffman and the elder Golb disagree on most issues relating to the Scrolls.) Golb had allegedly also sent e-mails in the name of other scholars, and sometimes anonymous e-mails, complaining that exhibitions of the Scrolls did not adequately represent the views of his father. (The father has been consistently and vocally critical of museum exhibits on the Scrolls, in blogs and letters to board members.) The younger Golb was present at the conference in the Blood Center in New York in 1992, when Schiffman had taken the lead in criticizing the work of Wise and Eisenman. His motivation has not been articulated, but it would seem to arise from a concern to defend his father’s views and to discomfit his perceived opponents. At the time of writing he has appealed his conviction.


Why the Fury?

Two famous sayings come to mind in rehearsing these disputes. One is Henry Kissinger’s dictum that academic disputes are so bitter because there is so little at stake. The other is Edmund Burke’s judgment on the French revolution: “vanity made the revolution; liberty was only the excuse.”

There can be little doubt that scholarly, and unscholarly, egos played an enormous role in the most heated disputes. Editors who were reluctant to make texts available to other scholars were guarding their position of privilege, even if they honestly believed that open access would lead to the proliferation of nonsense by incompetent headline seekers. Those who pressed most vocally for the release of the scrolls were not free of self-interest, either. There were reputations to be made and standing in the scholarly world to be achieved. Scholars set great store by claims to have been the first to publish something, even though the significance of the achievement may not be universally appreciated. Heated debates sometimes gave rise to personal animosities, and these contributed to some of the most bitter controversies. It should be said, however, that the acrimonious disputes involved only a small number of people at any time. Most scholars in the field have good collegial relations and only a limited appetite for controversy.



The Dead Sea Scrolls
A Biography
John J. Collins