Dead Sea Scrolls Go to Court
A brilliant young Harvard Ph.D. faces jail for impersonating a Bible scholar—and rival of his father
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the New York Times and the Washington Post reported on the “scroll cartel”—the fact that many of the scrolls remained unpublished and accessible only to a select few.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).
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