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Slander, Lies and the Dead Sea Scrolls

by Tom Tugend

November 23, 2010 | 1:17 pm

Archaeologist Robert Cargill examines a full-scale facsimile of the 2000-year-old-plus Isaiah Scroll at Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book. Photo by CTVC Ltd

Archaeologist Robert Cargill examines a full-scale facsimile of the 2000-year-old-plus Isaiah Scroll at Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book. Photo by CTVC Ltd

The Dead Sea Scrolls, recorded by ancient Jewish scribes some 2,260 years ago, are at the center of a criminal case featuring such 21st century concepts as cyberbullying and Internet sleuthing.

Involved is a high-level cast of characters, including eminent Jewish and Christian scholars in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and a professor’s son sentenced to six months in prison for his part in the strange affair.

Bitter scholarly disputes are not uncommon, but they are usually kept within the confines of academia or the pages of professional journals. However, the scrolls confrontation, which involved identity theft and defamation of character, came close to ruining the career of a UCLA researcher and blackening the reputation of a prominent New York University (NYU) professor.

Robert R. Cargill, an adjunct assistant professor at UCLA, a key player in breaking the case open, said he was near exhaustion at times after three years of tracking down the culprit, while completing his doctoral studies and raising a daughter as a single father.

Cargill, 37, also earned a master of divinity degree from Pepperdine University and has served as excavation supervisor in Israeli archaeological digs at Omrit, Hatzor and Banias. He was a victim of the harassment, and it was largely his persistence that led to the arrest and conviction.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have fascinated historians of Judaism and Christianity since their initial discovery in 1947 by Bedouin shepherds in caves at the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea.

Together with subsequent discoveries in the same location, the scrolls have yielded fragments of some 800 ancient documents, including parts of all but one book of the Hebrew Bible.

Almost as soon as the discoveries began to be analyzed, archaeologists and biblical scholars began to advance different theories on the authorship of the scrolls.

There was considerable agreement that the settlement of Khirbet Qumran, adjacent to the caves, and its main building were linked to the find, and in 1951, the site was excavated by a French priest, Roland de Vaux.

One theory, following de Vaux’s interpretations, was that the Qumran structure was the communal home of a pious Jewish sect, the Essenes, who created the scrolls.

Others proposed that the site was a fortress constructed by the Hasmoneans, whose victory against the ancient Greek occupiers is celebrated during Chanukah. Still others speculated that the place had been an early mega-mansion, built as a winter retreat by a wealthy Jerusalem family.

Most experts accepted the first interpretation, but, in the mid-1990s, Norman Golb,the Ludwig Rosenberg Professor in Jewish History and Civilization at the University of Chicago, advanced a different thesis.

In his book “Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?: The Search for the Secret of Qumran” (Scribner, 1995), Golb argued that the scrolls were written by various ancient sects in and around Jerusalem and then collectively hidden in Qumran to safeguard them from invading Roman armies.

This theory was met with widespread skepticism by most scholars in the field, and at UCLA, William Schniedewind, a professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures, and his then-graduate student, Cargill, set off on a different research track through the Qumran Visualization Project.

Using sophisticated computer programs, Cargill built what he described as “a fully reconstructed, three-dimensional, real time, interactive model of Khirbet Qumran.”

Taking the building’s excavated remains as a blueprint, the model “visualized” that the structure was originally designed as a fortress, then abandoned, and later expanded and repurposed by a group of about 75 men, apparently Essenes.

According to the model, the new inhabitants built an elaborate water system, as well as a scriptorium, where the scrolls were written. The building was destroyed in 70 C.E., or shortly thereafter, by the conquering Roman legions, a view now widely accepted.

Beside the question of historical accuracy, the two theories have broader implications. Golb’s interpretation would indicate that the scrolls represented a wide swath of religious thinking throughout ancient Israel.

The UCLA model has been interpreted by scholars as pointing to the Essenes, a monastic and celibate community, as the forerunner of subsequent Christian orders.

In early 2007, Cargill was nearing completion of a virtual reality film on Qumran as his doctoral dissertation and as part of an upcoming Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Then something strange happened. Cargill and the San Diego museum began noticing a rash of posts on Internet blogs and message boards, under different names, all attacking the exhibit and Cargill’s film for “misleading the public” by omitting Golb’s alternate theory.

Over the next two years, the posts escalated in volume and harshness. “At UCLA, all my departmental faculty, the provost and chancellor started getting e-mails, as did potential employers at other universities, attacking my qualifications to receive a Ph.D.,” Cargill said in a phone interview.

What all the posts had in common was a defense of Golb’s thesis against the deliberate “errors” of those who argued otherwise.

As Cargill analyzed the posts, he used Internet protocol addresses, which assign unique numbers to each connection to the Internet. Eventually, he concluded that one person, whom he dubbed the “Puppet Master,” was orchestrating a defamation campaign, using some 80 aliases.

One clue came through an e-mail to Meg Sullivan of the UCLA media relations office, criticizing her news release on the Qumran project. Cargill said that other e-mails similarly attacked a Jewish Journal report on the same topic.

In the summer of 2008, the apparent perpetrator went one step further, striking at Lawrence H. Schiffman, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at NYU.

As reported in an extensive article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Schiffman’s graduate students, colleagues and deans began receiving an identical e-mail from larry.schiffman@gmail.com. In it, the writer admits to a misstep and links to an article charging Schiffman with plagiarizing Golb’s work many years ago. The e-mail swears the recipients to secrecy and concludes, “This is my career at stake.”

Cargill picked up on the incident and shared his own probe with the NYU professor. Schiffman realized that he was the victim of identity theft, a crime under New York state law, and contacted the district attorney’s office.

Within a short time, investigators found their man in Raphael Haim Golb, a 50-year-old Manhattan lawyer with a Harvard doctorate in comparative literature — and the son of Norman Golb.

The younger Golb was arrested in March 2009 on charges of engaging “in a systematic scheme on the Internet … in order to influence and affect debate on the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

During his trial six months later, Golb rejected a no-jail plea-bargaining deal because it would have forbidden him from posting Internet messages on Dead Sea Scrolls discussions during a three-year probation period.

The jury then found him guilty on 30 counts of identity theft, forgery, criminal impersonation and aggravated harassment. Golb’s defense was that his postings were merely meant as “sarcasm, satire and parody,” protected under the First Amendment, but this failed to convince the jury.

On Nov. 18, Golb was sentenced to six months in prison and five years probation. He is currently free on $25,000 bail and his lawyers have pledged to appeal the sentence, so the case may not be over yet.

For Cargill, after testifying at the Golb trial, things are looking up. He received his doctoral degree, has remarried and holds the dual UCLA positions of adjunct assistant professor of Near Eastern languages and culture and interactive technology coordinator at the Center for Digital Humanities.

Looking back, he said, “I would have rather spent that time during the last three years doing research and writing articles. But I am satisfied that justice has been done.”

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