In 1947 a young Bedouin shepherd stumbled across a cave a mile from the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea and discovered seven weathered scrolls of parchment, some of which contained Biblical texts in Hebrew dating back 300 years before the birth of Jesus.
This find, and subsequent excavations in other caves throughout the decade, which yielded more than 800 scrolls in total, were considered one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. But they also led to a particularly heated debate.
The first scholars to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls suggested that they were the work of the Essenes, a small ascetic Jewish sect that lived in the nearby settlement of Qumran and likely to have a strong influence in their messianic beliefs and monastic sensibilities another apostate group practiced, the early Christians.
But Norman Golb, a loner professor at the University of Chicago, questioned that thesis and, over time, got some other scholars to question it as well.
He argued that the scrolls encompassed the thinking of various communities of Jews in the Holy Land, not just a fringe sect, and that they had originally been moved from libraries in Jerusalem to the caves near Qumran for them to read ahead of the expected Roman siege Jews protecting city in AD 70. The scrolls, he said, suggested that Christianity grew out of a dynamic and rapidly evolving Jewish culture rather than a single narrow offshoot.
“There is no rational basis for the Essen Hypothesis other than 40 years of dedication by a clique of scholars to an ancient idea,” claimed Dr. Golb in an interview with John Noble Wilford of the New York Times in 1989.
Dr. Golb, who also successfully attempted to open the Dead Sea Scrolls for study by a wide range of researchers, not just a select, predominantly Christian coterie, died on December 29th in a Chicago hospice. He was 92 years old.
His son Raphael said the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
A former student described Dr. Golb once called “scientific bloodhound forever on the lookout for new information”. He was fluent in Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, among others, and first analyzed a non-biblical scroll that laid down rules for personal conduct and found that there was no reference to celibacy, which was central to the Essen Code, as described by Pliny the Roman writer and Josephus the Jewish historian.
Proponents of the Essen theory presented the stone ruins of Qumran as the remains of an Essen monastery. However, Golb pointed out that there were both women’s and men’s graves on the site, which is unlikely for a monastery.
“There’s nothing to show that it was anything but a fortress,” said Dr. Golb in 1989 at a symposium on the Scrolls hosted by the Institute for Semitic Studies in Princeton, New Jersey.
Instead of an Essen origin, argued Dr. Golb, the scrolls reflect a time when the Jewish world, centered on the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, was in turmoil.
The Sadducees, loyalists to the priests of the Holy Temple and advocates of strict application of the written law, including “eye for an eye” justice, lost control of the Pharisees, who viewed the priestly class as aristocratic and corrupt and began to develop The Rabbinically centered Judaism, which was somewhat tempered by oral traditions and which dominates today. This was the restless atmosphere in which Christians – also against the Sadducees – cultivated their faith.
Dr. Golb, an expert on medieval Jewish history who was Professor of Jewish History and Civilization at the University of Chicago from 1963 until his retirement in 2015, authored many scholarly articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls and contributed his thinking to the one published in 1995 Book “Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls ?: The Quest for the Secret of Qumran. ”
Although he garnered few followers when he first put forward his theory in the early 1980s, Israeli archaeologists and other scholars later turned to his view – and found evidence that the ruins of Qumran were most likely a pottery factory, not a monastery.
The debate became life-threatening and personal. When American museums announced exhibitions of the Scrolls in 2006 and 2007, Dr. Golb’s son, Raphael, a real estate attorney with a Harvard doctorate in comparative literature, angry that his father’s perspective had been ignored, ran an internet campaign against his father’s rivals.
He went so far as to write embarrassing emails on behalf of Lawrence H. Schiffman, an authority on the Scrolls who was then chairman of New York University’s Jewish Studies. In one case, the fake Schiffman confessed to colleagues and students at NYU that he was Dr. Golb’s work in his own writings on the Scrolls had plagiarized.
Dr. Schiffman went to the FBI and in 2009 Raphael Golb was arrested on charges of criminal impersonation and aggravated harassment. He claimed he engaged in an academic parody but was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison – although the judge ruled that his one night in prison and months of probation was the time served.
Dr. Golb was furious about his son’s ordeal. “The prosecutor had a scientific argument and spoke out against Raphael Golb and not against what other people are doing, which was worse,” he told The Times in 2013. “The vengeance, the anger. The ugliness is fine because it comes from the other side. “
Norman Golb was born in Chicago on January 15, 1928. His father Joseph, who had several worker jobs and was also a hairdresser and Yiddish actor, and his mother Rose (Bilow) Golb, a saleswoman in a department store, immigrated from Ukraine as children.
Norman learned a bit of Hebrew in extra-curricular programs, but his deeper immersion came after receiving his BA from Roosevelt College and enrolling in a two-year graduate program at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where he also studied Arabic, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.
He left Chicago for Baltimore to do a PhD in Judaic and Semitic Studies from Johns Hopkins University and was fortunate to have an instructor, William F. Albright, a Biblical archaeologist who helped authenticate the Dead Sea Scrolls.
He was able to examine photos of the scrolls, which at the time was denied to all but a few Christian scholars. This group, disparaged by critics as a “monopoly”, was selected by the Jordanian government, which occupied the West Bank before Israel conquered it in the 1967 Middle East War.
In addition to his son Raphael, Dr. Golb his wife Ruth (Magid) Golb. another son, Joel; one daughter, Judith Golb; a sister, Harriet Baker; and a granddaughter.
Dr. Golb frequently immersed his students in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but he had become so tired of academic struggle that he discouraged students from pursuing the subject as a specialization. According to Joshua Holo, a former student who is now the dean of the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, Dr. Golb up close: “Your connection with me will obscure you in this area and you are not allowed to pursue it any further. ‘”