Jewish history and civilization professor Norman Golb does not court controversy. The soft-spoken 80-year-old, a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls, deliberately takes pains to avoid it.
In the fall, for instance, as faculty members squabbled over the prospect of a Milton Friedman Institute on campus—shooting down opposing views as “drivel,” instructing their peers to "screw off," and effectively feeding every permutation of the juicy sound bite to the media—Golb, for his part, did not weigh in. And sitting in his office in late May, long after the Institute controversy has subsided, he still declines to take sides. “If you’re asking: Do I endorse laissez-faire capitalism? The answer is no,” he says, even though this isn’t exactly what I’d asked.
Golb skirts heated debates outside his field for fear they’d distract from his scholarship. He is tactful when it comes to media attention, which the Scrolls have amply afforded him over the years. He neither shuns interviews nor naively speaks too casually. (Such tact is hardly ubiquitous with this University's professors. The tumult over the Milton Friedman Institute, for instance, featured professor John Cochrane using his website to explain words he offered a New York Times reporter, and Chicago Booth dean Ted Snyder lending sentences to Bloomberg News that drew criticism, in a public forum, from anthropology professor Marshall Sahlins.)s
Golb, though, is savvy. In his book-strewn office at the Oriental Institute, he speaks carefully, articulating phrases with a level of political acuteness one might not expect from a grey-haired academic who studies the arcane relics of people who’ve been dead for hundreds of years. When I told a student of Golb’s that I’d be interviewing him, she winced protectively at the prospect of her mentor under interrogation, but she needn’t have worried. Golb’s rhetorical finesse, fostered by an easygoing manner and professorial charm—he waves his glasses in the air as he speaks and makes frequent intonations of “you see” or “you understand what I’m saying”—enables him to politely deflect sensitive questions, cautiously filter out sound bites, and artfully allude to certain contentious notions without ever explicitly stating them. Like when I ask him the last time he felt tempted to weigh in on a University controversy. “When the tennis courts were removed near Ida Noyes,” he says with a smile, noting the importance of staying active. “I hope for their return.” The tennis courts, of course, were removed to create room for the business school.
Golb’s efforts to avoid controversy may be an offshoot of his increasing struggle to be taken seriously in the Dead Sea Scrolls debate. He bears the unusual burden of holding a theory that places him in the extreme minority of the field, arguing that the ancient manuscripts found in caves near the Dead Sea have their origins in Jews from Jerusalem, even as the majority of scholars say the corroborative evidence is scant. As Golb puts it, “There is a great debate that rages on this topic and I’m on one side of the divide and others are on the other side of divide. I’m not the only one on my side, fortunately. There was a time when I was the only one, but those days are gone, and now I have support for my position.”
But others see Golb as defiantly holding the torch for a view long deemed implausible by the scholarly community. University of Notre Dame professor Eugene Ulrich, the chief editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls project, sums it up like this: “Golb started off asking a good question: Is it what seems to be happening or is it something else? He asked the right question, a question we should have asked, but it turns out to be a non-starter. When you follow that path, it turns out to be a ‘no.’ At this point, Ulrich says, Golb’s views are akin to those of “a Creationist at a biology conference.”
“The way I see it, he has stuck with that position for 30 to 40 years, bringing no new evidence. And everyone who looks at it says, ‘It’s just not there.’”
When I ask Golb whether he has ever doubted himself in the face of such salient opposition, he answers humbly: “There’s a statement of the rabbis [from] 2,000 years ago: ‘Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death.’” Golb goes on to say his work is based on “material evidence as opposed to opinion.”
But Golb’s increasing marginalization means he is often excluded from exhibits and fora on the Scrolls, which he considers a dangerous manifestation of academic bias.
“What I do object to very strongly is that [some Scrolls scholars] are willing to present their topics without opposition. They apparently do not want opposition; they do not want debate at the scholarly meetings where you have give and take. That is the only healthy way to have scholarship. If that will be cut out from the investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, then you don’t have science any more, you just have opinions, and rhetorical opinion, you see, which doesn’t count for much in scholarship,” he says. “You often have a one-sided exhibition. That amounts to brainwashing the public.”
Despite his frustrations, Golb never lashes out. He addresses perceived bias by attempting to hold himself to the highest standards of academic decorum, discussing even his own marginalization as a flaw in the scholarly apparatus rather than as a painful or personal offense.
“To be honest with you, it doesn’t really bother me that much. It runs off of me like water. It means ‘oh, I guess this person will never be my friend,’ but that’s one less friend I can have in the world,” he says, noting he’s had to become an “automaton” at times to withstand the struggle.
When an exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum, in Golb's view, inadequatedly represented his theory, he issued no dramatic laments, instead painstakingly abiding the standards of academic debate: He wrote a 24-page argument critiquing the exhibit’s “great many factual errors and unprovable assertions presented as truth.”
“I don’t point fingers. That’s not my style of doing things,” he says. “I try religiously to avoid invective.”
Though dispassionately argued, Golb’s claims of academic bias have gained as little traction as his Scrolls theory. As Gregory Sterling, dean of Notre Dame’s Graduate School and a professor who has written on the Scrolls, put it, “I’ve had proposals turned down and I’ve had proposals accepted—it’s part of the world of scholarship. My own view is that personal bias doesn’t play much of a role in this. Most people make the effort to be fair. They do make mistakes.”
He adds with a laugh,“The people who’ve turned me down made a mistake. We all feel that way.”
Sterling interprets Golb’s arguments about academic bias as potentially indicative of desperation, an attempt to shift the argument because he is unable to advance his claims about the Scrolls themselves. Notre Dame professor and Scrolls editorial committee member James VanderKam echoes this notion: “I doni’t think his viewpoint has been unfairly excluded. I think people have been unconvinced working with the evidence.”
But despite academic disagreements, and perhaps as a testament to Golb’s scholarly decorum, peers in Golb’s field still greatly respect the man himself, along with much of his work. His arguments outside the Scrolls debate have gained much greater support, and have often been ground-breaking. Sterling called him a “gentleman” and Ulrich noted he is a “great scholar,” who does not take to theories that are “sensational.”
It’s no surprise, then, that when I ask Golb whether his theory faces the challenge of cultural forces, with donors providing more grants for research on the Christian rather than Jewish origins of the Scrolls, he floats no conspiracy theories.
“It could very well be, but I have never written on that subject, and it’s my job to stay away from that type of subject,” he says. “I like more of the pure scholarship—not the polemics of personality, which would become a problem too easily, you see what I’m saying? You never see in my articles or in my book on the scrolls anything about scholar X, Y, or Z making certain statements because he is a Christian of a certain denomination or something of that kind. I try to stick to the ideas.”
Golb’s apparent instinct to skirt any portrayal as lamenting anti-Semitism, or worse, scapegoating it to explain his minority position in the debate, is all the more telling because there is so much to say about the complex impact anti-Semitism has had on the scholarly history of Scrolls. Jewish scholars were not even included in teams editing the artifacts until the 1980s, despite that the Scrolls themselves were discovered in the ’40s.
Even when I ask Golb whether he has personally faced anti-Semitism in the academy, having forged his career at a moment when Jews still experienced considerable discrimination at universities, he declines to engage in a topic so provocative. “There’s not an easy answer to that question,” he says, before squarely moving the conversation elsewhere.
“I never made it my goal to focus on this negative, horrible thing of anti-Semitism, and the murder of the Jews, and so on. My goal has been to focus on the creativity of the Jewish people and what they contributed to the world through their own culture and their own literature…the scholarship of the Jews in antiquity and Middle Ages,” he says.
It is these ideas that motivate Golb—visibly even. Like a much younger man, he bounds from his chair—“Stay seated, I’ll get it,”—to reach beyond a desk covered in printed images of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He grabs a volume he wrote himself, published in French, one of the over five languages he knows. The book discusses his discoveries about artifacts in Rouen which cast new light upon the Jewish impact on medieval French history, a discovery Golb considers his proudest accomplishment.
And yet, it hasn't mattered. On some level, Golb's efforts have failed. Despite his long-held ambitition to circumvent controversy, despite his sworn passion for scholarship over scandal, during a week in early March, scandal seized Norman Golb. And not just a scandal, but one of the most high-profile and twisted scandals to hit academia in recent years. The headlines rang out: “U of C scholar’s son charged with identity theft, harassment,” “DEAD SEA SCROLL SON IN HOT WATER,” and “Dead Sea Scrolls stir cyberhoax.” Golb’s 49-year-old son Raphael Golb was arrested in New York City for allegedly crafting an Internet scheme to incriminate scholars who disagree with his father, including New York University professor Larry Schiffman. Raphael Golb allegedly used a false e-mail address to admit plagiarism on Schiffman’s behalf—plagiarism of Norman Golb. (The Golbs deny these charges.)
After the scandal broke, Professor Golb calmly responded to media inquiries. “My son is an honorable person,” he told the New York Times, noting his belief that his son had been set up by his opponents. “He could not have done such a thing.” Golb told the MAROON, “My son has not had his opportunity to tell his side of the story, and when he does, the world will know what a terrible thing has been done to him.” Yet, once again, Golb appears find himself on the losing side of an argument where many say the evidence better supports a different view.
And the evidence, in this case, suggests a pretty strange crime. Robert Cargill, who was targeted by harassing e-mails from an anonymous source in the wake of his documentary on the Scrolls, has gathered grounds to suggest whomever was responsible for Schiffman’s impersonation also waged a months-long e-mail campaign in attempt to support Norman Golb’s ideas, using aliases to post argumentative articles—including discussions of anti-Semitism afflicting Scrolls scholarship—and writing blog posts under pseudonyms. The potential criminal even contacted media outlets to tout Golb’s theory on the Scrolls.
But during my interview, Golb makes no mention of his son, referring to him only once, and warmly, as I head out the door. I tell him I majored in comparative literature, and he tells me both his sons did as well, including Raphael, who lives in New York. I, of course, already know what Raphael studied and where he lives and that he graduated from Harvard and New York University prior to his recent appearance on academia’s most wanted list. But I just say, “A lot of brain power.” Golb smiles and cringes self-effacingly, “We hope.”
If Raphael is guilty, I have to wonder what that represents, beyond an apparently generous degree of personal instability: Is this an extreme form of loyalty or the ultimate kind of betrayal? He has, after all, thrust a man who so meticulously avoids polemics into the most heinous kind of academic scandal, a feat of invective and plagiarism and hostility that does nothing if not seek to undermine open debate.
Will the crime hurt Golb’s work? All the scholars I spoke with knew of Raphael’s arrest, having seen it on the news or received e-mails from friends. “I don’t think it will do [Professor Golb’s] views any good,” Sterling said. “I think as a motivation to promote his views that it will be counterproductive…It’s not going to help win great sympathy in terms of the climate.” Ulrich called it, simply, “tragic.”
But from his office in the Oriental Institute, Golb forges ahead with his work. I ask how his family is faring in light of all this.
“We’re together and united,” he tells me, saying nothing of the pain that’s surely cutting through a home on Blackstone Avenue. Instead, he describes the most deleterious effects of the scandal as those impacting objective scholarship. As Golb puts it, his family is now on the front lines of a struggle he feels he took up long ago: “The fight against manifestations of manipulative politics, censorship, and pecuniary influences that continue to threaten the integrity of objective investigation in this field of learning.”
Correction: The original version of this article mischaracterized the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at the San Diego Natural History Museum.