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An Older Manuscript Controversy about the Dead Sea Scrolls

I’ve been thinking about controversies over ancient Christian and Jewish manuscripts lately, in connection with the (false) claim that a First Century copy of Mark had been discovered.  Browsing around on the blog I saw that I dealt with a completely different manuscript controversy on the blog many years ago, involving the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I had forgotten all about it.  This one involved a court case and jail time!   Here’s what I said:



A few years ago I was asked to give a speech at a museum in Raleigh NC in connection with an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls that had been long in the works and had finally become a reality. I will be the first to admit, I’m not the first person you should think of to give a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s not my field of scholarship. But the lecture was to be one of a series of lectures, and the other lecturers actually were experts, including my colleague Jodi Magness, a world-class archaeologist who happens to teach in my department (well, she doesn’t “happen” to teach there; I hired her when I was chair of the department) and who has written the best popular discussion of the archaeology of Qumran, the place where the scrolls were found, and my colleague at cross-town rival Duke, Eric Meyers, another archaeologist famous for his work in ancient Israel. The organizers of the exhibit wanted me to give a talk because they wanted a lecture dealing with the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding both the historical Jesus and the rise of early Christianity. And those *are* topics that I know something about.

Before giving the lecture, I started getting some emails from a person I did not know; these started out as innocent enough, but very quickly they turned highly vitriolic and mean-spirited and accusatory, attacking me viciously for not embracing the theories about the Dead Sea Scrolls held by Normal Golb, who is famous for thinking that the scrolls were not produced by the Jewish sect known as the Essenes (most other scholars think they were; I don’t know of anyone who has been convinced by Golb – but I’m sure there must be someone who has!).

At the time I ….

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  1. Barfo
    Barfo  December 4, 2019

    He rejected a plea deal that would have kept him out of jail but instead receives convictions, two of which are felonies. No small matter there. Six months isn’t long but at Rikers it will seem like six years. He must have thought he could convince a jury that he was just a harmless troll. Like Baretta used to say, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

  2. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  December 4, 2019

    Sounds like the guy got what he deserved. Sort of a fanatic by the looks of things. Not much sympathy for fanatics. But one man’s fanatic is another man’s zealot… wait a minute! Is there really a difference??

  3. Avatar
    nichael  December 4, 2019

    Off-topic question:

    I see that Great Courses has just released a new course “Understanding the New Testament” by David Brakke.

    (I know Prof. Brakke through his other GC courses on “The Apocryphal Jesus” and “The Gnostics”; the latter led me to his book “Gnosticism”. I thought all three were excellent and I would highly recommend them to other readers here who don’t them.)

    So my question is, are you familiar with this new course? And, more specifically, can you say something about how this course might different from your own GC course “The New Testament”?

    (P.S. At the same time GC also has released “Understanding the Old Testament” by Robert D. Miller II.)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2019

      Yes, David is an old friend, and a veyr fine scholar. I knew he was doing the course. I think the GC wanted another more recent version of the course, but they’ll keep mine up as well. I don’t really know how it’s different from mine.

  4. Avatar
    Stephen  December 4, 2019

    1) Would there be anything inconsistent with Qumran being both a military fort AND an Essene “monastery”?

    2) Not all the documents found at Qumran were produced by the Essenes, right? Isn’t it safe to assume they were collectors as well as composers?


    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2019

      1. Yes, probably it wasn’t occupied both by Roman soldiers and Jewish sectarians. it’s a small place. 2. That’s right. Scholars have differentiated between the books produced there and those brought in, based on the style of writing etc.

  5. Avatar
    Mark57  December 4, 2019

    I wish I could read the NYT article but it says I have to subscribe. Ugh, I hate that!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2019

      Oh, really? Sorry ’bout that.

    • Avatar
      Maglaw  December 6, 2019

      You don’t have to subscribe to the NYT, just Bart’s blog which is only about $10. The article is fascinating.

    • Avatar
      hankgillette  December 6, 2019

      Mark, you might check your public library. Mine has several major newspapers online, and I can access them from home. They are text only, so it is not as nice as an actual subscription, but that is how I looked up the NY Times article Bart mentioned.

      There is also a lot of stuff online about Raphael Golb, if you do a Google search, all of which may not be accurate.

  6. Avatar
    hankgillette  December 5, 2019

    According to the AP, the case was not resolved until 2018, with Golb serving no jail time, but getting three years probation. He was also disbarred, which I hope stuck.

    Golb seems like he is seriously disturbed. Anyone who would generate over 80 false identities to attack people only, plus steal a scholar’s identity in an attempt to ruin his reputation, then when caught, claim everything was obviously parody, is more than a little scary.

  7. Rick
    Rick  December 5, 2019

    This is why lawyers who who counsel themselves have a fool for a client……

  8. epicurus
    epicurus  December 5, 2019

    Jodi Magness also has a couple lecture series from “The Great Courses” which I have on my to watch list.

  9. Avatar
    Ficino  December 5, 2019

    I attended a lecture at Columbia a number of years ago. I can’t remember the lecturer’s name. He argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls were produced in Jerusalem and carried to caves for safekeeping when things got hot during the Revolt. He said that Qumran was not a sectarian community but a place of economic production (I forget what products).

    Does this sound like Norman Golb? I vaguely think I remember the lecturer’s name starting with G, so sounds as though it was Golb.

  10. Avatar
    lutherh  December 7, 2019

    Thank you for the timely post! I just read Golb’s “Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?,” having seen a used copy, an interesting topic, and that Golb is credentialed, anyway. I’m always up for reading heterodox opinions, even fringe. Some of it, such as the large diversity of copyists of the manuscripts compared to Nag Hammadi, for example, made sense that the texts could have been left over time by numerous people or groups. Yet the book was certainly vindictive toward Golb’s critics, and I was left with the impression it was him against the world. While consensus doesn’t prove correctness, in such situations I’d usually bet on “the world” over the “him,” whoever he may be. Anyway, I appreciate your post to help keep my head on straight, or at least keep me aware of what is indeed the consensus, apparently for good reason.

  11. sschullery
    sschullery  January 19, 2020

    What difference does it make for our understanding of Christianity if Golb the elder was right?

  12. Avatar
    AndrewB  March 17, 2020

    I was re-reading some older articles and came across your commendation of your colleague, Dr. Jodi Magness, whom you noted you had hired while you were the department chair. I was wondering, how do you evaluate-test an archaeologist’s knowledge-competency for a position? Aside from being an archaeologist one’s self, I’d imagine it would be difficult to evaluate what feels like a very outdoors-expertise job – like evaluating a wilderness survival expert in an office interview.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2020

      Yes indeed, it’s actually true for *every* subdiscipline in every field. In my department how do we hire a Buddhologist, or an expert in medieval Judaism, or a semiticist? We require letters from people we know are bona fide experts in their field (with national or international reputations), we examine teh books and articles written (are they with the top academic presses and journals in the field), and we do a lot of consulting with others. At a major university, it’s almost impossible to get past that without having the goods.

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