Dead Sea Scrolls Debated by Single Poster with 50 Email Addresses

In 2,000-Year-Old Scrolls, Internet-Era Crime, Jim Dwyer writes:  Early one morning in March, the law banged on the door of an apartment on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village. Investigators had a warrant to arrest Raphael Haim Golb and seize his computer. He was caught red-handed.  Mr. Golb is, or was, a guerrilla fighter in a cyberbrawl over the Dead Sea Scrolls, a war about the origins of 2,000-year-old documents that has consumed the energy of academics around the globe.  He was being arrested for fighting dirty.  Mr. Golb is 49 years old and had 50 e-mail aliases. He used pseudonyms to post on blogs. Under the name of a professor he was trying to undermine, prosecutors charged, Mr. Golb wrote a quasi confession to plagiarism and circulated it among students and officials at New York University. His purpose, the Manhattan district attorney’s office said, was “to influence and affect debate on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in order to harass Dead Sea Scrolls scholars who disagree with his viewpoint.”

In the classic 1993 New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, two dogs are perched in front of a computer screen. “On the Internet,” one says to the other, “nobody knows you’re a dog.”

For a while, no one knew that 50 different names in the Dead Sea Scrolls debate were the prolific Mr. Golb, a graduate of Oberlin College who has a law degree from New York University and a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard (dissertation: “The Problems of Privacy and Trust in Modern Literature, and their Relation to the Idea of Freedom”).

In court papers filed last week, Mr. Golb’s lawyers argued that prosecutors were trying to criminalize the commonplace. Both sides in the Dead Sea Scrolls debate, they said, use “sock puppets” — fake identities — on the Internet to make it seem as if scores of people are arguing a point.

“These bloggers marshaled their legion of sock puppets to engage in intellectual combat with the sock puppets allegedly created by Raphael Golb and others,” the lawyers wrote.

No other creatures in the animal kingdom behave like this, not when the stakes are lower than food or mating or survival. And here’s a bonus: a thread of the Shakespearean runs through the case.

Mr. Golb’s father is Norman Golb, a professor at the University of Chicago and a critic of claims that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the work of a sect called the Essenes, thought to have lived near the Qumran caves where the scrolls were found. Professor Golb has suggested that the scrolls were actually the product of several libraries in Jerusalem and were taken to the caves around the time the city fell to the Romans in the year 70. This is not a dispute for the fainthearted. Golb the Son has taken up his father’s cause with all the vigor permitted by multiple Gmail accounts.

When he was arrested, Mr. Golb was asked by prosecutors if he wrote under the name “Charles Gadda,” one of the most visible Internet advocates for his father. He would not answer directly.

“They would say that my father is doing it or asking me to do it,” Mr. Golb said, according to court papers. “My father certainly never asked me to do anything of the kind.”

But he allowed that “Charles Gadda” was doing pretty well. “Do you realize that the Charles Gadda articles have been read by thousands of people?” Mr. Golb continued. “I know that, because I look at them, it says on them.”

The Internet is, of course, both gold mine and sludge pile, where people lie about their ages, their abilities, the world. The prosecutors say that by adopting all those false identities, Mr. Golb was trying to obtain a benefit, and so committed criminal impersonation, identity theft and aggravated harassment. But Mr. Golb’s lawyers maintain that there was no tangible benefit, and therefore no crime.

“Gaining an advantage in academic debate about the Dead Sea Scrolls is not the kind of benefit required by the law,” said Ronald Kuby, one of the defense lawyers.

But what about the injury Mr. Golb apparently tried to inflict on Lawrence H. Schiffman, the chairman of Judaic studies at N.Y.U.? Someone wrote from to Professor Schiffman’s graduate students and dean, alerting them to an article that suggested he had committed plagiarism. Perhaps two things go without saying: The article was actually written under one of Raphael Golb’s pseudonyms, and Professor Schiffman has been critical of the theories of Golb père.

The defense claims that the e-mail messages were transparent parodies, and that in any event, injury to a reputation is a civil matter, not a criminal violation.

“He writes letters in my names in which I am admitting to horrendous offenses,” Professor Schiffman said Friday. “This is the rough-and-tumble of the Internet?”

That 1993 cartoon could use an update. On the Internet today, everybody knows you’re a dog.

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The same goes for just about any lively discussion you may find yourself in online.

Especially if there is anything in it financially or reputation-wise for one of the parties.

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