Lawyer faces sentencing in Dead Sea Scrolls impersonation case

A piece of the book of war from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

NEW YORK, N.Y. — A lawyer is facing the possibility of prison time after being convicted of an ultramodern crime that was all about antiquity: using online aliases to harass people in an academic debate about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Raphael Golb was set to be sentenced Thursday on identity theft and other charges in a rare criminal case centred on Internet impersonation — and a very rare trial to air an obscure but bitter debate over the scrolls’ origins.

The top count is punishable by up to four years in prison, though Golb could also get probation. He has said he plans to appeal.

Prosecutors said Golb, 50, used fake email accounts and wrote blog posts under assumed names to discredit his scholar father’s detractors in a dispute over which ancient Jews created the scrolls.

“Using fictitious identities to impersonate victims is not what open academic debate seeks to foster,” District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said when Golb was convicted.

Golb said the writings amounted to academic whistle-blowing and pointed parody, not crime.

“My purpose was to expose the pattern of unethical conduct in the field of studies,” he told jurors during his trial.

Found in caves in Israel beginning in the 1940s, the scrolls contain the earliest known versions of portions of the Hebrew Bible. They have provided important insight into the history of Judaism and the beginnings of Christianity.

Some scholars, including New York University Judaic studies chairman Lawrence Schiffman, say the texts were assembled by a sect known as the Essenes. Others, including Golb’s father — Norman Golb, a University of Chicago historian — believe the writings were the work of a range of Jewish groups and communities.

Schiffman went to authorities after some of his students and colleagues received emails, from an address that used Schiffman’s name, in which he appeared to admit plagiarizing Norman Golb’s work and asked the recipients to keep quiet about it. Schiffman denies copying the historian’s work.

Raphael Golb, a linguistics scholar and lawyer with degrees from Oberlin College, Harvard University and NYU, acknowledged during his trial that he wrote the messages. But he said he never intended for anyone to believe Schiffman actually sent them and portrayed them as “satire, irony, parody.”

Internet impersonation claims have generated a number of lawsuits, but prosecutions are unusual unless phony identities are used to steal money, experts say.

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