Plagiarism and the Dead Sea Scrolls

August 3, 2008

Charges of impropriety resurface against New York University professor Lawrence Schiffman

[Update: see this succinct summary of the allegations against Dr. Schiffman.]

Every member of the University … is expected to conform to the highest standards of honesty and integrity. Activities such as plagiarism [and] misrepresentation… are expressly prohibited…. Plagiarism [is] the appropriation of another’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.” — New York University Faculty Handbook

“Plagiarism … whether intended or not, is academic fraud… You plagiarize when, without proper attribution, you … paraphrase or restate someone else’s facts, analysis and/or conclusions.” — Statement on Academic Integrity, New York University (Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development)

“A charlatan’s job is, to begin with, to protect himself and his ego. While he is always conning people, he must be careful not to make enemies so that he won’t be exposed to any threats. He must preserve his façade, or his falsity will be seen through. He … only enters a situation when it seems to be to his advantage.” — Chogyam Trungpa, Letter to the Vajra Guards, November 1975

A little-known case of apparent academic quackery has recently surfaced again, which deserves, perhaps, renewed attention in light of the media’s ongoing celebration of Dead Sea Scrolls “scholarship” and the exposure of corruption in this field by various internet bloggers.

Many Dead Sea Scrolls fans, especially in the New York area, will be familiar with Dr. Schiffman’s name and appearance. It would, in fact, be difficult to mistake him for anyone else: the big beard, the booming voice that soars out over lecture halls and into living rooms during televised documentaries — there is, in a word, an unmistakable charisma associated with this man, who seems to know exactly how things stand with the scrolls and is not afraid to say it.

To be sure, among scholars Dr. Schiffman is also known for his perplexing attempts to demonstrate that the scrolls belonged to and, in part, were written by a Sadducee sect living at Khirbet Qumran, even though, by his own admission, they contain the writings of many different “Judaisms” of the period.

And, among his students, he is known for the stern severity with which he opposes any inappropriate conduct, such as plagiarizing papers: see the syllabus for one of his courses, where he warns that “papers must be fully footnoted…  Students must learn the difference between the documented use of the work of others, and… plagiarism.  Plagiarism will not be tolerated under any circumstances.” 

But behind his complicated arguments, academic severity and booming veneer, is Schiffman himself actually a plagiarist? Here are the facts, well known among academics since they were exposed by an Israeli journalist in 1993 (see below), but always discreetly ignored in the United States:

1. “Fine words! I wonder where you stole ‘em.” — Jonathan Swift

In an article entitled “The Problem of Origin and Identification of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” published in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 124 (1980), University of Chicago historian Norman Golb broke ranks with the traditional “Qumran-sectarian” school of scrolls scholarship.  He argued that the scrolls did not, as had been previously assumed, belong to a sect living at Qumran, but were the remains of libraries from Jerusalem, hidden in the desert either shortly before or during the siege and sacking of the city by the Romans in 70 A.D.

In the course of building his case, Golb focused on a series of historical and palaeographical details, including the discovery at Masada of manuscripts similar and, in one instance, identical to the ones found in the caves near Qumran.  Other scholars had previously suggested that the Masada texts might have been brought there from Qumran, but Golb rejected this explanation and wrote as follows:

“In the ruins of [Masada] were discovered fragments of fourteen … scrolls, including … remarkably, a portion of the so-called “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice” — a duplicate of a text found in Qumran Cave IV… The cogent inference to be drawn from the presence of Hebrew manuscripts at Masada is that Jewish sicarii inhabiting the site possessed scrolls which they had brought there after taking the fortress in A.D. 66, while other Jews, of Jerusalem, took scrolls with them in addition to basic possessions needed for survival, in withdrawing to that site.”

Expressing a view that, in 1980, was highly unorthodox, Golb wrote that the Qumran and Masada manuscripts were not merely the product of a sect, but were writings of Palestinian Jews in general and were remnants of a literature showing a “wide variety of practices, beliefs and opinions.”

The scrolls, Golb suggested, were best to be interpreted “not by pressing them into the single sectarian bed of Essenism, but by separating them out from one another, through internal analysis, into various spiritual currents which appear to have characterized Palestinian Judaism of the intertestamental period.”

In the same article, Golb also wrote that the apocalyptic texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls showed that the mentality of various Palestinian Jewish groups prior to 70 A.D. were “factors which may … help to explain the zeal which led to the Jewish War.”

Then, in 1985, Golb published another article (in Biblical Archaeologist), in which he said (pp. 81-82) that the content of the scrolls was “more than sufficient to show the mentality and religious outlook of various groups within Palestinian Judaism” before 70 A.D., and that they “cast important new light on aspects of that period’s history, particularly on the question of the influence of the beliefs and practices then current in Palestine on both the nascent rabbinic Judaism and the earliest forms of Palestinian Christianity.”

So much for Golb’s 1980 and 1985 articles which, of course, on account of their detailed and fundamentally novel analysis of the evidence — emphasizing the wide variety of ideas in the scrolls where others had attempted to fit them into a single “sectarian” current — were rightly seen as posing a severe threat to the traditional Qumran-Essene theory.

2. “Those literary cooks Who skim the cream of others’ books…” — Hannah More

Enter Lawrence Schiffman who, in 1990, published an article entitled “The Significance of the Scrolls.” The article, similar to other writings that also came out under his name, appeared in Bible Review, and was later (in 1992) reprinted in Hershel Shanks, ed., Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls. Schiffman argued (using a rationale which British scrolls scholar Philip Davies has described as “not merely difficult to accept, but difficult to understand”) that the scrolls belonged to a Sadducee sect living at Qumran.

Here, however, are some of the other things he said in the article:

“Very recently several fragmentary texts were published from Masada …, occupied by rebels during the … Revolt against Rome. In addition, a manuscript of the Sabbath Songs (angelic liturgy), known in several manuscripts from Qumran, was found at Masada. Thus, Jewish defenders of Masada possessed books of the same kind as those in the Qumran collection, but that were not directly associated with the sect itself. In other words, many of the works found at Qumran were the common heritage of Second Temple Judaism and did not originate in, and were not confined to, Qumran sectarian circles.”

Schiffman did not mention or cite Golb’s practically identical argument made ten years previously. On the next page, Schiffman wrote:

“It is now becoming increasingly clear that the Scrolls are the primary source for the study of Judaism in all its varieties in the last centuries before the Common Era. In short, this corpus does not simply give us an entry into the sect that inhabited the nearby settlement, but also has an enormous amount to tell us about the widely varying Judaisms of the Hasmonaean and Herodian periods … these documents are providing a critical background for the study of the later emergence both of rabbinic Judaism and of the early Christian Church.”

Compare Golb’s earlier statements about the “religious outlook of various groups within Palestinian Judaism” which “cast important new light … on both the nascent rabbinic Judaism and the earliest forms of Palestinian Christianity.”

Schiffman, however, again did not mention or cite Golb’s articles.

Instead, on the next page of his article, he went on to state that the influence of the apocalyptic Dead Sea Scrolls could be seen “in the messianic pressures for Jewish resistance against Roman rule that were factors in fueling the two Jewish revolts, the First Revolt of 66-70 C.E., and the Second Revolt, the so-called Bar Kokhba revolt, of 132-135 C.E., both of which had messianic overtones.” Compare Golb’s earlier statement about the “factors which may … help to explain the zeal which led to the Jewish War.”

Schiffman did not mention or cite this statement of Golb’s either.

Note how Schiffman changed the wording a bit but kept the basic ideas (including some of the vocabulary, such as “factors”): “various groups within Palestinian Judaism” becomes “widely varying Judaisms”; “cast important new light” becomes “has an enormous amount to tell us”; “the question of the influence … on both the nascent rabbinic Judaism and the earliest forms of Palestinian Christianity” becomes the “background for the study of … the emergence both of rabbinic Judaism and of the early Christian Church”; etc.

Schiffman, of course, like anyone else, had every right in the world to argue the case for variety in the scrolls; but it was his duty to say where he got his arguments from. According to New York University’s statement on academic integrity (linked at the top of this page), if a student paraphrases without proper attribution, he stands a good chance of getting called before a committee on charges of plagiarism and even of getting expelled.

Schiffman, however, is not a college student, and so he apparently thought he could straddle both sides of the Dead Sea Scrolls debate and get away with stealing Golb’s credit for emphasizing the diversity of ideas found among the scrolls (including ones related with rabbinic Judaism), the Masada connection, and the influence of the apocalyptic ideas of some of the scrolls on the Jewish revolt.

3. “Their writings are thoughts stolen from us by anticipation.” — Alexis Piron

Well, Israeli journalist Avi Katzman appears to have had a different point of view and so, in an interview published in Haaretz (Jan. 29, 1993), he asked Schiffman why “in different articles you have published, you have not hesitated to take over portions of Golb’s theory without acknowledging as much, and without giving him appropriate credit?”

Given the circumstances, one might have expected Schiffman to give some kind of explanation. He could have said, for example, that the failure to credit Golb was unintended and that he planned to correct it in his next book. Instead, this is what he said:

“This isn’t the issue. There’s no innovation in Golb’s theory. He can say what he wants. The idea that we’re not dealing with a sect is self-evident. Does he think that he wrote the Bible?”

Well, let’s take a closer look at this: “There’s no innovation in Golb’s theory.”

As is well known, Golb, starting with the above-linked 1980 article, published a series of works arguing that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the remains of Jerusalem libraries, containing the writings of multiple Jewish groups. At the very end of the 1980 article (see footnote 80 on p. 24), he carefully distinguished his theory from the “overly specific” view of Karl Rengstorf, who in the early 1960’s had argued that the scrolls were the library of the Jerusalem Temple. Golb wrote:

“While it is true that a number of the scrolls give prominence to the sons of Zadok and the priestly order, most of them do not, so that the assignment of all of the scrolls to the single library of the Temple becomes a matter of arbitrary choice … narrowing down the conception of intellectual and spiritual life prevailing within Jerusalem before the war.” Golb’s own, broader conclusion was that the scrolls were “remnants of a literature showing a wide variety of practices, beliefs and opinions which was removed from Jerusalem before and during the siege.…”

Then, in 1985 (Biblical Archaeologist, p. 80), Golb wrote of “collections of literary scrolls — that is, libraries — removed far from their original home,” and concluded that the scrolls stemmed “not merely from sectarians but from first-century Palestinian Jews in general,” and that they were “removed from Jerusalem by inhabitants of the city before and during the siege on the city.”

Let’s look at that statement of Schiffman’s again: “There’s no innovation in Golb’s theory.” The statement is obviously untrue, because no one, until Golb came along, had argued that the scrolls were the remnants of Jerusalem-area literary collections. Was Schiffman incapable of comprehending the articles which he himself had apparently chosen to make use of without crediting their author? Or was he attempting to confuse the issue? I mean, what better response to someone who suggests that you have committed plagiarism, than to assert that the plagiarized ideas are themselves not original? After all, they’re self-evident. They could have occurred to anyone, so why include a reference to the person who actually came up with them?

4. “That’s not a lie, it’s a terminological inexactitude.” — Alexander Haig

Whatever the answer to this question may be, Schiffman repeated his plagiarisms in his 1994 book Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls (almost two years after the Katzman intervew).  See, e.g., pp. 49, 335, 403 and 447, discussing the “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice” text found at Masada and Qumran: “The common heritage of Qumran and Masada [is] typical of the literature read by the intellectual and religious elites of Second Temple Judaism”; “most of the apocryphal-type texts found in the Qumran caves were probably copied elsewhere”; “we reject this view [i.e., that the Masada texts came from Qumran]”; etc., all of this without any citation of Golb.

What’s more, not content with appropriating Golb’s ideas, Schiffman also began publishing misinformation about Golb’s theory. In his above-cited Bible Review article, he stated: “I should perhaps comment briefly on the hypothesis recently put forward by Professor Norman Golb of the University of Chicago. According to him the Qumran scrolls are the library of the Jerusalem Temple, brought from Jerusalem and hidden at Qumran during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome.” Schiffman then repeated this misleading assertion in his 1994 book, where we read (see p. 413) that “the hypothesis that the scrolls are the library of the Jerusalem Temple is put forward by Golb…”

Interestingly, while Schiffman apparently did not have the courage or good will to cite Golb when using his arguments, he did, at this single spot in his book, provide several sources that purportedly backed up his false characterization of Golb’s theory.  These included, for example, Golb’s 1990 Journal of Near Eastern Studies article “Khirbet Qumran and the Manuscripts of the Judaean Wilderness: Observations on the Logic of Their Investigation.” But in this as in his other articles, Golb (see footnote 68 on p. 113) specifically described his view as being that “the various Qumran texts originated in libraries in Jerusalem that were hidden away for safekeeping before or during the siege of A.D. 70.”

The other Golb articles that Schiffman cited were published in 1989 and 1987 (in The American Scholar and The Sciences), but he omitted the important 1980 and 1985 articles, thereby leaving readers with the impression that Golb’s work in the field dated not from well before, but from around the same time or even after Schiffman began publishing his own “multiple Judaism” articles on the scrolls, and directing them away from the specific evidence of his plagiarism (see the first and second sections above). 

Neither the 1987 Sciences nor the 1989 American Scholar article are available on-line, but anyone can easily consult them at the library. The first states merely that the scrolls “originated not with an obscure sect but with Palestinian Jews… [and] depict … the surprising breadth of Jewish literary culture during the centuries between the Old and New Testaments”; and the second argues at length that “the writings came from libraries; the great number of scroll remnants points to their origin in a center of learning and study … such as only Jerusalem was before 70 A.D… Because of the loss of [Jerusalem’s] archival records [in a fire of 66 A.D. described by Josephus], no documentary texts of the years immediately before 70 A.D., but only remnants of the libraries that evidently abounded in the city, have been found subsequently in the Judaean wilderness.”

Did Schiffman simply not read any of these articles which he cited in support of his deceptive attribution of Rengstorf’s Temple-library theory to Golb? Was he incapable of comprehending the difference between the “library of the Jerusalem Temple” and “the libraries that evidently abounded in the city”? The multiple-libraries theory was, of course, set forth at great length in Golb’s 1995 book Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? and, to the best of my knowledge, Schiffman has remained curiously silent about the lack of “innovation” in Golb’s work since then.

Steal and ye shall be promoted: During the fifteen years that have elapsed since he blurted out that “Golb can say what he wants,” Schiffman has apparently been promoted to department chairman and popular Dead Sea Scrolls icon without the slightest investigation of his actions ever taking place at NYU.  After all, who really cares about a little bit of hanky-panky here and there? We all know that rules are meant to be broken anyway.

As I recall this episode in light of the recent allegations about continuing misconduct in this field of studies, I’m obliged to ask which is worse, the act of plagiarism itself or the decision to misrepresent the theory of the scholar whose ideas one has decided to filch.  Apparently, it has become normal procedure in academic circles to play vicious games with one’s scholarly adversaries, disseminating falsehoods about their views and appropriating them at the same time without proper attribution.  Those who base their careers on such conduct cleverly illustrate Hugh Kingsmill’s words, “A charlatan makes obscure what is clear; a thinker makes clear what is obscure.”

And who, in the end, elevates such individuals to the status of popular authorities? To some of us the answer is quite clear: it’s a sick system that glorifies an academic thief.


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