In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd stumbled across a cave one mile from the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea and discovered seven weathered parchment scrolls, some containing biblical texts in Hebrew, that dated as far back as 300 years before the birth of Jesus.
That find, and subsequent excavations over the next decade in other area caves — yielding more than 800 scrolls in total — were regarded as among the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. But they also resulted in a notably rancorous debate.
The first scholars to examine the Dead Sea Scrolls theorized that they were the work of the Essenes, a small ascetic Jewish sect living in the nearby settlement of Qumran who, in their messianic beliefs and monastic sensibility, probably exerted a strong influence on another breakaway group, the early Christians.
But Norman Golb, a maverick professor at the University of Chicago, took issue with that thesis, and in time he galvanized a few other scholars to question it as well.
He argued that the scrolls encompassed the thinking of diverse communities of Jews in the Holy Land, not just a fringe sect, and that they had originally been moved from libraries in Jerusalem to the caves near Qumran to safeguard them from the anticipated Roman siege of the city in A.D. 70. The scrolls, he said, suggested that Christianity arose out of a dynamic and rapidly evolving Jewish culture rather than from a single narrow offshoot.
“There’s no rational basis for the Essene hypothesis, except for 40 years of commitment to an old idea by a clique of scholars,” Dr. Golb contended in a 1989 interview with John Noble Wilford of The New York Times.
Dr. Golb, who also led a successful effort to pry open the Dead Sea Scrolls for study by a wide range of researchers and not just a select, predominantly Christian coterie, died on Dec. 29 in a hospice in Chicago. He was 92.
His son Raphael said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
A former student evvel described Dr. Golb as a “scholarly bloodhound forever in pursuit of new information.” Fluent in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic among other languages, he first analyzed a non-biblical scroll that laid out rules of personal conduct and realized there was no reference to celibacy, which was central to the Essene code as described by Pliny, the Roman writer, and Josephus, the Jewish historian.
The proponents of the Essene theory depicted the stone ruins at Qumran as the remnants of an Essene monastery. But Dr. Golb pointed out that the site had the graves of women as well as men, an unlikely feature of a monastery.
“There’s nothing to show that it was anything but a fortress,” Dr. Golb told a symposium on the scrolls arranged by the Institute of Semitic Studies in Princeton, N.J., in 1989.
Instead of an Essene provenance, Dr. Golb argued, the scrolls reflect a period when the Jewish world centered on the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was in turmoil.
The Sadducees, loyalists of the priests in the Holy Temple and advocates of a strict application of the written law including “eye for an eye” justice, were losing influence to the Pharisees, who saw the priestly class as aristocratic and corrupt and began developing the rabbinic-centered Judaism, softened somewhat by oral traditions, that dominates today. This was the roiling atmosphere in which Christians — also opposed to the Sadducees — cultivated their faith.
Dr. Golb, an expert on medieval Jewish history who was a professor of Jewish history and civilization at the University of Chicago from 1963 until his retirement in 2015, produced many scholarly articles about the Dead Sea Scrolls and coalesced his thinking in the 1995 book “Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?: The Search for the Secret of Qumran.”
Although he gathered few supporters when he first expounded his theory in the early 1980s, Israeli archaeologists and other scholars later drifted toward his view — finding evidence, for example, that the Qumran ruins were most likely a pottery factory and not a monastery.
The debate turned vitriolic and personal. When American museums in 2006 and 2007 announced exhibitions of the scrolls, Dr. Golb’s son Raphael, a real estate lawyer with a Harvard doctorate in comparative literature, grew angry that his father’s perspective was being ignored and waged an internet campaign against his father’s rivals.
He went as far as composing embarrassing emails in the name of Lawrence H. Schiffman, an authority on the scrolls who was then chairman of Judaic studies at New York University. In one, the fake Schiffman persona confessed to colleagues and students at N.Y.U. that he had plagiarized Dr. Golb’s work in his own writings about the scrolls.
Dr. Schiffman went to the F.B.I., and in 2009 Raphael Golb was arrested on charges of criminal impersonation and aggravated harassment. He claimed he had been engaging in an academic parody, but he was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison — although the judge ruled that his one night in jail and months of probation amounted to time served.
Dr. Golb was furious at his son’s ordeal “The D.A. took a scholarly quarrel and makes a case against Raphael Golb and not against what the other people are doing, which was worse,” he told The Times in 2013. “The vindictiveness, the anger. the ugliness, that’s OK because it comes from the other side.”
Norman Golb was born on Jan. 15, 1928, in Chicago. His father, Joseph, who held several blue-collar jobs and was also a barber and Yiddish actor, and his mother, Rose (Bilow) Golb, a saleswoman in a department store, had immigrated from Ukraine as children.
Norman learned a smattering of Hebrew in after-school programs, but his deeper immersion came after he received his B.A. at Roosevelt College and enrolled in a two-year graduate program at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, where he also learned Arabic, Aramaic, Greek and Latin.
He left Chicago for Baltimore to pursue a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in Judaic and Semitic studies, and had the good fortune of having as an instructor William F. Albright, a biblical archaeologist who had helped authenticate the Dead Sea Scrolls.
A former student evvel described Dr. Golb as a “scholarly bloodhound forever in pursuit of new information.”Credit…University of Chicago archive
He was able to examine photographs of the scrolls, something denied at the time to all but a few Christian scholars. This group, disparaged by critics as “the monopoly,” had been chosen by the government of Jordan, which occupied the West Bank before Israel conquered it in the 1967 Mideast war.
In addition to his son Raphael, Dr. Golb is survived by his wife, Ruth (Magid) Golb; another son, Joel; a daughter, Judith Golb; a sister, Harriet Baker; and a granddaughter.
Dr. Golb frequently had his students delve into the Dead Sea Scrolls, but he had grown so wearied by the academic combat that he discouraged students from pursuing that topic as a specialization. According to Joshua Holo, a former student who is now the dean of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, Dr. Golb “told us point-blank: ‘Your association with me will blackball you in this field, and you must not pursue it.’”