By: James D. Tabor, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
On the other days they dig a small pit, a foot deep, with a paddle of the sort given them when they are first admitted among them; and covering themselves round with their garment, that they may not affront the rays of God, they ease themselves into that pit. Josephus War 2.148
This paper explores the complex and shifting dynamics of comparing texts with texts, texts with “sites,” and sites with themselves, but without texts. I use the term “sites” loosely to refer to the material or archaeological evidence that may or may not be related to a given text from antiquity. I see this as an extension of Jonathan Z. Smith’s interest and fascination with “comparisons” so evident in much of his work over the past three decades. But more particularly I have in mind the Louis H. Jordan Lectures in Comparative Religion, delivered at the University of London in 1988, subsequently published as Divine Drudgery. Fascinated by the “thick dossier of the history of the enterprise,” i.e., the comparison of “Christianities” and the religions of Late Antiquity, Smith undertakes what he calls “archaeological work in the learned literature” in order to highlight both theoretical and methodological issues. His operative question is what is “at stake” in the various comparative proposals? I am convinced that some of the same dynamics Smith finds operating in the development of the study of “Christian Origins,” namely Roman Catholic and Protestant apologetics and presuppositions, have been present from the beginning in considering the textual corpus known as the “Dead Sea Scrolls,” and in interpreting the physical site of the adjacent ruins of Qumran, as well as in the combining of the two—that is, texts and site. I want to expand a bit the comparisons of “words,” “stories,” and “settings” beyond their purely “textual” levels, and explore the methods of bringing in non-textual evidence, that is, evidence of “place.” In that sense I find Smith’s metaphor of the “archaeological” more than intriguing, and in this paper, with spade in hand (or perhaps I might say with “paddle” in hand!), I want to explore how the proverbial “mute stones” speak, or remain silent, in the presence of texts, and the ways in which the texts inform “place,” and “place” might enlighten the texts.
The inclusion of selected archaeological evidence related to Roman Palestine, and more particularly the Galilee under Herod Antipas, has added an interesting new dimension to the methodologically depleted study of “Christian origins.” Indeed, Crossan and Reed, in the most ambitious synthesis to date, attempt to “excavate” both texts and sites in their reconstruction of what we can know of Jesus and his earliest followers. In the end, unfortunately, their use of “place” ends up being as arbitrary and as ambiguous as that of the textual layers of the Jesus “traditions.” What is lacking is a “fit,” or a series of case studies or “checks” through which one might actually achieve some meaningful results in the comparative correlation of text and place.
The Site of Qumran
Qumran is arguably the one of the most famous and controversial archaeological sites in the Mediterranean world. It has attracted millions of tourists, especially since the 1970s, having become, along with Masada, a “must see” site for any Holy Land tour. Yet both its fame and its controversy arise because of the discovery of ancient texts—the Dead Sea Scrolls—in caves adjacent to and near the site. It is unlikely that Qumran would have attracted much attention on its own, were it not for its possible connection to the community that wrote the Scrolls.
In a passing remark, reporting on his excavation of Cave 1 with Harding in 1949, Fr. Roland de Vaux concluded that their initial survey of the site of Khirbet Qumran showed no archaeological connection between the settlement and the cave with its manuscripts. For centuries the site of khirbet Qumran had remained largely undisturbed though a few ruins were visible above the ground. In the mid-19th century one begins to see reports from various travelers and surveyors of the site, particularly de Saulcy (1850), Rey (1858), Conder and Tyrwhitt-Drake (1873) and Clermont-Ganneau (1873). De Saulcy, a Flemish explorer, was convinced he had found the ruins of the biblical Gomorrah (Gen 19). Clermont-Ganneau rejected this identification. He records that the ruins were “insignificant” but took special note of the cemetery, and even opened one of the tombs, concluding them to be a mystery, neither Muslim, Jewish, nor Christian, due to their odd north-south orientation and their lack of artifacts or emblems. In the 20th century the reports continued: Masterman of the PEF (1903); Abel, who did a cruise of the Dead Sea, stopping at Ain Feshkha and Qumran (1909), Dalman (1914), Noth (1938), Baramki (1940), and Husseini (1946). One recent but largely unexplored source, to my knowledge, are the records and diaries of some of the early Zionist pioneers and travelers who took an interest in the Dead Sea area, from Jericho to Masada, such as David Horowtiz (1926). Typically these observers made special note of the tower, the extensive boundary walls, the reservoirs and cisterns, and the aqueduct. Noth ventured that the ruins were the City of Salt mentioned in Joshua 15:62. Dalman thought it to be a Roman fortification of some type. What seemed to stump everyone, however, was the extensive cemetery of at least 1000 graves, with their odd, mostly north-south, orientation.
De Vaux’s subsequent five seasons of excavating the site (1951-56), coupled with the discovery of caves 4-10 (1952-55) in the very “backyard” of the settlement, seems to have forged an inseparable link between the scrolls and Qumran. Such identification was further cemented by the rapid publication of the initial sectarian texts from cave 1 (1948-49 Sukenik; 1950-51 ASOR), and an analysis of the classical texts from antiquity that describe the Essenes (primarily Pliny, Philo, Josephus). Based on Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 C.E.) description, that the Essenes lived north of Ein Gedi and Masada (their reading of the disputed infra hos), and Dio Cocceianus’ reference to a prosperous city “not far from Sodom” (which many in ancient times placed at the north end of the Dead Sea), they settled on the ruins of Qumran as a likely possibility. What intrigued them most was the large cemetery of over 1000 oddly oriented graves, signaling to even the casual observer two related concepts: “sectarian” and “community.” The two made a surface examination of the site and opened two tombs. They returned in November, 1951 and subsequently carried out five seasons of excavations, identifying 144 schematic loci and opening 43 of the graves. The main cemetery seemed to contain only males, but in the north, south, and eastern extensions tombs with five females and four children were also found, but apparently oriented east-west. Three of the five women’s tombs had some poor ornaments.
What de Vaux uncovered at Qumran was rather remarkable by any measure. He discovered three main phases of sectarian occupation, which he labeled as periods Ia/b, II, and III), running from mid-second century BCE down to the 1st Revolt. He had complied a composite list of “Essene” characteristics from the classical sources, primarily Pliny, Philo, and Josephus. They were a celibate or mostly celibate group, separatist in their view of society, shunning wealth and property and sharing a single treasury and a common table. They practiced rites of ritual cleansing, and ritual meals and enforced a strict and high standard of community conduct. Although they apparently opposed the sacrificial system at the Jerusalem Temple, it was not clear as to whether they shunned sacrifices totally, nor was it completely clear as to whether they were strictly pacifists in their attitudes toward outside enemies. Although de Vaux was later criticized for interpreting his evidence in the light of a pre-determined “Essene hypothesis,” the correspondence he found between the material site and what he assumed as the social and religious life of the community, was rather impressive. After all, the main cemetery did appear to be predominantly male, and the orientation of the corpses was not toward Jerusalem. Their careful interment appeared to reflect the solemn dedication of a separatist community. Locus 77 could have served as an assembly room or dining hall, and adjacent thereto, in loci 86 and 89 he found more than 1000 vessels, including jars, dishes, jugs, bowls, and plates. Locus 114 also contained what might be seen as a “dining set,” with 40 plates and 40 goblets as well as other associated wares. Loci 111 and 121 in the western part of the settlement are adjacent and might have served as smaller areas for ritual dining. The water system looked to serve not only the daily needs of a group living in the arid Arava, but also many of the pools appeared to be suited for ritual cleansing as well. The remains of meals (bones of sheep, goats, and cattle), carefully deposited in the open spaces of the settlement, (especially in loci 130, 132, 136 in the northwest and loci 90 and 98 near the south walls) sometimes in closed vessels, seemed to reflect some sort of cultic practices.
Although Magen Broshi, Jodi Magness, Yaaqov Meshorer, and others have suggested important modifications in de Vaux’s original chronology (i.e., no period Ia at Qumran, moving the sectarian occupation to the 1st century BCE; no abandonment of the site from 31 BCE to 4 BCE), his essential interpretation of the site as a sectarian settlement still makes the most sense. Professor Magness has also convincingly interpreted the pottery of Qumran as an archaeologist should, in terms of what we might deduce about the community that used these items. Jean-Baptiste Humbert has developed a comprehensive reinterpretation of the archaeology of Qumran, revising some of de Vaux’s views, but nonetheless understanding the settlement as an Essene place of ritual sacrifice and worship.
Given the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the now excavated site of Qumran, we face a number of very limited possibilities. First, is the library we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls indigenously connected or unconnected to the site of Qumran? If so, we can now combine the work of spade and text in a way that was impossible with the classical sources, in that the texts themselves are an integral part of our material evidence. Second, do the Scrolls represent a coherent group? Finally, if they represent a group, is it one known or unknown to us in sources outside the corpus? The answers appear to be yes, yes, and yes.
However, this “consensus” is not without its detractors. Norman Golb has argued that Qumran is a military installation or fort. Pauline Donceel-Voûte has put forth the interpretation of Qumran as a villa rustica. Most recently Yizhar Hirschfeld has published his grand interpretation of Qumran as a manor house of an agricultural estate—wholly unconnected to the sectarian life reflected in the Scrolls. Although these views have been exhaustively reviewed and critiqued, particularly by Jodi Magness and Magen Broshi, the press continues to sensationally report that the “consensus” has been broken, as if some vast academic conspiracy has been at work promoting the so-called “Essene Hypothesis.”
We are not certain who first suggested the Scrolls from Cave 1 might be connected to the Essenes. It was most likely Eleazar Sukenik, professor of archaeology at Hebrew University, who viewed both the Thanksgiving Hymns and the War Scroll in the days following November 29, 1947. John Trevor, however, reports that in February 1948, Father Butrus Sowmy’s brother, Ibrahim, who was a customs official at the Allenby Bridge suggested such a connection, when the two brothers brought four of the texts to him and William Brownlee at ASOR (1QS, 1QHab, Isaiah, GenApoc). In the April, 1948 ASOR news release, three Protestant scholars living at ASOR, Burrows, Trevor, and Brownlee, speculated that the Community Rule, at least, might be connected to some “little known monastic order, possibly the Essenes.” Now that we are in a position to examine closely the entire corpus it seems to me that we can definitively identify the Dead Sea Scrolls group, first, with the site of Qumran, and second, with the ancient “sect” of Judaism known to us in classical sources as the “Essenes.” With Stephen Goranson and others, I find the link between the Greek forms of the term “Essene” and the Hebrew term “doers of the Torah,” to be most convincing. We are operating here in the thought world of Daniel 11:32 and associated texts. Though there are important differences in our indigenous and classical texts (did the group completely shun sacrifice, slavery, marriage, and warfare as Philo would have things?), and many remaining issues to resolve at the site itself, from an archaeological perspective, the “fit” between classical texts, Scrolls, and the site of Qumran is rather striking.
Students, media representatives, and the general public often ask—do you agree that the group that wrote the Scrolls were the Essenes? One is tempted to reply—yes, but how does one know what an “Essene” is in the first place? This is a label, a single word, and by positing the identification we are really only affirming that Pliny, Philo, and Josephus indeed know and mention a group by this name, not that their descriptions can be taken as hard historical evidence. As a bare label it is hardly more helpful than the label of “Sadducee” that Shiffman, Reeves, and others prefer, based on certain halachic positions taken in some scroll documents (mostly MMT). We have long realized that the highly stylized reports of Pliny, and more especially Philo and Josephus, were more social and cultural propaganda than historical reporting, though they surely contain accurate information on the Essenes. Like the stock praises of the Gymnosophists of India in pseudo-Callisthenes’ Alexander Romance or Philostratus’ Apollonius of Tyana, or the idealized portraits of the Magi that run through ancient Mediterranean literature, both Philo and Josephus want their readers to know that among the Jews there are indeed are these highly virtuous souls, dedicated to spiritual pursuits. For Josephus, the Pharisees are like the Stoics, the Sadducees like the Epicureans, but most admirable of all, the Essenes, are like the ancient Pythagoreans. As with his description of the Pharisees, in terms of their views on Fate and immortality of the soul, he is writing for his Roman audience, who would find the actual Pharisaic halachic system, with which he surely must be familiar (as reflected in early parts of the Mishnah and other rabbinic tradition), completely alien and strange.
“Essene” or not, it is the content of the scrolls themselves, and the material evidence at Qumran that should have privilege. Did Josephus know, but not tell, that the “Essenes,” were an intensely xenophobic, anti-Roman, contra-establishment, messianic, apocalyptic, “baptist” wilderness group that saw itself as living in Daniel’s “time of the end?” It might well be that his reasons for not letting those “cats out of the bag” has to do with his sympathies with the Essenes themselves in the volatile post-Revolt atmosphere, living in Rome in the former palace of Vespasian. He does let us know in several places that they were skilled in the interpretation of prophecy. His apologetic purposes in both the Jewish War and the later Antiquities are well documented.
In the grand hierarchy of things there is a sense in which we must allow the material evidence to predominate. Whatever theory we have about the site of Qumran, and however dependent it might be on the reading of our texts, whether classical or the Scrolls, ultimately it must be tested on the ground. As James Strange has put it, what we need is an open investigation of the entire site and all its environs backed by a series of testable hypotheses that can actually yield results. Such hypotheses are not to be formulated in isolation from our texts. Indeed, as often as not, the texts themselves suggest to us certain possibilities that would not have otherwise occurred to us.
Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, once put it like this to Qumran archaeological specialist Jodi Magness: Would we interpret Qumran as a sectarian religious settlement had the Dead Sea Scrolls not been found? In other words, to what degree does our reading of the Scrolls shape and form our interpretations of the material, almost wholly non-textual evidence, found at the site itself? Magness replied that she did not think we would interpret it as a religious settlement, but neither would we conclude it was a villa or a fortress. The site would remain anomalous because it has too many unusual features that resist any standard interpretation (especially the extensive ritual baths, animal bone deposits, and cemetery). She then remarked—but why would we want to disregard the evidence of the Scrolls? They appear to be an integral part of the archaeological evidence and can provide us with indispensable clues as to how to interpret the non-textual data.
In looking at Qumran with and without the texts, and the texts with and without Qumran, one must first distinguish between two very different types of textual evidence. On the one hand we have the scrolls and ostraca, which are themselves part of the archaeological data, being subject as material evidence to paleographic, AMS, DNA, and other types of scientific testing. Yet, as texts, they also offer us insight into beliefs, practices, and history, any of which might shed light on the material evidence at the site of Qumran, or vice versa. On the other hand, we have our classical sources on the Essenes, which though textual, and thus providing witness to beliefs, practices, and history as well, are decidedly non-archaeological and non-indigenous. In order to work our way through this rich “evidential” complex it is important that we carefully distinguish, at every turn, what type of evidence we are using, how it might look in isolation or in combination, and what assumptions go into our constructions and conclusions. How might one read the sectarian scrolls along side the classical sources on the Essenes? Can those results in turn be connected or correlated with the material record, and with what methods and assumptions? Finally, what happens when one goes “hunting” for material evidence with texts in hand?
In 1995 I began to explore the idea of searching for the communal latrines at Qumran based on the very general hypothesis that they would be located some distance northwest of the settlement. Having participated in several surveys and excavations at Qumran in the 1990s, the possibility of locating the toilets at Qumran intrigued me. The textual evidence that gave me the idea was a complex mix of possibly unrelated materials from Scrolls themselves as well as Josephus’s descriptions of the Essenes and their toilet practices. Taken together as a conglomerate these sources seemed to indicate the possibility that communal latrines would be located 1) at some distance from the settlement; 2) most likely to the northwest with easy access to a communal pool for immersion upon return; 3) in an area where pits could be easily dug into the soil; and 4) perhaps hidden from sight of the settlement itself for purposes of modesty and privacy. Here are the main texts I had in mind:
CD 10:20 A man may not go about in the field to do his desired activity on
CD 10:21 the Sabbath. One may not travel outside his city more than a thousand cubits.
1QM 7:7 between all their camps and the latrine of about two thousand cubits, and no shameful nakedness shall be seen in the environs of all their camps.
11QT 46:13 You are to build them a precinct for latrines outside the city. They shall go out there,
11QT 46:14 on the northwest of the city: roofed outhouses with pits inside,
11QT 46:15 into which the excrement will descend so as not to be visible. The outhouses must be
11QT 46:16 three thousand cubits from any part of the city.
War2:147 (126.96.36.199-149) They also avoid spitting in the midst of them, or on the right side. Moreover, they are stricter than any other of the Jews in resting from their labors on the seventh day; for they not only get their food ready the day before, that they may not be obliged to kindle a fire on that day, but they will not remove any vessel out of its place, neither to go aside [οὺδἐ ἀποπατεἳν]. Nay, on the other days they dig a small pit, a foot deep, with a paddle (which kind of hatchet is given them when they are first admitted among them); and covering themselves round with their garment, that they may not affront the divine rays of light, they ease themselves into that pit, after which they put the earth that was dug out again into the pit; and even this they do only in the more lonely places, which they choose out for this purpose; and although this easement of the body be natural, yet it is a rule with them to wash themselves after it, as if it were a defilement to them.
War5:145 (188.8.131.52) But if we go the other way westward, it began at the same place, and extended through a place called “Bethso,” [δἐ τοὓ βησοὓ καλουμένου χὡρου] to the gate of the Essenes; and after that it went southward, having its bending above the fountain Siloam, where it also bends again towards the east at Solomon’s pool, and reaches as far as a certain place which they called “Ophlas,” where it was joined to the eastern cloister of the temple.
The Investigation and Its Results
The area that intrigued me as the most likely possibility was a flat level plain area located directly northwest of the Qumran settlement just below the limestone cliffs but hidden behind a natural bluff. I enlisted Joe Zias, anthropologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority as a partner in investigation. The idea was to take soil samples from several of the areas outside the settlement, including our the flat level area to the northwest and test to soil to see if we might find any evidence of ancient human waste in concentrated amounts. Our assumption was that the use of a confined latrine area for over a century by the Qumran community would likely leave detectable remains. We published our results in 2006 in an article in Revue de Qumran but I offer a brief technical summary here based on Joe Zias’s initial field report.
Soil samples were collected from three major areas around the settlement including the northwest sector specified above. Loci were examined for the presence of helminth eggs, which are excreted from the human body during defecation. For this purpose, 10 g of a soil sample from this locus was rehydrated in 0.5% aqueous trisodium phosphate solution and 5% glycerol was then added. After ultra-sonification the solution was filtered through a column of four sieves with decreasing mesh sizes of 315, 160, 50 and 25µm and the sediment from the two last sieves was examined under a stereo-microscope (magnification x30). Microscopic examination revealed the eggs and embryophores of three helminthes: the roundworm, Ascaris sp. with a mammilated coat and measuring 66.5 x 51 µm (Fig. 3), embryophores of the tapeworm, Taenia sp. with a thick, radiating membrane and hexagonal spines (Fig. 4); and the whipworm, Trichuris sp. with its lemon-like shape and measuring 57 x 30 µm; (Fig. 5).
Ascaris sp. has two potential hosts; humans are infected with Ascaris lumbricoides and swine with Ascaris suum. Owing to dietary laws prohibiting the consumption of pork (Leviticus XI: 7, Deut. 14:8) and the fact that pig remains have not been reported from the site, one can rule out the presence of Ascaris suum. Therefore, as only ruminants and ungulates were authorized for consumption, the embryophores of Taenia found in this sample probably belong to the beef tapeworm, Taenia saginata and originated from the consumption of undercooked beef. The skeletal remains of cattle, which frequently appear in the excavated soils, support this assumption. The third helminth, Trichuris sp., which is a common parasite of a variety of animals and humans, is consequently also of human origin and therefore belongs to Trichuris trichiura. Lime also appeared in the fecal samples, possibly used to reduce the odor emanating from the feces and to diminish the attractiveness of this odor to flies as flies are known to passively transfer human pathogenic microorganisms. Identical findings of liming ancient toilets have also been reported from a 7th century BCE latrine in Jerusalem.
Heavy infection with Ascaris lumbricoides and Trichuris sp., can result in chronic anemia, diarrhea, dysenteric syndrome and abdominal distress thus, making it difficult for those infected to walk the proscribed distance and to defecate in isolation. Burying the feces in an area remote from habitations normally would be hygienically sound, however due to canyons and steep cliffs surrounding this settlement, the number of places suitable for toilets was severely limited. Thus, the inhabitants would have been obliged to defecate in soils, which were earlier contaminated with fecal material from the sect, which contained eggs of helminthes. In effect, this meant that there was a constant danger that individuals walking barefoot through soils previously contaminated with feces would transfer helminth eggs back into the small community. An additional environmental hazard predisposing the community to continual recontamination was the mandatory Essene practice of bathing after defecation.
Bathing themselves after defecation was hygienically sound, if there were perennial springs like those of the city of Jericho, 14 km to the north. However, in Qumran no fresh water supplies were readily available, thus the inhabitants were dependent on runoff water collected from the winter floods. After defecating, they were obliged to bath in communal pools found at the site, which could remain standing for up to 9 months between rains. Furthermore, men were expected to enter these communal baths for ritual purification, which entailed total immersion twice a day before meals. As the portal of entry for both Ascaris lumbricoides and Trichuris sp is oral, immersion in these pools or simply washing the hands and face was probably enough for contracting these parasites or other pathogens such as entero-pathogenic microorganisms responsible for cholera, hepatitis A and shigellosis. In addition, the water, which was used for purification and ritual immersion, could at times be used for drinking. The harsh environmental conditions of the Dead Sea Region, consuming but two meals a day and fasting on Friday, so as not defecate on the Sabbath, coupled with parasites competing for nutrients made Qumran an environmentally challenging habitat.
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Divine Drudgery: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago, 1990). Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002). See also the more sensational and less successful attempt by Richard Batey, Jesus and the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992). See the excellent survey by James Vanderkam and Peter Flint in The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 34-36, to whom I am mostly indebted for the following references. Compare Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 22-24 and bibliographical notes, 29-30. More generally see Neil Silberman, Digging for God and Country:P Exploration, Archaeology, and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1799-1917 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982). “Relation du voyage,” Voyage autour de la Mer Morte et dans les terres bibliques, exécuté de décembre 1850 àvril 1851 (Paris, 1853): 2:165-67, published in English (London: Richard Bentley, 1854), 55-68.