The Essenes and the Qumran Settlement – By Jodi Magness

Jodi Magness on Joan E. Taylor’s The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea

Joan E. Taylor, The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea, Oxford University Press, 2012, 418pp., $55.00

Qumran was occupied from around 100 BCE to 68 CE by members of a Jewish sect who deposited the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves surrounding the site. The scrolls represent a collection of Jewish religious works including copies of books of the Hebrew Bible, dating mostly to the second and first centuries BCE. The rooms inside the site — which Roland de Vaux excavated in the 1950s — seem to have been used mainly for communal purposes: dining and assembly rooms, a room for the preparation of scrolls (the “scriptorium”), kitchens, workshops, industrial installations, and miqva’ot (ritual baths). De Vaux identified the inhabitants as Essenes, a Jewish sect described by ancient authors such as Flavius Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, and Pliny the Elder. Members of this sect apparently refused to participate in the sacrifices offered in the Jerusalem temple, which they considered polluted by the current priesthood. They therefore withdrew, constituting their own community as the biblical desert camp.

In recent years, some scholars have identified Qumran not as a sectarian settlement but as a villa, manor house, fort, commercial entrêpot, or pottery manufacturing center. All of these highly publicized alternative theories assume there is no connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran settlement — an assumption contradicted by the location of some of the scroll caves in the plateau on which the settlement sits, and by the discovery of the same types of pottery (including types peculiar to Qumran) at the site and in the scroll caves.

Even among scholars who identify Qumran as a sectarian settlement, however, there remain disagreements about whether its inhabitants were Essenes. These disagreements stem from difficulties in understanding and reconciling our three main sources of information: 1) sectarian scrolls (works composed by members of this sect); 2) archaeological remains at Qumran; and 3) descriptions of the Essenes provided by ancient authors. These sources provide different — albeit complementary or overlapping — types of information, and each has limitations. For example, whereas the sectarian scrolls served the internal needs of the movement (containing legislation and regulations governing the everyday life of members), Josephus wrote for an external audience that included non-Jews, and his biases and agenda affected his presentation. Furthermore, these sources are not all contemporary; whereas Josephus’s description of the Essenes was written after 70 CE and focuses on the sect during his lifetime, the relevant sectarian scrolls probably date to the first century BCE and were edited over time. The archaeological evidence is no less problematic and presents its own interpretive challenges. The failure to publish fully the finds from de Vaux’s excavations means that there are gaps in our knowledge of the remains at Qumran.

In this monograph, Joan Taylor makes a strong case in support of the “Essene hypothesis,” identifying the inhabitants of Qumran as Essenes who deposited the Dead Sea Scrolls in the nearby caves. Taylor devotes the first half of the book to a close reading of ancient authors on the Essenes (not just Philo Judaeus, Flavius Josephus, and Pliny the Elder, but others such as Dio Chrysostom). In the second half of the book, she discusses Qumran and the Dead Sea region, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One of the book’s great strengths is Taylor’s detailed analysis of Greco-Roman sources, even if some of her interpretations are open to debate (such as her identification of the Herodians of the Gospel of Mark and the Perushim of rabbinic literature with the Essenes). Taylor argues persuasively against Rachel Elior’s claim that the Essenes never existed by pointing out that such an imaginary group would not have served Philo’s rhetorical purposes (the same goes for Steve Mason’s claim that Josephus invented the marriage-endorsing Essenes). She concurs with a majority of scholars that Pliny’s testimony places the Essenes north of Ein Gedi, not in the mountains above it. According to Taylor, Philo and Josephus do not indicate that the Essenes spurned animal sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. Instead, they accessed the Temple Mount by way of a separate entrance such as Wilson’s Arch, as “any contact with non-Essenes (let alone Gentiles) would clearly have been considered very polluting.” However, if the Essenes participated in the temple cult, anyone entering Wilson’s Arch or other gates still had to pass through the crowded esplanade to access the temple building. Taylor contrasts Philo’s and Josephus’s positive presentation of the Essenes with Pliny’s largely negative characterization of them as an oddity. She correctly notes that Philo and Josephus indicate that outsiders referred to the group as Essenes, although her statement that “we do not know how the Essenes identified themselves” overlooks the various terms found in the scrolls such as the Sons of Zadok, Sons of Light, and yahad.

Based on her analysis of the testimony of these authors, Taylor concludes that the Essenes were not a small, marginal sect — in fact, she believes they were not a sect at all — but were fairly numerous, influential, involved in the Jerusalem temple cult, and enjoyed legal autonomy within the Jewish court system. Her arguments that the Hasmoneans opposed the Essenes whereas the Herodian dynasty honored and protected them, and that the group continued to flourish until the Bar Kokhba Revolt (135 CE) are central to her interpretation of the site of Qumran.

The second half of the book opens with an overview of the history of the Dead Sea in which Taylor highlights the cultivation of the opobalsam plant and the exploitation of other natural resources such as bitumen, setting the stage for her interpretation of Qumran in the following chapters. Taylor’s views about Qumran can be summarized as follows. Originally established as a “Hasmonean fortified settlement” during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (which Taylor equates with Roland de Vaux’s Period Ia), in ca. 34 BCE Herod gave the settlement to the Essenes, at which point it expanded greatly in size (de Vaux’s Periods Ib and II) with the addition of various industrial installations. After the Romans destroyed Qumran in 68 CE (de Vaux’s Period III), the site was occupied until the Bar Kokhba Revolt by Jewish soldiers serving as Roman auxiliaries and “Jewish deserters” (including Essenes) who processed the costly opobalsam for the Romans. Ein Feshkha was another Essene settlement with installations for various products. The scrolls were not deposited for safekeeping in the caves around Qumran in advance of the Roman destruction in 68 CE, but instead the natural caves were used for the burial of damaged or obsolete manuscripts, which had been prepared for burial in the man-made marl caves. According to Taylor, the Essene settlement at Qumran was a center for the production of pottery, opobalsam, and other “pharmaceuticals,” and, above all, functioned as “a scroll burial center.”

These astonishing conclusions are based on a consideration of the archaeological evidence that displays less attention to detail than Taylor’s analysis of the ancient authors. Furthermore, the lack of systematic treatment of the scrolls creates an imbalanced presentation. I shall highlight a few of the problems focusing on the archaeology.

Qumran National Park, Israel – Image via Brian W. Davidson
Qumran National Park, Israel
– Image via Brian W. Davidson

According to Taylor, Qumran was part of a line of Hasmonean period fortified sites and anchorages between Jericho and Ein Gedi, but the published pottery and other finds indicate that two out of four of the settlements she names (Ein el-Ghuweir and Ein et-Tureibeh) date to the first century CE only. Her identification of Qumran as a Hasmonean fortified settlement is contradicted by the fact that, according to de Vaux, the tower (which is the only “fortified” feature) did not exist in Period Ia but was added in Period Ib. Furthermore, the pantry with over 1,000 dishes, the miqva’ot (Jewish ritual baths), and the animal bone deposits are characteristic of the settlement from the beginning of its establishment (that is, decades before Herod’s reign).

While there is no doubt pottery was manufactured at Qumran, there is no evidence it was “marketed” anywhere else. Taylor states that the bones found in the animal bone deposits come from animals that were boiled for their gelatin and fat, which was used to preserve the scrolls, and were buried to keep away flies and wild animals. These claims ignore de Vaux’s testimony that the bones were laid on top of the ground and were associated with large quantities of ash and pottery, and they fail to explain why similar deposits are not found at other settlements. Is Qumran the only ancient site where animal fat was utilized, and flies and wild animals were a problem?  If the latter was a concern, why did the inhabitants of Qumran not dispose of the bones by throwing them into Wadi Qumran below? Taylor’s reassignment of the earthquake that destroyed Qumran to 115 CE instead of 31 BCE is based on Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg’s erroneous claim that material in the eastern dump dating to the time of the First Revolt was riven by a crack, as photographs show that this material was dumped after the crack formed.

Contrary to Taylor’s assertion that the springs at Ein Feshkha are sweet (based only on her claim to have tasted the water!), they are in fact brackish, with about 1 percent salt content. Although fish live in these springs and the water can be used to raise plants that are tolerant of salt (such as date palms and spinach beets), it is only marginally potable. That this has always been the case is indicated by reports of nineteenth century explorers as well as by the absence of a major, multi-period settlement at Ein Feshkha, in contrast to the oases at Jericho and Ein Gedi that were occupied continuously for centuries. The modest settlement at Ein Feshka is centered on a single building that existed for no more than a century until its destruction at the time of the First Jewish Revolt (according to Taylor, at the time of the Bar Kohkha Revolt). None of the ancient sources Taylor cites refers to the cultivation or production of opobalsam anywhere along the western side of the Dead Sea outside of Jericho and Ein Gedi. These oases have perennial springs that supplied plentiful fresh water necessary for the opobalsam’s cultivation and production, in contrast to Qumran which has no springs at all.

The character of the Qumran settlement changed dramatically after the Roman destruction in 68 CE. Occupation was limited to a few rooms in the northeast corner of the settlement adjacent to the tower, and only one pool remained in use (L71 at the southeast edge of the settlement, which was the least damaged). As de Vaux (Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls) noted, “ … all this constitutes a radical transformation. There are no longer any places of collective assembly or any workshops, and the potter’s kiln now serves as a store for lime. For the needs of this small group there is only one bread oven set above the ruins at the foot of the tower. … Community life at Qumran no longer exists.” There is no evidence of the production of opobalsam or any other commodity in this phase, and no evidence of continued Jewish or Essene occupation. De Vaux reasonably concluded that the Period III settlement was a small military post that was occupied briefly by Roman soldiers until the region was subdued. This is supported by the city coins of Caesarea Maritima and Dor found in the Period III settlement, a type of currency that typically was used to pay Roman soldiers. De Vaux correctly associated very limited evidence of later activity with a brief reoccupation at the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (and not with continued occupation as Taylor claims).

Taylor provides a valuable analysis of ancient authors on the Essenes, but her interpretation of the settlement at Qumran is idiosyncratic and unfounded.

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