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orion JPost article on Hirschfeld
The following article appeared in the Jerusalem Post, February 4, 1998.
It is being posted with the writer's permission. [a note for those of you
who have been posting news articles to Orion: please do not post articles
without permission from the author or the owner of the copyright.] I
thought it might be of interest because it is slightly more detailed than
the CNN and Nando articles. We will post it on the Orion web site as well.
Avital Pinnick, Ph.D. tel: 972-2-588-2063
list moderator/bibligrapher fax: 972-2-588-3584
Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls
http://orion.mscc.huji.ac.il - DSS bibliography updated weekly.
A new 'address' for the Essenes
By ABRAHAM RABINOVICH (February 4) - If the ancient sect has indeed 'moved'
to Ein Gedi, as one archeologist says, where does that leave the Dead Sea
Scrolls? If archeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld has his way, the ancient Essenes
who dwelt on the shores of the Dead Sea will be changing their address to Ein
Gedi, leaving behind at Qumran - 35 kilometers up the coast - the mysteries
of the Dead Sea Scrolls with which they have long been linked.
Dr. Hirschfeld, of the Hebrew University, recently invited reporters to see
25 spartan stone cubicles above Ein Gedi, which he suggested had been the
Essene settlement rather than the Qumran location hitherto regarded as such.
If Hirschfeld's thesis is proven, it would go far toward strengthening the
hand of those scholars who have argued in recent years that Qumran was not an
Essene settlement and that the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the caves adjacent
to Qumran were unconnected to the persons who lived at the site.
However, Hirschfeld's contention hangs mainly on a single, literary thread: a
Latin preposition whose interpretation has long been the subject of scholarly
debate. In addition, the fact that Hirschfeld himself is part of the
Qumran-is-not-Essene school adds to the skepticism of some colleagues about
his Ein Gedi find.
APART FROM some pottery shards, the archeologist's argument rests on a book
by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder. In describing the wonders of the
known world to his readers, Pliny wrote at some length about the Dead Sea,
including its strange buoyancy which kept even bulls and camels afloat. He
found even stranger some of the people who lived alongside the inland sea.
"On the west side of the Dead Sea, but out of range of the noxious
exhalations of the coast, is the solitary tribe of the Essenes, which is
remarkable beyond all the other tribes in the whole world, as it has no women
and has renounced all sexual desire, has no money, and has only palm trees
for company.... "Lying below the Essenes was formerly the town of Engeda,
second only to Jerusalem in the fertility of its land and in its groves of
palm trees, but now, like Jerusalem, a heap of ashes. Next comes Masada, a
fortress on a rock, itself also not far from the Dead Sea. This is the limit
This was written sometime between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and
Pliny's own demise nine years later in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Most
scholars do not believe Pliny ever visited this country, pointing to his
frequent jumbling of facts. Jerusalem, for instance, was indeed a heap of
ashes in the wake of its conquest by the Romans, but the fertile land and
palm trees plainly belonged to Jericho. Elsewhere he assigns Gamla to Samaria
instead of the distant Golan Heights.
At issue, however, more than Pliny's geographical accuracy, is his Latin
usage. The late Hebrew University historian Menahem Stern noted that the word
infra, "below," is often used by Latin writers, including Pliny, in the sense
of downstream or even south. "Moreover," wrote Prof. Stern in his book Greek
and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, "the impression one gets from reading
Pliny is that he describes the Dead Sea by starting from the north and that
Ein Gedi, which is mentioned after the Essenes, should therefore be mentioned
south of the Essene habitations. Similarly, Masada, which is mentioned after
Ein Gedi, indeed lies to the south of it." Pliny is the only ancient writer
to place the Essenes at the Dead Sea, except for a contemporary, Dio
Chrysostom, who wrote, "...he praises the Essenes, a very blessed city
situated near the Dead Water in the interior of Palestine in the vicinity of
Sodoma." (This mention of Palestine precedes by half a century the giving of
that name to the country by Hadrian.)
Although Sodom today is placed at the southern end of the Dead Sea - closer
to Ein Gedi than to Qumran - Stern notes that ancient writers like Pliny
seemed to place Sodom in the area of Jericho, north of the Dead Sea. Unlike
these two pagan historians, the ancient Jewish historians who wrote about the
Essenes - Josephus and Philo - make no reference to the Dead Sea area but
indicate that sect members lived in many locations around the country.
AFTER THE discovery of the Dead Sea Scroll caves half a century ago and the
excavation of the adjacent ruins of Qumran, scholars almost universally
agreed that Qumran was the Essene settlement mentioned by Pliny and that the
scrolls were the products of Qumran scribes. In recent years, a number of
scholars have challenged both contentions.
Prof. Norman Golb of the University of Chicago has taken the lead in
declaring that the scrolls belonged to Jerusalem libraries and were hidden in
Qumran at the approach of the Roman army. An increasing number of mainstream
scholars, while convinced that some or most of the scrolls originated at
Qumran, now accept that some did indeed originate in Jerusalem. Those who do
not believe that Qumran was an Essene commune disagree among themselves about
what it was. Suggestions have ranged from a military fort to a caravansary
to a private villa.
Hirschfeld, basing himself on his excavation of a similar complex near
Zichron Ya'acov, contends that Qumran was a rural manor house which oversaw
agricultural cultivation at the nearby springs of Ein Fash'ha. If Ein Gedi
were confirmed as an Essene site, it would diminish Qumran's Essene identity
and undermine the connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls found there and the
Essenes. This in turn would diminish the perceived connection between the
sect and Christianity. Scholars believe the ascetic Jewish sect had a
critical influence on the theology and practices of early Christianity, a
belief that rests in good part on the assumption that the Qumran scrolls are
the writings, at least in part, of an Essene community.
WHAT HIRSCHFELD found in the past month's dig was a cluster of 22 detached
cells measuring 2 x 3 meters. Each cell, he believes, constituted a habitat
for one person. The cells were built of rough assemblages of stones,
including large boulders. Roofless now, they would have been covered in
antiquity with palm fronds. Beaten earth served as flooring. In addition,
there were three cells, twice the size of the others, which Hirschfeld
suggests served communal purposes such as cooking. The spartan cluster evokes
comparison to the lauras, or clusters of Christian hermits, that dotted other
parts of the Judean Desert in the Byzantine period a few centuries later.
The month-long excavation produced no finds, except for a few pottery shards
and part of a tiny glass bottle. These, however, are central to Hirschfeld's
thesis, since they date the site to the latter part of the First Century CE,
when Pliny may still have been alive. In themselves, says the archeologist,
they do not provide any direct link to the Essenes. But they do when taken
together with the passage in Pliny. "Without Pliny I wouldn't have made this
claim," he says. The ancient village of Ein Gedi, just west of the modern
road along the Dead Sea coast, indeed lies "below" the stone cells.
The excavated site, at the foot of the cliffs rearing over Ein Gedi, is 200
meters higher in elevation than the village and about a kilometer distant on
foot. In antiquity, the terraced slopes between the site and the village were
planted with balsam, which produced a rare and expensive perfume highly
valued in the Roman world. Balsam was grown only at Ein Gedi and Jericho.
Alongside the excavated cells are two pools from the same period, which
collected water from one of the springs issuing from the bottom of the
cliffs. The water was used to irrigate the agricultural terraces. Hirschfeld
suggested that the Essenes were employed in balsam cultivation.
Asked whether the cells might not have simply been seasonal shelters used by
non-Essene villagers from Ein Gedi during the harvest, to spare themselves
the trek up and down the hills, Hirschfeld acknowledged that it was a
possibility, thereby significantly softening his previous unqualified
identification of the site as an Essene settlement. "The two possibilities
are side by side, that and the Essenes," he said.
Archeologist Gabriel Barkai of Tel Aviv University, who visited the site,
said he was "very unconvinced" by Hirschfeld's contention both because of the
reading of Pliny's "infra" and the absence of any finds that offer a direct
link to the Essenes. Archeologist Dan Barag preferred to leave a door open.
"I don't totally rule it out, but I wouldn't say it's an established fact,"
he said. Magen Broshi, former curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel
Museum, dismissed Hirschfeld's claim as nothing more than an attempt to
destroy the credibility of the Qumran-Essene connection. Thus the reclusive
Essenes, who attempted in antiquity to detach themselves from a fractious
world, have proven once again their ability to stir scholarly conflict ages