Rereading Pliny on the Essenes:
Some Bibliographic Notes

Stephen Goranson
Duke University

The account of the Essenes which Pliny included in his compendious work Natural History (5.73) has attracted considerable attention. But it has often been read with some mistaken presuppositions. This brief article will try to shed some new light on the text in Pliny. The source recorded by Pliny does indeed include a useful, if idealized, account of those Essenes who lived at Qumran. And we can now see that Pliny's source--Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa--described the situation at Qumran, and the status of other sites, notably Ein Gedi, specifically during the reign of Herod the Great, in approximately 15 B.C.E.

Pliny's source in N.H. 5.70, before the Essene account, used Herodian-period administrative divisions in a list with ten toparchies in Judaea proper, as was shown by Menahem Stern.1 Josephus in War 3.55 gave a list of eleven toparchies. For present purposes, it is sufficient to note only a few aspects of these two lists. The list in Pliny dates from the time of Herod the Great, while Josephus' list reflects a later--but still Second Temple period--reality. Both lists include Jericho. The Josephus list includes Ein Gedi, but Pliny's does not. In the case of Jerusalem, it is on both lists, but in Pliny the name of the district is Orine, hill country, "where Jerusalem was formerly situated." Of course, Jerusalem was always situated in hill country, so it appears that Pliny gives the official earlier name and Josephus, using Jerusalem, the later name of the district. Here I have a minor disagreement with Stern, who wrote--contradicting his earlier demonstration of the Herodian date of the list--that Pliny in the case of Orine referred to "contemporary conditions. It may be assumed that the name Orine became official only after the destruction of Jerusalem."2 Here we encounter the widespread tendency to assume that Pliny updated his source to account for the consequences of the 66 to 73/74 C.E. war. Until recently, I made this assumption myself, though I now consider it unjustified.3 So far, at least, Pliny gives no evidence of information after the First Revolt. In any case, Josephus would probably be better informed about any recent administrative changes than Pliny.

It should be recalled that Pliny was not in Judaea. Theodor Mommsen long ago misread an inscription, taking it to indicate that Pliny had served with the army in Judaea. Pliny scholarship has corrected that misconception, based on a misreading of a Greek inscription from Arados (Syria), but not all Qumran scholars took this correction into account. Pliny held various government and army posts in Europe (where he served with Titus), but Pliny was never in Judaea.4

Pliny's source on Judaean toparchies5 as well as Essenes6 was probably Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the governor of Syria, friend of Herod the Great, and maker of a map and commentary.

The consequences of two senses of "Judaea"--the familiar one and another which includes Peraea and Galilee--used by Pliny and some other writer shave not been fully noticed by scholars. For example, Philo wrote in Quod probus 75 that Essenes lived in "Palestine Syria," but in Apologia pro Iudaeis (in Eusebius, Praep. ev. 8.11.1) Philo wrote that "They live in a number of towns in Judaea, and also in many villages and large groups." Possibly, Philo (or his source), in this case, meant "Judaea" in the larger sense, including Galilee and Peraea, which would conform more readily with his other description. (Further, note that Epiphanius in Panarion heresies 19 and 53 located the probably-related Ossenes in Peraea, among other places.)

Pliny's source, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, referred to the destruction of Ein Gedi c.40 BCE, during the Parthian invasion and Jewish civil war, and not the destruction in the First Revolt. Agrippa describes the state of Qumran/Ein Feshkha and Ein Gedi c.15 B.C.E., when, as a map-maker, commentator, and governor of Syria, he visited Herod, including at Herodion and Hyrcania.7 The reason Ein Gedi was not included in the toparchy list in the time of Herod the Great is that it was not substantially rebuilt until after his death; it was rebuilt sufficiently in time to assume a place on the list of Josephus. As has often been noticed, Pliny's text does not remark that Masada had been destroyed, which is a strong indication that Pliny did not add recent news to his Herodian source.

It has long been proposed that a copyist made an error, writing Jerusalem for Jericho in N.H. 5.73.8 This appears plausible. Both names begin, in Latin, with HIER. And, surely, it is Jericho, not Jerusalem, which is known for palm trees. Either a copyist corrupted the description of M. Agrippa or Pliny did. Agrippa knew the area well enough not to make that mistake. Further, the phrase "nunc alterum bustum" ("now another grave [or ashheap]") does not require that a second destroyed place be specified. This is shown, for instance, in the translation of Pliny by Philemon Holland, published in 1601 and reprinted often: "Now, they say, it [i.e., Ein Gedi, singular] serveth only for a place to inter their dead."9 There is no reason to assume a reference to 70 CE destruction. Furthermore, Solinus also used the singular in describing the destruction of Ein Gedi: "Lying below the Essenes was formerly the town of Engada, but it was razed." [Engada oppidum infra Essenos fuit, sed excisum est.]10

There has been much discussion of the phrase "infra hos Engada," concerning the relative location of Jericho,11 the Essene settlement, Ein Gedi, and Masada.12 Pliny used over 100 sources, so it is not surprising that "infra" is used in a variety of ways. It has frequently been pointed out that Pliny here does use the sense of "downstream" which the North to South movement here suggests, rather than placing them in hills west of Ein Gedi, hills whose existence he does not mention.13 It has also often been noted that, despite intensive archaeological surveys, no site other than the Qumran/Ein Feshkha complex qualifies. I can add yet another indication that Agrippa in Pliny did describe Essenes at Qumran. Of the seventeen cases14 where in the geographic books of N.H., books 3 to 6, where Pliny uses "infra," two of those which use the term to mean "downstream" occur in sections of Pliny's text (4.84 and 6.136) which explicitly name Marcus Agrippa. Though this does not absolutely prove that Agrippa used the word in this sense in his account of Essenes, it does appear that the evidence as a whole makes the link of Agrippa's description with Qumran secure.

In a recent book, Lena Cansdale wrote that the interpretation of Pliny by de Vaux and others "quite unacceptable."15 Rather than engaging the substantial literature and source criticism, she argues that Pliny elsewhere uses the Latin terms for the cardinal points, south and so on, implying he would have done so here if Ein Gedi were to the south of the Essene settlement. But one could easily respond that neither did he (or his source) use the Latin for west to place them in heights (also not mentioned) in that direction from Ein Gedi. So it is Cansdale's treatment which is "quite unacceptable."

Recent excavations by Yizhar Hirschfeld in Ein Gedi have been interpreted as an Essene settlement, based on the apparent misreading of Pliny. At least, this appears to be the case, based on preliminary reports of the excavation. Hirschfeld's site is too small and too late to be what Pliny described. Even more contrasting is the description by Dio (in Synesius) that the Essenes had a "very blessed city" (or a "complete and happy city," polin hol_n eudaimona). And Hirschfeld assumes that his "Essenes" worked in the balsam industry in the factory in the town of Ein Gedi; if so, the would not be "alone with palm trees." Furthermore, Uzi Dahari has dug a site similar to Hirschfeld's. Dahari's site, on cliffs south of Wadi Kidron, is dated to the first revolt and afterward--in other words, too late for Pliny's source. Dahari suggests that his site, which lacks miqvaot or a communal building, may have served refuges from the revolt.

Joseph M. Baumgarten has presented an interesting Qumran parallel to M. Agrippa's description of Essenes as a "gens aeterna." From 4Q502, Baumgarten compared the blessings "btwk 'm 'wlmy[m," "in the midst of an eternal people."16

Joseph Amusin also compared "gens aeterna" to a text attested at Qumran.17 He refers to the self-descriptions in CD VII, 6; XIX, 1-2; and XX, 22: "l' 'lp dwr," that they live for a thousand generations.

According to Matthew 3:7-8, concerning John the Baptist, who is sometimes thought to have been associated with Essenes: "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance....'" It may be of interest to compare this with Pliny's statement about the Essenes that they existed so long because " fruitful for them is the repentance which others feel for their past lives [tam fecunda illis aliorum vitae paenitentia est]."

That "socia palmarum" refers to actual trees is made more plausible by new climate studies: the area was wetter then than now.18 And de Vaux already noted the presence of date palm wood, palm leaves, and date pits at Qumran.19 Yet there may be a word play here. Botanically, palms are male and female, but in Hebrew tamar is usually taken as female; in addition to the personal name, see Shir ha-Shirim 7:8 (7:7 in RSV: "You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters"). Could there be an echo in Agrippa's source of an earlier Hebrew remark that was less than complimentary? That must remain speculative, and Agrippa surely presents Essenes in a positive light. In any case, abdication of sex, "omnes venere abdicata" does not necessarily require banishing women, or men, from one's sight (or site).

Archaeological work by Jodi Magness, Yaacov Meshorer, et al. shows Qumran was occupied at the time of M. Agrippa, who died in 12 B.C.E. This corrects the dating of the periods by de Vaux. The destruction of Qumran Ib was either near the end of Herod's life (perhaps he turned against Essenes) or in the disturbances shortly after his death in 3 BCE.20

In summary, Marcus Agrippa's account in the tradent Pliny provides important information on Qumran Essenes.


1. M. Stern, "The Description of Palestine by Pliny the Elder and the Administrative Division of Judaea at the End of the Second Temple Period" (in Hebrew), Tarbiz 37 (1967-1968) 215-29 and Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1976) vol. 1, 466, 474-78. See also G. Vermes et al., ed. E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979) vol. 2, 190-96. [Back to text]

2. M. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, vol. 1, 477. Cf. Luke 1:39, "a Judean town in the hill country." [Back to text]

3. See, e.g., A. H. M. Jones, The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (2nd. ed.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), Appendix I: Pliny, which gives many examples of Pliny using sources which were not current and neglecting to update them. Pliny, evidently, was content to update his information in some places, e.g., N.H. V. 69, (see Stern ad loc.), but not in others. [Back to text]

4. See T. Mommsen, "Eine Inschrift des Ältern Plinius," Hermes 19 (1884) 644-48; G. Serbat, 'Pline l'Ancien: Etat présent des études sur sa vie, son oeuvre et son influence', ANRW II 32.4 (1986) 2069-2200, esp. 2074-75; R. Syme, "Pliny the Procurator," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 73 (1969) 201-36, esp. 205; M. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, I, 466; M. Malaise, "Pline l'Ancien a-t-il séjourné en Égypte?," Latomus 27 (1968) 852-63. [Back to text]

5. That M. Agrippa was the source for the toparchy list in Pliny was suggested, e.g., by A. Momigliano, "Ricerche sull' organizzazione della Giudea sotto il domino romano," Annali della R. Scuola de Pisa, ser. II, vol. III (1934) 366-69, esp. 367. [Back to text]

6. S. Goranson, "Posidonius, Strabo and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa as Sources on Essenes," JJS 45 (1994) 295-98. Please see that article for further relevant bibliography. M. Agrippa was the first source Pliny listed for Book 5. See also J. B. Hartley, The History of Cartography (1987), vol. 1. [Back to text]

7. Ant. 16.12-65. [Back to text]

8. T. Reinach, Texts d'auteurs grecs et romains relatifs au Judaïsme (Paris: Ernest Laroux, 1895) 273, n. 2. [Back to text]

9. The Historie of the World. Commonly Called, The Natural Historie of C. Plinius Secundus (trans. Philemon Holland; London: Adam Islip, 1601) 101. [Back to text]

10. Solinus, Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium 35.12. See Stern, Greek and Latin Authors vol. 2, 416-22, for text, translation, and the question of a debated point, the extent to which Solinus may have relied on Pliny's text. It should also be noted that "below" or "beneath" or the like in translations of Pliny is ambiguous, since that can be read as a reference to elevation or downward in other senses. Further, note that the oft-quoted translation by H. Rackham in the Loeb Classical Library, in vol. 2 of Pliny, p. 277 (London: W. Heinemann, 1942) mistakenly reads "noxious exhalations"; the "exhalations" has been added unjustifiably; what is noxious (nocent) is nerely the nonpotable water, as is clear in context, exceptionally fine water having been noted before in the Jordan, and, equally notede later in other locations in the narrative. On this portion of the text some related and useful observations were made by Jay Treat on the orion e-mail list (in early 1998). [Back to text]

11. It may be asked whether, in the new Qumran Essene ostracon, "in Jericho" refers to the toparchy and/or to the location of property and trees being given to the Essene community. Was Qumran in the Jericho toparchy, or Herodion? See F.M. Cross and E. Eshel, "Ostraca from Khirbet Qumrân," IEJ 47 (1997) 17- 28. [Back to text]

12. See, e.g., M. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, vol. 1, 480-81; G. Vermes et al., E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People, vol. 2, 563 n. 6. Klaus Sallman, author of extensive studies of the geographic writing of Pliny reviewed the relevant literature (including important articles by C. Burchard and E.-M. Laperrousaz) in "Plinius der Ältere 1938-1970," Lustrum 18 (1975) 5-299, esp. 134-41. [Back to text]

13. Note the translation of pliny by Christian Friedrich Lebrecht Strack, "Südlich von ihnen lag sonst dei Stadt Engadda..." in Cajus Plinius Secundus Naturgeschichte (ed. Max Strack;; Bremen: Johan Georg Hense, 1853), cited by Hans Bardtke, Die Handschriftenfunde am Toten Meer: Die Sekte von Qumran (Berlin: Evangelische Haupt-Bibe;gesellschaft, 1958) 39 n.2, and noted by R. de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls (London: British Academy, 1973) 134-5 n.3, in a discussion of Pliny which some who dismiss de Vaux's reading fail to cite and discuss. [Back to text]

14. These 17 are helpfully listed in E.-M. Laperrousaz, "'Infra hos Engadda' notes a propos d'un article récent," RB 69 (1962) 369-80, esp. 371-2. See also C. Burchard, "Pline et les Esséniens," RB 69 (1962) 533-9 and "Solin et les Esséniens. Remarques à propos d'un article négligée," RB 74 (1967) 392-407. [Back to text]

15. Lena Cansdale, Qumran and the Essenes: A Re-Evaluation of the Evidence (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1997) 26-27. See also the reviews by J. Magness, DSD 5 (1998) 99-104 and E. Puech RB 105 (1998) 281-5. Alan D. Crown and Lena Cansdale, "Qumran--Was It an Essene Settlement?" BAR 22.5 (Sept/Oct 1996) 24-35, 73-4, an article with several errors, also claims Pliny's text places Essenes above Ein Gedi. G. Bowersock is quoted as disagreeing with one of their supporting examples from Pliny in H. Shanks, The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Random House, 1998) 215 n.46 (though Shanks' treatment of this issue elsewhere in the book is not reliable). Furthermore, "infra" does not specify how near or far infra. And, after noting Jericho, the Essene settlement, and, further along, downstream, or South, Ein Gedi, the text next notes Masada, which is surely not downhill from Ein Gedi; nor is Masada, or Qumran, particularly near to Ein Gedi. In 1947, understandably, those familiar with the history of Judaea were more familiar with Jwish habitation at Ein Gedi than of Jewish habitation at Qumran, and this may have led to some misreading of Pliny. [Back to text]

16. J. M. Baumgarten, "4Q502, Marriage or Golden Age Ritual?," JJS 34 (1983) 125-35, here 134. [Back to text]

17. J. Amusin, "Qumran Parallel to Pliny the Elder's Account of the Essenes," The Qumran Chronicle 2 (1993), pp. 113-16 (translated from the original 1966 Russian article; for the reference, see A. Adam and C. Burchard, Antike Berichte über de Essener [Berlin: de Gruyter, 1972] 79). [Back to text]

18. A. S. Issar and D. Yakir, "Isotopes from Wood Buried in the Roman Siege Ramp of Masada: the Roman Period's Colder Climate," BA 60 (1997) 101-106. [Back to text]

19. R. de Vaux, Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls, 73f, 84, 85, 134, 136. The recent (unpublished) excavations at Qumran of Y. Magen and A. Drori also reported (via newspaper accounts) many date pits and a date press. [Back to text]

20. See, e.g., J. Magness, "The Chronology of the Settlement at Qumran in the Herodian Period," Dead Sea Discoveries 2 (1995) 58-65 and Y. Meshorer and J. Magness, abstracts of papers delivered at the Fiftieth Anniversary Dead Sea Scrolls conference, in Jerusalem, July, 1997. See also J. Magness, "Qumran Archaeology: Past Perspectives and Future Prospects," in The Dead Sea Scrolls After Fifty Years (ed. P. Flint and J. VanderKam; Leiden: Brill, 1998) vol. 1, 47-77. It may also be relevant that A. Kushnir-Stein, "Another Look at Josephus' Evidence for the Date of Herod's Death," Scripta Classica Israelica 14 (1995) 73-86 makes a good case that his death should be dated during the winter of 4/3 B.C.E. [Back to text]