The Hidden Latrines of the Essenes

In one of his detailed accounts of the Essenes, Flavius Josephus (Yosef Ben Matityahu), described one of the many laws that shaped the Jewish sect's way of life during the Second Temple period. While the Essenes sat in a circle, Josephus wrote, it was forbidden for them to spit into its center. Like many other laws outlined by Josephus, the details of this law appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls found in caves along the northern end of the Dead Sea. These scrolls are attributed to the Essenes.

The resemblance between the 1st century historian's testimony and the content of the Dead Sea Scrolls does not end with the law forbidding spitting into the center of a circle. Magen Broshi, former curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem, where the Qumran scrolls are housed, says there are dozens of parallels between Josephus' writing and the content of the scrolls. One of the main similarities regards purification rituals and the Essenes' meticulous hygiene.

Anthropologist Joe Zias, of the Hebrew University Science and Archaeology Department, recently found positive evidence of the Essenes' adherence to these rituals. Together with Dr. James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and parasitologist Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue of the CNRS Laboratory for Anthropology in Marseilles, France, Zias found the latrines that were used by the Essenes in Qumran. The three researchers say that, in addition to shedding a great deal of light on the unique culture of the Essenes in Qumran, the discovery represents an archaeological bonanza: Additional proof that the Essenes wrote the scrolls. Zias explains that when feces are left on the desert floor, exposure to sun and wind quickly annihilates intestinal parasites. But when feces are buried in the earth, intestinal parasites may survive for many months and their eggs may be preserved for as long as 2,000 years, as in the case of Qumran.

Close attention to hygiene

The presence of the eggs of intestinal parasites, typically present in human intestines, in a relatively limited area, in the place described in the scrolls and by Josephus, led researchers to conclude that they discovered the bathroom of Qumran's ancient residents. "Only ascetic members of a sect that paid such close attention to hygiene would bother to walk hundreds of meters beyond their camp to relieve themselves, and invest the necessary energy to dig a pit in which to bury their waste," Zias concludes.

However, Dr. Yitzhak Magen, staff officer of archaeology in the Civil Administration of the West Bank, was not impressed by the new discovery. Last summer, Magen and his colleague, Yuval Peleg, published findings based on 10 years of excavation in the Qumran ruins. Both researchers reached the conclusion that Qumran was not a monastery but an enormous ceramics factory. They found fragments of clay artifacts at the site and many pools, which they believe were used to submerge the sediment that surfaces, to this day, when local rivers overflow to produce tremendous, winter floods. Magen maintains that this sediment provides excellent raw material for pottery production. According to Magen and Peleg, the pools were not ritual baths; nor were they used by the Essenes, who immersed themselves in ritual baths twice a day. "In addition," Magen says, "the Qumran area and particularly the caves surrounding the site, are full of predatory animals and animals that consume carrion, like foxes, hyenas, and leopards. People who lived in this area for years were well aware of that. They feared these animals and certainly would not leave their camps to relieve themselves. Thus, it is unreasonable to assume that the camp's latrine was located at such a distance."

"It was not the Essenes who buried the scrolls in the caves near the Qumran ruins," Magen adds. "The scrolls were buried by Jews who escaped from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple." One of the main escape routes from Jerusalem passed through Qumran. Jews, who were somewhat unfamiliar with the area and had no knowledge of its predatory animals, did not fear entering the caves to bury the scrolls, he proposes.

According to Magen, one finds ample evidence of this in the scrolls, themselves, as they are written in a broad variety of styles and they cover a great deal of content. "It is not possible to say that one man or one sect wrote all the scrolls," Magen says. It is more reasonable to conclude that they reflect the enormous diversity that typified Judaism during the end of the Second Temple period.

Magen's theory is the most recent in a series of conclusions that question the authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Essenes. Since the first scrolls were found, in 1947, a number of suggestions regarding the identity of the authors of these scrolls arose, leading to occasional outbursts of angry discourse, fraught with thinly-veiled agendas. But the most solid conclusion, raised in the early days of Professor Eliezer Sukenik, who purchased the scrolls, was and remains that the Essenes wrote the scrolls.

"The best proof of that," Broshi says, "is evident in the 900 scrolls discovered in Qumran." Some of them describe a group of ascetic hermits, and the details match information provided by Flavius Josephus. "There are dozens of parallels between Yosef Ben Matityahu [Flavius Josephus] and the Dead Sea Scrolls." Broshi says that the conclusion that there were potters, rather than ascetics, in Qumran is unfounded.

Ascetics, not potters

According to Broshi, Qumran lacks the raw materials suitable to the production of ceramic pottery. Investigations conducted a few years ago, by Broshi and Professor Hanan Eshel of Bar-Ilan University, reveal that clay pots and other ceramic vessels found in Qumran were made with metamorphic rock that came from the hills surrounding Jerusalem.

In addition to that, clay pots must be fired in kilns, at temperatures of 800-900 degrees Celsius, and the Qumran area lacks raw material to produce energy of that magnitude.

"It is possible that the residents produced ceramic vessels," Broshi says, "but only for their own personal use - not as a source of income."

"Discovery of latrines neither proves nor disproves," Broshi comments.

It merely provides another piece in the larger puzzle, which, after 60 long years of research, few scholars still question.

"I do not know a single, serious researcher that maintains that Qumran was not inhabited by Essenes and that they did not write the scrolls."