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February 18, 1998 / 22 Shevat, 5758

Can one word alter the course of history?
Dead Sea Scroll By Abraham Rabinovich

DEAD SEA, ISRAEL -- If archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld has his way, the ancient Essenes, generally believed to have authored the Dead Sea Scrolls, will be changing their address and abandoning claims on authorship of the scrolls.

Dr. Hirschfeld, of Hebrew University, recently invited reporters to Ein Gedi on the Dead Sea coast, 35 kilometers south of Qumran where the scrolls were found half a century ago, to announce discovery of an Essene settlement. If his thesis is upheld it would strengthen the hand of those scholars who argue that the Essene settlement known to have existed on the Dead Sea coast was not Qumran and that the scrolls found at Qumran had no connection to the sect. Mainstream scholarship believes that the ascetic Essenes had a critical influence on early Christianity, citing passages from the Qumran scrolls as evidence.

Hirschfeld's contention, which threatens this link, hangs mainly on a single, literary thread -- a Latin preposition whose interpretation is the subject of scholarly debate.

The Roman historian Pliny, in describing the Dead Sea area in the First Century, wrote about a strange sect that dwelt alongside the inland sea. "Out of range of the noxius 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 Ein Gedi."

What Hirschfeld found on the slopes 200 meters above Ein Gedi, a Jewish farming village in antiquity and today the site of an Israeli kibbutz, was a cluster of 22 tiny stone "cells" which he believes constituted individual habitats. Pottery sherds date the site to the First Century. Hirschfeld found no direct link to the Essenes except for Pliny's comment about Ein Gedi being "below" the Essenes. "Without Pliny I wouldn't have made this claim," he says.

However, scholars have pointed out that the Latin word for below, infra, was often used by writers, including Pliny himself, in the sense of downstream or south. "Moreover," wrote Prof. Menahem Stern of Hebrew University, "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 habitation" (at Qumran).

In antiquity, the terraced slopes of Ein Gedi were planted with balsam which produced an expensive perfume highly valued in the Roman world. Balsam, now extinct, was grown only at Ein Gedi and Jericho. Hirschfeld uncovered a spring whose waters were used for irrigation of the balsam groves.

Asked whether the stone cells might not have simply been seasonal shelters used by villagers from Ein Gedi during the harvest to spare themselves the trek up and down the hills, Hirschfeld acknowledged that it was a possibility.

Archaeologist 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 hard archaeological evidence. Another archaeologist, Prof. Dan Barag, said he was not convinced either "but I can't rule it out."

The reclusive Essenes, who attempted in antiquity to detach themselves from a fractious world, have proven once again their ability for stirring scholarly conflict ages later.

Abraham Rabinovich is JWR's Israel Correspondent.


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© 1998, Abraham Rabinovitch