One of the less sanitary aspects of life in Jesus' day has come into play in the debate over who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, how they lived and how they died.
The latest evidence comes from a site that two researchers have identified as the communal latrine for Qumran, the ancient settlement near the caves where the 2,000-year-old scrolls were found.
Israeli anthropologist Joe Zias and James Tabor, a biblical scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, say the unusual placement of the latrine would be consistent with the theory that Qumran was inhabited by a hard-core Jewish sect known as the Essenes. They even speculate that the latrine's unsanitary conditions may have contributed to ill health among the sect's members.
The prevailing view among archaeologists has been that Essenes at a Qumran monastery were the keepers of the Dead Sea Scrolls — but that view has come under increasing challenge in recent years, with some experts saying Qumran was a fortress or a pottery-making center that had nothing to do with the Essenes.
One of the most vigorous critics of the Essene connection, University of Chicago historian Norman Golb, told MSNBC.com that the latest report from Tabor and Zias "does nothing" to prove that the Essenes lived and worked in Qumran.
"The recent finding of a latrine can, at the most, show no more than that the inhabitants of the area were human beings who practiced some form of sanitation," Golb said.
So what do ancient potty practices have to do with the mystery of Qumran? Although the findings of Zias and Tabor may not be a smoking gun, they represent an intriguing blend of textual analysis and "CSI"-style forensics — intriguing enough to be accepted for publication in Revue de Qumran, an international journal on Dead Sea Scroll science.
Toiletries in texts
It all started with Tabor's reflection on historical texts: The book of Deuteronomy, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, considered bathroom duties to be unclean in the sight of God. Thus, the faithful were told that their latrines had to be placed far enough away from the community to be out of sight. Various references specify distances of 1,000 to 3,000 cubits (1,500 to 4,500 feet, or 457 to 1,370 meters), preferably to the northwest of the community.
According to the 1st-century historian Josephus, the Essenes in Jerusalem strictly observed this custom. He marveled at the Essenes' religious and intestinal fortitude, noting that they refused to "go to stool" on the Sabbath — and Tabor speculated that this was because the latrine was farther away than Jews were allowed to travel on the holy day.
Years ago, it struck Tabor that Essenes at Qumran should have had a similar practice. "I thought, 'They must have been doing this if they believed it so fervently. Has anyone ever gone out and looked for this?'" he recalled.
Looking at a map, Tabor saw there was a prime site about 1,640 feet (500 meters) northwest of the Qumran site, sheltered from view behind a bluff. When he walked up to the site, he could see that one area of soil had a significantly different coloration. But how could he prove that it was a latrine, where the Essenes felt it was their religious duty to dig a trench, do their business and shovel dirt back on top?
That's when Tabor called upon Zias, a "bioarchaeologist" who has taken on other biblical puzzles such as the mechanics behind Roman-style crucifixion .
Parasites in ancient poop?
Zias took 10 soil samples — four from the site identified by Tabor, and six from elsewhere in the area as control samples — and had them analyzed by Stephainie Harter-Lailheugue, a French parasitologist from the Centre National de la Recerche Scientifique.
Three of the four samples from the suspected latrine contained desiccated eggs from parasitic worms commonly found in human stool samples (tapeworms, roundworms and pinworms). Meanwhile, none of the control samples turned up evidence of human-specific parasites.
Zias said that would indicate "heavy and continual use" of the site as a latrine.
Usually, the parasites in fecal matter would die out due to exposure to the elements in the Dead Sea region, Zias said. That's what happens to the waste left behind by modern-day Bedouins, for example. But Zias said the Essenes' practice of covering up their waste may have actually preserved the parasites.
Yet another curious twist strengthened the Qumran connection: Similar traces of parasites were found in a soil sample taken from inside the settlement, at a spot that Zias and Tabor think served as an emergency restroom for the Essenes.
As he put together the story, Zias came around to the view that Qumran was actually a pretty unsanitary place to live. "This should be a warning to religious people that you can take things a little bit too far," he told MSNBC.com.
Godliness vs. cleanliness
As time went on, pathogens would likely build up in the latrine, Zias said.
"What happened was that 20 to 40 people went out there every day over a period of 100 years," he explained in a University of North Carolina news release. "By burying their fecal matter, they actually preserved the microorganisms and parasites. In the sunlight, the bacteria and parasites get zapped within a fairly short amount of time, but buried, the parasites can live in the soil for up to a year. Then people pick up things by walking through fecally contaminated soil — it's like a toxic waste dump, and if you have any cuts on your feet..."
If the people who used the latrines were indeed Essenes, their religious practice would require them to undergo a ritual washing when they returned to the settlement. For modern-day Westerners, that sounds like good hygiene. But 1st-century Qumran was a different environment, and such practices would actually make matters worse, Zias said.
Water would typically stand in the ritual pools for months at a time, replenished only by three months' worth of winter rains. When the residents immersed themselves in the pools, they'd leave behind bacteria and parasite eggs. The warm water and sediment would serve as a fertile breeding ground for the pathogens, leading to cross-infection.
"Can you see yourself going into whirlpool water standing there for nine months, and 100 people have been going in there before you, day in and day out?" he asked.
Zias said the parasites detected at the presumed latrine would cause intestinal distress — which, in his mind, also helps explain the emergency toilet identified within the community. "If you're sitting there reading the Torah and you've got diarrhea, you think you're going to make it up the hill? You're not going to make it," he said.
This situation could explain yet another puzzle that Zias has been working on: the apparent mortality rate in Qumran. Zias said previous studies have found that only 6 percent of the adults buried in the community's graveyard were older than 40, compared with a figure of 49 percent for 1st-century Jericho, 9 miles (14 kilometers) to the north.
Zias said the people buried at Qumran were "the unhealthiest group that I have ever studied in over 30 years" — and the vulnerability to fecal pathogens may explain why.
"It is not hard to imagine how sick everyone must have been," Zias said.
Tabor said the public-health angle added an unexpected twist to his research: "By trying to be holy, in effect they're contaminating themselves," he told MSNBC.com.
There might have been yet one more irony: Tabor noted that the Essenes, like the early Christians, interpreted physical illness as a manifestation of spiritual uncleanness — and this might have led them to be even more rigorous about the unhygienic baths.
Case not yet closed
Tabor acknowledged that the evidence from the apparent latrine site could not, by itself, prove that Qumran housed an Essene monastery.
"Frankly, let's say it was a pottery factory. It might have been run by very observant Jews who maybe were even connected to the scroll community," he said. "But that would be highly unlikely, and given the cemetery evidence plus all the other evidence, one begins to feel that one is really pushing a theory rather than letting the facts speak."
Tabor said the analysis of the latrine site was "one more piece of evidence" to add to the debate over the Qumran mystery, alongside the textual and the archaeological record.
The University of Chicago's Golb said he was unconvinced. Even if Qumran's residents set up a latrine 1,600 feet away, that wouldn't necessarily identify the community's residents as Essenes, he said.
"What James Tabor has done here is to just disregard all the evidence we've turned up," Golb told MSNBC.com.
He ticked off the top arguments against assuming that the Essenes were the ones behind the Dead Sea Scrolls — including the fact that the scrolls included texts that represented other, non-Essene strains of Jewish religious thought; the claim that the Copper Scroll listed locations for hidden treasures from the Jerusalem Temple; and references to the Qumran caves in other ancient texts as a hiding place for Jerusalem refugees.
In Golb's view, the fuss over Qumran's latrine is merely a sideshow.
"It’s a continuation of an effort over the past 10 or 12 years to disregard or deny the investigations of well-seasoned archaeologists at Qumran. ... It's a pity that they are trying to pull the collective wool over the eyes of the public," Golb said.
Tabor, however, said the physical evidence — such as the fact that virtually all of the skeletons examined at Qumran's cemetery were from adult men — plays an integral part in reconstructing the story behind the Dead Sea Scrolls.
"Why would any additional material evidence, be it cemeteries or latrines, be seen as a ploy?" Tabor said in an e-mail. "Why not welcome all the facts and work them into something harmonious?"
In an earlier version of this story, the photo caption incorrectly placed Qumran in Israel rather than on the West Bank.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints