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Dead Sea Scroll scrum

Efforts to link the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls with an ancient toilet site became the butt of a joke or two this week – and have touched off another round of debate over scroll history. Were the scrolls actually written by an eccentric sect based in Qumran near the Dead Sea? Does the ancient latrine really prove anything? University of Chicago historian Norman Golb, a tenacious scroll skeptic, thinks not.

Golb scorns the conventional wisdom that a community of Essene monks in Qumran was responsible for some of the oldest surviving Jewish texts. Rather, he points out that the scrolls represent a variety of traditions in Jewish religious thought, and surmises that they ended up in the caves around Qumran because refugees from a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem stashed them there. Qumran itself was likely some sort of fortress or pottery-making center, Golb says.

Eleven years ago, he advanced his ideas in a book titled "Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?" - and ever since then, he's been cast as something of a voice crying in the wilderness. Until this year. That's when a pair of Israeli archaeologists generated a lot of press with similar claims that the settlement at Qumran didn't have anything to do with the sacred scrolls. Now Golb is not so alone in the academic wilderness.

So what's the big deal? Over the years, the Dead Sea Scrolls have taken on an extra measure of mystery because of their association with a messianic sect that was active in Jesus' day. Some experts have drawn extensive parallels between the practices of early Christians and the Essene community at Qumran. If it turns out that the scrolls have a  different origin, historians would have to reconsider the linkages between Judaism and early Christianity - and where the scrolls figure into those linkages.

That's why every little finding from Qumran - even animal bones and latrines - can set off a scrum. In an e-mail, Golb noted that he hasn't yet seen the published research about the latrine discovery, but he did put together some bullet points based on his reading of this week's press release from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (full PDF file). Here are Golb's observations:

"1) The author acknowledges the statement in Deuteronomy (Chap. 23, verses 13-14) commanding fecal sanitation outside of an inhabited encampment, but afterwards implies that the practice was 'revived' by a sect supposedly living at Khirbet Qumran. This, however, is merely a theory held by the author and based upon the widely believed assumption that a sect actually lived at Qumran. On the view, however, that Jews who were not sectarians lived at Qumran, the finding implies nothing more than that during the Intertestamental period those of them living in encampments or fortresses followed the aforementioned Biblical rule of Deuteronomy.

"The very most that can be said of the author's claim is that the finding does not in itself disprove the theory that a sect lived at Qumran - but it doesn't prove it either.

"2) To bolster his claim, the author alludes to two passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls; he is quoted in the news release as saying 'This group is very strict and they observe this practice rigorously - in one text it says go 1,000 cubits, and in another text 2,000 cubits....' The two texts to which the author alludes, however, are (a) the 'Temple Scroll' and (b) the 'War Scroll.' These texts are both apocalypses, the one describing an idealized Jerusalem Temple of future times, and the other cataclysmic battles between forces of good and evil.

"The Temple Scroll mentions a latrine placed three thousand cubits beyond the confines of the holy (Temple) precincts of Jerusalem, while the War Scroll describes a latrine placed two thousand cubits beyond the confines of the encampment of the (Israelite) forces of good. There is no proof whatever that these apocalypses served as models for actual buildings or structures of Intertestamental times; the varying measurements evidently derived from the writers' own imaginations.

"The author states in the news release that the latrine found by him was located five hundred meters from the Qumran settlement, or approximately 750 cubits. That would be two-thirds of the 'one thousand cubits' that the author claims is found in one of the two aforementioned (apocalyptic) texts but, despite the author's assertion, such a measurement is found in neither of those texts. The 'two thousand cubits' of the War Scroll would, on the other hand, bring one far beyond the discovered latrine, and the 'three thousand cubits' of the Temple Scroll all the more so. The attempt to treat apocalyptic imaginings in the Scrolls as reflections of historical reality is a most unfortunate development in the rhetoric of traditional Qumranology. The argument of the author boils down to a similarity between the fact that the Temple Scroll locates the latrine three thousand cubits 'northwest' of the holy precincts, while the latrine found 500 meters to the north of Qumran is not precisely due north but slightly northwest.

"By normal standards of identification of historical sites, this is not nearly enough to warrant the author's specific identification of Khirbet Qumran as a sectarian settlement, but seems rather to reflect a personal belief of the author.

"3). The description in the news release of Josephus's statement regarding the Essenes' personal habits is misleading. Josephus does not state that the Essenes refrained from defecating on the Sabbath because of a prohibition against walking outside of their settlement. Cf. his complete statement in Jewish War II, ed. Thackeray, pp. 379-381. The statement in the news release that 'Josephus described very similar exotic toilet practices among the religiously strict sect known as the Essenes' seems at first like an attractive analogy until one realizes that it begs the question.

"4). The news release fails to state why the author and his colleague turned to a parasitologist in France for the evaluation of the unearthed specimens rather than consulting with one in Jerusalem, the closest scientific center to the site under discussion."

Between the Qumran toilet and the Mexican monolith, this has been a big week for archaeology. So feel free to comment below on the mysteries surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls, or ancient Aztec lore - heck, even the Bosnianpyramid.