There have been other challenges to the reigning Essene hypothesis, mostly by lonely scholars single-handedly fighting a consensus. None of them had actually dug at Qumran. But Magen is the chief archaeologist in the West Bank who excavated at Qumran intermittently for more than 10 years, from 1993 to 2003, before writing this extensive report.

Moreover, his report is based not only on the results of his own excavation but on his intimate familiarity with the entire region. It will not be brushed off so easily.


The results were always determined in advance,” Magen tell s us, “and served one single purpose only, namely, to demonstrate that it was indeed the Essenes who lived at Qumran . This has been the conclusion even when the finds and other facts were not consistent with an identification of the site with the sect in question ....... . The sectarian interpretations [were] frequently forced on the finds.”

Father Roland de Vaux, who led the major excavation of the site from 1949 to 1958, had his own doubts, Magen tells us, but “he usually picked what we now consider to be the incorrect option, because he had already decided, before all the relevant archaeological data was evaluated, that Qumran was the center of the Judaean Desert sect.”

Qumran is unique in one respect: It is the only site in the Land of Israel that received its water supply from gorge streams that had collected a layer of clay erosion. Floodwaters from these streams carried the clay to the site, which then sank in collecting tanks prepared for this purpose. Other sites in the area received floodwaters in this way, but not from streams that contained fine potters’ clay. Qumran was the only one.

 This, then, became the basis of the Qumran pottery industry. Indeed, the very extremely elaborate and sophisticated water supply complex at Qumran, including some very large pools, was designed precisely to bring this precious clay-filled water into the site and make it available to the potters.’

The reservoirs Magen excavated produced more than 3 tons of clay. Together with other reservoirs on the site for steeping the clay, the total would be more like 6 or 7 tons, he estimates, sufficient to produce tens of thousands of vessels.

The pottery industry at Qumran is evidenced by the many pottery kilns, as well as scores of whole vessels, numerous production rejects, “huge” quantities of industrial waste and tens of thousands of clay fragments found at the site. In Magen’s own words, “At Qumran, the amount of pottery, and especially the number of unbroken vessels, is greater by an order of magnitude from that found at any other excavated site of comparable size from this period or any other period for that matter.”

 Magen’s position is also supported by the large number of coins found at Qumran—more than 1,200 by de Vaux (which have since disappeared) and nearly 200 more by Magen---—perhaps reflecting commercial activity related to the pottery factory.



First he addresses the numerous stepped pools found at the site, previously interpreted as ritual baths (mikva’ot) supposedly needed by the religiously observant Essenes, due to their special emphasis on purity . Most of these pools were not mikva’ot at all, says Magen. They would not have qualified as mikva’ot according to Jewish law because they used so-called ‘drawn,” rather than free-flowing water in a natural stream; sedimentation basins (for the collection of clay before the water entered the pool) would disqualify the water.

Besides, if the placc were filled with Essenes who wanted to take a daily purifying bath, they could easily have gone down to the springs near the shore of the Dead Sea without resorting to what Magen calls the “huge construction project” of building all these pools. Magen concludes that two or three pools at most served as ritual baths.


Magen refers to it as the “non-existent refectory.” “No one ever asks how it was possible to feed hundreds of people simultaneously (since they were supposed to have all eaten together in the refectory). ” To provide two meals a day to 200 men would require an enormous amount of food, ovens and cookware.

At another site Magen excavated (Mt. Gerizim), he found hundreds of ovens used by the occupants in the last stage of a siege . Each building contained between 5 and 20 ovens . Magen estimates that for each meal about 30 ovens would be needed for 200 men. Where are they? In fact, “only a small number of ovens” has been found.

The only finds of de Vaux’s that Magen does not discuss are the inkwells found in the so-called “scrollery.” Perhaps this is not so significant because in the entire de Vaux excavation, he did not find a single piece of “paper” (neither papyrus nor animal skin) prepared for an inscription, let alone inscribed with writing—not a fragment of a scroll.

Nor does Magen mention the identification of an Essene settlement somewhere in this area by the Roman scholar Pliny in his Natural History.

Interestingly enough, Magen does identify a synagogue at Qumran. In the last days before the site was destroyed in 68 C.E. by the Romans on their way to Jerusalem, he says a room (Room 4, often identified as the Essene library) was fitted with plastered benches for study and prayer.

What about the 1,200 single graves (almost all of men) in the “Essene” cemetery adjacent to the site? Magen has this response:

First, he points out that this was “the most reasonable and, perhaps, the only spot [at the site] where buried corpses would be neither washed away [by floods] nor eaten by predators.”

And it is by no means the only large cemetery in the area. A cemetery of 3,500 graves is located at Qazone near the southern tip of the Dead Sea.* Many of them consist of the same style of burial as the Qumran graves—a deep shaft with a niche at the bottom for a single burial. There are other sites with this same kind of burial, so it is hardly unique to Qumran (or the Essenes).

 What about the fact that almost all the graves that have been excavated are of men, with only a few women? Answer: What do you expect from a site inhabited for 300 years by soldiers and potters?

This brings us to Magen’s interpretation of the history of the site. Like de Vaux, Magen found an Iron Age occupation (eighth-sixth centuries B.C.E.) ending with the Babylonian destruction of Judah in 586 B.C.E.3 Then the site was abandoned for more than 400 years.

The major occupation of the site began in the Hasmonean period (second—first centuries B.C.E.), when the solid square building was built with a central courtyard and a tower in the corner.

Following their military conquests in the second century B.C.E., Hasmonean monarchs colonized the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea coast with a chain of fortresses built to protect the Jewish state from incursions by the Nabateans to the east. Qumran was one of these forts.

The Hasmonean fort at Qumran was similar to all the other Hasmonean forts in the area. In Magen’s words: “Qumran was, thus, an integral element in  the chain of fortifications and early warning stations along the Dead Sea.” Qumran was not designed to  resist invaders, but simply as a forward military observation and command post to warn of an impending attack (and also to supervise traffic on the Dead Sea).

In addition to forts on the heights, the Hasmonean rulers built two fortified docks on the shore of the Dead Sea to protect sea traffic. This was especially     important because there was apparently no road from Am el-Turabe (about 9 miles south of Qumran) to Em Gedi still farther south (the water came up to the scarp in this area). Thus Em Gedi could be reached  only by boat. A fortified dock was necessary to land troops in an emergency

 Qumran was not an isolated structure in the desert as it is today. At this time there was a brisk  commercial traffic on the Dead Sea, and Qumran was at the confluence of two important roads: One road went north to meet the east-west road to Jerusalem. Another road went west from Qumran into the Buqe’a desert past Hyrcania, where the main military headquarters was located. Two other secondary roads also met at Qumran. Magen concludes that Qumran was located at a “crossroad....... [and] was thus not isolated at all.”

 “Tactical military considerations and the ease of collecting rainwater dictated the location of Qumran, not the desire of members of the Dead Sea sect to live somewhere remote,” Magen reasons.

When the Romans occupied Judea in 63 B.C.E. (ending the existence of a Jewish state for 2.000 years), a fort was no longer needed at Qumran. It was not long before it became a pottery-manufacturing installation, perhaps employing some of the military who had previously occupied the site.

In the end Magen faces the obvious question: How in the world, then, did all those scrolls get into the caves around the site? According to Magen the scrolls originated in numerous libraries of a variety of Jewish groups, both in and out of Jerusalem.

How? They came from refugees fleeing the devastation of the Roman suppression during the four-year revolt (66-70 C.E.). Everyone knows about the refugees at Masada, who held out against the Romans for another three years. How do you suppose they got to Masada? asks Magen. That they indeed carried scrolls with them is demonstrated by the fact that some Dead Sea Scrolls were actually found at Masada. And we have abundant archaeological evidence that refugees also fled to this area, sometimes with manuscripts, during the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 CE.).

Magen describes the scene:

                    The many caves along the way enabled the fleeing populace to hide during the day and continue walking at night ...... taking with them their most rized portable possessions----—such as money, documents, books, and so on ... Qumran is located at places himself in an astonishing position: He must suggest seriously that two major parties formed communalistic religious communities in the same district of the desert of the Dead Sea [as noted above, the Roman scholar Pliny located an Essene settlement on the west side of the Dead Sea] and lived together in effect for two centuries, holding similar bizarre views, performing similar or rather identical lustrations, ritual meals, and ceremonies. He must suppose that one [the Essenes], carefully described by classical authors [like Josephus and Philol, disappeared without leaving building remains or even potsherds behind; the other [the inhabitants of Qumran], systematically ignored by the classical sources, left extensive ruins, and indeed a great library~ I prefer to be reckless and flatly identify the men of Qumran with their perennial houseguests, the Essenes.4 on “Qumran” lists five interpretations of the site other than the Essene hypothesis. The author of this encyclopedia article, Magen Broshi (not to e confused with archaeologist Yizhak Magen), calls these five theories “nonconsensual counter-theories,” all of which Broshi rejects. Yizhak Magen’s interpretation now becomes the sixth, but, unlike the others, it is based on extensive archaeological evidence placed in the context of the entire area at a specific period in history.

In 1992, another leading Dead Sea Scroll scholar, James VanderKam wrote that “most scholars would agree with Frank Cross’s forceful statement.” Yet even devotees of the old theory have expressed some doubts. The article on “Essenes” in the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls refers to the “Essene (?) settlement of Qumran.” The question mark says it all.

The encyclopedia article on “Qumran” lists five interpretations of the site other than the Essene hypothesis. The author of this encyclopedia article, Magen Broshi (not to be confused with archaeologist Yizhak Magen), calls these five theories “nonconsensual counter-theories,” all of which Broshi rejects. Yizhak Magen’s interpretation now becomes the sixth, but, unlike the others, it is based on extensive archaeological evidence placed in the context of the entire area at a specific period in history.

Reactions to Magen’s arguments are likely to be swift and harsh.—H.S.



September/October 2006. (Pgs. 27-31)


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