An Analysis of The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls by Jodi Magness

The Archeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls is a book by Jodi Magness concerning a very controversial site. Qumran is a site located in the near-east, and is believed to have been inhabited by a sectarian Jewish community during the Second Temple period (under Rome). In the 6th chapter of her book, Magness analyzes the architectural features of the site, recovered artifacts, and contemporary writings to draw certain conclusions about the lives of its inhabitants.

The placement of various toilets, Magness argues, is very telling of the nature of the settlement.

A toilet inside of the settlement walls tells Magness that, at least for a portion of time in the settlements history, the settlement was not a “temple city,” that is, a holy city in accordance with known Jewish law. Magness found evidence that an earthquake destroyed that toilet, and later on toilets were built outside of the walls. She then draws the conclusion that during this later period the settlement was occupied primarily by Essene Jews.

The external toilets and their distance from the site seem to be in accordance with the customs of the Essene Jewish community; this combined with the fact that most of the pottery was found in one structure, resembling a dining hall seems to lend credence to her theory (Essene Jews primarily had communal eating habits).

Despite all of this evidence, I am not entirely convinced that her analysis is correct. While the design of the internal toilet does seem to be different from the exterior ones, there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to suggest that the abandonment of the first toilet was a ritual decision, rather than a practical one.

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The other problem I have with her findings are the “contemporary texts” she uses to back up her assertions. To begin, she claims that her descriptions of communal eating fit with the descriptions in the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves, however the Dead Sea Scrolls are widely believed to be (by many Biblical scholars) extensions of the Hebrew Tanakh, which would make it unlikely that they would contain descriptions of the site itself, as opposed to the commonly held notion that they would contain historical descriptions.

Another problematic fact is she cites the historian Josephus’ descriptions of an Essene community that she believes is the community at Qumran. This is problematic for a number of reasons. The first being that, if a site being an Essene site is contingent upon bearing certain structural and social attributes as described by Josephus, then it would be impossible to identify any one site as being the one Josephus referred to–all Essene sites would, a priori, bear those attributes. The second issue is that Josephus is generally regarded as a poor source among historians at large.

I do, however, buy into her conclusion that whoever lived in Qumran shared communal meals. The evidence of long benches and ceramic shards indicative of large communal bowls all point to communal meals. The absence of any sort of cookware outside of the main dining hall that Magness identified bolsters her claim. That being said, while communal meals are a necessary condition for identifying an Essene Jew community, they are not a sufficient condition. Magness identified another trait that would seem to point to her theory of Qumran being an Essene site besides the communal meal, the ritual Mikveh present at the site. While the evidence (plumbing and various bathing artifacts) don’t strictly point to any ritual being involved, the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls certainly proves the claim that this bathing area was ritualistic, and not secular.

While the Mikveh is indicative of an Essene community, it is also indicative of any Jewish community–Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, or any other variety of Sectarian Jewish community. Magness acknowledges this in an earlier chapter, but she believes the contemporary textual analysis is enough to prove her claim that the inhabitants were Essene.

She also fails to provide a theory for why the settlement transformed into a “temple city” following the earthquake she identified that destroyed the interior toilet. Presumably, in order for the toilet to have been present in the interior of the walls, the site’s first builders would have had to be non-Essene (though it’s possible they still could have been Jewish–likely, even, because the Mikveh bears no resemblance to traditional Roman baths of the time). Her theory, therefore, is contingent on an Essene community moving into a previously non-Essene city. This explanation seems to be grasping to fit the pieces of Qumran into the puzzle of Josephus’ work.

All in all, I think Magness does a great job of discounting other less credible theories of the site, such as it being a manor or a Roman Villa, and offers plenty of proof that the site was built by Jews, for Jews. She does not, however, in my opinion, offer enough evidence to prove her claim that this community was an Essene site–in Chapter 6 of her book, or in any of her other chapters.

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An Analysis of The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls by Jodi Magness. (2023, Feb 18). Retrieved from

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