Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).  Pp. 238. Cloth, $26.00. ISBN 0-8028-4589-4

            Jodi Magness writes this book largely as a response to scholars who radically question the interpretation of Qumran by Fr. Roland de Vaux.  Magness defends de Vaux’s basic interpretation that Qumran was inhabited by a Jewish sectarian settlement of Essenes, though she modifies certain aspects of de Vaux’s interpretation.  Despite the few shortcomings of the book, this is a definitive up-to-date introduction to the archaeology of Qumran.

            The first aspect contributing to the success of the book is its literary style.  This book is designed to be read by a wide popular audience, not just the academic community.  Magness’ style of writing is short and direct, and her choice of language simple. The first few chapters serve as an introduction to the reader by providing some background information on the history of the site and the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls in connection to it.  More importantly, she explains some of the basics of her archaeological method.  She describes dating techniques that can be used on both the Dead Sea Scrolls and other artifacts from Qumran.  She briefly explains radiocarbon dating and paleography, while discussing the importance that coins and pottery have for the archaeology of Qumran.  In this way Magness not only introduces archaeology, but also gives the reader insight into how she personally interprets the Qumran evidence.  

            One of the issues that Magness addresses at the beginning of this book is the lack of data surrounding the excavations undertaken by Fr. Roland de Vaux.  Magness is honest about these limitations.  De Vaux died in 1971 without publishing a final report on his excavations (p. 2).  He did publish some of his materials, but he never produced a final paper.  His records and other materials are now held at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, but they are inaccessible to the general public and can be viewed only with special permission.  In 1994 Jean-Baptiste Humbart and Alain Chambon published a report of de Vaux’s records (the first part of a planned series of volumes).  Still there are many records not yet published, and Magness wonders whether some of these records and/or artifacts have been misplaced over the years since de Vaux’s original excavations (p. 4).  By providing the reader with this information Magness demonstrates a degree of honesty and integrity lacking in many other academic studies.  Her goal is to give readers the tools they need to look at any archaeological report, including her own, and decide whether its conclusions reflect the actual evidence.

            Magness’ conclusions rest more on the actual archaeological evidence than the evidence of texts like the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Magness notes that de Vaux used information from the Damascus Document to place the beginning of the occupation at nearly four hundred years after the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem (586 BCE).  Then she adds sixty years to account for the life and death of the Teacher of Righteousness, which places the beginning occupation at 135 BCE.  This coincides with de Vaux’s initial date for Period 1a at 130 BCE.  Magness suggests that the archaeological evidence indicates that Qumran was not occupied until later.  She cites the lack of pottery found at the site from the 2nd Century BCE and interprets some of the coins found at the site differently than de Vaux.  De Vaux found a number of coins that dated to the reign of Alexander Janneus, and from this he concluded that the occupation level Period 1b should date to the period of the reign of Alexander Janneus.  However, in antiquity coins remained in circulation many years after production.  Magness thus maintains that Qumran was not inhabited by the sectarian community until around 100-50 BCE (p. 65).

            Magness also speaks to the question of celibacy at Qumran.  She takes into account the writings of the ancient historians Pliny, Philo, and Josephus.  Philo and Pliny state that the Essenes renounced marriage and women.  Josephus is the only historian who describes a sect of Essenes who marry (p. 165).  Armed with this information, Magness looks at several artifacts found at the site, especially the information provided by the cemetery adjacent.  So far, she argues, it has been impossible to date the graves found in the cemetery because typically there have been no grave goods found in these graves.  The skeletons do not have enough organic materials to date via radiocarbon dating methods, and the wood in the coffins has been preserved with wax (which also prohibits radiocarbon dating; p. 169).  The graves found in the western area of the cemetery contain a small number of females in comparison to the number of males.  Due to the lack of grave goods in the burials, Magness believes that these graves cannot be Bedouin graves (p. 173).  At the site of Qumran itself, the only objects related to female activity that were found include four beads and one spindle whorl (p. 178).  Magness concludes that it is highly probable that women lived at the site of Qumran, but were clearly outnumbered by a greater number of male inhabitants. 

            Despite Magness’ strong arguments regarding the nature of the sectarian settlement, she fails to engage opposing arguments in a meaningful way.  Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voute, for example, have proposed that Qumran was a country villa.  As outlandish as this might seem, considering the evidence Magness has already presented, one cannot ascertain from this book how or why these two scholars have arrived at this conclusion.  In order to make her argument, Magness compares the architecture and nature of artifacts found at the ruins of royal and upper-class estates in Jerusalem, Idumaea, and outside of Caesarea (p. 90).  Typical features of these sites include bathhouses, mosaics, and frescoes (e.g., Masada).  None of these have been found at Qumran (p. 100).  Donceel and Donceel-Voute support their conclusions with what they claim to be the ornate artifacts found at Qumran (p. 90).  With what the reader assumes is the same evidence, Magness reaches a much different conclusion. She tries to explain how other scholars come to different conclusions, but this book fails to review the opposing views of other colleagues, which in turn gives readers a very one-sided view of the data itself.  Magness’ arguments would seem much more solid were she to give readers more information about opposing interpretations.  What artifacts do these two scholars cite in forming their conclusions? 

            Although Magness places a great deal of emphasis on the need for a full report of the archaeological data, the structure of this book is not always easy to figure out.  At the beginning of the book she collects a group of illustrations and diagrams to help readers envision the state of the ruins at Qumran and locate specific features on the site.  The diagrams are formatted in a clear and consistent manner.  The first diagram is a layout of the whole site with specific features represented by numbers.  The following maps illustrate each occupation level and depict certain regions of the site.  This clarity is lost when Magness begins to review the nearby sites of Ein Feshka and Ein el-Ghuweir (Figures 65 & 66).  The diagram for Ein Feksha appears to have been shrunk to fit the page; this renders the feature numbers unrecognizable.  The map of Ein el-Ghuweir is quite blurry, and the feature numbers are recorded in Roman numerals.  The poor quality prevents the reader from being able to distinguish between “II” and “III.”  These criticisms may seem superficial and irrelevant, but it is frustrating for readers who want to locate visually the specific items Magness discusses.

Magness makes one point about “sectarian clothing” which contradicts her claim that the inhabitants of Qumran were anti-Hellenists.  In order to determine if the linens found in Cave 1 could have been woven at Qumran, she cites rabbinic sources as well as evidence from Pompeii to conclude that in the ancient Roman Empire textiles were produced outside of the household (p. 199).  Later in the chapter, Magness reviews the rejection of the Essenes to Roman values through their emphasis on modesty, privacy, and the practice of silent dining (p. 203).  Because this author makes such a distinction between these two opposing cultures, it seems irrelevant, if not dangerous to use Pompeii as a point of similarity, especially when Magness herself emphasizes the differences among cultural values and practices.  More caution should also be observed in her use of the rabbinic sources.  The rabbinic tradition developed out of Pharisaic Judaism in the Second Temple Period.  This distinction ought to be noted more often because the sectarians at Qumran are more concerned with ritual purity than ideological interpretation of Torah.  In Magness’ search for applicable comparative material she tends to overlook these distinctions.

            These few inconsistencies and problem areas are slight in comparison to the overall quality and importance of this book.  Magness successfully sketches a coherent picture which accounts for the identity of the inhabitants of Qumran, the history of the site, the religious practices of the sect, and the problematic question of “celibacy” at Qumran. This book comes highly recommended to anyone interested in the status questionis of the archaeology of Qumran.  

Madelyn Yribarren
Arizona State University