Archaeologists dig to shed new light on the past. But Yitzhar Hirschfeld's latest excavation casts an essential page of the Judeo-Christian past in a different light altogether, leaving critics crying sensationalism - or overenthusiasm.
At stake are the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, specifically, who wrote them and where. It's long been presumed that the Essenes, a monastic sect of Jews, wrote the texts at Qumran, a settlement on the northern end of the Dead Sea. The scrolls were hidden in a cave there until some 50 years ago, when a Bedouin shepherd stumbled upon them. Their reclamation has become a critical source of knowledge of Jewish and early Christian thinking.
But Hebrew University's Professor Hirschfeld says the scrolls weren't actually written at Qumran by the breakaway Essenes, but in Jerusalem by mainstream Jews, and then spirited to the Dead Sea for safekeeping from Romans. The ruins at Qumran, he suggests, were not home to the Essenes at all. He says the remains of a village he has just discovered in the cliffs above Ein Gedi show the Essenes lived here - and not at Qumran.
If his theory proves correct, it could reduce the scrolls' links to understanding early Christianity. Since the Essenes led monastic lives, practicing celibacy and vegetarianism uncommon among other Jewish sects, their beliefs have been thought to have had a strong influence on Christian monks who lived in the desert in the first several centuries AD. Experts note similarities between the scrolls and the Gospels; John the Baptist is believed to have been an Essene.
"Qumran doesn't fit the character of the Essenes - it seems like a fortified manor house," says Hirschfeld, adding that the well-heeled facilities there don't fit the poverty and asceticism of the Essenes.
"The connection between the scrolls and Qumran was manufactured by a French excavator ... [who] did a good job of building the myth of Qumran," he says.
What's meant by 'below'?
Hirschfeld's theory stems from his conclusion that scholars have lost something in translation when reading historical sources. Roman writers Josephus Flavius and Pliny the Elder mention Essene communities in their writings, and Pliny specifically describes the Essenes as living with the town of Ein Gedi "below them."
Archaeologists and historians have assumed the Pliny's Latin term "infra hos" meant that Ein Gedi was south of the Essenes, thus placing them to the north at Qumran. But Hirschfeld says that Pliny meant that Ein Gedi was topographically below them - placing the Essenes in the steep, rocky hills above sea, where the new ruins have been uncovered.
Beneath the brush that sprouts among the rocks, marking natural springs, Hirschfeld found some 25 buildings that he says more accurately match descriptions of Essene life. Tiny rooms each large enough to house one man point to a spartan existence. What seems to be a mikvah, or ritual bath, supports his theory that it was inhabited by religious Jews.
Also, the dig turned up no evidence of animal bones. That, says Kim Bowes, a PhD candidate in archaeology at Princeton University who participated in the dig, is unusual - and concurs with the Essenes' vegetarianism.
"There are no Greek statues, no mosaic floors. We have absolute evidence of a communal, ascetic lifestyle here," says Ms. Bowes. "Qumran is a very wealthy community ... this [village] fits the texts better." But altering the accepted views of Qumran, she adds, will be an uphill battle for Hirschfeld. "People have built their careers on Qumran," she says.
Indeed, Hirschfeld faces doubts and some outright rejection. The most common contention is that the village he is excavating was just a seasonal farming community - thus explaining the simple cells for temporary living.
"I'm not convinced that there is anything there to connect the site with the Essenes," says Gabriel Barkai, a Jerusalem archaeologist who toured the excavation. "Nothing of their way of life is reflected in the site. It clearly dates to Second Temple period," from 19 BC to AD 70, "but those rooms could be any type of storage bins or any other type of installation."
Dr. Barkai also dismissed Hirschfeld's take on Pliny's compass. "The interpretation of 'below' is very problematic," Barkai says. "The general view agreed upon by most scholars is still valid, and nothing in the finds could jeopardize that."
Next year, when the dig is set to resume, Hirschfeld hopes to turn up evidence to prove he's right. A piece of written text or engraving might help. Oil lamps would support the description of a sect absorbed in study.
Hirschfeld, for his part, is more interested in honing his expertise in monastic dwellings than in debunking the Dead Sea Scrolls. But he explains why his theory could resonate in circles that have studied parallel themes in the scrolls and the Christian gospels.
"If the scrolls are from a site like Qumran, then the scrolls are part of Christianity. If Qumran was a secular site and the scrolls came from Jewish Jerusalem, it's a completely different story," Hirschfeld says.
Theologians stand firm
So far, theologians seem unmoved, reluctant to accept what they call too-hasty revisions about where the Essenes lived and whether they wrote the scrolls.
"I disagree completely," says Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a Roman Catholic priest and New Testament professor at Jerusalem's Ecole Biblique et Archologique Franaise.
"Nothing that Hirschfeld found really fits with the scrolls. They speak of bigger numbers [of Essenes] and he's found 15 or 16 holes in the ground," says the Fr. Murphy-O'Connor. "But it's a very interesting discovery. In the past Qumran was the only candidate for the Essenes, and now that there is something above Ein Gedi, we should look at that seriously and it should be integrated into the debate."
But at the Shrine of the Book, the center where Israel preserves and studies the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hirschfeld's dig has been deemed unworthy of discussion.
"We have 800 scrolls, and a sizable amount of them are exactly what we would expect of Essene writing," says Curator Emeritus Magen Broshi. The village Hirschfeld excavated, he says, was lived in 100 years after the Essenes disappeared. "This is pure baloney ... produced by a sensation seeker."