The myth and function of the Passover plagues

Passover is a wonderful holiday. It is a time to gather together with family and friends. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with the millennia old line of the Jewish People. On Passover, we reach back through the mists of time to the myths of our national origin. We seek to find lessons from the distant past which might guide us in our present.

The highlight of the festival is the reading of a story from the Haggadah, literally meaning “the story.” The story tells of the enslavement of ancient Israelites in the land of Egypt and their release from bondage following a series of ten calamities, commonly understood as plagues, which devastated Egypt. Those plagues, in the order of the story in the Book of Exodus are blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. (See Ex. 7:14-12:30.)

Today that core story, and its centuries of embellishments, is read, sung and discussed throughout the Passover seder (a ritual meal, literally “order”). All along the way we are requested to, challenged to, even required to ask questions, to probe into the meaning of the story. The whole exercise is quite dramatic, sometimes even including costumes and choreography. No wonder Passover is an incredibly popular Jewish holiday, with more Jews participating in a seder than fasting on the traditional holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur.

The Passover story is so powerful that its magic has not been dimmed by the increasing recognition that the premise of the story lacks a solid historical foundation. The Hebrew Bible states that six hundred thousand Israelites males, formerly slaves, along with woman, children and others left Egypt as part of a national exodus. (Ex. 12:37.) According to the traditional timetable, this mass migration occurred near the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, however, that idea has been largely rejected.

First, there is no evidence to date of any mass slavery of ancient Israelites during the relevant time period. Second, consider the nature of the reported biblical caravan. According to the late biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, a group of about 2,000,000 individuals would have come out of Egypt. (See Sarna, Exploring Exodus (Schoken Books 1986) at 95.) If a group of that size marched twenty abreast, there would have been 100,000 rows of participants, exclusive of animals, carts and other things. If those rows were separated by just ten feet, the entire entourage would have, by application of simple mathematics, extended for around 190 miles. Aside from the problems that result raises with the sea crossing tale, there is no evidence that any movement of a population of that magnitude ever occurred into the Sinai Peninsula and up to the east bank of the Jordan River. Third, there is no evidence of any new settlement patterns established west of the Jordan by a substantial influx of new immigrants in the 13th century BCE. If the narrative were intended to be history as we moderns understand it, that is, a reasonably accurate statement and chronology of actual events, the story fails.

Now, if there were no mass enslavement of Israelites and no mass exodus of them, then surely there would not have been any need for liberating plagues either. Some still maintain, though, that the there is significant evidence for the biblical plagues outside of the biblical text. One such advocate is Israeli Egyptologist Galit Dayan who cites as proof of the biblical plagues an ancient Egyptian document known formally as the Admonitions of Ipuwer. The Ipuwer papyrus describes a time of considerable social and political chaos in Egypt. Dayan translates the hieroglyphs as follows: “Plague is throughout the land. . . . the river is blood . . . and the hail smote every herd of the field . . . there is a thick darkness throughout the land . . . the Lord smote all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt (including) the first born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne . . . .”

There are, however, a number of serious problems with the claim that the Ipuwer papyrus is evidence of the biblical plagues. One is that the Ipuwer papyrus contains a longer and more complex story than Dr. Dayan implies, and her list of events similar to certain biblical plagues amounts to a cherry picking of like situations, while failing to explain the absence in the Ipuwer papyrus of other biblical plagues like lice, insects and locusts. Moreover, the ordeals Ipuwer describes are not seen as coming from a powerful god acting on behalf of his people, but as the result of the ineptitude of an unnamed king. The social dynamics of Ipuwer’s story are also directly contrary to those in the biblical tale. Ipuwer’s story concerned the immigration of foreigners into Egypt, not the emigration of slaves from it. Perhaps most importantly, while there is a debate among Egyptologists regarding the dating of the events related in the papyrus, with some setting the story in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2100 BCE) and others in the late Middle Kingdom (c. 2100-1700 BCE) (see Sarna, above, at 69), both of those dates are centuries before the 13th century date traditionally assigned to the Exodus.

The Ipuwer papyrus also has an extra-biblical competitor. Israeli born producer, director and writer Simcha Jacobovici argues that a 3,500-year-old Egyptian monument known as the Tempest or Storm Stela provides archeological evidence for the Exodus. He contends that a new translation of the stela proves that a massive eruption of a volcano on the Greek island of Santorini generated a storm which flooded Egyptian temples, and plunged Egypt into darkness for days. As in the biblical plague story, loud voices were heard and the Egyptians were seized with terror. (See Ex. 9:29, 15:14.) Jacobovici claims that the stela proves that the Pharaoh at the time, Ahmose (r. 1550-1525 BCE), the storm and the contemporaneous expulsion of certain Asiatics known as the Hyksos are the basis of the Exodus story.

Jacobovici’s argument displays the same defects as the claim based on the Ipuwer’s papyrus. While there clearly was a massive volcanic eruption on Santorni, which scientists date to between 1645 and 1600 BCE, and that event may even have had some impact more than 450 miles away in Egypt, it occurred at least half a century before Ahmose’s reign. Timing aside, there is no claim, much less any proof, that the volcanic eruption generated a series of plagues in Egypt as related in the Exodus story. Finally, no convincing explanation is offered to fill a long historical gap and connect the expulsion of some (but not all) Hyskos in the 16th century BCE with the emergence of a recognizable Israel community in the late 13th century BCE and a kingdom in the 10th century BCE.

Not only are the attempts to establish the historicity of the Egyptian plagues wanting for lack of hard proof, there is also no basis for the initial assumption that the Passover story generally and the plagues specifically were even intended to be taken literally, to be historical statements, as we moderns understand that concept. To the contrary, both the text of the Torah we have today and other references in the Hebrew Bible strongly suggest otherwise.

Exclusive of the recitation of ten plagues in the Book of Exodus, plagues in Egypt are discussed two separate times in the Hebrew Bible, both in Psalms. (See Psalm 78:42-51 and Psalm 105:28-36.) In both of the recitations in Psalms, there are only seven plagues, though, and the seven are neither the same in both lists nor is their order the same. What does this mean?

The presence in the Hebrew Bible of these different accounts is actually quite instructive. First, it indicates that when elements of the text were being collected and collated, the editors were familiar with more than one tradition respecting plagues. This is no different, and therefore no more surprising, than the retention in the Torah of alternative traditions concerning such matters as creation, the flood, the Ten Commandments and the spies, to name a few instances where different renditions of traditional stories have been maintained.

The larger story, as found in Exodus, itself appears to be an edited and conflated version of several traditions. Referencing classic biblical source criticism, Yale biblicist Christine Hayes teaches that each of the primary biblical sources known as J, E and P supply some, but not all of the ten plagues. Specifically, she says that J is the source of eight plagues, E provided three and P supplied five, but there are some overlaps. (See Transcript, 1/12.) Significantly, Hayes does not identify D as a source for any of the plagues. In discussing the exodus in Deuteronomy, Moses merely obliquely references “signs” and “wonders,” and fails to mention any specific plagues at all, save perhaps boils and locusts (or crickets). (See Deut. 4:34, 28:27, 38, 42.)

Literary analysis of the plagues lists is also instructive. Each list in Exodus and in Psalms was written as if complete, signaled by either seven or ten components. In the world of biblical symbolism, those numbers indicate wholeness and perfection. (See Sarna, above, at 74.) Further, the more extensive narrative in Exodus is structured carefully, not only as three series of three plagues each, with a stunning climax, but also including within each series repeated patterns of and phrasing for elements of the story.

In short, the theme of plagues seems to have been common during the extended time the Hebrew Bible was being formulated, but the details of the story were quite fluid. There can be little doubt, then, that the story of the plagues in the Torah we have received today is a product of craftsmanship rather than reporting.

But all this begs a critical question: why include a plague story at all in the larger Exodus drama? If the authors merely wanted to convey a spectacle of the majesty and triumph of the Israelite God, they could have invoked images of God splitting of the Nile, a feat more difficult than simply turning it red as even Egyptian magicians could do. (See Ex. 7:22.)They could have had God appear as alternate pillars of cloud and fire, as later claimed during the trek though the wilderness. (See Ex. 13:21.) Or God could have created an oasis, a tiny Eden, or rained down quail and manna instead of hail and locusts (see Ex. 16:13-15), not only to demonstrate creative and fulsome power, but to illustrate the rewards that Egypt could earn through conciliation with the Israelites. That is, the story could have offered divine carrots instead of sticks.

Clearly the purpose of this carefully designed and structured composition was not meant merely to demonstrate either awesome supernatural power generally or the control of nature specifically. It certainly was not meant to induce behavior with compassion and beneficence. Rather, the purpose of invoking plagues seems to have been an exceptionally clever use of a story that was itself dramatic and had some broad acceptability in the popular culture in order to advance a theology at least of monolatry, if not monotheism.

As the Torah text explicitly states, the plagues were selected to defeat and humiliate the gods and symbols of imperial Egypt. They were aimed “ubechol elohe Mitzrayim,” that is, at all the gods of Egypt. (Ex. 12:12.) This view is corroborated later in the Torah. Describing the day after the first Passover, the text claims success for the onslaught: “Yahweh made judgment on their gods.” (Num. 33:4.) The ancient Egyptians had many deities, and the names and roles changed over time. But it is possible to construct a list of the plausible targets of the biblical authors.

The attack begins with the lifeline of Egypt, the Nile River. (Ex. 7:19.)Turning the river to blood would cripple all agriculture and commerce which depended on the river, which is to say most of the Egyptian economy. For the biblical authors, it also represented a multi-pronged assault: the defeat of Hapi, the guardian the Nile, of Khnum, the god of the inundation of the Nile, and of Osiris, god of the underworld, for whom the Nile served as his bloodstream. The second plague was directed to a god symbolized by a frog, that is, Heqet, the goddess of fertility. The Egyptian god of the earth was Geb. Turning the dust of the earth into lice (or perhaps fleas) showed his impotence.

The war on the Egyptian pantheon continues in the second series of plagues. The definition of the fourth plague, arov, is uncertain. It suggests a swarm or horde of insects, often understood as flies. But the text also says that the swarm would fill not only the Egyptian houses, but the land under them. (Ex. 8:17.) Quite possibly the reference is to the scarab or dung beetle, as one of the most prominent Egyptian insect gods, Khepri, was depicted with the head of a scarab. Striking cattle with disease on cattle surely would have embarrassed any one of several Egyptian gods represented by animal heads, such as Apis, the bull, and Hathor, the goddess of the desert and symbolic mother of Pharaoh. Similarly, the spread of boils illustrated the impotence of Imhotep, the god of medicine and healing.

In the third series, the rain of very heavy hail would demonstrate the weakness of Nut, the sky goddess, and mother of other prominent deities. The swarm of locusts that ate everything apparently could not be stopped by any of the agricultural gods and goddesses like Renenutet, the goddess of the harvest, or her son Neper, the grain god, or by the god of wind and chaos, Seth. The final plague in the series, that of a thick multi-day darkness in all the land of Egypt, was surely an act of war, and a successful one at that, on the supreme sun god known as Ra (or Re) or Horus, and often depicted with a man’s body and the head of a falcon.

The import of the story so far, then, was that the gods of Egypt were incapable of protecting their respective domains, and that Pharaoh could not protect his subjects. With the final, and most devastating plague, that of the death of Egypt’s first born males at midnight, we learn that Pharaoh could not even protect his own household or the system of primogeniture on which Egyptian law was based. Neither Renenutet, the guardian of Pharaoh, nor Selket, the guardian of protection and healing, were of any use.

As Rutgers Jewish historian Gary Rendsburg teaches, modern readers of the Hebrew Bible, unfamiliar with the authors’ society and the cultural clues contained in the text will “miss many of nuances that make the stories so fresh and loaded with meaning.” (At 3/4.)That is true, of course, and important. Still, we are left with critical questions. Why was any account of plagues ultimately included in the Torah? What function did it serve? What did the final redactors want their immediate audience to learn?

Unfortunately, we cannot say with precision when particular stories were first written or when they were incorporated into the canon. Much work appears to have been done in the 8th through the 6th centuries BCE, with final revisions coming during and after the Babylonian Exile. Arguably, given the inconsistencies between Ezra and Nehemiah about something as seemingly basic as a fall holiday, one could argue, as does University of Michigan scholar Lisbeth Fried, that the canon was not even set by the end of the Persian Period. Obviously, this is quite an extended time.

Moreover, this was a time of considerable turmoil, politically and theologically. A member of the educated class, attuned to cultural cues, might well have recognized the Egyptian motifs referenced in the story of the plagues. If he did, then he would also know that the story was not an eye-witness account of events, but a symbolic war between the then dominant Israelite god, Yahweh, and the gods of Egypt, headed by the Sun-god Ra. At the same time, Egypt’s influence over the Children of Israel was not as strong during this period as it once was. The Assyrians crushed the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 BCE, and the Kingdom of Judah having barely survived a subsequent assault existed at the sufferance of the Assyrians. The Assyrians subsequently fell to King Nebuchadnezzer and the Babylonians. Then, following a series of invasions at the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the complete destruction of the Judahite capital, Jerusalem, and the transfer of Judahite royalty and leadership to Babylon, Judah became a vassal state of Babylon. Babylon, in turn, fell to Cyrus about sixty years later. While Cyrus allowed Judahites to return home, their province, now known as Yehud, was now a small province in the Persian Empire and ultimately subject to Persian control. Toward the end of the 4th century BCE, Persia, and with it Yehud, fell to Alexander and the Greeks.

In the midst of this extended geopolitical war, a multi-faceted religious battle continued as well. With the advent of the reform prophets in the 8th century BCE, polytheism came under increased attack from both those who favored either the supremacy of Yahweh over lesser gods and those who recognized Yahweh as the sole god. And those camps contended with each other. The latter monotheistic view seems to have gained ascendance in the 7th century with the rise of the Deuteronomistic school, but fate, in the form of the death of King Josiah of Judah and the ascendancy of King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon, intervened.

The destruction of Jerusalem could have ended this nascent monotheism. After all, if Yahweh were the sole true god, he certainly did not protect his treasured people, or his promised land, or even his house, his temple, from ruin. Ironically, though, far from ending monotheism because of the impotence of the deity, the exile from and return to Judah was understood by Judahite leadership differently. Influenced by the Deuteronomists, they argued that the people failed Yahweh, not the other way around. The solution of the surviving and returning leaders, like Ezra, was a stronger commitment to what they saw as the one true god. This was the broad context in which the contents of the Torah seem to have been finalized. And, if so, this context helps us understand how the plague story may have functioned at that time.

Rather than directed to a sophisticated reader in Judah or even in the established community of Judahite emigres in Egypt, who would understand the references to the Egyptian pantheon, the story of the plagues may well have been intended to underscore for post-exhilic Judahites who had returned, or were thinking of returning, that the worship of false gods of any kind, whether Canaanite or Babylonian or Persian or of any other origin, was improper and destructive. That is, beyond the explicit message, lay an implicit lesson: just as the gods of Egypt were no match for the Israelite God, neither are any of the current local gods. In a time that required nation building, the story served, then, to provide a unifying theological feature in the larger text which functioned as a unifying statement of a people’s creation and history and a unifying anthology of its traditions.

Myth based Judaism has generated compelling stories and, at its best, a compassionate culture. The story of the Israelites’ escape from bondage serves as a beacon to all who are oppressed and as a reminder to those of us fortunate enough to be free to remember what slavery might have been like, how it must have felt to have been a stranger in a strange land. During the seder, as the plagues are mentioned, we remove some wine from our cups to diminish the sweetness of the Israelite’s escape, to recognize the suffering of others and to temper our joy. These are worthy lessons.

But myth based Judaism has its limits, and pretending that myths are reality is not only intellectually indefensible, it can be counter-productive, even self-destructive, as well. If we take bible stories as statements of historical truth, when they are not, and if we purposefully avoid trying to understand what the authors intended their audience to learn, we act as nothing less than illiterate literalists.

Reality based Judaism acknowledges that neither the Exodus nor the plagues occurred as depicted, that the plagues are a myth within a larger myth, set in a time when humankind often identified each aspect of nature, of life itself, with a separate god. Some may conclude from that acknowledgement that the Jewish freedom narrative lacks not only foundation, but merit. But reality based Judaism also rejects the nihilism of superficial contemporary readers who fail to come to grips with both the original intent and redeeming transcendent value of the story. Rather, reality based Judaism accepts the challenge of Passover to dig deeply into the tale, to ask a question and then another and yet another. It seeks to wrestle with the text and extract both truth and wisdom from this powerful story. When we do, when we struggle with the broader myth, and the more troubling one contained in it, we recognize that the authors had matured enough to grasp the fallacy of false gods.

If we want to build a Judaism for tomorrow, we need to look back to the origins of our texts and traditions. We need to try to understand not just what our foundational texts say, but why they say it. We need to become familiar with the context of the content of those works to determine what end the founders sought to achieve. This is the challenge and this is the opportunity of reality based Judaism, as we, too, need to reject false gods and be guided by truth and wisdom.

A version of this essay was previously published at

Monumental Roman-era synagogue uncovered

Archaeologists digging just a few kilometers from the fishing village where Jesus is believed to have preached, have uncovered a monumental Roman-era synagogue with an exquisite, colorful mosaic floor with fine female faces.

“An inscription in Hebrew has two female faces on either side. One is destroyed and the other is complete and is absolutely spectacular,” Jodi Magness, a professor of Early Judaism at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The Media Line.

Magness, together with David Amit and Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority, are carrying out the excavations at Huqoq near the northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Digging through the remnants of a Palestinian village abandoned in 1948 and later bulldozed, archaeologists came upon an ancient Jewish village centered around the large synagogue. The ruins date from the Late Roman period, approximately of the 4th century, a time on the cusp of an “explosion of synagogue building,” Magness said.

“It’s contemporary with synagogues like Capernaum and Hamat Tiberias and Beit Alpha,” she said, adding that the town itself was mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud.

At first they discovered large, well cut stones, indicating an impressive public edifice they assumed to be a synagogue. These assumptions were confirmed when they began excavating down to the floor.

“We had been digging down through the dirt fill and one of volunteers who was on a dig for the first time was gently hoeing and suddenly felt something hard. He got very excited and called me over. We could see a little bit of the mosaic sticking out of the dirt and at that point I got very excited too and we shut down the area until we got our conservator on site to work on the mosaic,” Magness recalled enthusiastically.

One of the mosaics, which are made up of tiny colored stone cubes, shows a biblical scene of Samson placing torches between the tails of foxes (as related in the book of Judges 15). The other major mosaic held the faces with the Hebrew inscription which refers to rewards for those who perform good deeds.

“This discovery is significant because only a small number of ancient (Late Roman) synagogue buildings are decorated with mosaics showing biblical scenes, and only two others have scenes with Samson (one is at another site just a couple of miles from Huqoq),” said Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the department of religious studies in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

She said the fancy floor and large stones used to construct the synagogue’s walls showed that the village synagogue and nearby houses were built by an affluent society. In some ways, it appeared beyond what a small village like Huqoq would naturally have built.

“That was a little bit surprising to me,” Magness said. “I did not expect the level of prosperity that we see in the village context because this was a village not a town or a city. I am kind of dumbfounded really.”

Besides the fact that it was located near a spring, on a major trade route and surrounded by fertile land, Magness noted that ancient rabbinical sources mention Huqoq was known for its mustard plants.

“I guess mustard was lucrative,” she said.

Only portions of the synagogue have been uncovered so far. Magness said she believes the scale of the building is similar to the one uncovered in Bar Am, an opulent structure from a similar period in the upper Galilee near Safed. She said that the Huqoq synagogue was partially intact, with walls standing to half their original first floor height, and with original plaster.

The mosaic was further dispelled the notion that bans on graven images kept Jews from putting figurines in their synagogues.

“One of the big surprises in the early 20th century when many of these synagogues of this period came to light for the first time was that many of them are decorated with figured images and sometimes even pagan images and this sort of revolutionized our understanding of Judaism in this period. So apparently Jews in this period were not bothered by these kinds of images and chose to decorate their synagogues with them,” Magness said. “Now that we have this wonderful discovery we do want to share it with the public, but it is going to take time because we are still in the midst of a long term excavation project,” she said. 

Options include removing the mosaic for display in a museum or turning the site into an archaeological park, but that depends on the total finds made after a few seasons. Meanwhile, the findings have been covered over to prevent pillaging and damage until next summer when the excavations are scheduled to continue.

Second Temple artifacts uncovered in Jerusalem

Artifacts from the Second Temple period were found in Jerusalem.

A sword in a scabbard that belonged to a Roman soldier and an engraving of the Temple’s menorah on a stone object were discovered in recent days during excavation work in the 2,000-year-old drainage channel discovered between the City of David and the Jerusalem Archeological Garden near the Western Wall.

The findings were announced on the eve of Tisha B’av, which commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. 

The channel served as a hiding place for residents of Jerusalem from the Romans during the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

The excavations are being conducted on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority and are underwritten by the City of David Foundation.

The 2,000-year-old iron sword was discovered still in its leather scabbard, along with parts of the belt that carried the sword.

The engraving of the menorah shows that its base was tripod shaped. Researchers believe that someone who saw the menorah was impressed by its beauty and etched his impressions on the stone, afterwards tossing it away.

Oldest ancient teeth found in Israeli cave

Eight teeth found in a cave in central Israel are reportedly the earliest remains of Homo sapiens ever discovered.

The teeth, discovered in a cave near Rosh Haayin, east of Tel Aviv, have been estimated to be about 400,000 years old. If the initial findings are confirmed, it would overturn accepted scientific theory that Homo sapiens, the direct descendent of modern man, evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and migrated north.

The find, discovered by a team of international archeologists under the auspices of Tel Aviv University, was announced Monday.

The study was funded by the government of Spain, the American Museum of Natural History, the Israel Science Foundation and philanthropic groups, including the Irene Levi Sala CARE Archaeological Foundation and the Leakey Foundation.

Ancient Roman bathhouse uncovered in Jerusalem

An 1,800-year-old bathing pool was discovered in excavations prior to the construction of a men’s mikveh in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.

The pool was part of a bathhouse used by the Tenth Legion, the Roman soldiers who destroyed the Second Temple, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The bathhouse tiles were stamped with the symbols of the Tenth Legion, which was garrisoned in Jerusalem while the pagan city of Aelia Capotilina was built on the ruins of Jerusalem.

“Another interesting discovery that caused excitement during the excavation is the paw print of a dog that probably belonged to one of the soldiers,” said Ofer Sion, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “The paw print was impressed on the symbol of the legion on one of the roof tiles, and it could have happened accidentally or have been intended as a joke.”

It was the first discovery of a building that belonged to the Roman Legion, the antiquities authority said. The remains of the ancient Roman bathhouse will be integrated in the new mikveh slated to be built in the Jewish Quarter.

Armchair archeologists can explore Qumran virtually

After glancing at the nearby caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were stored, I walked through the entrance to the main building at Qumran, checked out the scriptorium with its ink wells and oil lamps and the pottery-making workshop, and then up to the four-story tower for spotting approaching Roman legions.

Although it was a hot day, I was perfectly comfortable because my virtual walking tour of the desert settlement was conducted at a sophisticated UCLA computer site, courtesy of the Qumran Visualization Project.

“What we’ve built here is a fully reconstructed, three-dimensional, real-time, interactive model of Khirbet Qumran,” explained Robert C. Cargill, a graduate student in the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.

Joining Cargill was his department chairman, professor William Schniedewind, who initiated the project to graphically enliven his class on ancient Israel and to probe current scholarly disputes on the genesis of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

After a Bedouin shepherd discovered the first scrolls in a cave in 1947, archaeologists turned their attention to nearby Qumran. Roland de Vaux, a French Dominican priest, was the first to excavate the site in 1951 and concluded that it was the communal home of a pious Jewish sect, the Essenes, who created the scrolls.

Hardly were his conclusions published, when scholars began to question his theory, a debate that has continued to this day.

As further excavations revealed more about the original structures, some experts backed de Vaux’s assertions. But others proposed that the site was a fortress constructed by the Hasmoneans, whose victory against the ancient Greek occupiers is celebrated during Chanukah.

A third interpretation held that the place had been a mega-mansion, built as a winter retreat by a wealthy Jerusalem family.

Taking the excavated remains as its blueprint, the UCLA team began to model the structure wall by wall, reflecting their thickness, strength and, even, texture.

What the model showed was that the ancient inhabitants of Qumran, like Beverly Hills homeowners, had remodeled and expanded the original structure.

According to its “visualization” and the research of numerous scholars, the UCLA team concluded that the original 20,150-square-foot structure, built around 160 B.C.E., consisted of a two-story building and four-story tower, and was designed as a fortress.

The fortress was abandoned after some time, perhaps because it was no longer needed for defensive purposes. The site was reoccupied in 130 BCE, apparently by the Essenes, who began to repurpose and expand the place for their own communal needs.

Over the years they added a large dining hall, a pottery production plant, and, most importantly, the scriptorium where the scrolls were written.

The idyll was destroyed in 70 CE or shortly thereafter by the conquering Roman legions, after they had laid waste to Jerusalem and its Holy Temple.

According to the descriptions of communal living in the scrolls, the number of eating utensils and the size of the sleeping quarters, Qumran during the Essene era was inhabited by about 75 residents – all men.

One of the true marvels of Qumran, vividly illustrated through the computer model, was an elaborate water system of dams and canals, fed by runoffs from occasional flash floods and a spring, collected in a holding pool.

The system supplied enough water for no less than 11 mikvahs, or ritual baths, for separating clay at the pottery plant, and for the community’s livestock and crops.

Cleanliness was a high priority. Latrines were dug some distance from the structure and scribes had to wash themselves before entering the scriptorium.

Adding to the model’s allure is a series of high-resolution panoramic photographs of the sky, the cliffs to the west of Qumran and the Dead Sea and Jordanian plains to the east.

Cargill and Schniedewind, who developed the computer model over a 15-month period, plan to eventually replace the panoramic photography with satellite imagery, which will allow them to simulate the surrounding topography and terrain. They also hope to create virtual models of the caves where the scrolls were found.

Both Schniedewind and Cargill are practicing Christians with a deep appreciation and knowledge of Judaism and Israel.

After attending a Christian college as an undergraduate, Schniedewind, 44, earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at Brandeis, and an additional master’s at Jerusalem University College, a Christian institute in Israel’s capital.

He is fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic and Northwest Semitic dialects and his primary scholarly interest is in ancient Israel, especially the era of formative Judaism from 1000-1 B.C.E.

No ivory tower theoretician, he has worked on separate archaeological digs in Israel, including Qumran in 1993, and frequently praised the cooperation and pioneering research of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Cargill is 34, of Scottish descent, and has handled most of the computer modeling. He graduated from Pepperdine University, majoring in biblical studies, and “realized that to understand Christianity I had to first understand Judaism,” he said.

When first asked if he were Jewish, he asked back, “Aren’t we all?” As a token of his affection for Israel, his forearm is tattooed with the Hebrew word “ahava,” or love.

The Journal got an advance introduction to the virtual Qumran during a demonstration of digital innovation projects at UCLA.

It will be officially unveiled to the public on June 29 at the San Diego Natural History Museum, as part of the largest and most comprehensive public exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls in any country.

In all, 27 scrolls will be on view during the seven-month exhibit, 10 of which have never been publicly displayed.

The San Diego museum underwrote 75 percent of the $100,000 cost of the Qumran project.

The preview at UCLA also featured 25 other digital innovation projects, ranging from an urban simulation of Los Angeles to an analysis of Old Icelandic.

San Diego museum culls worldwide collections for Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit

When a young Bedouin goat-herder entered a long-forgotten cave in the Judean desert and found some old jars filled with strange looking manuscripts, he had no idea he had stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological treasures of our time – the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was 1947, and the scrolls had been lost for 2,000 years. During the next decade, archeologists would discover remnants of approximately 900 manuscripts in 11 caves, linking the modern world to the formative years of Judaism and Christianity and opening a doorway to an ancient Middle East culture and its traditions.

On June 29, the San Diego Natural History Museum will open the exhibition “Dead Sea Scrolls,” the largest, most comprehensive show ever of these ancient treasures. It will include authentic scrolls, illuminated biblical manuscripts, artifacts, landscape and aerial photography and interactive displays about science, discovery and exploration. Thanks to loans from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), 24 Dead Sea Scrolls – 10 exhibited for the first time ever – will be on display during the six-month run of the exhibition.

“We’ve really gone out of our way to present the context of the story, the context of the place, how these things were discovered, what some of the various theories are about them and the site that was closest to where they were discovered,” said Risa Levitt Kohn, curator of the exhibition.

Many aspects of this exhibition are unique. Designed specifically for the San Diego Natural History Museum, this is not a traveling show. Normally, most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are permanently housed under the care and custody of the IAA, who usually, to ensure preservation of the 2,000-year-old parchment, allow only one set of scrolls to be exhibited for a three-month period outside of Israel. The San Diego museum has been granted the unprecedented opportunity for an extended exhibition with 12 scrolls displayed for the first three months and an additional 12 in the last three months. This is no small feat, considering the rigorous standards of the IAA.

“Our goal is to preserve them for at least another 2,000 years,” said Pnina Shor, head of the IAA’s Artifacts Treatment and Conservation Department. “The Dead Sea Scrolls are extremely fragile and sensitive, and three issues have to be considered carefully before allowing them to be exposed for [even] a limited period of time: illumination, temperature and humidity. On our site visit we check that the venues that wish to exhibit them are up to it and will be able to maintain our strict requirements.” After the exhibition, she adds, the scrolls will return to Jerusalem, where they will have to “rest” for at least another year.

Kohn herself has forgotten what it means to rest because of the amount of time and energy that goes into curating a world-class exhibition, yet she exudes an aura of deep satisfaction – much as you’d expect to see in someone who has spent months digging in the dirt and chipping away at rocks, slowly unearthing treasure after buried treasure.

Misconceptions about the Dead Sea Scrolls abound, she said.

“When many people think of them, they assume they are all biblical in nature. They’re often surprised to hear that there are [around] 900 scrolls, of which only 207 are biblical.”

The biblical scrolls contain all the books in the Hebrew bible, except the Book of Esther – a mystery that remains unsolved. There are also numerous apocryphal manuscripts (texts not included in the biblical canon) and the so-called “sectarian scrolls,” which contain biblical commentary, religious legal writings, prayers, poems and compositions that predict a coming apocalypse.

Although their origins have been a subject of controversy, most scholars believe the scrolls were copied and composed by a group that broke away from mainstream Judaism to live a communal life at Qumran. They called themselves the “Sons of Light,” and those living in Jerusalem – including the priesthood at the Temple – the “Sons of Darkness.” When the Romans invaded around 68 C.E., the Qumran community hid their manuscripts in nearby caves, where they remained until the Bedouin goat-herder found them.

The stories that surround the Dead Sea Scrolls are filled with the unexpected, and the story of how this exhibition came into being is no exception. Three years ago Kohn, the director of the Jewish studies program at San Diego State University and also the first person to earn a doctorate in ancient history and Hebrew Bible from UCSD, was having lunch with her former professor and renowned biblical scholar, David Noel Freedman. They were joined by Weston Fields, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation. Fields had just returned from an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls at a small museum at Grand Rapids, Mich., and his enthusiasm over its success was contagious, Kohn said: “I became intrigued with the idea and plied him with questions: ‘how much did it cost, how much space did you need, how many scrolls came, what’s involved in putting this together?’ Eventually I turned to Dr. Freedman and said, ‘We need to do this here,’ and he said, ‘No, you need to do this here.'”

Next came the exhaustive research, and then came the hunt for museum venues. The San Diego Natural History Museum had just undergone a major expansion and seemed in every way to be a perfect fit. To her surprise, Michael Hager, president and CEO of the museum, thought so, too.

As daunting an undertaking as this has been, things have gone remarkably smoothly so far, considering the scope of the project, Kohn said, while acknowledging that she’s had the good fortune to draw upon the expertise of world-renowned historians, archeologists, biblical scholars and scientists, many of whom will participate in the museum’s series of lectures related to the show.

When Hager felt that that the story shouldn’t end in 68 C.E. with the latest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, she learned there was a very large collection of biblical manuscripts from about a thousand years later that are kept in the Russian Library in St. Petersburg. Negotiations began to bring out some of that collection, then some from the British Library and, as Kohn said, “It sort of started a domino effect and that’s how we got to the situation we have now – where we have [manuscripts] coming from all over the world.”

Dig this! Herod’s tomb found after 3-decade hunt

Ruthlessly lavish in his lifetime and a villain of Jewish and Christian narratives alike, the biblical King Herod has captured the world’s imagination anew with the discovery of his tomb outside Jerusalem.

Hebrew University archeologists on May 8 announced the find of the first century B.C.E. monarch’s grave, sarcophagus and mausoleum at the Herodium ruins in the Judean Desert after more than three decades of digging.

“This is the only site that carries his name, and the site where he chose to be buried and to memorialize himself — all of this with the integration of a huge, unique palace at the fringe of the desert,” said professor Ehud Netzer, team leader. “Therefore, the unearthing of his tomb marks the climax of research at this site.”

No human remains were among the relics, possibly due to grave robbers or what the university described as “nationalist vandalism” in ancient Judea. It said the sarcophagus and mausoleum had suffered extensive damage, apparently by Jewish zealots who waged a revolt against Roman occupiers in 66-72 C.E.

“The rebels were known for their hatred of Herod and all that he stood for as a ‘puppet ruler’ for the Romans,” the university said in a statement.

Herod, a convert to Judaism whom the Romans appointed king of Judea, was considered a great builder and administrator who dramatically expanded and renovated the Second Temple, refurbished the fortress at Masada, rebuilt water supplies for Jerusalem and built the cities of Caesarea and Herodium. He also is remembered as a ruthless ruler who did not hesitate to eliminate potential rivals, including one of his many wives and two of his children.

Herod’s outsized ego has an especially grim resonance for Christians: The New Testament records that upon hearing that a new messiah, or “King of the Jews,” would be born in Bethlehem, Herod ordered the slaughter of the town’s male children. Jesus survived, according to the Christian narrative, because his parents escaped to Egypt.

Herodium, which included a huge palace at the edge of the desert near Bethlehem, is where the king chose to be buried and memorialized.

Netzer, considered a world expert on Herodian architecture, began his search for Herod’s tomb more than three decades ago. After digging in various spots on Mount Herodium, Netzer said the team knew it was close to the tomb when they found the first pieces of a “monumental” sarcophagus made of hard limestone during excavations on the northeastern slope.

“There is only one or two of its kind found so far” in the country, Netzer said. “It’s not that every rich Jew or citizen of this time could afford it. It’s really a royal one.”

Netzer’s team of archeologists, Ya’akov Kalman, Roi Porath and local Bedouins, also unearthed part of a platform of dressed limestone — about 30-by-30 feet — that belonged to the mausoleum. Other “high-quality” artifacts found at the site included decorated urns similar to those found on burial monuments of the Nabatean culture.

No inscriptions have been found, but the team says circumstantial evidence — an account of Herod’s funeral at the site by the historian Josephus Flavius, the lucrative artifacts and remnants found and historical records indicating Herod’s decision to be buried there — points to this being the king’s burial site.

According to the archeologists, Herodium included a prefabricated “tomb estate” for the king, with a mikvah for ritual purification of the corpse. There also was a “monumental” flight of stairs — 20 feet wide — up which the bier was carried.

Josephus’ book, “The Jewish Wars,” describes the funeral at Herodium in detail. Herod’s son, Archelaus, Josephus wrote, “brought forth all the royal ornaments to accompany the procession in honor of the deceased. The bier was of solid gold, studded with precious stones and had a covering of purple, embroidered with various colors; on this lay the body enveloped in purple robe, a diadem encircling the head and surmounted by a crown of gold, the scepter beside his right hand.”

The find is one of the most important discoveries from the Second Temple period, said Oren Gutfeld, professor of classical archeology at the Hebrew University Institute of Archeology.
“Someone so famous, like Herod the Great, Herod the Builder, a dominant person in the history of Israel and who we know about so much from literary sources — from Josephus Flavius — and archaeological finds all over Israel and outside, it’s a diamond in the crown,” said Gutfeld, who had worked with Netzer at Herodium for three years and has seen the tomb remnants.

Stephen Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land and a specialist in inscription studies and Second Temple historiography, said Netzer should be congratulated for finding sarcophagus fragments, which indicate “a tomb of someone on the ground who was very rich, affluent, perhaps of great honor.”

But “we don’t know whether Archelaus or one of the other sons was buried there with him,” Pfann said. “We don’t know whether the fragments of the sarcophagus might be of someone else. All we know from history is that he is the only one mentioned as being buried there.”

Ze’ev Weiss, also an archeology professor at the Institute of Archeology, said it seems logical that the tomb belonged to Herod, based on the discovery of the podium and pieces of the sarcophagus, combined with accounts of the funeral taking place at Herodium.

However, the archeological team and other experts say much excavation work still remains to be done at the site.

“In my mind, as an archeologist, there is nothing 100 percent,” said Weiss, who worked with Netzer in the 1980s in the Herodium area. “We have to work; we have to prove it, but still, when we take all the details, I would say there is a high percentage that this is Herod’s tomb.”

Local Team Solves Ancient Mystery

In 1979 two tiny pieces of cracked and deteriorated silver found in a tomb outside of the Old City of Jerusalem proved to be one of the most important archeological discoveries of the century.

The silver strips had Hebrew writing on them — albeit a very different-looking Hebrew to the one we know today — and the words spelled out the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord make his countenance shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his countenance to you and grant you peace.”

The strips, which were initially dated from the seventh or sixth century B.C.E., contained the earliest known citation of a text that is also found in the Bible (in this case, Numbers 6: 24-26).

But for years, researchers doubted whether the “Ketef Hinnom amulets” — named for the place where they were discovered — were actually from that period, which would make them 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. They believed that the silver strips could have been written not in an archaic script, but an archaistic script — in other words, written in a way that made them look older than they actually were. The rest of the writing on the strips had corroded away with the silver, so scholars couldn’t read it clearly. And they weren’t even sure if the strips were amulets, which were usually worn as a sort of spiritual protection, or something else. Those scholars dated the silver as coming from the third or fourth century B.C.E. If that were the case, the strips would have been a less-important discovery in establishing the ancientness of the Bible’s language.

Recently, a team of Southern California researchers from the USC School of Religion-affiliated West Semitic Research Project (WSRP), an organization that photographs ancient artifacts so that scholars all over the world can study them, rephotographed the amulets using innovative lighting techniques that revealed more of the writing on them. Then, using computer imagery to analyze the writing on the strips and compare it with other writings of the period, proved that they are archaic, not archaistic, and the oldest-known citation of a biblical text. The scholars dated the strips as coming from the period just before the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C.E., reestablishing the strips as, in words of one scholar, the “heavyweight champions of the [archeological] world.”

“We initially tried to photograph the objects conventionally, but it was clear that it was not going to work,” said Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, a professor of Semitic languages at USC, who is the project leader at WSRP.

Zuckerman explained that markings on the amulets were too small too be decipherable to the naked eye, which is why many photographs taken from different angles were needed to properly study them.

“We took picture in contrasting lights, then we would match them and superimpose them one on top of the other,” he said, referring to the way that some of the letters were visible from one angle, but not from another.

Zuckerman and his colleagues, Dr. Marilyn Lundberg of the WSRP and Dr. Andrew Vaughn, a biblical historian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, also used a computer imaging technique they called “patching,” which took a piece of the writing that had been misaligned by the cracked silver and “patched” it into the place it was meant to be. They also studied similar writings from the period, which enabled them to recognize letters that were no longer whole, due to the age of the silver.

The team was able to decipher the preamble to the priestly blessing on the amulets, which read: “May he [or she] be blessed by God, the rescuer and the rebuker of evil.”

“It tells you without question that you are dealing with an amulet,” Zuckerman said. “And we were able to do a close comparison with equivalent inscriptions from that period and from the later periods. Basically, we believe that we decisively proved that what had originally been proposed was correct, these are the earliest citation of a biblical text. It reestablishes them as the heavyweight champions of the world.”

The scholars also worked with Dr. Gabriel Barkay, the archeologist at Bar Ilan University in Israel who discovered the amulets. Together they published their research in a CD form, in The Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research. Academic articles are traditionally published in paper journals, but the CD, which was published with the assistance of the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC, enabled the scholars to publish the photographs they took, as well as the digital imaging techniques, so that other scholars could assess them.

“It is really important to me that our common Jewish heritage is more fully explored — and when I say our common Jewish heritage, I don’t mean just for Jews,” Zuckerman said. “The Jewish heritage lies at the base of the great religions, and when one makes a small discovery like this, we’re doing something to further clarify the origins of the great religions.”

For more information on the project, visit