Pliny on the Essenes

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Pliny on the Essenes

Post by StephenGoranson »

Rereading Pliny on the Essenes:
Some Bibliographic Notes

Stephen Goranson
Duke University

The account of the Essenes which Pliny included in his compendious work Natural History (5.73) has attracted considerable attention. But it has often been read with some mistaken presuppositions. This brief article will try to shed some new light on the text in Pliny. The source recorded by Pliny does indeed include a useful, if idealized, account of those Essenes who lived at Qumran. And we can now see that Pliny's source--Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa--described the situation at Qumran, and the status of other sites, notably Ein Gedi, specifically during the reign of Herod the Great, in approximately 15 B.C.E.

Pliny's source in N.H. 5.70, before the Essene account, used Herodian-period administrative divisions in a list with ten toparchies in Judaea proper, as was shown by Menahem Stern.1 Josephus in War 3.55 gave a list of eleven toparchies. For present purposes, it is sufficient to note only a few aspects of these two lists. The list in Pliny dates from the time of Herod the Great, while Josephus' list reflects a later--but still Second Temple period--reality. Both lists include Jericho. The Josephus list includes Ein Gedi, but Pliny's does not. In the case of Jerusalem, it is on both lists, but in Pliny the name of the district is Orine, hill country, "where Jerusalem was formerly situated." Of course, Jerusalem was always situated in hill country, so it appears that Pliny gives the official earlier name and Josephus, using Jerusalem, the later name of the district. Here I have a minor disagreement with Stern, who wrote--contradicting his earlier demonstration of the Herodian date of the list--that Pliny in the case of Orine referred to "contemporary conditions. It may be assumed that the name Orine became official only after the destruction of Jerusalem."2 Here we encounter the widespread tendency to assume that Pliny updated his source to account for the consequences of the 66 to 73/74 C.E. war. Until recently, I made this assumption myself, though I now consider it unjustified.3 So far, at least, Pliny gives no evidence of information after the First Revolt. In any case, Josephus would probably be better informed about any recent administrative changes than Pliny.

It should be recalled that Pliny was not in Judaea. Theodor Mommsen long ago misread an inscription, taking it to indicate that Pliny had served with the army in Judaea. Pliny scholarship has corrected that misconception, based on a misreading of a Greek inscription from Arados (Syria), but not all Qumran scholars took this correction into account. Pliny held various government and army posts in Europe (where he served with Titus), but Pliny was never in Judaea.4

Pliny's source on Judaean toparchies5 as well as Essenes6 was probably Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the governor of Syria, friend of Herod the Great, and maker of a map and commentary.

The consequences of two senses of "Judaea"--the familiar one and another which includes Peraea and Galilee--used by Pliny and some other writer shave not been fully noticed by scholars. For example, Philo wrote in Quod probus 75 that Essenes lived in "Palestine Syria," but in Apologia pro Iudaeis (in Eusebius, Praep. ev. 8.11.1) Philo wrote that "They live in a number of towns in Judaea, and also in many villages and large groups." Possibly, Philo (or his source), in this case, meant "Judaea" in the larger sense, including Galilee and Peraea, which would conform more readily with his other description. (Further, note that Epiphanius in Panarion heresies 19 and 53 located the probably-related Ossenes in Peraea, among other places.)

Pliny's source, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, referred to the destruction of Ein Gedi c.40 BCE, during the Parthian invasion and Jewish civil war, and not the destruction in the First Revolt. Agrippa describes the state of Qumran/Ein Feshkha and Ein Gedi c.15 B.C.E., when, as a map-maker, commentator, and governor of Syria, he visited Herod, including at Herodion and Hyrcania.7 The reason Ein Gedi was not included in the toparchy list in the time of Herod the Great is that it was not substantially rebuilt until after his death; it was rebuilt sufficiently in time to assume a place on the list of Josephus. As has often been noticed, Pliny's text does not remark that Masada had been destroyed, which is a strong indication that Pliny did not add recent news to his Herodian source.

It has long been proposed that a copyist made an error, writing Jerusalem for Jericho in N.H. 5.73.8 This appears plausible. Both names begin, in Latin, with HIER. And, surely, it is Jericho, not Jerusalem, which is known for palm trees. Either a copyist corrupted the description of M. Agrippa or Pliny did. Agrippa knew the area well enough not to make that mistake. Further, the phrase "nunc alterum bustum" ("now another grave [or ashheap]") does not require that a second destroyed place be specified. This is shown, for instance, in the translation of Pliny by Philemon Holland, published in 1601 and reprinted often: "Now, they say, it [i.e., Ein Gedi, singular] serveth only for a place to inter their dead."9 There is no reason to assume a reference to 70 CE destruction. Furthermore, Solinus also used the singular in describing the destruction of Ein Gedi: "Lying below the Essenes was formerly the town of Engada, but it was razed." [Engada oppidum infra Essenos fuit, sed excisum est.]10

There has been much discussion of the phrase "infra hos Engada," concerning the relative location of Jericho,11 the Essene settlement, Ein Gedi, and Masada.12 Pliny used over 100 sources, so it is not surprising that "infra" is used in a variety of ways. It has frequently been pointed out that Pliny here does use the sense of "downstream" which the North to South movement here suggests, rather than placing them in hills west of Ein Gedi, hills whose existence he does not mention.13 It has also often been noted that, despite intensive archaeological surveys, no site other than the Qumran/Ein Feshkha complex qualifies. I can add yet another indication that Agrippa in Pliny did describe Essenes at Qumran. Of the seventeen cases14 where in the geographic books of N.H., books 3 to 6, where Pliny uses "infra," two of those which use the term to mean "downstream" occur in sections of Pliny's text (4.84 and 6.136) which explicitly name Marcus Agrippa. Though this does not absolutely prove that Agrippa used the word in this sense in his account of Essenes, it does appear that the evidence as a whole makes the link of Agrippa's description with Qumran secure.

In a recent book, Lena Cansdale wrote that the interpretation of Pliny by de Vaux and others "quite unacceptable."15 Rather than engaging the substantial literature and source criticism, she argues that Pliny elsewhere uses the Latin terms for the cardinal points, south and so on, implying he would have done so here if Ein Gedi were to the south of the Essene settlement. But one could easily respond that neither did he (or his source) use the Latin for west to place them in heights (also not mentioned) in that direction from Ein Gedi. So it is Cansdale's treatment which is "quite unacceptable."

Recent excavations by Yizhar Hirschfeld in Ein Gedi have been interpreted as an Essene settlement, based on the apparent misreading of Pliny. At least, this appears to be the case, based on preliminary reports of the excavation. Hirschfeld's site is too small and too late to be what Pliny described. Even more contrasting is the description by Dio (in Synesius) that the Essenes had a "very blessed city" (or a "complete and happy city," polin hol_n eudaimona). And Hirschfeld assumes that his "Essenes" worked in the balsam industry in the factory in the town of Ein Gedi; if so, the would not be "alone with palm trees." Furthermore, Uzi Dahari has dug a site similar to Hirschfeld's. Dahari's site, on cliffs south of Wadi Kidron, is dated to the first revolt and afterward--in other words, too late for Pliny's source. Dahari suggests that his site, which lacks miqvaot or a communal building, may have served refuges from the revolt.

Joseph M. Baumgarten has presented an interesting Qumran parallel to M. Agrippa's description of Essenes as a "gens aeterna." From 4Q502, Baumgarten compared the blessings "btwk 'm 'wlmy[m," "in the midst of an eternal people."16

Joseph Amusin also compared "gens aeterna" to a text attested at Qumran.17 He refers to the self-descriptions in CD VII, 6; XIX, 1-2; and XX, 22: "l' 'lp dwr," that they live for a thousand generations.

According to Matthew 3:7-8, concerning John the Baptist, who is sometimes thought to have been associated with Essenes: "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance....'" It may be of interest to compare this with Pliny's statement about the Essenes that they existed so long because " fruitful for them is the repentance which others feel for their past lives [tam fecunda illis aliorum vitae paenitentia est]."

That "socia palmarum" refers to actual trees is made more plausible by new climate studies: the area was wetter then than now.18 And de Vaux already noted the presence of date palm wood, palm leaves, and date pits at Qumran.19 Yet there may be a word play here. Botanically, palms are male and female, but in Hebrew tamar is usually taken as female; in addition to the personal name, see Shir ha-Shirim 7:8 (7:7 in RSV: "You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters"). Could there be an echo in Agrippa's source of an earlier Hebrew remark that was less than complimentary? That must remain speculative, and Agrippa surely presents Essenes in a positive light. In any case, abdication of sex, "omnes venere abdicata" does not necessarily require banishing women, or men, from one's sight (or site).

Archaeological work by Jodi Magness, Yaacov Meshorer, et al. shows Qumran was occupied at the time of M. Agrippa, who died in 12 B.C.E. This corrects the dating of the periods by de Vaux. The destruction of Qumran Ib was either near the end of Herod's life (perhaps he turned against Essenes) or in the disturbances shortly after his death in 3 BCE.20

In summary, Marcus Agrippa's account in the tradent Pliny provides important information on Qumran Essenes.

for footnotes: ... on98.shtml
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Re: Pliny on the Essenes

Post by StephenGoranson »

Additions to the old article above:
C. D. Ginsburg, in 1870 wrote that Essenes “settled on the north-west shore of the
Dead Sea (Pliny, Hist. Nat. v, 17)….”24 F. de Saulcy in 1853 located a “pays des
Esséniens” between Wadi en-Nar or Qidron and Άin el-Ghuweir.25 ....
And Joan Taylor wrote on William Hepworth Dixon’s
account, which “…states—somewhat prophetically—in 1866 that the ‘chief seats of this
sect [of the Essenes] were pitched on the western shores of the Dead Sea, about the
present Ras al Feshka….’”30....

24 C.D. Ginsburg, Cyclopaedia of Biblical Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature
(eds. J. M’Clintock and J. Strong; New York: Harper, 1870) 3: 304.. The article on
Essenes may have appeared in earlier editions edited by J. Kitto as well.
25 F. de Saulcy, Voyage autour de la mer Morte (Paris: Pouget-Coulon, 1858) 24-33, 201
and Atlas; E. Puech, “The Necropolises of Khirbet Qumrân and Άin el Ghuweir and the
Essene Belief in Afterlife,” BASOR 312 (1998) 21-36, here 32, n.23.

30 J. Taylor, “Khirbet Qumran in the Nineteenth Century and the Name of the Site,” PEQ
134 (2002) 144-64, here 156, citing W.H. Dixon, The Holy Land (2nd ed; London:
Chapman and Hall, 1866) 179-80.
31 For more, see my “Rereading Pliny on the Essenes: Some Bibliographic Notes,” in the
Orion Centre papers: ... on98.shtml
To the bibliography there, one should add: M. Dulaey, “La notice de Pline sur les
esséniens (HN 5, 17, 73,” Helmantica 38 (1987) 283-93--also published in Pline l’Ancien
témoin de son temps: Conventus Pliniani Internationalis, Namenti 22-26 Oct. 1985 habiti
(eds. J. Pigeaud and J. Oroz Reta; Salamanca and Nantes: Universidad Pontifica, 1987).
599-609. Dulaey’s study, which I read afterward, nicely supports my study “Posidonius,
Strabo,” 295-98, that M. Agrippa, circa 15 BCE, was Pliny’s source on Essenes. M.
Beagon, Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992)
esp. 196, on personified good Jordan water assisting all as it meanders, reluctantly
moving downstream into Dead bad water; then Essenes, Ein Gedi, Masada, Judaea
boundry—five in a row. Also, for a different view, see G.W. Bowersock, “The East-West
Orientation of Mediterranean Studies and the Meaning of North and South in Antiquity,”
Rethinking the Mediterranean (W.V. Harris, ed.; Oxford; New York: Oxford University
Press, 2005) 167-78

extract from
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Re: Pliny on the Essenes

Post by StephenGoranson »

1853 map estimates a "pays des esseniens" near, south of, Ein Feshkha.
To the north Qumran is (mis)identified as Gommorah. ... page=16,17

Saulcy, Félicien de: Voyage autour de la Mer Morte et dans les terres bibliques exécuté de Dec. 1850 à Avr. 1851. 3: Atlas

München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
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Re: Pliny on the Essenes

Post by DCHindley »

My curiosity was piqued, and I went ahead and copied the Latin Text of Pliny the Elder's Natural History (book 5, "versification" is not same as ET) and matched it to the English translation

Greek: edition of Karl Friedrich Theodor Mayhoff. Lipsiae. Teubner. 1906. Plin. Nat. 5.29
English: translation of John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855. Plin. N.H. Bk 5, chapter (17).

Like I tend to do, the text is broken into clauses and the translation matched to the Latin word or clause order, requiring two relocations ([...] shows where the translated phrase was originally placed and [[...]] represents where it was in the original Latin). My guess was that the translator felt the narrative flowed better in English with clauses rearranged so.

FWIW, it doesn't add too much to the big picture of things.

Pliny, or his source, was just amazed by the simplicity of these folks lives, and that they sought it voluntarily after difficult voyages of fate drove them there. His source (or Pliny the Elder) believed they had existed as an organized community for "thousands of generations," simply from converts driven to them by fate and not by producing children.

This sounds a lot like the Shaker movement of the 19th century in the USA. Shakers had some "unique" beliefs, were celibate, and were known for making simple, elegant, sturdy furniture that they sold to support their movement. They also renounced sex and only added to their sect by converts attracted by their simplicity. It was an Ohio thing.

The motives of those attracted to this area (shores of Lake Asphaltis = Dead Sea) are also similar to the motivations that brought new Therapeutae into their hippy colony near Alexandria. Those folks in Alexandria seem to have given away all or most of their wealth, but some of it could have been donated to the sect beforehand.

The attached file, intended to be a study aid, is in MS Word (docx) format, so sorry if that causes problems for some. This can be manipulated for your own curiosity, though. I went ahead and created a PDF version. I do not think that phpBB supports the table as I have it here.
Am in process of modifying my giant spreadsheet that compares the descriptions of Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Therapeutae and 4th Philosophy type groups, in Philo, Josephus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius & Eusebius, will now include Pliny the Elder's description.

I make these things solely to use as aides when studying the works of scholars. Even good ones occasionally make broad connections and generalizations that don't match the sources cited when you look at them. .

Have fun, lurkees.

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Re: Pliny on the Essenes

Post by DCHindley »

Well, that giant spreadsheet just got larger.

Sources will be:

The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. Bk 5.(17) John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855. (Some clauses relocated to match Latin order) ca 1C CE, source may be 1C BCE)

Philo (De Jonge) De vita contemplativa, ca. mid 30s CE

Philo (De Jonge) Quod omnis probus liber sit, ca. mid 30s CE

Josephus (Whiston) Wars of the Jews, ca 75 CE

Josephus (Whiston) Antiquities, ca. 95 CE

Hippolytus (MacMahon, ANF vol 5) Refutation of all Heresy, ca. 218-235

Eusebius (McGiffert, NPNF series 2 vol 1) Church History ca.320 CE.

Epiphanius (sects 1-46 Frank Williams, ch 47 & up Philip Amadon) Panarion ca. 378 CE

It is getting unwieldy so I may need to change orientation to landscape and margins to 8.5" x 14". Until then ...

Edit: done.
Uh OH, forgot to add Pliny to the titles.

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