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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Perils of Prepublication in the Digital Age: Essenes, Latrines, and the Dead Sea Scrolls[1]

 In the fall of 2006, dozens of mainstream media outlets began reporting on the discovery of a purportedly ancient latrine to the northwest of Qumran, which, according to a subsequent article in Revue de Qumran by Joe Zias, James Tabor, and Stephanie Harter-Lailheugue,[2] proves that the individuals who lived at the site of Qumran during the Second Temple period were none other than the Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Based upon the witness of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Josephus, and newly acquired parasitological evidence from the Qumran plateau, Zias et al. concluded: “This important new evidence bolsters the Essene hypothesis by corroborating the descriptions of this distinctive toilet regimen in both the Scrolls and Josephus.”[3]

By the spring of 2007, Zias and Tabor’s theory had, in the eyes of many non-specialists, become an indisputable fact. Take, for example, the following excerpt from Archaeology magazine:

An ancient latrine near the ruins of Qumran follows the unusual and stringent guidelines in both the Dead Sea Scrolls and historical accounts of the strict Jewish Essene sect—directly linking the sect, the scrolls, and the settlement as never before. The latrine was required to be hidden a specific distance northwest of the city, but it may have been unsanitary, thus contributing to the poor health of Qumran’s ancient residents.[4]

Although the Qumran/Essene hypothesis is arguably the most convincing explanation for the textual and archaeological evidence thus far recovered from the region in and around Khirbet Qumran, one of the great drawbacks of this theory is that it has so completely dominated the landscape of Dead Sea Scrolls research that we are frequently unable to see beyond the shadow that it casts. This is particularly true in regards to the work of Zias and Tabor: rather than allowing the archaeological and literary evidence to speak for themselves, they have attempted to validate the Qumran/Essene hypothesis by actively searching the Qumran plateau for evidence that supports the witness of Josephus and the Scrolls. This observation is confirmed by the authors themselves when, in describing the rationale behind their study, they note:

In the summer of 1996 Dr. Tabor and Joe Zias performed a walking survey of the northwest area [of the Qumran plateau], based on the descriptions in both the Scrolls and Josephus. Dr. Tabor pointed out several places at which more permanent [toilet] facilities may have been present, but the random sampling indicated that the entire northwest area, regardless of any remaining facilities, appears to have been used by the community for defecation.[5]

Based upon a reference in the Scrolls to latrines being constructed three thousand cubits to the northwest of Jerusalem and a description of the Essenes in Josephus, who claims that newly admitted members to this ancient Jewish sect were given a hatchet in order to facilitate the act of defecation in “retired spots,” Zias and Tabor sampled with a similar digging implement the soil surrounding the ancient site of Qumran to a depth of twenty to thirty centimeters, or eight to twelve inches.[6] The soil samples recovered by Zias and Tabor were then sent the “CNRS Laboratory for Anthropology in Marseille, France, for parasitological examination.”[7] After conducting a microscopic examination of the samples from Area A, which is located some eight to nine hundred cubits to the northwest of Qumran, the laboratory in Marseille concluded that the soil from this area contained intestinal parasites that are (a) exclusive to humans and (b) frequently found in “coprolites of the Old and New Worlds.”[8] By way of interpreting these results, Zias and Tabor concluded that “it is surely not mere chance that this evidence fits so precisely the description of the Essenes found in Josephus and correlates so well with the practices (in terms of the northwest direction) specified in the Scrolls.”[9]

Although the discovery of human excrement to the northwest of Khirbet Qumran is potentially significant, it is important to recognize that Zias and Tabor have not presented any definitive archaeological evidence to support their conclusions. Not only have Zias and Tabor failed to locate any pottery, implements, coins, or manmade structures in “Area A,” which makes it virtual impossible to date the excrement that they have recovered,[10] but their preconceived notions about the Scrolls and the Qumran/Essene hypothesis would seem to have affected the way in which they have interpreted the material culture and geographical features of the Qumran plateau. Similarly, their interpretation of the geographical features and material culture from the Qumran plateau has been used to verify the Qumran/Essene hypothesis and the witness of the scrolls.This form of circular argumentation is highly tenuous and frequently results in conclusions that are far more confident than the extant evidence will allow.[11] However, rather than engaging in a detailed critique of Zias and Tabor’s methodology and conclusions, which I have done elsewhere,[12] I would like to take this opportunity to discuss a subsidiary, yet no less important, issue, namely, the prepublication of Zias and Tabor’s hypothesis in the mainstream media and the effect that this has had on the scholarly guild and on the general public. 

On November 13, 2006, the public relations department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which is the home institution of James Tabor, published a press release entitled “Remote latrine reconfirms the presence of Essene sect at Qumran.”[13] Beyond the observation that it is impossible to reconfirm something that has yet to be confirmed, this publication, which was used as the template for a number of subsequent popular articles, contains several notable errors and hyperbolic statements. According to the University of North Carolina [hereafter UNC], the investigation of the purported latrine outside the ruins of Qumran was primarily driven by the witness of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which “specifically [require] latrines to be located at a significant distance ‘northwest of the city,’ and also to be ‘not visible from the city.’”[14] In support of this reading, the UNC press release enlists the aid of Tabor, who is credited as saying: “‘in one text it says go 1,000 cubits, and in another 2,000 cubits—and they specifically state [that the latrines should be built to the] ‘northwest.’”[15] There are, however, significant problems with these statements. Concerning the observation that the Scrolls “specifically [require] latrines to be located at a significant distance “northwest of the city” and also to be “not visible from the city,” it must be stated that this is simply not true. Of the more than eight hundred scrolls that have been recovered from the caves surrounding the archaeological site of Khirbet Qumran, only the Temple Scroll requires permanent latrines to be built to the northwest of the idealized city of Jerusalem:    

            And you will make for them a place of the hand outside of the city where they shall go;        outside to the northwest of the city—houses with beams and pits in their midst into which excrement shall drop and shall not be visible to anyone at a distance from the city of three thousand cubits. (11QT 46.13-16a)         

By contrast, the document known as the War Scroll says absolutely nothing about the city of Jerusalem. Nor does it say anything about the latrines having to be located to the “northwest of the city” or not being “visible from the city”:

            And there shall be a distance between all of their camps and the place of the hand two thousand cubits. And any immodest nakedness shall not be seen around any of their camps. (1QM 7.6b-7)

As this passage indicates, the facilities that are described in the War Scroll are to be located “between” the eschatological war camps. This parallels a similar ruling in Deut 23:12-14, which indicates that God was thought to be present in the war camp and that he should not see any kind of indecency that might cause him to turn away from his people. 

As for the UNC press release and its contention that the distances between the city and the latrines were set at one thousand and two thousand cubits, we encounter yet another difficulty. In contrast to the quote from Tabor, the Temple Scroll requires that latrines be built three thousand cubits outside of the idealized city of Jerusalem (11QT 46.15-16a), whereas the War Scroll mandates that they be located two thousdand cubits outside of the eschatological war camp (1QM 7.6b-7a). These discrepancies are further compounded by a rather surprising interpretation of Josephus’ description of the Essenes. According to Tabor:

Josephus, in talking about the Essenes, mentions it as a point of admiration or piety—he says that these people are so holy, that on the Sabbath day they won’t even use the toilet, because on the Sabbath one can’t go outside the settlement [my emphasis]…. It turns out, if you go northwest of Qumran you get to this bluff—a large natural plateau separated from further cliffs—and if you go around it, it hides you from the camp.[16]

Not only does the press release from UNC present an inaccurate portrait of the relevant material from the Dead Sea Scrolls, but Tabor seems to have interpreted Josephus’ description of the Essenes as an explicit description of the settlement at Qumran. Concerning the latter, it is important to recognize that Josephus says absolutely nothing about the site of Khirbet Qumran in his description of the Essenes’ toilet practices. Had he done so, the Qumran/Essene hypothesis would be a fact rather than a theory. Furthermore, Tabor’s contention that Josephus’ Essenes “believed that their latrines should shield them from view of the camp”[17] is a highly tenuous and synthetic reading of both the Scrolls and Josephus that attempts to create an all-encompassing picture of the evidence at our disposal.

When discussing the toilet habits of the Essenes, Josephus mentions neither cities nor camps. Nor does he mentioning anything about cardinal directions, distances, or permanent toilet facilities. Rather, Josephus simply states that the Essenes were known to have selected “more retired spots” where they dug a hole with a hatchet, sat above it, and replaced the soil once they had attended to their business:

[On the Sabbath the Essenes do not] even go to the stool. On other days they dig a trench a foot deep with a mattock—such is the nature of the hatchet which they present to neophytes—and wrapping their mantle about them, that they may not offend the rays of the deity, sit above it. They then replace the excavated soil in the trench. For this purpose they select the more retired spots. And though this discharge of the excrements is a natural function, they make it a rule to wash themselves after it, as if defiled. (War 2.147-149)

 By synthesizing the textual material from the Scrolls and Josephus, Tabor and the UNC press release have created the impression that the Temple Scroll, the War Scroll, and Josephus are in agreement on the issue of defecation and that these documents recount the actual practices that were followed at Qumran. Not discussed are the obvious discrepancies between the various texts and why it is that the rulings on the latrines in the Scrolls, which are explicitly associated with the idealized city of Jerusalem and the eschatological war camps, would have been implemented anywhere other than Jerusalem or the war camps. Moreover, Tabor’s insistence that Josephus’ descriptions are an accurate portrayal of the settlement at Qumran during the Second Temple period ignores the fact that Josephus nowhere mentions or links the site of Khirbet Qumran with the Essenes. The byproduct of this homogenized portrayal of the textual evidence is that uniformed readers, not to mention the mainstream publications that used the UNC’s press release as the basis for their own stories, were compelled to agree with Zias and Tabor’s contention that “the latrine site was most likely the area specified in the Scroll passages … and could only be associated with Qumran [and the Essenes].”[18]

At 12:40 am on November 14, 2006, some seven hours after the UNC issued its press release, Tabor posted an article about the Qumran latrines on his Jesus Dynasty weblog. This posting, which included the UNC press release in its entirety, was preceded by a handful of introductory comments and links to a variety of mainstream media outlets that had already picked up the story and/or were slated to publish articles of their own later that day. In the opening to his blog entry, Tabor expressed his excitement about the topic and his eagerness to share the news with the general public:

For months I have been wanting to write about the newest research at Qumran, the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that Israel anthropologist Joe Zias and I have completed but I have kept my silence. We wanted first to have our work accepted for publication in an academic peer reviewed journal, then to release it properly to the media. Our media person here at UNC Charlotte issued an “embargoed” story two weeks ago and as of 5pm today the story is out at last![19]

Given that the public relations department at UNC had issued a self-imposed embargo on the story two weeks prior to publishing its press release on November 13, it stands to reason that Zias and Tabor’s article had been accepted for publication in Revue de Qumran near the end of October 2006. Although the Revue de Qumran article did not appear in print until May 2007,[20] some six months after the UNC’s press release had been issued, Tabor’s statement raises two rather important questions: (1) What is the proper way to release scholarly hypotheses to the media? And (2) what is the purpose of issuing an embargoed story? Let us consider the latter question first.        

The concept of the embargoed story involves two interrelated issues. First, it is a practice that is meant to ensure that only accurate peer-reviewed work is being reported to the general public. When scholarly hypotheses are released to the media prematurely or before they have been subjected to peer review, it can and has resulted in the publication of misleading and/or inaccurate information. Second, it is customary for fellow scholars to be given access to the original research during an embargo period or, at the very least, at the time of the story’s publication by the media. Not only is this practice a professional courtesy to the members of the guild, but it enables specialists and non-specialists alike to verify the claims and interpretations that are presented in the original research without having to rely on the mainstream media for information. Moreover, access to the original work during the embargo period is crucial for those members of the guild who may be interviewed by journalists who are attempting to determine the merits and/or accuracy of the hypotheses in question.           

It goes without saying that the embargo practices of a university’s public relations department will differ from the embargo practices of a peer-reviewed journal, but many of the same concerns are shared. Where they would seem to differ, however, is on the issue of granting access to the original work on which a popular article is based. After all, a public relations department is far more interested in promoting the image of its university and the work of its faculty members than it is in making sure that the members of the scholarly guild have access to the original work on which a particular story is based. By contrast, scholarly journals are primarily concerned with the publication of articles that have been evaluated and accepted by the members of a carefully selected review board. Additionally, scholarly journals have a vested interest in publishing cutting edge research that will advance the guild’s understanding of a particular topic and, not surprisingly, enhance the journal’s reputation in the eyes of the scholarly community. In short, universities, journals, scholars, and the media have divergent, if not competing, interests when it comes to releasing new hypotheses or archaeological finds to the general public. If we add the ease with which information can be disseminated electronically (i.e., via the internet, blogs, and electronic discussion lists), it becomes clear that we have, for better or worse, entered a new era of scholarly publication. This era requires a new set of guidelines and practices so as to ensure (a) that the general public is being presented with accurate information, (b) that the members of the scholarly guild have access to original work on or before the date of its publication in the media, and (c) that we, as members of the scholarly community, continue to hold each other accountable for the betterment of both the guild and the general public.           

Returning to the issue of the Qumran latrines and the prepublication of Zias and Tabor’s hypothesis via the media and internet, it must be said that a terrible disservice has been done to the public and to the scholarly guild. In a manner not unlike the archaeologists of the early-twentieth century, who are often described as arriving in the Holy Land with a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other, Zias and Tabor have conducted their work on the so-called Qumran latrines with the Scrolls and Josephus in one hand and a hatchet in the other. Not only have Zias and Tabor’s preconceived notions about the Scrolls and Josephus affected their interpretation of the Qumran plateau, but their interpretation of the parasitological evidence from the Qumran plateau has been used to validate their theories about the Scrolls and Josephus. Although I do not deny the potential significance of their findings, it must be stated once again that Zias and Tabor have not produced any artifacts from the so-called Qumran latrines on which to formulate a relative chronological date. Nor have they performed a survey of the region in order to determine if the parasitological evidence recovered from the plateau was from the same strata or level of occupation as the site of Khirbet Qumran. Rather, the entire basis for their argument is founded upon a rather narrow interpretation of the Scrolls and Josephus and on the parasitological evidence that they recovered from the Qumran plateau. Although some of the details about Zias and Tabor’s methodology did not surface until their article appeared in Revue de Qumran, the damage had already been done. To the untrained eye, the prepublication of Zias and Tabor’s findings in the New York Times, MSNBC, the Independent, Nature, Fox News, Archaeology, and many other mainstream media outlets, could be interpreted in only one way: as the latrines of the Essenes who lived at Qumran.            

The internet and personal weblogs are not going away any time soon, and I have no doubt there will be many more instances in which the prepublication of scholarly theories will occur. This is not to say that the concept of prepublication is necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it can be quite beneficial in terms of raising public interest, highlighting the accomplishments of institutions, foundations, and scholars, and satisfying the interests of supporters. Prepublication can also be done in such a way that it provides the audience with a general idea of what it is that has been found without explicitly stating the conclusions or hypotheses that are going to be forwarded in an academic article. However, in order to ensure that we not are doing the general public and our colleagues in the guild a disservice, we must avoid the temptation to aggressively prepublish detailed hypotheses without also granting full access to our original research. Moreover, if our original research has been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, any prepublication of our findings should be (a) approved by the editors of that journal and (b) timed to coincide with the publication of our original research. To do otherwise is to undermine the concept of the peer review process and, perhaps more importantly, to ignore the responsibility that we have to the general public and to our colleagues in the guild.

Ian Werrett, Saint Martin’s University


[1] A longer version of this article was presented during the 2008 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston, Massachusetts under the title “A Scroll in One Hand and a Hatchet in the Other: Essenes, Latrines, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.” 

[2] Joe E. Zias, James D. Tabor, and Stephanie Harter-Laiheugue, “Toilets at Qumran, the Essenes, and the Scrolls: New Anthropological Data and Old Theories,” RevQ 22/4 (2006): 631-40.

[3] Zias, Tabor, and Harter-Laiheugue, “Toilets at Qumran,” 631.

[4] “World Roundup,” Archaeology 60 (2007): 10-11.

[5] Zias, Tabor, and Harter-Laiheugue, “Toilets at Qumran,” 634 n.10.

[6] Ibid., 634.

[7] Ibid., 634.

[8] Ibid., 637.

[9] Ibid., 639.

[10] According to Zias, “Since we cannot rely on other archaeological evidence (e.g., ceramic or architectural) from Area A, the question of dating these particular parasites is certainly valid ….”; Zias, Tabor, and Harter-Laiheugue, “Toilets at Qumran,” 636.

[11] “Archaeology,” as Phillip Davies has noted, “needs to work as far as possible without certain preconceptions. In particular, it should never set out to prove a previously held theory, for my impression is that one can make archaeology prove so many things. Preconceptions lead to overinterpretation, which is much worse than underinterpretation. When observation and theory become mixed up in the process of describing a site, the uniformed reader will likely be mislead.” Phillip Davies, “How Not to Do Archaeology: The Story of Qumran,” BA 51 (1998): 206.

[12] Ian Werrett, “A Scroll in One Hand and a Mattock in the Other: Latrines, Essenes, and Khirbet Qumran,” RevQ 23/4 (2008): 475-89.


[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.


[20] The University of St. Andrews and the University of Glasgow did not receive the Winter 2006 issue of RevQ until 5/15/06 and 5/16/06 respectively. Other libraries had to wait even longer for this issue to arrive: University of Sydney – 6/1/07; New York Public Library – 6/15/07; University of Washington – 6/13/07; University of Oregon – 2/12/08; and Arizona State University – 4/2/08. Acquisition dates obtained through


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