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The Dead Sea Scrolls and medicinal plants of the Dead Sea region

April 15, 2010

By Joan Taylor

In 1970, one of the strangest books ever written on the subject of religion and pharmacology was published by a philologist, John Allegro, until then seen as an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls. In his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, Allegro presented the idea – which he saw evidenced in the Scrolls – that Christianity was an elaborate disguise of a fertility cult that extolled a hallucinogenic fungus, Amanita muscaria. Since Allegro, the subject of pharmacology and the Dead Sea Scrolls has seemed somewhat tainted and no serious scholar uses his book.

However, as he pursued his bizarre and truly absurd thesis, Allegro noted some solid material along the way. He took note of the fact that the Essenes – those usually identified as being responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls – are described by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus as having an “extraordinary interest in the writings of the ancients, singling out in particular those which make for the welfare of the soul and the body; with the help of these, and with a view to the treatment of diseases, they investigate medicinal roots and the properties of stones” (War 2: 136). He pointed out that this interest stemmed from a tradition that ascribed to King Solomon a great knowledge of healing, which involved not only astrology, angelology and demonology but also pharmacological lore. Allegro identified instances within the Dead Sea Scroll fragments where this was reflected. In addition, Allegro wondered whether the Essene location at Qumran beside the Dead Sea may have been because of the peculiarities of this region: he noted that Josephus described healing hot springs at a place called Callirhoe, a rue that grew at the fortress of Machaerus and what appeared to be mandrake (which Allegro identified as both a medicinal and holy plant) growing in a nearby valley, though his explanation of the regional significance veered off into the symbolic.

The study of healing and medicine in the Dead Sea Scrolls has, since Allegro, not had the attention it deserves, though from time to time in archaeological examinations of the site of Qumran and its environs mention is made of possible medicinal products manufactured there. My project is to examine anew questions relating to this topic, integrating numerous studies that have taken place over the past 40 years, so that we can better understand the significance of the Dead Sea region in terms of the various medicinal products known in antiquity that the Essenes, with their attested interest in pharmacology, must have known. For example, Josephus’s passing mention of “rue” (War 7: 178) was rightly noted by Allegro as striking. Pliny identifies rue as one of the most important of all medicines, and lists 84 remedies derived from it (Natural History 20: 51). Pliny states that painters and engravers ate rue with bread in order to preserve their eyesight. The Greek word Josephus uses, peganon, most likely relates to wild rue, or Peganum harmala, which is the pegamon agoron of Dioscorides (De Materia Medica 3: 52), used for dull eyesight. This plant grows around the Dead Sea to this day.

Can I relate such a product to the Dead Sea Scrolls directly? There is no neat text from the Scrolls that describes the uses of plants, and in fact there is good reason to suppose such lore was passed down by oral tradition, too important and secret to write down. However, the significance of restoring eyesight as one of the uses of rue is significant, because in Second Temple Judaism blind people were not allowed to be priests (Lev. 21: 16–24) and were banned from the Temple proper (2 Sam. 5: 8, cf. 4QMMT B 49–54). Within the Dead Sea Scrolls, blind people were not permitted to be part of the group (CD 15: 15–19). In Qumran’s Temple Scroll, they were not allowed in the holy city (11QTemple 45: 12–14). Nor could they participate in holy war (1QM 7: 4–5). This is why the actions of the future Messiah in restoring sight to blind people (4Q521) were so important, in order to restore a blind person to full participation within Israel. Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus the Messiah heals blind people a number of times (e.g. Mark 8: 22–28; 10: 46–52 and parr.; Matt. 9: 27; John 9: 1–41). With the Essenes apparently interested in medicines, a plant with a renowned use as a cure for poor sight would have been of interest.

But how can we know for sure that the people who lived in Qumran used any medicines or were particularly interested in them? The curiosities of the archaeology may yet hold some clues. The best evidence thus far, however, comes from bones. When skeletons from the Qumran cemetery were excavated in the 1960s, physical anthropologists in Israel concluded that curious red staining on the bones was consistent with what would occur if madder root, containing alizarin, were ingested. Common madder (Rubia tenuifolia or tinctorum) too is a plant found around the Dead Sea. Pliny noted madder as a cure for jaundice, sciatica and paralysis (the patient taking a bath in it), as well as a dye (Nat. Hist. 24: 56 [94]; 19: 17 [47]). Dioscorides (De Materia Medica 3: 160) lists its many uses, including its power to relieve skin diseases, cure partial paralysis and cleanse the liver. If the occupants of Qumran ate it regularly, it must have been with a view to a preventative effect. This at least would show that these people consumed medicinal plants.

My study, therefore, ranges from the contextual examination of pharmacological resources around the Dead Sea, to the healing-related texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, to the archaeology of Qumran, and to an array of ancient literature. In examining this rigorously, perhaps some seeds of truth in Allegro’s lush fantasy may yet be found.

Joan Taylor is Lecturer in New Testament at King’s College London, Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Waikato University, New Zealand, and Honorary Research Fellow in the Departments of History and Jewish Studies at University College London. She has received for this project a Wellcome Trust Small Research Grant and the 2009 Research Fellowship from the International Society for the History of Pharmacy.

One Comment leave one →
  1. oliver springate permalink
    October 26, 2014 9:29 pm

    ‘strangest’ ‘bizarre’ ‘absurd’
    Sir your shrill squeals betray the narrow limitations of a pedestrian mind. They also slander the memory of a courageous free thinking scholar who served our academic community by both tireless campaigning to have the dead sea scrolls in the public domain, and by provoking far reaching debate on their significance. To find the religious use of intoxicants an absurd idea simply reflects your lamentable lack of erudition.
    please don’t diminish your self further in this way. it is undignified

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