The Secret Magdalene

The Settlement in the Wilderness of "Damascus"

Two thousand years ago, the level of the Dead Sea was higher than it is today. This left very little shore between the water's salty edge and the cliffs that rose above the many places fifteen hundred feet straight up, broken only by nahals (wadis or ravines) draining seasonal water from the Wilderness high above.

Khirbet Qumran was not the name of the settlement that sat on the dry yellow cliffs over the Sea of Salt, the Sea of Pitch, the Stinking Sea. For one thing, "khirbet" means "ruin." No one knows what this tumble of sun-blasted stones was called in the time of Jesus and the Magdalene, but they were there long before either he or Mary Magdalene drew breath. Perhaps it was the site known as the Biblical "Ir ha-Melah"—or City of Salt. And perhaps not. In "The Secret Magdalene," I call the place simply: the Wilderness. It was also named "Damascus," a code name taken from the prophet Amos, and inhabited by, among others, the zealots who used it to rest or to hide or to come together to talk of The Law and of revolution.

When Saul, or Paul, of Tarsus was on the road to Damascus to root out zealots, this is the settlement he meant to destroy. But on the way, he received his vision of the Christ—and that, as they say, was that.

Scholars know the secret hideaway was occupied by many and various people...that is, it was occupied until the summer of 68 CE when the Roman Commander Titus, eldest son of the soon-to-be emperor Vespasian, destroyed it in response to the increasing violence of Jewish zealotry. It was not, in my opinion (nor increasingly in the opinion of a growing body of scholars), the scene of a religious community, monastic or otherwise. Rather it was the center of zealotry and trade. The trade came in the form of pottery and in the growing and dispersal of medicines, most especially the black pitchy bitumen from the Dead Sea, the royal balsam that flourished nearby, and the growing and preparing of ''rosh" or opium.

Although it is against Jewish Law to dig up graves (by the time of Mary, the settlement included at least two cemeteries), some of the gravesites have collapsed over the long centuries. In them have been discovered female corpses. If "Damascus" or the Wilderness was a truly religious center, there would be no women, dead or alive. If it were a quiet peaceable place, Titus would not have gone out of his way to destroy it.

In 1947, this settlement is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. High in the caves above and below the cisterns and potteries and dining halls and storage rooms, were hidden masses of scrolls that seemed to come from all over the Jewish world and contained the work of various writers with various agendas. In some of the caves, shelves were carved out of the rock to store them, as if these particular caves had once been libraries. In other caves, the scrolls were found sealed in large jars. But many of the scrolls seemed hastily dumped, perhaps quickly brought to Qumran from all over in response to the First Jewish Revolt just before Titus came with his X Fretensis, a body of seasoned soldiers. After killing or capturing all they found, the Romans used the settlement as a base of military operations for the next twenty years. If they found the scrolls, they did not find them all.

The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls makes an ongoing clamor in the world of Biblical scholarship, but if they prove anything, they prove that those who inhabited the settlement at the time of the Magdalene were not peaceable men living out quiet lives of contemplation. They were zealots for the Law, and enemies of Rome and the Temple priests supported by Rome. Their words were words of fire. Revenge and destruction and End Times and a terrible all-consuming War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness made up their message to the world.

All this was the Wilderness of the Magdalene. It was the Wilderness of Jesus, whom she called Yeshu, and of his brother Judas. Here too lived John the Baptist. Such a place would be nothing if not stimulating, especially for the vital, visionary, curious, and ultimately magnificent Mary Magdalene: teacher, philosopher, lover and beloved...and constant student.

Now known as Qumran, here—overlooking the Dead Sea—lived those who hid from "authority" and called themselves The Poor.

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