In “The Case of the Gilded Staircase,” BAR 10:05, Professor Morton Smith attempts to prove that the Temple envisioned by the Essenes had a gilded staircase to reach the roof of the Temple where members of the Dead Sea sect worshipped the sun. As can be expected from Smith’s well-attested erudition, his contribution is informative and insightful. However, his thesis that the Essenes worshipped the sun must be rejected in toto.
Smith himself is fully aware of the major obstacle to his thesis: The Essenes were a fundamentalist sect that interpreted the Torah (the Pentateuch) literally. Their Temple Scroll—the same document that prescribes the Temple’s gilded staircase—also expressly cites the Deuteronomic prohibition against worshipping the sun (Temple Scroll, Column 55:17–18). Smith suggests that the sect may have rationalized its blatantly heretical behavior by claiming that it “reverenced” rather than worshipped the sun.