Imagine reading this breaking news in your morning newspaper:
“ ‘Key’ to Vast Riches Written on Copper Is Deciphered”
“Two more Dead Sea Scrolls have just been deciphered. They have surprised Biblical scholars by revealing clues to legendary buried treasure worth countless millions ,instead of to Biblical subjects.
“… The documents tell of hoards of extraordinary value. If the treasure exists, it includes 200 tons of gold and silver. Two hundred short tons of gold would be worth $204,000,000, based on current prices … Two hundred tons of silver would be worth $5,320,000 at present … Other treasure in the form of incense was also mentioned in the scrolls.
“Scholars were quick to say that the treasure probably does not exist.
“The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in a cave by Bedouins in 1947. It and subsequent scrolls, on parchment or papyrus, gave Biblical texts and readings for spiritual edification. They were tucked away in the caves by the spiritually minded Essene sect. However, the two scrolls telling of treasure are on copper.”
The above is from an article published by the New York Times on July 1st, 1956. This may sound like something sensational from Indiana Jones, but it is not! The puzzling reporting reflects the fact that the early journalists didn’t know what they were dealing with. Yet the innuendos that reek of adventure and religious fervour more than of basic analysis still stubbornly cling to this particular find. So, what is this mysterious text?
The frenzy concerns one scroll that had broken up over the centuries into two parts and was discovered by archeologists in March of 1952 in Cave 3. However, after the arduous task of literally sawing it into the twelve columns in which it was originally written, the world had to wait four years for the first translations to appear.
What stands out in the article, aside from its focus on the size of the purported treasure, is how easily scholars at the time dismissed the nature of the described cache. On the one hand, they consider it a fantasy; on the other, they feared possible treasure hunters, a concern shared by the Jordanian authorities.
Of course, this was the time (1947-1954) during which most of the Dead Sea Scrolls that we now possess came to light. These originated from eleven caves situated along the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, in the vicinity of Qumran, the main settlement of the sect that produced and preserved the scrolls. The sectarians occupied that site from the 130s BCE until the Roman destruction in 68-70 CE. Often identified as the Essenes, the sect’s identity is still hotly discussed. What is agreed is that its members represented a group opposed to the Temple leadership and political elites in Jerusalem.
One major point of contention vis-à-vis the Jerusalem authorities was that the sect followed a strictly solar calendar, which seriously clashed with the luni-solar cultic calendar adhered to by the general population and the priesthood. Why was the nature of the calendar so significant? Because disputes over when the religious holidays fall an cause major disruptions in society. The sect’s discontent had grown to such an extent that they had withdrawn from Jerusalem and retreated into the Judaean desert.
It would take many more years before scholars could take thorough stock of the textual depot. Today, we know of between 800 and 900 documents divided into Biblical (40%) and Second Temple texts (30%), such as Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, and related texts that remained outside of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. There are also previously unknown Sectarian texts that display sectarian language and, in many cases, reflect its solar calendar, and which directly or indirectly refer to the sect (30%).
And then there is the Copper Scroll, which defies all of the categories above, which contain religious narrative, poetry, or instructions. Aside from its unique material and its contents (presented as a detailed inventory list), its language differs from the other scrolls as well. It is much closer to Mishnaic Hebrew, which is a fascinating element that shows a shift from Biblical religion, culture, and language to its Rabbinic successor. The terminology used, reminiscent of the Mishna, is essential in establishing that the Copper Scroll is a text that deals with religious concepts known from bothBiblical and Rabbinic eras.
Unlike the other scrolls, it is not named based on its content, but by its unique material; it was written, or rather engraved, on thin sheets of pure copper! It soon became clear that the scroll was an inventory of great treasure, 64 items in all, buried mainly in the area between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Listed is the nature of each item and its location. Some examples:
[I:9-12] “In the ruin-heap of Kohlit: vessels of tribute of the master of nations, and ephods. All of this belongs to the tribute of the seventh treasure, a second tithe rendered unclean. Its opening is in the edge of the aqueduct on the north, six cubits to the immersion bath.”
[II:10-12] “In the cistern which is under the wall on the east, in the tooth of the cliff: six jars of silver. Its entrance is under the big threshold.”
[IX:14-16] “In the cavern which is on the north of the mouth of the ravine of Beth Tamar, in the arid region of Garpela: everything in it is a consecrated offering.”
[XI:5-6] “In the ‘Throne,’ the top of the cliff facing west, across from Zadok’s Garden, under the great flagstone located in its gutter: consecrated offerings.”
[XII:10-12] In the cavern of the Presence [Shekhinah?] on the north of Kohlit – its opening is north and tombs are at its mouth: a duplicate of this document, and the interpretation ….”
The totals of precious metals listed amount to the fantastical, which has given rise to some scholars considering the text to be a pious fiction, even if most scholars are quite convinced that it is real. Al Wolters, the most prolific scholar on the Copper Scroll, distinguishes the following credible scholarly views on the character of the treasure and the historical background of the text: It either belonged to the Qumran sector of the Temple before 68 CE or consisted of Temple contributions stored after the destruction of 70CE. Those who consider it to be unhistorical point to a literary genre of hidden Temple vessels of the First and Second Temple.
There are midrashim, as well as texts dating to around the second century, that have either Jeremiah or Baruch hiding the Temple vessels. Of course, some of those that were described as part of the First Temple were not recovered to form part of the Second, such as the Aron and its contents, Urim and Tummim. This literature grew by leaps and bounds, and ultimately the treasures of the Temple came to include those of both Temples.
Stories about the fictional Temple treasures continued into the Middle Ages. An example is a medieval text called Massekhet Kelim (not to be confused with the Mishnah tractate of the same name!). This text was used by one of the initial Copper Scroll scholars to identify the genre and at the same time to try to prove it was fictitious. But in view of the enormous time lapse between these two texts, no relationship between them can be established.
However, in the last example from the Copper Scroll that was cited above, a tantalizing promise seems contained in the notion that, somewhere out there, there is a companion scroll that either explains it all or it says “gotcha”. So, for now, the jury is still out.
[For the background story of the first seven scrolls, see here: https://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/learn-about-the-scrolls/discovery-and-publication?locale=en_US]
Judah K. Lefkovits – The Copper Scroll (3Q15): A Reevaluation, A New Reading, Translation, and Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2000
Al Wolters – “The Copper Scroll and the Vocabulary of Mishnaic Hebrew,” Revue de Qumran 14(1990)3: 483-495
Al Wolters – “Apocalyptic and the Copper Scroll,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 49(1990)2: 145-154
Al Wolters – “History and the Copper Scroll,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (1994), nr. 722
Al Wolters – The Copper Scroll: Overview, Text, and Translation. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996
Al Wolters – “The Shekinah in the Copper Scroll: a New Reading of 3Q15 12.10,” in The Scrolls and the Scriptures: Qumran Fifty Years After. Stanley E. Porter and Craig A. Evans, eds. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997: 382-391
(Dr. Carla Sulzbach has an M.A. in Jewish Studies and Ph.D. in Religious Studies, both from McGill University. She has taught and written extensively on Biblical and Second Temple era topics, and resides in Montreal.)