The Mystery of the Copper Scroll

“In the cistern which is under the wall on the eastern side, at the sharp edge of the rock: six silver bars; its entrance is under the large paving-stone.”

Thus reads line eleven in column II of the most famous Dead Sea Scroll: the enigmatic Copper Scroll. It has two major features that make it stand out from other scrolls: it’s etched on a thin sheet of rolled copper, and it appears to be a guide to a treasure with roughly 65 tons of gold and 26 tons of silver.

Although most of Scrolls remain in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, the Copper Scroll and a few others are housed in the new Jordan Museum in Amman, which is where I saw got to see it up close.


The scroll is officially designated 3Q15, which means it was found in Cave Three at Qumran (3Q) and is the fifteenth numbered scroll. It was first uncovered during an excavation in 1952, but the brittleness and heavy oxidation prevented it from being read until a professor at the Manchester College of Science and Technology who (H. Wright Baker ) found a way to cut it into narrow vertical slivers in 1956. These cuts allowed the scroll to be “opened,” and the pieces are on display in Amman just as they were cut 60 years ago.

It provides directions to 64 hiding places concealing 65 bars of gold and 65 of silver, about 1,300 talents of gold and 3,000 talents of silver, 608 silver pitchers, and 619 gold and silver vessels. This is a vast treasure that some speculate could only represent the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem.

John Marco Allegro (more about him later) rushed a sloppy translation into print in 1960, but the real Scroll Team translation by J.T. Milik came two years later. The biggest question was if it referred to a real treasure, or if it was meant as some kind of symbolic list. Milik, who was a Catholic priest at the time, did not believe it was a literal guide to a genuine treasure. He thought it was a fictional creation invented and then engraved in copper for some inscrutable reason. He also gave it a late date of 100AD.

This date, however, is unlikely given the nature of Cave 3 and the other scrolls that were recovered from the same location and reliably dated to no later than 68 AD. This, of course, places it before the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, ruling out some kind of scattered Temple treasure or an attempt to collect funds for a new Temple. The nature of the Essenes and their hatred for the Temple culture as it had become rules out any link between the Temple and Qumran. Some have suggested that it may be tied to Simon bar Kokhba’s revolt, which began in 132, but again, the dating rules this out.

Exotic explanations fall apart when confronted with the archaeology. The shape of the cave and its partial collapse mean all the scrolls were placed there in roughly the same period of time, which Frank More Cross dates to somewhere between 25 and 75 AD. People can speculate about Zealot treasure, metaphorical treasure, Temple treasure, or any number of things, but it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that the Qumran community created the scroll and placed it in Cave 3 to preserve the location of their significant communal wealth.

And although this community was strict and ascetic, there’s no reason to suppose it was poor. People gave all their material wealth to the Qumran community when they joined, much as they would with the early Church. This similarity, by the way, is the true importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s not that they hold some secret that will Blow the Lid Off Christianity Forever, as I’ve heard many times. It’s that they illustrate the soil of Judaism in which Christianity took root. There are definite parallels between the Christian movement and the Essenes of Qumran, and the documents of the Scrolls provide a remarkable insight into Jewish movements before, during, and after the time of Jesus. (Although some have tried to forge a link between specific figures of the Scrolls and the New Testament, there is none. Please don’t clutter up the comboxes with theories about John the Baptist being the Teacher of Righteousness.)

The treasure itself, of course, has never been found. This is partly because the region was picked over pretty thoroughly in 2,000 years, and partly because it’s not meant to be a set of literal directions but rather a memory aid with obscure cues that might only be meaningful to members of the community. It’s even possible the people who wrote the scroll collected the treasure when they were dispersed, perhaps during the Jewish Revolt.

That hasn’t stopped people from looking. Allegro received sharp criticism not only for rushing his own faulty translation into print, but for charging into the field with the scroll as a “map” in an attempt to find the treasure. Allegro would eventually be forced off the Scrolls team and descend into a kind of madness marked by outrageous ideas such as suggesting Jesus didn’t exist and was merely the creation of a drug-fueled sex cult. Needless to say, he found no treasure.

The Copper Scroll, of course, IS the treasure: a remarkable document listing a fantastic wealth gathered by a Jews who turned away from what they saw as the corruption of the Temple cult to form a new, more pure community. It’s a story that should resonate with Christians, who would have accumulated wealth in a similar way, but wouldn’t have salted it away like Scrooge McDuck. The treasure wasn’t hidden, but spent on those who needed it, and those very people, the lost and lowly, became the true treasure of the Church.