Dating the Copper Scroll


Megan Sauter
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (August 5, 2019)—In 1952, archaeologists found the Copper Scroll in a cave at the site of Qumran near the Dead Sea. Made of copper, the scroll stood apart from the rest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were composed of parchment or papyrus. Once unrolled and deciphered, the Copper Scroll was confirmed as being further unique: It describes a vast treasure—hidden in locations throughout the Judean wilderness. Immediately people began to wonder whether the Copper Scroll might be a map to treasure from the Jerusalem Temple.

Joan E. Taylor of King’s College London analyzes this enigmatic document in her article “Secrets of the Copper Scroll” published in the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Since its discovery, the date of the Copper Scroll has been debated. Many scholars think the Copper Scroll dates to the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (c. 66–70 C.E.) and place it right before the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. However, Taylor thinks it better fits the period of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (aka, the Bar-Kokhba Revolt; c. 132–135 C.E.). Toward the end of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, Jewish refugees fled to the Judean wilderness and hid in caves—trying to escape the Romans’ wrath. Archaeologists have found evidence that they took shelter at Qumran and caves near the one that held the Copper Scroll.

Inscribed on durable material and hidden in a secure location, the Copper Scroll was meant to survive. Burying a massive treasure, recording the burial locations on a virtually indestructible scroll, and then hiding that scroll show that someone anticipated that the treasure would be seized. Moreover, someone went to great lengths to try to prevent that from happening.

Taylor explains that the magnitude and contents of the Copper Scroll treasure indicate it belonged to a temple. Although the text does not specify which temple, the language of the Copper Scroll, Mishnaic Hebrew with some Greek loanwords, connects the scroll to a Jewish context. There was no standing temple in Jerusalem during the Bar-Kokhba period, but Taylor explains this does not preclude the existence of Temple treasure. The treasure described in the Copper Scroll may refer to Temple paraphernalia amassed between the two Jewish revolts. However, since no piece of this treasure has ever been found, we cannot know this definitively.

It is possible the treasure was never actually buried. Some event—likely whatever prompted the creation of the scroll—may have prevented its concealment.

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