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Ultimate Puzzle #3 – The Copper Scroll

Let’s jump in the way-back machine and travel back in time to the spring of 1947. Location – the Judean desert. A couple of goat herders are looking for a lost goat (or not, depending on which story you read). They stumble across a cave that contains clay jars filled with scrolls. They didn’t know it then but they had just made the most important biblical discovery since the Codex Sinaiticus was found by Constantin von Tischendorf in 1844 in the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai.

Their discovery would become known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Bible enthusiasts and just about anyone who’s familiar with the Bible has heard them. If not, here’s a summary:

A total of 11 caves in the area were found to contain scrolls, mostly in fragment form, for a total of 972 documents. These are typically divided into three categories. About 40% of the scrolls are considered “Biblical” manuscripts, 30% are “apocryphal” or “psuedepigraphical”, and 30% are referred to as “sectarian” manuscripts.

The caves were numbered based on the order of their discovery. Items found were numbered according to which cave they were located.

Perhaps the most curious item of all was #3Q15 found in Cave 3 on March 14, 1952. It is known as the Copper Scroll.

I had heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls a number of times over the years but hadn’t done any research myself. If I had I would have found out about the copper scroll sooner. Instead it came to my attention through the fiction novel of the same name written by Joel C. Rosenberg. I googled it and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the scroll actually exists.

All of the documents found in the Qumran caves were written on either papyrus or parchment with the exception of the copper scroll which was written on, you guessed it, copper. A long sheet of copper mixed with a small amount of tin. It was extremely corroded and could not be unrolled without destroying it. It took about three years before a safe way was found to open the scroll. By cutting it into 23 strips the contents of the scroll could finally be fully viewed.

There is some speculation regarding the scroll’s date but most experts place it’s creation between 25 and 135 AD. The words were mostly likely written using a hammer and chisel method and are in a form of Hebrew that is different from other scrolls found in the caves. Also unlike the other documents the scroll did not contain literary work but rather a list describing 64 different locations. Locations where treasures of gold and silver estimated to weigh several tons were hidden. The last entry apparently refers to the location of another scroll that contains additional information about these treasures.

The opening lines of the scroll say this:
In the ruin of Horebbah which is in the valley of Achor, under the steps heading eastward about forty feet: lies a chest of silver that weighs seventeen talents.

As you can see, the reference is somewhat obscure. Adding even further to the mystery is the appearance of two or three Greek letters at the end of seven of the Hebrew sentences. Here are some additional lines of text taken from random parts of the scroll:

~ In the tomb of the third section of stones there is one hundred gold bars.

~ Dig down nine cubits into the southern corner of the courtyard. There will be silver and gold vessels given as offerings, bowls, cups, sprinkling basins, libation tubes, and pitchers. All together they will total six hundred nine pieces.

~ Dig sixteen cubits into the narrow, seaward-facing part of the underground chambers of Horon to discover twenty-two talents of silver.

~ Forty-two talents of silver coin are in the proximity of the black stone at the threshold at the sepulchral chamber.

Curiously, of all the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is the only one made from any type of metal, presumably so that it would last a long time. However the text assumes that the reader would have intimate and recent knowlege of the locations. Because of the obscure references it would seem that the intent was for these items to be retrieved relatively soon after they were buried or hidden. It would appear that all of it is located in the same general area, perhaps a small village or a specific section of a larger city. Why the author chose to use copper to list the locations instead of papyrus may never be known.

Have any of the items listed been found? The general consensus is no. In 1955, three ceramic vessels containing a total of 561 silver coins were found under a doorway at the Qumran excavation site. Some argue that this is one of the treasures listed but there is no evidence to support this.

Where the treasure came from and who it belonged to is still a mystery. Experts continue to look for these answers. As you would expect, several theories have been offered.

Some believe that the items listed refer to Temple treasure hidden before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. Historical writers of the time such as Josephus however indicate that the treasures were still in the Temple when it fell to the Romans. Perhaps some were removed and the scroll was created to keep track of them.

One man, Jim Barfield believes that the scrolls refer to Tabernacle treasure, hidden for safekeeping before the previous destruction of the Jerusalem Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 425 BC.

Since the scroll was found in a cave that contained other scrolls attributed to the Qumran community, one theory is that the treasures listed belong to them. It is difficult to explain however why a community characterized as abstaining from the possession of wordly goods would have amassed such a large fortune of gold and silver.

There are several other theories some which seem plausible and others that have no basis of fact to support them.

Is it a hoax? Some seem to think so. Someone certainly went to a lot of trouble to create the scroll. If it truly is a hoax, who was it supposed to fool? Surely the author didn’t have in mind sheep herders two thousand years in the future.

What do I think? I think the scroll is real. The fact that it lists the location of supposed hidden treasure is fascinating. Add to that the addition of Greek letters at the ends of several of the Hebrew lines and it reminds me very much of a puzzle you might find here on ClueChaser. It’s very clever.

But I have my own theory regarding the existance of the actual treasure. I doubt anything is still at the locations suggested by the scroll. My guess is the scroll has served it’s intended purpose. The treasures were buried and the scroll was created to record the locations. A short while later it was used to find and recover the treasures. A scroll made of copper would have value and perhaps it was unwise to simply throw away so instead it was discarded in the back of the closet, or in this case the back of a cave.

Perhaps one day we will know the truth behind the Copper Scroll. Until then we can only wait and let our imaginations run wild. Regardless it is certainly worthy of the title of “Ultimate Puzzle”.

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