Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-pftt2 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-25T00:58:33.127Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Absent but Accounted for: A New Approach to the Copper Scroll

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 July 2015

Steven Weitzman*
The University of Pennsylvania


Like so much of early Jewish literature, the strange Dead Sea scroll known as the Copper Scroll (3Q15) remains suspended somewhere between reality and fantasy. Even before scholars had fully unrolled its copper plates in 1956, they were able to discern that it recorded a list of treasures, but there soon broke out a dispute over whether this treasure was real or not. Some scholars felt that the treasure was too large to be real and that it was a figment of its author's imagination. They sought the origins of the scroll in ancient Jewish legend. Others believed the treasure to be quite plausible, probably connected to the Temple in some way. The scroll itself, however, revealed nothing that might settle the issue in one direction or the other. In what follows, I wish to explore a way beyond this impasse, not resolving whether the treasure was real or not, but suggesting how it could be both at the same time. Such a claim will seem contradictory, but it is my hope over the course of this essay not just to establish the possibility of such a position but to demonstrate that such a reading is actually more consistent with the evidence we have than any reading that imposes an either/or choice between reading the treasure as fictional or genuine.

Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 2015 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Veyne, Paul, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination (trans. Wissig, Paula; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) 102–33Google Scholar. I would like to thank Mira Balberg, Hindy Najman, and Mira Wasserman for their feedback in response to earlier versions of this essay, and James Redfield for careful and discerning editorial assistance.

2 Milik, J. T., “Le rouleau de cuivre de Qumrân (3Q15). Traduction et commentaire topographique,” RB 66 (1959) 321–57Google Scholar.

3 Milik, J. T., “Notes d’épigraphie et de topographie palestiniennes,” RB 66 (1959) 550–75Google Scholar.

4 Recent scholarship suggests that the identity and locations of the vessels listed in Masseket Kelim were derived through creative inferences from biblical sources. See Davila, James, “Scriptural Exegesis in the Treatise of the Vessels, a Legendary Account of the Hiding of the Temple Treasures,” in With Letters of Light: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic, and Mysticism in Honor of Rachel Elior (ed. Arbel, Daphna and Orlov, Andrei; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011) 4561Google Scholar.

5 Mowinckel, Sigmund, “The Copper Scroll—An Apocryphon?JBL 76 (1957) 261–65Google Scholar; Cross, Frank Moore Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Biblical Studies (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1958) 2125Google Scholar.

6 Karl Georg Kuhn, “Les rouleaux de cuivre de Qumran,” RB 61 (1954) 193–205; Allegro, John, The Treasure of the Copper Scroll (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969Google Scholar).

7 For the coin hoard discovered at Qumran, see Marcia Sharabani, “Monnaies de Qumran au Musée Rockefeller de Jérusalem,” RB 87 (1980) 274–84.

8 For his account of his effort to find the Copper Scroll treasure, see Allegro, John, Search in the Desert (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964)Google Scholar.

9 Brooke, George, “Introduction,” in Copper Scroll Studies (ed. Brooke, George and Davies, Philip; Sheffield: Sheffield, 2002) 19Google Scholar, at 8.

10 The hypotheses are too numerous to list individually, but we can follow Al Wolters (“The Copper Scroll,” The Dead Sea Scrolls After Fifty Years [ed. Peter Flint and James VanderKam; 2 vols.; Leiden: Brill, 1998] 302–23, at 309–10) in grouping them into four categories: 1) The treasure belonged to the Qumran community and was concealed by it before 70 C.E. (See Pixner, Bargil, “Unraveling the Copper Scroll Code: A Study of the Topography of 3Q15,” RevQ 11 [1983] 323–58Google Scholar; Goranson, Stephen, “Sectarianism, Geography and the Copper Scroll,” JJS 43 [1992] 282–87)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; 2) The treasure belonged to the Temple itself and was concealed by the Zealots or priests sometime before its destruction (In addition to Allegro, see Norman Golb, “The Problem of Origins and Identification of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society [1980] 1–24); 3) The treasure records undelivered Temple contributions concealed in the period during or after the Temple's destruction (See Lehmann, Manfred, “Identification of the Copper Scroll Based on Its Technical Terms,” RevQ 5 [1964] 97105)Google Scholar; 4) The treasure belonged to the Bar Kokhba rebels, possibly meant for use in a restored Temple (Laperrousaz, Ernest-Marie, “Remarques sur l’origine des rouleaux de cuivre découverts dans la grotte 3 de Qumran,” RHR 159 [1961] 157–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ben-Zion Lurie, Megillat ha-nehoshet mi-midbar Yehudah [Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1963]).

11 See, for example, Lefkovits, Judah, The Copper Scroll 3Q15: A Reevaluation. A New Reading, Translation, and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2000) 488Google Scholar, who concludes that the treasure probably only consisted of 60 tons of metal (in contrast to the 200 tons estimated by previous scholars), of which only seventeen percent was gold.

12 See Wolters, “The Copper Scroll,” 311.

13 For a parallel from elsewhere in the Roman world, Cassius Dio reports that in order to protect a massive treasure of gold and silver from the emperor Trajan, the king of the Dacians concealed it in a cavity he had dug out beneath the river Saergetia. Although surviving descriptions of this treasure seem exaggerated, historians believe that the treasure was real, and indeed, a sizeable portion of it may have been found in the 16th century. See Makkay, John, “The Treasures of Decebelus,” OJA 14 (1995) 333–45Google Scholar.

14 This phenomenon of mistaking legendary for real treasure is by no means limited to antiquity. In 2012, two thieves were arrested for breaking into and destroying a 2000 year old well located under a structure from the Crusader period adjacent to the modern-day Israeli city Beth Shemesh. The culprits claimed they were looking for a treasure hidden by one of their forebears, basing themselves on a local legend. See Omri Efraim, “Gold Diggers Ravage Archeological Site,” ynet news, accessed September 9, 2013,,7340,L-4173467,00.html.

15 Sahlins, Marshall, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1981)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mali, Joseph, Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)Google Scholar; Bietenholz, Peter, Historia and Fabula: Myths and Legends in Historical Thought from Antiquity to the Modern Age (Leiden: Brill, 1994)Google Scholar.

16 Weitzman, Steve, “Myth, History and Mystery in the Copper Scroll,” in The Idea of Biblical Interpretation (ed. Newman, Judith, Najman, Hindy, and Kutsko, John; Leiden: Brill, 2003) 239–55Google Scholar.

17 See, for example, Doran, Robert, Temple Propaganda: The Purpose and Character of 2 Maccabees (Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1981) 103–4Google Scholar.

18 This title was proposed by Richards, G. C. in “Timachidas,” New Chapters in the History of Greek Literature, Second Series (ed. Powell, J. U. and Barber, E. A.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929) 7683Google Scholar, at 76.

19 Wilmot's research was never published, and I could not get access to his unpublished draft, but his argument has been summarized by his student Michael Wise, and through him, we can get some sense of his conclusions. See Michael O. Wise, “David J. Wilmot and the Copper Scroll,” Copper Scroll Studies, 291–309.

20 Important studies of this material that I have consulted include Tréheux, Jacques, Études sur les inventaires attiques (Paris: Études d’archéologie classique, 1965)Google Scholar; Linders, Tullia, The Treasures of the Other Gods in Athens and their Functions (Meisenheim am Glan: Hain, 1975)Google Scholar; Aleshire, Sara, The Athenian Asklepieion: The People, Their Dedications, and the Inventories (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1989)Google Scholar; Harris, Diane, The Treasures of the Parthenon and Erechtheion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995)Google Scholar; Hamilton, Richard, Treasure Map: A Guide to the Delian Inscriptions (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Wise, “David J. Wilmot and the Copper Scroll,” 302–3.

22 For a brief survey of previous attempts to explain the letters, see Levkovits, Copper Scroll 3Q15, 499–501.

23 Tod, Marcus, “Letter-Labels in Greek Inscriptions,” ABSA 49 (1954) 18Google Scholar.

24 Wolters, Al, “The Last Treasure of the Copper Scroll,” JBL 107 (1988) 419–29Google Scholar, at 426, whose interpretation is disputed by Mandel, Paul, “On the Duplicate Copy of the Copper Scroll (3Q15),” RevQ 61 (1993) 6976Google Scholar. On other Greek loanwords that appear in the scroll, see Martínez, García, “Greek Loanwords in the Copper Scroll,” Qumranica Minora II (ed. Tigchelaar, Eibert; Leiden: Brill, 2007) 145–70Google Scholar.

25 Harris, Treasures of the Parthenon, 22. For more on Athens's archival system as it developed in the 5th cent. B.C.E., see Boegehold, Alan, “The Establishment of a Central Archive in Athens,” AJA 76 (1972) 2330CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 The translation is from Aleshire, Athenian Asklepieion, 278–79. For the Greek text, see 251.

27 Lefkovits, Copper Scroll 3Q15, 454.

28 de Vaux, Roland, “Exploration de la région de Qumran,” RB 60 (1953) 540–61Google Scholar, at 557–58.

29 See Casson, Stanley, “Early Greek Inscriptions on Metal: Some Notes,” AJQ 39 (1935) 510–17Google Scholar; Williamson, Callie, “Monuments of Bronze: Roman Legal Documents on Bronze Tablets,” CA 6 (1987) 160–83Google Scholar.

30 The version of Masseket Kelim inscribed on marble plaques was copied in part by Jean Starcky and published by Milik in “Notes d’ épigraphie,” 567–75.

31 As it happens, the only other reference in the Dead Sea Scrolls to what seems to be a bronze or copper text, a “bron[ze] tablet,” mentioned in a poorly preserved portion of the Temple Scroll (column 34, line 1), seems to place it in a public space, the Temple itself. The mention of this tablet occurs in close proximity to a description of buildings where cultic vessels were stored: “houses for the utensils of the altar, [that is,] the basins and the flagons and the fire pans and the silver bowls with which one brings up the entrails and the legs of the altar” (column 33, lines 13–15). Might the tablet have been connected to these buildings and their content? There is no way to know because this stretch of the Temple Scroll is very fragmentary. Yadin compares it to 1 Kings 7:36 where the word translated here as “tablet” means something like panel. See Yadin, Yigael, The Temple Scroll, Volume 2: Text and Commentary (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, The Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Shrine of the Book, 1983) 144Google Scholar. Still, the fact that a reference to a bronze tablet appears in close proximity to a passage listing cultic objects is interesting given our argument.

32 Hamilton, Treasure Map, 347–48.

33 Linders, Tullia, “The Purpose of Inventories: A Close Reading of the Delian Inventories of the Independence,” in Comptes et inventaires dans la cité grecque. Actes du colloque de Neuchâtel en l’honneur de Jacques Tréheux (ed. Knoepfler, Denis and Quellet, Nicole; Neuchâtel: Faculté des Lettres Neuchâtel, 1988) 3747Google Scholar.

34 See also Thomas, Rosalind, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 8687CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Harris, Diane, “Freedom of Information and Accountability: The Inventory List of the Parthenon,” in Ritual, Finance, Politics: Athenian Democratic Accounts Presented to David Lewis (ed. Osborne, Robin and Hornblower, Simon; Oxford: Clarendon, 1994) 213–25Google Scholar.

36 Harris's contrast with ancient Near Eastern practice may be overdrawn. In ancient Egypt, for example, temple inventories were not only inscribed on texts; they were also depicted visually on temple walls. See Haring, Ben, “Inventories and Administration in the Egyptian New Kingdom,” in Archives and Inventories in the Eastern Mediterranean (ed. Vandorpe, Katelijn and Clarysse, Willy; Brussels: Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten, 2007) 4757Google Scholar, at 53–54.

37 See Aleshire, Athenian Asklepieion, 103–10.

38 Dignas, Beate, “‘Inventories’ or ‘Offering Lists’? Assessing the Wealth of Apollo Didymaeus,” ZPE 138 (2002) 235–44Google Scholar.

39 Dousa, Thomas, Gaudard, Francois, and Johnson, Janet, “P. Berlin 6848, A Roman Period Temple Inventory,” in Res Severa Verum Gaudium. Festschrift für Karl-Theodor Zauzich zum 65. Geburtstag am 8. Juni 2004 (ed. Hoffmann, Friedhelm and Thissen, Heinz J.; Studia Demotica 6; Leuven: Peeters, 2004) 139222Google Scholar, esp.185–86 for discussion of the bronze inventory.

40 Higbie, Carolyn, The Lindian Chronicle and the Greek Creation of their Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Josephine Shaya, “The Lindos Chronicle and the Lost Treasures of Athena: Catalogs, Collections, and Local History” (Ph.D diss., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2002); idem, “The Greek Temple as Museum: the Legendary Treasure of Athena from Lindos,” AJA 109 (2005) 423–42.

41 Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 128–37.

42 Chaniotis, Angelos, Historie und Historiker in den griechischen Inschriften (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1988) 54Google Scholar.

43 Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 131–37.

44 The translation is from Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 69. For the Greek text of the inscription, see Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 250–58; Higbie, Lindian Chronicle, 19–49.

45 Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 125–27. Earlier scholarship suspected that a few of the treasures still existed at the time of the inscription's composition, but, as Shaya notes, even if some of the objects still existed in the authors’ day, these were the exception.

46 Blinkenberg, Christian, La Chronique du temple lindien (Copenhagen: B. Luno, 1912) 49Google Scholar.

47 Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 26–28.

48 For these and other examples, see Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 214–19.

49 The translation here is cited from Hamilton, Treasure Map, 347–48.

50 Text cited from Aleshire, Athenian Asklepion, 129 (Greek, lines 1–7), with the English translation on 135–36; brackets added by author.

51 Cited from Linders, Tullia, “Inscriptions and Orality,” SO 67 (1992) 2740CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 37–38.

52 See Shaya, “Greek Temple as Museum,” 435–36.

53 Worth noting in this connection is a recent argument that other medieval Byzantine catalogues of fabulous treasure from the 11th and 12th centuries draw on much earlier sources from Late Antiquity. See Mango, Cyril, Vickers, Michael, and Francis, E.D., “The Palace of Lausus at Constantinople and its Collection of Ancient Statues,” Journal of the History of Collecting 4 (1992) 8998CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shaya, “Lindos Chronicle,” 239–45.

54 For evidence of priestly theft from the Temple, see 2 Maccabees 4:32; Jewish War 6.387–191. For the pilfering of sacred donations intended for the Temple, see Antiquities 18.82–83.

55 Knohl, Israel, “Post-Biblical Sectarianism and Priestly Schools of the Pentateuch: the Issue of Popular Participation in the Temple Cult on Festivals,” in The Madrid Qumran Congress: Proceedings of the International Congress on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Madrid, 18–21 March, 1991 (ed. Barrera, Julio Trebolle and Montaner, Luis Vegas; 2 vols.; STDJ 11; Leiden: Brill, 1992) 2:601–9Google Scholar.

56 Greenfield, Noah and Fine, Steven, “‘Remembered for Praise’: Some Ancient Sources on Benefaction in Herod's Temple,” Images 2 (2008): 166–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 167–68. For more on the inscriptional formula echoed in this mishnaic passage, “May X be remembered for good,” see Sorek, Susan, Remembered for Good: A Jewish Benefaction System in Ancient Palestine (Sheffield: Sheffield, 2010) 7582Google Scholar.

57 Tanhuma, Pequdei 7; Exodus Rabbah, 51.6.