The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran

The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran: The Essene Record of the Treasure of Akhenaten (2003) by Robert Feather
Rating: ★★★★★

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Robert Feather’s background and training as a Metallurgist and Chartered Engineer has given him a unique insight into the intricacies of ‘The Copper Scroll’, one of the most enigmatic of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Qumran lies close to the Dead Sea at its northern end, some 40 km east of Jerusalem. Here, in an incredibly dry and sun-bleached area there is, strangely enough, no need for protective sun blocker, or life-guards. Lying some 1200 feet below sea level at the lowest point on earth, the damaging rays of the sun are screened out by the extra layer of atmosphere, and the concentration of salts in the Dead Sea is so high that anyone falling in immediately rises to the surface and like a cork, cannot sink.

But why is Qumran so important in historical and biblical terms?

Part of our modern awareness of its significance derives from the spring of 1947 when the first of some 85,000 textual items, ranging from tiny fragments to almost complete scrolls were discovered in hillside caves behind Qumran. They turned out to contain biblical texts, written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek from virtually every book of the Old Testament, and as such, predated any previously held Hebrew material by a thousand years. For the first time scholars and theologians had the opportunity to look at parts of the Bible closer to the original, rather than from the Masoretic text handed down over the intervening millennium. Scholars were impressed by the differences, minor spelling differences, of no significance to the meaning of the text.

So in essence these biblical texts, which comprise part of what are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, demonstrated that we received most of the Old Testament in its authentic ancient form. There are also biblical commentaries amongst the scrolls.

Another group of texts describes the peculiar monastic sect that lived at Qumran between about 150 BCE and 68 CE, who are commonly believed to have written, collected and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls .

The Qumran Essenes considered themselves ‘Sons of Light’ destined to fight the ‘Sons of Darkness’ – presumably those who did not believe in their ultra-strict code of Judaism. They thought of themselves as the keepers of the original Covenant of Moses and as part of a direct line of priests that attended the Tabernacle during the Exodus from Egypt. For them the Second Temple, reconstructed by Herod the Great, who ruled Judaea on behalf of the Roman conquerors, from 37 to 4 BCE, was a corrupt place they would not visit.

One of their beliefs related to the calendar, which for them had to be solar based, giving a year containing 364 days. The intriguing thing about this practice is the Essene calendar differs from the Rabbinic Jewish calendar, which was based, and still is based, on lunar movement giving a year of 354 days. This meant the Essenes celebrated religious festivals at different times to the rest of their Jewish counterparts.

Discovery of the Copper Scroll

In March 1952, Henri de Contenson, a French archaeologist  working  with the team at the École Biblique in East Jerusalem, discovered what is now known as the Copper Scroll, in a hillside cave, some 2 km from Qumran. When Robert Feather heard about the copper scroll, he was fascinated. He has a background of metallurgy and started to try to find out how the Essenes got their copper and the technique to work with it.

The Copper Scroll was in a highly oxidised condition, and had broken into two separate rolled up sections. In its original state it measured 0.3 m in width, 2.4 m in length, and was about 1 mm thick. No one knew quite how to open it up without damaging the text. One lunatic suggestion was to try to reduce the copper oxides with hydrogen, or even electrolysis, to recover the copper! After considerable preparatory research, John Allegro of Oxford University, a member of the original international translation team working on the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem, persuaded the École Biblique team to let him take one of the copper pieces to England. There the first piece of scroll was finally ‘opened’ by Professor H. Wright Baker at Manchester College of Science and Technology (now UMIST) in 1955, followed by the second piece in 1956. The technique Wright Baker used was to coat the outside of the scroll with Epoxy-resin adhesive and then sliced the scroll, using a 4,000th/inch thick saw, into 23 separate sections. Ever since that time Manchester University has retained a special interest in the Copper Scroll.

The Copper Scroll (Qumran Literature: A Hebrew-English Edition) was published in 1996 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the opening in Manchester of the most intriguing but curiously neglected of the Qumran scrolls. The ancient treasure list remains a puzzle. Once dismissed as a fictional composition, it is now generally held to indicate the hiding places of a genuine hoard. But whose? Are the treasures those of the Jerusalem temple? Or of the Essenes? Or are they concealed Zealot booty? And what is the connection of this scroll to the other Qumran manuscripts?

Language of the Scroll

The Copper Scroll was written in an early form of Hebrew – a square form script – and has been shown to have linguistic affinities to pre-Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic, with some terms only comprehensible through study of Arabic and Akkadian. Other Dead Sea Scrolls were written in square form Aramaic script, or the so-called ‘Paleo-Hebrew’ script, derived from ‘Proto-Canaanite’ with similarities with ‘Ugarit’, Egyptian hieroglyphs and ‘Phoenician’.

The language was a major puzzle for scholars. The Hebrew palaeography (style of script) and orthography (spelling) in the Copper Scroll is quite unlike anything found in other texts of the time, from Qumran or from elsewhere. It has, nevertheless, been almost unanimously classified as one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and now resides in the Archaeological Museum of Amman, in Jordan.

John Allegro, a religious renegade, amongst a team of predominantly Catholic members, must have been the first person to translate the ancient Hebrew of the Copper Scroll into English. What he read started a controversy that has raged for over 50 years amongst scholars. It contained a list of some 64 locations where fabulous treasures had been hidden, over a wide geographical area, including large quantities of gold, silver, jewellery, precious perfumes, ritual clothing, and other scrolls.

The Jerusalem team refused to let him publish his findings, nervous that treasure hunters would come swarming down to disturb their work at the Qumran site. They had also already made up their minds the Qumran Essenes were essentially uninterested in worldly goods and shared their possessions amongst themselves.

This mind set attitude runs throughout the academic and theological community studying the Dead Sea Scrolls, and as we shall see later on, they have preconceived ideas on what many of the scrolls ought to say and dare not entertain new ideas that conflict with long established doctrine.

Allegro published his English version of the translation in 1960, under the title The treasure of the copper scroll.

Scholars, notably Father P’ere de Vaux, Head of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jerusalem, and Father Joseph Milik, members of the original Dead Sea Scrolls translation team, denounced Allegro’s translation as defective and even cast doubts on the authenticity of the Copper Scroll’s contents, assigning them to folklore. Others were not so sure, and today the generally accepted view is the Copper Scroll contains a genuine list of real treasures.

In conventional translations of the Copper Scroll the weight of gold mentioned in various locations is generally given as adding up to a staggering 26 tonnes and silver 65 tonnes.

When the weights of the treasures itemised in the Copper Scrolls are totalled, we come to the following:

Gold – 1285 Talents

Silver – 666 Talents

Gold and Silver – 17 Talents

Gold and silver vessels – 600 Talents

Mixed precious metals – 2,088 Talents

Items with unspecified weights are as follows:

Gold ingots – 165

Silver bars – 7

Gold and Silver vessels – 609

In Biblical Talent terms the sheer weight of the gold and silver is enormous. One Talent is estimated to be about 76 lb or 34.47 kg.

The Copper Scroll seems to be referring to precious metals worth around $2 billion at current prices, but whose intrinsic historic value would be many times this figure!

Where Did the Treasures Come From?

The Scroll does not reveal by whom, or when, the treasures were buried, let alone why. But from some of the recognisable place names mentioned, the treasures are generally assumed to have been hidden within Judaea or near to Mount Gerizim, in Samaria (parts of modern Israel) and to relate to treasures of the Second, or possibly First Temple of Jerusalem. Both temples were known to be places where considerable wealth was accumulated through the donation of sacrificial gifts and ‘tithes’ by the general community.

There are over-riding problems with all of the current theories which, until now, have not been resolved. Scholars have puzzled over how so much gold could have come from the First or Second Temples of Jerusalem, let alone come into the ownership of an ascetic, relatively impoverished sect like the Qumran Essenes. More significant is the fact none of the conventional theories have led to the discovery of any of the treasures listed in the Copper Scroll.

Robert Feather’s view is rather different. Whilst part of the treasures may well have come from the First or Second Temples at Jerusalem, as descriptions in the Copper Scroll certainly refer to Temple associated objects, when the secrets of the Copper Scroll are unravelled it becomes patently clear that another Temple is involved in the descriptions – and the Qumran Essenes were guardians, not just of treasure.

Although, from palaeographic studies, the Copper Scroll is now thought to have been copied at a date between 150 BCE and 70 CE, there are enigmatic passages which correspond to early Biblical Hebrew, dating back to 700 or 800 BCE, and it contains many unique word constructions not in use in mainstream Judaism at the time of its production.

The presence of Greek letters interspersed at the end of sections of the text aroused  curiosity, as their meaning was not understood and they appeared to be some kind of code. Many theories have been put forward to try to explain these apparently random Greek letters. They are variously considered to be made by scribes as reference marks of some sort, initials of place names, entry dates, or location directions, but none of these explanations is accepted as conclusive and they remain a puzzle.

The numbering units given in the text, which relate to the amounts of treasure, are also not clearly understood by modern translators. The numerals are in an unsophisticated long-hand form involving apparently unnecessary duplication.

There were other ‘anomalies’ for which there appeared to be no satisfactory answers. No other Dead Sea Scroll was engraved on copper, nor any known Hebrew texts from anywhere else, prior to the period.

Why should this be? Why should an ascetic community go to such trouble to preserve the information on the Copper Scroll? Where did they get the extremely pure copper (99%) from? How could they afford its very high cost?

When he looked closely at the numbering units and weights used in the scroll, it soon became clear they were not of Canaanite or Judaean origin, where the Qumran Essenes resided, but Egyptian! Indeed, the numbering system in the Copper Scroll is typical of that in use in Egypt around 1300 BCE. The Egyptian system used repetitive single vertical strokes, up to the number 9, combined with repetitive decimal units for larger numbers.

If the numbering system was Egyptian, why not the weight terms also? The ancient Egyptians had developed a system of weights specifically designed for weighing precious metals, and this system was based on the ‘Kite’, a unit weighing approximately 10g, but sometimes used as a double unit (KK) of 20.4g. I believe it is no coincidence the ‘hard ch’ sound of the weight term used in the Copper Scroll text equates to the Egyptian ‘K’ as in ‘Kite’! When these ancient Egyptian weight units are applied, typical of the period prior to 1000 BCE, to calculate the quantities of gold, silver and jewellery mentioned in the Scroll, rather more realistic weights are obtained than those given earlier. The approximate totals of precious metals mentioned in the scroll now become:

Gold – 26 kg

Silver – 13.6 kg

Mixed precious metals – 55.2 kg

We were now looking at weights which are a fraction of those given in modern translations of the Copper Scroll, but they are at least plausible values, quite consistent with the amounts of gold and silver in circulation for the period. For example, if we look at the Harris Papyrus, an ancient text in the British Museum, dating to about 1180 BCE, it gives the total gold holdings accumulated over a 31 year period by Egypt (by far the most wealthy country in the ancient Middle East), as 387 kg. so we are still talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in real terms.

The strange thing is that, although the type of numbering system used in the Copper Scroll might have persisted in Egyptian temple writing for some time after the Greek conquest of Egypt (in 330 BCE), its use was always specific to Egypt and it was not in use outside Egypt, except in the period of Egypt’s campaigns in Canaan from 1400 to 1100 BCE. The use of the ancient Egyptian system for weighing metals died out around 500 BCE and had previously always been specific to Egypt.

Why would a document, ostensibly written by a devout, unorthodox Jewish community living near the Dead Sea in Judaea around the time of Jesus, have so many Egyptian characteristics? And why would the writing material, numbering system and system of weights used, be typical of Egyptian usage from a period at least 1,000 years earlier?

Egyptian Influences

From the earliest times, Egypt had maintained an armed presence in Canaan, often as a stepping stone to further conquests to the east. Egypt’s shadow had obviously been cast over the early Hebrew’s experience, and yet, like other blind spots, modern theologians shy away from considering the Egyptian connection too closely. Yet, all the major characters of the Bible, from Abraham and Sarah, to Jesus and Mary, had strong links to Egypt. Joseph, Jacob, all the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel, as well as Moses, Aaron and Miriam, Joshua, Jeremiah and Baruch, all lived for varying periods in Egypt.

When he started comparing descriptions of the treasure locations given in the Copper Scroll with sites at Amarna, the ancient capital of Pharoah Akhenaten, it soon became apparent there were many close parallels. Not only have some of the locations already yielded archaeological finds of treasures that closely match the descriptions and weights given in the Copper Scroll,  many of these treasures can be seen in museums in Britain and Egypt. Having made a connection for the Copper Scroll to Akhenaten’s Holy city in middle Egypt, it was not surprising a most powerful piece of evidence emerged when he looked again at the Greek letters scattered in the Scroll. When the first ten letters are put together they spell out the name Akhenaten!

Since publication of the first edition of The Copper Scroll Decoded, in 1999, the main theory has been tested against a broad spectrum of academic and scholarly opinion, and in many instances response to the main thrust of the theory has been favourable and enthusiastic. Where there has been a negative response, it has been in the form of guarded scepticism, particularly as the theory presents a radically new view of religious development which strongly conflicts with enshrined orthodoxy.

Response from academics, on specific areas of their own expertise, has generally been supportive. On alternative interpretations of the meaning of the Copper Scroll, for example, particularly in the context of the weight and number terms given in the Scroll, there has been a considerable consensus of acknowledgement that previous interpretations have not been correct. Amongst those scholars conceding previous translations are deficient, one of the world’s experts on the Copper Scroll, Judah K. Lefkovits, of New York, has re-iterated the Scroll is much more problematic than some scholars would allow. He has written a number of books on the subject, including a recent classic work The Copper Scroll 3Q15: A Reevaluation (1999), and now does not think the conventional translation of the weight term as a Biblical talent is necessarily correct. He has suggested it might be a much smaller weight, such as the Persian karsch. In supporting the book’s claim, against the views of previous researchers, he now believes the total precious metal weights have been greatly exaggerated.

In conclusion, there is much of interest in Robert Feather’s theories.  In March 2002 the BBC screened ‘The Pharoah’s Holy Treasure‘ on the theory. However, confusion appears to arise in the comparative study of  the Hebrew and Egyptian religions. Conventional chronology has led to the assumption Judaism borrowed from Egypt, but who borrowed from who? Since the  accepted chronology dates from the earliest days of Egyptology, some of his conclusions are familiar in content. It would be instructive to look at the revised dates for the Amarna period, it makes sense to narrow the time period between Akhenaton and the secreting of the Copper Scroll in the first century.

Thanks to Robert Feather and his site: