Copper Scroll

COPPER SCROLL. Figure 1. The Copper Scroll, in situ. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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The manuscript designated 3Q15, the Copper Scroll, was discovered in a cave near Qumran, on the shore of the Dead Sea, on 20 March 1952 by a joint expedition of the École Biblique, the American School of Oriental Research, and Jordan's Department of Antiquities. The scroll contains a list of buried treasure, engraved in Hebrew on thin copper sheets. The sheets were found rolled and so thoroughly oxidized they crumbled to the touch (see figure 1). In 1955–1956, the scroll was opened at the Manchester College of Technology by H. Wright Baker, professor of mechanical engineering, who sawed it into twenty- three segments using an electric circular slitting saw. The nature of the scroll's contents was made public in a press release on 1 June 1956, but the official edition of the Hebrew text, accompanied by a French translation and extensive commentary by J. T. Milik, a Polish member of the international team assembled to edit the Dead Sea Scrolls, was not published until 1962. In the interim, John M. Allegro, a British member of the team, who had supervised the cutting open of the scroll, had published an edition and an English translation of his own In 1960 and had organized unsuccessful attempts to find the buried treasure.

In many ways, the Copper Scroll is unique among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is distinct not only in its subject matter and in the material on which it is written, but also in its script, orthography, language, and literary structure. Moreover, it is the only one of the documents found near Qumran that appears to be an autograph, an original manuscript, rather than a copy.

The text of the Copper Scroll breaks down into sixty-four short sections, each typically containing the description of a hiding place and the treasure hidden in it. Enigmatic greek letters appear at the end of sections 1, 4, 6, 7, and 10. The first section establishes the pattern for the text: “In the ruins which are in the Valley of Achor, under the steps which go eastward, forty rod-cubits: a strongbox of silver and its vessels—a weight of seventeen talents.” Most of the identifiable hiding places are located in or near Jerusalem, and the treasures usually consist of a specified number of talents of silver and gold, and sometimes other valuable items such as scrolls and cultic vessels or vestments. Section 64 states that a duplicate of the Copper Scroll, “and its explanation” (wprwšh) is included in the last treasure. If the numbers in the treasure descriptions are to be taken at face value, the total weight of the buried treasure is in excess of 200 tons.

Scholarship on the Copper Scroll has been sharply divided on two pivotal issues of interpretation: its authenticity and its date. Allegro and others have argued that 3Q15 is an authentic record of buried treasure and is to be dated to around 68 CE, when it was hidden near Qumran together with the other scrolls. Milik and others have claimed that it is a fiction, that it is to be dated well after 68 CE, and that it has nothing to do with the other scrolls. Still others, like Frank M. Cross, have followed the original press release of 1956 in suggesting that the Copper Scroll, while not describing real treasure, does belong in date with the other scrolls. Finally, we have those, like E. M. Laperrousaz and B. Z. Luria, who accept the authenticity of 3Q15 but date it to the time of the Second Jewish Revolt In 135 CE.

Although there are significant difficulties with each of these positions, it is likely that the majority of scholars are correct in accepting the authenticity of the Copper Scroll. (It is possible that the mysterious “explanation” mentioned in the last of the sixty-four sections might be the key to interpreting the improbably high numbers in the treasure descriptions, as well as the puzzling Greek letters). Furthermore, the archaeological evidence reported by Bargil Pixner suggests that the Copper Scroll was hidden at the same time as the manuscript fragments found in the same archaeological context.

If the treasure was real, it almost certainly belonged to the fabled wealth of the Jerusalem Temple and was hidden shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans In 70 CE. A connection with the Temple may also be indicated by the high incidence of cultic terms used in the scroll. It is even possible, as Norman Golb has suggested, that 3Q15 had nothing to do with sectarians at Qumran but should be explained simply as a Temple document.

Apart from its possible historical value, the Copper Scroll is also significant for the history of the Hebrew language. In morphology, syntax, and vocabulary, the language of the Copper Scroll shares with Mishnaic Hebrew linguistic features that distinguish the latter from the Hebrew of the Bible and the other Dead Sea Scrolls. This suggests that a Hebrew dialect similar to Mishnaic Hebrew was spoken in Palestine in the first century CE.

[See also Dead Sea Scrolls; Qumran.]


  • Allegro, John Marco. The Treasure of the Copper Scroll. Garden City, N.Y., 1960.
    Racy account of the discovery and contents of the Copper Scroll, with an imperfect preliminary edition of the Hebrew text and its English translation
  • Baker, H. Wright. “Notes on the Opening of the ‘Bronze’ Scrolls from Qumran.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 39 (1956–1957): 45–56.
    Contains the text of the 1956 press release
  • Golb, Norman. “The Problem of Origin and Identification of the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 124.1 (1980): 1–24.
    As an autograph record of real Temple treasures, the Copper Scroll provides prime evidence for Golb's theory that the Dead Sea Scrolls come from Jerusalem. See especially pages 5–8
  • McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr. “The Copper Scroll Treasure as an Accumulation of Religious Offerings.” In Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site: Present Realities and Future Prospects, edited by Michael O. Wise et al., pp. 133–142. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 722. New York, 1994.
  • Milik, J. T. “Le rouleau de cuivre provenant de la grotte 3Q (3Q15).” In Les “petites grottes” de Qumrân, pp. 199–302. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan, vol. 3. Oxford, 1962.
    Standard scholarly edition of the Copper Scroll
  • Pixner, Bargil. “Unravelling the Copper Scroll Code: A Study of the Topography of 3Q15.” Revue de Qumran 11.3 (1983): 323–366.
    An attempt to identify a geographic pattern for the hiding places cited in the Copper Scroll, valuable for its archaeological information (pp. 327–329, 334–335), extensive bibliography, and independent English translation
  • Wolters, Al. “Apocalyptic and the Copper Scroll.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 49.2 (1990): 145–154.
    Critique of the legendary interpretation of the Copper Scroll
  • Wolters, Al. “The Copper Scroll and the Vocabulary of Mishnaic Hebrew.” Revue de Qumran 14.3 (1990): 483–495.
    Identification of fifty lexical items the Copper Scroll shares with Mishnaic Hebrew, as distinct from biblical Hebrew
  • Wolters, Al. “History and the Copper Scroll.” In Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site: Present Realities and Future Prospects, edited by Michael O. Wise et al., pp. 285–295. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 722. New York, 1994.

Al Wolters