University of Denver Magazine
The Case of the Copper Scroll
DU’s Alison Schofield is unraveling the mystery surrounding the world’s oldest treasure map.
They only survived because they were buried, intentionally, beneath the driest soil on earth. Since they were found — almost 2,000 years after they were hidden — they have been sensationalized, fought over and blamed for conspiracies.
They contain clues about a past unknown, and one of DU’s own is part of a select group of scholars who study these mysterious relics, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Of these scrolls, there is one in particular that catches attention, as it is said to lead the way to a fortune worth $1 billion. It is known as the Copper Scroll.
Bringing history to life
For the past several years, DU Assistant Professor Alison Schofield has been translating these relics, looking for new meanings and clues into a hidden past and possible treasure. But she does more than just study antique texts.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Utah in 1996, she went on her first archaeological dig — an excavation of an Iron-Age city in Bethsaida, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.
“During the dig, I realized that to understand the modern Middle East situation, one must delve deeper into its rich ancient history,” Schofield says.
Since knowing modern Hebrew and Arabic wasn’t enough, she upped the number of her foreign languages to 13. Given the region she was focusing on, she also studied religion.
“In studying the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, I was excavating the origins of Judaism and Christianity,” Schofield says.
In 2002 she received an MA in Hebrew Bible/northwest Semitic philology from Johns Hopkins University, where she studied with P. Kyle McCarter, a Copper Scroll expert. She completed her PhD in 2005 at the University of Notre Dame, focusing her research on the Hebrew Bible and early Judaism.
Today Schofield holds a joint appointment with the Center for Judaic Studies and the religious studies department at the University of Denver. For the last two years she’s been the University’s Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism expert.
And during this time, she has continued her research on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Copper Scroll.
“There has always been mystery surrounding the Dead Sea Scrolls. They’ve been sensationalized, as in The Da Vinci Code,” she says.
The first Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 in 11 caves near Qumran, near the north shore of the Dead Sea. “It took nearly 50 years to publish these scrolls,” she says. During this time, questions started swirling and conspiracy theories started to form, including those related to whether the scrolls contained damaging information about Judaism or Christianity.
Schofield says there is no evidence that information from the scrolls has ever been suppressed. But, because an original team of seven scholars monopolized the scrolls for decades, it wasn’t until the 1990s that many of the translations were completed. Thanks to a Hebrew University researcher who made the scrolls available to scholars around the world, more text was translated in nine years than in the previous decades of work combined.
After studying the scrolls herself, Schofield — one of only a few scholars who approach them from a Judaic perspective — was intrigued by the scrolls and what they say.
“They are the most important manuscripts found in Biblical archaeology,” says Schofield, noting that the scrolls include biblical texts 1,000 years earlier than any previously existing copies of the Bible. “The scrolls show us that the boundaries between Judaism and Christianity are more fluid,” as their Jewish authors speak of theological concepts of redemption, repentance and baptism-type rituals in water before their Christian counterparts, she says.
“The importance of studying the Dead Sea Scrolls is that through working with them one learns much more about the particular group associated with the scrolls but also about Judaism in general during the last century B.C.E [before the common era] and the first century C.E. [common era],” says theology professor James VanderKam, who advised Schofield at the University of Notre Dame.
“Learning more about Judaism at that time is important for several reasons,” VanderKam says. “One, it is wonderful to be able to learn more about Judaism at a crucial time in its history and to see what issues were important to the writers and how they interpreted the scriptures. Two, for Christians, learning about Judaism at that time is important because it provides valuable information for understanding Jesus and the other New Testament individuals in their Jewish context. Three, by studying the copies of scriptural books found among the scrolls, one can examine the development of the text of the books that would become parts of the Bible.”
“We have very few texts surviving from this time,” Schofield adds. “The scrolls illuminate the Bible; they are the greatest window into biblical text ever. They also illuminate a Judaism of the time that most people don’t know existed.”
During the time the scrolls were supposedly written, 200 B.C.E to 68 C.E., there were numerous sects of Jews. Schofield notes that most people are familiar with the Pharisees (today’s Rabbinic Jews are their descendants), but it was likely a group known as the Essenes who wrote the scrolls.
Most manuscripts of the time — including the Dead Sea Scrolls — were written on skins and papyrus and didn’t last. But the Dead Sea Scrolls survived the ravages of time because the Essenes buried them in the arid caves near the Dead Sea.
What would make a population go to this extreme?
The Essenes fled into the desert because of corruption within the Temple of Jerusalem, and they created a holy community on the shore of the Dead Sea, Schofield explains. Given the destruction that was about to take place in Jerusalem, the Essenes prepared for the destruction that was also likely to come their way.
While most of the other scrolls were copied during the century prior to the destruction, the Copper Scroll was one of the last, written in 68 C.E., two years before the Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem. Given the timing, the Copper Scroll probably refers to treasures the Essenes buried before the Romans came, Schofield says.
Yes — buried treasure. Schofield counts herself among the school of scholars who believe that the Copper Scroll details the whereabouts of a real treasure of gold, silver and bronze — hidden in 63 hoards — that today would be worth $1 billion.
“From a scholar’s perspective, the real treasure is the window it gives us to otherwise unknown aspects of Judaism,” says Schofield, who was featured in a recent History Channel episode about the scroll.
The 800 Dead Sea Scroll fragments can be divided generally into three main categories, she says, noting that the scrolls pick up where the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament end, right after the Book of Daniel. One third of the scrolls are copies of the Bible; one third are the Essenes’ theological texts, such as the “Community Rule”; and one third are copies the Essenes made of Jewish literature of the time — basically “the items that didn’t make it into anyone’s Bible,” she says.
The content of the Copper Scroll doesn’t fit into any of the three categories. Nor does anything else about it. While the other scrolls were written on skins and papyrus, the Copper Scroll was actually written on more valuable and durable copper, signifying its importance. The Copper Scroll also was written in the vernacular Hebrew of the day, while the other scrolls were written in a liturgical, biblical Hebrew, Schofield explains. Once scholars began translating it, it not only gave clues about buried treasures but also gave them insight into the time that it was written.
“The primary drive for me is the anomalies,” Schofield says.
The Essene priests used general names and place names when giving clues to the treasures’ whereabouts, so there is no definitive way to determine where the map starts, Schofield says. One must have knowledge of the landscape and geography of the time, and even then, no one really knows where it begins.
Although Schofield believes the Copper Scroll is a real treasure map, she doesn’t know whether or not the treasure still exists. It’s possible that the Essenes moved it at a later date or that it was found by another group years later. Although some scholars believe that the treasure is too great to be real, Schofield and others disagree.
“First, it’s written on an expensive medium — it’s valuable. Second, it’s not written in a fairytale fashion; it doesn’t sound like fiction,” she says. “It’s boring, very dry, almost in a bookkeeping style.”
The person who transcribed it likely was illiterate, she says, noting that the transcriber confused letters throughout the scroll. The author or authors would have used an illiterate scribe because they didn’t want him to know what he was transcribing, Schofield explains.
Although the scroll has been completely translated, as have most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, new computer technology and digital photographs allow scholars to review and revise particularly difficult passages and words, Schofield explains.
Working with themes she sees in the scrolls, Schofield is writing an upcoming book, Community and Identity in the Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Synthesis. She also is starting another book, Wilderness as Place and Experience in the Hebrew Tradition, about the concept of wilderness and the desert in early Judaism, both literally and symbolically.
“The scrolls are tangible pieces of evidence about a group that saw the desert as a sacred place,” as the wilderness is symbolic and very holy, Schofield says. Some of the questions she is still investigating are why the Essenes felt compelled to go into the desert, and why they hid the treasure. Schofield also is interested in understanding the role the Copper Scroll may have played in maintaining the Essenes’ identity in the face of extinction.
And, Schofield says, another important mystery remains: The Essenes seem to have broken away from the Jerusalem temple. If that’s the case, how did they gain access to its treasure?
In December 2006, Schofield conducted an archaeological survey in the Judean wilderness near the site where the scrolls were found. But, she says emphatically, she’s not part of the “treasure-seeking wacko camp.”
It’s likely the desert is still hiding many other undiscovered items and that with one find, she says, “all the theories built on the scrolls could be wiped out.”
Or maybe, just maybe, the Copper Scroll treasures will be found.