Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Copper Scroll, Item 25: A Mare's Nest

The NOVA presentation of Nov. 23rd on PBS (transcript here) was a well-done presentation that -- among other things -- introduced viewers to the Nahal Hever, the Cave of Letters, Yigael Yadin, Babatha, and Bar Kochba, with a lot of awe-inspiring footage, including Larry Schiffman in a hard-hat. But the focus was on the theory of Richard Freund that the Cave of Letters was used in the First Jewish Revolt as well as the Second. This is not an unreasonable idea, on the face of it. But I have some problems with the evidence Freund draws from the Copper Scroll:

NARRATOR: This scroll of copper was hidden in a cave like this near the Dead Sea village of Qumran, where it lay undiscovered for nearly 2000 years. The copper was coated with clay and could not be unrolled. Only by carefully slicing the scroll into thin strips could the ancient writing be deciphered.

Item number 25 particularly intrigued Richard Freund. It read, "In the Cave of the Column of two openings, facing east, at the northern opening is buried, at three cubits, a ritual limestone vessel. In it is one scroll; underneath is treasure."

RICHARD FREUND: The Cave of Letters may be one of those 64 locations mentioned in the Copper Scroll. It says in a double entranced cave which is called the Cave of the Column—this is a double-entrance cave and from the outside that looks like it's a column. On the northern entrance—this is the northern entrance—three cubits down, you're going to find these metal objects. In addition, it says that above them, you're going to find a limestone vessel and next to that you're going to find a scroll.

And in fact within the Cave archeologists discovered in close proximity a limestone cup, a scrap of scroll, and a cache of bronze implements, including several incense shovels. The problem is that the text cited (3Q15 6:1-6) does not say what Freund says it says. First of all, it does not mention a "ritual limestone vessel." The word used is qalal, translated by Mike Wise (in the Wise-Abegg-Cook translation), as "urn" and by F. Garcia Martinez in his translation as "amphora." The word is used in the Mishna for "the pitcher containing the ashes of the red cow" (Jastrow 1377, citing Para 10:3-4). This suggests a much larger vessel than the small stone cup shown on screen.

Second, the scroll does not say "underneath is treasure." It says "underneath is 42 kk(r)," 42 talents. Wise adds, interpretively, "of silver," and this seems correct. A talent is quite large, generally considered to be equivalent to 3000 shekels. If the estimate of the shekel weight as about 11g is correct, then one talent = ca. 33 kg. If you multiply 42 x 33kg you get... well, one whopping pile of silver. Bronze is not mentioned and implements are not mentioned. Needless to say, no pile of silver was discovered.

It's hard to resist the conclusion that Freund has spun the translation of the Copper Scroll more than a little to fit a preconceived notion. Still, the mention of the "cave with two openings" is intriguing, and elsewhere the Scroll does mention "basins, cups, and bowls" (3Q15 3:3). Unfortunately for Freund, not in Item 25.

A partial bibliography of the Copper Scroll can be found here.

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