In 1947, two Bedouin shepherds were herding their flock on the rocky and steep slopes near Qumran by the shores of the Dead Sea in modern Israel. The area is pockmarked by caves and a goat disappeared inside one of these black holes. One of the shepherds threw a stone after it to tease the animal out but instead heard a sound like breaking pottery.
The shepherd had made one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. In several large stone jars, hidden away two thousand years ago, were sacred scrolls that included a version of the Old Testament written down a thousand years before the oldest version in existence in 1947.
A mysterious community had taken root at Qumran building a town on the mountain face with purification baths, a library, aqueduct and houses. It had fled what it saw as the decadence and evil of Jerusalem around 150 BC.
Initially, its hatred was directed at the High Priests of the Temple in Jerusalem and their Greek overlords – the Seleucid Empire. These people, the community believed, were already damned. God had decided who to save and who to throw into hell fire. The community at Qumran didn’t need salvation through church sacraments or goodly deeds in life – they already knew they were part of God’s elect.
The Seleucids gave way to the Roman Empire and the priests of the Temple shamefully collaborated with the Romans for their own personal gain, power and prestige. The High Priest and Roman governor worked in hand in glove. Puppet Jewish kings like Herod Antipas were more than happy to be cyphers for Roman imperial rule in return for a glittering lifestyle.
Many Jews yearned for the return to the self-government they briefly enjoyed between the collapse of Seleucid rule and the arrival of the Romans – the period of the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty. And in 66 CE, the Jews rebelled against imperial control in a bloody insurgency that took over five years for the Romans to crush.
Roman vengeance was cruel and without mercy. The Temple in Jerusalem, the very place that Jesus was said to have expelled the money lenders, was ransacked for all its treasures. And then the building was torched and demolished. It would never rise again. The glory of the Jews – the most holy place to them – was reduced to rubble and ashes.
The Romans even celebrated their theft of the Temple treasury on an arch in Rome – the Arch of Titus. You can still see soldiers proudly carting off their booty that some conjecture included the Ark of the Covenant.
Back in Qumran, the community of ascetic Jews that had lived there for over two hundred years would have been very aware of events in the big city. They had been looking forward to an apocalyptic end of days that would end the rule of darkness and bring forth the rule of light. Those who were evil – Romans and Temple priests – would be damned. But the community of Qumran would be saved and resurrected.
Fast forward to 1952 and archaeologists were finding more and more scrolls in the caves. They came to believe that the community, realising the Romans and fleeing Jewish refugees were coming in their direction, began to secrete their sacred knowledge into dark and unseen places.
Hastily, they hid their precious scrolls. Possibly, they were also helping to spirit away treasure from the temple in Jerusalem as Roman forces swarmed over it. Could it be that the ascetic community of Qumran helped the priests they hated in Jerusalem to hide the sacred vessels?
In 1952, archaeologists discovered a copper scroll. All the other scrolls had been made of papyrus or animal skin but this scroll was etched into metal. It was clearly intended not to rot or be chewed away by insects. The information on it was vitally important.
The copper scroll detailed the hiding place of a vast treasure in gold and silver. Look under the third step at such-and-such building and you will find a strong box with this amount of talents in gold…the scroll read. One hiding place after another was listed.
Many scholars believed it was referring to treasures taken out of the Temple before the Romans arrived and placed in over sixty locations. This raised the tantalising prospect that all over modern Israel and Jordan are the most spectacular finds waiting to be discovered.
Others argued that the community was leading people of the future on a wild goose chase for objects that did not exist at all. And certainly, treasure hunters have been consistently disappointed ever since. But it’s hard to imagine a community facing the arrival of Roman legions set on decimating them in an act of bloody imperial vengeance would waste their last moments on earth etching a hoax into a copper scroll.
A Templar related theory posits that there was a second copper scroll. This one was hidden under the Temple in Jerusalem for future generations to discover. And, the theory goes, when the Knights Templar began digging under what they believed to be the Temple of Solomon, they discovered this scroll. The wealth they were then able to unearth at multiple locations formed the basis of their fabulous wealth.
For many Israelis today, the thrilling prospect of finding the sacred items of the destroyed Temple would herald the prospect of rebuilding it. However, one can imagine the political storm that would create.