The Qumran caves in the Judean Desert have continued to yield amazing and unexpected treasures. To date, the following have been discovered: 1) The Dead Sea Scrolls, 2,000-year-old parchments containing most of the Hebrew Bible, 2) spices used in the making of Temple incense, 3) a jar of congealed but still viscous oil and 4) scrolls that describe the rules of a Jewish community that lived in the area, along with a great deal more.
Hundreds of caves in the area have been surveyed. At least one of them appears to have been intentionally sealed. There are also four unusual man-made tunnels in the surrounding wilderness that were hewn from solid rock with great effort. What were people doing here and how did they survive? Why were they sealing caves and digging tunnels? What else might be hidden there? Could items from the Temple be in these caves?
The Qumran caves first came to the public’s attention in the pre-state Land of Israel. In 1947, a Bedouin shepherd tossed a stone into a cave and heard a clunk as one of the stones hit a clay jar. The contents of the jar proved to be animal skin parchments, which were taken to a local shoemaker in the hope he could make sandals from them. The shoemaker, seeing the potential value of the parchments, sent them to an antiquities dealer by the name of Khalil Kando. Mr. Kando realized that the parchments were something special and so began the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the scrolls were portions of 23 of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible with only the Scroll of Esther missing. The entire book of Isaiah is part of the collection and is an almost identical match to the Hebrew version we have today.
Regarding items from the Temple, David Yehuda, an author involved in historical research on the subject, has been involved for decades with the work at Qumran. He cited several ancient documents that cross-reference each other, noting that all seem to point to Qumran as an area that may contain items of great significance, possibly from the Temple.
As an example, the Copper Scroll, which sits in a museum in Amman, Jordan, lists many locations—a number of which seem to point to the Qumran area—where certain items from the First Temple were supposedly hidden before the exile. Yehuda also notes that the Kabbalistic book Emek HaMelech, written by R. Naftali Ben Yaakov Elchanan in 1648, lists hidden items from the First Temple. Yehuda points out that, according to the text, the location where these items were hidden was inscribed on a copper plate.
The Copper Scroll was evidently flat when it was first made, but then coated with clay and rolled like a scroll. The clay was presumably added to seal the surface to prevent oxidation. The care that its authors took to preserve it for the future is remarkable in and of itself. Further, Yehuda says, according to Revue Biblique there were two marble tablets found in the basement of a museum in Lebanon that contain the same text as that written in Emek HaMelech.
Finally, the apocryphal book of Maccabees describes the prophet Jeremiah’s efforts to hide the most important items from the Temple in a cave somewhere on the way from Jerusalem to Har Nevo (Mount Nebo). Qumran is coincidentally located halfway between these two sites. As a result of all this, Yehuda is optimistic that the caves will ultimately yield more secrets and perhaps even some of the items secured at the end of the First Temple period some 2,500 years ago.
Yehuda also posits an alternative theory about those who were living in this area during the Second Temple period. Most assume that it was a group called the Essenes, a devout Jewish sect with a large following in the area that left Jerusalem at a tumultuous time to establish a separate society. The ancient historian Josephus described the group as a breakaway sect focused on communal living and support for each other, as well as controlling anger and using the mikvah for frequent ritual immersions.
Yehuda believes there may be another possibility: “The records would seem to indicate that the people working in the Qumran facility were Kohanim who fled there after Syrian Greek Emperor Antiochus, of Hanukkah fame, murdered the last high priest among the descendants of Zadok—the Kohen Gadol.”
He added, “When the ruins were excavated, archaeologists were surprised to find that there were no living quarters among the ruins. The floor plan looks more like a school for Kohanim, a ‘university’ of sorts for those initiated into the priesthood.”
Yehuda believes that these student Kohanim may actually have lived with their families close to freshwater springs along the road to the south, and likely commuted to their place of work at Qumran where they were learning proper procedures for service as priests in the Temple. He added, “We know, for example, that some had already served in the Temple but fled to Qumran to escape the Zeus worship in the Temple under Antiochus.”
Yehuda noted, “The Dead Sea Scrolls talk about a ‘teacher of righteousness’ that provides his students with guidance, regularly assesses them and then ranks them to determine their merit in performing priestly duties.”
While the Gemara in tractate Yoma seems to indicate that, at one point in time, the holy items from the First Temple were hidden under the Temple Mount, Yehuda pointed out that there are also sources indicating they were later moved from that location by order of King Yoshiyahu. Could there be a sequel to the story? There are reportedly tunnels that stretch from Jerusalem all the way to the area of Qumran. Yehuda notes that there are other tractates such as Horayot and Shekalim that indicate the intention of Yoshiyahu was to hide the Temple items and there is the possibility they were sealed in a chamber at the end of one of these tunnels.
Currently, there are two groups that regularly excavate in Qumran. One is the Israel Department of Antiquities and the other is the Hebrew University. There is also a group that helps to fund the work undertaken by the university, the Qumran Cave Organization (qumrancave.org). While the archaeologists are not necessarily looking for anything in particular, they are keenly aware of what might be hidden in the area.
Yehuda noted, “I hope to be part of an excavation later this year. While we may find artifacts from later periods, we may also find artifacts from the First and Second Temple period. And who knows? Imagine if we find something like the K’lal, the vessel that contained the Para Aduma [the ashes of a pure red heifer needed to purify the priests]. One can only dream of the possibilities.”