thoughts on the new hoard of bar-kokhba coins discovered in a judean hills cave

A hoard of Bar-Kokhba coins recently discovered in a Judean desert cave.

A hoard of Bar-Kokhba coins recently discovered in a Judean hills cave.

the discovery of a large hoard of roman and jewish coins dating to the period of the bar-kokhba revolt was announced wednesday, sept 9, 2009 at a press conference at hebrew university in jerusalem.

congratulations to boaz langford, amos frumkin, boaz zissu, hanan eshel, and earlier cave explorer gideon mann on their work over the years and this recent find.

the discovery:

stephen smuts over at biblical paths has an excellent blog about the hoard of bar-kokhba coins discovered in a cave in the judean desert. i shall not attempt to replicate it here. avi joseph at gnews and brian blondy at the jerusalem post have also reported on the find. according to the jerusalem post:

The massive discovery marks the first time Israeli researchers have ever found a large hoard of ancient coins from this era. The gold, silver and bronze coins, 120 in all, were discovered in an undisclosed location within the ‘Green Line’ of Israel. The unlocking of the almost inaccessible cave also yielded iron weapons, storage jars, oil lamps, a juglet, a silver earring and a glass bottle.

many personal treasures left by jewish refugees were discovered. however, there was one particularly glaring object that was absent from this cave: there were no scrolls. (at least the archaeologists have not reported the discovery of any scrolls or written documents tucked away with this obvious cache of domestic valuables.) i found the absence of scrolls striking, especially since the article repeats the interpretation of the cache of objects as the remains of fleeing jewish refugees:

The artifacts are believed to be solid evidence proving the theory that Jews found refuge in the Judean Hills during the time-period.

and:

Prof. Frumkin added “this discovery verifies the assumption that the refugees of the revolt fled to caves in the center of a populated area in addition to the caves found in more isolated areas of the Judean desert.” The researchers believe that the Judean Hills cave served as a hiding place, with its proximity to the ancient city of Betar, for a dozen or more Jewish fighters.

interesting. again, there were no written manuscripts discovered hidden and among all of the other personal ‘valuables.’ this begs the question: did jewish refugees carry with them scrolls while fleeing jerusalem? were scrolls as common as ‘weapons, storage jars, oil lamps, a juglet, a silver earring and a glass bottle’ among jewish residents fleeing jerusalem? were scrolls not considered valuable? or were they so valuable that they were not carried and buried with the rest of a fleeing jewish refugee’s personal possessions?

most poignantly: what does the absence of scrolls say about the minority theory that claims the dead sea scrolls are not the product of a qumran community, but rather the belongings of jewish residents fleeing jerusalem?

Coins dating to the period of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt.

Coins dating to the period of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt.

now of course, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. but, there is no doubt that jews fled the roman suppression of both the great revolt of 70 ce and the bar-kokhba revolt. archaeologists have discovered dispatch letters from bar-kokhba himself, marriage contracts and land deeds, weapons, storage jars, oil lamps, juglets, jewelry, glass bottles, textiles, and many, many coins. but the fact that there is evidence of jews fleeing jerusalem and hiding objects in the desert does not necessarily mean that the dead sea scrolls discovered near qumran are among the objects hidden by jerusalem residents. when one couples this new discovery, in which just about everything but scrolls was discovered among the hidden personal treasures of jewish refugees, and one adds in the years of research demonstrating the congruity of ideology within the dead sea scrolls (especially the sectarian manuscripts), and one couples with this the evidence of obvious reoccupation and expansion at qumran, it all bolsters the tested, albeit aged and still not disproved majority theory that the dead sea scrolls are indeed a product of the jewish residents of qumran.

but i digress.

political undertones:

as always, one cannot help but sense that political undertones of the statement in the jerusalem post article that reads:

With this find, Prof. Zissu said that the distribution of the coins in the region helps to further “indicate the geographical extent of the Jewish presence outside of Jerusalem” during the Roman occupation of the land of Israel. Prof. Zissu further explained that “since there is not a definitive historian (from the era), we have to rely on the information we find from the coins and discoveries.”

it seems that every archaeological discovery made ‘within the green line of israel’ offers some evidence on jewish presence in the holy land. jewish presence in israel and palestine in ancient times from the iron age through the bar-kokhba revolt is undisputed. however, it is always interesting to observe that this presence is regularly, yet not so subtly highlighted as rationale for a continued presence in the west bank today.

some thoughts and predictions:

fun fact: bar-kokhba (and his coins) was my initial choice for a dissertation topic before the qumran visualization project came along. that decision determined my (and unfortunately, another’s) fate for the last four years.

let me guess: jimmy barfield will revise his ‘scientific’ arson investigation-inspired methodology and claim that this is one of the lost treasures of the copper scroll.

i can’t wait: norman golb (this time, without the assistance of his son) will self-publish some pdf and slap it up on his university of chicago website attempting to link this find somehow, someway to his slowly dying theory that the dead sea scrolls aren’t really from qumran. just wait for it…  it’s fascinating to see golb’s support disappear with his son’s 80+ aliases. but again, i digress…

congratulations again to archaeologists langford, frumkin, zissu, eshel, and the rest of the team and the university!

2 Responses

  1. If you look at where scrolls (and later medieval MSS) have been found in Israel you might notice that they are found in the east and south of Israel. The places where MSS have been found include: Wadi ed-Daliyeh, Wadi el-Mafjar, around Qumran, Khirbet Mird, Wadi en-Nar, Wadi Ghweir, Wadi Murabbaat, Har Yishay, Wadi Sdeir, Nahal Arugot, Nahal Hever, Wadi Qunetra, Nahal Mishmar, Masada, En Boqeq, Mamshit (possibly 2 papyri), Nessana, and Moa.

    What these locations in the east and south share in common is that they are generally in areas with little moisture. The Judean Hills near Beitar is a moister area so it is unlikely (but not impossible) that scrolls would have survived.

    Further information on moisture is provided in the article by Ofri Ilani in Haaretz, in the last 2 lines of that article, it is noted that “All of the coins were preserved in relatively good condition, despite humid conditions inside the cave”.

    “humid conditions” Two words that explain why there is no mention of scrolls, no mention of textiles, cordage, matting, basketry, or leather goods such as sandals. Unless these perishable materials were buried in the cave in dry soil, were placed in a protective container, or were pressed up against copper that reduced decay, they would have rotted away.

  2. this is actually a very good point. we have all kinds of manuscripts (land deeds, divorce contracts, receipts, some biblical mss, and even a few ideologically congruent sectarian mss) all located along the western shore of the dead sea, spanning a range of time. lots of people from lots of different time periods have hidden lots of mss in caves in the hills.

    does anyone think the bar-kokhba letters were the product of multiple libraries from jerusalem? or were they the product of a named individual or group mentioned within the very mss hailing from a location in or near the location of their discovery?

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