So here I was on a summer’s day, reclin­ing in a pon­toon boat on a beau­ti­ful Maine lake, sur­round­ed by my kids and grand­kids, when my cell phone rang. It was a promi­nent Qum­ran schol­ar whose work I’d edit­ed at the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety. You know,” he said, there ought to be a nov­el about the Dead Sea Scrolls. But I don’t write fiction.”

From this I sur­mised that he was invit­ing me to coau­thor such a book with him. Despite his dis­claimer of not being a nov­el­ist, he pro­ceed­ed to tell me the two main plots (and a third sub­plot) that I should use for this his­tor­i­cal mystery.

Alas, our col­lab­o­ra­tion didn’t work out — the tug-of-war between his devo­tion to research and mine to a good yarn proved irrec­on­cil­able. We part­ed ami­ca­bly, and I con­tin­ued to work on the project alone.

I knew I want­ed to write a mys­tery con­nect­ing the first cen­tu­ry C. E. with the twen­ty-first, using the Dead Scrolls as the through­line. That much my coau­thor and I had agreed on. But I also want­ed to fea­ture a female intel­li­gence agent and explore issues not typ­i­cal of Mossad-esque thrillers — sex­ism, sin­gle moth­er­hood, rival­ry among female agents, romance from a woman’s per­spec­tive — as well as hot-but­ton issues in con­tem­po­rary Israel that would res­onate with Amer­i­cans. The Dead­ly Scrolls, the first book in my series, focus­es on zealotry — reli­gious, polit­i­cal, eth­nic, pro­fes­sion­al, and ide­o­log­i­cal. Future vol­umes will touch on racism, anti­semitism, polit­i­cal scan­dals, eth­nic tensions.

Over the next few years, my nov­el mor­phed as nov­els tend to do. And then one day, while reread­ing a text I’d encoun­tered when edit­ing a non-fic­tion book on this sub­ject for JPS, I dis­cov­ered the plot engine for my nar­ra­tive. It was embed­ded in a Dead Sea Scroll known as the Cop­per Scroll.

Every­thing about this ancient scroll is a mys­tery. Unique among the almost 1,000 par­tial and com­plete scrolls that have been unearthed in and around Qum­ran and the Dead Sea, the Cop­per Scroll is the only one writ­ten on met­al — specif­i­cal­ly, nine­ty-nine per­cent cop­per and one per­cent tin — ham­mered to the thick­ness of a page of typ­ing paper. All the oth­er scrolls in the Qum­ran cor­pus are writ­ten on either papyrus or parch­ment. In addi­tion, the spelling, script, and lin­guis­tic char­ac­ter of this text’s Hebrew is of lat­er vin­tage than that found in the oth­er scrolls. Even stranger, pairs and triplets of Greek let­ters appear inter­mit­tent­ly through­out the text.

These and oth­er idio­syn­crasies have raised many ques­tions for the schol­ars who study this two-thou­sand-year-old text. Who wrote it and when? Why did the author(s) choose to inscribe it on cop­per? If the authors were Tem­ple priests, why include pagan Greek?

One more anom­aly about this doc­u­ment: the Cop­per Scroll is the only inven­to­ry of trea­sure found among the Qum­ran doc­u­ments. This trea­sure is the gold and sil­ver imple­ments used in the Sec­ond Tem­ple and the many shekels of annu­al tax rev­enues. The Cop­per Scroll lists all six­ty-four places where these trea­sures were hid­den away, pre­sum­ably by the Tem­ple priests.

The prob­lem is that these descrip­tions lack the pre­ci­sion of a map. Instead, the Cop­per Scroll pro­vides only ephemer­al land­marks such as trees, human-built struc­tures, or ambigu­ous locales that are con­stant­ly changed by nat­ur­al forces like ero­sion, flash floods, or earth­quakes. This is why, after decades of search­ing by archae­ol­o­gists, schol­ars, and trea­sure-hunters, not a sin­gle one of these trea­sures has ever been found. (Some schol­ars argue that the trea­sures were loot­ed cen­turies ago or moved, but these the­o­ries remain as unval­i­dat­ed as the Cop­per Scroll’s own trea­sure map.)

Here, for instance, is the Cop­per Scroll’s clue for find­ing a large cache of gold coins: In the low­er mill­stone [of an olive press] in the Dale of Olives on its west­ern side, there is a stone whose holes mea­sure two cubits in depth, being the entrance­way, [in which are laid-up] three hun­dred tal­ents of gold and ten atone­ment ves­sels.” Good luck locat­ing that mill­stone after two thou­sand years!

But what real­ly fired up my imag­i­na­tion was the scroll’s final sen­tence: In the under­ground pas­sage that is in Sehab north of Kochalit, with its open­ing to the north, and which has tombs at its entrance: a dupli­cate of this doc­u­ment, and the inter­pre­ta­tion, and their mea­sure­ments,’ and the pro­tokol­lon of the one and the other.”

Why cre­ate a dupli­cate of this scroll? Why con­sign its inter­pre­ta­tion to a copy of the orig­i­nal doc­u­ment? Are the Greek let­ters some kind of code? Does the dupli­cate scroll con­tain the decryp­tion code? And where is Kochalit?

As a for­mer grad­u­ate stu­dent, I knew how to dig up answers in the dusty cor­ners of aca­d­e­m­ic research. In an arti­cle pub­lished by a schol­ar named Al Wolters in 1988, I found the final piece of infor­ma­tion I need­ed. Wolters explains that a pro­tokol­lon (a Greek antecedent to our Eng­lish word, pro­to­col”) was an extra leaf of parch­ment or papyrus (or cop­per), that served as a sort of Table of Con­tents or the front mat­ter for a doc­u­ment. Wolters goes on to sug­gest that this par­tic­u­lar pro­tokol­lon might have served as a key to deci­pher­ing the Greek let­ters in the Cop­per Scroll or as a method of authen­ti­cat­ing the two scrolls — orig­i­nal and copy — to com­plete the trea­sure map. What tan­ta­liz­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for a mys­tery writer!

That’s where my plot begins — but not where it ends. How­ev­er, I don’t want to ruin your expe­ri­ence of The Dead­ly Scrolls with spoil­ers. You’ll just have to read it yourself.

And if you’re intrigued by the schol­ar­ship and his­to­ry behind the Cop­per Scroll, I’ve includ­ed a post­script at the end of the nov­el to fill in some schol­ar­ly back­ground for my sto­ry. Maybe you’ll be the one final­ly to crack the code and retrieve the Sec­ond Tem­ple treasures…

Ellen Frankel served for 18 years as Edi­tor in Chief of JPS. She received a Ph.D. in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Prince­ton. She has pub­lished eleven books, most notably The Five Books of Miri­am. She has also writ­ten libret­tos for cham­ber pieces and two operas. She has trav­eled wide­ly as a Jew­ish sto­ry­teller. The Dead­ly Scrolls is her first mystery.