The Dead Sea Scrolls are a huge piece of Biblical history.
But did you know that scholars recently DNA-tested the scrolls?
Their analysis revealed critical new information about the origin of these artifacts!
The Dead Sea Scrolls were originally discovered in the Qumran Caves of the Judaean Desert in Israel.
When they were first brought to light, scholars realized the scrolls contained early Biblical manuscripts as well as other religious and historical writings from Biblical times.
Many of the scrolls have been fragmented by time, environmental causes, or human interference, but several full manuscripts remain.
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are partial or complete versions of nearly every book in the Hebrew Bible!
Biblical archaeologists have studied the scrolls and their hiding place for years, hoping to uncover more information about the group who wrote them and the history surrounding them.
And now, after a seven-year research project, they’ve finally made a breakthrough!
The project involved DNA testing and analysis, a relatively new technology not previously applied to the scrolls.
To conduct their research, the scholars analyzed the DNA of the animal skin composing the scrolls.
“Almost all the scrolls we sampled were found to be made of sheepskin,” said Professor Oded Rechavi, a scholar from Tel Aviv University who led the team.
“Accordingly, most of the effort was invested in the very challenging task of trying to piece together fragments made from the skin of particular sheep and to separate these from fragments written on skins of different sheep that also share an almost identical genome.”
Professor Rechavi explained that studying the DNA “fingerprint” of the scrolls is critical to distinguishing the origin of the writings and understanding the historical context surrounding these precious—yet controversial—artifacts.
The origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls has been an issue of debate since their discovery, but Rechavi and his team have more information to offer after their DNA analysis.
While most of the scrolls are made from sheepskin, as described above, two fragments from the Book of Jeremiah were written on cowhide, according to Rechavi and his team.
Believing that this is a clue to the origin of the scrolls, Rechavi noted that it’s possible that these scroll fragments came from a region some distance away from Qumran.
“Cow husbandry requires grass and water [which are hard to find in the Qumran area], so it is very likely that cowhide was not processed in the desert but was brought to the Qumran caves from another place,” Professor Rechavi added.
It’s especially important to know if the scrolls came to Qumran from an outside source, said the team.
“We don’t always know precisely where each fragment was discovered, and sometimes false information was given about this matter,” explain Professor Noam Mizrahi, another team leader.
“Identifying the place of discovery is important because it affects our understanding of the historical context of the findings.”
As Professor Mizrahi noted, the region an artifact is from helps clarify its context. So the cow and sheep DNA tests help to illuminate this.
However, DNA isn’t the only lead that the team is pursuing!
The two Jeremiah fragments written on cowhide contain different information than the Biblical Book of Jeremiah that we know and read today.
Rechavi, Mizrahi, and their team discussed the possibility that these fragments were written by either a radical Jewish sect or a more mainstream sect whose theological ideas matched those of broader Jewish society.
“Imagine that Israel is destroyed to the ground, and only one library survives—the library of an isolated, ‘extremist’ sect,” said Professor Mizrahi, discussing the first possibility.
“What could we deduce, if anything, from this library about greater Israel?”
No matter which possibility is true, the team knows that they’re making important steps to understanding the full meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“The ancient DNA proves that two copies of Jeremiah, textually different from each other, were brought from outside the Judean Desert,” explained Professor Mizrahi.
The team is still working to discover more about the different fragments, and they believe their future findings will continue to impact Biblical scholarship and archaeology in the region.
Stay tuned to learn more about these fascinating discoveries! We’re only beginning to understand the full meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.