BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Dead Sea Scrolls Genetically Fingerprinted

Animal skin DNA reveals some scrolls came from beyond the Qumran caves

Temple Scroll

Israel Museum / Public domain

The 25,000 fragments that make up the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered by many to be the archaeological discovery of the 20th century. They were found mostly in the decade following 1947, yet 21st century techniques still have more to teach us about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and thus about Second Temple Judaism at the time of Jesus.

A highly technical study released on June 11, 2020 in the Journal Cell examines the Dead Sea Scrolls by identifying the ancient DNA of the animals–mostly sheep, but also cow, goat, and other bovids–whose skin formed the underlying parchment. The DNA analysis allowed a definitive determination that some fragments were not part of the same scroll as others, and also to establish that some scrolls at Qumran had come from outside the area.

Qumran Caves

Credit: Lux Moundi/CC BY-2.0

The Essene sect at Qumran is considered more mystical than typical Second Temple Judaism. One concern of scholars has been that the discovered library of the Dead Sea Scrolls might not be fully representative of Jewish practice at the time. By demonstrating via this DNA analysis that many of the scrolls came from elsewhere across Judea, the study suggests to scholars that the library of scrolls, including some of the oldest surviving manuscripts that would become part of the Hebrew Bible and extra-biblical manuscripts, was probably broadly representative of Jewish religious thought during the Second Temple period.

In the study, researchers were able to establish that four copies of the book of Jeremiah were represented among the fragments, each a different version. This suggests Jewish society of the Second Temple period was open to differently worded versions circulating simultaneously, with emphasis more on the larger meaning and themes conveyed, and less insistence on the precise wording of the religious scripture.


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Another liturgical composition, known as the Song of the Sabbath Sacrifice, was even more prevalent than the biblical scrolls themselves, with fragments of some ten copies from the Qumran caves, and another at Masada. Previous supposition had been that the Masada copies had been brought from Qumran. Thanks to the DNA analysis, researchers were able to determine that the copy at Masada had not come from Qumran, but rather from elsewhere. They conclude that the mystical Song of the Sabbath Sacrifice was more broadly available and thus more likely to have survived in hidden pockets for long enough to influence the Jewish mystical literature that emerged centuries later into the Middle Ages.

75 years after their discovery, the Dead Sea Scrolls aren’t done teaching us about Second Temple Judaism and the emergence of Christianity. Even further new techniques will hopefully keep yielding insights for decades to come.

Read the Israel Antiquities Authority release about the study here.


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Hershel’s Crusade, No. 1: He Who Freed the Dead Sea Scrolls So, of course, the question: What would have happened if Hershel [and Biblical Archaeology Review] had not carried out his campaign to free the scrolls and had instead granted the new editor-in-chief the opportunity to turn matters about? I have actually debated this question on several occasions with Emanuel himself and have concluded—given Tov’s obvious talent for managing such a minor miracle—that the publications in the fall of 1991 that have been credited with freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls actually played a very different, and arguably more important, role.

Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? Most scholars believe the Dead Sea Scrolls (more than 900 of them) were either written or collected by a sect of Jews called Essenes, who are described by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo. However, the scrolls themselves make no explicit reference to the Essenes. Scholars infer the connection because of the congruence of Essene philosophy and doctrine as reflected in the scrolls and as described in Josephus and Philo.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament What do the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us about the New Testament? One possible answer is: Nothing. The scrolls were associated with a relatively small group, or, rather, with several small groups. Other Jewish people, like the first Christians, may not even have known about their sectarian writings. In fact, there is no evidence that any author of a New Testament book knew of or used any of the sectarian works found in caves near Qumran that we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Searching for the “Original” Bible When ancient Biblical texts differ from one another, which one should we believe? More specifically, in answering this question: How helpful are those ancient scrolls of the Hebrew Bible found among the Dead Sea Scrolls?

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1 Responses

  1. D. P. says:

    This article doesn’t explain the process, assumptions, and methodology for drawing conclusions nearly well enough to allow me to accept what is presented as anything more than hocus pocus. To draw the kinds of conclusions this study supposedly does, MASSIVE AMOUNTS of data and information beyond what is discussed would need to be available and demonstrate facts that are not even distantly indicated in the material presented. What does “outside the area” mean? More than 10 miles? 50? 250? How is that established?

    Aside from the highly tenuous DNA assertions, there are other supposedly “indicated conclusions” that are just as tenuous and potentially bogus. The multiple varying copies of Jeremiah could have been pulled from circulation for being spurious and stored where they were found. I have 2-3 thousand hardback books on Biblical topics in my personal library, and nearly 15,000 volumes besides in my Bible software library. Of those, almost none of them represent what I believe about the Bible.

    Also (and this is perhaps the most specious “conclusion” of all in this “pig in a poke” article), there is the assumption that parchment from “elsewhere across Judea” means that the SCROLLS MADE FROM THE PARCHMENT were made in the same areas that the parchment came from. That supposition reminds me of the studies conducted on airplanes during WWII that returned from flights over enemy territory. Wanting to add some armor plating to the aircraft to make them better able to withstand damage from AA and dogfights, military brass commissioned a study to find where on the aircraft the plating would provide the best level of protection. The plating could not be used on the entire aircraft because that would make the planes too heavy. The initial studies of planes returning from hostile action found that the majority of damage received was on the wings and fuselage, with very little to the engines and cockpit. The brass were about to command the armor be placed on the areas that showed the most damage, when a mathematician, who was brought in to “confirm” the statistics, raised an immediate objection. He pointed out that the aircraft that returned HAD SURVIVED BATTLE, while the ones that had been LOST in battle were NOT part of the survey sample. The planes that returned had very little damage to the engines and cockpit BECAUSE IF THOSE AREAS WERE DAMAGED, THE PLANES RARELY MADE IT HOME. The shot up wings and fuselage showed those areas could survive significant damage and still remain airborne, and so the armor needed to be added to be added to the cockpit and engine areas.

    The fact that the parchment came from “all over” Judea doesn’t mean that COMPLETED SCROLLS were produced all over Judea. Concluding, as this article does, that DNA analysis “proves” that fully inscribed SCROLLS, rather than just raw PARCHMENT, came from across the wide swath of the Land is akin to deciding that the damaged wings and fuselage should be armor reinforced–a completely erroneous conclusion.

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1 Responses

  1. D. P. says:

    This article doesn’t explain the process, assumptions, and methodology for drawing conclusions nearly well enough to allow me to accept what is presented as anything more than hocus pocus. To draw the kinds of conclusions this study supposedly does, MASSIVE AMOUNTS of data and information beyond what is discussed would need to be available and demonstrate facts that are not even distantly indicated in the material presented. What does “outside the area” mean? More than 10 miles? 50? 250? How is that established?

    Aside from the highly tenuous DNA assertions, there are other supposedly “indicated conclusions” that are just as tenuous and potentially bogus. The multiple varying copies of Jeremiah could have been pulled from circulation for being spurious and stored where they were found. I have 2-3 thousand hardback books on Biblical topics in my personal library, and nearly 15,000 volumes besides in my Bible software library. Of those, almost none of them represent what I believe about the Bible.

    Also (and this is perhaps the most specious “conclusion” of all in this “pig in a poke” article), there is the assumption that parchment from “elsewhere across Judea” means that the SCROLLS MADE FROM THE PARCHMENT were made in the same areas that the parchment came from. That supposition reminds me of the studies conducted on airplanes during WWII that returned from flights over enemy territory. Wanting to add some armor plating to the aircraft to make them better able to withstand damage from AA and dogfights, military brass commissioned a study to find where on the aircraft the plating would provide the best level of protection. The plating could not be used on the entire aircraft because that would make the planes too heavy. The initial studies of planes returning from hostile action found that the majority of damage received was on the wings and fuselage, with very little to the engines and cockpit. The brass were about to command the armor be placed on the areas that showed the most damage, when a mathematician, who was brought in to “confirm” the statistics, raised an immediate objection. He pointed out that the aircraft that returned HAD SURVIVED BATTLE, while the ones that had been LOST in battle were NOT part of the survey sample. The planes that returned had very little damage to the engines and cockpit BECAUSE IF THOSE AREAS WERE DAMAGED, THE PLANES RARELY MADE IT HOME. The shot up wings and fuselage showed those areas could survive significant damage and still remain airborne, and so the armor needed to be added to be added to the cockpit and engine areas.

    The fact that the parchment came from “all over” Judea doesn’t mean that COMPLETED SCROLLS were produced all over Judea. Concluding, as this article does, that DNA analysis “proves” that fully inscribed SCROLLS, rather than just raw PARCHMENT, came from across the wide swath of the Land is akin to deciding that the damaged wings and fuselage should be armor reinforced–a completely erroneous conclusion.

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