DNA and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Scientists are learning more about the Dead Sea Scrolls not by examining the texts but by looking at what they were written on.

Piecing together more than 25,000 fragments of the ancient manuscripts is complicated by the fact that most were not acquired directly from the 11 Qumran caves near the Dead Sea, but through antiquity dealers. It’s not clear what goes with what, let alone how they fit.

Now the very modern concept of DNA testing comes into the equation.

A team of Israeli, Swedish and US researchers extracted and sequenced DNA from individual pieces of parchment (some so small they were referred to as scroll dust) and discovered that most were made from sheepskin.

They then reasoned that pieces made from the skin of the same sheep must be related, and that scrolls from closely related sheep were more likely to fit together than those from more different sheep or other species.

And the other way around. They found cases where pieces thought to belong together were in fact made from different animals – cows and sheep. The most notable example came from scrolls that comprise different copies of the biblical, prophetic book of Jeremiah.

“Analysis of the text found on these Jeremiah pieces suggests that they not only belong to different scrolls, they also represent different versions of the prophetic book,” says Tel Aviv University’s Noam Mizrahi, co-author of a paper in the journal Cell.

Dead sea scrolls
Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

“The fact that the scrolls that are most divergent textually are also made of a different animal species is indicative that they originate at a different provenance.”

The discovery also has larger implications, the researchers say.

The fact that different versions of the book circulated in parallel suggests that “the holiness of the biblical book did not extend to its precise wording”. That’s in contrast to the mutually exclusive texts that were adopted later by Judaism and Christianity.

“This teaches us about the way this prophetic text was read at the time and also holds clues to the process of the text’s evolution,” says Tel Aviv University’s Oded Rechavi, the paper’s lead author.

Other highlights include insight into the relationship among different copies of a non-biblical, liturgical work known as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, found in both Qumran and Masada.

The analysis shows that the various copies found in different Qumran Caves are closely related genetically, but the Masada copy is distinct. The finding suggests that the work had a wider currency in the period.

“What we learn from the scrolls is probably relevant also to what happened in the country at the time,” Mizrahi says. “As the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice foreshadows revolutionary developments in poetic design and religious thinking, this conclusion has implications for the history of Western mysticism and Jewish liturgy.”

The researchers say evidence also confirmed that some other fragments of uncertain origin likely came from other places and not the Qumran caves.

In one case, the DNA evidence suggests a fragment from a copy of the biblical book of Isaiah – one of the most popular books in ancient Judea – likely came from another site, which suggests the potential existence of an additional place of discovery.

DNA won’t provide all the answers, however. Some fragments are too fragile even for modern enquiry.

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