Hide in plain sight: Groundbreaking study delves into Dead Sea Scrolls’ origins

A seven-year interdisciplinary study of ancient animal DNA taken from 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scroll fragments gives researchers new and surprising insight into the Jews and their theology on the cusp of the fall of the Second Temple.

The unprecedented “paleogenomic” study of ancient DNA from the Dead Sea Scrolls — the oldest biblical manuscripts yet discovered — provides each parchment’s animal source with a unique DNA fingerprint.

Tracing the origins of these animal hides provides a new window into the geographical and chronological development of the biblical canon and gives insight into whether the scrolls reflect the narrow, extremist view lived by the Jewish sects at Qumran, or whether they were a library of texts collected from the broader Jewish community.

Preservation work of a Dead Sea Scroll fragment. (Shai Halevi, The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library)

“Two samples were discovered to be made of cow hide, and these happen to belong to two different fragments taken from the Book of Jeremiah. In the past, one of the cow skin-made fragments was thought to belong to the same scroll as another fragment that we found to be made of sheep skin. The mismatch now officially disproves this theory,” says Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Oded Rechavi.

“What’s more: Cow husbandry requires grass and water, so it is very likely that cow hide was not processed in the desert but was brought to the Qumran caves from another place. This finding bears crucial significance, because the cow hide fragments came from two different copies of the Book of Jeremiah, reflecting different versions of the book, which stray from the biblical text as we know it today,” Rechavi adds.

— Amanda Borschel Dan

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