A seven-year interdisciplinary study of ancient animal DNA taken from 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scroll fragments has provided researchers with new and surprising insight into the Jews and their theology on the cusp of the fall of the Second Temple.
The breakthrough study reveals that the various scrolls from which the fragments come were written in different locations along the Dead Sea and, in some cases, even far away from it. This new theory is based on new evidence that part of the Dead Sea Scrolls corpus was written on calfskin, which would not have been available in the Judean Desert, say the researchers. Previously, researchers had presumed the parchment was made from goats, which thrive in the desert climate.
The pioneering new DNA methodology may also now enable researchers to group together some of the thousands of disparate scroll fragments that experts have for decades been unable to match, enabling potential reconstruction of more of the ancient texts.
Among the discoveries is that two fragments from the Book of Jeremiah reflect differing versions of the book, which themselves also stray from the biblical text as it is known today. “The ancient DNA proves that two copies of Jeremiah, textually different from each other, were brought from outside the Judean Desert,” said Tel Aviv University Biblical Studies Prof. Noam Mizrahi.
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 skins 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 worldview that characterized the Jewish sects at Qumran, or whether they were a library of texts collected from the broader Jewish community.
“For me, as philologist who has conducted many years of research on the texts inscribed on the scrolls — studying their content, language, scribal features — I was amazed to see how much information can be gleaned by analyzing the biological material from which the scrolls are made,” Mizrahi told The Times of Israel this week.
I was amazed to see how much information can be gleaned by analyzing the biological material from which the scrolls are made
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a library of theological and legal writings from the third century BCE to first century CE that were found starting from 1947 through the 1960s. The fragile scrolls and fragments were largely found in 11 caves surrounding the ancient site of Qumran, on the northern tip of the Dead Sea in the Judean Desert. In sum they create a corpus of some 25,000 fragments that make up 1,000 manuscripts. Other scroll sites include more southern Dead Sea locations, such as Wadi Murabba’at, Naḥal Tze’elim, Naḥal Ḥever, and Masada.
“Imagine that Israel is destroyed to the ground, and only one library survives – the library of an isolated, ‘extremist’ sect: What could we deduce, if anything, from this library about greater Israel?” said Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Oded Rechavi in a press release. “To distinguish between scrolls particular to this sect and other scrolls reflecting a more widespread distribution, we sequenced ancient DNA extracted from the animal skins on which some of the manuscripts were inscribed.”
One of the insights gained from the study is that, through identifying the different herds of animals used in making the scrolls’ parchment, researchers now know that they were likely written at differing locations along the Dead Sea — and even far from it.
Our research enabled us to shed new light on many old mysteries basically by allowing the materiality of the scrolls to speak for its own right — and it has surprisingly a lot to tell us
“I was surprised how much can be learned from the species identification alone about the circulation of the scrolls, their importance (that they represent the broader cultural milieu of Israel, not just an extremist sect),” Rechavi wrote The Times of Israel in an email.
The unique ancient DNA fingerprint may also grant researchers the ability to group together some of the many thousands of tiny puzzle-piece fragments that have largely been sitting for the past 70-odd years in the cigar boxes they were placed in by the original scholars in the 1950s. Some of these fragments, newly read by IAA scholars with hi-tech imaging, only contain a word or two of Second Temple Hebrew. However, if their DNA fingerprints match other, larger pieces, new channels of inquiry could be opened.
“Our research enabled us to shed new light on many old mysteries basically by allowing the materiality of the scrolls to speak for its own right — and it has surprisingly a lot to tell us,” said Mizrahi.
The noninvasive DNA mapping and analysis was completed by a joint international team of life scientists, philologists and archaeologists. The resultant study is published as the June cover story of the prestigious peer-reviewed Cell academic journal. The research team was led by Tel Aviv University’s Rechavi of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, and Biblical Studies Prof. Mizrahi. Collaborators include Uppsala University in Sweden’s Prof. Mattias Jakobsson, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Pnina Shor and Beatriz Riestra, TAU’s George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences Prof. Dorothee Huchon-Pupko and Cornell Medicine Prof. Christopher E. Mason.
Herding the information
Rechavi, it appears, had no preconceived notion that his new “paleogenomic approach” to the Dead Sea Scrolls would work. In the Cell paper, “Illuminating Genetic Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” the authors explain that to compare and contrast the DNA with modern livestock, they “generated genomic sequence data from 35 ancient and four modern specimens, as well as mitochondrial capture data from 3 pieces of ancient scroll fragments.”
“It is remarkable that we were able to retrieve enough authentic ancient animal DNA from some of these 2,000 year old fragments considering the tough history of the animal hides,” Rechavi, whose lab developed the scientific methodologies used in the study, told The Times of Israel in an email this week. “They were processed into parchment, used in a rough environment, left for two millennia, and then finally handled by humans again when they were rediscovered.”
The pioneering study was seven years in the making, said Rechavi, for a variety of reasons — including the fact that its ideas and methods were relatively untried. But for Rechavi, whose lab’s website proclaims it is a “Laboratory for radical science,” that was no barrier.
“When Noam and I met for the first time and started thinking about this, it sounded like a crazy idea, and therefore it took a while for us to actually do something about it. Then we had to convince the IAA that it’s a good idea and proved that we can extract DNA from tiny amounts of materials,” Rechavi explained.
When Noam and I met for the first time and started thinking about this, it sounded like a crazy idea
The rest of the study’s academic team was assembled through a sequence of chance meetings — leading ancient DNA expert Jakobsson at a talk in Sweden, and at a different talk, Cornell’s Mason, who studied bacterial contaminations of the DNA processing in New York. “Then we established a collaboration with Dorothee Hochon-Pupko, which was crucial for the identification of the animals,” he said. He also credited his lab’s team “for developing all the tools that we needed. It takes a long time!”
The IAA’s Shor said she welcomed the new Tel Aviv University collaboration, which “joins the innovative toolbox of Dead Sea scrolls studies. We attempt to integrate present scientific and technological advances minimizing intervention while enhancing physical and textual research on the scrolls.”
The Israel Antiquities Authority is the custodian of some 99 percent of all uncovered Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, according to head of the Dead Sea Scrolls unit Pnina Shor. Due to the extremely delicate condition of the fragments — considered an international heritage treasure — until now most parchment studies have been too invasive for the IAA to permit on a wide scale.
Rechavi and his lab, however, devised means in which even “dust” taken from tape attached to scrolls or delicate scrapings from their unwritten backsides could yield 2,000-year-old animal DNA.
“When it was possible, the conservators from the Israel Antiquities Authorities (IAA) cut off tiny fragments for us to analyze. In other cases, when we examined fragments that are too sensitive to cut, we had to sequence ‘dust’ that fell off or scraped off the uninscribed side of the piece. In these later cases, the sampling did minimal or almost no damage. However, any handling of the scrolls, even just letting us look at them, holds certain risk,” Rechavi told The Times of Israel.
The ancient DNA study gives an unexpected answer in the ongoing debate over which breed of kosher animals had their hides used for parchment — mostly sheep, not goats as previously thought.
Shifting Second Temple-era canon
According to the IAA’s Shor, the Dead Sea Scrolls corpus includes every book of the Hebrew Bible, barring the Book of Esther, but they are not necessarily written exactly as we read them today. The study’s look at two puzzling fragments from the Book of Jeremiah illuminate the canonical discrepancies further.
“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,” said Rechavi in the press release.
“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,” said Rechavi.
Asked how we can be certain that the cow parchment wasn’t imported to the Qumran area and prepared there, Mizrahi said, “It’s always an issue of probabilities. First, we have no evidence for the transportation of blank scrolls from one part of the country to the other, and it seems difficult to understand why would someone go into such a venture that renders the material much more expensive when locally-produced hides would have been easily available close to home.
“Second, in the case of Jeremiah, there are converging lines of evidence suggesting that the cow-made scrolls were not written at the site. Both of them are paleographically too old for that — [fragment] 4Q70 is dated to the late 3rd century BCE, while 4Q72b is dated to the 2nd century BCE, i.e., before the sectarian settlement at Qumran (now usually dated to ~100 BCE through 68 CE),” he clarified in an email.
According to the Cell article, fragment 4Q70 “is textually distinct because it preserves an intermediate compositional stage.” An original, brief text was “corrected” by a later scribe in a margin note. “The additional paragraph (Jeremiah 7:30–8:3) amplifies the prophetic admonition and has become part of the longer, received version. Tellingly, long before discovery of the DSSs, critical scholars have argued, on literary grounds, that this paragraph is not well integrated into its present context,” write the authors.
Long before discovery of the DSSs, critical scholars have argued, on literary grounds, that this paragraph is not well integrated into its present context
Within the additional apocalyptic, now canonized, paragraphs, Jeremiah rails against idolaters, stating, “For the people of Judah have done what displeases Me — declares the LORD. They have set up their abominations in the House which is called by My name, and they have defiled it… And I will silence in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride. For the whole land shall fall to ruin…”
Bible scholar Mizrahi speaks about “textual ‘pluriformity'” — different versions of the same book, found within the same cave. As opposed to the anchored, unchanging biblical text Jews across the world encounter today, through the different readings of Jeremiah, he hypothesized that during the Second Temple period, the Jews’ emphasis was on the interpretation of the text, rather than the exact wordage.
“The ancient DNA proves that two copies of Jeremiah, textually different from each other, were brought from outside the Judean Desert. This fact suggests that the concept of scriptural authority – emanating from the perception of biblical texts as a record of the Divine Word – was different in this period from that which dominated after the destruction of the Second Temple,” said Mizrahi in the press release.
“In the formative age of classical Judaism and nascent Christianity, the polemic between Jewish sects and movements was focused on the ‘correct’ interpretation of the text, not its wording or exact linguistic form.”
Asked if this idea of multiple interpretations can be used to understand the versions of scriptural stories found in the Christian New Testament, Mizrahi said, “Nascent Christianity began its life as a Jewish movement, so no wonder that there are many parallels between the scrolls and the New Testament, though one should not underestimate the differences as well.
“When it comes to scriptural interpretation there some striking parallels with regard to the hermeneutics (namely, the concepts of the interpretive method) as well as the selection of interpreted texts and even certain exegetical motifs. Finally, both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament stem from the same cultural world, in which apocalyptic thinking and literature were driving forces with formidable impact on all aspects of cultural productivity,” said Mizrahi.
New technique to detect forgeries?
The lure of the Dead Sea Scrolls for Jews and Christians alike has led to a recent proliferation of forgeries on the market. Most notably, the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, announced in March that its entire collection of so-called Dead Sea Scroll fragments were all frauds.
Colette Loll, the founder/director of Art Fraud Insights, conducted the final in-depth study that concluded that the multi-million dollar fragments were forgeries. According to its website, Loll’s firm is “a consultancy dedicated to art-fraud related prevention initiatives, exhibitions, lectures, training and specialized investigations.”
In many cases, the Museum of the Bible’s fragments were written by modern forgers on ancient parchment, presumably blank, which appears to be from scroll caches that weren’t originally deemed valuable enough for the antiquities market. In her multi-disciplinary report, in addition to epigraphical discrepancies, Loll used molecular, elemental and chemical analysis.
Asked by The Times of Israel if the new Tel Aviv study will influence her future work, Loll said, “Certainly any methodology which helps us to further characterize the writing surface, or substrate, of the fragments in question would be interesting to consider. I suppose cost and access to any questioned fragments would be the obvious considerations. I would be more than happy to discuss a possible collaboration with Tel Aviv as we have a large, and growing, dataset of questioned fragments under review.”
Other scholars of ancient texts are likewise pushing for a wider dataset for the Dead Sea Scroll fragments.
“The organized accumulation of this kind of data is a very welcome development for all of us who work on ancient manuscripts,” wrote Brent Nongbri in a recent post on his Variant Readings blog. “Of course, as forgers grow in sophistication, a database like this could become an asset for producers of forgeries, a kind of guide book for making more convincing fakes. But this is the nature of the symbiotic relationship between forgers and scholars: As forgers produce more advanced products, scholars must respond with even more exacting examinations of unprovenanced pieces (if they wish to use unprovenanced materials at all, a question that is looming on the horizon for all students of ancient manuscripts).”
Rechavi said that he is not yet certain if the techniques developed in the Cell study could also be used to authenticate (or not) unprovenanced DSS scroll fragments.
“In theory this could be possible, but we’ll have to try and see. We found that Qumran scrolls can be distinguished from scrolls there were brought from the outside… it perhaps depends where the blank parchments originated,” said Rechavi.
But biblical scholar Mizrahi was adamant that this wasn’t — and shouldn’t be — the goal of future work.
“Our goal was to study the authentic fragments, not identify any forgeries.” He said that in principle, due to the differences in the genetic signature of scrolls coming from different sites, “one might be able to utilize this kind of information for ruling out a connection between Qumran (or other ancient sites) and a given unprovenanced fragment.” Forgeries written on authentic but blank fragments would not be detected, however.
“We should bear in mind, though, that the number of forgeries is relatively small (roughly around 100 fragments), whereas the authentic fragments run to some 25,000 (!),” wrote Mizrahi in an email. “In my view, it is better to focus the energy on the real stuff rather being distracted by background noise.”