Piecing together the Dead Sea Scrolls with DNA evidence

03 Juin, 2020, 18:21 | Auteur: Therese Cote
  • Jeremiah Scroll from the IAA's Dead Sea Scrolls collection

The team leader also points out that depending on the classification of any given fragment, the interpretation "could change dramatically". Today, the thousands Dead Sea Scrolls fragments are preserved by the Israel Antiquities Authority, where their condition is monitored by advanced scientific methods, in a designated climate controlled ambience. Many were not excavated in an orderly way to preserve their composition and have been acquired through antiquity dealers, which makes their origin more hard to trace. In the new study, Rechavi and colleagues including Noam Mizrahi, Tel Aviv University, Israel, and Mattias Jakobsson, Uppsala University, Sweden, chose to look deeper for clues. The researchers refer to some of these tiny samples as scroll "dust". The researchers 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.

Two pieces previously thought to belong together were actually made from a sheep and a cow, which caused them to question if the pieces truly "fit". It suggested they don't belong together at all. They belonged to some of the oldest known scrolls representing the book of Jeremiah.

"The very material, the biological material of which the scrolls are made, is as telling and as informative as the content of the text", Noam Mizrahi, Bible studies professor at Tel Aviv University, told Reuters. "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". Based on their evidence, cows weren't raised in the Judean desert. This means different versions of the same holy text were simultaneously being circulated. That's in contrast to the mutually exclusive texts that were adopted later by Judaism and Christianity, they note.

"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", said Rechavi.

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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 Qumran copies were similar genetically, but the Masada copy was distinct. 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. "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". 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 to the researchers the potential existence of an additional place of discovery that still awaits identification.

The team's forensic analysis of DNA evidence, combined with an examination of the written language of the text fragments, is getting them closer and closer to establishing how the fragments of texts originally fitted together.

Researchers have always been puzzled as to the degree this collection of manuscripts, a veritable library from the Qumran caves, reflects the broad cultural milieu of Second Temple Judaism, or whether it should be regarded as the work of a radical sect (identified by most as the Essenes) discovered by chance.

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