Fragments of 2,000-Year-Old Scrolls Pieced Together Using DNA
Thu, January 27, 2022

Fragments of 2,000-Year-Old Scrolls Pieced Together Using DNA



An international team of scientists from Tel Aviv University in Israel has successfully decoded the DNA that was extracted from the animal skin on which 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls were written.


Extracting ancient DNA from Dead Sea Scrolls

Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient writings that have great religious, linguistic, and historical significance because of their link to the Jewish world and the Bible. Abandoned in caves in Qumran, an archeological site in Israel, and other parts of the Judean desert, the scrolls include several versions of some books and tell of life during biblical times. The challenge, however, is that they have disintegrated into some 25,000 fragments of papyrus and leather first discovered in late 1946 or early 1947.

Scholars have long been faced with a challenge in identifying and reassembling these fragments together into the remains of ancient manuscripts. They have also been puzzled about the degree of the collection of these scrolls. So, in collaboration with Prof. Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University (Sweden), Prof. Christopher E. Mason of Weill Cornell Medicine (US), and the Israel Antiquities Authority, the researchers extracted ancient DNA from the Dead Sea Scrolls and used it to assemble the pieces.

By identifying the genetic relationship between several Dead Sea Scroll fragments, the researchers were able to discern their historical connections.

Lead author Prof. Oded Rechavi said in a press release published by EurekAlert that they used the fact that most Dead Sea Scrolls are made from animal skin to “fingerprint” the pieces based on their DNA sequences. He added that there are still many fragments of the scrolls that the world doesn’t know how to connect. If the wrong pieces are puzzled together, it can dramatically change our interpretation of a single scroll.



The precision needed in sequencing 2,000-year-old genomes

Prof. Rechavi, who made important contributions to the understanding of RNA biology and evolution, likened their work to connecting parts of a puzzle. The research has been being conducted for more than seven years. He said sequencing, comparing, and decoding the 2,000-year-old genomes is not an easy task. It has degraded over the years and there has been repeated handling of the scrolls by people ever since they were written. All of these complicates the process because of the possible contamination of human hands, which will affect the identification of the DNA. Precision is also required because the scrolls are so fragile and ancient. The team also found that not all animal skins came from the Qumran cave but were obtained from antiquity dealers.

The group hypothesized that if the animal skins used in the scrolls come from diverse types of animals, then species identification will enable the primary sorting of the related fragments. Most of the skins come from sheep although some were cow and goat skins. The team finds it especially interesting to analyze the fragments made of cow skin. The arid climate in the Judean desert is not favorable to water and grass, which means that it was not the ideal place to raise cattle so the animal skins may have come from somewhere else.

After determining which species the fragments come from, they then analyzed which haplogroup they belonged to. A haplogroup is a group of alleles in an organism at different chromosomal regions that are inherited together from a single parent.



New experimental methods

Prof. Rechavi said that since the majority of the fragments they sampled are made of sheepskin, most of their effort was focused on the task of piecing together the pieces form the particular sheep. The mitochondrial DNA shows whether the DNA is a cow or a sheep. However, it cannot distinguish between the individual sheep. This is why the team developed new information and experimental methods to test the pieces of nuclear DNA.



Genetic analysis of the fragments

The team discovered two samples made of cowhide, which belong to the Book of Jeremiah. Such genetic analysis revealed something that could rewrite both history and the Bible. According to another report by SYFY Wire, Prof. Rechavi and the team also unearthed several copies of Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, a text that never made into the Bible but is referred to as the Angelic Liturgy. This should not be confused with the Song of Songs.

"The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice were probably a 'best-seller' in terms of the ancient world," Prof. Noam Mizrahi from TAU’s Department of Biblical Studies said.



Bible ownership: statistics

Non-partisan Barna Group, which conducts extensive research on the church trends, collaborated with American Bible Society for its annual State of the Bible Survey. They found that despite the cultural change, half of Americans are still Bible users. They engage with the Bible on their own by using, watching, listening, or praying using Bible text or content in any format at least three to four times a year.

City (53%) and small town or rural dwellers (49%) report higher use of the Bible compared to adults living in the suburbs (42%) in the US alone. By age group, the Boomers (51%) use the Bible the most compared to Gen X (45%) and Millennials (47%).



Bible format use

The physical copy of the scriptures (89%) is still preferred although the use of technology in reading the Bible has grown steadily. More than half of the users search Bible content using the internet (57%). Another 42% use Bible apps on their smartphones and more than one-third rely on the audio version (36%) of the Bible while some listen via podcast (35%).

Overall, 58% of US adults believe that the Bible or message of the Bible transformed their life. Twenty-nine percent of them strongly agree that the Bible transformed their life, another 29% somewhat agree, 19% somewhat disagree, and 23% strongly disagree. In statistics provided by LifeWay Research, 30% of Americans have personally read several passages or stories of the bible, 15% said they at least read half of it, 12% said almost all of it, 11% said all of it, 9% said all of it more than once, and 10% read none at all.

LifeWay Research’s executive director Scott McConnell said that although Americans seem to like Bible, they don’t have much urgency in reading the text.

Extracting genetic information from the Dead Sea Scrolls may help answer questions that researchers have been debating for decades.