A seven years-long study into the animal DNA in the leather of the Dead Sea Scrolls has confirmed that some fragments of the Scrolls were brought from far outside the Judean Desert, and provided a unique insight into the development of Jewish theological and social life at the cusp of the destruction of the Second Temple.
The research team led by Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with Swedish Uppsala University and the Israel Antiquities Authority, published their “breakthrough” findings last week in academic journal Cell.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest known pieces of the old Testament and date from between 400 BCE to 300CE. They were first discovered by Bedouin tribesman in the West Bank’s Qumran caves in 1947.
Since their discovery, scholars have faced the challenge of piecing together the 25,000 fragments into the remains of some 1,000 manuscripts, which were hidden in the Qumran Caves by the reclusive Essenes, which had broken away from mainstream Judaism, before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Scholars have debated whether the manuscripts provide a broad snapshot of the socio-cultural milieu of Second Temple Judaism, or whether they should properly be regarded only as the work of a radical sect.
“The Scrolls reflect the broad cultural milieu of Second Temple Judaism,” said the Israel Antiquities Authority, in a statement, “not only the spiritual world of the extremist and secluded Qumran sect.”
The findings were based on innovative analysis techniques developed by the researchers, who sought to sequence, decode and compare the remaining DNA samples from the scrolls, so as to piece together which fragments belonged to the same hides – and the same manuscripts.
Testing was done with the aid of dust taken from the parchments, which are held by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
“There are many scroll fragments that we don’t know how to connect, and if we connect wrong pieces together it can change dramatically the interpretation of any scroll,” explained Tel Aviv University’s Oded Rechavi, who led the study.
“Assuming that fragments that are made from the same sheep belong to the same Scroll, it is like piecing together parts of a puzzle,” he explained.
The researchers focussed on two fragments of the Book of Jeremiah, which were – unlike other sheepskin fragments in the Qumran Caves – made of cow hides.
This suggests that had been brought to Qumran from outside the Judean Desert, which is ill-suited to cattle rearing and where no evidence of cattle hide processing has been discovered. Scholars have previously accepted that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were brought in from elsewhere.
Most importantly, the fragments reflected different versions of the Book of Jeremiah, which are themselves different from the text as it exists today – suggesting that different versions of the bible were circulating in ancient Jewish society, and providing a unique snapshot into a still evolving biblical canon.
“Since late antiquity, there has been almost complete uniformity of the biblical text,” Professor Mizrahi said, explaining the importance of the finding, “by contrast, in Qumran, we find in the very same cave different versions of the same book.”
Professor Mizrahi suggested that “the concept of spiritual authority”, in which the bible was perceived to have been a record of God’s word, “was different in this period from that which dominated after the destruction of the Second Temple.”
“In the formative age of classical Judaism and nascent Christianity,” he explained, “the polemic between Jewish sects and movements was focused on the ‘correct’ interpretation of the text, not its wording or exact linguistic form.”