DNA in Dead Sea Scrolls: a new approach to their history

Qumran in the Judaean desert

The Dead Sea Scrolls consist of some 25,000 fragments of parchment and papyrus found at Qumran in the Judaean desert in 1947. Hidden away there in 70 CE, they are around 2,000 years old.

Photograph: Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities uthority. Shai Halevi

Researchers at Uppsala University, jointly with colleagues in Israel, have succeeded in extracting DNA from the over 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls. Data on which animals’ skins were used for the parchment enable historians to draw conclusions on which fragments belong together, but also how truly representative of contemporary Judaism the manuscripts are.

The Dead Sea Scrolls – comprising 25,000 parchment and papyrus fragments – were found in the Qumran Caves, on the north-western shore of the Dead Sea, in 1947. Hidden away there in 70 CE, these Jewish scriptures are around two millennia old. They include the oldest extant biblical manuscripts (now part of the Hebrew Bible).

“It’s fantastic that we’ve been able to extract DNA from this material. These animal skins have been prepared for making parchment, stored in a hot, dry climate for thousands of years and then found and handled by humans again. Normally, we wouldn’t expect DNA to survive in these fragments,” says Mattias Jakobsson, professor of genetics at Uppsala University.

Research lab
Jointly with colleagues in Israel, researchers at Uppsala University have successfully extracted DNA from the more than two-millennium-old Scrolls.Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Jakobsson and his research team specialise in extracting and processing ancient DNA. Hearing that the Israeli research group had reached an impasse and were ready to give up, they realised that with their own methods they could take the research further. Some 40 pieces of varying sizes were brought to the team’s high-tech lab in Uppsala.

“We’ve adjusted our methods to make them workable for this material. It required a little ingenuity. These fragments are also terribly contaminated,” Jakobsson says.

Removing human DNA

One of the challenges was to extract all the human DNA. The researchers sequenced the genetic information they obtained, comparing it with the human genome and picking out the matching pieces. They then focused on the remaining data.

The Uppsala scientists were able to give the researchers studying the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls a great deal of useful information: first and foremost, which animals the skins came from. They also showed that fragments from the same individual were identifiable. Assuming that the material written on is of animal origin, this can make it easier to reassemble documents that have disintegrated into thousands of pieces.

The DNA scientists also found some interrelationships among the animals: which sheep belonged to the local flock in Qumran, and which were not closely related and probably lived further away.

Representing most of Judaism

One unanswered question about the Dead Sea Scrolls is who actually wrote them. A sect in Qumran is known to have had a faith and a way of life that diverged greatly from the rest of the contemporary Jewish population. Were all the manuscripts created by this sect and did they therefore reflect only the ideas and culture of a narrow segment of the Jewish population?

Identifying the animals whose skins were used for

parchment enable conclusions on which text

fragments belong together. Courtesy of The Leon

Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. Israel

Antiquities Authority. Photo: Shai Halevi

The new knowledge of the material the texts are written on supports the thesis that the Dead Sea Scrolls represent not the local Qumran sect alone, but the greater part of Judaism. Several of the manuscripts appear to have been produced elsewhere. Besides sheepskin parchment from animals in faraway flocks, cowhide parchment was also used. Since cattle were difficult to raise in the dry desert climate around Qumran, these manuscripts also presumably came from elsewhere.

By being more certain of assembling the jigsaw puzzle correctly and separating the mismatched pieces, the Tel Aviv University researchers have also been able to draw other conclusions. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls were multiple copies of several religious texts telling the same story – but not verbatim. Today, Torah texts are reproduced with identical wording throughout the world. Two millennia ago, the meaning seems to have been more important than the exact words used. This seems to have pertained not only in Qumran, but also in most of Jewish society.

Facts about the study

The Dead Sea Scrolls are managed by a special unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority. At Uppsala University, Matthias Jakobsson, Emma Svensson and Ariel Munters have been involved in the study. Their Israeli colleagues are active at Tel Aviv University, and researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine also assisted in the analysis.

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