The Dead Sea Scrolls have remained somewhat of a mystery since they were first discovered in the 1940s, leaving generations of scholars wondering who wrote them, where and for what purposes.

To help solve the puzzle, the ancient manuscripts were recently given a thoroughly modern treatment – in the form of DNA testing of the animal hides on which the scrolls were written.

An interdisciplinary team from Tel Aviv University, the Israel Antiquities Authority and Uppsala University in Sweden managed to decode ancient DNA extracted from the animal skins and characterize the genetic relationships between different scrolls fragments.

The findings suggest that some scrolls were brought to Qumran from elsewhere, that divergent versions of the Book of Jeremiah were circulated throughout ancient Judea, and that the scrolls represent a broader social environment of the period than commonly thought. The study was recently published in the journal Cell.

Text from the Isaiah Scroll whose genetic signature turned out to be different from other scrolls in Qumran. Photo by Shai Halevi/Israel Antiquities Authority

The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of some 25,000 leather and papyrus fragments discovered mostly at the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea in the Judean Desert, date from the third century BCE to the first century CE. Together they make up the remains of some 1,000 manuscripts that include the oldest copies of biblical texts as well as apocryphal and sectarian texts, some of which are regarded to be the work of a radical Jewish sect.

During the course of the research, the Dead Sea Scrolls Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority supplied samples – sometimes only scroll “dust” carefully removed from the uninscribed back of the fragments – which were then analyzed by Tel Aviv University researchers and colleagues abroad.

According to Prof. Oded Rechavi from TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences, one significant finding was the identification of two distinct Book of Jeremiah fragments brought from outside the Judean Desert.

Sampling DNA from the ancient, fragile Dead Sea Scrolls. Photo by Shai Halevi/Israel Antiquities Authority

“Almost all the Scrolls we sampled were found to be made of sheep skin, and accordingly most of the effort was invested in the very challenging task of trying to piece together fragments made from the skin of particular sheep, and to separate these from fragments written on skins of different sheep that also share an almost identical genome,” he explains.

“However, 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.”

What’s more, Rechavi adds, “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.”

Prof. Oded Rechavi, left, and Prof. Noam Mizrahi. Photo by Tadmit/Tel Aviv University

Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice

The final finding relates to a non-biblical text, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, found in multiple copies in the Qumran caves and in Masada.

The text is similar to the literature of ancient Jewish mystics of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but the desert manuscript predates the later Jewish mystical literature by several centuries. Scholars have long debated whether the authors of the mystical literature were familiar with Songs.

“The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice were probably a ‘best-seller’ in terms of the ancient world: The Dead Sea Scrolls contain 10 copies, which is more than the number of copies of some of the biblical books that were discovered,” said Prof. Noam Mizrahi of TAU’s Department of Biblical Studies.

“But was the composition known only to the sectarian group whose writings were found in the Qumran caves, or was it well known outside those caves?” Mizrahi continued.

“Even after the Masada fragment was discovered, some scholars argued that it originated with refugees who fled to Masada from Qumran, carrying with them one of their scrolls. But the genetic analysis proves that the Masada fragment was written on the skin of different sheep ‘haplogroup’ than those used for scroll-making found in the Qumran caves,” he adds.

“As such, it corroborates the possibility that the mystical tradition underlying the Songs continued to be transmitted in hidden channels even after the destruction of the Second Temple and through the Middle Ages.”

The Qumran caves near the Dead Sea in the Judean Desert. Photo by Shai Halevi/Israel Antiquities Authority

As well as providing answers, the study raised a new question concerning a fragment. The fragment in question contains text from the Book of Isaiah and was previously published as a Qumran scroll. DNA testing, however, showed that its genetic signature turned out to be different from other scrolls in Qumran.

“This raises a new curious question: Was this fragment really found in the Qumran caves? Or was it originally found in yet another, still unidentified location? This is the nature of scientific research: We solve old puzzles, but then discover new mysteries,” Mizrahi concluded.