Trying to solve the mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is like putting together a 25,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. But new DNA analysis techniques are helping researchers do just that.
Thousands of nearly 2,000-year-old fragments from almost 1,000 manuscripts make up the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, discovered in the Qumran caves in the Judean desert between 1946 and 1956. Until now, researchers relied on visual analysis to piece the fragments together.
“Most of them were not found intact but rather disintegrated into thousands of fragments, which had to be sorted and pieced together, with no prior knowledge on how many pieces have been lost forever, or in the case of non-Biblical compositions, how the original text should read,” said Oded Rechavi of Tel Aviv University.
In a study published on June 2 in the journal Cell, scientists extracted DNA samples from the animal skins the scrolls are made of and analyzed them to determine how they fit together. They discovered most of the scrolls were made from sheepskin. The researchers surmised that manuscripts written on skin from genetically similar sheep likely go together. In one case, two pieces previously believed to belong together turned out to come from a sheep and a cow, respectively.
The researchers also found that fragments from the book of Jeremiah represented two different versions of the book that circulated at the same time and differed from the one canonized in the Christian Bible.
The evidence suggests people brought other scroll fragments, like those from the book of Isaiah, to Qumran from elsewhere. That means another stash of scrolls may still lie hidden somewhere. —J.B.