Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls Originated Elsewhere, DNA Tests Show

dna tests of the scrolls show that some were written on the skin of animals not found in qumran

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

DNA tests of the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed some of the parchments originated far away, Science Alert reported. It was long believed that all of the scrolls, which were found between 1947 and 1954, were made in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea. Their original discovery changed the religious world.

The cave of Qumran place of the dead Sea Scrolls
New DNA testing has shown that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls actually originated quite a distance from where they were discovered. Photo by Peter van der Sluijs / Wikipedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to Science Alert, ongoing research of the Dead Sea Scrolls recently took an exciting and monumental turn. “The parchment and papyrus scrolls contain Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic and include some of the earliest-known texts from the Bible, including the oldest surviving copy of the Ten Commandments,” the article said. “Research on the texts has been going on for decades and in the latest study, DNA tests on manuscript fragments indicate that some were not originally from the area around the caves.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls are an incredible historical find for the Judeo-Christian world for several reasons.

Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter

For those unfamiliar with them, the Dead Sea Scrolls hold far more significance than one might think at first contemplation.

The scrolls comprise a group of 930 documents at a site called Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea,” said Dr. Gary A. Rendsburg, who holds the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair in Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. “These texts date back to the years 250 BCE to 50 BCE—a 300-year period—though the heyday of Qumran was the period of 150 to 50 BCE, a 100-year slot within that longer 300-year period.”

Dr. Rendsburg said that the Dead Sea Scrolls are so important because they shed light on two facets of Western religion that were previously unknown. The first is the transition from biblical to postbiblical Judaism during the last two centuries BCE, which is a major movement in Judaism. The second is the development of Christianity in the first century CE, since Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism.

Content of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The next question for the Dead Sea Scrolls novice is what exactly are these 930 documents. Dr. Rendsburg said they are divided into three main groups.

“Two hundred thirty, or 25 percent, of the Dead Sea Scrolls are copies of the books of the Jewish Bible; every book in the Jewish canon except for the Book of Ester is represented among these 230 documents,” he said. “As a whole, this group of texts represents our oldest biblical manuscripts. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest biblical manuscripts were from the early Middle Ages; that is, about 1,000 years later than our Dead Sea Scroll documents.”

According to Dr. Rendsburg, the second group of texts composes about 250 documents, which is 27 percent of them. This group contains compositions that were read and used as a part of common Jewish life, or among different sects of Jews, at the time. Keeping that in mind, the third group of texts is specific to one sect of Judaism, colloquially known as the Qumran sect.

“Our third group of texts numbers about 350, or 38 percent of the 930 total documents found at Qumran,” Dr. Rendsburg said. “These are the sectarian works that comprise the most important aspect of the Dead Sea Scrolls, since these texts provide a window into the theology, beliefs, and practices of a unique Jewish sect in the century or two before the time of Jesus, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, and the bifurcation of Judaism and Christianity, leading to the establishment of two separate monotheistic traditions.”

A small, fourth group of texts is “too fragmentary” to determine whether they relate specifically to the Qumran sect or to Judaism across the board. There are 100 of these texts, constituting 11 percent of the documents.

The recent DNA tests may help shed light on this mystery.

Dr. Gary A. Rendsburg contributed to this article. Dr. Rendsburg holds the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair in Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, where he also holds an appointment in the History Department. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from New York University.