A worker examines fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (AP)

A worker examines fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (AP)

A researcher at the Israel Antiquities Authority studies Dead Sea Scroll fragments with a microscope. (AP)

A researcher at the Israel Antiquities Authority studies Dead Sea Scroll fragments with a microscope. (AP)

One of the storage jars of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois (AP)

One of the storage jars of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois (AP)

Two men approach the cave in 1957 where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in Qumran, Jordan. (AP)

Two men approach the cave in 1957 where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in Qumran, Jordan. (AP)

An aerial photo of the opening to the cave in Jordan

An aerial photo of the opening to the cave in Jordan

Cowhide and Seek: DNA and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Posted: September 1, 2020

Twelve miles east of Jerusalem in desert caves, Bedouin shepherds strike gold. Well, actually, they strike parchment . . . priceless writing on animal hide. The year is 1947. They’ve unearthed some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the biggest discoveries of the 20th century.

Eventually, people would find some 800 manuscripts in nearby caves. Are researchers done learning from these historic finds? Not even close.

The Dead Sea Scrolls is a collection of very old religious writings. The scrolls contain parts or whole copies of every book in the Old Testament except Esther. These are not the original biblical books. But they are very early copies. The scrolls also include writings that are not part of the Bible. Before the shepherds showed up, no one had disturbed the scrolls for 1,900 years!

Where did the scrolls come from? Some say a group of Jews called the Essenes copied them. (Other groups of Jewish people lived during the time of the Essenes: the Sadducees and Pharisees. Do you recognize those guys from reading the Gospels?) Others say the scrolls were brought to the caves from Jerusalem for safekeeping.

Researchers took genetic samples from the scrolls. They studied tiny slivers or even dust crumbs of parchment. Before DNA testing, they thought most of the scrolls were written on goatskin. Testing showed that more were written on sheepskin. The tests could even tell which skins used in the manuscripts came from related animals. This helps researchers piece together the puzzle of which manuscripts belong together.  

Sheep and goats? That makes sense. People often kept those animals in the desert near the caves. But the researchers got a surprise. Two of the fragments turned out to be made from cow hide. Those types of manuscripts were more common in cities like Jerusalem. At least these two bits came not from the nearby desert but from somewhere else.

God works in human history to preserve the truth of His word. This testing could help people tell counterfeit ancient texts from real ones. It could have helped at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Five supposed Dead Sea Scrolls were on display there. But the museum removed them. Why? It turned out they weren’t the real deal.

All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. — 2 Timothy 3:16