December 5, 2020

DNA and the Dead Sea Scrolls

DNA and the Dead Sea Scrolls

An article at Cell.com was entitled, “Illuminating Genetic Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls” It was blogged about by RJS at Jesus Creed and at her blog, “Musings on Science and Theology”.

The article noted: “that ancient DNA extraction from Dead Sea Scroll fragments made of animal skin is used to determine fragment origin and show unification of scrolls from distinct geological locations, highlighting the potential for genetics to illuminate the history of archaeological objects.”  Because most of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were written on sheepskin, the DNA of the sheep that was used could be used to match scroll fragments.  The DNA sequencing would indicate which scroll fragments came from the same animal and by inference, therefore, the same scroll.

RJS notes that an accompanying press release may be more readable: “Dead Sea Scrolls “Puzzle” Pieced Together with DNA Extracted from Animal Skins on Which Scrolls Were Written.” RJS quotes from the press release:

“Almost all the scrolls we sampled were found to be made of sheepskin, … says Prof. Rechavi. “However, two samples were discovered to be made of cowhide, 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 sheepskin. The mismatch now officially disproves this theory.

“What’s more, cow husbandry requires grass and water, so it is very likely that cowhide was not processed in the desert but was brought to the Qumran caves from another place. This finding bears crucial significance, because the cowhide 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. Mizrahi further explains, “… The ancient DNA proves that two copies of Jeremiah, textually different from each other, were brought from outside the Judean Desert. This fact suggests that the concept of scriptural authority — emanating from the perception of biblical texts as a record of the Divine Word — was different in this period from that which dominated after the destruction of the Second Temple. In the formative age of classical Judaism and nascent Christianity, the polemic between Jewish sects and movements was focused on the ‘correct’ interpretation of the text, not its wording or exact linguistic form.”

RJS goes on to state:

Note that Prof. Mizrahi is not arguing for or against the inspiration of the text as the Divine Word, or against its authority. He is suggesting that the data undermines both Christian and Jewish arguments for one single “correct” version of the text. Put differently, although Scripture was valued as the Divine Word, the concept of verbal plenary inspiration was foreign to the time and culture. Texts of Scripture were not preserved and studied with this in mind. Of course, I believe we see evidence for this approach in the New Testament itself, in the ways in which the Old Testament is quoted and used. It doesn’t take fragments of Jeremiah to make the point, although studies like these new DNA studies can help us piece together the past and the texts.

In other words, although Scripture was and is valued as God’s Word to both Christians and Jews, the idea that there is one correct version of the text, miraculously preserved down through history, is further revealed to be a complete fiction.  The Jews argued both about interpretation of the sacred writings as well as what constituted those writings.  The same was true for the early Christians as they wrestled with what writings should make up the New Testament canon.  The actual history of the compilation of what we now call “The Bible” should make us appreciate the deeply human component to its nature as well as its divine province.  To me, the Scriptures are truly living and active.

Comments

  1. Mike G Man, Thanks for this information. It is very interesting and I believe your analysis is correct. The Dead Sea Scrolls have always been a source of interesting news and conjecture. That they were found and how they were found seems to me to be a miracle.

  2. anonymous says

    an interesting case of ‘mistaken’ Dead Sea Scroll fragment ‘authenticity’, a very expensive fake:

    https://brentnongbri.com/2020/04/08/statement-on-the-so-called-dead-sea-scrolls-of-southwestern-baptist-theological-seminary/

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Money quote from that link:

      As Justnes has pointed out, the Seminary’s collection contains perhaps the most brazen of the forged fragments, a piece that was seemingly tailor-made for an American evangelical Christian buyer. It is a single tiny fragment that, remarkably, is said to contain parts of two (non-continuous) chapters of Leviticus that both happen to be highly important to conservative American evangelical identity politics, Leviticus 20 and Leviticus 18, which both treat the topic of sexual relations…

      FANSERVICE.
      The same type of fanservice as Left Behind and Atlas Shrugged.
      Tell them what they want to hear:
      “I’M RIGHT! YOU”RE ALL WRONG! SEE? SEE? SEE?”

  3. “To me, the Scriptures are truly living and active.”

    The scriptures are a living being, if you torture it enough, it will say anything.

    • But some parts are harder to hurt than others. You can find OT verses to justify almost anything – the words of Jesus are slightly less are a little harder to evade.

      • Remove “slightly less”, and add more caffeine.

      • Robert F says

        It’s interesting that inerrantists avoid the words of Jesus as much as possible, and prefer discussing all the other parts of the Bible that can easily be made to say what they want them to say, with just the right, and traditional — depending on one’s tradition! — application of torture. The words of Jesus, on the other hand, do not easily succumb to interpretative torture, of any tradition.

        • Burro (Mule) says

          There are really only two inerrantist traditions of which I am familiar. First is the Dispensational tradition which denatures or defangs the words of Jesus by pacing them in the context of ‘the Kingdom’, i.e. ‘not for the Church Age’, and the covenant theology tradition which is more robust but mostly focuses on the Pauline corpus as interpretive of the words of Jesus in the Gospels.

          If anybody has any others to add to this, it would be helpful.

          • Not a wholesale, but a piecemeal inerrantistm has been imposed on parts of scripture since the beginning of the church. This tack has been used to justify everything from Christians wiping out whole enemy cities — after all, God allows and even orders it in scripture — to persecuting and killing practitioners of the old religions — again, because God orders as much in scripture, look, it says it right there, burn the witch! In fact, all inerrantism is actually piecemeal, since it’s impossible to honestly treat the whole of scripture as inerrant; scripture won’t allow it.

          • While it is certainly true that all (or nearly all) dispensationalists and covenant theologians are inerrantists, not all inerrantists fall into those categories – if only because there are a lot of inerrantists out there whose only practical theology IS inerrantism.

        • –> “It’s interesting that inerrantists avoid the words of Jesus as much as possible, and prefer discussing all the other parts of the Bible that can easily be made to say what they want them to say…”

          My experience…
          Paul’s words/letters in particular seem to be the focus of most inerrantists, and thus the most inerrant, and thus the most easily made to say what they want them to say.

          • Paul tended to talk in generalities – Jesus tended to be bluntly practical and challenging.

            • “Give to anyone who asks of you” is certainly direct and challenging, but who practices it? No wonder that people have from the beginning of the church tried to find, and found ways to explain away the extreme demands that Jesus made.

  4. Robert F says

    So there is no perfect, original text of the Bible, and one never existed; and so there is no perfect, “originalist” interpretation of the Bible, and one has never existed. Got it. Modern Biblical critics have been saying this for well over a century-and-half or so. It’s not news to wide swaths of Christianity; not to the Catholic Church, not to mainline Protestantism.

    • Michael Z says

      Except that modern Bible critics tend to use the logic of “the Bible is not perfect, therefore the Bible isn’t the Word of God.” They often don’t even realize that that’s not the only conclusion one could draw or that the only reason they’re drawing it is because they accept, uncritically, certain assumptions about what the Bible is meant to be.

      A better conclusion might be: “In Jesus we see a paradoxical mix of human frailty and limitations, and divine presence. In the received text of Scripture we also see evidence both of human limitations and divine presence. Therefore, both testify to a God whose way of interacting with the world is incarnational.”

      • Mike the Geologist says

        Good comment Michael Z, nailed it!

      • Modern Bible critics and scholars might tend to set the Bible aside as the Word of God, but by no means do all of them do that. Many Christian scriptural scholars and critics in the mainline Protestant churches, and the Roman Catholic Church too, accept much of what modern Biblical criticism has asserted, and base their own scholarship on it — indeed many of them are primary and original practitioners of modern criticism — and yet affirm that the Bible is the Word of God. And they’ve been doing that for about a century, or more. This is not new.

      • Here are just a few examples of such modern Biblical scholars, all renowned and highly influential in their particular fields, who accept the findings of modern scriptural criticism, and practice it themselves, yet affirm the Bible as the Word of God: Walter Bruggemann and Bruce Metzger — mainline Protestant; Rowan Williams — Anglican; Raymond Brown — Roman Catholic.

      • “the only reason they’re drawing it is because they accept, uncritically, certain assumptions about what the Bible is meant to be”

        Often in tandem with certain assumptions about who God is and should be (i.e. a being obsessed with ontological and epistemological perfection, which is of course expressed via inerrant literary means).

      • I like your “better conclusion.” Nicely said.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > in Jesus we see a paradoxical mix of human frailty and limitations, and divine presence

        That is a money quote.

        However, many [evangelical?] Theologians are eager to throw that away with [meaningless?] insistence of statements like “Jesus was both fully human and fully God” [IMNSHO: Word Salad of the highest order]. If you have a full actualization of the divine the notion of necessary paradox is problematic. It is sad ‘we’ get so hung up on keeping our sacred word salads.

        • David Greene says

          “It is sad ‘we’ get so hung up on keeping our sacred word salads.”

          And of course there is a wide variety of sacred word salad dressings to choose from.

  5. Robert F says

    In the formative age of classical Judaism and nascent Christianity, the polemic between Jewish sects and movements was focused on the ‘correct’ interpretation of the text, not its wording or exact linguistic form.”

    Correct interpretation is still the most important thing for many Christians, but they believe it is necessary to valorize their interpretation by connecting it with the text’s wording and exact linguistic form. That’s why in so many churches the preacher will spend a few minutes reading scriptural text, but 45 minutes “interpreting” it: he wants to give weight and authority to what he is saying, that’s the important thing, by anchoring it in the text, which is not really so important.

  6. Burro (Mule) says

    The rise of the stance “show that to me in the Bible” seems to be roughly synchronous to the invention of printing, at which Protestants excelled.

    I have taken to referring to what Protestants refer to as ‘the Bible’ as ‘the edited Bible’, ‘the truncated Bible’, or ‘the Bible narrowly speaking`.

    I don’t trust the Masoretes and my sympathies lie with the Alexandrians rather than the Palestinians or the Mesopotamians

    • anonymous says

      . . . if you trace the history of sacred Scripture in Britain from the King James Bible back into previous centuries, you will come to Tyndale, Wyclif, and before them, Alcuin.
      And before Alcuin, to Ceolfrith and to the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels’ which were copied and illuminated beautifully (in the tradition of the Book of Kells) in the ‘scriptorium’ room at Lindisfarne Abbey (founded by Aiden).
      The tradition of the ‘scriptoriums’ (rooms where Scripture was copied by hand) goes back even further to the time of the Septuagint scholars who were set to work on the island in the harbor of Alexandria and produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament, through Saint Jerome and his Vulgate tradition, through Cassiodorus and his reworking of Jerome’s Vulgate of the old Latin texts. . . .

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    .. the concept of verbal plenary inspiration was foreign to the time and culture.

    That would have to wait until Mohammed.