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Goat Skin DNA, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Tehillim

15th May 2007

Goats and Scrolls
While it is not odd to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in the news — especially with the scroll exhibit touring the United States — there is an interesting article by Judy Siegel-Itzkovic in the Jerusalem Post today about how DNA evidece from the goat skins used to make the parchment for the Scrolls helped piece together some of the Scroll fragments. The article, “How goat skin DNA solved a mystery of the Dead Sea scrolls,” doesn’t really say anything new, but is interesting nonetheless. Here are some relevant excerpts:

Scientists at the Hebrew University’s Koret School for Veterinary Science near Rishon Lezion are helping to piece together some of the 10,000 fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls found decades ago in Qumran by examining the DNA profiles of the goats whose skin was used to make the parchment and reducing the number of possible matches.

Dr. Galia Kahila Bar-Gal said during a journalists’ tour at the nearby Hebrew University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, where students learn and treat animals, that she and colleagues were looking at genetic forms from each fragment to know which came from specific animals. Once they know that two pieces came from the skin of the same animal, it is easier to piece them together, she said.

Scrolls and Tehillim
The Dead Sea Scrolls also made the headlines in the Jewish Tribune, according to the blogger with the coolest moniker, Mississippi Fred MacDowell. He recounts how he was sent a clipping of a letter to the editor of the London-based Agudist newspaper that claimed “Secular and non-Jewish scholars have to admit that the Tenach scrolls are word-for-word identical with our texts and not with those of Samaritans (Kusim) and early translators (Septuagint – Greek, Targumim in various Aramaic dialects, et al). But the spelling is often different, in many vavs, yuds and alephs.” MacDowell responds to this claim with an interesting discusision of the view of the Dead Sea Scrolls in many orthodox Jewish communities and his response to such claims. In particular he talks about the various textual tradtions found among the scrolls, let alone the high number of unaligned texts. You can read his discussion on his blog, On the Main Line, in his post “A threat to Tehillim? Dead Sea Scrolls in the Jewish Tribune.”

The only beef I would have with MacDowell’s post is found in this paragraph:

In fact three or four kinds of Hebrew texts were found at Qumran (depending on how you divide it). The first are Bible texts that are much like the masoretic text (and comprise about 60% of the material), the second seems to be a type of Hebrew text that the Septuagint was translated from (only about 5%), the third is like the Samaritan Pentateuch, lacking only the ideological changes that are present in the Samaritan version (also about 5%). A fourth type are texts that can’t be placed into any of these categories (about 105), and finally there are non-Biblical Hebrew texts which are unique to Qumran, comprising about 20% of the total. In other words, exactly the opposite of what the writer claimed.

Some of the numbers didn’t quite ring true, and I believe may be based on Tov’s older estimates (there are also some issues with breaking down the scrolls in this manner, but I won’t get into that for now). The most recent figures I have seen break down the biblical scrolls found at Qumran as follows:

  • Proto-Masoretic (forerunners of the text that forms the basis of our versions of the OT) (47%)
  • Texts like the “Samaritan Pentateuchâ€? (2.5%)
  • Texts like the Septuagint (3.3%)
  • Unique Texts (47%)

Either way, MacDowell’s point remains valid. Despite the variety found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, MacDowell is correct to point out the following:

And the Dead Sea Scrolls proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the massoretic text is not late, it is at least as old as the Samaritan and the Hebrew Septuagint. Conversely, it also proves that 2000 years ago “the Bible” was not exclusively massoretic.

That’s the good news, if indeed this is good news. But its important to understand that these massoretic Dead Sea texts are actually massoretic-like, not identical with our own text. This means that many words as spelled differently in ways that don’t matter, as the letter writer notes, but also that many words are not the same at all.

It’s a good read; make sure to peruse it for yourself.


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