When Science Meets Biblical Studies

The Dead Sea Scrolls offer a treasure trove of information. They inform our reading of Scripture in many ways. They provide testimony to the antiquity and reliability of many texts in our Bibles and on the political and cultural climate surrounding the first century. In addition to some larger scrolls, like the Isaiah scroll above, there are thousands of fragments of manuscripts on leather and papyrus. Piecing these together is like solving one massive jigsaw puzzle. … Or rather many smaller jigsaw puzzles of various unknown sizes with the edges of the pieces worn by the elements of nature. Some of the fragments thought to be genuine, but of unknown provenance as finders looked to profit.

Now for the science. We are all aware that radiocarbon methods have been used to date the texts. Other methods less well known to the general public have also been used. In general the recovered texts from Qumran and surrounding areas date between 200 BC and 70 AD. This testifies to their importance. But now science has gone one giant step further. DNA sequencing has been used to connect fragments together – identifying those that come from the same animal, and thus likely the same scroll. Initial work in this vein is reported in an article that appeared in the journal Cell earlier this week. You can find the article here if interested: Illuminating Genetic Mysteries of the Dead Sea Scrolls. A press release may be more readable: Dead Sea Scrolls “Puzzle” Pieced Together with DNA Extracted from Animal Skins on Which Scrolls Were Written.

Some of the scrolls were prepared at Qumran (mostly on sheep skin) and some were brought from the outside. Two of particular interest are divergent fragments of the book of Jeremiah, both on cowhide rather than sheepskin. 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.”

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.

I look forward to seeing what more can be learned as fragments of these and other ancient texts are sorted and larger pieces of the puzzles are assembled.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

This post is also visible at Jesus Creed now at Christianity Today.

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