Twelve miles east of Jerusalem in desert caves, Bedouin shepherds stumbled upon manuscripts rolled up in 10 tall jars. Little did they know they had discovered priceless ancient texts written on animal hide—the Dead Sea Scrolls.
That was in 1947. Eventually, people would locate some 800 manuscripts total in nearby caves. Now researchers use DNA testing to press deeper into the old find—and they’re still making new discoveries!
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of very old religious writings, many of which are non-biblical. But the scrolls also contain parts or whole copies of every book in the Old Testament except Esther. These are not originals. But they are very early copies. Before the shepherds showed up, no one had disturbed the scrolls for 1,900 years!
Researchers took genetic samples from the scrolls, studying tiny slivers or even dust crumbs of parchment. DNA testing showed many manuscripts were written on sheepskin, not goatskin as researchers had thought. The tests even indicated which skins came from related animals. This helps researchers piece together the puzzle of which manuscripts belong together.
Some say the scrolls were brought to the caves from Jerusalem for safekeeping. Others say a group of Jews called the Essenes copied them. Back then, the Essenes had split away from both the Sadducees and Pharisees, moved away from Jerusalem, and chosen a monastic lifestyle in the desert.
People often kept sheep and goats in the desert near the caves. But the researchers got a surprise: Two of the fragments came from cow hide, a manuscript material more common in cities like Jerusalem.
God works in human history to preserve the truth of His word. To write the Bible, He used fishermen, shepherds, poets, prophets, a tax collector, a doctor, a tentmaker, and many others. Biblical writers worked with styluses to carve clay or wax. They used chisels to inscribe words in stone. They used pens to write with ink on papyrus, leather, or parchment. Over the centuries, people have copied His word again and again. The Dead Sea Scrolls are just one example of this—a very important one.
The new DNA testing could help people spot counterfeit ancient texts. It would have been useful at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The museum had to remove five supposed Dead Sea Scrolls from display there. 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