The Dead Sea Scrolls are one of the most puzzling mysteries of our time. A multitude of fragments, more than 25,000 in total, have alluded researchers about their origins. The writing covers parts of the Hebrew Bible canon, along with religious practices, hymns, and legal documents.

Now, experts are saying ancient DNA has helped them piece together which fragments come from which scrolls. Additionally, they are seeing how widespread these writings were.

“Almost all the scrolls we sampled were found to be made of sheepskin,” said Tel Aviv University Professor Oded Rechavi, who led the interdisciplinary team. “And accordingly most of the effort was invested in the very challenging task of trying to piece together fragments made from the skin of particular sheep, and to separate these from fragments written on skins of different sheep that also share an almost identical genome,” Rechavi continued.

Originally found in the caves of Qumran and other sites around the Judean desert, the research is now showing that they may have been written somewhere else.

“The biological material of the texts, that the texts are written on, is as informative and as telling as the text that was written on it,” said Prof Noam Mizrahi of Tel Aviv University, Israel, and a co-author of the research. “For the first scholars, they faced a formidable task of trying to understand how many jigsaw puzzles they are actually having, and how many of an unknown number of pieces was lost forever.”

A notable find in the study revealed that two fragments of the book of Jeremiah were scripted on cowhide; which was not initially found in their location of discovery in the Judean desert.

“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,” Rechavi noted.

The two fragments were originally thought to piece together with sheep fragments. The DNA evidence is now saying they most likely don’t fit together. This suggests that different versions of the book of Jeremiah existed and circulated at the same time with different wordings.

“This teaches us about the way this prophetic text was read at the time and also holds clues to the process of the text’s evolution,” Rechavi said.

“Our research enabled us to shed new light on many old mysteries basically by allowing the materiality of the scrolls to speak for its own right — and it has surprisingly a lot to tell us,” Mizrahi said. “Each such fragment holds its own riddles, and we plan to investigate many more samples that would allow us to shed light on a variety of enigmatic issues.”

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