The Bible says it, …and Now So Does Jewish DNA

This past week in Newsweek, in an article entitled “The DNA of Abraham’s Children,” science editor Sharon Begley wrote about a massive DNA study of Jewish populations worldwide. It was Blaise Pascal in the 1600’s who cited the unique identity and continued existence of ethnic Jews as one reason he believed in the authenticity of the Bible, and now Newsweek gets close to saying the same thing through this recent DNA analysis of Jews.

You can read the article for yourself here.

Because of this DNA study, Begley writes, “scientists are able to read Jewish genomes like a history book.” And that history book amazingly mirrors the story we read in the pages of Scripture. It adds to the increasing evidence of how the Bible’s story intersects archeology and demonstrates itself to be a reliable historical record. Now as it intersects the latest DNA studies, they confirm the same thing.

Below are some excerpts from this article, and afterward I’ll list four things this shows us in regard to the authenticity of the Bible.

In the wake of studies in the 1990s that supported biblically based notions of a priestly caste descended from Aaron, brother of Moses, an ambitious new project to analyze genomes collected from Jewish volunteers has yielded its first discoveries. In a paper with the kind of catchy title you rarely see in science journals—“Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era”—scientists report that the Jews of the Diaspora share a set of telltale genetic markers, supporting the traditional belief that Jews scattered around the world have a common ancestry. But various Diaspora populations have their own distinct genetic signatures, shedding light on their origins and history.

Although the origin of the Jews has been traced, archeologically, to the Middle East in the second millennium B.C.E., what happened next has been more opaque. To sort it out, researchers collected DNA from Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, and Ashkenazi Jews around New York City; Turkish Sephardic Jews in Seattle; Greek Sephardic Jews in Thessaloniki and Athens; and Italian Jews in Rome as part of the Jewish HapMap Project. (All four grandparents of each participant had to have come from the same community.)

Historical records suggest that Iranian and Iraqi Jews date from communities that formed in Persia and Babylon, respectively, in the fourth to sixth centuries B.C.E., and the DNA confirms that. The genetic signatures of these groups show that they remained relatively isolated—inbred—for some 3,000 years. The DNA also reveals that these Middle Eastern Jews diverged from the ancestors of today’s European Jews about 100 to 150 generations ago, or sometime during the first millennium B.C.E.

That’s when the Jewish communities in Italy, the Balkans, and North Africa originated, from Jews who migrated or were expelled from Palestine and from people who converted to Judaism during Hellenic times. During that period Jews proselytized with an effectiveness that would put today’s Mormons to shame: at the height of the Roman Empire, as the Roman historian Josephus chronicled, mass conversions produced 6 million practicing Jews, or 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire. The conversions brought in DNA that had not been part of the original gene pool in the land of Abraham.

Adds Ostrer, “the study supports the idea of a Jewish people linked by a shared genetic history. Yet the admixture with European people explains why so many European and Syrian Jews have blue eyes and blond hair.” Southern Europeans were the closest genetic cousins of Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Italian Jews, reflecting the large-scale conversion of these Southern European populations to Judaism some 2,000 years ago, when European Jewry was forming.

Analysis of Jewish genomes has been yielding fascinating findings for more than a decade. A pioneer in this field, Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona, made the first big splash when he discovered that genetics supports the biblical account of a priestly family, the Cohanim, descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses: one specific genetic marker on the Y chromosome (which is passed on from father to son, as membership in the priestly family would be) is found in 98.5 percent of people who self-identify as Cohanim, he and colleagues reported in a 1997 paper in Nature (the PBS science series Nova did a nice segment on that work, summarized here). The Cohanim DNA has been found in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, evidence that it predates the time when the two groups diverged, about 1,000 years ago. DNA can also be used to infer when particular genetic markers appeared, and suggests that the Cohanim emerged about 106 generations ago, making it fall during what is thought to be the period of the exodus from Egypt, and thus Aaron’s lifetime.

There is a lot to decipher in this journal speak, but here are four things that particularly interested me:

1. There is something about the Jews that makes them very unlike other people groups. Both history, and now DNA, show us that there is a significantly unique heritage they share that marks them and keeps them distinct. And the Old Testament gives us a good explanation: they were a people God physically created from the miracle of Abraham’s and Sarah’s very impossible child, Isaac (see Gen 15:1-6; Gen 18:10-14; Romans 4:17-21), who was the father of Jacob (Jacob was the first Jew, his named changed by God to “Israel;” see Gen 32:28; 35:10), and then a nation created from Jacob’s descendants that Moses led out of Egypt sometime between 1,400-1,200 BC. The article states that this DNA study seems to confirm this last point. Archeology, and now Jewish DNA, shows us that the Jewish people came from a common ancestry created at the time the Bible tells us.

2. Jewish DNA now seems to confirm that there was a significant divergence of Jews who come from a common ancestry that entered and lived in Babylon and Persia, just as the Old Testament describes for us because of the exile of the Jews (by the way, the word “Jew” comes from the name Judah, which according to the Bible was the only tribe besides the small tribe of Benjamin, along with the priests—the sons of Aaron—that remained after the other northern tribes were lost to exile to Assyria in the 8th century BC). So now DNA and the Bible seem to be saying the same thing.

3. Jewish DNA now confirms what Jesus said in Matthew 23:15, and what the New Testament describes, that the Jews were scattered throughout Europe, and were also missionaries who converted European pagans to become religious Jews throughout Europe (see also John 7:35). So we read of Jewish populations scattered throughout Europe during Paul’s missionary journeys. Some became Christians, and others arose in persecution against Christians (see the Book of Acts and Jesus’ letters in Revelation 2-3). This explains why so many European nationalities of “Jews” are mentioned at various places throughout Acts. Now this same thing shows up in this latest Jewish DNA study.

4. Jewish DNA now proves what the Bible tell us from the Book of Exodus on—that those who were priests in the Old Testament came from those who descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother. Scientists now affirm that there was a distinct priestly DNA line that emerged from the time of the exodus, just as the Bible tells us.

It happened in the Bible, and now DNA confirms it.

This latest article and DNA data is just one more piece added to what makes the Bible so different than any other “sacred” text of any other religion. Rather than being merely a collection of ethereal writings of morals or philosophy or spiritual meditations or prophecies, the Bible places its entire story and truth claims smack dab in the midst of the real human story—all to be confirmed or denied by real archeology and, now, the most recent scientific studies in real DNA. Pretty cool, I think.

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