They call them the Dead Sea Scrolls, but a more accurate description of what's left to be deciphered of the ancient manuscripts would be the Dead Sea Fragments.
For decades scholars have been trying to piece together tens of thousands of pieces of animal skins representing an unknown number of scrolls that were part of the cache deposited in the barren hills of the Judean desert.
Curators of the coveted scrolls, unable to match handwriting and parchment textures from a pile of remaining miscellaneous scraps, have enlisted the latest techniques for identifying DNA.
They hope the relatively new science will help solve the jigsaw puzzle and settle disputes about the origin of the scrolls.
For nearly a year, a team of researchers in Jerusalem has been extracting DNA from tiny scroll fragments to see if they can piece together the manuscripts by using genetic codes.
So far, work on the genetic makeup of 50 fragments has confirmed the belief that the parchments are made from thin sheets of goat or sheepskins.
"We also have a couple of others that are different. They are something else . . . related to a goat but not exactly that," said Scott Woodward, a Brigham Young University microbiology professor working in a lab at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Woodward, the DNA expert on the scrolls research team, made headlines last year when he announced the first isolation of DNA from a dinosaur. He is confident his current project will benefit scholars eager to complete translation of the scrolls.
But scholars, while excited about the prospects of another method of objective analysis of the scrolls, say DNA research is not the final step in deciphering them.
"The DNA search is just one piece of a large puzzle that can eventually tell us about the world" at the time the scrolls were written, said Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeological Review in Washington, D.C.
Discovered in the caves at Qumran near the Dead Sea, the scrolls have been dated to between 150 BC and AD 50. As the only religious texts known to exist that were produced during the time of Jesus, their contents are of extraordinary interest to scholars seeking to understand the origins of Christianity and its relationship to Jewish beliefs.
Some 800 scrolls have been identified based on examination of intact portions of parchment, but thousands of other fragments from "Cave 4" have vexed the scholars allowed to examine them.
"We should just be grateful for any information because it is really difficult to try and piece these texts together," said James VanderKam, professor of Hebrew scriptures at Notre Dame University and a member of the editorial team appointed to officially publish the manuscripts. "We could be creating documents that never existed."
That is the contention of scholars who claim that some manuscripts cobbled together by handwriting and parchment analysis are fragments from several different sources.
The DNA findings could help settle that dispute, as well as answer questions about where the scrolls originated. Some believe they were the writings of a Jewish sect called the Essenes, who were secluded in the Dead Sea region. Others hold that the texts were compiled in Jerusalem and represent literature from a variety of locations throughout ancient Palestine.
"It's an important point because if they are just Essene productions they have less significance in understanding the thought of that period," said Michael Wise, a specialist in Aramaic at the University of Chicago who has published four books on the scrolls.
Woodward said determining the geographic origin of scraps of parchment will be difficult, but possible.
Researchers dissolve a tiny piece of parchment in a solution that isolates the DNA--the chemical molecule that holds the genetic code for a species. They can then compare that sample to DNA extracted from animal bones found at archeological sites in Israel.
"We should be able to group scrolls or pieces of parchment together as coming from the same location in ancient Israel," Woodward said.
Woodward was asked to examine the possibility of DNA applications by the Rockefeller Museum, which houses the "Cave 4" fragments in Jerusalem. The powerful Israeli Antiquities Authority--a government body that oversees the country's rich archeological resources--agreed to the project last year, granting Woodward status as a research professor at Hebrew University until August.