The Priests' Chromosome? DNA Analysis Supports the Biblical Story of the Jewish Priesthood

By Travis, John | Science News, October 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Priests' Chromosome? DNA Analysis Supports the Biblical Story of the Jewish Priesthood


Travis, John, Science News


DNA analysis supports the biblical story of the Jewish priesthood

A bit more than 3 years ago, while sitting in a synagogue in Toronto, Karl Skorecki looked at some of his fellow worshippers with curiosity.

Like several others in attendance that day, Skorecki, then a kidney disease researcher at the University of Toronto, considered himself a cohen, which is Hebrew for priest. According to biblical accounts, after the Jewish exodus from Egypt, Moses' brother Aaron was selected as the first cohen. The designation was also given to his sons, providing the basis for a firmly entrenched Jewish tradition in which a male cohen bestows the status upon his children. A daughter of a cohen can become a priest, but she cannot pass on the honor.

Like all cohanim (plural of cohen), Skorecki has no proof that he belongs to the priesthood other than the word of his father and his father before him. As he sat in the synagogue years ago, Skorecki wondered whether he had anything besides this oral legacy in common with the other cohanim he knew.

The answer, he realized, could reside in his DNA. The Y chromosome passes solely from father to son, exactly like the cohen status. If all modern cohanim were indeed descendants of Aaron, or a relative of him, their Y chromosomes should have an ancient common origin, explains Skorecki, who is now at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

Two recent studies by Skorecki and several of his colleagues find that the cohanim indeed have some Y chromosome features distinct from other Jews. This shared genetic material, moreover, may stem from an ancestor who lived several thousand years ago, roughly the time estimated for the beginning of the Jewish priesthood.

Calling the results "powerful," Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, director of the Jewish studies program at San Francisco State University, compares their impact to her experience when she visited Jerusalem for the first time and laid her hands on the Western Wall of the Second Temple that she had read about in the Old Testament.

"It's to me an extraordinarily moving and intense experience of history and sacred history coming together," she says. "I think the [Y chromosome research] does the same thing genetically. It's a tangible, embodied moment of connection to our past."

For several centuries, starting about 3,000 years ago when the First Temple of Jerusalem was built, the cohanim played a leading role in the Jewish community. Today, rabbis have taken over as the teachers and authorities of Jewish religion and law. They acquire their place through religious training rather than through heredity.

The cohanim still often play a special role in worship services, such as being the first to read from the Torah. They also may recite blessings at Jewish festivals.

While anyone can claim to be a cohen and would likely draw no challenge, the priesthood's few remaining privileges are countered by obligations. Cohanim cannot get married to widows, divorcees, or anyone from outside the Jewish faith, even converts. Moreover, they can't attend most funerals, because contact with the dead would contaminate their religious purity.

"There are real restrictions to those cohanim who follow the traditions. Surprisingly, many do, even individuals who might not be observant in other respects," says Skorecki.

To explore the origins of the cohanim, Skorecki turned to an area of research called genetic archaeology, or genetic anthropology. Until recently, this discipline has focused on mothers, not fathers. That's because when sperm fertilize eggs, snippets of genetic material known as mitochondrial DNA are passed on only from the mother to the embryo. For reasons still unexplained, a sperm's mitochondrial DNA is lost (SN: 1/25/97, p. 58).

Making use of this oddity, scientists have studied variations in mitochondrial DNA to reconstruct the evolution and movement of people. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Priests' Chromosome? DNA Analysis Supports the Biblical Story of the Jewish Priesthood
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.