by Roger Highfield,
The Jewish tradition
that a priestly caste - the Cohanim - are descendants of an
ancestor who lived 3,000 years ago is backed by a genetic
study published today.
The findings are
consistent with these priests being descended from Aaron,
the brother of Moses, as stated in the Old Testament. However,
the study in today's Nature is silent when it comes to the
identity of the common ancestor.
also believe that they have found a genetic marker for the
ancient Hebrew population which can be used to unravel its
relationship with contemporary communities.
The work provided
a demonstration of the power of genetics to shed new light
on human history, said David Goldstein of Oxford University,
who reports the findings with colleagues at University College
London, University of London, and the Technion in Haifa.
"I was quite staggered
by the results," he said. "It supports the oral tradition
that the status of these priests has been passed from father
to son over some considerable time, perhaps 3,000 years."
says that, after the Exodus from Egypt, male descendants of
Aaron were selected to serve as priests, forming a caste called
the Cohanim. The Cohanim continues to play a role in synagogues
and to subject to religious restrictions - its members are
forbidden from marrying divorcees or converts in Israel, for
example - said Neil Bradman of Oxford University, a co-author.
A Cohen, Craig
Levison, 26, the co-ordinator of Jewish Community Information,
London, was unsurprised by the disclosures. "Because I am
a Cohen I have known that since I was born anyway."
same study of 306 Jews did not find the same degree of genetic
homogeneity of the Levites, the male descendants of the tribe
of Levi, of which Moses was a member.
The research on
the origins of the priests began when it was speculated that,
if Jewish oral tradition were accurate, the genetic makeup
of present-day Levites and Cohanim should not only be distinguishable
from other Jews but should also derive from a common ancestral
type no more recently than the establishment by the Jews of
the first temple in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago.
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