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DNA and the Aaronic Priesthood
Witnessing Tools
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Wendy Wippel

According to the book of Exodus, God himself established the priestly line of Israel by naming Aaron – the older brother of Moses—to the position of high priest and designating that only Aaron’s direct descendants would thereafter be eligible to serve in the same capacity.

Best estimate is that Aaron founded the company of Hebrew priests—called Kohenim-- about 3400 years ago.  This tradition was meticulously adhered to up until 70 AD, when both the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans under Titus and the surviving Jewish population scattered throughout the world.  

Since then, tribal distinctions have been largely lost, although some families (many named Cohen, meaning priest) have maintained a family tradition of being Kohenim. It is estimated, based on surveys of Jewish graveyards,  that approximately 5% of Jewish males in the world today are eligible, as direct descendants of Aaron, to be descendants of Aaron and therefor eligible to be part of the priesthood when the temple sacrifice resumes.  

Dr. Karl Skorecki is one of them. Physician and research professor at the University of Toronto in the mid 1990s, he was familiar with the then fledgling discipline of genetic anthropology. It wasn't really on his mind, however, when he took his seat at synagogue on one fateful Saturday morning. 

An Ashkenazi Jew of European background, he watched as another "Kohenim" was selected to do the Torah reading. That man, a Moroccan Cohen of the Sephardic lineage (Jews who fled Israel in 70 AD through northern Africa landing eventually in Spain) had the coloring and features of the Mediterranean, and Skorecki's mind began to ponder the irony of that observation.

By Torah Law the Cohenim was restricted to direct descendants of Aaron, but the man called up looked nothing like him.  How could they both be direct descendants of the same man?   At that point a thought occurred to him: this could be tested! 

If men who  claimed to be descended from Aaron actually were direct descendants of the same man, they should share a common set of Y-chromosome markers (a set of markers being known as a haplotype) and that set of markers would be the one that had belonged to Aaron, the first high priest.  It might be possible to find and identify those markers!

The first study gathered DNA samples from 188 Jewish males from Israel, England and North America, hoping to find a clear difference between the Y-chromosome markers in men who believed themselves to be Kohanim and in Jews who did not claim that distinction. 

Their first attempt hit paydirt:  a particular marker called YAP (Y-Chromosome Alu Polymorphism), a 300 base pair insertion into the standard DNA sequence. Only 1.5% of the men self-identified as Kohanim had this marker, a frequency that was ten times higher in lay Jews. 

A second study expanded the number of Y-chromosome markers analyzed and hit upon six that together demonstrated the greatest distinction between Kohanim and lay Jews. Now called the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CHM), this group of markers was found in 97/106 of the Kohenim studied, with a random probability of less than 0.001%.

The  CHM was also found at equal frequency in Jews of both European and North African ancestry, indicating that it was in place before the communities separated about 1000 BC.  It was also found, using other genetic markers to calculate the approximate time at which the common ancestor of the contemporary Kohenim lived, that the original owner of the Cohen Modal Haplotype lived about 106 generations ago, placing the original possessor of the haplotype at about 33-3400 years ago, the approximate time period in which Aaron would have lived.

What this means is that we can say with pretty much confidence that the CMH is the genetic signature carried by Aaron himself!  What it does not mean is that everyone who carries it is a direct descendant of Aaron.  (Aaron's brother Moses, for example, would have had the same Y-chromosome, as would all of his descendants.)

Studies done to date have found the CMH to be fairly sensitive (those who believe themselves to be Kohanim are nearly always shown to have the haplotype) but not specific (those who have the haplotype are not always Kohanim). 

As further markers are identified, however, it is likely that the CMH will continue to be refined and a haplotype eventually defined that will be both sensitive and specific. This would pave the way for an genetic test that could possibly have the ability to confirm  eligibility to serve in the Temple,  whose reconstruction is eagerly anticipated. 

The bottom line? God said of the Aaronic priesthoold that "It shall be to him and his descendants after him a covenant of everlasting priesthood." Num.18:19 The priesthood of Aaron, 2000 years after all records were lost, is still traceable in the blood of his descendants. It is an everlasting covenant with a God who is a promise-keeping God!

"Anoint them just as you anointed their father, so they may serve me as priests. Their anointing will be to a priesthood that will continue for all generations to come."  (Exodus 40:15)

Editor's note: Wendy Wippel is a molecular biologist with over 30 years experience in medical writing and medical research.  Her diverse body of publications includes nearly 100 articles published in medical journals or medical reference materials as well as regulatory documentation. Wendy has also authored two regular consumer health columns, websites, CME materials, posters, and presentations.    Prior to her focus on medical writing, Wendy worked as a research scientist at the Centers for Disease control and at the University of Cincinnati. She earned both graduate and undergraduate degrees  (with concentrations in immunology, virology,  oncology and molecular biology)  at The Ohio State University.

Wendy came to Christ as a freshman at The Ohio State University and since has taught numerous Bible studies. Over the past ten years she has also written numerous Bible studies as well as devotionals and apologetics materials. She is currently finishing up a Ph.D. in biblical studies and lives with her husband and two teenage daughters in Mississippi.

Wendy has agreed to become the Omega Letter's newest exclusive columnist.  I hope that you will join me in bidding her welcome. 

Learn more about Wendy at her website: http://www.readyreasons.com/


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