Genetic Chaos

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Y Chromosomes of Jewish Priests

According the biblical accounts, the Jewish priesthood was established about 3,300 years ago with the appointment of the first Israelite high priest. Designation of Jewish males to the priesthood continues to this day, and is determined by strict patrilineal decent. Accordingly, we sought and found clear differences in the frequency of Y-chromosomes haplotypes between Jewish priests and their lay counterparts. Remarkably, the difference is observable in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations, despite the geographical separation of the two communities.

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Origins of Old Testament priests

According to Jewish tradition, following the Exodus from Egypt, males of the tribe of Levi, of which Moses was a member, were assigned special religious responsibilities, and male descendants of Aaron, his brother, were selected to serve as Priests (Cohanim). To the extent that patrilineal inheritance has been followed since sometime around the Temple period (roughly 3,000–2,000 years before present), Y chromosomes of present day Cohanim and Levites should not only be distinguishable from those of other Jews, but — given the dispersion of the priesthood following the Temple’s destruction — they should derive from a common ancestral type no more recently than the Temple period. Here we show that although Levite Y chromosomes are diverse, Cohen chromosomes are homogeneous. We trace the origin of Cohen chromosomes to about 3,000 years before present, early during the Temple period.

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