A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The New Samaritan High Priest; The "Cohen Gene"

Since I'm adrift on an Arctic ice floe again (or at least it feels like it), it seems like time for one of my extended posts on a really obscure subject. (Also, they say there'll be high winds today, which could increase power outages. So far the one thing I've been able to do is blog. That could change.)

I noted on Friday the death of the Samaritan High Priest, since I see the "Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context" subtitle up there as something of a mission statement, and also because I have a personal fascination with the smaller remnant historical communities that still dot the region.

You'll find more about the late High Priest and his successor here (the new High Priest is at left), in a Samaritan online English newsletter. (The biographies are readable enough, though one or two other stories in the newsletter seem to have been machine translated.)

The new High Priest is the same age as the one who died (both born 1927). The reason, explained in the link, is that until 1624 the Samaritan High Priesthood descended from father to son in the line of Aaron's son Pinchas (the line of High Priests in Orthodox Judaism as well, the kohanim), but with the shrinking of the Samaritan population, the last Pinchas descendant died out in 1624 and the line shifted to the descendants of Aaron's other son, Itamar (the Levites, in traditional Jewish terms, though the kohanim also originate from the Tribe of Levi). On the Levite line, unlike the earlier one, the oldest surviving member of the priestly class succeeds. Hence, he's the same age as his predecessor.

The Samaritans have always claimed that they preserve the genuine tradition of the Northern Kingdom of Israel; while mainstream Judaism claimed they represented a bastardized population planted in the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians and who gained in strength during the Babylonian exile of the Judaeans.

It is, of course, fairly natural to assume that a lot of this is legendary: Aaron was Moses' brother, after all. But lately some strange things have been happening in DNA studies.

Now, let me emphasize that I don't like discussions of race or even ethnicity: the 20th century was plagued by the "scientific racism" that classed people according to skull shape, skin tone, or imagined ancestry, and the horrible results were eugenics in the West and the Holocaust in Germany and its conquests. Race is a social construct. My daughter was born in Hunan, but the discussion I had with her last night on Alice in Wonderland was utterly free of any genetic predispositions. I don't believe in race.

But DNA can tell us something about historical traditions. I don't care if you're a Cohen or a Jones or Smith (my mother was a Jones), but the emerging genetic maps from the study of DNA are telling us some interesting things.

First, they're telling us we're all close kin. Old notions that the alleged "races" evolved separately have long since faded away. A few Western Europeans have some traces of native American DNA; go figure. DNA isn't race; race is a construct.

But DNA does have some curious tales to tell. Speaking of Samaritans and others tracing descent from Aaron, it gets really weird, at least for those of us who aren't fundamentalist/literalist in our approach to religion. There is a DNA haplogroup (a category of genetic descent widely shared) that has been dubbed popularly the "Cohen Gene" or more officially the "Cohen Modal Haplotype." The technical material is mostly dealt with at the Wikipedia entry "Y-Chromosome Aaron."

Now the so-called Cohen gene is not found exclusively among Jewish people named Cohen (or translated names like Kaplan, Kagan, etc.), but also among other Jewish and also broader Arab and other Middle Eastern populations, and even beyond. But it is highly intensively found among persons whose names are traditionally considered priestly in Jewish communities. And it is found in Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi communities in slightly differing proportions, but still heaviest among the Cohen families.

Now I'm no geneticist and no statistician, and I'd refer you to the link earlier for the statistical and scientific details, but clearly the Cohanim have higher correlations on many genetic points than do Jews generally (from the Wikipedia link above) (I hope this appears properly in all browsers as it does in mine):

xDE[3] xDE,PR[4] Hg J[5] CMH.1[4] CMH[4]
Ashkenazi Cohanim (AC): 98.5% 96% 87% 69% 45%
79% 52%
Sephardi Cohanim (SC): 100% 88% 75% 61% 56%
81% 75%
Ashkenazi Jews (AI): 82% 62% 37% 15% 13%
40% 35%
Sephardi Jews (SI): 85% 63% 37% 14% 10%
38% 27%
Intriguingly, even a southern African tribe called the Lemba who have some vaguely Jewish traditions and claim to be of priestly descent, though as black as their neighbors and speaking the same languages,

The Wikipedia article on the Lemba contains this:

A recent genetic study in 1996 suggested that more than 50% of the Lemba Y chromosomes are Semitic in origin;[10] a subsequent study in 2000 reported more specifically that a substantial number of Lemba men carry a particular polymorphism on the Y chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype (CMH), which is indicative of Y-DNA Haplogroup J found amongst some Jews, and in other populations across the Middle East.[11]

One particular sub-clan within the Lemba, the Buba clan, is considered by the Lemba to be their priestly clan, while among Jews, the Kohanim are the priestly clan. The Buba clan carried most of the CMH found in the Lemba. Among Jews the marker is also most prevalent among Jewish Kohanim, or priests. As recounted in Lemba oral tradition, the Buba clan "had a leadership role in bringing the Lemba out of Israel" and into Southern Africa.[12]

Weird, huh?

Now, as for the Samaritans, which is how I got dragged down this back alley in the first place, they seem to have elements of the Cohen gene but not the same y chromosome descent as the mainline of Cohens. But note, above, that their High Priesthood shifted from the Pinchas line to the Itamar line in the 1620s, according to their own acknowledgment.

And of course the punchline: they say the "Cohen Modal Haplogroup" suggests a common male ancestor in the Y-chromosome line about 3000 years before the present. That's several hundred years after most Biblical historians would date Aaron, but it's still pretty impressive. Kohanim from all known Jewish populations do have a common male ancestor, and he may not be all that later than Aaron. Hence the geneticists' coinage of "Y-chromosome Aaron" for the unknown male ancestor.

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