VISITING British academic Professor George J. Brooke unlocked some of the secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls to a rapt audience of about 250 at the annual Morpeth Lecture at Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesday night.
Professor Brooke, Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis and Early Judaism at the University of Manchester, spoke for almost an hour on the ‘‘Dead Sea Scrolls and the authority of the Bible’’, before taking questions.
As Professor Brooke explained, the Dead Sea Scrolls is a term given to more than 900 manuscripts dating from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, most of which were found in a series of caves near Qumran, on the western shore of the Dead Sea, from 1947.
Before the scrolls were discovered, the oldest Old Testament books to survive dated from about the 10th century, and differences between text scrolls and the ‘‘modern’’ Bible were soon noted.
Evidence of most, but not all, of the books in the Jewish Bible have been found in the scrolls.
Professor Brooke said there was ‘‘almost certainly no New Testament’’ in the Qumran caves. References in some texts to a ‘‘messiah’’ excited early controversy in regard to the birth of Christianity.
Some scholars have claimed to have found evidence of New Testament works among the scroll fragments, which number about 100,000.
But Professor Brooke said the fragments were more plausibly Old Testament phrases that were also quoted in the New Testament.
Professor Brooke devoted a substantial part of his address to the importance and impact of the changes to biblical texts over the centuries, saying that the ‘‘sectarians’’ or Essenes who were living at Qumran were interpreting the books of the Jewish Bible (the basis of the Christian Old Testament to suit the conditions of their times.
He said this variety of texts could be balanced against the so-called ‘‘divine’’ nature of the Old Testament, and it was still possible to believe and have faith in the authority of scripture, even if that scripture had various versions.
He said the major faiths were still wrestling with how to interpret their books.
‘‘I think Muslim communities are going to discover this in the next 300 years, the same kind of thing, the pluralism and textual variants in the Koran, which are absolutely forbidden to talk about, but it’s there,’’ Professor Brooke said.
‘‘But for Jews and Christians, in community, will have to say something about how they receive this gift, how they respond to this gift.’’
Professor Brooke said the biblical canon took centuries to emerge.
Canon is a process not a product,’’ Professor Brooke said.
The Morpeth Lecture was established in 1967 to celebrate a partnership between the University of Newcastle and the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle.