Friday, May 8, 2009

Pesher and the Dead Sea Sectarians

Within this post I will address the two-fold concept of Pesher and its use as demonstrated in the sectarian writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran.

The term pesher and the plural pesharim can be basically understood as the deciphering and interpretation of a text. The term broadly refers to both the methodology of the exegesis and interpretation found at Qumran, as well as the texts identification as a literary genre such as the Pesher Habbakuk (1QpHab).

Within current scholarship, the broad use of the term pesher and its derivatives in both Hebrew and Aramaic, such as in Ecclesiastes and Daniel respectively, and its specific use within the literature of the Qumran sect has attached considerable anxiety in terms of classification. Traditionally, there were three approaches to the classification of the pesharim literature within already existing genres –that they were not midrash; they are midrash; or that they were midrash pesher.[1]

In my opinion, pesharim and its use by the sectarians, although making use of pre-existing midrashic exegetical approaches,[2] is an independent genre as the respective methodology of each are in stark contrast in terms of the interpretative conclusions and application. Where midrash expands on a biblical book for edification, pesher paraphrases the Biblical text. Similarly, another aspect that draws a distinction between traditional midrash and the pesher is in regard to authority. The authority within midrash generally comes from the citation of other Biblical books and the opinions of teachers.[3] This is contrasted to the pesher which, such as in 1QpHab, authority comes from the divinely inspired Teacher of Righteousness:

Interpreted this concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His servants the prophets.
(1QpHab VII.5)[4]

Other than the authoritative and inspired pesher of the Teacher of Righteousness and the community, the pesharim abstain from quoting opinion of teachers.

Another important distinction, generally speaking, is the application and presuppositions involved in approaching pesher. Whereas the midrashim stories are “purely imaginative developments on scripture”[5] that “endeavour to make the story of the past more vivid and full”[6] the aim of pesharim is very different. The interpreters in the pesharim works on the hermeneutical principle that everything the prophets wrote had a “veiled, eschatological meaning.”[7] Scripture was seen as having two levels, the surface level known by the prophetic authors themselves and applicable to the readers; as well as a raz to be discovered and interpreted in a specific eschatological context. This cryptic message to be discovered had the two-fold agenda of contemporising the message of the prophets giving it a continuing, predictive function as well as validating the sectarian theology by eisegetically reading their own beliefs back into the authoritative texts.[8] This approach of contemporizing the text and applying the secret interpretation in light of the community’s history is a major factor in the uniqueness of the pesher texts and the pesher method.

As found within the Dead Sea Scroll texts pesher generally falls into two categories. These categories are the continuous pesharim such as the commentary on Habakkuk (1QpHab) and Thematic Pesharim such as 4QFlorilegium (4Q174).

The first category of pesher is that of continuous pesher. The main distinction between the respective pesher is that the continuous pesher have a common structure of developing a specific Biblical book consecutively and adapting it to a purported eschatological fulfillment. In the case of the pesharim on Habakkuk, the interpreter chronologically works through the first three chapters of the prophetic book of Habakkuk. Similarly, there are continuous pesher on the books of Isaiah and the Psalms, among others. It is to be noted that continuous pesher need not occur consistently such as in the Pesher Psalms (4Q171) where the pesher jumps from Psalm 37 to 45 to 60.

Continuous pesher contrasts to Thematic Pesher in the use of Biblical citations. Where the continuous method refers to a single book to develop the theme, thematic pesharim utilize Biblical citations as the method of developing an eschatological theme. Therefore, in this case we have the verses chosen to support the theme, instead of the theme developing within a set text.

Both continuous and thematic pesher are generally characterised by the above features as well as a common form. That is, the appearance of a Biblical citation, followed by an exposition on the text generally introduced with the pesharim lemma such as, “its pesher is upon…” Although both methods involve contemporisation, they are distinct in application. Within the continuous pesharim the application is to contemporary or present events – alluding to the sect of Qumran, as well as the playing out of history. This contrasts to the Thematic pesher where the interpretation is a confirmation of a previous statement and theme. For this reason, it has been suggested that thematic pesher are stylistically closer to a midrash.

As mentioned earlier, whereas traditional midrash expands on the Biblical text with fictional narratives, the pesharim, although not intended to be a history, allude to historical events. Although cryptic and bias to the perspective of the Qumranites, much can be learned about the development of the sect as well as the political and religious climate within the Second Temple period.

By determining the composition date of the pesharim texts, and reading them in light of the histories of the books of Maccabees as well as the works of Josephus, attempts can be made to decipher the history of the Qumran sectarians. Accordingly, it is believed that the histories and lore than can be determined from the documents are historically accurate.[9] There are a number of reasons for this belief among scholars. Firstly, the nature of the sect as a cohesive, small community remaining in one place is believed to increase the reliability of the oral traditions. The Community Rule (1QS), for example, demonstrates the strict nature and focus of the sect on preserving community lore and traditions, specifically those regarding the Teacher of Righteousness and origins of the sect. Similarly, many have argued for the reliability of the pesharim tests as many are autographs[10] suggesting that they may very well go back to the time of the Teacher of Righteousness.[11]

Conversely, as with all historical sources, the scrolls suffer from the biases of the community and the historiography of the period. The two specific features to note is that firstly, there was a propensity for historical creativity within histories of the 1st and 2nd century B.C.E; and secondly, the polemic nature of the texts. The pesharim are in a sense almost as cryptic as the raz they find within the Hebrew Bible text, leaving interpretations open to abuse.

One example of harmonising the pesharim with historical sources is determining the identity of the Teacher of Righteousness (whom many believe to be the founder of a community of Essenes.) Some have identified the Teacher of Righteousness as a High Priest prior to Jonathan Maccabeus on evidence within the Habakkuk pesher, for example, which mentions the Teacher of Righteousness as “the priest” (1QpHab 2:8).[12] Others such as J.L. Teicher since the early 1950’s have postulated that the Teacher of Righteousness as described in the Habakkuk was the Jesus of Christianity.[13] However, this view has been widely criticized as the Teacher of Righteousness has been placed within the second century B.C.E.[14]

More recently, Barbara Thiering has claimed to identify another method of pesher employed by the Dead Sea sectarians. Thiering claims that the sectarians were so enshrouded in the concept of cryptic meanings within the texts that they had set out to write scripture that they would “have set up as being capable of pesher.”[15] Thiering has subsequently identified these Qumran pesher scripture as belonging to the Gospels of the New Testament corpus. By applying her own pesharim method to the New Testament texts, and understanding the pesher of Habakkuk as written in part by Saul (Paul of Tarsus) in explicit reference to John and Jesus,[16] she has come to identify the Teacher of Righteousness as John the Baptist and Jesus as the Wicked Priest.[17] However, this view is largely ignored by the academic community.[18] Firstly, the identification and redating of the texts suffers from the same chronological issues as J.L. Teicher’s hypothesis with regard to the general dating of the Teacher of Righteousness[19] and the dating of the pesharim texts she places within the first century.[20] As Vermes summarises:

[T]he Habakkuk Commentary, chief source of the history of the Qumran sect, is definitely put in the pre-Christian era between 120 and 5 BCE.[21]

Similarly, within the known texts there is no evidence of sectarians composing scripture nor scripture with the intention of including a hidden historical message. As demonstrated above, it was a way of interpreting messages within prophetic text and not writing prophetically void history.

In summary, the use of the pesharim technique in interpreting scripture was unique in its contemporisation yet it shares common roots with midrash. I contend that it is a unique genre of commentary, to be considered separate from midrash specifically for it’s focus on eschatology and self-identification for the community. The sectarian community’s utilisation of the pesher method has allowed us to see, with some historical accuracy, the nature and division of Judaism within the later second temple period – both within the Essene communities as well as those often classified as ‘normative Judaism’. Although theories with regard to the use of pesharim are put forward, the mainstream of scholarship remains rather stagnant in terms of subscribing to radical hypothesis yet the issue of identification and interpretation of pesharim texts as history is still debated.

[1] A.G. Wright (1967), The Literary Genre: Midrash p. 80
[2] See ibid pp.80-85 for arguments pertaining to classifying pesher within the genre of Midrashim.
[3] Ibid, p.81
[4] G Vermes (2004), The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls inn English p.512
[5] Ibid p. 81
[6] A. Dupont-Sommer, The Essene Writings from Qumran, trans by G. Vermes p. 310
[7] T.H. Lim (2002), Pesharim p.44
[8] H. Bolle, Lecture 2009, 8th of April
[9] J.H. Charlesworth (2002), The Pesharim and Qumran History: Chaos or Consensus?
[10] F.M. Cross et al (1972), Scrolls from Qumran Cave I p.5. It is also important to note that some of the pesharim show evidence of unsubstantial tampering. Similarly, Charlesworth argues that there are evidence of corrected scribal errors, etc.
[11] J.H. Charlesworth (2002)
[12] H. Stegemann (1998), The Library of Qumran: On the Essenes, Qumran, John the Baptist, and Jesus
[13] J.L. Teicher, “Jesus in the Habakkuk Scroll,” Journal of Jewish Studies, 1952 pp.53-55 cited in R.E. Van Voorst (2000), Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence p.77 and F.F. Bruce (1956) Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls pp.125-126
[14] G. Vermes (1977) The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective pp.142-156
[15] B.E. Thiering (1992), Jesus the Man p. 22
[16] Ibid p.136-137
[17] B.E. Thiering (1992), Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls
[18] Voorst (2000), Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence p.80; N.T. Wright (1992), Who Was Jesus? p.21, 23
[19] G. Vermes (1977) The Dead Sea Scrolls: Qumran in Perspective pp.142-156
[20] For example, Thiering dates 1GpHab to the late 30s AD. However, paleographical consensus places the date far earlier. This dating has been affirmed by a number of AMS tests on the scrolls and ink, generally placing the composition at least 60 years before Thiering’s proposed authorship. For the results see T.H. Lim (2002), Pesharim p.21 and G Vermes (2004), The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls inn English p.509
[21] G Vermes (2004), The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls inn English p.13


  1. i don't know you, nor you me. your blog came up on my google alerts. but you, kind sir, win the prize for best title for any blog ever.

    as for the post, see Geza Vermes’ response to Thiering’s rejoinder to Vermes’ review of Thiering’s book in the New York Review of Books, where Vermes stated, “Professor Barbara Thiering’s reinterpretation of the New Testament, in which the married, divorced, and remarried Jesus, father of four, becomes the ‘Wicked Priest’ of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has made no impact on learned opinion. Scroll scholars and New Testament experts alike have found the basis of the new theory, Thiering’s use of the so-called ‘pesher technique’, without substance.” (The New York Review of Books, December 1st, 1994).


  2. Hey,

    Thanks for the comment. However, I actually know who you are. I came across your Wikipedia page a long time ago while you were 'tracking' Charles Gadda. And then there is your facebook group...

    How did the internet get so small?

  3. Thankyou for this very helpful post