Biblical Interpretation, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.


Pesher Isaiah

Pesher Isaiah

In nearly all of its ancient manifestations, the Jewish tradition was significantly grounded in the interpretation of a set of Scriptures that we know today as the Bible. Already within the biblical corpus itself, especially in Second Temple literature, we find evidence that exegesis was used as a means of deriving laws and reinterpreting earlier biblical accounts for didactic purposes. This pattern, which continued without interruption throughout the Second Temple period, eventually culminated in the great midrashic works that contained the halakhic and aggadic interpretations of the talmudic Rabbis.

The texts in the Qumran corpus reveal many types of interpretation that were practiced by the Qumran sect as well as by other contemporary Jewish groups. In the scrolls collection, we find the earliest examples of Bible translation, including fragments of the Greek Septuagint and Aramaic Targum. These translations share certain formal elements and literary techniques. The scrolls also reveal early attempts to explain the plain sense of Scripture (termed peshat by the later Rabbis). We also find books like Genesis Apocryphon and Jubilees, which retell—or rather, reinterpret—the biblical stories and which reflect the specific hermeneutics (exegetical methods) of each author.

The sect inherited a method of legal interpretation we find represented in the Temple Scroll and underpinning some of the laws in the Halakhic Letter. We can also see aspects of such an interpretive approach in the harmonizing tendencies found in the expanded Torah scrolls known as Rewritten Pentateuch. This interpretive technique was most probably based on that of the Sadducees. In addition, the sect had its own method of halakhic exegesis that gave rise to much of its legal teachings. Alongside these other methods was a form of contemporizing biblical interpretation called pesher, that interpreted prophetic texts as referring to present events and the history of the sect itself.

Although biblical interpretation runs through this book as a constant leitmotif, I would like to present here a comprehensive picture of the exegesis in the scrolls in order to highlight the different genres. Perhaps it is most important to realize that this corpus thoroughly documents the role of biblical interpretation as a vehicle for the development of Judaism at that early date. The selection of examples that follows concentrates on interpretive method and the literary form it takes. Pesher, because of its central role in the thought of the Qumran sect, is reserved for separate discussion in the next chapter.

Pages 211-212

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