Historical Relevance of the Pesharim, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.


Coin of Antiochus III

Coin of Antiochus III. By Antiksikkeler – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=119616931

The texts that have just been surveyed, together with a few related documents, like the Admonition—the first part of the Zadokite Fragments—provide most of what we know of the sect’s internal history and its relations with and attitudes to opposing groups of Jews. But, as already mentioned, these texts speak in difficult allusions, depending on interpretation of the biblical texts and on a particular set of terms and symbols used by the sect to express its self-image and its view of its opponents.

Further, we have to reckon with the possibility that we are dealing here not with historical reality, but with a conception constructed by the sect of its own history as well as that of the Jewish and non-Jewish world outside. Perhaps this portrayal is not in any way realistic. In that case, we would be learning exclusively about the sect’s self-image and the historiosophy underlying its approach to Judaism and its communal structure.

Because almost no names are mentioned, many of the interpretations presented in what follows are matters of scholarly debate. We will try to present the most plausible interpretation of these difficult data, pausing occasionally to explain opposing points of view.

The material in the pesharim covers three primary periods of sectarian history- the early days of the sect; the years immediately preceding, and perhaps following, the Roman conquest in 63 B.C.E.; and the final stages of the End of Days. The last is dealt with primarily in the thematic pesharim.

Whereas the Zadokite Fragments begin their account of the sect’s history with the period before the rise of the Teacher of Righteousness and his leadership of the sect, we first encounter the sect in the pesharim under the leadership of this figure, whom God has sent to lead the sect. Interpreting Psalms 37-24, “for the Lord gives him support,” Pesher Psalms A states-

Its interpretation concerns the priest, the Teacher of [Righteousness, wh]om God [ch]ose to arise, f[or] He set him up (or- predestined him) to build for Him a congregation [of His chosen ones in truth]. (PESHER PSALMS A 1–10 III 15–16)

The teacher was specifically designated, indeed perhaps predestined, for his role in building the community. In addition, it was he who revealed to them the meaning of the prophets’ words.
But he found himself, presumably as a result of his teachings, in conflict with the Man of Lies. A group called the House of Absalom did not support the teacher in his confrontation with the Man of Lies. The pesher explains Habakkuk 1-13, which in the Masoretic text reads, “Why do You countenance treachery, and stand by idly while the evil one devours one who is more righteous than he?” as follows-

Its interpretation is concerning the House of Absalom and the men of their council who kept silent when the Teacher of Righteousness was rebuked and did not help him against the Man of Lies, who rejected the Torah in the midst of all their con[grega]tion. (PESHER HABAKKUK 5-8–12)

Clearly, the verse has been taken to refer to an episode in the sect’s history during which the teacher was publicly rebuked by the Man of Lies. The House of Absalom was a group the teacher could have expected to defend him. Some have suggested that the group might be the Pharisees; others believe they were a group within the sect. From the point of view of the community, this event showed that the Man of Lies had effectively rejected the Torah and its laws.
In commenting on Habakkuk 1-5, “Look among the nations and observe well,” read by the pesher as, “Look O traitors and observe well,” the pesher states-

[The interpretation of the matter concerns] those who are traitorous with the Man of Lies, for [they] did not [hearken to the words of] the Teacher of Righteousness from the mouth of God. (PESHER HABAKKUK 2-1–3)

The traitors, apparently led by the Man of Lies, were most probably straying members of the group or a competing group. In any case, this passage shows that the teacher faced opposition not only from the official priesthood, but from others as well.

The main opponent of the teacher was the Wicked Priest. It was he who confronted the teacher and challenged him in the presence of the members of the group. That confrontation is described in an interpretation of Habakkuk 2-5–6, “How much less then shall the defiant go unpunished, the treacherous, arrogant man … who has harvested all the nations and gathered in all the peoples”-

Its interpretation concerns the Wicked Priest who was called by the name of truth at the beginning when he arose. But when he ruled over Israel, his heart became haughty and he abandoned God, and he rebelled against the laws for the sake of wealth. And he stole and gathered the wealth of the men of violence who had rebelled against God. And he took the wealth of the nations to add to it the guilt of transgression. And he conducted himself according to abom[in]able ways with all impurity. (PESHER HABAKKUK 8-8–13)

The Wicked Priest began his career with the support of the sectarians, but he quickly lost his way and began to transgress in order to increase his wealth. The sectarians regarded this depredation as stealing. The Wicked Priest made war against the other nations and had a conflict with the “men of violence,” most likely the Pharisees.

Further, he violated the laws of ritual purity and defiled the sanctuary, as is explained in reference to the extremely difficult Habakkuk 2-17, the end of which says, “For crimes against men and wrongs against lands, against cities and all their inhabitants.” To this the text comments-

Its interpretation- The city is Jerusalem in which the Wicked Priest undertook abominable actions, and he defiled the Temple of God. (PESHER HABAKKUK 12-7–9)

This interpretation must refer to legal rulings and ritual procedures in Temple worship regarded by the sectarians as violations of the Torah. A similar theme recurs in the Zadokite Fragments, the Halakhic Letter, and elsewhere in the sectarian corpus.

The Wicked Priest went so far as to lie in ambush for the Teacher of Righteousness. In interpreting Psalms 37-32, “The wicked watches for the righteous, seeking to put him to death,” the text states-

Its interpretation concerns [the] Wicked [Pr]iest who wa[tched out for the Teach]er of Righteous[ness and sought to] put him to death. (PESHER PSALMS A 1–10 IV 8–9)

Although the Wicked Priest sought to kill the teacher, he did not succeed.

Various theories have sought to identify the teacher with Jesus, claiming that he was executed by the Wicked Priest. Had that been the case, the text would not have gone on to explain how God took vengeance against the priest by turning him over to the “ruthless ones of the nations” (lines 9–10). And according to this text, the teacher certainly survived this ambush. Indeed, the entire passage is an interpretation of Psalms where the text continues, “The Lord will not abandon him (the righteous) into his hand (the wicked); He will not let him (the righteous) be condemned in judgment (by the wicked)” (Psalms 37-33).

This passage from Pesher Psalms A is probably a reference to the very same event described in Pesher Habakkuk where we are told about the Wicked Priest that-

He pursued the Teacher of Righteousness to swallow him up in his intense anger at the place of his (the teacher’s) exile. And at the time of the festival of their abstention from labor he appeared before them to swallow them up and to make them stumble on the day of the fast of the Sabbath of their abstention from labor. (PESHER HABAKKUK 11-5–8)

This account has likewise been interpreted as if it describes the death of the teacher, but it simply describes a painful confrontation. The “fast of the Sabbath of their abstention from labor” is the Day of Atonement, called in the Bible a “Sabbath” but also a fast. The Wicked Priest confronted the sectarians on this day of their holy Festival, but for him evidently it was not the Day of Atonement. This passage highlights that the sect used a different calendar from that used by the majority of Jews, a solar calendar. Thus, the Jewish holidays fell on different days from the days they would have fallen in the calendar used by the Wicked Priest.
Ultimately, however, the Wicked Priest was punished-

… because of his transgression against the Teacher of Righteousness and the men of his counsel, God gave him over into the hand[s] of his enemies to afflict him with disease so as to destroy (him) with mortal suffering because he had acted wickedly against His chosen one. (PESHER HABAKKUK 9-8–12)

The Wicked Priest’s enemies tortured him, which represented divine punishment for his attacks on the Teacher of Righteousness. The sufferings of the Wicked Priest are even more graphically described in another passage-

[And all his enemies arose and ab]used him in order [for] his sufferings to be (fit) punishment for his evil. And they inflicted upon him horrible diseases, and acts of vengeance in the flesh of his body. (PESHER HABAKKUK 8-17–9-2)

The one who suffered was the Wicked Priest, not the Teacher of Righteousness. The enemies of the Wicked Priest, the nations against whom he had made war, are said to have tortured him, so that his life ended in mortal disease and affliction.

Various theories have been suggested to identify the Wicked Priest and to place these events within the context of what we know of Second Temple period history. In many cases, those theories have not been anchored sufficiently in paleography, archaeology, or the general historical sources.

However, when these are all taken into consideration, it becomes abundantly clear—and this is unquestionable—that the events described in the texts just surveyed herein must be placed in the early Hasmonaean period—in the years soon after the Maccabean Revolt.

In our study of the Halakhic Letter, we established that the sect was founded in this same period. We also saw that the Teacher of Righteousness must have emerged as the sect’s leader some years after the initial break that occurred soon after 152 B.C.E. The career of the Wicked Priest must be similarly dated. Most scholars now agree that the Wicked Priest is either Jonathan (160–143 B.C.E.) or Simon (142–134 B.C.E.), brothers of Judah the Maccabee, who were the first two rulers of the Hasmonaean priestly dynasty.

We have additional information from a text found in cave 4 (not technically a pesher) called Testimonia, an anthology of biblical verses. The identical passage occurs also in another apocryphal work, called Psalms of Joshua.

Here is the text as it appears in Psalms of Joshua, with the breaks in the manuscript filled in with the help of Testimonia-

When Joshua finished praising and giving thanks in his psalms, he said, “Cursed be the man who builds this city. He shall lay its foundations at the cost of his firstborn and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest” (cf. Joshua 6-26). And behold, a cursed man of Belial who arises to be a fowler’s trap to his people and a cause of destruction to all his neighbors. And … arose [and ruled (?)], so that both of them were instruments of violence. And they rebuilt [th]is [city] and they set up a wall and towers for it to make it a stronghold of evil in Israel and a horror in Ephraim and in Judah … great [e]vil among the sons of Jacob and they s[pilled blood and com]mitted abomination in the land, and great blasphemy. (They spilled blood) like water on the rampart of the daughter of Zion and within the boundaries of Jerusalem. (PSALMS OF JOSHUA B 22 II 7–4 = TESTIMONIA 21–30)

Scholars have tried to identify the historical events outlined in this adaptation of Joshua 6-26. According to this text, someone tried to rebuild Jericho despite Joshua’s curse. In doing so, he lost both of his sons, who themselves had become evildoers, in the view of the author. He himself led his people astray and died, only to be replaced by another ruler, who followed the same course. They were both guilty of shedding the blood of Jews in Jerusalem.

Two theories have been put forward. One holds that this text describes Simon the Hasmonaean (brother of Judah the Maccabee). Simon and his two sons (one of whom was probably his eldest and one his youngest) were on a tour of the kingdom and attended a banquet at the newly built fortress of Jericho in 134 BC.E.

There they were murdered by the local commander, who attempted a coup. Simon’s remaining son, John Hyrcanus, was warned and was thus able to escape danger. He then reasserted control and ruled from 134 to 104 B.C.E.

A second theory places this event after the death of the two Hasmonaean scions Antigonus and Aristobulus I in 103 B.C.E. At that time, work on the palaces and fortifications of Jericho was in full swing, as can be shown by recent excavations. The author of the text believed that Joshua’s curse was visited on John Hyrcanus when he lost his two sons while rebuilding Jericho. His son Antigonus murdered his own brother Aristobulus I and then died himself shortly afterward. John Hyrcanus would be the accursed man of the text, who led his people astray and paid for his transgressions with the lives of his sons.

In the absence of any firm historical evidence, it is not possible to decide to which Hasmonaean ruler—Simon or his son John Hyrcanus—this dually preserved text applies. The text shows us that even after the lifetime of the Wicked Priest, the Qumran sectarians continued to be anti-Hasmonaean, considering the descendants of the Maccabees as transgressors who led their people astray. This was an underlying view of the Qumran sect and is reflected in quite a number of sectarian texts.

We next encounter historical information in the pesharim in Pesher Nahum, which describes a somewhat later period. This material is virtually unique in that it describes actual people known from the pages of history. In this period the ruler is the Lion of Wrath, clearly an allusion to another of the Hasmonaean priests who by this time were styled as kings. There we hear of the “interpreters of false laws” (usually translated literally as “seekers after smooth things”) and their alliance with-

[Deme]trius, king of Greece, who sought to enter Jerusalem with the counsel of the interpreters of false laws, [but God had not given Jerusalem over] into the hand of the kings of Greece from Antiochus until the rise of the rulers of the Kittim … but (later) the city was given into the hand of the rulers of the Kittim. (PESHER NAHUM 3–4 I 2–4)

This Demetrius, a ruler of the “Greek” empire, tried with the help of the interpreters of false laws to invade Jerusalem but did not succeed. In fact, from the time of Antiochus until the time of the Kittim (Romans), no one succeeded in conquering Jerusalem.
The result of the attack of Demetrius is also recorded-

[… Demetrius who made war] against the Lion of Wrath so that he smote his nobles and the men of his council. (PESHER NAHUM 3–4 I 5–6)

After the war was over and the Lion of Wrath was victorious, he took his revenge-

… against the interpreters of false laws in that he hanged men alive [which was never done] in Israel before … (PESHER NAHUM 3–4 I 7–8)

Most scholars understand this passage to mean that the Lion of Wrath punished his enemies by crucifying them, a punishment never before practiced by the Jewish people.

The events in this pesher text can be thoroughly decoded by drawing upon the evidence provided for the later Hasmonaean period in the works of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. We can identify all the dramatis personae in this text. The Kittim are the Romans, a designation common in the scrolls. Demetrius is Demetrius III Eukerus (95–88 B.C.E.). His designation “king of Greece” refers to the Seleucid empire, often referred to as Greece in Jewish literature. The Antiochus from whose time Jerusalem was never conquered by a foreign king was most probably Antiochus III the Great (223–187 B.C.E.). The Jews voluntarily opened the gates of Jerusalem to him in 198 B.C.E. because of their disenchantment with Ptolemaic rule. The interpreters of false laws are the Pharisees, about whom we will learn much more from this text in another chapter. The Lion of Wrath, ruler of Judaea, is the Hasmonaean king Alexander Janneus (104–76 B.C.E.), great-grandson of Judah the Maccabee.

The events described here are narrated in greater detail by Josephus (Antiquities 13, 372–383). The story begins with public protest over the sacrificial procedures followed by Alexander Janneus. Although Josephus gives no specific information, a Mishnaic parallel (Sukkah 4-9) indicates that he followed Sadducean practice, rejecting the water libation required by the Pharisees. A riot ensued as well as objections to his legitimacy as a priest, indeed to that of the entire Hasmonaean dynasty. Josephus says that as a result, he killed six thousand people. After a military setback, he was severely criticized by his subjects, which in turn led him to make war against them. Josephus gives the probably exaggerated figure of fifty thousand Jews killed during this conflict with their own king. When he tried to convince the people to make peace, they told him that they wanted him dead. Desperate to throw off the yoke of this cruel ruler, they sent for Demetrius III Eukerus to assist them. He invaded the country. On each side fought both Jews and Hellenized pagans, each appealing to the other to desert. In the ensuing battle, Alexander Janneus was forced to flee. Some Jews came to his aid, persuading Demetrius to withdraw, apparently convinced that the Jewish people was, in fact, divided in its attitude to Alexander Janneus. The battles continued until Alexander was able to retake Jerusalem and reassert his power. After reestablishing himself, Alexander feasted with his concubines while eight hundred Jews were crucified and their wives and children slaughtered as they watched. His opponents, numbering eight thousand, were forced to flee into exile.

This is exactly the story told in the Pesher Nahum. But from the pesher we learn that Janneus’s enemies were the Pharisees, which agrees with the account of the Mishnah, which claims that the trouble began over his following Sadducean legal practices. “His nobles” were the Sadducean leadership with whom Janneus (the Lion of Wrath) closely cooperated. This horrible Jewish civil war is the subject of the historical allusions in Pesher Nahum.

Some scholars see direct allusions in this text to the end of the Hasmonaean dynasty, specifically to the time of Salome Alexandra (76–67 B.C.E.) and her sons, the Hasmonaean brothers Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II (67–63 B.C.E.), but these figures cannot be definitely identified in this text. We do find clear reference, however, to the Roman conquest of Judaea in 63 B.C.E.

Before we leave this story in Pesher Nahum, it would be helpful to say a few words about a text that is not a pesher but is relevant to the historical account derived from the pesher texts. After its difficult semicursive writing was deciphered, this curious text was recently identified as a Prayer for King Jonathan. Although it is possible that this Jonathan is the brother of Judah the Maccabee, it seems much more likely that it is Alexander Janneus, whose name, “Janneus,” is a Greek form of the Hebrew Jonathan (“Yannai” would be shortened from “Yonathan”). If so, we find in the Qumran library a prayer offered for the welfare of this king.

The text includes some liturgical poetry, also found in the Psalms Scroll, as well as the following prayer-

Holy One, watch over (or- Arise O Holy One on behalf of) King Jonathan and all the congregation of Your people Israel who are in the four corners of heaven. May peace be on all (of them) and upon Your Kingdom. May Your name be blessed! (PRAYER FOR KING JONATHAN B1–9)

This beautiful prayer asks for the welfare of King Jonathan. How can we explain its presence in the Qumran corpus? According to Pesher Nahum, the sectarians were opposed to Jonathan. Two possible answers may be suggested. First, it is possible that the sectarians initially regarded this king favorably, only later changing their mind as he followed policies they did not accept. Or it is possible that this text simply testifies to the heterogeneous nature of the Qumran collection. It may have happened that a text presenting an opposing view simply ended up there—an exceptional occurrence, but not impossible.

It is worth noting that a few other historical personages are mentioned in the scrolls. These names occur in Mishmarot texts, which are calendrical documents that furnish no actual information about these people or their historical context. The name “Shelomzion,” the Hebrew name of Queen Salome Alexandra (76–67 B.C.E.), for all intents and purposes the last Hasmonaean ruler, appears in Mishmarot Ca 2 4 and Ce 1 5. “Hyrcanus the king,” who appears in Ca 2 6 with Shelomzion, may be either John Hyrcanus (134–104 B.C.E.) or Salome’s son Hyrcanus II, who served as high priest from 76 to 40 B.C.E. Although he tried to assert himself as Hasmonaean king in 67 B.C.E. after the death of his mother, he was defeated by his brother Aristobulus II, who ruled until the Roman conquest in 63 B.C.E. A text tells us that “Aemillius killed” in Mishmarot Cd 2 4, 8. This most likely refers to Aemillius Scaurus, the first Roman governor of Syria (65–62 B.C.E.). We may have here an allusion to a massacre that Scaurus perpetrated. The mention of Scaurus in the Mishmarot texts is most interesting, for he supported the claims of Aristobulus II against those of his brother and rival Hyrcanus II, suggesting that the “Hyrcanus” of our text is indeed Hyrcanus II. Yet the title “king” is more appropriate to John Hyrcanus, who actually reigned over the Hasmonaean state. However, we should note that these texts are basically calendrical or astronomic. It is thus possible that these names designate heavenly bodies rather than actual people.

Virtually all of these historical allusions are found in the context of pesher interpretation, a technique unique to the Qumran sect. Although later Christian tradition reflects certain parallels, and rabbinic literature and even medieval Jewish writings occasionally feature such contemporizing interpretation, it was certainly not common in later Judaism. In obliterating the original historical context of the words of the prophets, pesher marks a radical departure from normative Jewish biblical interpretation.

To the Qumran sect, pesher was a powerful tool in forging the sect’s emerging self-definition. As such it reveals much about the early history of the sect, enabling us to trace the interaction between certain shadowy but very important figures in the history of the Jewish people. It shows us that the sect was essentially anti-Hasmonaean, a notion confirmed also by other sectarian documents.

Far from being an isolated, monastic community, the Qumran sect was actively involved in the affairs of the times. Finally, pesher literature provides one more example of how the word of God can be molded in human hands to provide a sacred history for an emerging religious group.

How did interpretation shape Jewish law, both within the sect and beyond it? To answer that question, we first need to understand the theological principles underlying the various approaches to Jewish law in Second Temple times.

Pages 231-241

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