Pesher Habakkuk

Pesher Habakkuk

The Pesher

Pesher interpretations are almost unique to Qumran. Some parallels have been found in New Testament exegesis of the Hebrew Bible; others were found in the aggadic Midrash. Pesher can be found within sectarian compositions such as the Zadokite Fragments, and in pesharim arranged as running commentaries on a biblical book.

The word pesher comes from the Hebrew root p-sh-r, meaning “to explain.” It was used in Hebrew and Aramaic to refer to the interpretation of dreams. In the ancient Near East, as well as in the Bible, it was understood that a dream would only come true if it was interpreted properly. The sectarians viewed the prophecies of the Bible in the same way—they felt that prophecy must be interpreted properly in order to be fulfilled.

The pesharim interpret the biblical prophecies as prophecies pertaining to the time of the sect and foretelling its history. Jewish tradition, too, has always made attempts to explain the Bible’s relevance to present day. The difference between these two approaches is that the pesharim deny the historical context of the prophecy, understanding it to refer only to contemporary times. This perspective parallels the early Christian understanding of the Hebrew Bible.

The pesharim can be divided into three literary forms- 1. Continuous pesharim- verse-by-verse interpretation, like a commentary. 2. Thematic pesharim- verses relating to a central theme are interpreted in a defined text. 3. Isolated pesharim- pesher-like interpretations imbedded in other texts.

The sectarians understood prophecy to be a two-stage process. First, the prophecies were revealed to the prophets who wrote them down but did not understand them. God then gave the Teacher of Righteousness the power to understand the true meaning of the revelation.

The Qumran belief in predestination on a national level is demonstrated by the concept of pesher, a belief which was opposed to the Pharisaic belief in free will. Another fact which can be learned from the pesharim is that the Teacher of Righteousness was afforded authority over divine revelation. This is similar to the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition which maintained that the keys to understanding the Bible were held by the Rabbis.

The Major Texts

Because Pesher Habakkuk was one of the first scrolls discovered in Cave 1 and was so well preserved, it had great influence over the study of the Dead Sea sect. The pesher was written in the last years before the Roman conquest of Palestine (c. 84–63 BCE). It describes the struggle between the Teacher of Righteousness and his opponents during the early days of the sect. The text predicts punishment for the priests of Jerusalem.

Pesher Nahum, from the late Hasmonean or early Herodian period, mentions two historical figures—Antiochus and Demetrius. The text speaks of different sects in Judaism, calling them Ephraim, Menasseh, Judah, or Israel. It is therefore a crucial text for understanding the history of the Jewish movements during the Hasmonean period.

The disagreements between the Teacher of Righteousness and his opponents, the Wicked Priest and the Man of Lies, are described in Pesher Psalms A. The text promises destruction of the wicked and peace for the righteous in the End of Days.

Pesher Isaiah exists in six fragments, which may or may not have been one text. The large numbers of Isaiah manuscripts found at Qumran indicate that the Book of Isaiah held special significance for the sectarians, so they may have written more than one pesher on the same book.

Pesher Isaiah A (on chapters 10 and 11) interprets the march of the Assyrians mentioned in Isaiah as referring to contemporary events, apparently the invasion of Judea by the Seleucids during the reign of Alexander Janneus (104–76 BCE). This scroll speaks of the messiah who will lead the people in the End of Days. It speaks of only one messiah, from the descendants of David. It does not share the idea, found in some Qumran and Second Temple texts, that there would be two messiahs—one from the priestly family of Aaron and one from Israel.

An example of a thematic pesher is a text known as Florilegium (meaning “anthology”). It is organized around selected biblical verses from a number of biblical books and describes three temples- an eschatological one to be built by God, the present “desecrated” Temple, and the “temple of man,” the sect itself, a replacement of the Temple. The text also predicts the coming of the Davidic messiah.

Melchizedek is another thematic pesher, which depicts the biblical character of Melchizedek “priest of Salem … priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14-18; cf. Psalms 110-4) as an important figure in the eschatological era.

Historical Relevance of the Pesharim

Most of the information we have about the history of the Qumran sect comes from the pesharim (along with other related texts such as the Zadokite Fragments). However, gleaning historical fact from the pesharim is difficult for a number of reasons- 1. Because the texts are written as interpretations of biblical verses, they speak in allusions which are difficult to understand. 2. The sectarians’ view of their history may be biased and not representative of historical fact. 3. The pesharim do not mention historical figures by name, making identification of the players and the events difficult.

Nonetheless, we will try to construct a history of the sect based on the information provided by the pesharim. The pesharim cover three periods in the history of the sect- the early days, the period surrounding the Roman conquest, and the End of Days.

The Teacher of Righteousness was designated to lead the sect and interpret the words of the prophets for them. He was opposed by the Man of Lies, who rebuked the Teacher in public. A group called the House of Absalom (possibly the Pharisees, or a group of sectarians) did not defend the Teacher.

The Teacher’s main opponent was the Wicked Priest, who was supported by the sectarians until he began to transgress in order to increase his wealth. He made war against other nations and was in conflict with the “men of violence,” probably the Pharisees. He violated the laws of ritual purity and the sanctity of the Temple as understood by the sect. The Wicked Priest attempted to kill the Teacher but did not succeed. He even went so far as to attack the Teacher on the Day of Atonement according to the sectarian calendar. His divine punishment came in the form of torture by the enemies he had made war against.

Various theories have suggested identifications of the Wicked Priest and the events described by the pesharim. Through a combination of paleography, archaeology, and other historical sources, it has been concluded that these events must have taken place in the years soon after the Maccabean Revolt. Most scholars agree that the Wicked Priest is either Jonathan (160–143 BCE) or Simon (142–134 BCE), brothers of Judah the Maccabee, and the first two Hasmonean rulers.

An additional text called Testimonia, while not technically a pesher, sheds further light on the historical events of the Hasmonean period. According to this manuscript, someone tried to rebuild Jericho, although Joshua had placed a curse on anyone who did so, and lost both of his sons as a result. He led the people astray, and after his death the next ruler followed the same course. Both of the rulers were guilty of shedding the blood of Jews in Jerusalem.

One theory is that this text refers to Simon the Hasmonean who was murdered with his sons at Jericho in 134 BCE and was succeeded by his son John Hyrcanus. Another theory is that the scroll refers to John Hyrcanus, who lost his two sons by rebuilding Jericho. His son Antigonus murdered his brother Aristobulus I and died himself shortly afterwards. Although it is impossible to determine which of these rulers the manuscript speaks of, it is clear that the sect remained anti-Hasmonean even after the death of the leaders of the Maccabean Revolt.

Pesher Nahum describes a later period—the end of Ptolemaic Rule and the beginning of Seleucid Rule. By comparing the names and events mentioned in the pesher with information provided by Josephus (Antiquities 13, 372–383), it is possible to reconstruct the events which the pesher describes.

“Demetrius, king of Greece” is Demetrius III Eukerus (95–88 BCE), ruler of the Seleucid Empire. (Jewish literature often refers to the Seleucids as the Greeks.) The Jews voluntarily opened the gates of Jerusalem to him in 198 BCE because of their disenchantment with Ptolemaic rule and the rule of Alexander Janneus, the Hasmonean king. When Alexander Janneus succeeded in reasserting his power he took revenge against his enemies.

The pesharim provide scholars with important information. They reveal much about the history of the sect and of the Jewish people. They show that the sect was anti-Hasmonean and involved in the affairs of the time. In addition, they are an example of how the word of God can be molded to provide a sacred history for an emerging religious group.

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