The Prophets in the Hands of Men, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.


Belshazzar's Dream, Rembrandt

Belshazzar’s Dream, Rembrandt

A completely different system of interpretation is that known as pesher, a method particular to the Qumran sect itself although it has some parallels in New Testament exegesis of the Hebrew Bible and in aggadic Midrash. Pesher interpretations of isolated statements are found embedded in the Zadokite Fragments and other sectarian compositions. Strings of pesher interpretations, often called pesharim, are usually arranged in the order of a biblical book. Sustained, running commentaries on biblical texts, mostly from the latter prophets and psalms, have survived. These read like commentaries but are constructed out of the unique type of pesher interpretation.

The term pesher is derived from the Hebrew root p-sh-r, meaning, “to explain” or “expound.” This term, used in both its Hebrew cognate and its Aramaic equivalent, p-t-r, refers to the interpretation of dreams. In the ancient Near East, and in particular in the biblical narratives of Joseph (Genesis 37-5–11, 40-1–41-57) and Daniel (Daniel 7), the practical effect of dreams was intimately bound up with their interpretation. For a dream to come true it must first be properly interpreted. Pesher interpretations regard the biblical prophecies in the same way. The efficacy of prophecy depends on its correct interpretation. Pesher provides such interpretations.

One more feature of this type of exegesis is that it contemporizes, meaning it interprets the prophecies of old as if they refer directly to the time and place of the interpreter. Although Jewish tradition, in virtually all its phases and approaches, has understood the message of the prophets to apply in each and every generation, it has nonetheless acknowledged the true historical context of prophecies in the biblical period.

In pesher interpretation, on the other hand, the original historical context is nonexistent. Habakkuk or the Psalms are understood as applying in their original sense to the time of the sect and foretelling its history. Indeed, in that sense, pesher shares a common element with much of the quotation and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible found in the New Testament. Early Christians regarded the works of the ancient prophets as referring to the events of their own day.

This feature of pesher exegesis leads to its importance as a historical source. Since it often seeks to tie the words of the Scriptures to “modern-day” (i.e., contemporary) events, it alludes directly to real people who lived in the Hasmonaean period. Together with other documents found in the Qumran materials, lists of names, and a few business documents, these materials are the only direct historical allusions that the scrolls provide.

We can state with certainty that the pesher texts are of sectarian provenance because they express the specific beliefs and theology of the Qumran sect, use its characteristic terminology, and are written in the peculiar Hebrew of the sect. Because the pesher material illumines so many important aspects of the thought of the Qumran sect, it will be helpful to attack it from a number of points of view, first in terms of the method of exegesis itself, and then in terms of the various texts and their historical significance.


In general, pesharim are distinguished by a specific form and style. First, a biblical passage is quoted, and then follows an interpretation, often preceded by the words pesher ha-davar, “the interpretation of the matter is,” or pishro, “its interpretation is.”

Pesharim may be roughly divided in terms of their literary form into three categories- (1) For some of the prophets, as well as for Psalm 37, we have “continuous pesharim,” that is, essentially sustained, verse by verse, interpretations of the biblical material, in the style we would call a commentary. (2) A second type is usually termed “thematic pesharim,” in which verses relating to a central theme, such as the End of Days, are interpreted within the framework of a defined text. (3) Finally, there are “isolated pesharim”—pesher-type interpretations embedded within larger texts on other subjects. Some have theorized that whenever a pesher-type interpretation appears in another kind of text, these passages may be drawn from pesher texts that no longer survive. Still unresolved is the question of whether the pesher form of interpretation was limited to the Prophets and Psalms, for these are the only texts that have survived.

Certain of the exegetical techniques—that is, the hermeneutical rules setting out the system of interpretation—used in the pesharim are also used in rabbinic Midrash. Nevertheless, the basic characteristic of the pesher, reading contemporary historical events and eschatological interpretations of present-day events into the words of the biblical prophecies, is not found in the rabbinic Midrashim except to a very limited extent. Therefore, despite parallels that may be cited regarding interpretive technique, the basic distinction between Qumran pesher and rabbinic Midrash remains firmly in place. Although from the perspective of literary genre we cannot class New Testament interpretations of the Hebrew Bible as pesher, we can legitimately point to common use of contemporizing exegesis, a method found much more frequently in early Christian materials than in rabbinic Midrash.


The theological link binding prophecy and pesher has been explained in full by the sectarian authors themselves. In interpreting Habakkuk 1-5, “Look among the nations … ,” Pesher Habakkuk seems to have based itself on a biblical text that read, “Look at the traitors ….” Among the three definitions given for the “traitors” there, we find the following-

for they did not [hearken to the words of] the Teacher of Righteousness from the mouth of God. (PESHER HABAKKUK 2-2–3)

Here we find that the teacher has received his teaching from the mouth of God. It is against this teaching that the traitors have rebelled. The text clearly affirms the divine inspiration of the teacher’s interpretations. Later on in the same passage we learn the significance of this concept more clearly-

They did not believe when they heard all that which was hap[pening to] the last generation from the mouth of the priest in whose [heart] God had put the [know]ledge to interpret (p-sh-r) all the words of His servants the prophets, [in who]se hands God recounted all that which was happening to His people and [to the nations]. (PESHER HABAKKUK 2-6–10)

The reference to the “priest” here is to the Teacher of Righteousness, who was indeed a member of the priestly clan. He was given the power to properly interpret the words of the prophets, who prophesied the future of the people of Israel and the nations. In other words, the sect regarded prophecy as a two-stage process. The first stage took place when God delivered His prophecies to the prophets. Yet they did not really understand their own prophecies. Only the contemporary interpreter can explain their true meaning through divinely inspired interpretations, the pesharim. Further, it is these correct interpretations that ensure the validity of the prophecies. This approach compares to what we find in the study of the sectarian halakhic system. There, too, the authority of interpretations results from their being seen as divinely inspired.

The very same point is made in another passage. In interpreting Habakkuk 2-2, in which the prophet is commanded, “Write the prophecy down, inscribe it clearly on tablets, so that it can be read easily,” the text states-

God commanded Habakkuk to write down all that was happening to the final generation. But He did not make known to him the end of the period. And as to that which He said, “So that it can be read easily” (Habakkuk 2-2), its interpretation (pesher) concerns the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the secrets of the words of His servants, the prophets. (PESHER HABAKKUK 7-1–5)

Again we find that the teacher has been entrusted with the true interpretation, the secrets, that underlie the words of the prophets. We are told explicitly that God did not reveal to the prophet “the end of the period.” It was made known only to the sectarian teacher. Revelation, to the authors of the pesharim, is clearly a two-stage process in which the sectarian leader completes the process started by the biblical prophet.

In this notion we can discern also that one of the basic beliefs of the Qumran sect is that all of history has been foreordained by God. In contrast, the Pharisaic rabbinic tradition eschewed that notion, believing instead in human free will. Furthermore, this view elevates the authority of the sectarian teacher so that the teacher effectively controls divine revelation. The meaning of that revelation becomes clear only because the teacher participates in the interpretive process. Although such a notion may seem unique, we should note that the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition effectively gave the Rabbis a similar kind of gatekeeper authority over biblical law by grounding the authority of biblical law in its correct interpretation as handed down by the Rabbis. For this reason, in rabbinic halakhah, the Bible is binding only according to the interpretations of the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud.

Pages 223-226

What do you want to know?

Ask our AI widget and get answers from this website