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PESHER . The Hebrew noun pesher (pl. pesharim ) is an Aramaic loanword that entered late biblical Hebrew (Qoheleth 8:1) and is current in the Hebrew of the Qumran scrolls in the sense of "meaning, explanation, interpretation." Since this term is mostly employed by a particular type of Qumran biblical interpretation, it came to be the nomenclature of Qumran works, which in their literary character and their structure engaged in such interpretation. In Qumran research the term pesher has therefore four distinct usages: (1) as the name of the genre that contemporizes biblical prophecies according to the worldview of the Qumran ascetic community; (2) as the name attached to individual Qumran works or literary units containing such interpretations; (3) as a formula introducing the exposition of a given biblical text according to the said method; (4) as the name of the particular exegetical method applied in this kind of interpre-tation.

1. The Pesher Genre

One of the first scrolls to be discovered was a pesher of Habakkuk exhibiting a particular type of commentary. It consisted of reading into biblical prophecies allusions to various historical circumstances and events contemporary with and related to the Qumran community, often placed in the perspective of the approaching eschaton and the final redemption. Among the extant pesharim are interpretations of the prophets and other biblical passages (e.g., the Blessings of Bileam [Num. 24:17] in CD VII, 19 and 1QM XI, 6; the Song of the Well [Num. 21:18] in CD VI, 211; and occasionally also legal texts; cf. discussion of pesher Melchizedek below). Also included in this group are the Psalms of David and the vision contained in the Book of Daniel, both viewed as prophetic (for Psalms see 11QPsa 27:11 and for Daniel see 4Q174 13 ii 3). This selection shows that various biblical texts were deemed prophetic and were subjected to pesher interpretation even when appearing in nonprophetic literary contexts. Nevertheless, running pesharim on large textual passages are extant only for the prophets and Psalms. All the pesharim from Qumran display the same fundamental structure and exegetical method, but they vary in technical formulae. The running pesharim on large passages are found mostly in copies dated to the second half of the first century bce. But a copy of pesher of Isaiah, 4QpIsc(4Q163) dates to the beginning of the first century bce. Also, single pesher units, embedded in different literary contexts, appear in the earliest works of the community, the so-called Rule of the Community (1QS VIII, 1316) and the Damascus Document (e.g., CD VI, 311; VII, 1421). Moreover, historical allusions in the pesharim cover a century, approximately from 150 to 50 bce. In addition, the pesher of Habakkuk attributes this technique to the founder of the community, the Teacher of Righteousness, a claim that may have a historical kernel (cf. below). Another piece of evidence suggesting the antiquity of the method is provided by the Apocryphon of Joshua, which produces a pesher on the curse of Joshua; (cf. below). So the pesher method was practiced by the community since its inception. Perhaps certain pesharim, especially the running ones, committed much earlier interpretative traditions to writing. Given the antiquity of the pesher method, the running pesharim could hardly be autographs as claimed because the extant specimens do not overlap.

Reading contemporary circumstances into old prophecies, the pesharim contain numerous allusions to real historical figures and events. This is evident from many details contained in the pesher comments that do not stem from the biblical texts or its exegetical problems and may only be explained as references to real circumstances. Accordingly, the pesharim are the main source for historical data of the Qumran community and its history.

2. Individual Pesharim

The pesharim appear in four distinct forms.

Continuous pesharim

Thus labeled are works citing large running prophetic texts with detailed expositions. The citations consist of one or two phrases each, followed by a comment, usually introduced by the formula pesher hadaver ("the interpretation of it") or pishro ("its interpretation"). The available specimens of this type are the following:


A pesher of Habakkuk chapters 12, found in Qumran cave 1, preserved almost intact. It offers consecutive pesher on the first two chapters of Habakkuk, containing allusions to historical figures and events from the middle of the second century bce to the first third of the first century bce. Among the persons referred to is the Teacher of Righteousness, known from CD (I, 1015) to be the founder of the community. The pesher attributes to him a special understanding of the mysteries embedded in the prophetic message, divulged by divine revelation: "And when he [i.e., Habakkuk] says so that the reader can read it easily (Habakkuk 2:2) its interpretation concerns the Teacher of Righteousness to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of his servants the prophets" (1QpHab VII, 35). The Teacher's identity remains a mystery. His major political opponent was the Wicked Priest, who is usually identified with the Hasmonean Jonathan (152142 bce) or Simon (142134 bce). The Teacher's ideological rival is referred to by the sobriquet "the Spouter of Lie" (1QpHab X, 9; cf. CD VIII, 13), probably identical with "the Man of Lie" (1QpHab II, 2; V, 11; cf. CD I, 15; XX, 15) or "the Man of Mockery" (cf. CD I, 14). This person was the leader of an opponent group (1QpHab X, 10), perhaps the one dubbed in other pesharim "the Seekers after Smooth Things" (4QpNah 34 i 2,7; ii 2, 4; cf. CD I, 18) or "the Men of Mockery" (4QpIsb ii 6, 10; cf. CD XX, 11). All are derogatory epithets for those who, according to the view of the sectaries, practiced false exposition of Scriptures. Most scholars identify them with the Pharisees. A different type of group is labeled by the pesher as "the Kittim." In the Hebrew Bible the Kittim designate western peoples, from Greece or Cyprus (Gen. 10:4; Isa. 23:1, 12; Ezek. 27:67), but in the pesharim they stand for the Romans. This is clear from the assertions that they sacrifice to their standards (1QpHab VI, 4), a well-known practice of the Roman army, and are governed by rulers appointed by their council (1QpHab IV, 1012), probably the Roman Senate.

4QpNahum (= 4Q169)

The fragments of this running pesher of Nahum provide a typical illustration of the pesher method. One comment sees in the lion, mentioned in Nahum 2:12, an allusion to the Greek king Demetrius (4QpNah 34 i 2), probably the Seleucid ruler Demetrius III Eukerus (9588 bce). This pesher makes a clear distinction between the "kings of Greece" (4QpNah 34 i 2), namely the Seleucids, and the "rulers of the Kittim" (4QpNah 34 i 3), namely the Roman rulers, perhaps their military commanders. Most scholars see in this last reference an allusion to Pompey's capture of Jerusalem (63 bce), which marked the end of the independent Hasmonean kingdom. The pesher also refers to a rift within Judaism, which it reads into the prophecy of Nahum: "the lion tears victims for his cubs and strangles prey for his lionesses (Nahum 2:13a) [ its interpretation] concerns the Lion of Wrath who would strike his great ones and his men of counsel [ and as for what he (i.e., Nahum) said And it fills up with prey] its lair and its den with mangled flesh [Nahum 2:13b] its interpretation concerns the Lion of Wrath [ who will take ven]geance of the Seekers of Smooth Things and he would hang men up alive" (4QpNah 34 i 47). The prophetic verse is understood to refer to the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus (10376 bce), here dubbed "the Lion of Wrath," who crucified eight hundred partisans of the Pharisees for joining the army of his enemy Demetrius Eukeros (see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews., xiii, 389391; Jewish War, i, 9295). Other continuous pesharim have survived, mostly very fragmentary. There are six pesharim of Isaiah: 3QpIs (= 3Q4), 4QpIsa (= 4Q161), 4QpIsb (= 4Q162), 4QpIsc (= 4Q163), 4QpIsd (= 4Q164), and 4QpIse (= 4Q165). 4QpIsc (= 4Q163) merits special attention since it is not only the oldest specimen of running pesher but also the only one written on papyrus. It also cites other prophets (Zechariah and probably Jeremiah), and apparently comments only on a selection of Isaiah passages. Significant for understanding the community's self-image is 4QpIsd, which explains the description of Jerusalem in Isaiah 54 as a symbol of the community and its leadership. Two texts contain a pesher of Hosea: 4QpHosa (= 4Q166), 4QHosb (= 4Q167). Of interest is the first. Expounding Hosea 2:1014, it criticizes the calendar practiced in Israel at the time (4QHosa ii 16), thus adding evidence to the well-known polemics on this issue in the Qumran writings. Other exemplars of continuous pesharim are poorly preserved: two interpret Micah, 1QpMic (= 1Q14) and 4QpMic (= 4Q168), and two expound Zephaniah, 1Q15 and 4QZeph (= 4Q170). A pesher of Malachi may also be extant (5Q10). The Psalms seem to be a favorite subject for the pesher authors. Three texts contain a pesher of Psalms: 1QpPs (= 1Q16), 4QpPsa (= 4Q171), and 4QPsb (= 4Q173). Substantial fragments of a pesher on Psalm 37 are preserved in 4QPsa (4Q171), expressing the sectaries' hopes for the eschatological age, when the wicked will perish and the righteous will take possession of their inheritance. But contemporary controversies also occupy the pesher. The opponent of the Teacher of Righteousness, the Man of Lie, is accused of "misleading many with deceptive words for they have chosen light things" (4QpPsa 110 i 2627), probably another reference to the Pharisees and criticism of their method of interpreting biblical law. Various verses of Psalms are commented by other Qumran texts (cf. 4QFlorilegium and 4QCatena below).

Thematic pesharim

Thematic pesharim are works containing pesher interpretations arranged around central themes rather than producing a running commentary on a single text. Significantly, some of them, such as the pesher of Melchizedek, date to the first half of the first century bce. So this form of pesher may have been created earlier than the running pesharim.

4QForilegium (4Q174)

Structured around citations from 2 Samuel 7:1014 (1 Chron. 17:913), Exodus 15:1718, Amos 911, Psalms 1:1, Isaiah 8:11, Ezekiel 37:23, and Psalms 2:1, the work expounds various eschatological themes. Reflecting the Qumranites' criticism of the contemporary temple, the pesher, explaining 2 Samuel 7, likens the reality of the Qumranites to a "Temple of Men" (mqdš 'dm ) in which "deeds of Torah," namely practicing the Torah commandments, replace animal sacrifices (4QFlor 12 i 67). It expresses the hope for a future temple, established by divine initiative (4QFlor 12 i 35).

4QCatena A (4Q177)

This text dated to the mid-first century bce concerns the circumstances of the Qumran covenanters in the final redemptive age (4Q177 14 + 14 + 24 + 31 5). It strings together pesher comments on a selection of Psalms (Ps. 6, 11, 12, 13, 16, 17), developing each exposition with the help of additional allusions to other biblical passages. It has been recently suggested that 4QFlorileguim and 4QCatena A are copies of the same work (by A. Steudel). However, the absence of overlapping between the two and their different literary structure excludes this suggestion.

11QMelchizedek (11Q13)

This single manuscript, dated to 7550 bce, takes its starting point from the Torah laws mandating the liberation of slaves and the return of the possessions in the jubilee year (Lev. 25: 10, 13; cf. Deut. 15:2). Linking them with additional Psalms (Ps. 82:1, 7:89, 82:2) and prophetic texts (Isa. 52:7, Dan. 9:25), the pesher explains it as a redemption of the righteous from the yoke of evil forces in the eschatological jubilee, under the guidance of Melchizedek, a supernatural figure of the eschatological judge. This pesher provides interesting examples of pesher exegesis applied to legal texts from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In the biblical books these passages are formulated as part of the speech of Moses, a prophet already by biblical statement (Deut. 34:10), and hence apt for pesher exegesis. Of significance is the special eschatological role of Melchizedek in this pesher, not found in the biblical references (Gen. 14:18; Ps. 110:4) but it probably lies in the background to the Letter to the Hebrews 7, where Melchizedek prefigures Jesus as the divine and eternal high priest.

Pesher units in non-pesher works

Smaller pesharim, of one or more sentences, are interwoven into compositions of different literary genres. Such are the pesharim occurring in the Rule of the Community (1QS VIII 1216 expounding Isa. 40:3) and the Damascus Document (e.g., the pesher of Hos. 4:16 in CD I, 1314, the pesher of Ezek. 44:15 in CD III, 21IV, 16, and the pesher of Amos 5:2627 in CD VII, 1418). Another example of an isolated pesher unit is provided by the Commentary on Genesis A (4Q252). This work contains commentary by various exegetical methods on a selection of passages from Genesis, but only a single comment of the pesher type. It interprets the pericope about Judah in the Blessing of Jacob (Gen. 49:10) as applying to the Qumranites at the End of Days (4Q252 V 17). The Apocryphon of Joshua offers another significant instance. Since this work lacks any explicit sectarian terminology, it is noteworthy that it contains a pesher on Joshua's curse of the builder of Jericho (Josh. 6:26), understood as referring to contemporary historical figures (4Q379 22 ii 715). This piece of pesher exegesis must be quite old, since it is cited by 4QTestimonia (4Q175), dated to around 100 bce.

Sobriquets as allusions to Pesher

A special category is presented by sobriquets applied to figures and groups who played central roles in the life of the Qumran community. They appear in several sectarian compositions without explanation, thus indicating that they were already known and accepted nicknames. Yet they were not invented at random, for most are condensed expressions taken from particular biblical locutions; each epithet functions as a cryptogram for a full pesher to a given biblical paragraph. For instance, the epithet "the Teacher of Righteousness" (mentioned in CD, 1QpHab, 4QpPsa), alludes to Hosea 10:12 and Joel 2:23. The sobriquet "Spouter of Lie" (mentioned in CD, 1QpHab, 1QpMic, and 4QpPsa) refers to Micah 2:11. The appellation "Seekers of Smooth Things" (appearing in CD, 4QpIsc, 4QpNah) is based on Isaiah 30:10 (cf. Dan. 11:32). "The Man of Mockery" or "the Men of Mockery" (occurring in CD and 4QpIsb) alludes to Isaiah 28:14. Being intimately connected with the community's image of its history, these sobriquets occur only in the pesharim and in the Damascus Document. In this respect the Damascus Document has a special place within the library of Qumran, for its narrative text interweaves not only explicit pesher units but also numerous nonexplicit pesharim, namely citations without introductory formulae.

3. The Term Pesher as Introductory Formula

The use of the term pesher to introduce the comment after a citation is typical of the continuous pesharim and is also sporadically employed in the thematic pesharim. However, it appears only once in the Damascus Document (CD IV, 14). This distribution shows that this term was not constituent for the genre. In fact, in several Qumran texts of sectarian provenance (1Q30 1 6; 4Q180 1 1,7; 4Q252 IV 5; note also 4Q464 3 ii 7 and 4Q159 5 1, 5), the term pesher occurs in a general sense of "meaning, interpretation," without the specific adaptation to contemporary events known from the major pesharim. The absence of the term pesher from the earliest exemplar of running pesher, 4QpIsc (4Q163), and from examples of pesharim in the Rule of the Community and the Damascus Document, suggests that the genre went through various phases of development, still detected in the sectarian works.

4. The Pesher Exegetical Method

The pesher exegetical procedure can be summarized as follows: (1) The first step consists of equating one or more nouns of the biblical citation with nonbiblical nouns connected with the community's life and historical or contemporary circumstances. This initial equation is usually quite arbitrary. (2) The second step is to apply all or some of the remaining words of this phrase to the nonbiblical noun. (3) At times one detail is extracted from the citation for additional interpretation. In thematic pesharim, adducing other biblical quotations that share one element or more with the main citation often accomplishes such amplification. Since the connection between the citation and the interpretation is not obvious, in fact, quite obscure, the writers of the pesharim followed a number of exegetical procedures to bridge the gap. They modeled the interpretation on the syntactical and lexical patterns of the citation, selected lexical synonyms of words in the citation, made puns on words in the citation, atomized certain words (that is, disconnected the syntactical links), and vocalized or grouped the words of the citation in a different way. Many of these procedures were known and applied in antiquity to interpretations of dreams and dreamlike visions. The pesher exegesis, which appeared so unique to Qumran manuscripts when the first scrolls were published, cannot be considered the sole creation of the Qumranites. Actualizing interpretations, reading into biblical prophecies intimations of later historical events, appear in the Book of Daniel (Dan. 9:219, interpreting Jer. 25:11, 29:10, and Dan. 11: 30 interpreting Num. 24:24) and in the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 3:3, Luke 3:34, and John 1:23, commenting on Isa. 40:3; Matt. 21:4 and John 12:1415, citing Zech. 9:9). The antiquity of this method, attested as early as Daniel (around 164 bce), suggests that it predates the emergence of the Qumran community, and that the Qumranites, like the first Christians later, received it from older tradents and appropriated it to their own purposes.

See Also

Biblical Exegesis; Dead Sea Scrolls; Midrash and Aggadah.


Text Editions

The first full edition of the cave 4 pesharim can be found in John M. Allegro, Qumran Cave 4, I (DJD V) (Oxford, 1968). It is to be used with the corrections and additions by J. Strugnell, "Notes en marge du volume V des Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan," Revue de Qumran 7 (19691971): 183186. A fresh edition of the Allegro volume is now being prepared by G. J. Brooke and M. Bernstein. Fresh editions with introductions and commentaries of all the continuous pesharim, incorporating Strugnell's contributions and summarizing previous research, can be found in M. Horgan's Pesharim: Qumran Interpretations of Biblical Books (Washington, D.C., 1979). This is the most thorough collection of its kind and with due updating is still indispensable for the study of pesharim. For fresh editions and translations of all the continuous pesharim (mostly by M. Horgan; see previous reference) and thematic pesharim, together with texts the editors considered related to them (not justifiably in every case), see J. H. Charlesworth, ed., Pesharim, Other Commentaries, and Related Documents (The Dead Sea Scrolls 6B) (Tübingen and Louisville, 2002). The collection takes into account previous editions but provides no proper commentaries. It includes updated bibliographies and references to recent discussions, which place the pesharim in context of the contemporary Qumran research.

Surveys and Studies

An updated edition of the classical study first published in 1958 (one of the first to be published and one that can still be read with profit) is F. M. Cross's The Ancient Library of Qumran, 3d ed. (Minneapolis, 1995), pp. 88120. For a thorough investigation of 4QForilegium and its exegetical methods in the context of ancient Jewish exegesis, see G. J. Brooke, Exegesis at Qumran (JSOT Supp 29) (Sheffield, 1985). B. Nitzan has a perceptive analysis of the pesher technique and structure contained in the introductory chapters of the Hebrew edition of the pesher of Habakkuk in "Creating Pesharim," in Pesher Habakkuk (Jerusalem, 1986; in Hebrew), pp. 2979. For a survey of the research on the pesharim at the time of publication, see D. Dimant, "Pesharim, Qumran," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by D. N. Freedman, vol. 5 (New York, 1992), pp. 244251. A. Steudel, Der Midrasch zur Eschatologie aus der Qumran-gemeinde (4QMidrEschata, b) (STDJ 13) (Leiden, 1994), offers a fresh, improved edition of 4QFlorilegium [4Q174] and 4QCatena [4Q177] with detailed comments and discussion. However, the underlying assumption that both are copies of the same work is not supported by evidence. S. L. Berrin, "Pesharim," in The Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by L. H. Schiffman and J. C. Vander Kam, vol. 6 (Oxford, 2000), pp. 644647, has a short survey of the subject. T. H. Lim, Pesharim (London and New York, 2002), offers a review of the pesharim and their study, aimed at students and the general public. Scholarly issues are often reviewed with a polemical edge.

Devorah Dimant (2005)