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Pesher (pl. pesharim) is a Hebrew word meaning "interpretation" in the sense of "solution". It became known from one group of texts, numbering some hundreds, among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The pesharim give a theory of scriptural interpretation, previously partly known, but now fully defined. The writers of pesharim believe that scripture is written in two levels, the surface for ordinary readers with limited knowledge, the concealed one for specialists with higher knowledge. This is most clearly spelled out in the Habakkuk Pesher (1QpHab), where the author of the text asserts that God has made known to the Teacher of Righteousness, a prominent figure within the history of the Essene community, "all the mysteries of his servants the prophets" (1QpHab VII:4-5). By contrast, the prophets themselves only had a partial interpretation revealed to them.

Types of Pesharim

There are generally considered to be two types of pesharim. Continuous pesharim take a book of the Hebrew Bible, often from the prophets, such as those of Habakkuk, Nahum, or from the Psalms, quote it phrase by phrase, and after each quotation insert an interpretation. The second type, the thematic pesharim use the same method, but here the author (or pesherist) brings together passages from different biblical texts to develop a theme. Examples of the latter include the Florilegium and what has been termed the Melchizedek Midrash. Smaller examples of pesher interpretations can also be found within other texts from Qumran, including the Damascus Document. The method has been likened to later forms of rabbinic biblical interpretation found in the midrash, termed midrash haggadah and midrash halakhah, although there are some significant differences. William Brownlee, the author of a textual study of the Habakkuk Pesher, even proposed a third category of midrash, namely midrash pesher. In general, however, scholars are divided as to whether the pesharim are a distinct genre.

The term pesher itself is used within these texts as a terminus technicus (although this is a gross simplification) to differentiate between the biblical text and its interpretation. Typical examples include: "its interpretation is/concerns" (pishro/pishro al); and "the interpretation of the word/passage is" (pesher ha-davar). It has been suggested that the Semitic root derives from a base meaning of 'loosen' and a similar term appears in the Hebrew Bible in connection with the interpretation of dreams. The Ancient Near Eastern roots are fully discussed by Maurya Horgan in her comprehensive study of the pesharim.

Historic Individuals

The pesharim are the main source for the history of the Teacher of Righteousness and his rival the Wicked Priest, but the texts also refer to a number of other individuals, such as the Liar (or 'Scoffer'), and groups, including the Kittim, Ephraim and Manasseh, who it is suggested refer to the Romans, Pharisees and Sadducees respectively. The authors of these texts claim that these references were fully integral to the original text, whose full meaning has been subsequently revealed by the Teacher. Such philosophical claims are similar to those found throughout the region at the beginnings of the Common Era, as evidenced by the many mystery cults of Mithras, Isis, Dionysus, and others active at the time; the tradition continued through the Gnostic movements both Christian and non-Christian, and is still prevalent today among certain fundamentalist Moslem and Christian groups with a heavy emphasis on Holy Scripture.

Apocalyptic Themes

Many allusions within the pesharim are apocalyptic, with clear references to the eschaton, or the End times, a theme familiar to readers of the New Testament. Other familiar themes from the New Testament found in the pesharim include: the "Righteous One", the Poor, the community as temple, the holy spirit, the Star Prophecy, and other messianic images. These allusive images are tied by the pesharim in an apocalyptic manner to selected prized biblical texts.

There is a considerable body of scholarly research discussing the methods of the pesharim, which can be classified under the general category of fulfillment hermeneutics.

Common Pesharim

  • Continuous Pesharim
    • 1QpHab: Habakkuk pesher
    • 4Q161-165: 4QpIsa a-e (Isaiah pesher)
    • 4Q166-167: 4QpHos a-b (Hosea pesher)
    • 4Q169: 4QpNah (Nahum pesher)
    • 4Q170: 4QpZeph (Zephaniah pesher)
    • 4Q171 & 173: 4QpPs a-b (Psalms pesher)
  • Thematic Pesharim
    • 4Q174: 4QFlor (the Florilegium)
    • 4Q177: 4QCatena a
    • 11Q13: 11QMelch (the Melchizedek Midrash)

Barbara Thiering's Interpretation

The term pesher technique refers to the interpretive technique presented by Barbara Thiering, which she discusses in her books and scholarly articles. According to her view, in the four Canonical Gospels, Acts and Revelation, historical facts have been encoded into the text in the form of parables and accounts of "miracles" and can be recovered by applying the pesher technique. This view is widely discredited by scholars, however, and Thiering's thesis has received little support. Although Thiering alleges use of the pesher technique in the New Testament, there is no comparable term in New Testament texts and apocrypha corresponding to that of pesher as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Further reading

  • Allegro, John M. (ed.), Qumran Cave 4, I (4Q 158 - 4Q 186), Discoveries in the Judean Desert (DJD), 5 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968)
  • Brownlee, William H., The Midrash Pesher of Habakkuk, Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, 24 (Scholars Press, 1979)
  • Charlesworth, James H., The Pesharim and Qumran History: Chaos or Consensus? (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006)
  • Doudna, Gregory L., 4Q Pesher Nahum: A Critical Edition, Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Supplement (Sheffield: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002)
  • Greidanus, Sidney, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999)
  • Horgan, Maurya P., Pesharim: Qumran Interpretations of Biblical Books, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series, 8 (Washington: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1979
  • Thiering, Barbara, Jesus the Man: Decoding the Real Story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Simon & Schulster: Atria Books, 2006)9)
  • Van Gemeren, Willem A., Interpreting the Prophetic Word (Zondervan; New Ed edition, 1996)
  • Wood, Marcus E. M., History and Prophecy in the Qumran Pesharim: an examination of the key figures and groups in the Dead Sea Scrolls by way of their prophetic designations (PhD, University of Durham, 2001)

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