Earliest Biblical Commentary: The Pesharim of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Of the many genres of texts that were discovered in the caves near Qumran, the pesharim, or running biblical commentaries, are among the most illuminating for understanding the beliefs and the world of the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In their unique position in the Qumran canon, these commentaries provide scholars with elements key to better understanding the community: First, the pesharim are among the few documents at Qumran which appear to speak directly to the community’s exegetical life and therefore may describe the group’s thoughts, rather than just expressing the group’s corpus. Second, the pesharim are key elements in determining what books the Qumran community found to be “scriptural”, as the inspired commentary could only apply to a divine work. And finally, the pesharim provide scholars with some of the few tantalizing clues into the true history of the community as well as cracking their code 

(This short essay is part of a collection that I wrote while working on a research project about the Dead Sea Scrolls a few years ago. It presupposes some understanding of the Scrolls and their narrative context, but should still be understandable for the lay reader.) 

Painting of Nahum (Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Painting of Nahum (Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Before describing what makes the pesharim unique in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is necessary to answer the question “What is a pesher?” A pesher consists of a running commentary on a specific biblical text, generally the prophetic writings or psalms, with an interpretation of each passage as it relates to the specific theology of the Qumran community. Within the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls, approximately seventeen pesharim have been found. Our word for this genre, “pesher”, comes from the Hebrew term which is used to introduce interpretations in the Commentary on Habakkuk. This style of commentary is well-known in later Jewish midrash, but the samples of the Dead Sea Scrolls represent the earliest known use of this technique in Jewish literature. One example of a pesher is the scroll called the Commentary on Nahum, examining the Book of Nahum (part of the Twelve Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Bible, on its own in Christian ones). Nahum describes itself as a vision by the prophet Nahum, son of Elkosh, concerning an anticipated (and later realized) destruction of Nineveh.  Nahum 3:7 reads “They will say ‘Nineveh is in ruins. Who will mourn for her? Where can I find people to comfort you?” In the original work, this is a powerful image of the humiliated Nineveh, personified as an naked and filth-covered prostitute, where even the onlookers (in a mixed metaphor) shrink away and cannot find anyone willing to mourn her. The writers of the Commentary expounded on this passage not by explaining the face of it, but rather the “hidden meaning” that only the commentator could see, similar to interpreting a dream. In the Commentary on Habakkuk, this is specifically described by the commentator as God encoding messages that only a future generation, and not the original prophet, can understand and it is reasonable to assume the same logic applies in the other pesharim. In this case, Nineveh becomes a stand-in for the “Flattery-Seekers”, a group in opposition to the Dead Sea Scrolls community (perhaps the Pharisees), and predicts their eventual defeat. Although many other scrolls at Qumran are commentaries on specific works, only the pesharim demonstrate this trait of consistent running commentary against the community’s theological viewpoint.

A fragment of the Damascus Document, found in Cave 4 at Qumran.
A fragment of the Damascus Document, found in Cave 4 at Qumran.

The key difference between the pesharim and the other commentary and apocrypha/pseudepigrapha scrolls found at Qumran are the implication that these commentaries were probably written by, or from the vantage point of, the community at Qumran or their contemporaries. The Rule of the Community,  one of the documents found at Qumran which appears to provide a framework for life at the camp, demanded an “active exegetical life” which included “interpreting scripture”. These pesharim are excellent examples of the type of interpretation that the community could have done, but that alone does not demonstrate a connection. A more conclusive link comes within the texts of the pesharim themselves: both the commentaries and the Damascus Document (another foundational document of the community) share common pseudonyms such as the “Teacher of Righteousness” to describe their casts of characters.  While this does not demonstrate that the Qumran community themselves wrote the commentaries (such a conclusion is likely impossible), it does demonstrate that the commentaries originated within the specific communal theology of Damascus and therefore are closer to being identifiable as a product of the community rather than non-pesher works (such as the Book of Jubilees) which appear to be foundational to the community. Such conclusions are impossible to make with certainty, but it is clear that there is a connection between the commentaries and the community which is not obviously present in other genres of scriptural criticism found at Qumran.

Coin from the Seleucid Empire, around the time of King Demetrius's death.
Coin from the Seleucid Empire, around the time of King Demetrius’s death.

A final unique value of the pesher documents are their historic settings. Scholars generally find that works of prophecy can tell is a lot about events in the writer’s time. These references allow scholars to date some of the commentaries, by connecting them to historic events which we are aware of from other sources. For example, when the Commentary on Nahum summarizes a passage from Nahum 2:11 which asks a rhetorical question about what happens to lion cubs when the adult lion defending the den is gone, it connects that the lion is “Demetrius, king of Greece”  From there, scholars are able to deduce that it refers to an event in 88 BCE. With that piece in place, other aspects of the puzzle may be put together as more of the references may be understood. As the commentators were not intending to write a general history of the region, the events which are commented on must certainly be events important to the commentators. While not all of the historic references are understood today, future historians may be able to assemble more of the puzzle.

The pesharim are important documents to the understanding of Qumran theology and life. They provide a tantalizing glimpse into the thought processes of the commentators who may have been affiliated with the group at Qumran. They also give modern scholars an opportunity to begin to decode the history of the region from the group’s perspective and provide another means of dating the creation of the scrolls. While there are many kinds of writing at Qumran, the pesharim provide one unique window into community life.

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