Pesher interpretation from Qumran

Does anybody know anything about the pesher method of interpretation used by the Essenes at Qumran? And I don’t mean the Barbara Thiering garbage lol.

What I know of it is the following:

  • Pesher follows a “petirah” approach. Petirah involves reading a cryptic prophetic or poetic biblical verse, or part of a verse, and saying “this bizarre verse sort-of reminds me of that” event. The Rabbis used this approach to refer to people from the past, within the Bible, whereas the Essenes used it to refer to their own community or to the future events surrounding the Eschaton or the Messiah. I will give an example by making up my own “bible verse” just to show the crypticness and the method involved: “Water and thighs and fulfilments abound.” The Rabbis would argue that this refers to Abraham’s servant who swore by putting his hand on Abraham’s thigh to find Isaac a wife, and who, in order to find her, asked God for a sign that it was her, which involved water. The Essenes would do the same thing but in regards to their community or to the future (the future being possible according to apocalyptic typological Second Temple Judaism expectations).

  • Pesher also involves the updating of past realities with current realities (analogically, OR chronologically/past-to-current geography, politics). An example would be saying that “Babylon” is first century Rome, or is, rather, “ISIS.”

  • Pesher also employs mantological techniques: dividing one word into two words (“example” becomes “exam” and “pill”), related root-words (“Adam” becomes “Edom”), acronyms, anagrams, gematria, similar sounding words as substitutes, words with one letter substitution according to phonetic oral area (rabbinic technique), synonyms, connotations.

I’d love to be able to use Pesher interpretation, but I can’t find anything more on the methodology than the above, nore can I understand how all of this melds together.

Any further suggestions?

Look to any Christian website devoted to “prophesy” and/or “the end times”; it’s the same thing. Pesher (which just means “interpretation” so “pesher interpretation” is redundant) takes bits and pieces of the biblical text (down to words, parts of words, etc.) and applies those bits of texts to contemporaneous world events using various esoteric methods and schemes.

Because the approach strips the biblical text of any historical context, no Bible scholar would take this mode of interpretation seriously, but it’s still very popular among certain types of Christian fundamentalists. Because the interpretations constantly shift as world events disprove previous interpretations (e.g., Gorbechev clearly being the anti-Christ because of his birthmark = the mark of the beast) “prophecy” conferences have become a big industry—because the interpretations always need updating for new events.

The Qumran dwellers/writers did the same thing. They took bits of centuries-old books like Habakkuk and applied them to, say, hated religious personalities in their own day.

Assuming that the biblical text is cryptic and thus in need of esoteric modes of interpretation became a defining feature of both midrashic and allegorical modes of interpretation common to both Christianity and Judaism beginning in the common era and lasting until about the 14th cen. This assumption (that the Bible is cryptic) and its related methods probably reaches its zenith in Jewish Kabbalah in the 12th-13th centuries.

At least in the West, most Christians and Jews eventually rejected this method of reading the Bible after the Renaissance—because they had come to the conclusion that the interpretations were simply an engagement of the interpreter’s imagination and of no divine or enduring significance.

Thanks for the reply! I wouldn’t say that the Essenes totally stripped the context. They just re-contextualized it to their present day community, and that’s still context. I think that still works, and would have divine significance to the life of the Church since the Church is the Body of Christ. I do agree with you on the fundamentalist use of this though, which is re-contextualized not the Body of Christ but to world politics, usually having nothing to do in relation to the Church, but feared to. I just wish I knew how to put all of the elements that I listed together the way the Essenes would (while I can put all the elements together, I’m still not sure if I’m even close). I agree with you, however, that the area that would most fall into the trap of mere imagination would be the mantological techniques…they’re fascinating but unwieldy and may lend themselves to arbitrary usage.

Pesher is certainly contextual, but the text is stripped of its original historical context (see above). I guess it depend on what you mean by “works” and for whom. It’s certainly not the way we generally read texts today, but people can do whatever they want.

I think a fundamentalist would disagree that their interpretation has nothing to do with the church.

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