The date of composition of the pesharim

© 2003 Dr. Barbara Thiering (Apr 6, 2003) (revised April, 2005)

The major controversy that the public has been made aware of concerns the date of composition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They have been treated as if they were a single body of literature, all of the same date. But their content indicates that they were composed over a long period of time. There are two distinct groups: the pesharim with a related work that name the Teacher of Righteousness and his rival the Wicked Priest; the other knowing nothing of these persons, and obviously written long before them. The matter of the greatest interest to the history of Christianity is the identity of these personalities. Dr Thiering argues that carbondating, paleography and content show that they lived in the period of Jesus. She believes that the Teacher of Righteousness was John the Baptist, and his rival, called by many opprobrious names including Wicked Priest and Man of a Lie, was Jesus. The pesharim were written by the enemies of Jesus, the same enemies who appear in the gospels.

In the first generation of Scrolls studies, the belief became established that they were all written a century or more before the time of Jesus, and merely supplied a general background to Christianity. This is called the consensus case. We will begin with discussion of the objections of the consensus case to the dating of the pesharim in the time of Jesus. The main one holds that while their present form comes from the Christian period, they are copies of earlier, pre-Christian writings. Here is an example of this objection:

"The Pesharim are not Autographs. Since the 1950's many scholars have argued that all of the pesharim are autograph copies. The chief reason for this is that we have only one copy of each of them.

"However this should not be viewed as conclusive. One need only reason that not all of the scrolls of the Qumran sect were placed in the caves. And there are other reasons for which this might explained as an accident of historical discovery.

"That some of the pesharim were copied is bolstered by two facts. The first is that there are signs that the scribes emended their texts. For example, 4QpIsaE contains an omission which was emended by the scribe by adding a supralinear.

"For another example, 4QpIsaB contains a series of words which make nonsense in Hebrew so a supralinear was again added. Then the same scribe or yet another added dots above and below these words indicating that they were written in error.

"Though dittography is possible in an autograph, more likely it suggests that a manuscript was copied. Centuries later the Masoretes would use similar techniques.

"Second, paleographers of the pesharim antedate some works before the end of the 1st century BC. Some are in late Hasmonean script and not all are in Herodian script." (End of quote)

Dr. Thiering replies in detail:

From the first discovery of the Scrolls, it was seen as significant that only one copy of each of the pesharim was found in the caves, in contrast with the multiple copies of other sectarian works. The pesharim are a very distinctive genre, in which verses of OT prophets are quoted, and after each quote a pesher is added, a word translated 'interpretation' , but more accurately 'solution', since it is the word used for the interpretation of dreams. The theory was that God had concealed a hidden meaning in the text, revealed only to one like a Joseph or a Daniel who interpreted dreams. The meaning concerned sectarian events in the Teacher's day, read arbitrarily into the OT text. Such an approach to scripture is subject to frequent changes, when another event occurs that 'fits' the text better than the earlier one. That would be the obvious reason why there was only one copy, the first edition or 'autograph', which was discarded when it became obsolete.

The sectarian events described are our main source for the history of the Teacher of Righteousness and his rival the Wicked Priest/Man of a Lie. The most complete of the pesharim, that on the prophet Habakkuk (1QpHab) , says a great deal about these two figures. At the same time it gives equal space to a terrible threat, so vividly described that it must have been occurring as it was being written. The Kittim - now known to be the Romans - were marching across the land, destroying everything as they went. That means that the time of writing must have been either 63 BC, when Pompey arrived and took over Judea, or AD 6, when Judea became an occupied country under the Romans, who were so hated and feared that the uprising of Judas the Galilean took place. Although Pompey in 63 BC entered the Holy of Holies, he subsequently withdrew and left the country's religious rule to their own high priests. He is praised by Josephus for his 'virtuous character' (Josephus, Ant. 14, 72-73 ). The latter date, AD 6, fits the facts far better. AD 6 can be understood as the Period of Wrath of CD 1: 5-11, a passage that says the Teacher of Righteousness came 20 years after that period. (See "The Period of Wrath" in this section)

The Teacher's date would consequently be AD 26.

In the pesher on Psalms, 4Q171 (See "pesher on Psalms" in this section), the Teacher is still alive. He is in trouble from his enemies, and the pesharist turns to Psalm 37 for comfort, relying on its promise that the righteous will be saved and the wicked would be punished. All datings must take into account the fact that he was still alive at the time of composition of this document.

The original consensus case, which had settled on a Hasmonean date for the Teacher, before 100 BC, had difficulty with the Roman context of the pesharim. Observing that there are occasional insertions above the line, they concluded from these that the pesharim were in fact copies of earlier works from the Teacher's time, and it was simply accidental that only one copy of each was found.

Eighteen fragmentary pesharim were found in the caves, six (3Q4,4Q161, 4Q162, 4Q163, 4Q164, 4Q165) commenting on different sections of Isaiah; two (4Q166, 4Q167) on different sections of Hosea; two on different sections of Micah (1Q14, 4Q168) (See (See "pesher on Psalms" in this section); one on Nahum (4Q169) (See "pesher on Nahum" in this section); one on Habakkuk (1QpHab) (See "pesher on Habakkuk" in this section); two on different sections of Zephaniah (1Q15, 4Q170); one on Malachi (5Q10), three on different psalms (4Q171, 1Q16, 4Q173). Of the commentaries on Isaiah, all deal with different parts of the book, indicating that each pesher dealt with only a portion of it. In the one case where two different pesharim (4Q161, 4Q163) deal with the same two verses (Isaiah 10:20-22), it is plain that they are different compositions, for they break up the Isaiah verses differently when they add the pesher, and the pesher is different in each case.

There are brief supralinear additions - at most a few words - in 4Q163 (pIsaC), 4Q165 (pIsaE) , 4Q169(pNah), and 4Q171(pPsA). See below on 1QpHab.

The writer of the objection refers to 4Q162 (pIsaB), where in col 1, line 4, a word Heb: asher ('which') has dots above and below it, and the letter Heb: waw 'and' is inserted above it. It is quite untrue to say that the passa ge 'contains a series of words which make nonsense in Hebrew'. The dots are added to show that the word is a dittography. It repeats the previous word, which meant: 'and which'. The scribe has accidentally written the word twice, and noted the fact by means of the dots. He did not have a delete button!

On the cases of supralinears, there are two options:

  1. The scribe had in front of him a complete earlier copy of the whole pesher, and when omissions from the original were discovered, the phrase was added above the line. This happened in works such as 1QS, for which there are multiple copies proving that there were earlier ones, and this was the model drawn on by the consensus case in preferring this option. Contrary to their conclusion, there is no evidence for the existence of earlier copies of the pesharim, and there is good reason, from the nature of the genre, why there should have been only one edition.

  2. The scribe was making a fair copy of a work, being himself the pesharist, or taking it from dictation or notes from another pesharist. The additions of phrases in 4Q163 pIsa C (frag 23, line 14), 4Q165 pIsa E (frag. 5, line 5) and 4Q171 pPsA (3:5) are all from the biblical passages that were being treated. When the pesharist first gave the biblical quotation, he was working from memory, and omitted a few words. When he had finished he checked his OT and added the missing words.

In only one case is there an addition in his own words. It is in 4Q169, the pesher on Nahum. In frags 1-2 line 5, he has quoted Nah 1:4. The first part of his interpretation is missing in the fragment. He will have referred the biblical text to the Kittim. The words then appear above the next line 'with all their rulers, whose rule will be destroyed'. It would be consistent with his political intensity against the Kittim, the Romans, if he added these words in an angry afterthought.

In 1QpHab, vital for our argument, there are no cases that could possibly be understood as from an earlier copy. In 2:2, 3:4, 3:7, 4:4, 4:12, 10:1, a letter has been added above to a word that would not be complete without it. Each is simply a case of a 'typo'. In 7:3, 9:8 a word has been added to the biblical quote, for the reason given above. In 12:8 the word 'wicked'; is added to 'priest'. In 7:1 the word 'el' is written above the line. It is inserted after another 'el, with exactly the same spelling. One of them means 'God', the other one 'to'. The scribe meant to say 'spoke God to Habakkuk', with the two 'el' in succession, but by haplography -writing once what should have been written twice -he wrote only one, then saw his error and added the other one.

The argument from the supralinears is a fallacious one.

Turning to the paleography, it is of the greatest interest that the handwriting of 1QpHab is classed as middle Herodian, AD 20-50. This is given indirectly in DJD 23, p. 364, which treats 11Q20, a copy of the Temple Scroll, as being written by the same scribe as 1QpHab, and classes the script as a developed Herodian formal of c.AD 20-50. Being a formal script, there is no ambiguity, as may be the case with some semiformals and all cursives and semicursives.

All the other pesharim with the exception of 4Q163 are in a Herodian hand, as shown in the article correcting Allegro's work in DJD 5 : J.Strugnell, "Notes en marge du volume V des 'Discoveries in the Judaean Desert of Jordan'", Revue de Qumran 7,26,3, April 1970, pp. 163-276. 4Q163 is called Hasmonean semiformal, and if this is correct it simply means that it was the work of an older scribe preserving an early hand. It is agreed by all that the pesharim belong together and all come from the same period, that of the Teacher.

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