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The Pesher Technique

In response to:

The War Over the Scrolls from the August 11, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

My attention has been drawn to your review article on the Dead Sea Scrolls of August 11, 1994, in which my book Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls was briefly dealt with by Geza Vermes. I hope you will allow me to offer the following reply.

Professor Vermes has misled your readers fairly seriously about the contents of my book, not only in this article but in other publications.

His phrase “her allegorical reading of the cryptic language of the historical manuscripts…” is astonishingly inaccurate:

  1. I did not at any point use allegory.

  2. The new method I did use, called the pesher technique (which finds history objectively placed in the text, not allegory) was not applied to the Dead Sea Scrolls (if this is what he means by “historical manuscripts”) but to the New Testament.

Those statements match another by the same writer in a British newspaper, in which he said that I claimed there were fish in the Dead Sea (which of course contains no fish). I did not say that there were fish in the Dead Sea, but that human “fish” (Gentiles regarded as unclean) were baptised by wading in its unclean waters, and this is the origin of the “fish” symbol for Christians. This is carefully explained on pp. 325–330 of the book.

In his translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Professor Vermes has obscured one of the evidences for a Christian connection by giving an impossible translation at a vital point, and by failing to observe the usage of the scrolls. A certain phrase in the Damascus Document, col. 1, indirectly gives a date for the Teacher of Righteousness in 26 AD, thus confirming the many signs that he was John the Baptist. The phrase reads: “(at a certain time) for God’s giving them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon….” The ordinary meaning of “Babylon” is, of course, “Babylon,” but not for the writers of the scrolls, who at all points say that it is a code name for Rome. The same usage is found in the New Testament, in 1 Peter 5:13. The phrase means “(at a certain time) for God’s giving them into the hand of the ruler of Rome,” and means the time when Judea came under Roman rule, in 6 AD. The passage goes on to say that the Teacher came twenty years later, that is, in 26 AD.

But Vermes sees “Babylon” in its ordinary sense, and this forces him to translate “after God’s giving…,” making the Hebrew preposition “for” carry the meaning “after” that is nowhere else evidenced, as the Jewish scholar Rabinowitz has observed. (Readers of the text will know that there is a further point in it about 390 years: this is to be seen as a prediction of the duration of the Roman oppression, drawn from Ezekiel 4:5 seen as a prophecy.)

In his remarks about my book, Vermes omits to say that the detail of Jesus’ life is arrived at by the pesher technique, which, since it claims to be objective, is subject to proof or disproof. It is the method, not the results, that must be discussed.

It is, of course, a familiar story that in the area of religion new historical evidence may not be treated fairly. I can only point out that this situation has arisen again, and trust that your journal will not allow such misinformation to stand.

Barbara Thiering, Ph.D.
Mosman, Australia

Geza Vermes replies:

Professor Barbara Thiering’s reinterpretation of the New Testament, in which the married, divorced, and remarried Jesus, father of four, becomes the “Wicked Priest” of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has made no impact on learned opinion. Scroll scholars and New Testament experts alike have found the basis of the new theory, Thiering’s use of the so-called “pesher technique,” without substance. The Qumran pesher—the word itself means “interpretation”—is a form of Bible exegesis which seeks to determine the significance of an already existing prophetic text by pointing to its fulfillment in persons and events belonging to the age of the interpreter. Professor Thiering, by contrast, turns the sequence upside down, and claims that the authors of the New Testament composed the Gospel story so that pesher technique could subsequently be fastened to it. If so, the clue must have been quickly lost, but now for the first time after nineteen centuries of universal misunderstanding it is revealed afresh in Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Is there any evidence for a procedure of the kind which Barbara Thiering assumes? Among the 813 documents found in the eleven Qumran caves not one verifies her recipe of composition. The Gospels (supposedly produced on the shore of the Dead Sea and understood à la Thiering) provide the only “proof” that books written with a view to practicing “pesher technique” were devised at Qumran! Readers who require more detail are invited to turn to Professor Thiering’s volume. Can I be fairer than that?

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