The pesharim are commentaries upon prophetic texts, which apply the biblical writings to the history and life of the community. The commentators aim to demonstrate the fulfillment of biblical prophecies in their own time, especially with respect to reward and punishment, and they assert the imminent doom of their opponents in contrast to their own salvation. This “contemporizing” interpretation, or application, of the text is called “pesher,” a term related to dream interpretation.
There are fifteen “continuous pesharim” from Qumran, that is, pesharim which comment verse by verse upon specific biblical books: five on Isaiah (4Q161, 4Q162, 4Q163, 4Q164, 4Q165); three on the Psalms (1Q16, 4Q171, 4Q173); and seven on books of the Minor Prophets (1QpHab on Habakkuk; 1Q14 on Micah; 1Q15 and 4Q170 on Zephaniah; 4Q166 and 4Q167 on Hosea; 4Q169 on Nahum). Most of these manuscripts have been dated paleographically to the first century BCE (the Hasmonean and Herodian periods). Another group of texts, often called “thematic pesharim,” are similar to the continuous pesharim in that they too cite biblical prophecies along with contemporizing applications related to the community and the “end of days.” But, rather than using a specific prophetic book as its framework, a thematic pesher will cite from a number of biblical passages, and is structured around a particular concept.            

            The most effective description of pesher comes from a pesherist himself. 1QpHab 7:1-5 cites and comments upon Hab 2:2, “…YHWH said to me, “Write the vision and make it plain upon the tablets so that with ease [someone can read it].” The pesher interpretation supplied is: “God told Habakkuk to write down what is going to happen to the generation to come; but when that period would be complete He did not make known to him … [Its pesher (interpretation)] refers to the Teacher of Righteousness, to whom God made known all the mysterious revelations of his servants the prophets.”            

            The Qumran pesharim are useful sources of information about the transmission of biblical texts, early biblical interpretation, and the history of the Second Temple period. Because they cite biblical texts, the pesharim are useful for textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars are particularly interested in whether authors of pesharim would have created deliberate “exegetical variants,” that is, by modifying their citations of biblical texts in order to better reflect the desired interpretation. As the earliest known commentaries on biblical texts, the pesharim are also important sources for demonstrating early exegetical techniques, including the use of wordplay and symbolism. As “fulfillment literature,” pesharim offer evidence of the beliefs, values, and experiences of the Qumran Community. References to individual figures can be used to attempt to reconstruct historical events. This is somewhat challenging since the references tend to be cryptic themselves, e.g., the use of the sobriquet the “Lion of Wrath” in Pesher Nahum and Pesher Hosea to refer to an otherwise unspecified Hasmonean ruler. Pesher Nahum is exceptional in that it also explicitly names the historical figures Antiochus and Demetrius. More generally, the pesharim offer a picture of some of the social realities of the time, as reflected in their verbal polemic, especially against the Jerusalem Temple establishment.