The Epistle of Jude, Midrash, and the Pesharim

Midrash, Pesher, and the Dead Sea Scrolls

It is essential to differentiate between midrash as a literary genre and as an exegetical method, for viewing it as a literary genre is too narrow of a categorization and restricts one to compilations such as the Rabbinic midrashim. Midrash can also be used in the broader sense of an exegetical method and the resultant exegesis; it is a certain approach to scripture, a creative scriptural hermeneutic. J. D. Charles explains midrash as follows:

“Midrash” may be viewed as a kind of activity, a process of interpretation. The central issue behind this interpretive “activity” is the need to deal with present realities of cultural and religious tension. New problems and situations must be addressed. Midrash comes into play to address, resolve, and affirm the religious community by utilizing traditions from the past.[1]

Charles then goes on to describe how midrash was utilized in attempts at explaining theological conundrums and narrative voids in the biblical text, thus effectively being used to create an imaginative historiography on the biblical text. An example of this is found in Genesis 6:1–4 where a brief reference to the “sons of God” taking women unto themselves gave rise to elaborate stories extrapolating on this (see, e.g., 1 Enoch 6–11). While the epistle of Jude does not use midrash to fill in the gaps of Jewish Scripture, it does use a midrashic exegesis to “address, resolve, and affirm the religious community by utilizing traditions from the past.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls, dated to ca. 100 BCE–70 CE, refer collectively to the number of manuscripts unearthed over the ten year period in the eleven caves situated by the north-western edge of the Dead Sea. The scrolls are related to the archaeological site of Khirbet (“ruin of”) Qumran, a site thought to have been inhabited by the Jewish sect known as the Essenes.[2] Amongst the texts discovered at Qumran, there is a group of documents known collectively as the pesharim. The pesharim are commentaries on Old Testament texts so named due to the Hebrew פשר, of which ‘pesher’ is a transliteration (pl. פשרים, pesharim). This word characteristically appears throughout the texts, occurring between the citation of a Scripture and its interpretation (i.e. “the interpretation [pesher] of the matter is…”). The pesharim can be generally divided into two categories: continuous and thematic; the former indicating a continuous verse-by-verse interpretation on a biblical book (e.g. 1QpHab is a pesher on Habakkuk), and the latter type instead bringing together scriptural citations from a variety of biblical books but which are united by a common theme or word usage (e.g. 11QMelch assembles together a number of Scriptural passages in order to bring illumination on the mysterious figure of Melchizedek).[3]

A defining characteristic of the Qumran pesharim is their (idiosyncratic) interpretations which contemporize the Scriptural text. The pesher method employed at Qumran saw the Scriptural text being commentated upon as prophetic and eschatological, proving that the Qumran community was indeed living in the final days and that Scripture was being fulfilled in their lifetime and in their community. Ultimately, pesher is an eschatological exegesis and this characteristic is the key feature of the epistle of Jude as well. Though, of course, this is not to say that Jude was authored by a member of the Qumran community, or even that it displays all the defining characteristics of the Qumran pesharim. The pesher exegetical method should be considered sui generis—it is an interpretive method unique to the Qumran community. Yet Jude does share in common some characteristics of the pesharim (e.g. the contemporizing of passages from the Old Testament), though it is void of other features critical to the pesharim (e.g. the role of the Teacher of Righteousness).

The Epistle of Jude and its Pesher-esque Exegesis

There are many parallels between the theology and exegetical practices of the Qumran community and that of the New Testament authors. As VanderKam states, although the literature of the Qumran community and New Testament authors have significant differences, “they were also remarkably similar in theological vocabulary, some major doctrinal tenets, and several origination and ritual practices.”[4] For instance, both groups had a specific focus on a charismatic figure who taught them to find mysteries hidden in the Jewish Scriptures (Teacher of Righteousness; Jesus). Both groups of texts also have a penchant for the biblical books of Psalms, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Genesis.[5] And the groups responsible for the texts of Qumran and the New Testament—the Essenes and Christians—both considered themselves part of a new covenant community with Yahweh (Dam. Doc. 20.12; 2 Cor 3:6) and that they were living in an eschatologically significant period.[6]

Nevertheless, despite the many similarities, Dead Sea Scrolls expert John Collins says that the exact “style of commentary” found in the Qumran pesharim was “not continued in either Judaism or Christianity”, thus “it is best to avoid loose references” to pesher exegesis in the NT, though he admits that “there have been many proposals concerning ‘pesher-like exegesis’ in the NT.[7] Not all agree with this assessment and Ellis, Charles, and Bauckham were the first to give serious consideration to the pesher style used in Jude.[8] Bauckham states that Jude’s “hermeneutical presuppositions and exegetical methods were widely accepted in contemporary Judaism and can be paralleled especially from the Qumran pesharim.”[9] Furthermore, he states that Jude “contains probably the most elaborate passage of formal exegesis in the manner of the Qumran pesharim to be found in the New Testament.”[10] This exegetical section is found in vv. 5–19, which is not a “mere undisciplined denunciation, but a very carefully composed piece of scriptural commentary.”[11] It is here that scriptural citations and allusions become the “pesher text” which is then interpreted in such a manner that it contemporizes it for the recipients of the epistle.

The first two such “pesher texts” of Jude (vv. 5–7, 11) are comprised of a triad of allusions to biblical stories and figures which are then “interpreted” (vv. 8–10, 12–13) as applying to Jude’s antagonists, the ασεβεις (“ungodly”, found in vv. 4, 15, 18). This first such “text” (vv. 5–7) is a summary of texts from the Old Testament rather than direct citations. This pericope presents three examples drawn from the Torah: the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 14), the fallen angels (Genesis 6; 1 Enoch 6–11), and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19).[12] The unifying characteristic of this triad is that each of the three groups had a disenfranchisement which left them open to judgment. The second text (v. 11) is a woe-cry which draws upon the stories of the three Old Testament figures of Cain (Genesis 4), Balaam (Numbers 22–24), and Korah (Numbers 16). This trio of infamous figures is used by Jude to foreshadow the fate of the ἀσεβεῖς: being blasphemers who deny the Lordship of Christ, they are under the curse of divine judgment like Cain, Balaam, and Korah.

The next set of two texts (vv. 14–15, 17–18) are taken from authoritative (though not canonical) sources, being interpreted (vv. 16, 19) in the same contemporizing manner. The first of these sources is the quote of 1 Enoch 1.9 in vv. 14–15 and the second is the exhortation to recall the prophecy of the apostles in vv. 17–18. Both of these authoritative sources are used to warn the reader not only of the inevitability of the outbreak of the ἀσεβεῖς, but also of their final destruction.

Considering the way in which Jude adduces a series of allusions to Jewish traditions centering around a specific subject (i.e. the activities and judgment of the ασεβεις), Jude’s exegesis can beneficially be compared to that of the Qumran pesharim, specifically the thematic pesharim such as 11QMelch and 4QFlor, as opposed to the continuous pesharim. Bauckham provides a series of similarities between the exegetical techniques of Jude and the pesharim. One such parallel is the use of catchwords in the pesher text and commentary (ασεβεια, κρισις, πλανη, βλασφημεω, τηρεω).[13] Another parallel is how Jude introduces each of his commentary sections with the introductory phrase of οὗτοί, found in vv. 8 (Ὁμοιως), 10, 12, 16, 19. This is akin to the thematic pesharim of Qumran which frequently introduce each commentary section with איה (these). Though this may just be due to a standard formula used in the interpretation of the Old Testament (e.g. Zech 1:10) and the wider ancient Near East.


[1] J. D. Charles, Literary Strategy in the Epistle of Jude (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 1993), 33.

[2] For a survey of differing views regarding the relationship between the Qumran community, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Essenes, see Timothy H. Lim, Pesharim (New York: Sheffield Academic, 2002), 7–11. James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) contains a more thorough examination of the case for and against identifying the Essenes as the inhabitants of Qumran and author of the scrolls (see pp. 97–126), as well as a sketch of the history of the Essenes at Qumran (pp. 127–36). In this regard also see Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls (London: Penguin, 2004), 49–66.

[3] For an overview on the continuous and thematic pesharim found at Qumran see VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, 62–74.

[4] Ibid., 200.

[5] VanderKam (ibid., 50) provides a list containing the representation of the Old Testament books in the Dead Sea Scrolls. He also states that “the three books that appear on the largest number of copies at Qumran are also the three that are quoted most frequently in the NT” (ibid., 48).

[6] See VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, 201–25 for similarities and differences between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament writings. For some more extensive information on this relationship, see George J. Brooke The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1980); and idem, “Shared Exegetical Traditions between the Scrolls and the New Testament”, in The Oxford Handbook of the Dead Sea Scrolls (eds Timothy H. Lim and John J. Collins; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 565–91.

[7] John J. Collins, ‘Prophecy and Fulfillment in the Dead Sea Scrolls’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30.3 (1987): 267–78 (quotes from 277–78). E. Earle Ellis considers the midrash in the New Testament to have “affinities” with the pesher midrash of Qumran, see Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity: New Testament Essays (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1978), 154.

[8] Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic, 221–36; Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (Word Biblical Commentary, 50; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 4–5; idem, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 179–234; and J. D. Charles, Literary Strategy in the Epistle of Jude (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 1993), 71–81. Although, Carroll Osburn had mentioned earlier that Jude’s “exegetical methodology is more akin to Qumran exegesis than to Philonic, rabbinic or later Alexandrian exegesis” (‘The Christological Use of 1 Enoch i.9 in Jude 14, 15’, New Testament Studies 23 [1977: 334–41]; quote from 430).

[9] Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church, 181.

[10] Ibid., 233.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See J. D. Charles, ‘“Those” and “These”: The Use of the Old Testament in the Epistle of Jude’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 38 (1990): 109–24 for a look at the exegesis in Jude vv. 5–7 (esp. pp. 113–18).

[13] See Douglas J Rowston. ‘The Most Neglected Book in the New Testament’, New Testament Studies 21 (1975): 554–63 (esp. pp. 558–59); Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, 201–11. Also see Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic, 160; and J. D. Charles, ‘Jude’s Use of Pseudepigraphical Source-Material as Part of a Literary Strategy,’ New Testament Studies 37 (1991): 130–45 (esp. pp. 140–42); idem, Literary Strategy, 31–33.

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