Biblical interpretation at Qumran and among the early rabbis (Matthew 23)

Qumran is the location at which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The ancient community that was once located there produced a library of well over 800 manuscripts, most of them related to Biblical interpretation. This collection includes a wide variety of documents:

  • Paraphrases: Some texts “rewrote” portions of the Biblical narrative with interpretive and expansive paraphrases (e.g. the Genesis Apocryphon and the Temple Scroll).
  • Commentaries: Pesharim, annotations on the prophetic books and the Psalms, sought to interpret or explain Biblical texts.
  • Anthologies: These texts stich together various Biblical passages on a particular theme – something like a modern “topical Bible”.
  • Original writings composed in a Biblical style: These documents use Biblical expressions, style and vocabulary to evoke the authority of Scripture. The teacher of Righteousness, the dominant leader of the Qumran community, believed that God had revealed all the mysteries of the prophetic writings to Him. Biblical interpretation in Qumran reflected His understanding that the Scriptures were full of hidden references to his community and to its conflicts with other Jewish leaders and with the outside world. Some of the documents from Qumran suggest that the community perceived itself as authorized not only to provide inspired interpretations of the Scriptures but also to generate new inspired works on an equal footing with Scripture.

Interpretation at Qumran focused on the rules that governed the community and upon the prophetic interpretations that supported its ideals and hopes.

Early rabbinic Biblical interpretation was primarily concerned with Halakah – the rules that govern daily life and religious practice. The demand for practice application of Biblical law among the Jews meant that Halakah had to give guidance about what a person could eat or wear or what action was permissible under specific circumstances. As times and situations changed, new questions arose about what was allowable or required; thus interpretation was an ongoing task, resulting in a continuing process of refinements to previous legal judgements.

Those refinements took place in a dialogic fashion, as rabbis debated the proper application of Biblical texts and legal principles. In their deliberations they tended to cite or string together a series of verses on the basis of similarity, such as the fact that each verse had a specific word in common. For example, rabbis might cite or associate several verses from different parts of the Bible that have in common the word grapes – even if the verses they cited had nothing to do with one another and used the word in radically different contexts. This strategy treated the Bible as a “hypertext” (a complex web of associations in which one could jump from one passage to another); such interpretations was like solving a puzzle whose pieces needed to be constantly turned, rotated and rearranged. The desired, ideal outcome: When the right combination of Biblical passages was placed side by side, they  revealed the otherwise elusive meaning of the particular text under consideration.

The process was not altogether arbitrary. A series of rules was developed to control the interpretive process. The first seven of these were attributed to Hillel, a famous  rabbi of the first century A.D. The two most important principles were the argument a fortiori (meaning that a principle that works in a lesser case should also apply to a more important one) and the principle of verbal analogy (meaning that two different passages sharing words in common can be used to interpret each other).

In Matthew 23 Jesus upbraided the scribes and Pharisees for establishing  elaborate and meticulous rules that attended to fine points on less significant matters but that ignored weightier issues. He particularly rejected their tendencies to focus on the lesser issues of external, ritual purity while ignoring the greater issue of the internal contamination of their hearts.

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