How the Dead Sea Scrolls help with New Testament studies


“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (6)

Pesher HabakkukSeveral scrolls found at Qumran (‘Dead Sea Scrolls’) are commentaries on earlier biblical texts and are called pesharim because of their characteristic use of the Hebrew word פשר pesher which translates as ‘this means’, or ‘the interpretation is’, or similar. These commentaries typically quote a biblical text and then add a commentary beginning with פשר pesher ‘this means …’. There are some characteristics of the Qumran pesharim which are replicated in some New Testament quotations. However, while pesharim tend to be sustained verse-by-verse commentaries (although individual pesher-style interpretations are found embedded in other works) the New Testament writers interpret only small selections from the prophetic writings; there are no sustained verse-by-verse commenatraies in the New Testament. Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Joseph Fitzmyer argues that a pesher is a unique type of midrash and has no exact counterpart in the New Testament.[1] He concluded from his analysis, however, that “the exegetical practice of the New Testament writers is quite similar to that of their Jewish contemporaries, which is best illustrated by the Qumran literature.”[2]

Timothy Lim[3] has identified characteristics of the Qumran pesharim which enable us to recognise some of the quotations in the New Testament in that style. Identifying a specific fulfilment of prophetic oracles is one characteristic of a pesher. So when Matthew introduces a quotation with the formulaic “that it might be fulfilled” he is effectively interpreting the biblical text in much the same way as the writer of Pesher Habakkuk who could quote the prophet and then apply his words to a contemporary person or event. So when the author of Pesher Habakkuk wrote  פשרו על מורה הצדק  “this refers to the teacher of righteousness”[4] he was using a similar formula to Matthew’s “this is fulfilled [by Jesus]”.  While God instructed Habakkuk to write down what is going to happen, according to Pesher Habakkuk he hid from him how the prophecy would be fulfilled, but revealed it later to the Teacher of Righteousness (1QpHab col vii lines1-5). In this way, argues Maurya Horgan, the pesharim function as companions to the biblical text, “unravelling section by section the mysteries that were believed to be contained in the biblical text”.[5] The initial mysteries revealed to the prophet and the interpretation through the Teacher of Righteousness were both revelations by God. The New Testament quotations function in the same way. The initial texts are reinterpreted according to new circumstances in ways that, by modern standards, might seem to be misquoting or using texts without any regard for their primary meaning and setting, yet finding meaning in the words themselves that would not have been understood in their first context. Not only did the interpretation give new meaning to the words, it claimed to be the true hidden meaning.

[1] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament”, New Testament Studies 1961;7(04):297-333, p. 298

[2] Ibid, p. 330

[3] Timothy H. Lim, Pesharim (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002, p. 82

[4] For example, in 1QpHab column vii, line 4

[5] Maurya P Horgan, Pesharim: Qumran Interpretations of Biblical Books, (Washington: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1979), p. 259

Does Matthew quote from the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint?

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (5)


Francois-Joseph Navez, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” 1824

Jeremiah 31:15 is quoted in Matthew 2:17-18 using the introductory formula “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah …” The background to the quotation is the “massacre of the innocents” – Herod’s murder of children born around the time of Jesus’ birth in an attempt to eliminate a claimant to the title of “King of Israel”. Matthew presumably quotes Jeremiah 31:15 because the context of Jeremiah 31 is the grief experienced by Jewish mothers who watched their sons go off into battle or exile. [1]

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

If we compare the Hebrew and Greek texts of Jeremiah 31 with Matthew’s quotation we see that Matthew is closer to the Hebrew than to the Septuagint in a few ways and follows the order of words in the Hebrew more closely than the Septuagint. For example, Matthew’s ὀδυρμὸς πολὺς “much grieving” (or “loud lamentation” in the ESV) is possibly a smoother rendition of the Hebrew construct בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים “bitter weeping” than the Septuagint θρήνου καὶ κλαυθμοῦ καὶ ὀδυρμοῦ “of lamentation, and of weeping, and wailing”. The Septuagint omits Jeremiah’s first use of the phrase “for her children”, which Matthew retains, although he omits the second use of the term which is present in the Septuagint (it is not unusual for the Septuagint to omit repetitive phrases, or to reorder them, but the fact that Matthew’s order is different to the Septuagint suggests that he was using a similar transaction technique but not copying directly from the Septuagint). I would argue that Matthew was making his own independent translation from the Hebrew of Jeremiah rather than quoting from a Greek (‘Septuagint’) translation. Richard Longnecker has pointed out that in the Gospel of Matthew the evangelist’s own quotations of the Old Testament usually follow the Hebrew reading, whereas the citations by Jesus “are strongly Septuagintal”.[2] This raises the interesting question of why Matthew would make his own translation from the Hebrew at times while using the Septuagint Greek translation when quoting the words of Jesus, especially since it is hardly likely that Jesus himself taught in Greek.

The most likely explanation in my view is that Matthew was using several sources when writing his gospel. We can be confident that one of his sources was the Gospel of Mark as Matthew quotes verbatim almost all of Mark’s gospel (approximately 90% of Mark is in Matthew). Luke also used Mark extensively. There is also a considerable number of sayings of Jesus which are in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. This has led many scholars to accept the theory that Matthew and Luke used at least two sources to write their gospels: Mark, and another gospel, or, more likely, a collection of sayings. This hypothetical second source is usually called ‘Q’ (from the German Quelle, meaning “source”) and many scholars believe that  Q was written in Greek. Jesus’ quotations from the Old Testament in Q appear to be from the Septuagint. If this theory is correct then it would explain why Matthew’s quotations of Jesus’ sayings follow the Septuagint (he was simply copying directly from his Q source) while his own quotations from the Hebrew Bible were his own translation. This argument presupposes that Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek, which is the view of many New Testament scholars, although there are some who believe that Matthew wrote originally in Hebrew or Aramaic and his gospel was later translated into Greek. Either way, there is strong evidence that Matthew used at least two sources for his quotations from the Old Testament: when Jesus was quoting the Bible the quotations came to Matthew via a Greek source which drew on the Septuagint, and when Matthew was quoting Scripture directly he drew on his own knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. Our text from Jeremiah 31 is in the second category and is quoted from the Hebrew Bible rather than the Septuagint.


LXX (Jer 38:15)


כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה

קֹול בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶֽנּוּ׃

οὕτως εἶπεν κύριοςφωνὴ ἐν Ραμα ἠκούσθη θρήνου καὶ κλαυθμοῦ καὶ ὀδυρμοῦ Ραχηλ ἀποκλαιομένη οὐκ ἤθελεν παύσασθαι ἐπὶ τοῖς υἱοῖς αὐτῆς ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν Τότε ἐπληρώθη τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ Ἰερεμίου τοῦ προφήτου, λέγοντος,Φωνὴ ἐν ῥαμᾶ ἠκούσθη, θρῆνος καὶ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὀδυρμὸς πολὺς, Ῥαχὴλ κλαίουσα τὰ τέκνα αὑτῆς καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν παρακληθῆναι, ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν

[1] Ramah was 10 kilometres north of Jerusalem on the road captives would have travelled as they were taken into exile. Rachel was said to have been buried in the vicinity of Ramah which was equidistant with Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

[2] Richard N. Longnecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2nd. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 48

Misquoting the Old Testament (in the New)

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (4)

Jeremiah 18:2-3 cited in Matthew 27:9-10

ESV (OT Sources)

ESV (Matthew)

Jeremiah 18:2-3“Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. Matthew 27:9-10Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”
Zechariah 11:12-13Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter” – the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter.
Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. Rembrandt (1630)

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem. Rembrandt (1630)

Matthew 27:9-10 is the most puzzling citation of Jeremiah in the New Testament. In fact, it is possibly one of the most puzzling citations of any Old Testament text. Matthew introduces this ‘quotation’ with the formulaic “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying …” The most remarkable thing about this is that nowhere in any of our manuscripts of Jeremiah do the quoted words appear. The wording which is most similar is Jeremiah 18:2-3 which refers to Jeremiah being directed to go to the potter’s house. Both texts refer to a potter but there the similarity ends. In fact, Matthew’s quotation parallels Zechariah 11:12-13 more closely than any text in Jeremiah. Zechariah refers to thirty pieces of silver as well as a potter, but not to a field. Elsewhere in Jeremiah (32:6-9) the prophet bought his cousin’s field in Anathoth, but there the price is seventeen shekels. Matthew’s ‘quotation’ appears to be a composite of Jeremiah 18:2-3 and Zechariah 11:12-13 with a possible allusion to Jeremiah 32:6-9 and it is difficult to see how it is a ‘fulfilment’ of any specific prophecy. Craig Blomberg has argued that “Rabbis would sometimes create a composite quotation of more than one Scripture but refer to only one of their sources by name, often the more obscure one (though sometimes also the more important one) to ensure that others would pick up the reference”.[1]

Matthew’s quotation of Zechariah preserves a clause found in the Masoretic Text but missing from the Septuagint: “the lordly price at which I was priced by them”. His concluding clause (“as the Lord directed me”) is not in either source text, but could be alluding to Jeremiah 13:15 “So I went and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me”. Neither source text refers to a potter’s field, although this is a key item in the fulfilment of the prophecy to which he is referring. Later in the story about the potter in Jeremiah (19:2) the prophet is instructed to “buy a potter’s earthenware flask, and take some of the elders of the people and some of the elders of the priests, and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate”. We may be tempted to see a connection between the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (known as Gehenna in the Gospels) and the traitor Judas Iscariot but Matthew makes no such connection, nor does Luke when writing about Iscariot’s fate in Acts 1:18-20.

What is Matthew doing here with a composite quotation which he attributes to Jeremiah and how can he say that Iscariot’s actions ‘fulfil’ Scripture when there is no such prophecy? Joseph Fitzmyer has noted that “the use of well-known introductory formulae to cite a passage which is not found in the Old Testament (or at least which is not found in any of the known texts or versions)” is a phenomenon found both in the NT and in the Qumran literature” (think “Dead Sea Scrolls”).[2] He put this in the category of “modernized texts” rather than as a literal fulfilment of prophecy.[3] This could also be a case of what he later describes as an “accommodated text”, that is, one which is “wrested from its original context or modified somehow to suit the new situation”[4].

Archer and Chirichigno put this text in the category of quotations which give the impression that unwarranted liberties were taken with the Old Testament text in the light of its context. It would probably be even better, in my view, to categorise the Matthew quotation as a composite allusion rather than a quotation.

[1] Craig Blomberg, [“Matthew” in G.K.Beale and D.A.Carson (eds.) Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 95]. Unfortunately Blomberg doesn’t provide any sources for or examples of this Rabbinic practice. Archer and Chirichigno also claim that in combining elements from both Jeremiah and Zechariah Matthew is “simply conforming to contemporary literary custom when he cites the name of the more famous of the two” [Archer, Gleason L. and G. C. Chirichigno Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament: A Complete Survey (Chicago: Moody, 1983) p. 163]. but they don’t provide references for their claim either.

[2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Use of Explicit Old Testament Quotations in Qumran Literature and in the New Testament”, New Testament Studies 1961;7(04):297-333, p. 304. Another example of this in the Gospels is Matthew 2:23 “he shall be called a Nazarene” while ‘As for that which it said, “Your own hand shall not avenge you”‘ (CD ix 8-9) is an example of a Qumran text quoting an unknown source.

[3] Ibid, p.315

[4] Ibid, p.316. Fitzmyer finds twelve examples of accommodation in Qumran texts.