This last week, my adviser at APU, Karen Winslow sent me a few links to a two part interview Bible Review did with David Noel Freedman which took place in 1993. If you've never been exposed to Freedman's thoughts and writings this might be a good place to start. His tenor was easy going, conversational, and quite accessible. The depth of his knowledge and insight was astounding. Here's what he had to say about the connection between how early Christians and the Qumran community interpreted the Hebrew Bible:
Hershel Shanks: You obviously study these texts from a dual perspective, from a Jewish perspective and from a Christian perspective. Are there differences in these perspectives?
David Noel Freedman: Oh, a dramatic difference. It has taken me a long time to realize that there is such a difference. But there is also a basic scholarly approach to the Hebrew Bible that is neither Christian nor Jewish, where there’s a kind of common denominator, where people with different persuasions, different commitments can meet.
HS: Can you give us an example of the different perspectives?
DNF: Yes. The use made of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament pretty much determines the Christian approach to the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible is regarded as a book of prophecy and prediction—the view that many Old Testament predictions are fulfilled and realized in the New Testament.
The writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls also used the Hebrew Bible as a collection of predictions and prophecies that find fulfillment in their own experience, according to their understanding. For example, take the Dead Sea Scroll known as the Commentary on Habakkuk, or Habakkuk pesher. The Book of Habakkuk itself is about the Chaldeans (the neo-Babylonians) who conquered the world. The prophet has a lot of things to say about them. Well, what does that mean to people 400 or 500 years later, when the Chaldeans have vanished from history? The Dead Sea Scroll people use a neat little device in the Commentary on Habakkuk and elsewhere: They assume the prophets themselves weren’t entirely aware of what their words meant. But thanks to the inspired interpreter, the Teacher of Righteousness, their leader, they could now understand the real meaning of the prophet’s words, which are, after all, the words of God. For the Dead Sea Scroll people, Habakkuk is really about the Kittim, not the Chaldeans. It’s like the joke [William F.] Albright used to tell about what Moses and Middlebury had in common. Well, you take off “oses” and add “iddlebury” and they’re the same. [Laughter] That’s exactly what these [Dead Sea Scroll] people were doing, They’re simply replacing the Chaldeans with the Kittim.
HS: Who were the Kittim?
DNF: A code name either for the Seleucid Greeks in Syria or the Ptolemaic Greeks in Egypt or possibly the Romans. They are the contemporary conquerors and invaders.
The device is easy to see: Since the Dead Sea Scroll people didn’t have a prophet of their own, the next best thing was to have an inspired interpreter. They used prophecy that everybody accepted as authoritative and adapted it. No problem with this, except that according to these people theirs is the only, the real, interpretation. This isn’t just homiletics. This describes a convergence of all the events recounted in the prophets of the past about this present eschatological moment, when everything’s going to change.
As an academic exercise, that’s very interesting and challenging. No problem. A few years pass, however, and that interpretation becomes obsolete, so you make another adjustment, with a different interpretation. And ultimately you give up the whole thing because the prophecy is equally applicable to this period, to that period, to another period, or inapplicable to any of them, because what the prophet says just doesn’t happen. Then you banish the prophecy to a distant future.
But when you say, “This is the only way, this is the real meaning and any other interpretation is invalid,” then you’re creating a problem.
When this happens, I think you have to go with the text, not with the commentary. You have to understand the text in its own historical setting, just as any scholar would do with any piece of literature.
HS: Is this the same thing that was going on in Christian texts?
DNF: Indeed, it is. One of the most famous, or infamous, passages [in the King James Version] is the passage in Isaiah 7:14: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a child.” The Gospel of Matthew [1:18–23] makes this explicit, that the prophet is talking about the birth of Jesus Christ. If you read Isaiah 7:14 in Hebrew, however, there’s a problem about the meaning of the Hebrew word almah. Does it mean young girl or virgin? In the Greek Septuagint it is translated parthenos, which is virgin. Matthew was apparently relying on the Septuagint, which may have mistranslated almah. That’s one problem. In addition, the context of Isaiah 7:14 makes it clear that the prophet is talking about his own day, something that’s going to happen within a very few years and that, in fact, has already happened, so the prophecy was fulfilled. What does that have to do with Jesus Christ 700 years later? Well, that’s the Christian perspective, the New Testament perspective. These people are convinced that Jesus is the messiah and therefore they comb the Old Testament for prophecies and anything that pertains or seems to pertain to this belief or illustrates it. And this is all brought into focus by the events surrounding Jesus.
The principle [of interpretation of scripture] is the same as in the Dead Sea Scroll texts. Now obviously Jews don’t have the same perspective.