P e s h e r (פשר)
Mark E. Mountjoy
Scripture reading: "For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God" (Romans 2:28-29)
In a different vein of reasoning from the concept of Peshat stands "Pesher." Pesher, unlike Peshat is the "solution" and is preferred method of interpretation of Amillennenarian clergy. However, caution must be exercised in this understanding for, where the literalists err in assuming all or almost all prophecies come under Peshat, allegoricists tend to err in the other direction: assuming the message is mainly told in out-and-out symbolic terms. We have already briefly discussed Peshat here.
Now I would like to demonstrate how Peshat is distinguishable from Pesher and how the New Testament, not any unauthorized person with personal or imperious opinions or conceit or private interpretations or agendas, is the reason or authority behind this idiosyncratic peculiarity of the Word of God.
The Reason We Need to Know
Why is this information important for us and why do Christians need to know the difference between styles and methods of interpretation employed by the Holy Apostles in the New Testament texts? It is important for a number of reasons:
(1) We will become able to distinguish between ideas that are treated one way that we once believed (or were taught) were to be interpreted another way.
(2) We familiarize and equip ourselves to follow the logic of Jesus, the Apostles or their amanuensis (scribal clerks). When we become familiar with their way of thinking, speaking and reasoning, this awareness gives us the latitude to allow them a voice to speak of their situation without our interpolating or importing unrelated matters into the text.
(3) Being informed also helps us intelligently pull precepts that are relevant and practicable in the story for edification and use in our own lives.
(4) False beliefs and misleading expectations can arise when confusion about interpretive methods and the resulting false precepts seem to be justified by the way the passage was treated. All this can be avoided when we correctly identify what we are dealing with.
Pesher is somewhat more challenging than Peshat because Peshat basically means "A = A" (i.e., the text means exactly what it says); Pesher on the other hand does not follow a point for point correspondence. In other words Pesher transforms a passage into a loose metaphor. Indeed, it could be said that Pesher can be represented as A ≠ A ( i.e., A does not equal A). And in this essay we will demonstrate examples of Pesher and show how and why a failure to recognize it will significantly affect an interpretation and lead to doctrinal conclusions which are not in line with what Jesus, the Apostles and the first Christians believed or taught. In fact, in a major way, ignorance about the way some of the Old Testament Scriptures are treated under Pesher rather than Peshat leads many to unwittingly declare that Replacement Theology is a “lie of the Devil” rather than the very thing the first Christians taught and spread!
We know this because it is a fact that the Jesus said that the kingdom of God was being taken from Judaea and given to another nation (Matthew 21:43). Was it going to be taken from them only to be handed back to them? Who is this "other” nation? The Hebrew Writer believed it was the Christian church (Hebrews 12:28). This would explain why the earliest Christian churches had the irritation and wrath of the Temple authorities and the people of Judaea directed at them. However, if the Christians taught Peshat (a plain sense interpretation) this would have meant that the prophecies of the kingdom of God meant what they appeared to mean at face value: That the Judaeans were entitled by Abrahamic pedigree and the Torah Law to receive the kingdom of God. In this scenario only, would a non-replacement have been the legitimate expectation of the Jews. But as it stood, though, the Jews understood the kingdom promises under Peshat and the Christians understood them under Pesher, and thus the reason for acrimony and conflict and persecution. So let's look at examples. And while we are doing that, I think it is important to point out that this interpretive science is not dependent upon me or some other non-Biblical source. The validity of Pesher in the Scriptures is totally dependent on what the Scriptures have to say or at least indicate. Sometimes this can be certified by a citation, but at other times this can be established by cross-references that pertain directly to the subject at hand.
The Foundation of Pesher in the New Testament in John the Baptist's Teachings
To the untrained or unwary student of the Scriptures the New Testament can come across as a series of books filled with contradictions and dilemmas at every turn. On one hand it proclaims that salvation is of the Jews (John 4:22), but on the other hand it calls them the children of their father the devil (John 8:44). Conversely, in the Synoptics Jesus declares that he is sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matthew 15:24), only to turn around and foretell that the "children of the kingdom shall be cast into outer darkness" (Matthew 8:12 cf. Matthew 13:42 and Luke 13:28).
Without the knowledge of Peshat (A = A) and Pesher (A ≠ A) in mind these sayings and passages and claims and counterclaims can seem like a hopeless jumble of contradictions. However, upon closer inspection, this is not the case at all! To demonstrate this I would like to direct your attention to the teaching of John the Baptist and the things he said concerning the children of Abraham,
"But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, 'We have Abraham to our father:' for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham" (Matthew 3:7-9).
John the Baptist was certainly speaking directly to descendants of Abraham. They were pedigreed, certified true blue Jews, in every way. They had every reason to believe that the awaited kingdom of God would be theirs by entitlement; that is how the promises surely read in the Tanakh:
"a kingdom which shall not be left to another people" Daniel 2:44 and ". . . the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High God, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him" (Daniel 7:27).
In Jewish eyes these are promises given to them, not to some other nation. However, John framed that expected inheritance on completely different terms alleging that it was perfectly possible for God to raise up inheritors to those promises from rocks on the ground. Rocks were not descendant from Abraham. Rocks were not given the promises of inheritance. Rocks could not lay claim to entitlement or rights to be beneficiary of any kingdom glory or power. No Jewish person believed God would turn his attention to rocks to be the people of the saints of the Most High God in either Daniel 2 or 7. Yet John revealed that the issue of repentance and the fruits thereof were so important to God that the ax was rather laid at the root of the literal seed of Abraham and rocks would preferred as children of Abraham instead. In other words, the DNA of the Hebrew people was no obstacle to God raising unto himself a suitable people for his redemption and glory and praise.
Jesus in the Footsteps of John
In light of the above, it could be asked if Jesus also spoke of the Jews in terms that showed that their genealogical purity and pedigree was not an obstacle to the fulfillment of the promises of the kingdom? Could God as easily made someone a recipient of the table of Abraham by virtue of their belief in Christ the Son of God? The answer, again, appears to be, Yes! Matthew 8:1-12 is certainly the second place in which the New Testament, (from the very start) shows that Jesus thought about the inheritance of the Torah's promises in terms not strictly in accordance with Peshat but rather in terms of a "solution"--that is Pesher.
"And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, 6 and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. 7 And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.
8 The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. 9 For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
10 When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. 11 And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:5-12).
The issue of believing God's Christ is so strong in the teachings of Jesus that faith trumps pedigree and pedigree without faith amounts to the real threat of eternal damnation (John 3:36; 8:24; 1 John 5:12). There are many other Scriptures in the Synoptics and John that highlight how crucial Jewish faith in Christ is for Jews to own that salvation that alone came through the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. And, nowhere in the New Testament is this issue treated as a matter of inconsequence or indifference (See Matthew 10:15; 11:21-25 cf. John 15:22-25).
Prophecies About Non-Semites Obtaining Salvation
It is in light of these antecedents in the Gospels, the Pesher [solution] to the inheritance issue and the question about who will obtain the kingdom of God (the physical Jews under the nationalistic rubric or "spiritual" Jews under the imperative of faith in Christ) can best be seen and explained. From what the Apostle Paul says in chapter 3, and 4, and 5 and 9 of Romans, with awareness of the issue of Jewish interpretive devices it can easily be missed what he is definitely affirming and what he adamently denies. For example, in Roman 3:1ff Paul argues for the advantages of the circumcision (Jews). He lists them:
(1) They were committed the oracles of God (Romans 3:2).
(2) Their unrighteousness commends the righteousness of God (Romans 3:5).
(3) The truth of God abounds through their lies unto his glory (Romans 3:7).
(4) Whatever the Law said it said to those who were under the Law that that every mouth should be shut and the entire world stood guilty before God (Romans 3:19).
(5) By the deeds of the Law shall no flesh be justified in God's sight "for by the Law is knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). (6) The righteousness of God apart from the Law is manifested and it was foretold by both the Law and the Prophets (Romans 3:21). (7) It is by faith in Jesus Christ "unto all and upon all: for there is no difference" (Romans 3:22 cf. Romans 1:16).
What the Apostle Paul explains in chapter 3 of Romans is the backdrop of how he will handle prophecies about Israel in chapters 9 and 10 of this same epistle. Realizing this will prove significant to Christians who are caught in the fray between those who alleging that Replacement is a maliciously contrived idea made out of whole cloth by mechanations of jubilent Gentile Christians in the second century. Not only Paul's writings, but also the writings of the other Apostles, scribes and their amanuensis (i.e., Tertius and Silas).
Our right understanding of Pesher and when it is being used will put a halt to those who erroneously teach that God remains open to bringing some or all of Biblical Judaism back into reality for a thousand years or the misuse of the texts to "prove" that someone who is actually a Gentile Christian is really unknowingly a Jew by race and by blood. Romans 4 hits closer to home. Let's take a look at it.
The Apostle Paul's Clear Words and Clear Position
What we saw in Matthew 3 and 8 and 13 and John 8 and 15 and what we witnessed in Paul's argumentation in Romans 3 gets a lot stronger in Romans 4. The direction and momentum of this logic can only be sidestepped or aborted by one opening the Bible at random and building an argument with no linear antecedents at all. By merely cross-referencing a prophecy with its Old Testament counterpart it is believed that a legitimate truth has been found when that is not the case at all.
What we are seeing, rather, is a subtle redefinition of who the true people of God are in the framework of the promised Fifth Kingdom of Bible prophecy along with different terms than those set forth in the covenant that was ratified when Israel crossed the Red Sea coming out of Egypt (See Hebrews 8:8-9 "I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah . . . not according to the covenant I made with their fathers. . .)." The prophecy of Jeremiah already alerted the Hebrew people that the New Testament would be different nearly seven hundred years beforehand. Therefore, Peshat and Pesher and Aggadah, and Remez are used by God to allude and describe the terms of this new agreement.
It is not by insisting on the Old terms that we legitimately arrive at an understanding of who these new people are and how it is true that they have any right to be called "beloved" and the "children of the Living God."
The combined implications of John's and Jesus' and Apostles' arguments frame what the particular stipulations are in bold relief. And as can be seen in hindsight, the Gentiles were absolutely stunned at the message of the Cross and loved the terms that were set forth. But this Pesher was completely outrageous and unacceptable to the High Priesthood and to the sensibilities of the Jewish authorities and the vast majority of citizens in the Second Jewish Commonwealth. Hence, this next utterance from Paul would have been fighting words and a call to arms, riot, and unrest to any and all who held a traditional understanding that the beneficiaries of the kingdom promises belonged first and foremost to a Plain Sense (Peshat) understanding of the legal and fleshly progeny of Abraham.
"For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if they which are of the Law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect:" (Romans 4:13-14).
Romans 4:23-25 and Romans 5:1-2 state the situation as it should be understood. No one is justified by the Law, but by faith. No one has peace but by the Lord Jesus Christ. And no one has access into this grace by the Law but only through faith and only by these can anyone rejoice in the hope of God. Neither in Biblical Judaism then, nor in Rabbinic Judaism now is a person invited to receive the atonement available only through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:9-11).
Romans 9:25: A Pesher
The treatment of Romans 9:25-26 strictly as a cross-reference from Hosea 1:10 would most likely lead to an observer concluding that God, in the Gospel, is calling Jewish people out of the nations among whom they have been scattered; the Apostle Paul, however, is not using the reference that way. In fact he uses it as a Pesher (A ≠ A, i.e., A does not equal A). The Pesher method of interpretation means that the obvious meaning of a prophecy may not be its ultimate meaning, and so . . .
"As he saith also in Osee, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. 26 And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God" (Romans 9:25-26).
Note how verses 25 and 26 are used not as Peshat but as a Pesher in line with what John, Jesus and Paul have already said: God is raising up a new people instead of those he contracted through the Law (cf. 2 Peter 2:10). In this new set-up both believing Jews and Gentiles as one people in one body constitute this new arrangement. Now note how Paul turns on his heels and reverts to Peshat when dealing with the unbelieving Law-bound rebellious nation:
"Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved: 28 For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth. 29 And as Esaias said before, Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we had been as Sodoma, and been made like unto Gomorrha" (Romans 9:27-29).
In other words, in the Old Testament God divorced his rebellious Law-bound wife and then took her back, but Paul is using the text to speak of Gentiles who never had the Law (cf. Romans 2:14-15 cf. Ephesians 2:11-13) being brought into a completely new situation they had never been in before; however, directly below it he reverts back to Peshat (in verses 27-33). Why does the Holy Spirit do this? He does this in order to spell out that the fate of the majority in first century Judaea was foretold to be a desolation (or in other words, A=A).
And so, taking all Paul has said in Romans 3, and 4, and 5 and his agile nuances in Romans 9, Pesher (an interpretive solution) is used to explain the calling of Gentiles making the Christians the newly beloved People of God out of a text that was not talking about that at all. In the very next breath Paul falls back on Peshat to narrate the downfall of literal Israel in unbelief. He then explains himself below,
"What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith" (Romans 9:30).
Paul presents the change of opportunity as an irony: the Gentiles who knew not the Law nor sought the promises wound up being the recipients of God's strange grace; the Jews, however, who followed the Law, fell and stumbled at Christ the Rock, through offense at who he was, what he said, and how he died not knowing he was indeed the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). The tragedy of the Jew's error was not merely theoretical or one on paper only. Through ethnic hubris, traditionalist pride and misguided activism and sedition they would bring themselves directly into harm's way. Thus Paul could clearly see what was coming up on the horizon in the short run: a catastrophe not unlike that which overtook Sodom and Gomorrah.
He then concludes:
"But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. 32 Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the Law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; 33 As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed" (Romans 9:31-33).
Galatians and Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians and Hebrews make it crystal clear that the literal people and the literal system from Mount Sinai was being superseded by a new and better way which the Old Testament (in Jeremiah 31:31ff cf. Hebrews 8:7-13) foretold God would do. How God would keep his promises to Abraham and yet change the terms of the agreement from one of the Law of Moses to the Son of God and grace can only be adequately explained with a proper knowledge of interpretative nuances like Peshat and Pesher.
The Good news is so reliant upon these particulars that without them it would be easy enough to suppose that Sabbath keeping and other imperatives of the Law still must still bind the people of God, but Paul's theology was so radical as to equate such a move with loss of grace and damnation (Galatians 2:21; 3:11 and 5:2-4 cf. Philippians 3:2-3; Colossians 2:14-17).
Pesher is an important study because by it we can properly conclude the truth about what Christ and the Apostles taught about the identity of the Church: She is none other than New Testament Israel by virtue of it. It is by virtue of this interpretive "solution, " a solution given by the Holy Spirit to John the Baptist, our Lord, the Twelve Apostles and Paul that we Christians lay claim to being the new people of God in this age of the New and Better Covenant. The New Testament treats the subject of the inheritance and the kingdom of God and the issue of heirs in this peculiar interpretive way. Hence, the Pesher passages of Scriptures should be observed and heeded for their intent, and their corresponding precepts must be applied thoughtfully in order to help us avoid and eschew false beliefs, claims and expectations.
Furthermore, we saw that unlike Peshat, Pesher stands for A ≠ A, (i.e., A does not equal A). Or, put another way: it means exactly what the Holy Spirit wanted the Apostles to understand it to mean and not necessarily what it says literally. Hence, the reasons for the transformation, the cessation of the Law and gradual transition from the First to the New. All these transactions can best be understood by contrasting the way Peshat and Pesher and a number of other Semitic interpretive devices are used in the New Testament. And thus Peshat and Pesher are two important categories of interpretation that can help us understand and help us articulate a brand new understanding of mankind's relationship with God under a totally different spiritual agreement and arrangement.
We saw that John the Baptist set the stage for a solution to the old people of God and he put repentance and its fruits in accordance with it directly in the forefront. Jesus, going a step further, hinted that faith would put the Roman Centurion at the Table of Abraham at a time when many from east and west would enjoy supper with his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob but the literal seed would not partake of this coveted meal but instead be cast into outer darkness for the sin of unbelief.
Finally, in Romans we demonstrated that Paul's discussions in chapter 9 built partly (but not totally) on Pesheristic premises. There, he clearly built upon what he already established and explained in Romans chapters 3 and 4 and 5: That the Law and the flesh were not the binding considerations inherent in obtaining what Israel hoped for; it was faith. Therefore, it is wrong and fallacious to turn Paul's words in 9 and beyond to mean that the literal seed are entitled to a literal kingdom of God or that Jews may legitimately expect God to re-establish Biblical Judaism in any future scenario. The Bible simply does not teach or indicate this! Such a belief (though extremely popular in some circles) is directly contrary to the Holy Spirit inspired "solutions" recorded and preserved in the New Testament, in the epistles of Galatians and Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, Hebrews and the Book of Revelation.