Thursday, July 25, 2019


Pieter B. Hartog, Pesher and Hypomnema: A Comparison of Two Commentary Traditions from the Hellenistic-Roman Period. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, 121. Leiden: Brill, 2017. Pp. xv, 356. ISBN 9789004353541. €132,00.

Reviewed by Andrew M. King V, University of Notre Dame (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

This monograph is a revision of the author's dissertation completed at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in 2015, which evaluates the similarities and differences between two commentary traditions developed in the Hellenistic world: the hypomnemata (ὑπόμνημα) and the pesharim (פשר). The hypomnemata are Greek commentaries using Alexandrian literary and philological interpretive practices while characteristically maintaining a distinction between the base text being interpreted and the interpretation itself. As the oldest extant biblical commentaries, the pesharim are exegetical works that interpret Scripture through quotation and discrete commentary. Routinely categorized as part of the "sectarian literature" of Qumran, the pesharim lack completely satisfying parallels from the rich literary history of the ancient Near East that could account for both the form and function of the pesharim. As a result, comparison between the Hellenistic and Qumran commentary traditions began when Markus Bockmuehl sketched, albeit briefly, the outline of such a study in a 2004 conference presentation, which, along with other papers from the conference, was published in 2009.1 While a few articles have since focused on defining the relationship between the two traditions,2 Hartog's monograph is certainly the most detailed and focused treatment. In it, Hartog aims to explain the spread of Alexandrian commentary writing to Palestine through social and intellectual networks between Egypt and Palestine and the subsequent modification of hypomnemata to fit a new intellectual context in Palestine.

His study proceeds in three parts: an evaluation of the intellectual cultures of Alexandria and of Palestine with a focus on the physicality of the hypomnemata and the pesharim (e.g., textual emendations, additions, and the use of signs and sense dividers); an analysis of the bifold structure of both commentary traditions with diverging characteristics between them; and a more detailed account of the hermeneutical strategies of both text types. Each section comprises three chapters, the first being a general overview while the second and third focus on specific details within the hypomnemata and pesharim, respectively.

The monograph begins with a review of scholarship on the pesharim and the many proposed points of comparison between the writing of commentary at Qumran and other types of literature; mainly this literature review outlines a few comparisons between the pesharim and proposed parallels from the Jewish (i.e. midrashim and apocalyptic writings), ancient Near Eastern (i.e. the Egyptian Demotic Chronicle, Akkadian dream interpretations, and Babylonian and Assyrian textual commentaries), and Greek literary worlds. In reviewing the history of scholarship, Hartog argues that previous comparisons have only produced partial parallels to the pesharim. In place of identifying a single parallel as others have done, he posits their "replacement with a more multi-faceted approach" (6). Hartog's focus, however, is almost entirely on the comparison between the pesharim and a single parallel, the hypomnemata; presumably, he limits the scope of his research to the hypomnemata because he is ultimately concerned with describing the pesharim as the product of Jewish intellectuals "who worked in a globalised context and upheld relations with other communities of scholars and intellectuals throughout the Hellenistic-Roman world" (21). Despite the nod to a multi-faceted approach, there is no sustained attempt to weave together a study of the hypomnemata with the partial findings from research into ancient Near Eastern parallels.

To address the problem of the spread of a literary trend developed in Alexandria to a sectarian group living in the desert of Palestine, Hartog argues for a network between Alexandria and Jerusalem wherein "Hellenistic courts and the Jerusalem temple constituted central nodes" (23). Relying on Maren Niehoff's work on the relationship between Jewish exegesis and the teachings of Aristarchus,3 he establishes that knowledge of Homeric scholarship existed within the Jewish intellectual community of Alexandria. The transmission of Alexandrian textual scholarship, as he argues, "reached Jews in Palestine primarily via Jews in Egypt" (25). He understands the travels of Ben Sira, Dositheus (Add Esth 11:1), and Philo who "took books with them" (22) to be evidence for an exchange of knowledge between the two regions.

As knowledge of Alexandrian textual scholarship made its way through the channels of exchange, its features, according to Hartog, underwent a process of "glocalisation" whereby the local culture and traditions of Qumran (i.e., the local) shaped Greek commentary writing (i.e., the global) to fit new and unique needs (16-21). Glocalization is the process of the local adoption and adaptation of something that is global. Though globalism is a modern concept, he is indeed careful to define its use in his study by an emphasis on the interconnectedness and interdependency around the Mediterranean, which was brought about by Hellenism. He borrows the concept of glocalization from research developed in the study of modern global branding in which corporations tailor products to fit various local cultures. As an example of glocalization in global branding, he mentions the phenomenon of the change (i.e., glocalization) made to the menu at McDonalds (i.e., a global brand) in regions that have dietary restrictions (18, n. 71). A shortcoming in his application of globalism and glocalization, the problem of anachronism aside, is the lack of argument establishing the hypomnemata commentaries, or more generally Alexandrian textual scholarship, as a global intellectual culture that other scholars and intellectuals outside of Egypt would feel an impulse to adopt and then to modify according to their own scholarly and intellectual needs.

Having discussed his intended use of network theory and glocalization, Hartog addresses the physical aspects of both commentaries. Concerning the hypomnemata (64-81), he argues that the physical characteristics of some of the manuscripts reveal their potential scholarly use as a master copy having annotations in the margins (BKT 10.16897), as the location of exchange between at least two members of a scholarly community (P. Oxy. 2.221V), or as the product of note-taking (P. Oxy. 8.1086). He argues (82-100) that some of the pesharim too reveal similar intellectual usages as a master copy (4Q169), as the result of an exchange between a teacher and student (1QpHab), or as the result of (communal) note-taking (4Q163).

Physicality also includes the use of marginal signs in manuscripts. Hartog discusses the use of the diple, obelos, the chi-rho, the alpha-nun, and the alpha-omega in the Greek commentary tradition (71-77). In the pesharim these marginal signs include the eleven or twelve X-shaped symbols whose exact purpose is disputed, the lone aleph that may mark a passage a reader found important, and the twice-used horizontal strokes; all of these are found in 4QpHab. There are also several occurrences of horizontal-like strokes in 4Q163 6 ii, some of which might indicate sense divisions between quoted texts and their interpretations. Hartog likens the horizontal strokes of 1QpHab to the chi-rho symbols used in P. Oxy. 8.1086 to mark interesting passages (80 and 95-96). He further suggests that some signs, especially the horizontal-like strokes found in 4Q163 6 ii, are added to create "an image reminiscent of Alexandrian works of textual scholarship," (97) but they are not always evident of meaningful interaction with the base text. Of the sixteen pesharim, however, only 4QpHab and 4Q163 have marginal signs, and Hartog ultimately finds no exact graphic parallels between the two traditions. This limited use of the marginal signs in only two pesharim and, to a lesser extent, their unique graphic forms suggest that Alexandrian textual scholarship's influence at Qumran was minimal at best.

The second section analyzes the bifold structure of both commentary traditions. Hartog demonstrates that both share a similar macro-structure, "which distinguishes explicitly between lemmata and their interpretations" (107). He argues that their shared macro-structure is a result from the network to which both traditions are connected. The similarities do not extend to the micro-structure level, according to Hartog, who explains that "every commentary combines the voices of the base text and its interpretation, but how these two voices are combined tends to differ between individual commentaries and broader exegetical traditions" (108). These micro-structural elements include "glosses," (113-16, 144-50) "paraphrase," (116, 150-51) "references and quotations," (116-28, 151-65) "formulaic terminology," (128-30, 165-69) and "multiple interpretations" (130-31, 169-70). He provides excellent selections from both commentary traditions as he interacts with the primary texts to establish the differences in the micro-structural elements in the hypomnemata and pesharim. At times the differences are remarkable. For example, the hypomnemata, according to Hartog, are "repositories of scholarly knowledge" since some of the commentaries (e.g., P.Oxy. 8.1086) retain conflicting interpretations without purgation (131). In contrast, the pesharim very often provide a single authoritative commentary on a Scriptural passage having "no interest in presenting alternative views" (170).

The third section evaluates the hermeneutical characteristics of the two traditions. Hartog identifies two major differences between them. First, they differ in what they isolate for interpretation in their base texts. The pesharim find and focus on elements in their base texts that provide an opportunity to connect the scriptural text to their own movement. The hypomnemata, in contrast, have a wider focus in commenting on various details within Homer. These details connect to various interests in scholarly fields, such as geography and botany. Second, the pesharim tend to "neutralize or define the co-text of their lemmata" (290) whereas the hypomnemata distinguish themselves even from allegorical interpretation by their preference for co-textual reading (221). Hartog ends this final section with the reminder that "rather than straightforward Greek influences, therefore, the Pesharim reflect intricate processes of glocalisation" (292).

He provides a concluding chapter that summarizes his major contention, which is two-part: both commentary traditions "are at home in similar settings" and their differences and similarities "point to the workings of intellectual networks," which "constituted a globalized context for the exchange of knowledge" (293). Hartog has certainly made a strong and credible case that the hypomnemata and pesharim reflect similar settings in as much as both are scholarly and educational products that interact in various ways with a base text. There should also be little doubt that intellectual (as well as social and economic) networks existed between Palestine and Egypt throughout the Hellenistic period. The existence of these networks allows for the possibility of intellectual exchange such that scribes at Qumran could have knowledge of Alexandrian commentary writing, but it by no means necessitates such transmission. Ultimately, the major warrant underpinning his claim of adoption and adaptation of Alexandrian commentary writing at Qumran is that commentary writing is "relatively rare in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods" (295; see also 39 and 135). For some readers, however, the central reservation hindering full acceptance of Hartog's thesis will be whether there is enough shared distinctiveness between the hypomnemata and pesharim to suggest substantial transmission of Alexandrian textual trends to Qumran through intellectual networks as proposed in this monograph. He has demonstrated that both commentary traditions existed in deeply textual communities that oriented themselves to their base texts; this similar context might just as well point to shared participation in broader cultural trends only partially preserved in the extant literary evidence.


1.   Markus Bockmuehl, "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of Biblical Commentary," in Text, Thought, and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity: Proceedings of the Ninth International Symposium of the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature, Jointly Sponsored by the Hebrew University Center for the Study of Christianity, 11–13 January, 2004, ed. Ruth A. Clements and Daniel R. Schwartz, STDJ 84 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 3–29.
2.   Daniel A. Machiela, "The Qumran Pesharim as Biblical Commentaries: Historical Context and Lines of Development," DSD 19 (2012): 313–362; Reinhard Kratz, "Text und Kommentar: Die Pescharim von Qumran im Kontext der hellenistischen Bildungstradition," in Von Rom nach Bagdad: Bildung und Religion in der späteren Antike und im klassischen Islam, ed. Peter Gemeinhardt and Sebastian Günther (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 51–80.
3.   See, for example, Maren R. Niehoff, Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria. Cambridge: CUP, 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.