Midrash and the Gospels 1: Some definitions and explanations

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by Neil Godfrey

Leopold Zunz (1794-1886), a founder of the Ver...

Leopold Zunz (1794-1886). Image via Wikipedia

Updated 4th August to clarify reference to Lewis John Eron’s definition of midrash.

New Testament and Jewish studies scholars have often used the terms “midrash” or “midrashic” in connection with the Gospels, but some scholars object to applying the term to the Gospels. The difference is essentially between “purists” who want to restrict the term to certain rabbinic literature from the second century on, and those who believe it is legitimate to apply it to any instance in literature where its core characteristics are found. (I personally don’t think it always makes a lot of difference what terms one uses so long as one is clear about how one is using them and the usage is appropriate for the audience. Certainly I don’t see any reason to belittle and insult others over how they use the word. A rose by any other name, etc.)

This is the first of three posts:

  1. midrash: some definitions and explanations
  2. midrash and gospels: survey of some scholarly views and debates
  3. midrash and gospels: what some Jewish scholars say

The pioneering study in Jewish midrash was the work of Leopold Zunz, Gottesdienstliche Vorträge der Juden (Sermons of the Jews), published 1832. The Jewish Encyclopedia still refers to his work in its articles on midrash.

There are two basic types of Jewish midrash according to the Jewish Encyclopedia:

  1. Midrash Haggadah — exegesis from a devotional or ethical viewpoint, often expressed in freely imaginative ways;
  2. Midrash Halakah — exegesis of a legal nature, for practical guidance, expressed more conservatively through inherited principles and styles.

It is the former — Haggadah or Aggadah midrash — that is understood by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars who apply the term ‘midrash’  to the Gospels. Likewise in colloquial Jewish use midrash refers to this particular branch of it.

Most midrash explores ethical ideas, biblical characters, or narrative moments, and is known as midrash aggadah.(Aggadah literally means “telling” or story.) When Jews use the colloquial “it says in the midrash,” they are usually referring to teachings of midrash aggadah, generally those found in a corpus of classical Jewish texts compiled between about 200 and 1000 C.E. (My Jewish Learning)

Leopold Zunz

The Jewish Encyclopedia refers to Zunz in its explanation of Midrash Haggadah (I have added formatting and emphasis, as well as a link to Zunz’s work online):

Zunz has divided the Haggadah into three groups, following the old designations which were subsequently summed up in the word V08p554001:

(1) interpretation of the Scripture text according to its literal meaning;

(2) development of the thought in any desired form, with a free use of the text;

(3) discussion of the mysteries of religion and the supersensuous worlds

(comp. “G. V.” p. 59).

For the full discussion see  http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=587&letter=M#1913%23ixzz1SSfhgmL2

James L. Kugel

James L. Kugel (the link is to a summary of his academic credentials in this area as well as to his CVs and homepage)  gives two explanations of the term midrash in In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts. Here is his formal explanation of the word:

midrash: A Hebrew term meaning interpretation or exegesis. The term is used nowadays to designate specifically the sort of exegesis practiced by the ‘Rabbis and contained in such works as the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds as well as various collections of rabbinic exegesis, such as the Mikhilta of R. Ishma’el, Sifra, Sifrei Deuteronomy, Genesis (Exodus, Leviticus, etc.) Rabba, The Fathers According to R. Nathan, and dozens of others. “Midrash” is also often used as the title of such collections of exegesis, e.g. “Midrash ha-Dadol,” “Midrash Tanhuma,” etc. (p. 275)

A superficial reading of the above would seem to close the door on any attempt to relate the word to the Gospels. But this “definition” is at the end of the book, and throughout the book, beginning from the first page, Kugel has used the term to mean what he says it means here in the first sentence. That simple fact invites us to note that Kugel is not saying it can only apply to certain rabbinic literature, but that the rabbinical literature illustrates “the sort of exegesis” that it is — even if that is found among early Christian authors. This is why Kugel explains fully more comprehensively from page one what the term refers to and how he uses it — and why he applies it to the New Testament:

pp. 1-2 (my emphasis and underline)

To begin with, certain biblical texts — and especially the Pentateuch (Hebrew Torah), the first five books of the Bible — were of great importance to Jews during this period. These texts exercised a central role in daily life, and were discussed and commented upon in public assembly. It was thus natural that determining their precise significance should become a major concern. But often the sense of such texts was far from clear. Many of them contained words whose meanings were no longer understood, or references to people or places or customs no longer known. Moreover, sometimes one passage in the Bible seemed to contradict another, and so required some explanation if the contradiction was to be resolved. Elsewhere it was simply a question of filling in the details. For many biblical histories seemed here and there to lack a crucial detail: Why did X do what he did? What was Y thinking at the time? And how does it all relate to this or that fact told to us elsewhere? Faced with such questions, ancient Jewish interpreters — scholars and ordinary folk, individuals or groups — had set out to provide explanations, and these explanations, known in Hebrew as midrash (“interpretation”), were apparently passed on orally for some time, communicated from scholar to scholar, from teacher to student, or from a preacher to his listeners. Midrash is not just dry biblical commentary: it is clever, inventive, quite down-to-earth, sometimes humorous, often moving, and always full of fresh insights with regard to the biblical text. Little wonder, then, that it was passed on so widely and so eagerly, not only among Jews of different sects and persuasions in late antiquity, but, as noted*, in the nascent Christian churches as well.

Ultimately, much of this early biblical interpretation was committed to writing by various schools or individual authors, and these writings now comprise a library that is dauntingly large and varied. . . .

Kugel points here to:

  1. Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds,
  2. Individual compendia of midrash such as Genesis Rabba, Midrash Tanhuma, and the like.

But this is only part of the library of early exegesis — and not the earliest part, either. Indeed, this library comprises works written from the third or second century B.C.E. on through the Middle Ages, and includes, in addition to biblical commentaries as such, retellings of biblical stories in the authors’ own words (such as are found abundantly in books written in the centuries just before and after the start of the common era), as well as interpretive translations, sermons prepared for synagogue or church, plus devotional poems, prayers, legal compendia, apocalyptic visions, and yet other works, all of which in some way or another pass on traditions about the meaning of particular biblical texts. Some of the books that set forth or echo these early exegetical traditions are, as stated, relatively well known: rabbinic works, or the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, or, for that matter, the New Testament which is full of traditional Jewish interpretations of stories and prophecies from the Hebrew Bible.

* In the above I quoted Kugel referring to an earlier comment [“as noted*“] about the relationship of early Christian literature to midrash. Here is how he begins In Potiphar’s House:

Judaism and Christianity have not only a book in common, the Hebrew Bible, but also a common set of traditions about what that book means. For although these two religions ultimately diverged on many issues — including the interpretation of Scripture — Christianity at its origin was a Jewish sect, and from the beginning it had adopted a number of Jewish assumptions about how to go about interpreting the Bible, as well as a substantial body of Jewish traditions about the meaning of specific biblical passages. This common store of biblical interpretations and the assumptions that underlie them are a subject of no small importance; perhaps even more than the words of the Bible itself, they have helped to shape the very character of Judaism and Christianity. (p. 1, opening paragraph of the Introduction)

That “common store of biblical interpretations and the assumptions that underlie them” are what Kugel speaks of as midrash.

Jacob Neusner

Another scholar, one of rabbinic Judaism, Jacob Neusner, has had his explanation of midrash summed up online as follows:

Dr. Jacob Neusner explains that the word ‘Midrash’ is based on a Hebrew word meaning ‘interpretation’ or ‘exegesis’. He shows that the term ‘Midrash’ has three main usages:

1. The term ‘Midrash’ can refer to a particular way of reading and interpreting a biblical verse. Thus we may say that the ancient rabbis provided Midrash to Scripture. This does not mean that any interpretation of scripture is automatically true rabbinical Midrash. In fact, most of what people call ‘Modern Midrash’ has nothing to do with the classical modes of literary exegesis that guided the rabbis. Commentary and Midrash are two different things! In order to get a good idea of what classical rabbinic Midrash really is, one has to actually study it; No two or three sentence definition can accurately define the structure of Midrash.

2. The term ‘Midrash’ can refer to a book – a compilation of Midrashic teachings. Thus one can say that “Genesis Rabbah” is a book that is a compilation of Midrash readings on the book of Genesis.

3. The term ‘Midrash’ can refer to a particular verse and its interpretation. Thus one can say that “The Midrash on the verse Genesis 1:1 says that…[and some Midrashic interpretation of the verse would go here].

A glance at Neusner’s bibliography shows that his interest is focused on Jewish and rabbinic studies almost exclusively. Note that one of the usages of the term refers to “a particular way of reading and interpreting a biblical verse.” Neusner applies this to his specific area of study. I do not have access to Neusner at the moment but it is clear from reading other Jewish scholars comparing Jewish and early Christian literature that they do not shrink from applying “a particular way of reading and interpreting a biblical verse” to passages in the Gospels themselves.

In the following post on this topic I will quote a number of New Testament scholars who might be called “purists” and argue that the word “midrash” should only apply to “classical rabbinic Midrash” or its point-by-point analogues. That’s fine as far as I am concerned. They are welcome to do that and I have no objection. Some of them prefer other terms as substitutes for what is read in the Gospels, such as “intertextuality”. That’s fine, too. Why argue? They explain what they mean and how they use the words so all is clear to everyone.

That does not mean other scholars are not allowed to see things differently, however. Others do acknowledge that the “particular way of reading and interpreting a biblical verse” characteristic of rabbinic Midrashic teachings was also deployed by early Christians. The literary genres and specific agendas to which Christians applied this “particular way of reading and interpreting a biblical verse” were characteristically Christian and obviously different from the forms of literature and immediate agendas applicable to rabbinic Judaism.

This common trait is another piece of evidence that both early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism were born from the same mother of Second Temple Judaism.


Mahlon Smith, a New Testament scholar, has posted his explanation of midrash online:

Hebrew term for “Interpretation” or “Exposition.” The word generally used for any written or oral commentary on a biblical text. The original purpose of midrash was to resolve problems in the Hebrew text of the Bible. As early as the 1st c. CE rabbinic principles of hermeneutics & philology were used to bring the interpretation of difficult passages in the literal text of scripture into line with the religious & ethical values of the teachers. This method of interpretation was eventually expanded to provide scriptural pretexts to justify oral tradition. Thus, midrash exposes the values & worldview of the rabbinic interpreter & audience rather than the original intention of the author of the biblical text. . . .

The literary production of rabbinic midrashim began during the period of the formation of the Mishna (2nd c. CE). The school of Rabbi Aqiba ben Joseph focused on the production of halakhic midrashim, while the school of his rival Ishmael ben Elisha tended towards a more haggadic form of exposition. Most of the midrashim underwent more than one revision. The homiletic midrashim were composed later, but drew heavily on earlier sources some of which are no longer extant.

Here we see differences from Neusner’s description that shuns the word “commentary” but not far from that of Kugel who does bring in the word “commentary”. But we are getting the idea, and some might consider it an exercise in pedantry to spend a lot of time asking the extent to which the word “commentary” might apply to the types of interpretation being addressed.

Here are a few more informal descriptions (some referencing more formal descriptions than others) of midrash from New Testament scholars or those participating with that community in the historical Jesus/Christian origin Crosstalk2 discussion group:

Jack Kilmon: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/5185

Aggadic midrash is specifically taking a past context from Tanakh and creating a contemporary scenario that is essentially fictional but tells a “higher” truth.

Lewis John Eron, cited by Karel Hanhart  http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/13856

“Midrash can be understood as a process of reading a text considered to be the authoritative word of God through the lens of a specific event and/or special concern that may or may not be explicitly referred to in the text. In the relationship between the original text and the focussing event and/or concern, the meaning of the original text is expanded and the significance of the focussing event and/or concern is underscored.”

The note is” “The citation is from Lewis John Eron, Bursting the Bonds? A Jewish – Christian Dialogue on Jesus and Paul, L. Swidler, L.J. Eron, G. Sloyan, L. Dean eds. (New York: Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 1990) 71. He refers to Gary Porton, “Defining Midrash”, in The Study of Judaism I: Mishnah, Midrash, Siddur, (New York, KTAV, 1981) 62ff.

Jim West: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/17267

> > How would you define midrash? > >The word means ‘exposition’, i.e., systematic explanation.

Jim West: ‘actually it means “to seek” from the verb “darash”; the form “midrash” being a present participle.’

Assistant moderator on the Crosstalk2 group, Bob Schacht, wrote the following: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/17268

Historically, Midrash is a very general term covering a *wide* range of usages, so “exposition” is a suitably generic equivalent. However, as to whether that always amounts to *systematic* explanation, and what type of explanation, is not restricted by the term itself.

Lew distinguished about 4 types of midrash, along a scale from very literal meaning of the text to very free interpretation along the lines of Kabbalah. It took some digging, but I found out that Reich was following the ancient system also used by http://www.tckillian.com/greg/remez.html, as follows:

>P shat » simple understanding
>R emez » hinted meaning
>D rush » allegorical explanation
>S od » esoteric understanding

As you can see, this covers a lot of territory. These four types are laid out this way as the outline of an acronym – PaRDeS, the Hebrew word for orchard. The website above lays out what these refer to in more detail.

(My note: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midrash#Methodology for more on PaRDeS)

Most other sources divide Midrash into Aggadah and Halakhah. Neusner devotes Pt. 3 of his _Introduction to Rabbinic Literature_ to _The Reception of Scripture: The Three Types of Midrash-Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature_ , so those interested in this subject would be well advised to read that, too. I don’t know what Neusner’s third type is, but two of them presumably are Aggadah and Halakhah.

(He says more, but I will reserve that for my next post citing the informal discussions among historical Jesus and Christian origins scholars and students for my next post.)


So the word has a range of meanings and applications. It can refer to a way of interpreting a biblical passage; it can refer to a certain collection of Jewish writings; it can refer to a particular verse and its explication.

“Purists” may insist it refer to only one or two of these, or only to all three if they are found within a limited range of genres and literary styles confined to rabbinic writings. There are other NT scholars who have protested that the term is too general to be of use for their research interests, while others have claimed the very opposite, that it is just the word they need to explain exactly what they mean in their discussions of the Gospels.

Clearly there are major scholarly names who acknowledge that the techniques of midrash are found in pre-rabbinic writings too, including early Christian ones. In a future post I will refer to one who sees midrash at work as far back as the Hebrew Bible itself, with later books re-interpreting and re-contextualizing certain passages in earlier books. One New Testament scholar who used to use the term midrash to describe his particular area of study later deferred to pressure from the “purists” and ceased using the word — without changing anything in his views or arguments. A rose by any other name. There are other New Testament scholars do justify the use of the term as it is applied to the Gospels.

Jewish scholars of Jewish literature, on the other hand, have apparently felt no pressure from certain NT word-police and do continue to call a spade a spade even when they see it digging in the Gospels. After all, the Jewish Encyclopedia tells us that Zunz did speak of development of the thought in any desired form, with a free use of the text.

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  • John
    2011-08-04 01:56:26 UTC - 01:56 | Permalink

    The Dead Sea Scrolls pesharim are also a kind of midrash, or interpretation of scripture. In fact, they interpret some of the same scripture that the NT does, only with different results. For instance, “but the righteous shall live by his faith” in Hab. 2:4:

    “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse … Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for the righteous shall live by faith” (Gal. 3:11; also mentioned in Rom. 1:17 and Heb. 10:38).

    The Dead Sea Scrolls interpret this same verse differently:

    “Its interpretation concerns all the Doers of the Torah in the House of Judah, whom God will save from the House of Judgement because of their works and their Faith in the Righteous Teacher” (1QpHab 8:1-8:3; Eisenman).

    This idea of “works and … faith” working together is also found in James 2:20-23, when interpreting Gen. 15:6: “Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God.”

    The Dead Sea Scrolls Damascus Document also happens to call Abraham “a friend of God, because he kept the commandments of God and did not choose the will of his own spirit” (CD 3.2).

    Paul, of course, interprets Gen 15:6 differently:

    “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Thus Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:5-7).

    Acts presents James as interpreting Amos 9:11 (“I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen”) as confirmation that gentiles will be saved and “we should not trouble” them with the requirement of circumcission (15:15-19).

    But in the Dead Sea Scrolls the same verse is intepreted to mean that “the Branch of David … shall arise with the Interpreter of the Law [to rule] in Zion [at the end] of time. As it is written, ‘I will raise up the tent of David that is fallen.’ That is to say, the fallen tent of David is he who shall arise to save Israel” (4Q174 Florilegium or Midrash on the Last Days; Vermes).

    The Branch of David is obviously “the Messiah,” who also shares some sort of partnership with the “Interpreter of the Law” in the Damacus Document, which, immediately after citing Amos 9:11 (CDa 7.16), interprets Num. 24:17 by saying that “‘the Star’ is the Interpreter of the Law, who came to Damascus, as it is written: ‘A Star shall go forth from Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.’ The “Sceptre” is the Prince of the whole congregation, and with his standing up, ‘he shall utterly destroy all the Sons of Seth'” (CDa 7.18-21). The Hebrew word for prince here is nasi, the same word that “the Messiah” Bar Kochba used in a letter to describe himself.

    So who was the “Interpreter of the Law, who came to Damascus,” who works in tandem with “the Branch of David” and “Prince of the whole congregation”? Most likely the Righteous Teacher, “to whom God made known all the mysteries of the words of His Servants the Prophets” (1QpHab 7.4-5).

    This is very similar to how James is portrayed in the Clementine literature (which arguably used Jewish Christian sources):

    “James began to show, that whatsoever things the prophets say they have taken from the law, and what they have spoken is in accordance with the law. He also made some statements respecting the books of the Kings, in what way, and when, and by whom they were written, and how they ought to be used.

    “And when he had discussed most fully concerning the law, and had, by a most clear exposition, brought into light whatever things are in it concerning Christ, he showed by most abundant proofs that Jesus is the Christ, and that in Him are fulfilled all the prophecies which related to His humble advent. For he showed that two advents of Him are foretold: one in humiliation, which He has accomplished; the other in glory, which is hoped for to be accomplished, when He shall come to give the kingdom to those who believe in Him, and who observe all things which He has commanded.

    “And when he had plainly taught the people concerning these things, he added this also: That unless a man be baptized in water, in the name of the threefold blessedness, as the true Prophet taught, he can neither receive remission of sins nor enter into the kingdom of heaven; and he declared that this is the prescription of the unbegotten God” (Recognitions of Clement 1.69).

    After cursing “every person who rejects these Judgements (which are) in keeping with all the Laws found in the Torah of Moses,” 4Q266, which may be part of the Damascus Document, says that “this is the exact sense of the Judgements that they are to do for the entire Era [of Evil … al]l that [is found in the ‘Final M]idra[sh] of the Law” (Eisenman).

    There were at least three groups in the Second Temple era who believed that they were living in the “Last Days” and interpreted scripture accordingly: Paul and his followers, James and his followers, and the DSS group. And it’s an amazing coincidence that the DSS group were led by someone very similar to James, who died a similar death as James and contended with an anti-Torah opponent, and whose followers believed in “the New Covenant” and lived in “Damascus.”

    These are some of the things that Eisenman points out that convince me that the DSS group in their final stage and Jamesian “Christians” were the same.

  • Evan
    2011-08-04 02:12:39 UTC - 02:12 | Permalink

    So, just to clarify for me, here is what Doherty said in chap 8 of JNGNM, “The Word of God in the Holy Book””:

    “One of the features of scriptural study in this period was the practice of taking individual passage and verses, bits and pieces from here and there, and weaving them into a larger whole. Such a sum was much greater than its parts. This could be one of the procedures used in ‘midrash,’ a Jewish method of interpreting and making use of the sacred writings. (There will be much more to say about midrash when looking at how the Gospels were constructed.) This bringing together of widely separate scriptural references and deriving meaning and scenarios from their combination was the secret to creating the early Christian message. Scripture did not contain any full-blown crucified Messiah, but it did contain all the required ingredients. Jewish midrash was the process by which the Christian recipe was put together and baked into the doctrine of the divine Son who had been sacrificed for salvation.”

    After reading this and seeing how the word was defined, I find no discrepancy between this and the Jewish encyclopedia reference you give above, especially when Kunz’s definition number two is noted. However, the tempest over the word midrash seems to me to be an example of someone taking on the weakest point of an argument when there is little else to criticize.

    Is it really questioned by anyone who has read the NT that huge segments of it are direct, conscious references to the Hebrew Scriptures? I doubt there is any serious scholarly debate about this issue. So to harp on the technical meaning of an obscure term, when the usage within the work using the term is given plainly in the paragraph in which it is introduced seems to me to be a direct admission of the weakness of the position of the critic.

  • 2011-08-04 08:28:48 UTC - 08:28 | Permalink

    Mythicist Doherty and non-mythicist Spong use the term exactly the way described above. The Christ of faith — his life and works — are modeled on reinterpretations of OT passages, especially the Elijah-Elisha cycle in the synoptics. Some NT scholars — Spong included — use this as evidence for historicity. No-one would make up midrash about a non-existent person, goes the argument. The OT passages are woven into pericopes and into the larger narrative. This is exactly what Krugel and others (some I will show in future posts) say is midrashic technique (or midrash) in the Gospels. Exactly.

    McGrath’s problem is that Doherty has taken this simple fact acknowledged by Jewish and Christian scholars alike and used it to argue in favour of mythicism. Suddenly “mythicists” don’t understand midrash. They misuse it. They are ignorant.

    McGrath has even fallen victim to believing his own straw man and appears to actually believe himself when he says that for mythicists the term can “mean anything else someone might want it to.” He used my reference to “or other” to justify this, accusing me of saying I was suggesting it could mean anything, despite the fact that my reference was to types of literature in which it could be used.

    I used primarily the notes by Krugel and the Zunz definition to demonstrate that Doherty and Spong use the term in accordance with widely accepted norms. McGrath objects that mythicists say midrash is a procedure to create new messiahs. That of course is not what they say at all- – but when faced with the plain facts demonstrating his accusation is wrong, what else can he do short of admit error and risk granting a mythicist public respectability?

    Of course midrashic tales do create fictional characters to illustrate their lessons, but I suppose McGrath would object that they don’t count because those characters are not “messiahs”. So midrash does create characters and even imaginary infant messiahs, but maybe McG would object that they don’t count because those messiahs were not adults on earth, or because his name was Menahem and not Jesus.

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