Category Archives: Midrash


2017-04-27

Did the Search for Meaning in Scriptures Really Lead to the Gospel Narratives?

by Neil Godfrey

To some extent, the followers of Jesus knew the basic facts: he was crucified by the authority of Pontius Pilate (with the complicity of the Jewish leadership?) outside the city of Jerusalem around the time of the Passover. Yet what was the meaning of those events? As Koester has noted, that question led the followers of Jesus back to the Scriptures, to familiar passages that seemed to describe some comparable situation. For example, according to Nils Dahl, “[E]arly Christians read Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and other psalms of lamentation, probably also Isaiah 53, as accounts of the passion of Jesus before there existed any written passion story.” 21 As Crossan explains, these believers did not read such passages “as referring exclusively and individually to Jesus but rather… to their original referents and to Jesus now as well.” 22 Thus, in addition to the examples cited by Dahl, one passage that helped Jesus’ followers make sense of what had happened was this verse from the Psalms: “The rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed” (2: 2). Another such passage— one that seemed to include what had happened to Jesus’ followers— was a verse from Zechariah: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” (13: 7b). And after reports of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers saw new significance in this verse from Hosea: “After two days [the LORD] will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up” (6: 2). According to Crossan, these “passion prophecies” led the first generation of Christians to develop the belief that Jesus’ suffering and subsequent vindication had all been part of God’s plan.

Chumney, David. Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts (Kindle Locations 1608-1621). Kindle Edition.

A new book titled Jesus Eclipsed has been introduced by its author, David Chumney, over three posts on John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity site (part 1, part 2, part 3). I have been reading both the book and David’s introductory blog posts and may discuss the work in more detail later. For now I can comment that Chumney is strongly opposed to mythicism (sometimes to the point of misrepresentation) even though his arguments are in all respects — except for two details — found at length in mythicist works by Robert Price, Richard Carrier and Earl Doherty. The two details on which he differs are that Josephus (his James passage) and Paul (his meeting with James) provide sufficient evidence to establish the historicity of Jesus. Unfortunately I think Chumney unwittingly slips into arguing from the same assumptions and with the same circularity as other New Testament scholars, perhaps not surprisingly given that Chumney has the same background in seminary studies. But here I address primarily a point that occurred to me just now as I read his sixth chapter.

Most readers will be familiar with the standard scholarly explanation for the passion narrative in the gospels being infused with allusions to “Old Testament”. The disciples were so stunned by the unexpected turn of events, it is said, that they turned to the scriptures to find some means of understanding the death of Jesus and their subsequent “Easter experience”. The passage by Chumney above sums up the idea.

The question that occurred to me this time on reflecting on this explanation for the scriptural echoes throughout the passion narrative was,

“But didn’t the scriptures provide a ready set of answers for exactly the sort of demise Jesus had met? Why were those traditional explanations apparently inadequate?”

We know the Bible and extra canonical Second Temple writings were riddled with laments and praise for the righteous one who suffers unjustly. Unjust suffering, persecution, martyrdom — such was the fate of the righteous man ever since Abel and on right through Job, the Psalms and to the Maccabees. Jewish scribes wrote plenty to remind readers of this “fact of life” and to console them, assuring them that God found their blood “precious in his sight”.

So why the need to take from Psalm 22 the line that spoke of dividing garments and casting lots for them? How did that passage add to the meaning of what had happened?

Did that really happen? Chumney’s argument is correct: he turns back to the nineteenth century and David Strauss’s point in The Life of Jesus:

 “[W]hen we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.”

But the Psalm 22:18,

They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

I suggest, would have added no more meaning to their experience of loss than 22:17, 20-21

All my bones are on display;
. . . . .

Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.

Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

None of those lines has any association with a death by crucifixion and they are ignored by the evangelists who composed the passion narratives. Are we to infer that the disciples of Jesus did find deeper meaning for the death of Jesus in verse 18? If so, how could that be?

The obvious answer, of course, is that the disciples were reminded of that passage in Psalms when they learned from eyewitnesses that the clothes of Jesus were indeed taken by the soldiers.

Do we have a problem here?

But if that is what inspired the disciples to find meaning in Psalm 22:18 we run into a problem. read more »


2014-01-08

Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation

by Neil Godfrey

Some New Testament scholars have difficulty with the term “midrash”. Goulder stopped using it because of this, though his student Spong has not followed his lead here. I continue to use the term as generally as Spong does because Jewish scholars themselves, especially a number who are specialists in midrashic and Jewish literary studies, use it the same way as Spong and likewise refer to the Gospels as examples of midrashic literature!

There are different types of midrash. Midrash Halakah is a narrow legalistic type of interpretation; Midrash Haggadah can be expressed in creative and imaginative ways, including extended story-narratives not unlike the narratives found in the Gospels. See:

If, as some argue, the Gospels were really only parables (e.g. Crossan) or midrash (e.g. Goulder/Spong) about Jesus and not “true” histories or biographies, why is it that, as far as we know from the oldest surviving evidence, they have always been read as literal histories or biographies of Jesus? (I am not saying they were universally read as literal biographies of Jesus since we simply don’t know how the first readers interpreted any of them.)

In my previous post I suggested that a simple explanation for the Gospels being a mix of history and fiction is something quite different from the standard view that they are narratives that have been based on oral traditions stemming from historical events and that over time were piously exaggerated. If they are indeed “Jewish novels” not unlike so much other historical-fiction so popular in the Hellenistic era, then how was it that they appear to have been so quickly read as historical “reports”?

Chaim Milikovsky

Chaim Milikovsky

An interesting light has been thrown onto this question, I think, by Chaim Milikowsky in “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. Milikowsky explores the question of the “truth status” of midrashic narratives compared with the “truth of the Bible”. If the Gospels are midrashic literature as Jewish scholars specializing in ancient Jewish and midrashic studies say they are, then Chaim Milikowsky’s chapter may be relevant to how we understand their early history, too.

In the side-box I have linked to some posts where I illustrate some of the narrative forms of midrash and to instances where Jewish specialist scholars describe the Gospels as midrashic literature. For convenience in this post I will illustrate a narrower (and more well known) form of midrash for those of us to whom the term is quite new.

Three examples of midrash

We know the Biblical story of Cain killing Abel. A midrash says that prior to this murder, it was actually Abel who overpowered Cain and was about to kill him when Cain cried out for mercy. Abel relented, giving Cain the opportunity to turn the tables and kill Abel instead. What was the source of this midrashic tale? The Hebrew says literally, in translation, that Cain “got up onto his brother”. The rabbis reasoned that for Cain to have “got up onto” Abel he must have first been “under” Abel. read more »


2012-12-25

Merry Midrash

by Neil Godfrey

pharaoh killing baby males

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Annunciations and Holy Conceptions

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annunciation-mid

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The Josephs’ Dreams and Moves to Egypt read more »


2012-07-06

24. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 24

by Earl Doherty

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Mythicist Claim Three: The Gospels Are Interpretive Paraphrases of the OT

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • The Gospels constructed out of scriptural midrash
  • Jesus’ passion modelled on a traditional Jewish story
  • The Gospel of the Old Testament according to Robert Price
  • The Gospel Jesus as a new Moses
  • A Jesus miracle modelled on Elijah
  • What does the midrashic Gospel Jesus symbolize?
  • Fictional episodes vs. the genuine article?
  • Thomas L. Thompson and intertextual dependency
  • What did Paul mean by “receiving” and “passing on”?
  • Putting our trust in Luke and John

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* * * * *

Claim 3: The Gospels Are Interpretive Paraphrases of the Old Testament

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 197-207)

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. . . . scholars began to realize that the events of the Synoptic Gospels were wholesale reworkings of elements and stories in Hebrew scripture.

Bart Ehrman now tackles perhaps the most momentous development in the entire history of New Testament scholarship, and it is a fairly recent one. While there were murmurs and insights in this direction beforehand, it was only around 1980 that scholars began to realize that the events of the Synoptic Gospels were wholesale reworkings of elements and stories in Hebrew scripture. A seminal work in this area was an article published in the Harvard Theological Review No. 73 (1980) by George Nickelsburg, entitled “The Genre and Function of the Markan Passion Narrative.

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The Gospels under a microscope

Nickelsburg first of all clinched the case that the entire Markan passion story is made up of building blocks extracted from the prophets and the Psalms, in some cases literally ‘chipped out’ of their scriptural settings and set into place in a new composition like a bricks-and-mortar construction.

Cleansing of the Temple

Thus, Hosea 9:15, “Because of their evil deeds I will drive them from my house,” and Zechariah 14:21, “No trader shall be seen in the house of the Lord,” became the literal building blocks of the Cleansing of the Temple scene.

Agony in Gethsemane

Psalm 42:5, “How deep I am cast in misery, groaning in my distress,” supplied Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane.

Beatings of Jesus

Isaiah 50:6-7, “I offered my back to the lash. . . I did not hide my face from spitting and insult,” was inserted literally and graphically into the picture of the ordeals which Jesus underwent.

Gambling for Jesus’ clothes

At the foot of the cross the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ garments because Psalm 22:18 said: “They divided my garments among them and for my raiments they cast lots.”

And so on.

There is scarcely a thread in the entire fabric of the passion story which has not been extracted from the scriptural tapestry. (In The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man I trace in detail the course of Mark’s passion story through its scriptural and literary sources.)

But it was not only at the nitty-gritty level that Mark used scripture to craft his story. Nickelsburg revealed that the overall shape of it followed a common generic model found in centuries of Jewish writing: read more »


2011-10-03

Explaining the noble lies (or pious fiction) in the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey
Walk on the water

Image via Wikipedia

Mainstream scholars struggle trying to explain why the Gospel authors included clearly symbolic — nonhistorical — tales about Jesus in their gospel narratives.

Marcus J. Borg, Mark Allan Powell, Dale C. Allison, Roger David Aus, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong and Robert Gundry are some of the scholars who acknowledge tales such as the virgin birth, Jesus walking on water, the transfiguration, the miracles of the loaves, the resurrection appearances are fabrications, metaphors.

(So much for that argument that there were enough surviving eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses to keep the evangelists honest!)

Marcus J. Borg writes of stories like Jesus and Peter walking on water, the turning the water into wine at the Cana wedding, and the virgin birth:

Purely metaphorical narratives . . . are not based on the memory of particular events, but are symbolic narratives created for their metaphorical meaning. As such, they are not meant as historical reports. (p.  57, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary) read more »


2011-08-05

Messiahs, Midrash and Mythemes — more comparisons with the Gospels

by Neil Godfrey

6th August: expanded “the trial” comparison into “The face to face confrontation of secular and religious leaders

Comparing other rabbinic midrash with the Gospels

In my previous post I covered Galit Hasan-Rokem’s comparisons of some early Christian and rabbinic midrash. In this post I comment on Hasan-Rokem’s discussions of other tales in the midrash of Lamentations Rabbah and draw my own comparisons with the Gospels.

An image of the French philosopher, Claude Lév...

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Image via Wikipedia

The second rabbinic story of a Messiah discussed by Hasan-Rokem is one about the death of “King Messiah” Bar Kochba. Here the messiah is the villain. (Rabbinic sources subsequently referred to him as Bar Kozeba, Son of Lies.) I think there are a number of interesting plot and motif similarities here, just as there are between the messiah birth narratives of the Christian and rabbinic literature and that were detailed in the previous post. But what makes the overlaps interesting is considering an explanation for them through the constructs of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. If this turns out to be an invalid process, invalidly applied, fair enough. But let’s see what it might possibly suggest till then.

The midrashic tale is found in full (and re-edited) in the last half of the post titled Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales (and have since copied it again at the end of this post, too.)

First, the common elements. I can see about 20. Some are more “distinctly defining” attributes that signal a common idea than others: #10 and #17 are surely tell-tale (DNA-linking) ones. read more »


Midrash and Gospels 3: What some Jewish scholars say (and continuing ‘Midrash Tales of the Messiah’)

by Neil Godfrey

Jewish scholars of midrash have recognized that “midrashic” techniques, methods of interpretation of texts in the Hebrew Bible, have been creatively woven into Christian Gospel narrative and teaching material as much as Jews worked creatively with midrash in their own literature.

Jon D. Levenson

Jon D. Levenson wrote The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son : The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity to argue essentially that the “Christ of faith” figure in the Gospels and Pauline epistles was a distinctively Christian-Jewish midrashic creation:

Jesus’ identity as sacrificial victim, the son handed over to death by his loving father or the lamb who takes away the sins of the world . . . ostensibly so alien to Judaism, was itself constructed from Jewish reflection on the beloved sons of the Hebrew Bible. . . . (p. x)

Another theme of Levenson’s work is that the Christian understanding that Jewish religion was obsolete is also the product of a midrash on Jewish scriptures:

[T]he longstanding claim of the Church that it supersedes the Jews in large measure continues the old narrative pattern in which a late-born son dislodges his first-born brothers, with varying degrees of success. Nowhere does Christianity betray its indebtedness to Judaism more than in its supersessionism. (p. x)

So we have a scholar of Jewish midrash expounding on the idea that the most central Christian beliefs found in the New Testament were created from a form of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible (midrash) that was shared by Second Temple Jews and Jewish-Christians alike. read more »


2011-08-04

Midrash and the Gospels 2: debates in the scholarly sphere

by Neil Godfrey

(Added a paragraph commentary in the “proves historicity” section about half an hour after original posting.)

New Testament scholars do not speak with one voice when it comes to applying the word “midrash” to the Gospels. Some have resolutely opposed the idea; others take its justification in their stride. In this post I would like to demonstrate something of the fact of this diversity of opinion as I encountered it on a yahoo! group for informal scholarly discussion  about the historical Jesus, Crosstalk (1998/9) and its successor, Crosstalk2 (current).

The last exemplar I include is one that is argued not only Jack Kilmon (and John Spong), but also by Earl Doherty — though Jack himself may not like the association. But the argument almost necessarily follows in some manner from any proposition that any of the Gospel narratives are midrash.

That the Gospels contain/consist of Midrash

Jack Kilmon: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk/message/1490

I think the virgin birth thingy got started with the Matthean scribe in his zeal for OT attestation. Not being Semitic competent, the Matthean scribe used the LXX for Isaiah which translates the ALMAH as PARTHENOS. From that point, I believe the Matthean scribe was engaging in midrash. read more »


2011-08-03

Midrash and the Gospels 1: Some definitions and explanations

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: read more »


2011-08-01

Gospel Prophecy (and History) through Ancient Jewish Eyes: The Massacre of the Innocents

by Neil Godfrey
10th century

Image via Wikipedia

I used to be always a little troubled or at least mystified by the way the author of the Gospel of Matthew found “a prophecy” for Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” (all the infants two years old and under) in Bethlehem in hopes of killing off the one born to replace him as king of the Jews. The prophecy of this event was found in this verse in Jeremiah 31:15, but that passage is not a prediction of anything. Was Matthew twisting scriptures or what?

Matthew 2:16-18

16Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth and slew all the children who were in Bethlehem and in all the region thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

17Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,

18“In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation and weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted, because they are no more.”

To get some idea of why this particular prophecy is at the least a little mystifying, here is the verse in Jeremiah’s context: read more »


2011-07-22

Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales

by Neil Godfrey
Galit Hasan Rokem

Galit Hasan Rokem: Image via Wikipedia

A Jewish professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Galit Hasan-Rokem, has argued that the Gospels grew out of a Jewish folklore-midrashic tradition. The Gospels are not written as folklore so there are obvious differences. And midrash has a variety of applications, but in general it is a Jewish approach interpretations of the scriptures that can be applied to a number of different literary genres with different purposes and for different audiences. The intent is to inject new meanings into scriptures, often by applying them to newly created stories or new experiences within the Jewish communities.

So the distinctive feature of midrash is a weaving of passages from scripture into stories or commentaries (or other) to explore new meanings for them. I will discuss the nature of midrash more fully in a future post, and will include one of the best explanations/definitions of it that I can find — a small passage by James L. Kugel in his book, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts. This will show more explicitly the extent to which the Gospels have been  influenced by Jewish midrashic thought and style.

Thomas L. Brodie wrote a small book demonstrating the way the Gospels structured much of their narratives of Jesus around the stories of Elijah and Elisha, but did not like to use the word midrash. The reason was not because midrash was wrong, but because it was too general to be particularly useful. The gospels needed a narrower definition to capture their nature. But clearly the midrashic ways of Jewish writing are found throughout the Gospels.

Rather than discuss midrash as it was known to ancient Jews and the specific similarities with many features in both the Gospels and epistles of Paul, I will just post “on record” two examples of midrashic literature applied to the folklore genre. They are from Galit Hasan-Rokem’s final chapter in Web Of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature in which she discusses three midrashic tales about the Messiah.

This way I will have something online that I can refer to when I do discuss the topic in a little more depth. But remember the following are midrash at work in folklore tales. The Gospels are not the same genre as folklore, but we do find the same midrashic features in them, i.e., retelling old scripture  passages and biblical stories in new ways.

Birth of the Messiah read more »