Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales

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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

The first example of folklore midrash is a tale about the birth of the Messiah. One will notice a number of parallels with the tales in Matthew and Luke. I will address these in my future post. It is also of interest to note that this particular midrash follows hard after passages discussing a number of Miriams (Mary’s), so though the mother is not named in this tale, it is not hard to think where audience’s minds would wander. (The translation is more literal than aesthetic, but never mind.)

Once upon a time a man was plowing.

An Arab passed by and asked: “What are you?”

He answered, “I am a Jew.”

He said to him, “Unharness your ox and untie your plough.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because the Temple of the Jews is destroyed.”

Said he, “How do you know this?”

He said, “I know it from the lowing of your ox.”

While he was talking to him, the ox lowed again.

The Arab said to him: “Harness your ox and tie up your plough, because the redeemer of the Jews is born.”

Said he, “What is his name?”

He answered, “His name is Menahem” [Comforter].

“And his father, what is his name?”

He answered, “Hezekiah” [In God is my strength].

“And where do they live?”

He answered, “In Birat Ha-Aravah, in Bethlehem of Judah.”

The man sold his ox and plow and brought swathes [to wrap his children]. He journeyed from hamlet to hamlet, and from town to town, until he arrived. All the villagers came to buy from him, but that woman, the infant’s mother, bought nothing from him.

He asked her, “Why do you not buy swathes?”

She answered, “Because I fear hardships are in store for my child.” [The text is difficult here, possibly also: “hardships from my child.]

“Why?” he asked.

Said she, “Because close to his coming the Temple was destroyed.”

Said he, “We trust the Master of the Universe that, as it was destroyed close to his coming, so close to his coming will it be rebuilt.”

He said, “Take from these swathes for your child.”

She said, “I have no money.”

Said he, “Do not worry, come buy them and after some days I will come to your house and collect the money.”

She took some and left.

A few days later the man said, “I will go and see how the child is faring.”

He went to her and said: “That child, how is he?”

She answered, “Did I not tell you that I feared hardships, . . . from that time, winds and whirlwinds came and lifted him away.”

Said he, “Did I not tell you it was destroyed at his coming, and at his coming it will be rebuilt?”

R. Avin said, “Why should I learn this from an Arab? Is it not explicitly written, ‘And Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one’ (Isaiah 10:34), and afterwards it is written, ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots’” (Isaiah 11:1). – Lamentations Rabbah 1:16

The Death of a Messiah

This folklore tale is another midrash about Bar Kochba. I have kept the form of the name as it appears in Hasan-Rokem’s Web of Life – Ben Kozbah. Many familiar with the Gospels will probably find it much easier to quickly recognize similarities.

Said R. Yohannan: “Eighty thousand trumpeters besieged Bethar, each commanding several companies, and Ben Kozbah commanded two hundred thousand men with amputated fingers.

The sages sent word to him: ‘Till when will you go on mutilating the men of Israel?’

Said he: ‘How else shall I test them?’

They answered, ‘Do not enlist anyone who cannot uproot a cedar from Lebanon.’

He sent word that he had done so, and now had two hundred thousand men of one sort and two hundred thousand men of the other.

When going into battle, he said: ‘Lord of the Universe, do not help us, and do not shame us either, as it is written, Hast thou not rejected us, O God? So that thou goest not forth, O God, with our hosts?” (Psalm 60:12).

What was Ben Kozbah’s strength?

They said: ‘When going into battle, he caught the catapults with one of his knees and hurled them back, killing several people.’

Said R. Yohannan: “When R. Akiva [Aqiba] looked at Ben Kozbah he said, ‘There shall come a star out of Jacob’ (Numbers 24:17). ‘A star out of Jacob,’ this refers to king Messiah.”

R. Yohannan b. Torttha said: “Akiva, grass will grow on your cheeks, and still the son of David will not have come.”

For three and a half years, Hadrian besieged Bethar. And R. Eleazar of Modi’in sat wearing sackcloth and ashes and prayed: ‘Lord of the Universe, do not sit in judgment today, do not sit in judgment today!’

As Hadrian could not conquer the city, he considered withdrawing.

A Cuthean [Samaritan] was with him, and he said [to Hadrian]: “Be patient today and I will help you subdue it. But as long as this hen sits on the hatchlings, on the sackcloth and on the ashes, you cannot conquer it.”

After the apostate had said what he said, he entered the city. He found R. Eleazar standing and praying. He pretended to whisper in his ear, and R. Eleazar did not notice him.”

People went and told Ben Kozbah: ‘Your friend [uncle?] asked to surrender the city.’

He sent for the apostate and said to him: ‘What did you say to him?’

He replied: ‘If I tell you, I divulge the king’s [Hadrian’s] secrets, and if I do not, you will kill me. Better you should kill me than the king, and the king’s secrets should not be known.”

Nevertheless, Ben Kozbah still believed that R. Eleazar had intended to surrender the city.

When Eleazar finished praying, Ben Kozbah sent for him and asked: ‘What did the Cuthean say to you?’

Said he: ‘I did not see the man.’

Ben Kozbah kicked him and killed him. A heavenly voice [bat qol] then issued forth and declared: ‘Woe to the worthless shepherd who forsakes the flock! The sword shall be upon his arm, and upon his right eye, his arm shall be dried up, and his right eye shall be darkened’ (Zekhariah 11:17).

Said the Holy One, blessed be He, “You have broken the arm of Israel and blinded its right eye; therefore, Ben Kozbah’s arm will wither and his right eye will dim.’

Forthwith, Bethar was conquered and Ben Kozbah was killed. His head taken to Hadrian, who asked: ‘Who killed him?’

‘A soldier killed him,’ they replied.

Hadrian did not believe them and ordered: ‘Go and bring his body to me.’

They went and brought his body, and found a snake curled on his knees.

Said he: ‘Had his God not slain him, who could have beaten him? To fulfil the verse, ‘unless their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had shut them up’” (Deuteronomy 32:30). – Lamentations Rabbah 2:2

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales”

  1. After the Christian leadership decided not to validate any more visions of Jesus Christ, on the Firmament, being crucified, buried and raised from the dead, later converts to the religion were supposed to be satisfied with hearing the story told by the first Chrisitans who did experience that vision. Eventually, some of these late converts began writing so-called “gospels”, which were happy-ending storied about Jesus descending from the Firmament to Earth in order to console the late converts.

    These gospels, a “fan fiction” of their time, were written by many people, who used many, varied motifs. Some used Midrash tales, some used Jewish scriptures about ancient prophets, some used Greek mythology, and so forth and so on. There were many cultural sources and many cultural references.

    The central story, however, was that God the Father sent his Son from Heaven down to the Firmament, to be crucified, buried and raised from the dead, in a passion play that demonstrated God the Father’s love for beings who lived below the heavens. All the other stories from all the other various cultural sources were added to that central story.

    The second Midrash story in the above article ends with an incident where a Ben Kozbah was killed in mysterious circumstances. His head, detached from his body, and the given explanation was that he was killed by a soldier. Then the investigation was continued, and his headless body was found, and a snake was curled on the body’s knees. Therefore the explanation was revised — Ben Kozbah was killed by God, who sent a snake to bite and poison Ben Kozbah.

    The Gospel According John (3:14-15) tells that Jesus stated to the Pharisee Nicodemus that in order for human beings to have eternal life, “the Son of Man” would have to be lifted up like the bronze serpent was lifted up by Moses in the Wilderness. Jesus’ statement referred to a story told in Numbers, Chapter 21, about a plague of snakes that God afflicted on the wandering Jews, to punish them for complaining about the bad food and water they had to consume on their way from the Wilderness to the Promised Land. Then God told Moses to raise a bronze sculpture of a snake on a pole, and any Jews who had been poisoned by snakes could just look at that bronze snake and be purified from the snake poison.

    Anyway, I think that this Midrash story about Ben Kozbah being killed by a snake sent by God — if this story indeed is linked to the Christian passion play — might likewise be a reference to the story told about the snake plague in Numbers.

  2. What I found particularly striking about the second tale was the way OT scriptures were dropped in to the narrative in a manner very similar to what we see in the Gospel Passion scenes of Jesus. (I mention this with McGrath’s criticism in mind — he simply says I and Doherty and Spong are just flat wrong when we speak of midrashic style but won’t tell us why we are wrong. My reading of Jewish scholars specializing in studies of midrash inform me that midrash is primarily a method of interpretation that applies across a number of literary genres — contra McGrath who says midrash itself is a genre. I am beginning to suspect McGrath should be read with caution whenever he speaks outside his area of expertise which is NT literature and language.)

    As for the first tale, the similarities with Matthew and Luke are more subtle. There is the revelation of the birth of a messiah to someone who must then travel back to Bethlehem looking for the mother of the babe. There is the “swaddling clothes” and the contextual hint that the mother is Mary. All this is in the book and I will be posting on it in some depth soon.

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