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:
- midrash: some definitions and explanations
- midrash and gospels: survey of some scholarly views and debates
- 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:
- Midrash Haggadah — exegesis from a devotional or ethical viewpoint, often expressed in freely imaginative ways;
- 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)
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):
(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:
- Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds,
- 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.
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:
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.
> > 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.
- Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales (vridar.org)
- Gospel Prophecy (and History) through Ancient Jewish Eyes: The Massacre of the Innocents (vridar.org)
- Archive of posts on Spong’s Liberating the Gospels (vridar.org)
- Doherty’s chapter 8 in outline and McGrath’s review (vridar.org)
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