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.
Levenson’s work discusses the midrashic development of this idea through Jewish sectarian literature and on into its application in early Christian writings. The whole Christ of faith concept — the “only son” being sent to be “a sacrifice to atone for sins” and bring believers into a new family that supersedes the old is an idea entirely born of midrash. When New Testament scholars suggest that the disciples of Jesus turned to scripture in order to interpret the life and death of Jesus, they are in effect saying that they did what was customary among erudite Jews of the day: they engaged in midrash to explain their current situation.
As we saw in the previous post, it is legitimate to argue that the Synoptic Gospels flesh out a narrative of this Jesus through a midrash on the Elijah-Elisha cycle, with many other midrashic elements filling in the details. But if using the word “midrash” here offends some, I am quite willing never to mention it and speak entirely of creative “intertextuality”, “transvaluation”, “emulation”, etc. After all, a rose by any other name . . . .
While on the work of Levenson, here are a few more excerpts from The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son that demonstrate that in his view not only the large picture of the “Christ of faith” is of midrashic manufacture, but that specific narrative tales in the Gospels and other scriptural references woven into the narrative (and in the epistles) are also “midrashic”.
Equating the suffering servant of Isaiah and the sacrificial Isaac with Jesus is Midrash
Whether the interlacing of Gen 22:2, 12, and 16 with Isa 42:1 was original to the evangelists or a legacy of prior Jewish exegesis is unknown. Either way, the equation of Isaac with the suffering servant has its own potent midrashic logic. For . . . the suffering unto death of the servant of YHWH had also had analogized to the condition of a sheep about to be slaughtered . . . .
It may well be that the catalyst for this second midrashic equation [equating Isaiah’s Servant and Isaac with Jesus] was the prior identification of Jesus with the paschal lamb . . . . (p. 201)
Midrash in Mark
The midrashic equation underlying the heavenly announcement of Mark 1:11 and its parallels makes explicit the theology of chosenness that lies at the foundation of the already ancient and well-established idea of the beloved son: the chosen one is singled out for both exaltation and humiliation, for glory and for death . . . . (p. 202)
Midrash in Matthew
The New Testament equivalent of this Israelite notion of the birth of the beloved son to a barren woman is the story of the virgin birth of Jesus (Matt 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38) . . . . In [Matthew], the idea is midrashically linked to Isa 7:14, which speaks of a “young woman” . . . giving birth to a son named “Immanuel.” The midrash in question seems to depend upon the Septuagint rendering of ‘alma as parthenos, a Greek word that often denotes a virgin (Matt 1:22-23). (p. 205-6)
Midrash in Luke
In the case of Luke, the idea of the Virgin Birth is [midrashically] associated with the titles “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God” and with Jesus’ claims upon the Davidic throne (Luke 1:32-35). Underlying this is an extremely literal understanding of the Judean royal theology and its characterization of the Davidic king as YHWH’s son. (p. 206)
Midrash in John
The second scriptural quotation, Zech 12:10, is brought in order to make sense of the Roman soldier’s thrusting his lance into the dead man’s side: according to the evangelist, this, too, fulfills a prophecy. Here it is useful to remember that the relevance of a verse often extends beyond the words that the midrashist cites. In the case of Zech 12:10, it is highly suggestive to note the words that follow those cited in John 19:37:
. . . wailing over them as over a favorite son and showing bitter grief as over a first-born. (Zech 12:10c)
We have already had occasion to observe that the word here rendered “favorite son” . . . seems to have been, at least on occasion, a technical term for the son sacrificed as a burnt offering. (p. 207)
(The surrounding scriptures of the source of the midrash, even though not mentioned in the midrash itself, are commonly considered significant in the interpretation of midrash. One is reminded here of the (Goulder? Spong?) suggestion that the name of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, was derived from the book that came just prior to Malachi, the book speaking of the Elijah to come and that was used to apply to john the Baptist.)
Midrash in Paul
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his descendant. It does not say, “And to descendants,” as referring to many, but as referring to one, who is Christ. (Gal 3:16)
Paul’s midrash in v 16 turns upon his interpretation of the morphologically singular collective noun . . . . Paul’s midrash on the one word . . . “and to your descendant(s),” exemplifies a familiar and uneventful Jewish exegetical technique. (pp. 210-211)
Much early christology is Midrash
Much early christology is thus best understood as a midrashic recombination of biblical verses associated with Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham, with the suffering servant of Isaiah who went, Isaac-like, unprotesting to his slaughter, and with another miraculous son, the son of David, the future messianic king whom the people of Israel awaited to restore the nation and establish justice and peace throughout the world. (p. 218)
I have presented Levenson’s central ideas more comprehensively in a series of posts that have been archived at Levenson: Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.
James L. Kugel
In my first post of this series I quoted discussion from James L. Kugel’s In Potiphar’s House (another study of Jewish midrash) that demonstrated his clear understanding that Jewish midrash (understood as a particular way of interpreting the Scriptures) was found in the New Testament literature as much as in later rabbinic writings. I repeat some of those quotations here, and follow them with other quotations from In Potiphar’s House indicating Kugel’s application of the term “midrash” to specific New Testament passages.
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)
[A]ncient 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. . . .
But [the Talmuds, Midrash Rabbah and the like are] 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.
Kugel extends some of his discussions on specific midrash to certain New Testament passages, such as the following:
Midrash in John
It is interesting that there is even an echo of this midrash [i.e. Genesis Rabba 68:12*] in the New Testament:
Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-51)
How do we know that this New Testament passage is part of the above midrashic tradition, and not simply an allusion to the mention of angels “ascending and descending” in Genesis? Because it says “angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” Clearly this belongs to the exegetical school represented by R. Yannai above, that is, the one that takes bo in the Genesis text to mean not “on the ladder” but “for Jacob.” So here too, bo is being taken as referring to a person, namely, “upon the Son of man.” (p. 115)
- The citation in the first line is to Genesis Rabba 68:12, and the particular midrash here is:
* R. Hiyya the Great and R. Yannai [disagreed]: one said they went up and down [bo] on the ladder; the other said they went up and down [bo] for Jacob. . . . as it is said, “Israel, by you am I made glorious” (Isa. 49:3) — you are the one whose portrait is carved on high. They went up to see his portrait, then went down to see him sleeping. (Genesis Rabba 68:12)
Summary of larger discussions on Matthew, Luke, Paul . . . .
After discussing midrash in Matt. 5:43-44 (“hate your enemy”), 2 Thess. 3:14-15 (a legal boundary), Luke 10:29-37 (The Good Samaritan) and Matt. 18:15 and other passages from DSS and Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
In sum, the early exegesis of our brief passage from Leviticus had far-reaching implications for the behavior of different Jewish communities in late antiquity. This exegesis, no less than the other instances of early interpretation [midrash] surveyed herein, depended on a very close sifting of the Bible’s words: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely reproach your neighbour, and you shall bear no sin because of him. You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against your countrymen, but you shall love your neighbour like yourself. . . .” Each of the italicized words, as we have seen, was the subject of speculation. The restrictions that were imposed on the basis of such expressions as “your brother,” “your neighbour,” and “your countrymen”; the hypocrisy and hiding that were understood to be meant by hatred “in the heart”; the multiple acts of reproach suggested by the emphatic, “doubled” verb (translated as “surely approach”); and the various identifications proposed for the unspecified “sin” avoided by open reproach — all of these interpretations [midrash] came out of the most minute examination of the divine text and its implications. (p. 240)
What implications are there for the authenticity of sayings if they can be best explained as the output of a chain of midrashic studies?
This section continues from an earlier post, Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales. In that post I copied in full two Jewish midrash folk tales, one about the birth of the Messiah and the other (a historical legend) about a Messiah’s death. I will refer back to those narratives in what follows.
Hasan-Rokem compares in particular the rabbinic midrashic tale about the birth of the Messiah with the birth narratives of Jesus in Luke and Matthew. The Jewish tale, and all its characters (including the infant Messiah himself), are of course entirely fictional, created to dramatize some midrashic interpretations of passages in the Hebrew scriptures. The second tale, on the other hand, includes a mix of historical persons and characters with names that are symbolic or typological of their roles in the story. In both there is a mix of explicit notice of the Hebrew scriptures being interpreted, and implicit references that rely on the reader’s knowledge of the Scriptures to be recognized. I draw attention to these features because they are all features of the way midrash is applied to the Gospel genre.
The narrative of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels is a midrash
In Web of Life Hasan-Rokem sometimes has cause to compare the plot elements of respective Jewish and Christian stories. The midrash itself lies narrative reinterpretation of passages in the “Old Testament” and that are woven into each of the narrative plots. Here is a case where Jewish and Christian midrash are applied to very similar forms of extended narrative literature. Of course the Gospels are not themselves of the folk tale genre, but they do borrow at times from that genre.
The plot elements do suggest a close affinity between this Midrash and that of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: the infant’s mother is poor, natural signs appear pointing to the miraculous birth (a star in the New Testament, a lowing ox in Lamentations Rabbah), a stranger (from the East?) brings the infant a present, and the mother is the central figure while the father is absent or marginal. Yet, the name of the Messiah’s mother in Lamentations Rabbah is not Miriam, despite the frequent appearance of the name in the work. Moreover, the mother in the birth story in Lamentations Rabbah reverses the figure of another mother linked to Beth Lehem, Rachel. Rachel’s love and faith will redeem her children; the mistrust and bitterness of the mother of the Messiah Menahem determine the story’s frustrating conclusion, when Menahem is lifted into heaven in a whirlwind.
Rachel is indeed the most powerful female figure in Lamentations Rabbah, and latent in her appearance in this text is also the strongest redemptive potential in this work. The God mourning the loss of his people sends his mourning prophet Jeremiah, to whom tradition ascribes the authorship of the biblical Book of Lamentations, to call “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Moses from their graves, as they know how to cry” (Lamentations Rabbah, proem 24). . . . . (p. 125-6)
Here Hasan-Rokem is comparing the plot elements of the respective Jewish and Christian stories. The midrash itself lies in the narrative that reinterpret passages in the “Old Testament” and that are woven through each of the narrative plots. Here is a case where Jewish and Christian midrash are applied to very similar forms of extended narrative literature. Of course the Gospels are not themselves of the folk tale genre, but they do borrow from that genre.
So with very similar plot elements — poverty, natural signs, announcements and gifts from strangers, a central mother and marginal father, hints of Mary and Rachel — the two narratives play with their respective midrashic elements:
The rabbinic tale relies on the midrashic understanding of the scriptures to create the motif of hearing certain types of news from non-Jews, and for weaving in the element of the messiah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (see below for the detailed explanation); the Christian tales draw from another midrash on the scriptures to create the details of the poverty and virginity of the mother, the place of birth, etc.
A similar exegesis on the verse from [Micah 5:2] appears in the birth stories in the Gospels of Mathew 1-2 and Luke 2, which the story about the birth of the Messiah Menahem closely resembles, including in such details as the discovery of the Messiah by a man who had wandered toward him from far away in the Jewish narrative, the three wise men or the three magi of the New Testament, the gifts to mother and infant, and the mother’s poverty in both traditions. These similarities, in details apparently lacking any theological significance, suggest that these are neither polemics nor imitations but parallels typical of folk narrative. Folk traditions were shared by those Jews who belonged to the majority and by others belonging to a minority group, who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and joined the early Christian Church, made up mostly of Jews. . . . . (p. 154, my emphasis)
For interest’s sake I quote another section from Hasan-Rokem’s discussion comparing the gospels with the rabbinic story. I have added emphasis and rearranged the format in list form for quicker and easier reading on a screen.
The story in Lamentations Rabbah resembles in many details, as noted, the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels of Matthew 2:1-8 and Luke 2:1-16.
- The stranger represented in the Midrash by the Arab is paralleled in Matthew by the three magi, who are priests of the Persian religion, also often mentioned in rabbinic writings. The Jew who finds the Messiah in Bethlehem likewise reaches him after many wanderings from hamlet to hamlet and from town to town, as the magi arrive from far, “from the East.”
- In the Luke story, the birth of the infant Messiah is announced to the shepherds who, like the Jew tilling the soil in the Midrash, are in the field when they hear the message. The shepherds are informed by the angels but, in Matthew, the magi follow a sign from nature, a star that announces or signals the birth of the Messiah. A sign from nature, in the shape of a lowing ox, also appears in the Midrash.
- In Matthew, the infant’s life is threatened by Herod the King, who contrives to obtain information about the birth of the child announced by the magi, and then kill him. The magi save the child when they counsel his parents to escape, and Herod spends his wrath by slaying all infants in the Bethlehem area. In the Midrash, the threat to the infant is conveyed through the fears harbored by his mother regarding his future, and in the PT version, as noted, by her explicit desire to strangle the enemies of Israel or the child himself.
- The Jew selling swathes tries to save the infant by giving some of his merchandise on credit to the mother, and informs her he will return to visit, but to no avail. Swathes are also mentioned in the Christian story, in the annunciation to the shepherds in Luke: “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (2:12). This child is indeed swaddled but, due to his parents’ poverty, resembling the mother’s poverty in the Talmudic-midrashic story, the birth takes place in a manger.
- A motive analogous to that of giving the swathes of credit appears in Matthew, in the lavish gifts brought by the magi from the East: gold, incense, and myrrh.
The story about the Messiah’s birth was thus a common tradition, a theme about which Jews in Palestine, beginning with the first century C.E., told stories in several versions. (p. 155-6)
Hasan-Rokem raises another perspective on this common image of a Messiah as a new-born infant born in poverty, with a prominent role for the mother, threatened with death, but destined to overturn history.
At another level, we may ponder about the perception of Messianism in a society that speaks of the Messiah as an infant born in dire poverty, whose life is threatened, and for whom the central, or even unique figure in life is his mother.
Hasan-Rokem sees in the imagery and plot elements here a broader cultural expression of a dream that is born out of all-pervading pain and loss. The messianic dream of hope is even a megalomaniacal. Both the Jewish and Christian cultures engaged with a hope of entrusting to a human individual the power to reverse all history. The dream of one destined to give hope to all found hope in a redeeming messiah in human shape, wrapped in the images of impotence of a swaddling infant. “The infant personifies hope for the future, but the threat to him will end in a catastrophe that, at most, can merely be postponed.”
Both are the sorts of stories that are best explained as the fantastic hopes of a people who have suffered terrible loss without any hope of future redemption. I personally think the post-70 scenario or even the events surrounding the Bar Kochba war are the most likely birth-places for this idea among Christians. It is from that period that the Gospel narratives appear.
Note also the common themes of bitterness and comfort:
In the sequence of the midrashic text, the story about the birth of the Messiah Menahem appears immediately after a number of stories about suffering women, all named Miriam . . . . The association with the name of Jesus’ mother, as noted, is almost inevitable. The Midrash does not identify the Messiah’s mother by name but, nevertheless, a phonological and topical association arises between the name of the child, Menahem, and the mother of the seven sons, Miriam the daughter of Tanhum. The root NHM, meaning comfort, which is found in the two Hebrew stories, and the name Miriam, meaning bitter, which is found in the Christian narrative and in one of the Hebrew stories, signal the process between consolation and grief that characterizes all three mothers. (p. 157)
(I have also liked the possibility that both Capernaum and Nazareth are midrashic insertions into the Gospel narratives. Capernaum likewise derives from the NHM (Comfort) root; and the previous post looks at the typically midrashic way in with Matthew manages to construe “Nazarene” from a town of Nazareth.)
Another midrashic element in common is the linking of Elijah to the advent of the Messiah. In the Jewish narrative the midrashic element is almost subliminal. One is reminded of the Gospel of Mark’s many scriptural allusions recognizable only to those familiar with the Jewish scriptures. Matthew’s Gospel, apparently written for an audience less familiar with midrash, appears to find it necessary to make the scriptural allusions more explicit.
When the man returns to Bethlehem, mainly to inquire after the child rather than to collect his money, the mother tells him that winds and storms have lifted the child away. On this issue, Fraenkel’s suggestion to turn to the Aramaic translation of the verse “and Elijah went up by a storm of wind into heaven” (Kings II, 2:11) is highly suggestive. This translation uses the same rare word for a storm (al’ol) as that found in the story about the birth of the Messiah, intimating a link between the motifs of Elijah and the Messiah. This connection will eventually become the central tenor in Jewish Messianic narrative throughout history, as Elijah is traditionally cast as the harbinger of the Messiah’s appearance (following the verse in Makakhi 4:5). (p. 160)
Messiahs, Mythemes and Midrash
I would like to conclude this series with one more post in which I discuss Hasan-Rokem’s study of three more rabbinic midrash stories relating to the fall of Jerusalem and messiahs or redeemers who give promise of a new community life after the destruction of the old. In this post the comparisons with the Gospels will be ones I myself call attention to (not Hasan-Rokem). I had originally intended to use them to conclude this post, but I have since seen the possibility of extending an understanding of them all through the framework laid out by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss for a study of myths. Others may think there is nothing to such a possibility, but I’d like to spill out a few thoughts nonetheless.
Till then, this post will conclude my little three-part series on the concept of Midrash as it applies in particular to the understanding the nature of the Gospels as literature.
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