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:
- Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales
- Gospel Prophecy (and History) through Ancient Jewish Eyes: The Massacre of the Innocents
- Midrash and the Gospels 1: Some definitions and explanations
- Midrash and the Gospels 2: debates in the scholarly sphere
- Midrash and Gospels 3: What some Jewish scholars say (and continuing ‘Midrash Tales of the Messiah’)
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”?
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.
Another midrash says that Moses killed the Egyptian (recall the story of Moses killing the Egyptian overseer before being forced to flee into the wilderness) by pronouncing the holy unspeakable name of God. We don’t read that in our versions of Exodus. But when the Israelite who was chastised by Moses threw back in Moses’ face the fact that he was known to have killed the Egyptian, the Hebrew narrating the Israelite’s words literally means “Will you kill me, you say, as you killed the Egyptian?” Rabbis thought it a bit confusing that there was this extraneous reference to “saying” there, so they interpreted it as meaning that Moses killed the Egyptian by word of mouth — and the only word with the power to kill would have been the divine name.
One final example. The book of Genesis tells us that Jacob was embalmed and buried. A midrash, however, says Jacob never died. The rationale? When describing the deaths of Abraham and Isaac the Bible uses the words “expired” and “died” and the phrase “was gathered to his people”. When Genesis comes to the Jacob’s demise, however, it only uses the word “expired” (“died” is not found) and “was gathered to his people”.
The question Chaim Milikowsky asks is this:
Did the rabbis themselves believe these midrashic stories? We have reason to believe they did believe the Biblical narratives absolutely and literally (with only a few exceptions such as the Book of Job). Did they believe their midrashic creations were just as absolutely and literally true in history?
Milikowsky’s answer is unequivocal. No. I won’t repeat here the arguments. But we can see that there would be something amiss if they could believe both the biblical account of Jacob being embalmed and buried and the midrash that he did not die.
So what are we to make of the midrash that Jacob did not die? What is its “truth” status?
The rabbi who is declaring that Jacob did not die explains to his interlocutor who knows Jacob was embalmed and buried so can’t understand how it can be said he did not die:
I am engaged in Bible elucidation.
He then cites Jeremiah 30:10
Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob, saith the LORD; neither be dismayed, O Israel: for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and shall be in rest, and be quiet, and none shall make him afraid.
The rabbi explains:
Israel (=Jacob) is compared to his seed; just as his seed is alive so too is he alive.
Recall the slight variation in wording between the account of Abraham’s and Isaac’s deaths on one hand and Jacob’s on the other. Milikowsky explains:
For the midrashist, the absence of any verb from the root . . . “to die”, in the description of Jacob’s death cannot be by chance, but must be understood as communicating to us the Bible’s message that Jacob did not die. (p. 125)
So the Bible provides the cue for the midrashist to be alert for a spiritual message or additional meaning at a higher level than the “historical data” being narrated.
The “truth” of the matter
So what is the rabbi who is midrashically arguing that Jacob did not die wanting his hearers/readers to understand? Milikowsky channels what he believes is the thinking of this midrash-making rabbi:
“You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-histoircal depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.”
Milikowsky continues in his own voice:
Midrash comes to tell us a story placed in the biblical text by God, having no necessary relationship to the actual historical events, but whose purpose is to give us a message from God. That message is being explained . . . by [the rabbi citing Jeremiah and saying Jacob did not die]. God’s exclusion of any mention of Jacob’s death is a promise found midrashically in Genesis and explicitly in Jeremiah: for [the midrashist rabbi], Jacob’s nondeath is a promise that his seed shall exist forever. (p. 125, my bolding)
That is, midrash is quite distinct from, in another dimension from, in a parallel universe to, the historical-literal narrative of the original scriptures.
Midrash is the rabbis’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people and not the rabbis’ reconstruction of what happened in the biblical past. (p. 125)
Why the rabbis (and evangelists?) used fiction
So Chaim Milikowsky is convinced the rabbis at no time doubted the “Bible Truth” of their Scriptures. They were historical and literal facts about the past. So why should they use fiction (as in midrash) to narrate the “truth” of God’s messages and deeper meanings to them?
Milikowsky compares their rationales with those of Plato. In his Republic (Book 3), Plato, through Socrates, explains that poets like Homer have been the most unworthy mythmakers because their myths attributed to gods many bad deeds. Myths, or lies, or fictions, do have a place, but they must be created and administered by those who are worthy and true. To the Greeks these were the philosophers; to the Jews post 70 CE, the rabbis. Myths, fictions, potentially embodied worthy and noble spiritual and moral truths for the good of their hearers. No-one could really know what happened in days of old — only God knew — so worthy individuals, like physicians caring for the health of their clients, had a duty to teach virtues through the most effective ways known. And what better way to teach a lesson than to tell a good story! (And at least one of these myths is still believed among a fair number of people today — the myth of Atlantis.)
The rabbis appear to have done their own version of the Greek creations of new myths. Not that Milikowsky is suggesting that Plato was in the warp and woof of rabbinic culture.
Nonetheless, I do want to propose that there is some sort of relationship between the subject of Plato’s discussion and the beginnings of rabbinic narrative midrash. Plato had a problem: he recognized that a culture needed stories that portray ultimate meaning in various ways. (p. 126)
The birth era of Christianity coincided with an emerging view that the traditional myths of the Greek gods were either immoral and harmful or simply harmless. Some salvaged them by means of allegories. The same period (late Hellenistic and early Roman) saw the development of fictional romances. The rabbis were finding deeper spiritual truths through midrashic interpretations of the Scriptures. The Christians . . . ?
These various ways of judging and valuing the traditional stories of myth were widespread and popular and very plausibly penetrated rabbinic culture in Palestine. I would like to suggest, therefore, that the rabbinic presentation of their responses to ultimate issues by means of fictional tales — that is, their creation of midrashic narratives — developed in consequence of the broad identification of large segments of Greek traditional tales as fiction. From the Greek world, the rabbis took the basic idea that fiction is a valid way of projecting and proclaiming one’s beliefs and practices. (p. 127)
In place of “fiction” Chaim Milikowsky would prefer the term “creative mythology”.
Relevance for the Gospels?
We know that the authors of the Gospels were creatively re-writing passages in the Jewish Scriptures. We know they created characters and places whose names were clearly puns on the narratives associated with them. We know they were writing in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple when old identities must have been shattered for many and new ones sought — in tandem (and not without controversy) with the emergence of rabbinic Judaism.
Were the Gospels created to serve the same function as rabbinic midrash? Are the Gospels the evangelists’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people? Were they really reporting on Jesus? Or were they each creating their own view of Jesus as the epitome of the new word of God for a new time?
It was true in the sense that it was God’s new message for his people. It did not contradict the “literal history” of the Old. But would the distinction between the truth of the historical past (Adam, Moses, Titus, etc) and the truth of the new message from God (now being told through “creative mythology” and midrash) have clearly registered in the minds of most ordinary hearers for very long?
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