What is midrash? I use here the explanation of the Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin:
Although a whole library could (and has been) written on midrash, for the present purposes it will be sufficient to define it as a mode of biblical reading that brings disparate passages and verses together in the elaboration of new narratives. It is something like the old game of anagrams in which the players look at words or texts and seek to form new words and texts out of the letters that are there. The rabbis who produced the midrashic way of reading considered the Bible one enormous signifying system, any part of which could be taken as commenting on or supplementing any other part. They were thus able to make new stories out of fragments of older ones (from the Bible itself), via a kind of anagrams writ large; the new stories, which build closely on the biblical narratives but expand and modify them as well, were considered the equals of the biblical stories themselves.
Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, 78 – my highlighting in all quotations
Boyarin in the same volume refutes a Christian scholar who spoke of the same kind of interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures as “Christian exegesis” as they wove passages from Daniel, Isaiah and the Psalms to tell the story of the Passion. No, says Boyarin, it was part and parcel of the Jewish way of reading their sacred writings and some of those Jews took that “anagram” game into the direction that we read in the gospels:
C.H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology (London: Nisbet, 1952), 116-19 . . . ascribed the transfer of this theme from the People of the Holy Ones of God (a corporate entity) to Jesus (an individual) on the basis of an alleged “Christian exegetical tradition which thinks of Jesus as the inclusive representative of the People of God.” The “Christian” exegetical tradition has its point of origin in Daniel 7, which was then naturally joined in the manner of midrash with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and to the Psalms of the Righteous Sufferer, for which there was apparently also a tradition of messianic reading. I think, however, that this is not a special Christian exegetical tradition but one that is plausible enough to have been the extant Jewish tradition even aside from Jesus.
Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, 186
When we read the later rabbinical literature we find various rabbis are documented as having interpreted various biblical passages — names mentioned, turns of phrase, situations — in mutually supporting of conflicting ways. I wonder if whoever wrote the gospels expected readers to approach them the same way. When we read, for example, the sudden appearance of characters in the narrative who seem to add nothing to the story, we find ourselves asking, “What was the author thinking?” Why does he unexpectedly name certain women at the cross of Jesus and even their son’s names and tell us nothing more about them? What’s going on?
I am going to try to write a couple of posts in which I let my imagination play with a “what if” scenario. What if the Gospel of Mark were written to be read as midrash with readers meant to ask, Why does the text say this? — and look for answers in the “Old Testament” the way rabbis used to do.
It’s speculative, yes, but it’s a game — of narrative anagrams — to see what is possible.
We start with Mark 15:42-46
It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. (NIV)
|Rabbi Benjamin asked,||Why does it say that Joseph of Arimathea placed the body of Jesus in the tomb cut out of rock?|
|Rabbi Maguer answered,||Because Joseph placed the body of his father Israel in a cave (Genesis 50:13). Jesus was like Israel, as it is written, after Jesus was baptized he went into the wilderness for forty days and was tested as Israel went through the Red Sea into the wilderness and was tested forty years. So the last Israel, Jesus, was buried by Joseph in a tomb, like a cave, carved out of rock.
And do not wonder why Joseph should bury Jesus as Joseph buried his father. The answer is in the saying that the first Jesus (Joshua) was from Joseph. So Joseph is in spirit the father of Jesus. (Exodus Rabba 48:4 cites a Jewish truncated genealogy for Joshua “And so you find in Joshua that he came from Joseph” — see translation. cf Joshua 24:29-33; 1 Chron. 7:20-27)
|Rabbi Gershom asked,||But why does it say Joseph of Arimathea? We know of no town Arimathea.|
|Rabbi Maguer said,||Because Arimathea is in Hebrew “After Death” (’a·ḥar mōṯ). Joseph was as dead when he was cast in the pit by his brethren but he came back, as if after death, to become one of the leaders in Egypt. He appears again after the death of Jesus to bury him in the cave.|
|Then Rabbi Benjamin awoke and said,||And that is why the gospel says Joseph was a “prominent member of the Council”. Joseph was a ruler in Egypt. We read that Joseph, as ruler, went to Pharaoh and his counselors to ask for permission to bury Israel his father. So it was fitting that the new Joseph approach Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. (Genesis 50, 4, 6)|
They stroked their beards and knew they were wise.
Someone searching for the meaning of the name Maguer I have used will find the answer in
- Maguer, Sandrick Le. Portrait d’Israël en jeune fille: Genèse de Marie. Gallimard, Paris: 2008.
because Sandrick Le Maguer is the one who published most of the above explanation in that book.
I’m going to venture another one, this time my own. Why does Mark take the trouble to list the names of Jesus’ brothers and then drop them from the narrative? And why does he select the names he does, as if, as Paula Fredriksen said,
It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past. (Jesus of Nazareth, p.240)
But if the author wanted to identify Jesus’ brothers with Israel’s past, why choose Simon and not Isaac or Reuben? Here is the passage, Mark 6:1-4 Continue reading “Reading the Gospel of Mark as Midrash”