Reading the Gospel of Mark as Midrash

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Then He went out from there and came to His own country, and His disciples followed Him. And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue. And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, “Where did this Man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands! Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” So they were offended at Him.

But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.”

Let’s convert those names into their transliterated Hebrew equivalents: Miriam, Jacob, Joseph, Judah and Simeon. And I take note of the context again: it is about prophets in the family who are not accepted by their kin. Think and consult the Scriptures…..

Mary/Miriam was a prophet who led the daughters of Israel in prophetic songs. The unit is enclosed, in good ancient style, by the message or moral of the story, followed by Mary and the sisters.

People express disbelief in Jesus
Jacob Joseph
Judah Simeon
Prophets  are rejected at home

Miriam was a prophet (or “prophetess” – Exodus 15:20) whom Jewish tradition associated with the miracle of the rock that supplied water. She led the daughters of Israel (think sisters?) in singing praises to God for the miracles he performed.

Of the foundational names of Israel we have the first two names of the middle section: Jacob (who is also Israel, of course) and Joseph. They are both in the Genesis account depicted as prophets: Jacob in Genesis 49 and Joseph passim. They are also both rejected by their brethren. Jacob fled for his life from Esau and Joseph was sold by his brothers who hated him.

Next we have Judah and Simeon. Judah, like his namesake in the gospel, plotted an act of betrayal for money. Judah, hating Joseph, proposed to sell his brother to slave traders (Genesis 37:26-27). Simeon closes the list and is accordingly bracketed with Jacob and if our anagram is correct we should associate him in a negative way with the first name, Jacob. Jacob rebuked Simeon for — and I prefer the King James translation — making his reputation “stink” in the land. (Simeon in Genesis is coupled with Levi but to add Levi would spoil the pattern and rabbis were not particularly worried about cutting corners like that to make their explanations sound “true”.)

Now all of the above could well have nothing more secure to justify it than my own imagination. I have no independent evidence to suggest that that was in the mind of the author.

My point is that it is possible to draw from the Jewish Scriptures explanations that further the doctrinal message of that little pericope. The names listed, along with (or especially with) their bracketing Mary and sisters, remind one — at least they have the potential to remind one — of the prophetic tradition of Israel and the disasters that accompanied that tradition. In the middle of the prophets Miriam and the daughters of Israel we have the namesakes of early prophets of Israel who suffered rejection and disgrace at the hands of their brethren.

Hence Mary, Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Simeon and the sisters drive home the irony of the hometown people mocking their neighbour Jesus as if he “thinks he’s some sort of prophet”.

Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. New York: The New Press, 2012.

Maguer, Sandrick Le. Portrait d’Israël en jeune fille: Genèse de Marie. Gallimard: Paris, 2008.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Reading the Gospel of Mark as Midrash”

  1. In my book, Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark, I describe the Gospel as a midrash on Heilsgeschichte. I realize there are problems with both terms, but I think it’s a convenient way of describing Mark’s approach.

    1. As a child of the American Army, I lived in Germany 10 years after the war. And there I intuitively translated “heil” as “hail”; as in “Hail Ceasar”. Especially when it had been combined by Nazis, with a Roman salute.

      Could all these words be related? People laud or hail or give a shout-out to things they feel are helping, saving them.

      Though of course, often people are mistaken in their esteem, idolization, of others.

  2. So what is a pesher?

    Per “Pesher” ap. A Dictionary of the Bible, edited by W. R. F. Browning. Oxford Biblical Studies Online.

    Pesher — Hebrew for ‘commentary’ and particularly used for commentaries on the OT in the Dead Sea scrolls, which looked for hidden meanings in the text which were seen to apply to and to justify the community’s way of life. The NT use of OT texts has some similarity with this method…

  3. Thanks Neil. This is a really interesting mind game – I’m glad you didn’t try to inflate the status of your speculations.
    I’ve often wondered whether the written gospel documents were just prompts for the early performers, and this approach shows one way in which the public performance could have filled out the private notes. It also helps me to think about NC’s ideas. One can see that, as these stories moved away from a culture where these midrashic expansions were assumed, fiction became misunderstood as fact.

    1. Years ago, I spent a little time between Harvard and MIT. And was reminded that students with near-perfect SATs, were after all, good in both math, but also rather creative verbal skills.

      As that impacts science? Some note a free and creative, imaginative side, or moment, even in science. In the moment of say, early wondering observations, and early hypothesis formation.

      So who knows but that after all, some of the early, seemingly almost free-associative observations of some Rabbis, might be fruitful material for more ordered hypothesis-mining. And the unexpected discovery of some unexpected, odd, but finally solid facts.

      If we call the gospels heilsgeschishte (sp?), or “heil-writing” for instance, some might go to their etymological dictionaries. And discover that conventional etymology confirms that after all, English is taxonomically, a partly German language. And sometimes our “hail” is seen as derived from “heil”.

      And in some ways, the gospels are about the fairly common phenomenon of many people hailing – “praising”; announcing, saluting – a supposed new leader, or messiah, after all.

      1. Just to remark on the “almost free-associative observations of some Rabbis” — there were constraints: the stories they were creating were required to explain some gap or confusion or unusual word etc in the biblical narrative, and they were required to do that by pulling in other verses from the same collection of texts and within parameters that matched other doctrinal or character definitions, so there were boundaries surrounding the wildly diverse stories.

  4. Joses (John) & James are the sons of Zebedee (= Germanicus + his sons Nero & Drusus), In fact the Twin is the uncles not exact the brethren of Jesus Christ (Nerones Princeps). Simon and Jude are (a doublet) references to the mentor of Neros Chrestos ; Lucius Anneus Seneca. Simon is the greek equivalent of Lucius, of course one of his nasty nicknames was Judas, the Jew and traitor. An other source is Maccabees, where a Priest Matthan and his 4 sons start the rightious rebellion. Mark applied this story on Germanicus and his 3 sons, again Seneca is added (Germanicus Sergeant, first Servant) to complete the comparision. Germanicus is renamed Matthat and Natanael in the same analogy. Neros the adopt-son of Claudius had historical only one half-brother ; Brittannicus (Lazarus).

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