Tag Archives: Midrash

A Story of a Mother-in-law, Stopping the Sun, and Rebuilding the Temple Wall

I don’t know. If you thought Maurice Mergui’s ideas set out in my previous posts were over the top then you are going to totally freak out over this one. It comes from his book Un Étranger Sur Le Toit: Les Sources Misdrashiques Des Evangiles.

I was looking for a new interpretation of that little healing episode where Jesus goes to Peter’s house to heal his wife’s mother who has a fever. In Mark and Matthew Jesus touches her hand and the fever leaves her; she then gets up and serves everybody. (A woman’s work, etc …) In Luke we read that Jesus rebuked the fever before it left her.

Now I’ve always had a problem with this passage as it’s told in the Gospel of Mark. In just about every other healing event there is a clear symbolic factor at work. Symbolic names and actions abound. In that context there seems to be no point to the story of healing Peter’s mother-in-law. No name, no evident symbolism, no further detail or background appears in the narrative. It appears to lack the sorts of points we find in other healings.

So I had to find out if Maurice Mergui’s midrashic interpretations had anything to offer. And oh yes, his discussion goes way, way beyond anything I had expected. But that leaves me a bit wary. Has he gone way too far and in a perverse sort of way argued his point out of the realm of plausibility? I really don’t know. Which is where I came in.

So here goes.

The usual caveats apply: I was never a top-grade student in my French classes; I have not been able to track down all of his sources, in particular, an English translation of Exodus Rabbah 50; I have not read his complete chapter, let alone the entire book, so may well be missing some key details that would shift some of my understanding; and I am not even going to cover every detail within the section I have attempted to grasp (because some points still elude me); and I sometimes have suspicions that the Kindle version of the book fails to capture correctly the transliterations of the Hebrew that I would expect to see in the original. Anyone with a better grasp of French is very welcome to add to /correct whatever follows.

Here is the passage being addressed:

Matthew 8 (Mergui sees major significance in Matthew’s placing this healing immediately after the healing of the centurion’s son. I have not explored his discussion on that link, so forgive me for missing something he considers important here — at least for now.) . . .

14 When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick

Mark 1

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.

Luke 4

38 Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. 39 So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.

40 At sunset, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them. 

Mergui begins by pointing out that our little story is all very simple, straightforward, and poses no mysteries, etc. (Except that that’s what I think is so out of character for it for several reasons.) But let’s imagine a Hebrew original, Mergui proposes, and see what happens.

Key words in Hebrew all look and sound alike. Recall those posts on Charbonnel’s introductory chapters to her book on Jesus being a “midrashic” creation and especially her discussion of the importance of the sounds of Hebrew roots, usually three consonants, and the word-games that could be played with them. (Please allow me to use “midrashic” — in inverted commas — and set aside for now the questions of definition. Some prefer to add the term haggidah to it in this context but that is getting too much of a mouthful/keyboard exercise.)

So here are the key words addressed by Mergui:

mother in law: Hamot = חמות

fever: Hama (also means “sun”; though another word, shemesh, also means “sun”; and cf. Homa = “wall”): = חמה

rebuke: Heima = חמה

gets up/rises: …amod (also means “stand still”) = עמד

Okay. Now for the next bit. Some OT passages where some of those words are key:

Joshua 10

12 Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel:

Sun, stand still over Gibeon;
And Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”
13 So the sun stood still,
And the moon stopped,
Till the people had revenge
Upon their enemies.

Malachi 4

But to you who fear My name
The Sun of Righteousness shall arise
With healing in His wings;

There are other passages, too. But we start with those.

What Mergui appears to be proposing is that the Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law was inspired by the “revelation” of sounds of the words suggesting that

  • the messiah, represented by the sun in the Malachi passage, would heal at a time when the sun is risen (notice that the healing miracle of Jesus is set prior to sunset; notice also that “wings” can mean the fringe of a garment and that we know of another story where a woman was healed by touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment . . . but we wander)
  • Joshua, = Jesus, commanded the sun (and note that a synonym forms a word-play with mother-in-law)
  • to “stand still” (a word that can also mean “rise up”)
  • and the healed mother-in-law set to serving them all; the word for serve, in the Hebrew, apparently is similar to the other word for “sun”, shemesh, and besides, the sun, symbolic of the messiah in Malachi, and in other passages, serves.

But what about the word fever and its sound-alike meaning wall? And not forgetting the word-play that equates the same with mother-in-law.

That brings us to that other famous miracle of Joshua, the way he got the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. Now in the Bible we need to keep in mind that walls can be sick. Recall the laws on leprosy — “leprosy” can infect a wall (if you know your bible, since I won’t look it up just now.) Further, we read in Ezekiel 13:15 that it is quite reasonable to be angry at a wall. At this point Mergui turns to later rabbinical midrash but I am not clear on the details, not being able to find reasonably quickly an English translation of Exodus Rabbah 50. The interpretation has something to do with the need to return a cloak taken as surety for a loan to its poor owner by sunset. The rabbinic view is that this passage suggests the messiah will come “by/before sunset”. A garment is also a metonymy for the Temple: note the High Priest’s special garment. A rabbinic discussion raises the idea that the Temple walls were destroyed because of the sin of people not returning the garments held as pledges to their poor owners by sunset. So let’s come back to the wall. The rabbis, as I understand Mergui through a glass darkly, argue that repentance will lead God to restore/rebuild/get (back) up the wall that he had once rebuked. Joshua’s miracle reversed, unless you are overly picky about which walls are in question.

The punishment of the exile, it appears, will end with repentance and then the wall will be rebuilt, or “get up” again, by the command of the messiah, presumably.

So you can see why I am frustrated not having a perfectly clear understanding of Mergui’s discussion and not having access to the sources he is addressing. There is much that looks fascinating, perhaps too much so, but certainly enough to make one want to be clear about what is being argued and all its details. And to see what controls there are so we can remove questions over whether one might be able to find any interpretation we want behind a gospel passage.

But WHY would Paul be made a “Midrashic” Creation?

Maurice Mergui

I’ve been distracted from my scheduled reading and planned posts to go back and fill in some gaps to what I wrote yesterday about Paul being cut from the Saul of the OT.

This post outlines some of what I take to be the main ideas from the first part of Paul à Patras by Maurice Mergui.

Paul’s life reads like real history or real biography. Paul is a known character when we think of him alongside the persons in the gospels. The gospel figures read more like foils set up to fulfill prophecies, teach us lessons, and so forth. Even their names are often clearly symbolic and they act out the meanings of their names almost the way we expect parables or children’s stories to read. But Paul, he has a psychology — and one that we may not always like. He has a setting, a real place in history and we know the places he visits — Antioch, Athens, Rome. He has a real name, a Roman one. He has health problems. We are told of the exact street name he was to meet someone in Damascus. All this smacks of reality.

At the same time there are real quirks in the story of Acts. The account of Paul’s conversion is told to us three times; the story is told in the third person and then suddenly without explanation switches to the first. The main character is called Saul and then suddenly he is called Paul and stays with that name to the end; geographical errors appear as when Malta is set in the Adriatic; and there are contradictions to what he wrote in his letters. Paul is both diminished and exalted in our sources. But such anomalies and contradictions are considered generally at one level to be marks of authenticity.

The story of Acts itself bears reflection. From the first chapter we have the band of disciples gathered together, determined to maintain their number of 12, commissioned to preach the message of Jesus to the end of the world. They are given the miracle of tongues to make this possible. But then from chapter 9 everything focuses on just one man, a certain Paul, who persecutes the followers of Jesus, is himself converted, changes his name, and sets out to preach the gospel. And his story it is right through to the end of the book. And the turnover event was the road to Damascus experience, an event that is told to readers three times.

So what’s this all about? Why such a break or change in story half way through?

Why does Acts “lose the plot” half way through?

Maurice Mergui regrets the way many scholars have, he claims, misunderstood and misrepresented another scholar, Georges Perec. Mergui, appealing to Perec’s insights, asks us to imagine the following scenario.

Imagine that you want to produce a story that will draw simultaneously on three different themes.

  1. The grandeur and the fall of the Jewish people
  2. The reign of Death followed by the end of his power

  3. The triumph of paganism being succeeded by the universal conversion of pagans

But keep in mind: the rule is that each of these three themes must be addressed simultaneously, not one after the other, in the narrative. Mergui tells us that Perec believed that the Book of Acts achieved this three-fold aim. read more »

Paul as a Midrashic Creation

I am beginning to suspect that Nanine Charbonnel’s book on the Christ Myth theory is really something quite different from any other argument for the Jesus of the gospels having been a figure crafted entirely out of “revelation”, especially “revelation” through the Jewish Scriptures. So far I have steadily worked my way through the first part of the book in which NC presents a wide range of ways Jewish scribes of the Second Temple era wrote and interpreted their sacred books. Having since read NC’s introduction to the second part of Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier I have begun to glimpse the relevance of all of that unexpected introduction.

I’ll save the big guns for later, but here is something, or just a morsel of something, that I picked up through beginning to read one of the works in NC’s bibliography. It’s another book in French (so again, it’s not one I can read quickly or even skim) —

What Do We Mean by Midrash?

Let’s first get the term midrash out of the way. Here I fall back on the simplest explanation of the word used by a Jewish scholar of some note, Daniel Boyarin:

Although a whole library could (and has been) written on midrash, for the present purposes it will be sufficient to define [midrash] 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 supple­ menting 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, The Jewish Gospels, 76)

That won’t satisfy certain purists and it does conflict with my most recent posts on the term but I’m also a believer that words mean what we mean them to mean and if we can all accept for the sake of argument the use of a term for a particular purpose then we are removing an unnecessary barrier to getting a discussion under way. (Boyarin’s is also a definition that NC herself references.)

Paul’s Career Began in Scripture

Again, I emphasize I am not presenting here a full argument but merely a small detail of a much larger presentation. (I have read no more than 2% of the Kindle version of Mergui’s book.)

Paul, we all know, was originally called Saul, according to the Book of Acts.

Saul, pronounced closer to “shawl” in Hebrew, is based on the King Saul of the books of 1 and 2 Samuel.

Saul was a persecutor of the church. He bound the men and women of the Christian faith (Acts 8).

Where did that biographical detail originate? It is not in Paul’s letters: if in doubt see Paul the persecutor? and Paul the Persecutor: The Case for Interpolation. read more »

Midrash and the Gospels, Conclusion

We saw in the previous post through Philip Alexander’s description of midrash that the term really only applies to early rabbinic exegesis of the Scriptures. The purpose of midrash was to tie oral tradition to certain scriptural texts and to make the tie to those texts explicit. Accordingly, the rewriting of biblical stories — whether the Chronicler’s rewriting of the books of Kings or gospel allusions to Old Testament passages — can scarcely be classified as midrash.

So I am not impressed when I see scholars lumping together as ‘midrash’ texts as diverse as Chronicles, the Testaments of the XII Patriarchs, Enoch, Jubilees, Philo, Josephus, the LXX and the Targumim, the Qumran Pesharim, the Genesis Apocryphon, and the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael. The only effect of such total lack of discrimination is to evacuate midrash of any real meaning: midrash becomes simply a fancy word for ‘Bible interpretation’. (Alexander, pp. 11f)

Further, the term is not helpful when applied to the gospels, in Alexander’s view:

If our definition of midrash becomes too attenuated, then in using the term we may not, in fact, be saying anything new: we may simply be telling the reader that what lies before him is a specimen of early Jewish Bible interpretation—which may be crashingly self-evident! If midrash means no more than ‘Bible interpretation’, then it would be advisable to drop the term. And if we insist on using it so broadly then we shall have to consider subdividing the category, and speaking of Rabbinic midrash, Qumranic midrash, Philonic midrash, apocalyptic midrash and so on. The study of the subject can only be advanced through refinement. I certainly perceive important differences between Rabbinic Bible exegesis and that of Philo, or of the Dead Sea Sect. The way forward lies in trying to define these distinctive styles of Bible interpretation, rather than in treating them as an undifferentiated mass. (p. 12)

We began this discussion with Michael Goulder’s influence on John Shelby Spong. Spong for a time described the gospels as midrash and acknowledged Goulder as his mentor in this respect:

I remember my joy when I came to the conclusion that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was a midrashic creation, with his name stemming from the fact that John had been identified with the prophet Malachi, whose immediate predecessor in the Bible was the prophet, Zechariah. So John’s immediate predecessor was called Zechariah. I remember even better Michael [Goulder]’s amusement and his twinkling smile when he showed me that he had not only come to, but written about, this possibility years before it even dawned on me to explore the issue. (Spong, xiii)

We saw that Spong chose to use the term midrashic rather than midrash but that Goulder eschewed the word entirely as a description of the way the evangelists composed their accounts of Jesus. Goulder had even used midrash to account for the way Matthew was a re-write of Mark. Alexander points out how unsupportable is that classification:

  1. Midrash is generally performed on a canonical text and the canonical text is left standing firm and uncompromised. But Matthew frequently changed Mark’s text and changing the source text was not the way of midrash. Midrash was also expected to stand alongside the canonical text, not to replace it. Yet it appears that Matthew was written not to be read alongside Mark but to replace Mark.
  2. Goulder understood Matthew as creatively adding to or modifying Mark’s text. Midrash, on the other hand, hewed closely to exegetical traditions and authorities and dialogue with other masters. It was not a free-for-all creative exercise.
  3. Alexander further alerts readers to other “more obvious parallels” in rabbinic literature to the gospels than midrash.
    • Rabbinic literature has also a synoptic problem. This exists at the level of short, individual aggadot (cf. the four versions of Rabbi Eleazar’s Merkavah sermon), and at the level of extensive ‘literary’ compositions (cf. the problem of the relationship between Mishnah and Tosefta, between the Gemarot of the Bavli and the Yerushalmi, between the various recensions of the Palestinian Targum). Why does Goulder say nothing about the Rabbinic synoptic problem? Since most of Matthew’s ‘alterations’ of Mark can be paralleled just as easily in the synoptic Rabbinic texts as in midrash, it is surely fair to ask him why he talks only about midrash. . . . There is a host of questions regarding the Rabbinic material which Goulder has simply not considered. . . . [T]he Rabbinic texts are bedevilled by exactly the same difficulties as have proved so intractable in the study of the Gospels. (Alexander, 14f)


Alexander, Philip S. 1984. “Midrash and the Gospels.” In Synoptic Studies: The Ampleforth Conferences of 1982 and 1983, edited by Christopher M. Tuckett, 1–18. Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press.

Spong, John Shelby. 1997. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne.

Meaning of Midrash (Are the Gospels Midrash?)

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

We know that the gospels contain many stories that are based on Old Testament narratives. Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter is clearly developed on similar miracles by Elijah and Elisha; Jesus stilling the storm has rewoven core elements of the story of Jonah; the miraculous birth of Jesus finds its mirror opposites in the miraculous births of patriarchs and judges. Frequently we find New Testament scholars describing this building of stories upon earlier “biblical” accounts to be a special form of Jewish composition called midrash. The term comes with some controversy, however, and it can be helpful if we understand what it means to different people if our intention is to communicate as smoothly and agreeably as possible.

I first became aware that its meaning and usage was not so straightforward in a discussion forum back in 2000 when Mark Goodacre pointed out to his colleagues the following:

Spong should indeed be expected to observe correct scholarly definitions of the term midrash.

(1) Spong is (explicitly) dependent on the work of Michael Goulder who in 1989 had withdrawn his previous usage of the term “midrash” to describe the creative work of the evangelists (see my previous message for bibliographical information). This was as a direct result of Philip Alexander’s critique.

(2) About eight years ago I went to a paper Spong gave in Oxford at which he repeatedly used the term “midrash” to describe Matthew’s creative work in the birth narrative. It was pointed out to him publicly that his use of the term was inaccurate and that his source for the usage, Michael Goulder, had withdrawn it.

(Goodacre, XTalk, 5207)

So Michael Goulder introduced the term to John Shelby Spong but subsequently stopped using the term as a result of a criticism by Philip Alexander. I will return to his criticism that influenced Goulder.

Spong was not as completely tone-deaf to all voices, however, since he did explain afterwards that he himself had decided to at least change the way he used the word:

I became convinced that I wanted to write my next book on the Jewishness of the Gospels. . . . . My first working title of this new book was The Gospels as Midrash. My editor at HarperCollins, however, discouraged that title for two reasons:

  • First, midrash is not a familiar word  to the general reader, he said,
  • and second, Jewish people use the term midrash in a very strict and limited sense, which was quite different from the way I was using the term.

I had seen that reaction in my closest rabbi friend, Jack Daniel Spiro, the first time I used the term in a public lecture that he attended. I do not ever want to be offensive to my fellow pilgrims within the Jewish tradition, so in this book I have used the word midrash only as the modifying adjective, midrashic, both to indicate the broadness of the way I am employing this concept and also to leave the word midrash to its special Jewish understanding.

(Spong, p. xi)

In Edwin C. Goldberg’s Midrash for Beginners we read at the outset

Suffice it to say that there are two general meanings of the term “midrash”: 

  1. It can refer to a process of interpreting Scripture. According to this definition, any comment which is directly or indirectly related to the Bible is midrashic. (There are even those who claim the term for the general process of commenting on any text.)
  2. The term can also refer to a specific body of classical rabbinic commentary on the Bible, edited from approximately the year 200 of the Common Era (C.E.) to the ninth century. For instance, one can go to a well-stocked Jewish library and find in English translation such works as the Midrash to the Book of Genesis. 

(Goldberg, pp. xif)

Note the first meaning brings us back to Spong’s use of the word form “midrashic”. We might wonder, though, if that first meaning is rather too broad. Why not just speak of “interpretation” or “literary borrowing” instead of “midrash”?

We find a similar question arising with the Encyclopedia of Midrash. In the second volume we find an article New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash by R. M. Price. Price views the gospels as a special form of midrash, haggadic midrash:

The line is thin between extrapolating new meanings from ancient scriptures (borrowing the authority of the old) and actually composing new scripture (or quasi-scripture) by extrapolating from the old. By this process of midrashic expansion grew the Jewish haggadah, new narrative commenting on old (scriptural) narrative by rewriting it. Haggadah is a species of hypertext, and thus it cannot be fully understood without reference to the underlying text on which it forms a kind of commentary. The earliest Christians being Jews, it is no surprise that they similarly practiced haggadic expansion of scripture, resulting in new narratives partaking of the authority of the old. The New Testament gospels and the Acts of the Apostles can be shown to be Christian haggadah upon Jewish scripture, and these narratives can be neither fully understood nor fully appreciated without tracing them to their underlying sources, the object of the present article.

(Encyclopedia, p. 534)

That article follows directly upon another by Gary Porton, Midrash, Definitions of. The opening definition that I quote here clearly excludes the gospels as a form of midrash. With my emphasis… read more »

The Prologue of the Gospel of John as Jewish Midrash

While writing a post relating the Logos, Word, of the Gospel of John’s Prologue to hitherto longstanding Jewish ideas I came across the following explanation of “the formal characteristics of Midrash as a mode of reading Scripture” that requires a separate post or full quotation. It is a portion of an article by Daniel Boyarin that is based on an article by David Stern in The Jewish New Testament, “Midrash and Parables in the New Testament“.

One of the most characteristic forms of Midrash is a homily on a scriptural passage or extract from the Pentateuch that invokes, explicitly or implicitly, texts from either the Prophets or the Hagiographa (Gk “holy writings”: specifically, very frequently Psalms, Song of Songs, or Wisdom literature) as the framework of ideas and language that is used to interpret and expand the Pentateuchal text being preached. This interpretive practice is founded on a theological notion of the oneness of Scripture as a self-interpreting text, especially on the notion that the laer books are a form of interpretation of the Five Books of Moses. Gaps are not filled with philosophical ideas but with allusions to or citations of other texts.

The first five verses of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel fit this form nearly perfectly. The verses being preached are the opening verses of Genesis, and the text that lies in the background as interpretive framework is Proverbs 8.22–31. The primacy of Genesis as text being interpreted explains why we have here Logos and not “Wisdom.” In an intertextual interpretive practice such as a midrash, imagery and language may be drawn from a text other than the one under interpretation, but the controlling language of the discourse is naturally the text that is being interpreted and preached. The preacher of the Prologue to John had to speak of Logos here, because his homiletical effort is directed at the opening verses of Genesis, with their majestic: “And God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” It is the “saying” of God that produces the light, and indeed through this saying, every thing was made that was made.

Philo, like others, identifies Sophia and the Logos as a single entity. Consequently, nothing could be more natural than for a preacher, such as the composer of John 1, to draw from the book of Proverbs the figure, epithets, and qualities of the second God (second person), the companion of God and agent of God in creation; for the purposes of interpreting Genesis, however, the preacher would need to focus on the linguistic side of the coin, the Logos, which is alone mentioned explicitly in that text. In other words, the text being interpreted is Genesis, therefore the Word; the text from which the interpretive material is drawn is Proverbs, hence the characteristics of Wisdom:

1. In the beginning was the Word,
      And the Word was with God,
2. And the Word was God.
      He was in the beginning with God.
3. All things were made through him,
      and without him was not anything made that
        was made.
4. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness
      did not receive it.

The assertion that the Word was with God is easily related to Proverbs 8.30, “Then I [wisdom] was beside him,” and even to Wisdom of Solomon 9.9, “With thee is wisdom.” As is frequently the case in rabbinic midrash, the gloss on the verse being interpreted is dependent on a later biblical text that is alluded to but not explicitly cited. The Wisdom texts, especially Proverbs 8, had become commonplaces in the Jewish interpretive tradition of Genesis 1. Although, paradoxically, John 1.1–5 is our earliest example of this, the form is so abundant in late antique Jewish writing that it can best be read as the product of a common tradition shared by (some) messianic Jews and (some) non-messianic Jews. Thus the operation of John 1.1 can be compared with the Palestinian Targum to this very verse, which translates “In the beginning” by “With Wisdom God created,” clearly also alluding to the Proverbs passage. “Beginning” is read in the Targumim sometimes as Wisdom, and sometimes as the Logos, Memra: By a Beginning—Wisdom—God created.

In light of this evidence, the Fourth Gospel is not a new departure in the history of Judaism in its use of Logos theology, but only, if even this, in its incarnational Christology. John 1.1–5 is not a hymn, but a midrash, that is, it is not a poem but a homily on Genesis 1.1–5. The very phrase that opens the Gospel, “In the beginning,” shows that creation is the focus of the text. The rest of the Prologue shows that the midrash of the Logos is applied to the appearance of Jesus. Only from John 1.14, which announces that the “Word became flesh,” does the Christian narrative begins to diverge from synagogue teaching. Until v. 14, the Johannine prologue is a piece of perfectly unexceptional non-Christian Jewish thoughtthat has been seamlessly woven into the Christological narrative of the Johannine community.

I need to update my series on the meaning of midrash. There are major implications here for the gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark.

Boyarin, Daniel. 2011. “Logos, a Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash.” In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 546–49. New York: Oxford University Press.


The Gospel of John as a source for Jewish Messianism? (Part 1)

The tendency within New Testament studies is not to consider that the Johannine perspective might possibly reflect a Jewish sectarian perspective, but to see John and the Johannine Jesus, who is Messiah, as anti-Jewish.

A recent publication with a challenging title and edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini is Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism: Royal, Prophetic, and Divine Messiahs. How could that be? The Gospel of John is widely considered the most Christian-theologically advanced of the gospels and even anti-Jewish.

. . . in the Gospel of John, Jesus has descended from heaven, has been sent by the Father, is one with the Father, and is the only begotten of the Father. This Johannine portrayal of Jesus as the divine Son of God is thought to have been possible only in later Christian thought. . . .

. . . scholars do not deem John’s Christology to reflect Jewish messianic expectation, at least directly. Rather, John’s Christology is understood to reflect a Johannine version of the Synoptic Jesus set in the context of late first-century intra-Jewish diaspora dialogue and conflict or less specifically a Christianized or theologized development of Jewish messianic expectation.

. . . For many, John’s high Christology indicates its derivation from the community, which in turn negates its historicity. How much more problematic then is it to read the Gospel of John’s Christology as a form of Jewish Messianism? (16f)

Yet the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has exposed certain similarities between the Gospel of John and some form of early Judaism in Palestine.

The challenge for Johannine scholarship has been where to go and what to do after noting John’s relationship with early Judaism. (18)

Benjamin Reynolds suggests the reason scholars stop short after doing little more than remarking upon certain points in common is that to go further

means traveling into uncharted waters, into places that Johannine scholarship does not go, such as reevaluating the possibility of historical evidence in John’s Gospel, the context in which the Gospel was written, and the height of its Christology.

Reynolds can say that “scholars almost without exception” address the Gospel of John as an instance of “early Christian (and thus not Jewish) belief in the Messiah.”

Attempts at Using John as Evidence for Jewish Messianism

read more »

Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true

Let us now turn to a famous story found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Taanit 5b. While sitting together at a meal Rav Nahman asked Rabbi Yitzhaq to expound on some subject. After some preliminary diversions, Rabbi Yitzhaq said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, “Our father Jacob never died.”

Rav Nahman was taken aback by this claim and said,  “But he was embalmed and buried.” How is possible to do such things to someone who has not died?

Rabbi Yitzhaq responds and says, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and he then cites Jer 30:10, “Therefore fear not, my servant Jacob, says the LORD; be not dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity.” He continues, “Israel is compared to his seed; just as his seed is alive so too is he alive.”

At first sight, it appears that the midrashic statement denying Jacob’s death is being derived from Jer 30:10. However, if we look closer at the passage, we will find a fascinating distinction between the biblical deathbed scenes of Abraham (Gen 25:8) and Isaac (35:29), on the one hand, and that of Jacob (49:33), on the other. In the former scenes, two verbs, . . . “expired,” and . . . “died,” and one phrase, . . . “was gathered to his people,” are used to describe their deaths. Regarding Jacob, however, only two verbs appear: expiring and being gathered to his people. 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.

According to the story, Rabbi Yitzhak’s statement to Rav Nahman was made in a completely neutral context — that is, outside of any context whatsoever. Consequently, Rav Nahman understood this claim as being functionally parallel to a claim such as “Elijah did not die.” The characteristic position of rabbinic Judaism is, of course, that Elijah never died but is still alive; indeed, according to the rabbis, he is the heavenly recorder of human deeds. Rav Nahman therefore asked Rabbi Yitzhak: But Jacob was embalmed and buried, so how can you claim he did not die. Rabbi Yitzhak’s response, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and the citation of Jer 30:10, is not given to tell us the source of his previous statement, for as we have just seen, its source is the absence of any mention of death in Jacob’s deathbed scene. What he is doing is saying the following:

“You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-historical depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.”

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 to Rav Nahman by Rabbi Yitzhaq’s citation of Jeremiah. God’s exclusion of any mention of Jacob’s death is a promise found midrashically in Genesis and explicitly in Jeremiah: for Rabbi Yitzhaq, Jacob’s nondeath is a promise that his seed shall exist forever.

This midrash and its surrounding narrative are important because they give what we desperately need in reading midrash: a cultural and theoretical context. The original misunderstanding by Rav Nahman and the final exposition by Rabbi Yitzhak show, as clearly as possible, that midrashic narrative is explicitly demarcated from the historical-literal reconstruction of past events. 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.

(Milikowsky, pp. 124 f.)

The Bible’s stories are never questioned. They are always bed-rock “true history”.

But the rabbis added stories to those Bible events that are clearly not factual, but nonetheless meaningful and explantory.

Why should the rabbis develop a mode of discourse that tells the truth by means of fictional events, when the only literature they have in front of them is the Bible, which tells the truth by means of true historical events?

For the answer to that question Milikowsky finds a significant discussion on the importance of “good fiction” in Plato’s Republic. At this point, return to the previous post: Why the rabbis . . .

Now what we see in the Gospel of Mark at one level looks like midrashic narrative. For example, we have quotations from Malachi mixed with quotations from Isaiah and Exodus. In the opening scene we have re-enactments of a “man of god” spending time in the wilderness and returning to call out a certain people and performing miracles. It is all familiar to anyone familiar with the Old Testament narratives.

So what is going on here? The question inevitably arises: Does the author of the earliest gospel expect hearers to believe the story as genuine history or as a “message from God” which the Bible texts assert to be “valid” or “true” without necessarily being “historically true”? If the latter, it is surely easy to see why it would be understood and accepted as true on both levels: as a message from God and as genuine history.

Milikowsky, Chaim. 2005. “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 117–27. Symposium Series 32. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History” — Duplicate Post

Looks like I cleverly managed to publish the same post twice instead of deleting one of the copies. I have deleted the contents of this post and add this redirection:

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History”

Chaim Milikowsky

Chaim Milikowsky gives his answer to the question in the title, or at least he answers the question with respect to rabbinical literature. I have added the connection to our canonical four gospels, and I could with equal justice add Acts of the Apostles.

I read CM’s answer in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, but I see that the author has made the same work freely available online. (Oh, and I posted on CM’s chapter five years ago this month: Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation. I think that first post was less technical than what I intend this time round.)

Let me begin with the conclusion this time. The answer to the question in the title is found in a work once again by one of the most influential Greek thinkers in history: Plato. We have been looking at the influence of Plato on the Old Testament writings through the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum, but CM sees his influence on rabbinic midrashic story telling. I suggest that the evangelists have carried through the same fundamental type of story telling.

Here are the key passages in Plato’s Republic. After deploring mythical tales of gods that depict them lying, cheating, harming others, Socrates sets out what is a far more noble curriculum for those who would become good citizens. Myths of conniving and adulterous gods had no place. God must always be shown to be pure and good. Stories depicting the gods as immoral were to be removed from society; stories that had an edifying message for their readers were to be shared widely.

For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts. 

There you are right, he replied; but if any one asks where are such models to be found and of what tales are you speaking –how shall we answer him? 

I said to him, You and I, Adeimantus, at this moment are not poets, but founders of a State: now the founders of a State ought to know the general forms in which poets should cast their tales, and the limits which must be observed by them, but to make the tales is not their business. 

Very true, he said; but what are these forms of theology which you mean? 

Something of this kind, I replied: — God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric or tragic, in which the representation is given. 


(Republic, 378e-379a Benjamin Jowett trans.)

God himself will be portrayed as incapable of lying, but there will be a place for story tellers to fabricate stories that teach goodness and lead people to righteous character: read more »

Did the Search for Meaning in Scriptures Really Lead to the Gospel Narratives?

To some extent, the followers of Jesus knew the basic facts: he was crucified by the authority of Pontius Pilate (with the complicity of the Jewish leadership?) outside the city of Jerusalem around the time of the Passover. Yet what was the meaning of those events? As Koester has noted, that question led the followers of Jesus back to the Scriptures, to familiar passages that seemed to describe some comparable situation. For example, according to Nils Dahl, “[E]arly Christians read Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and other psalms of lamentation, probably also Isaiah 53, as accounts of the passion of Jesus before there existed any written passion story.” 21 As Crossan explains, these believers did not read such passages “as referring exclusively and individually to Jesus but rather… to their original referents and to Jesus now as well.” 22 Thus, in addition to the examples cited by Dahl, one passage that helped Jesus’ followers make sense of what had happened was this verse from the Psalms: “The rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed” (2: 2). Another such passage— one that seemed to include what had happened to Jesus’ followers— was a verse from Zechariah: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” (13: 7b). And after reports of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers saw new significance in this verse from Hosea: “After two days [the LORD] will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up” (6: 2). According to Crossan, these “passion prophecies” led the first generation of Christians to develop the belief that Jesus’ suffering and subsequent vindication had all been part of God’s plan.

Chumney, David. Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts (Kindle Locations 1608-1621). Kindle Edition.

A new book titled Jesus Eclipsed has been introduced by its author, David Chumney, over three posts on John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity site (part 1, part 2, part 3). I have been reading both the book and David’s introductory blog posts and may discuss the work in more detail later. For now I can comment that Chumney is strongly opposed to mythicism (sometimes to the point of misrepresentation) even though his arguments are in all respects — except for two details — found at length in mythicist works by Robert Price, Richard Carrier and Earl Doherty. The two details on which he differs are that Josephus (his James passage) and Paul (his meeting with James) provide sufficient evidence to establish the historicity of Jesus. Unfortunately I think Chumney unwittingly slips into arguing from the same assumptions and with the same circularity as other New Testament scholars, perhaps not surprisingly given that Chumney has the same background in seminary studies. But here I address primarily a point that occurred to me just now as I read his sixth chapter.

Most readers will be familiar with the standard scholarly explanation for the passion narrative in the gospels being infused with allusions to “Old Testament”. The disciples were so stunned by the unexpected turn of events, it is said, that they turned to the scriptures to find some means of understanding the death of Jesus and their subsequent “Easter experience”. The passage by Chumney above sums up the idea.

The question that occurred to me this time on reflecting on this explanation for the scriptural echoes throughout the passion narrative was,

“But didn’t the scriptures provide a ready set of answers for exactly the sort of demise Jesus had met? Why were those traditional explanations apparently inadequate?”

We know the Bible and extra canonical Second Temple writings were riddled with laments and praise for the righteous one who suffers unjustly. Unjust suffering, persecution, martyrdom — such was the fate of the righteous man ever since Abel and on right through Job, the Psalms and to the Maccabees. Jewish scribes wrote plenty to remind readers of this “fact of life” and to console them, assuring them that God found their blood “precious in his sight”.

So why the need to take from Psalm 22 the line that spoke of dividing garments and casting lots for them? How did that passage add to the meaning of what had happened?

Did that really happen? Chumney’s argument is correct: he turns back to the nineteenth century and David Strauss’s point in The Life of Jesus:

 “[W]hen we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.”

But the Psalm 22:18,

They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

I suggest, would have added no more meaning to their experience of loss than 22:17, 20-21

All my bones are on display;
. . . . .

Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.

Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

None of those lines has any association with a death by crucifixion and they are ignored by the evangelists who composed the passion narratives. Are we to infer that the disciples of Jesus did find deeper meaning for the death of Jesus in verse 18? If so, how could that be?

The obvious answer, of course, is that the disciples were reminded of that passage in Psalms when they learned from eyewitnesses that the clothes of Jesus were indeed taken by the soldiers.

Do we have a problem here?

But if that is what inspired the disciples to find meaning in Psalm 22:18 we run into a problem. read more »

Why Gospel Fiction was Written as Gospel Truth — a plausible explanation

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:

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”?

Chaim Milikovsky
Chaim Milikovsky

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. read more »

Merry Midrash



Annunciations and Holy Conceptions




The Josephs’ Dreams and Moves to Egypt read more »

24. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 24


Mythicist Claim Three: The Gospels Are Interpretive Paraphrases of the OT



  • The Gospels constructed out of scriptural midrash
  • Jesus’ passion modelled on a traditional Jewish story
  • The Gospel of the Old Testament according to Robert Price
  • The Gospel Jesus as a new Moses
  • A Jesus miracle modelled on Elijah
  • What does the midrashic Gospel Jesus symbolize?
  • Fictional episodes vs. the genuine article?
  • Thomas L. Thompson and intertextual dependency
  • What did Paul mean by “receiving” and “passing on”?
  • Putting our trust in Luke and John


* * * * *

Claim 3: The Gospels Are Interpretive Paraphrases of the Old Testament

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 197-207)


. . . . scholars began to realize that the events of the Synoptic Gospels were wholesale reworkings of elements and stories in Hebrew scripture.

Bart Ehrman now tackles perhaps the most momentous development in the entire history of New Testament scholarship, and it is a fairly recent one. While there were murmurs and insights in this direction beforehand, it was only around 1980 that scholars began to realize that the events of the Synoptic Gospels were wholesale reworkings of elements and stories in Hebrew scripture. A seminal work in this area was an article published in the Harvard Theological Review No. 73 (1980) by George Nickelsburg, entitled “The Genre and Function of the Markan Passion Narrative.


The Gospels under a microscope

Nickelsburg first of all clinched the case that the entire Markan passion story is made up of building blocks extracted from the prophets and the Psalms, in some cases literally ‘chipped out’ of their scriptural settings and set into place in a new composition like a bricks-and-mortar construction.

Cleansing of the Temple

Thus, Hosea 9:15, “Because of their evil deeds I will drive them from my house,” and Zechariah 14:21, “No trader shall be seen in the house of the Lord,” became the literal building blocks of the Cleansing of the Temple scene.

Agony in Gethsemane

Psalm 42:5, “How deep I am cast in misery, groaning in my distress,” supplied Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane.

Beatings of Jesus

Isaiah 50:6-7, “I offered my back to the lash. . . I did not hide my face from spitting and insult,” was inserted literally and graphically into the picture of the ordeals which Jesus underwent.

Gambling for Jesus’ clothes

At the foot of the cross the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ garments because Psalm 22:18 said: “They divided my garments among them and for my raiments they cast lots.”

And so on.

There is scarcely a thread in the entire fabric of the passion story which has not been extracted from the scriptural tapestry. (In The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man I trace in detail the course of Mark’s passion story through its scriptural and literary sources.)

But it was not only at the nitty-gritty level that Mark used scripture to craft his story. Nickelsburg revealed that the overall shape of it followed a common generic model found in centuries of Jewish writing: read more »