Updated 4th August to clarify reference to Lewis John Eron’s definition of midrash.
New Testament and Jewish studies scholars have often used the terms “midrash” or “midrashic” in connection with the Gospels, but some scholars object to applying the term to the Gospels. The difference is essentially between “purists” who want to restrict the term to certain rabbinic literature from the second century on, and those who believe it is legitimate to apply it to any instance in literature where its core characteristics are found. (I personally don’t think it always makes a lot of difference what terms one uses so long as one is clear about how one is using them and the usage is appropriate for the audience. Certainly I don’t see any reason to belittle and insult others over how they use the word. A rose by any other name, etc.)
This is the first of three posts:
midrash: some definitions and explanations
midrash and gospels: survey of some scholarly views and debates
midrash and gospels: what some Jewish scholars say
I used to be always a little troubled or at least mystified by the way the author of the Gospel of Matthew found “a prophecy” for Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” (all the infants two years old and under) in Bethlehem in hopes of killing off the one born to replace him as king of the Jews. The prophecy of this event was found in this verse in Jeremiah 31:15, but that passage is not a prediction of anything. Was Matthew twisting scriptures or what?
16Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth and slew all the children who were in Bethlehem and in all the region thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
17Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
18“In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation and weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted, because they are no more.”
A Jewish professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Galit Hasan-Rokem, has argued that the Gospels grew out of a Jewish folklore-midrashic tradition. The Gospels are not written as folklore so there are obvious differences. And midrash has a variety of applications, but in general it is a Jewish approach interpretations of the scriptures that can be applied to a number of different literary genres with different purposes and for different audiences. The intent is to inject new meanings into scriptures, often by applying them to newly created stories or new experiences within the Jewish communities.
So the distinctive feature of midrash is a weaving of passages from scripture into stories or commentaries (or other) to explore new meanings for them. I will discuss the nature of midrash more fully in a future post, and will include one of the best explanations/definitions of it that I can find — a small passage by James L. Kugel in his book, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts. This will show more explicitly the extent to which the Gospels have been influenced by Jewish midrashic thought and style.
Thomas L. Brodie wrote a small book demonstrating the way the Gospels structured much of their narratives of Jesus around the stories of Elijah and Elisha, but did not like to use the word midrash. The reason was not because midrash was wrong, but because it was too general to be particularly useful. The gospels needed a narrower definition to capture their nature. But clearly the midrashic ways of Jewish writing are found throughout the Gospels.
Rather than discuss midrash as it was known to ancient Jews and the specific similarities with many features in both the Gospels and epistles of Paul, I will just post “on record” two examples of midrashic literature applied to the folklore genre. They are from Galit Hasan-Rokem’s final chapter in Web Of Life: Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature in which she discusses three midrashic tales about the Messiah.
This way I will have something online that I can refer to when I do discuss the topic in a little more depth. But remember the following are midrash at work in folklore tales. The Gospels are not the same genre as folklore, but we do find the same midrashic features in them, i.e., retelling old scripture passages and biblical stories in new ways.