Midrash in the New Testament

Readers might say, ‘I know parables and inspirational fiction, proverbs I understand, but what is midrash?

Midrash is a method of interpreting the Old Testament used by various Jewish groups, before and after the time of Jesus, to analyze Old Testament texts and derive new information from them. Midrash is a mixture of interpretation and commentary that produces significance not intended by the original text—especially as it applies to the writer and his audience.

Midrash in the New Testament

New Testament Midrash

Midrash takes different forms. The most well-known usage is that of the Jewish Rabbis, but New Testament midrash writers tended to use techniques different from those of the Rabbinic collection.

One difference is that Rabbinic midrash is typically a creative interpretation of an Old Testament passage to make it meaningful to people of a later time, but New Testament midrash uses the Old Testament creatively to make Jesus more meaningful—it brings familiar Old Testament passages to bear creatively on the story of Jesus.

There are many examples of midrash in the New Testament, but we will look at three.

Jesus’ Testing in the Desert

We previously discussed Jesus’ testing in the desert in Luke chapter 4, but I never explicitly mentioned the element of midrash.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

Jesus uses three references from Deuteronomy chapters 6 and 8 against Satan’s suggestions; these chapters concern the testing of Israel in the desert for 40 years. A major feature of this section in Deuteronomy is miraculous bread (manna)—just as it is in story of Jesus in the desert. The Israelites were told:

  •  Man does not live on bread alone
  •  Fear the Lord your God and serve him only
  •  Do not put the Lord your God to the test

The story of Jesus’ temptation recalls the testing of Israel in the desert. Jewish hearers would recognize this story as midrash—not history.

Herod and the Flight to Egypt

Matthew chapter 2 reports that after the Magi left Jesus and his family:

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.

Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”…And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

The terrible intention of Herod against the infant Jesus, who was sent to save God’s people, recalls Pharaoh’s attempt to kill the infant Moses, who led God’s people out of Egypt. Jesus’ father, Joseph, brings him to Egypt just as Joseph in Genesis brought Israel to Egypt. God subsequently calls Israel out of Egypt.

Prophet Hosea’s statement in chapter 11: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ refers to Israel—not to Jesus; Jewish hearers would recognize this as midrash rather than history.

In the Beginning was the Word

Finally we consider John chapter 1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

Right away we are reminded of Genesis chapter 1:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

There is no mention in Genesis of ‘The Word’ participating in creation, but the chapter repeats the phrase ‘God said’ nine times. Later Psalm 33 states poetically: ‘By the word of the Lord the heavens were made’, but neither passage personifies God’s word as a separate entity.

However, a different attribute of God is personified in connection with creation. Proverbs chapter 8 begins:

Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gate leading into the city, at the entrance, she cries aloud.

Wisdom says:

The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works…I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

When there were no watery depths, I was given birth…I was there when he set the heavens in place…when he established the clouds above…Then I was constantly at his side.

John chapter 1 likely reminded hearers of both Genesis and Proverbs. It enriched their idea of Jesus, but they would have understood it as midrash—not history.

Reading the Bible in Context

The writers of Gospel materials were Jewish and used Jewish techniques. The audience was primarily Jewish as well and recognized midrash for what it was. But there is a sharp difference between New Testament hearers and post-New Testament readers. Shortly after the original leaders died the predominantly Gentile church no longer had as strong a connection to the Jewishness of the Gospels.

We stand farther removed from the Jewish context of the New Testament than even the early Church Fathers did. We will inevitably be mistaken if we try to read New Testament midrash as history. Doctrines that some consider important, or even essential, are based on misreading midrash as historical reporting.

The Bible is an important book, but it is important for us to have some grasp of New Testament context in order to understand it better. Next time we will discuss one more genre of the Bible—apocalyptic.

Photo Credit: lev_cap via Compfight cc
I invite your comments and observations below.
If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please sign up in the column to the right so you don’t miss future posts.
Have a great day! ~Tim
This entry was posted in Bible, inerrancy, Jesus and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Midrash in the New Testament

  1. Pingback: Proverbs and Wisdom Literature | Jesus Without Baggage

  2. michaeleeast says:

    A good discussion of midrash.
    People don’t realize how much of the New Testament is midrash.
    As such it is not history.
    Most of the New Testament midrash is intended to establish Jesus as a prophet greater than Moses – the Messiah.
    This throws a different light on all of those passages.

    Like

  3. Marc says:

    Both the OT and NT are revelations that must be read in the context of culture and history. As I have stated several times on this blog, we must determine what is authoritative in interpretation. I believe that the Apostolic Church is the only reliable authority. Those who consider themselves the final authority on such matters are most likely delusional.

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Marc, I agree that we must read the Bible in the context of culture and history, but are you saying that the Apostolic Church is inerrant in its interpretation of the Bible?

      I do not consider myself to be a final authority, but I don’t think the Apostolic Church is a final authority either.

      Like

      • Marc says:

        Tim, Thanks for this thoughtful post. I do not disagree with what you have written, I just want to make the point that we need to have a benchmark to make sure we are not delusional. In 1 Timothy 3:15 we are told that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. If you believe that this applies to the Church in heaven only, then you have to give weight to those churches on earth who claim to remain in communion with the Church in heaven. The conciliar Apostolic Tradition of the early Church provides a benchmark through the Ecumenical Councils than gives us the capacity to understand the difference between dogma and opinion. Midrash can offer valuable opinion that can be illuminating, but we must measure it against the benchmark of the Church.

        Like

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Marc, I think this is one of those occasions when good, honest friends just cannot agree. I think the church comprises the entire community of God’s people. I appreciate the history of thought in the church, but I cannot accept that any council or group of people are without error; and I do not think one group can excommunicate another group of genuine followers of Jesus as was done in the Ecumenical Councils.

          We are all to some extent people of our own times, and I believe even the results at Nicaea were influenced by the philosophical constructs of the time. Good Christians prevailed and good Christians were defeated. Those who were defeated were excluded from the official ‘Church’ but not from God’s church.

          Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this; I always enjoyed them.

          Like

          • sheila0405 says:

            Oh, I agree with you on this one. I’m not sure what motivated councils to excommunicate other good believers. The Church was in its infancy, and, of course, right from the start the leaders had to contend with issues of the Jewish believers vs the Gentiles, and also trying to figure out how to move ahead as a church since Jesus didn’t return in their lifetime. I’m sure there was a lot of fear among those who were struggling with defining Christianity. It’s the same in any human organization, and we see it in our nation. Fear of others, fear of different ideas, fear over loss of power, and on and on. It’s part of being human. The Church could not envision that there would be Christians with honest disagreements who would leave. The great schism of 1054 was the first real test of this. Can you be a good Christian and not be Roman Catholic? The answer is yes, of course you can.

            Like

          • Marc says:

            Tim, You believe that the Gnostics and Arians were genuine followers of Jesus?

            Like

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            I think the Arians certainly were.

            Like

          • Marc says:

            Are you an Arian Tim?

            Like

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            No. I am not.

            Like

          • Chas says:

            If people cannot hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to them, then the contradictions and errors in the bible will cause some to believe one thing, and others to believe something that contradicts it, so divisions will result. Is is too much to think that all church divisions have come from this source?

            Like

  4. sheila0405 says:

    Tim, you’ve said you believe in the historical Jesus because of eyewitness accounts, then you bring midrash into the mix. I assume you have studied midrash; I have not, and still would not know it if it was in front of me. So, how do you determine what is history and what is not? Are there books which illuminate these types of genres? I love the Bible, but do not take it literally. Often that is due to common sense, which is no substitute for real scholarship. For example, the story of Adam and Eve–in order for the entire earth to be populated, there had to be real incest taking place. Then again, where did Cain find his wife? And, could two humans really produce millions of people in a few thousand years? This is my favorite post on genres so far, because I had no idea that midrash was even in the Bible. This only makes me want to understand the Bible more.

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sheila, I don’t think the Gospels are biographies of the historical Jesus. Rather, they are compilations of stories told by his earlier followers–probably in sermons. Those sermons would be directed to the situation at hand just as sermons are today.

      Today’s sermons are not simply readings of the words and deeds of Jesus but contain explanations that apply the stories to the life of the listeners. One well-known way of providing explanations to Jewish people of that time was midrash. Since we don’t normally use midrash, we often read it as history, which it was not intended to be.

      I am not an expert at midrash, but I do know that scholars disagree whether some particular passages are midrash or not, so it is difficult to be sure at times. I chose three examples that seem quite clearly to be midrash. I am sure there are good books on genre in the New Testament, but I don’t know any titles. My awareness comes from commentaries and discussions on topics of which genre is a part.

      Like

      • sheila0405 says:

        I’m reading the Bible with new eyes because of your blog. Re: your answer to Marc on Apostolic interpretation of the Bible, that is what is taught in the Roman Catholic Church. It is the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, who interprets the Bible. Specifically, it is the teaching Magisterium which does the interpreting. There is very little dogma that differs significantly from Protestant beliefs, and Papa Bulls, such as the one declaring the assumption of Mary when her life here on earth was finished, are rare. The Church sees doctrine as evolving over time. The passage of time often changes doctrine, as new insights are obtained throughout centuries. The NIcene Creed is our dogma. The rest of it is doctrine.

        This poses a real problem for me. The Church believes in, and teaches about, eternal punishment in hell for nonbelievers. But it also doesn’t presume that any individual is there. Only God knows the soul at the moment of death. But now I’m rethinking the whole hell doctrine. If I start moving away from some of the Church’s teachings, what becomes of me? I cherish my Catholic faith.

        Like

        • michaeleeast says:

          Sheila, if you stay centered in your heart and obey Jesus’ commandments to love God, neighbor, and enemies you may experience direct contact with God because God is Love and those who live in Love live in God.

          Like

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Sheila,

          First let me say that I don’t think anything negative must become of you if you begin to move away from some of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. I am not aware that the Church dismisses members or denies them sacraments for disagreements in interpretation. If that were so, then many Catholics all over the world would be ex-communicated.

          I would point out that there was considerable diversity in interpretation among the Apostolic Fathers–even the earliest of them. This diversity was narrowed by the councils beginning with Nicaea, but it was done by excluding genuine followers of Jesus who did not agree with the majority. And even those who were part of the majority were uncertain about the issues.

          The Nicene Creed is the common foundational statement of belief for Roman Catholic, Orthodox Catholic, and Protestant churches, but there is disagreement even in the creed, as the Roman church added the phrase, ‘Filioque’ (and the Son), which precipitated the division between the Roman and Orthodox churches.

          The division between the Roman church and the Protestant church was over authority; Protestants appealed to biblical authority rather than church authority. My own evangelical tradition is based on the dogma of inerrancy of the Bible; I disagree but continue to be an evangelical–I cherish my evangelical roots. I hope you never feel it necessary to leave your cherished Catholic Church.

          It is comforting to accept authority in religion. It is pleasant to feel a sense of certainty about our religious questions. But I think we must change our thinking, even on dogma, as we understand the Bible better, and context is an important key to that understanding.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Marc says:

          Sheila, You and I are both Catholic Christians. You are Roman Catholic, and I am Orthodox Catholic. Although we are divided by the Great Schism of 1054, we both respect the work of the first seven Ecumenical Councils. In the first few centuries of the Church, there were various opinions of the Church Fathers who believed in universal redemption, eternal torment, and annihilation. Although eternal torment seems to have gained the greatest acceptance in the Catholic Church due to the prevailing concepts about a natural immortal soul in the Greco-Roman world, this is not a dogma in the Orthodox Christian Church. When I told my priest that I could not accept the concept of eternal torment, and that I held to a view of annihilation with the hope of universal salvation, he confirmed my Orthodoxy.

          Like

          • sheila0405 says:

            I don’t believe we are so divided by that great schism at all, my friend. For I must say that I agree with you. It’s intriguing that the Orthodox Catholic church holds to that doctrine….

            Like

      • Marc says:

        Tim, I think this is a very important point to make. The Apostolic Tradition was an oral tradition that focused upon the important teachings of our Lord before the four Gospels were written.

        Like

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          This is true Marc, but the Apostolic Fathers (those who wrote just after the death of the disciples) do not seem to have added much information about that tradition beyond what we have in the New Testament. And in the following generations variations in tradition seem to have been reduced by reference to the books of the New Testament.

          I appreciate the Apostolic Fathers; they are my Apostolic Fathers too. Reading them gives me a sense of what the church was like in the generation after the original disciples.

          Like

          • Marc says:

            Tim, The Church existed for many decades before the NT was written. It had Holy Order with bishops, presbyters, and deacons. It had liturgical prayers and art forms to convey the Gospel.

            I am afraid that your understanding of the history of the Church is very flawed. Your rejection of any kind of authority other than your own opinion sets you at odds with the conciliar reality of the Church.

            Although I enjoy your reflections when they agree with Holy Apostolic Tradition, I have to reject those ideas that you promote that are clearly outside of Holy Apostolic Tradition.

            Like

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Marc, I don’t think my opinion carries any authority at all, and it is of value to someone else only if it makes sense to them. The authority I do accept is that of Jesus to the extent that I understand it.

            I think I grasp Church history pretty well, but I do understand your objection. As I said previously, I believe good followers of Jesus can disagree on things.

            Like

  5. I found your blog from the comments at Rachel Held Evans. I just wanted to say that I find midrash to be fascinating. It seems that Jewish scholars were never afraid of writing midrashim (Is that the plural) to explore their interpretation of scripture or God, but I have never heard of Christian midrash. It did not occur to me that some of the gospel writings are midrash, but it makes a lot of sense.

    Like

  6. Chas says:

    Tim, since this topic came up under your ‘Top Posts for the Past 48 Hours’ heading, it caused me to read it. Two items took my attention (particularly with the meaning of midrash in mind). These are firstly the flight from Egypt, because it seems likely that this was put into the book of Matthew purely to make reference to the OT passage ‘I called my son our of Egypt,’ imagining it to refer to Jesus as the son, not Israel (as you say, in error). This passage is the most obvious contradiction in the New Testament, because the Holy threesome could not have been on their way to Egypt at the same time as Luke has them going back to Jerusalem and then Nazareth.

    The second item is the opening passage in the book of John. I do not pretend to be any expert in language, so I could be wrong, but when the subjects and objects of the verbs are correctly taken into account in Greek, doesn’t it properly read: ‘the word was in the beginning, and the word was with God, and God was the word,’ which gives a rather different slant on the authority of the word that is implied, suggesting that this is one of the items written to try to imply that Jesus was God.

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I agree with your observation about the journey to Egypt. Regarding the opening of John, I am not certain this is really an example of midrash. I do have questions about the passage, however. These are not the words of Jesus but of the author of the book of John. How would the author know such ‘facts’ as these? He is obviously drawing from the first chapter of Genesis and I also think he is pulling from the description of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs.

      I would have to check the Greek of this passage in John, but I suspect the author might be saying that 1) When he says the word, or logos, or wisdom, was God he means just that–the logos or wisdom was none other than an aspect of the Father himself–not some second personality. It was God’s wisdom. 2) Then the author says the logos or wisdom that was innate in God was made flesh–that is the logos, or wisdom, of God resided in Jesus just as Paul says that “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” which suggests that Paul did not recognize Jesus as ‘God’ but as the firstborn of creation.

      What are your thoughts?

      Like

      • Chas says:

        Tim, I agree with you that the author of the book of John must have been drawing from his understanding of the first chapter of Genesis and attributed the words of God, when He spoke, as carrying the means by which to create. God has drawn me to consider the meaning of the words wisdom, understanding and intuition. These words are likely to be misunderstood easily when translated and so liable to cause confusion. Intuition to me is knowing something without proof. I believe that this knowledge must come from God and is an attribute that women tend to possess more than men. I think that wisdom is to know things from experience and so is gained by living and grows with aging. Understanding is knowledge gained by considering the things that we know and putting together related or apparently unrelated things to bring together new knowledge. This can also be promoted by God. It is arguably an attribute that men tend to possess more than women.

        It seems to me that God would not have had any reason to speak words out loud during the process of creating. To whom would He have been speaking. He might have thought and I’ve been informed that the Hebrew used in the first words of Genesis imply that God thought before He spoke, which would be based on man’s experience.

        Using the nomenclature outlined above, I would conclude that God thought through what would be necessary in the creation of the universe, including the earth and everything on it, from beginning to end, so He would have created through His understanding.

        By consideration of what we know from our experience, I would conclude that Jesus had to have all the attributes and limitations that we have, because he was human. What he must have had was a perfect upbringing and that implies that his parents must have had guidance from God. I believe that this is a reasonable assumption, on the basis that they must have accepted, before he was born, that the child to be born to his mother was the Son of God, as we have. The guidance to Jesus would therefore be the guidance that is also available to us. This is the promise that we have in Jesus: guidance from God, to do what He wants us to do, if we are willing. Our problem is that we have not had a perfect upbringing, so we will have been mentally scarred to some extent by that upbringing and therefore we have to overcome the fears that this causes in us when we try to obey God.

        Like

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          You share many good thoughts here.

          Like

          • Chas says:

            Tim, an afterthought here. In my last sentence above I said that mental scarring coming from our childhood would lead to fears, but it can also lead to stubbornness. A very good friend of mine had a troubled childhood. She was raised by her aunt and uncle, but when she was five, they decided to move to another country; however, they had failed to adopt her, so she was suddenly thrust away from parents who had seemed to love her, back in to the care of her parents, where she was suddenly only one among at least four sisters. She was quite naturally disturbed and it seems that her mother did not understand what she really needed, which was love and gentle re-assurance, so she tried to beat her into submission. As a result of this trauma, she became mistrustful of other people and came to rely almost solely on her own opinion. She is one of the most stubborn people whom I know. If you have a discussion with her, she almost never accepts what you say outright, but God communicates with her very clearly, so she eventually comes to accept what He wants her to accept and He uses her very powerfully to make changes in her community. Despite her stubbornness, she is the most loving and peace-filled person I know.

            Like

  7. Pingback: The 10 Most Viewed Posts on Jesus Without Baggage in 2015 | Jesus Without Baggage

  8. Pingback: Did Satan Really Tempt Jesus in the Desert or is there Another Explanation? | Jesus Without Baggage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s