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.
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.
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.
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim