With reference to the rabbinic writings, the term ‘midrash’ refers to both a type of scriptural interpretation (‘midrashic’) and for a body of scriptural interpretation (‘midrashim’).
It has become increasingly clear to scholars that parts of the NT reflect a midrashic approach.
In rabbinic practice, midrash assumes the existence of a fixed and holy text that can be used in multiple and diverse ways to answers various religious questions. ‘Midrash assumes that the biblical text has an inexhaustible fund of meaning that is relevant to and adequate for every question and situation.’ (HBD)
A midrashic approach can make use of etymology, word play, analogy, logical inference, and other techniques to elucidate the meaning of Scripture. Small details, including specific words or the shapes of letters, may be focused on, without attention to context or authorial intent.
Over time, various rules were developed to guide midrashic interpretation. A list of seven rules is attributed to Hillel, and evidence of all of these can be found in the Gospels:-
- ‘Light and heavy’. This is an argument from the lesser to the greater (“If…how much more…?”, as in Mt 6:26; Lk 12:24).
- ‘An equivalent regulation’. One passage may be interpreted with reference to another if they share similar words of phrases (even though they may deal with different subjects). See 1 Sam 21:6/Mt 2:23-28.
- ‘Constructing a father [principle] from one [passage]’. A general principle or rule may be inferred from a passage (as when in Mk 12:26 Jesus infers from Ex 3:14f the doctrine of the general resurrection).
- ‘Constructing a father from two’. The principle that those who preach are entitled to support is derived from Deut 25:4 and Deut 18:1-8. See Mt 10:10; Lk 10:7; 1 Cor 9:9, 13; 1 Tim 5:18.
- ‘General and particular, and particular and general’. The greatest commandment (Deut 6:4f; Lev 19:18) sums up all the particular commandments, Mk 12:28-34.
- ‘Like something from another place’. ‘If the Son of Man (or the Messiah) is to sit on one of the thrones set up before the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:9)…, and if the Messiah is to sit at God’s right hand (Ps 110:1), it may be inferred that when the *Son of Man comes with the clouds (Dan 7:13–14), he will be seated at the right hand of God and will judge his enemies. This is evidently what Jesus implied in his reply to Caiaphas (Mk 14:62).’ (DJG)
- ‘Word of instruction from its context’. Although Moses allowed divorce, Deut 24:1-4, it is also clear from Gen 1:27; 2:24 that God never intended the marriage union to be broken. See Mt 19:4-8.
In rabbinic teaching, midrash had two objectives: (a) to provide legal rulings ‘fencing’ the Torah, stipulating what it would mean to keep or to violate the Passover, for example; (b) to offer imaginative homiletical interpretations that would help fill in the gaps in Scripture, and explain apparent discrepancies or difficulties.
The beginnings of midrashic interpretation
We may see early elements of midrashic interpretation within the pages of the OT itself. Deuteronomy reworks material from Exodus and Numbers, and Chronicles does the same with the books of the Kings.
Midrash in the Gospels
Although Midrash proper dates from 70 AD onwards, there was clearly much midrashic interpretation prior to this, some of which is reflected in the Gospels.
Like the rabbis, Jesus had his disciples who would have been expected to carefully preserve his teaching. The language of midrash is echoed in, for example, Mt 9:13; Mt 11:29–30; Mt 21:33; Jn 3:25; 5:39; 7:52.
Not only the language, but also the methods, of midrashic interpretation are apparent in the Gospels:-
Mt 1:2-17 – the genealogy of Jesus is in three groups of fourteen generations, possibly hinting at the name ‘David’, which has a numerical value of 14.
Mt 2:7 – the ‘star’ echoes Num 24:17 (which both Philo and Josephus regarded as messianic).
Mt 2:15 – Jesus’ return from Egypt as the fulfilment of Hos 11:1 is suggested by a the LXX version of a similar passage in Num 24:7f.
Mt 2:23 – setting up home in Nazareth fulfils the prophets because the three root consonants of ‘Nazareth’ are also found in the word for ‘branch’, which has messianic overtones (see Isa 11:1; 49:6; Jer 23:5; 33:15; Zech 3:8; 6:12.
Mk 4:12 – the paraphrase of Isa 6:10 (“lest they repent and it be forgiven them”) follows the Targum (“and it be forgiven them”) rather than the Hebrew (“and I will heal them”).
Mk 9:47f – In Jesus’ description of Gehenna, drawn from Isa 66:24, it is clear that he did not have the Hebrew in mind (for this does not mention Gehenna) but rather the Targum.
Mk 12:1-11 – Jesus reworks Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:1-7), directing his parable not against the nation as a whole (as Isaiah does) but against the religious leaders of Jerusalem. In doing so, he may be reflecting the rabbinic interpretation of the Isaiah passage.
Lk 1-2 – Luke entire infancy narrative is coloured by the stories and language of the OT.
Lk 1:46-55 – Mary’s Magnificat echoes Hannah’s song, 1 Sam 2:1-10, as well has containing allusions to other OT texts.
Lk 2:52 – The summary of Jesus’s growth and development is similar to that of Samuel, 1 Sam 2:26.
Jn 1 – John’s Prologue contains a number of ideas that are found in the midrashim and targumim, including the pre-existence of the Messiah, the Word as Creator, and the Word as Light.
Jn 1:51 – In comparing himself to Jacob, Jesus alludes to Gen 28:12. In the midrashic traditions, the angels came to gaze upon Jacob, and even ascended and descended on him. John’s readers were probably intended to understand Jesus as superior to Jacob.
Jn 4:10-26 – Again, a rabbinic interpretation, according to which the well provided ‘surging’ water for 20 years, probably underlies Jesus’ words in v14, where Jesus offers water that will ‘surge up’ for an eternity.
Some scholars argue that the Gospels entirely midrashic creations. But it is not the case the the Evangelists have offered an interpretation of the Torah; they have, rather, given an interpretation of Jesus, but one in which there is dialogue with the ancient texts.
Others think that ‘the Gospel writers used narrative motifs from the OT to invent stories about the life of Christ that have no real basis in history’. But ‘1 Tim. 1:4; 4:6–7; and Titus 1:14 show that Paul, no doubt expressing the prevailing conviction of the early church, disparaged “Jewish myths” and called for believers to reject them. 2 Peter 1:16 adamantly denies that the apostolic accounts concerning the “power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (HCSB) were “cleverly contrived myths.”’ (Holman)
The more serious question arises as to whether some of the events recorded in the Gospels were ‘invented’ by way of response to midrashic interpretation, or were ‘real’ events that prompted an appropriation of Scripture and its interpretation.
In the judgment of J.D.G. Dunn (The Historical Jesus: Five Views):-
‘There is a lot to be said for the view that many of the Gospel narratives are a kind of haggadic midrash on the Old Testament. But such data are open to a variety of interpretations as to their origin. There is no necessary implication that the Gospel narratives were created solely from the Old Testament material. On the contrary it is entirely possible (much the more likely, I would say) that the data can be explained by the hypothesis that early Christian narrators were telling stories about events in Jesus’ mission but were doing so in order to bring out such Old Testament echoes and parallels as they discerned.’
C.A. Evans & L. Novakovic, art.’Midrash’ in DJG (2nd ed.)
Harper’s Bible Dictionary
Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary
The Historical Jesus: Five Views