-Kurt Lewin, German-American psychologist
The Hebrew word “midrash” literally means “research” or “investigation,” but through rabbinic usage the term has come to mean “the investigation of scripture.” A commentary on scripture, a piece of scriptural exegesis, a veiled allusion to a scriptural passage, a retelling of scriptural material – all these are called midrash (in plural, midrashim). The term has become so popular in recent years that in modern parlance it is virtually synonymous with “exegesis,” and any textual interpretation that is not absolutely true to its source is dubbed “midrash.” (And since – according to modern literary critics – no textual interpretation can be absolutely true to its source, all textual interpretation is midrash.)
-Shaye J.D. Cohen
Chapter 6: “Canonization and Its Implication: Scriptural Interpretation”
From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Second Edition (Kindle Edition)
Midrash is one of those forms of Biblical interpretation where Judaism and Christianity seem to part company. From some extreme perspectives existing outside of Judaism, midrash seems equivalent to “flights of fancy” or even “creative fiction.” On the other hand, according to Cohen, the word “midrash” occurs twice in the Tanakh (Old Testament): “the midrash of Iddo the prophet” in 2 Chron. 13:22 and “the midrash of the book of kings” in 2 Chron. 24:27. Both of these works are lost and Cohen states that these ancient “midrashim” should be considered closer to “stories” or “histories” rather than the later use of the term as exegesis.
The Greek word “historia” has the same literal meaning as “midrash,” but is more commonly used to describe a “research” or “investigation” into history or the past rather than into scripture.
When used in its verb form “darash,” it refers to people seeking or inquiring of God, but where in Biblical times, the Hebrews sought God directly, once Torah and the Prophets had been canonized in the Second Temple period and into the common era, it meant Jews seeking God through Torah.
Believe it or not, everything I’ve said so far can be applied to Christianity (and not just Catholicism, either) and if you’ll be patient, I’ll explain.
One of the most “objectionable” uses of the midrashic process from the church’s point of view (including the variants that exist under the general category of “Hebrew Roots”) is how the Rabbinic sages seem to shift the meaning and application of the Torah commandments over time.
Perhaps the most radical function of scriptural exegesis was that it allowed Jews to affirm undying loyalty to a text written centuries earlier for a very different society living under very different conditions.
A living culture cannot live in accordance with the dictates of an immovable text. Either a way must be found to introduce flexibility into the text, or the text sooner or later will have to be rejected. In the United States, the interpretations of the Supreme Court allow the government to function in accordance with a document written by a group of eighteenth-century politicians. The Supreme Court interprets the Constitution, but, of course, routinely interprets it in a manner that would have amazed the Founding Fathers. No matter. Historians must try to determine what the Constitution meant in its eighteenth-century context, but the Supreme Court must determine what it means for contemporary society. Rather than write a new constitution every few generations, the United States authorizes the Supreme Court to misinterpret the Constitution for the common good. Similarly, the Jews of antiquity routinely misinterpreted (the usual euphemism is “reinterpreted”) scripture to remove laws and ideas they found objectionable, and to introduce laws and ideas that answered their own needs.
My, but doesn’t that sound incredibly cynical. But what if it’s true? I know that in many forms of religious Judaism, it is commonly accepted that God gave humanity (specifically through the Rabbis) the ability to interpret Torah for each generation so that the commandments could be applied in a manner that was relevant to the lives of the Jews of that generation. I suppose, depending on your point of view, this process could also justify more than a little “social engineering” within certain sects of Judaism, just as the Supreme Court in the current day seems to be interpreting the Constitution in accordance with the social and political needs of the prevailing “politically correct” perspective (I promise I won’t get “political” except in passing).
As I said before, Christians, especially those who subscribe to a sola scriptura viewpoint on Biblical interpretation, tend to take a dim view of all this “creative exegesis” of the Bible. But on the other hand, it’s not like Christianity has completely clean hands, either.
The identification of biblical laws and heroes with philosophical principles and moral qualities is known as “allegory.” This type of exegesis found a secure home in Christianity, and became one of the favored ways for explaining why Christians do not obey the laws of the Old Testament. Since Christians obey the allegorical meaning of the laws…they need not obey the literal meaning…In fact, some Christian polemicists in the second century argued that the laws were never even intended to be followed literally.
The early Christians believed that the messianic prophecies of Isaiah were “fulfilled” through Jesus, but most other Jews did not agree.
In that last statement, Cohen, in referring to “early Christians,” is talking about the Jews in the Messianic sect of Judaism known as “the Way,” and he is applying a fairly traditional interpretation of what the “Jewish Christians” believed based on popular Christian theology (the Law was “nailed to the cross” and so on).
But as far as agreement and disagreement goes, Cohen brings up a good point.
All Jews who affirmed the validity of scripture had to engage in exegesis. They did not always agree – the Sadducees rejected the traditions of the Pharisees – but all were involved in the same activity.
Guess where we are today?
Although allegory isn’t the only wrench in the Christian toolbox anymore, we still employ more than a little “creative interpretation” in our theology/theologies. If we didn’t and if we didn’t have a long, long history of doing so, “Christianity” would probably still look a lot more “first-century Jewish” than it does today (which is to say, it doesn’t look Jewish at all anymore).
Of course, if we remove the “allegory” wrench from the second-century Christian toolbox, does that mean the non-Jewish Christians (Cohen is assuming that all “Christians,” Jewish and otherwise, set the Law aside, but I’ve presented enough evidence on my blog, including comments by New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado, showing that Paul had no problem with Jews in Messiah leading a completely consistent Torah life…he only had a problem with forcing the Gentile disciples to Torah obligation) should be obeying “the Law” today?
For lots and lots of reasons, which I’ve chronicled at length in my Return to Jerusalem series, I don’t believe so. I do believe that the non-Jewish disciples of the mid to late first-century and into the second most likely “kept” a lot more Torah than most Christians believe or could tolerate, but that they weren’t obligated in the same manner as the Jews. Many of them no doubt observed the Shabbat in some manner, kept kosher or at least attempted to, prayed at the set times of prayer, read and studied the Torah and the Prophets, and when they could, read Paul’s letters or if he was present, listened to his spoken paradosis on the teachings of Jesus.
But the schism that began even in the days of Paul, and that widened dramatically in the following several centuries, finally sent Judaism and Christianity off on two separate trajectories across history. Derek Leman believes that “actual communities of Messianic Jews between about 500 and 1735 CE are very rare, approaching negligible,” but I suspect they didn’t exist at all, leaving a multi-century gap in history when no Jewish person kept a faith of any sort in Jesus as the true Messiah King.
Christians see “Rabbinic Jews” as being hip-deep in midrash, commentary, rulings, laws, judgments, and legal minutiae that would “cross a Rabbi’s eyes,” but the church has the same “problem.” We just hide it better. More to the point, we fail to consciously acknowledge that when we interpret the Bible, we are doing it looking through rose-colored glasses or rather “Church-colored glasses.”
I’m not saying this to be mean, but rather to be accurate. Human beings don’t have unfiltered access to the Bible. Most of us don’t read Biblical Hebrew and Greek and even if we did, we don’t have the original, original texts at our disposal. And even if we did, we would still have to work our way through layers and layers of social programming, theological history, and personal bias before we could access not only the text as it is (or was) but the context in which it was written, including the social programming, theological history, and personal bias of the people who wrote the Bible.
Oh yeah, the Holy Spirit. No, I didn’t forget. But my personal theory (here’s my own bias) is that the Spirit just didn’t dictate the Bible into the ears of the Bible writers, but through some fashion, “partnered” with them to create a collaborative effort, which is why we have the different books of the Bible written in different styles, perspectives, genres, and so on.
Thus, I’m disinclined to give the “Rabbinic Jews” and “Jewish midrash” too much of a hard time for manipulating and “misinterpreting” the scriptures so they’ll fit each generation when, as far as I can tell, Christianity…all of Christianity, is guilty of the same thing to one degree or another.
I know there are a few churches out there that make claim to “absolute truth.” I know a few of them believe they exist in a direct, unbroken line from the first apostles until the present day without change, and are the only “true church.” My personal opinion of that perspective is a semi-polite “baloney.” It think each and every one of us and the religious institutions to which we belong are blindly searching for God while locked in a room that is completely blacked out. We’re crawling on our hands and knees trying to feel for the key that will get us out of there, or are running our palms along the walls hoping we’ll stumble across the light switch.
My advice to anyone who believes that Jews are hopelessly mired in midrash or that Christians are trapped in the web of useless allegory is to dial down the claims to absolute truth you’re making and consider your own position. It might be on your hands and knees in a room with no lights.
No, it’s not that hopeless, otherwise I’d never be able to find faith and hope in my own dark room. If we can’t find the illumination we need and frankly should be emitting, I think we can still find a tiny spark or the nearly infinitesimal flicking flame from our last candle. Or is it really the glare from a blinding searchlight and we’re just too blind to see God’s light for what it really is? Maybe that’s what theology, bias, prejudice, and social programming has done to us. Walled us in and shut God out. Or is it the other way around?
It doesn’t matter. Abraham was justified by faith and maybe that’s what we’ve forgotten. Faith works under any circumstance. It works in the darkest night and in the brightest day. It works up high and down deep. It works when we’re experiencing glorious joy and when we’ve sunk into the unending abyss of despair and loneliness. It works when we offend people and when we feel negligible and insignificant.
Someday we’ll know but until then, while we may be doing quite a bit of guessing, we can still cry and bleed and pray to God that He will allow us a brief encounter with Him. We can hope that the encounter will be gentle and not mind-rippingly overwhelming. We can trust that He’ll have pity on us…poor, blind, naked, stupid human beings who think we’re a whole lot more cool and smart than we really are.
Your religion and mine aren’t the point. What we know and whether or not we can “prove” we’re smarter than the other guy and his religion isn’t the point. At the end of the day, we are each of us one person alone, naked, standing in the desert, watching the last glow of the sun rapidly diminish below the sandy, wind-swept horizon. It gets very dark and cold in the desert at night. There are scary things out there. How can we ever hope to survive even for a single hour…unless we expect to encounter God by faith while standing in the dark wasteland of our lives?
Today I shall…
…try to recognize my self-worth, while being aware that my strengths are a Divine gift. I am no better than any of God’s creatures, and I should not allow barriers to develop between myself and them.