Opinion Columns & Blogs

DR. CUMMINGS: The magic of Midrash

In my opinion, much of the New Testament is Midrash.

Midrash comes from the Hebrew verb “darash,” and it means to investigate and find fresh meaning in old texts. The goal was never to simply clarify what the text had meant originally, but rather to make the words apply to some current issue. I think our four evangelists used this literary form to write a lot of the New Testament. But they weren’t the only ones using Midrash.

During the years 30-90 CE, there were two groups of Jews living in and around Jerusalem. I call one group the original Jews and the other the Christian Jews. Christians had not yet separated themselves totally from Judaism. Both groups used the Temple as their house of worship until the Romans tore it down. The Temple is where God lived. This is where the sacred scrolls of the Torah and prophets were kept and read every Sabbath. When the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, both groups stumbled along trying to find meaning in their religion. Sure, they had synagogues where they could meet and talk (Christians didn’t have their churches yet), but only the Temple provided the opportunity for the sacrificial worship that Yahweh demanded of both groups.

In the year 70, the original Jewish scholars retreated to the town of Yavneh, just a bit southwest of the holy city, and began writing their interpretations of the Scriptures to fit these trying times. Their Mishnah and Talmud -- like our New Testament -- survive to this day. The Christian Jewish scholars spread out across Palestine and did the same thing to spread the story of Jesus. The original Jews had four major scholars, all from the school of Hillel: Rabbis Johann, Ebenezer, Joshua and Akiba. The Christian Jews had Rabbis Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I think both groups used Midrash to explain their beliefs to their followers by making the ancient texts refer to the problems of their day.

The major problem of the day was the destruction of the Temple. It would be normal for all Jews at that time to hate the Romans and want revenge. This is why these Jewish scholars -- in both groups -- began to preach love and forgiveness. Both of them used the Bible (they called it the Tanakh) to do this, and it seems clear to me that they used Midrash to make those texts say what they wanted said.

For example, Rabbi Johann felt perfectly justified in changing the words of Psalm 89 from: “faithful love is built up forever” -- which referred to the Lord’s faithfulness -- to “the world is built by love,” which fit better with his theme of charity toward the Romans. Did his Jewish followers know he had altered both the words and the meaning of the Psalm? Of course. They understood Midrash.

Matthew (2:15) changed the meaning of the statement in Hosea (11:1) where Hosea has Yahweh taking the Hebrews out of Egypt. Matthew makes it refer to the family of Jesus moving out of Egypt back to Galilee. Did his Jewish followers know what he had done? Of course. They understood Midrash. Rabbi Matthew then went on to use Midrash over 20 times more.

One of today’s most respected Scripture scholars is a woman named Karen Armstrong. She has written many best-sellers, but one of them is simply called “The Bible.” Karen devotes a whole chapter to Midrash. But you can also Google it. You’ll find many articles devoted to “the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in the ‘gaps’ found in the Torah.” My opinion is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were Jewish rabbis (or at least acted like it) who spent years searching the ancient scrolls for what they considered the gaps in the Jesus story, and they filled in these gaps.

The only “Jesus stories” in the Old Testament would be references to a future messiah who would establish the Kingdom of God, but none of these texts (even Isaiah 7:14) contain virgin births. One of them (Micah 5:1) mentions Bethlehem as the birth place, but nowhere do we find the wise men from the East, nor the star that guided them across the land. The “Seven Servant Poems” in Isaiah 42-53 come the closest to describing the passion and death (not the resurrection) of Jesus, but many scholars believe the author was thinking of Israel, not a messiah. So many gaps.

But Midrash is like magic. It’s like moving a new paint brush over an old painting. If we did this today, our readers would scream forgery and heresy and oxymoron. In the first century, I think the early Christians probably said things like “neat” and “groovy” and “you go, rabbi!”

Dr. Bill Cummings’ website is www.billcummings.org.