MIDRASH by Yacov Prasch
The Way The New Testament Writers Handled The Old Testament
Midrash is the method of hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation) used by the ancient rabbis in the time of Jesus and Paul. Midrash incorporates a grammatical-historical exegesis, vaguely similar to the western models of Biblical interpretation that the Reformers borrowed from 16th century Humanism, but it sees this as simply a first step.
In its handling of various Biblical literary genre – such as narrative, wisdom literature, Hebrew poetry and apocalyptic – it seeks cognate relationships between different scriptural texts in order to interpret them in light of each other. The approach is more topical than linear.
The clearest set of guidelines in Midrash are the Seven Midroth attributed to Rabbi Hillel, the founder of the Pharisaic School of Hillel, where St. Paul was educated as a rabbi by Rabbi Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel.
Midrash makes heavy use of allegory and typology to illustrate and illuminate doctrine, but never as a basis for doctrine. It sees multiple meanings in Bible texts found in strata, but this is very different in certain fundamental respects from the Gnostic and Alexandrian uses of figurative interpretation associated with Philo and Origen, reflecting more of Hebraic, rather than Hellenistic philosophical world-view and view of theology.
Midrash interprets prophecy as a cyclical pattern of historical recapitulation (prophecies having multiple fulfillment), with an ultimate fulfillment associated with the eschaton, which is the final focal point of the redemptive process. A classical work of Midrash in Judaism is the Midrash Rabba on Genesis (Berashith). Another is Lamentations Rabba.
Midrash follows certain formats. One is the Mashal/Nimshal format seen in Proverbs or the parables, where physical things are representative of things spiritual. Figurative midrashic exposition in the New Testament is viewed, for instance, in Jude’s epistle or Galatians 4:24-34. It is Midrash which accounts for the manner in which the New Testament handles the Old Testament.
Another format is the parashiyot; sections opening with a petihah in which a base verse is followed by commentary. In addition to exegetical midrash, there are homiletic midrashim, arranged in topically argued pisaqaot. These frequently follow a yelammedenu rabbenu format used by Jesus in the gospels. Both of these kinds of midrashim are haggadic. There are also wide bodies of midrashic literature which are halakik, but these are of less importance to New Testament scholarship.
Unless someone has been educated in Judaism, Hebrew, or theology, it is easier to demonstrate midrash than to explain it. Moriel provides various tapes and videos where midrashic exegesis is practically applied and demonstrated in interpreting Scripture. One example would be “The Woman at the Well,” a midrashic interpretation of John chapter four, used to expound the Scriptures relating to the subject of Roman Catholicism.
If you look at the way the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, it is clear that the apostles did not use western Protestant methods of exegesis or interpretation. Jesus was a rabbi. Paul was a rabbi. They interpreted the Bible in the way other rabbis did-according to a method called Midrash.
Something went wrong in the early Church; it got away from its Jewish roots. And as more Gentiles became Christians, something that Paul (in Romans 11) warned should not happen, happened. People lost sight of the root.
Whenever you have a change in world-view, you’re going to have a change in theology. A positive way to handle that change is called recontextualising; a negative way is called redefining. Recontextualising the gospel when Wycliffe Bible translators translated Isaiah 1:18, Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow, for tribal people in equatorial Africa – a place where the people had never seen snow – they translated it as they shall be white as coconut. That is recontextualising – taking the same truth and putting it into the context of somebody else’s language or culture or world-view. That is perfectly valid; it does no harm to the message, in contrast to redefinition.
Instead of re-explaining what the Bible means, redefinition changes what the Bible means. That is wrong. And that is what happened in the Early Church. After Constantine the Great turned Christianity into the religion of the state, people began redefining the gospel in increasingly radical ways. Some of the Early Church Fathers believed that what was best in Greek theosophy, for example the monotheistic ideas of Plato and Socrates, helped to prepare the Greek world for the coming of Jesus, in the same way that the Torah (the Old Testament) prepared the Jewish world. Up to a point, that is a fair statement.
There is a Greek (Hellenistic) way of thinking and there is a Hebrew (Hebraic) way of thinking. Paul used both. When Paul spoke to the Jews he used the Hebrew way of thinking, but in Athens when he was preaching the gospel to the Areopagites (Acts 17:22-31), he used the Greek way of thinking. Jews seek a sign, Greeks seek wisdom. There is validity in both, if they are used biblically.
A problem arose when people began to Hellenise a Jewish faith. Instead of recontextualising the gospel for Greeks, they began redefining it in Greek terms. This happened especially in Alexandria in the time of Origen, but it became a major problem after Constantine. With the introduction of the teachings of Augustine of Hippo, and the people who influenced him – Cyprian of Carthage, Ambrose, and others.
The Greeks knew many things from Plato and Socrates that were true such as the fact that man is made in God’s image and likeness. Anybody – even people with no Judeo-Christian background and no access to the Bible – can know by natural reason there is one true God and that man is sinful (Romans 1:18-20).
We can agree with the things in Greek theosophy up to the point they agree with the Bible. But when people begin reinterpreting and redefining the gospel in the light of a Greek world-view, we have a problem. The Greeks believed in Dualism. They thought that everything of the flesh was bad and everything of the spirit was good. A Greek reading the words, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1), could agree with them. But he could not agree with the statement, The Word became flesh (John 1:14). The Greeks believed that something physical was bad, simply because it was physical. The Bible teaches that the spiritual and the physical were meant to work in harmony with each other. There was not to be any contradiction or any conflict between the two. The flesh is fallen, that is true, but there is nothing wrong with the physical elements themselves.
When Augustine came along he did not recontextualise but, rather, redefined Christianity as a Greek, Platonic religion. Augustine said things like, “The only good thing about marriage is having children who will be celibate.” The Manichaeans, who said that the first sin was having marital relations, introduced these ideas into the Greek world. That is why, to this day, Roman Catholicism cannot handle sexuality, and why it has so many restrictions and hang-ups, and why Roman Catholics are even hung about marital sex.
People began reinterpreting the Bible, not using the Jewish method of midrash, but using Greek methods. Typology and allegory Midrash uses typology and allegory – symbols – in order to illustrate and illumine doctrine. For instance, Jesus is “the Passover Lamb.” The symbolism of the Jewish Passover perfectly illustrates the doctrine of atonement, but we never base the doctrine of atonement on the symbolism. The symbolism illustrates the doctrine, which is itself stated plainly elsewhere in Scripture. In the Gnostic world of Greek thinking, the opposite happens. Gnostics claim to have received a subjective, mystical insight – called a gnosis – into the symbols. They then reinterpret the plain meaning of the text in light of the gnosis. For Gnostics, symbolism is the basis for their doctrine, contrary to the ancient Jewish methods.
These methods first started to creep into the Church through people who were influenced by Philo. His teachings progressively entered into Roman Catholicism, to the point where Augustine would say, “If God used violence to convert Paul, the Church can use violence to convert people,” which led to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and so on. Instead of recontextualising, they were redefining Scripture. They were reading a Jewish book as if it were a Greek book. That was a mistake.
It started with Origen in the East and Augustine in the West, and steadily worsened over the centuries. It became much worse in the Middle Ages with something called Scholasticism. Aristotle’s ideas were absorbed into Islam, then the Crusades brought those ideas back to Europe, and into medieval Roman Catholicism. Moses Maimonides rewrote Judaism as an Aristotelian religion, then Thomas Aquinas rewrote Christianity as an Aristotelian religion.
The Reformers came along and tried to correct what had gone wrong in medieval Roman Catholicism. Unfortunately, although the Reformers were dynamic personalities, they were not dynamic thinkers. The Reformation was born out of something called Humanism. (Note: the first Humanists were not secular, they were Christians.) The best of the Humanists were men like Thomas A Kempis, John Colet, and Jacques Lefèvre. But the greatest of them all was Erasmus of Rotterdam. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and most of the other Reformers got their ideas from Erasmus. Erasmus and the other Humanists attempted to study and teach the Bible in its plain literal meaning, in order to undo the medieval abuses of Roman Catholicism. They placed the emphasis on reading the Bible as literature and as history, and gave us the system of grammatical-historical exegesis that has been used in the Protestant churches ever since.
The problem with the Reformers is that they only went so far. They made rules governing the application of their grammatical-historical system in order to refute medieval Roman Catholicism, and many of those rules are still taught in theological seminaries today. One such rule is this: There are many applications of a Scripture but only one interpretation. That is total rubbish! The Talmud tells us there are multiple interpretations. Who did Jesus agree with? The Reformers? Or the other rabbis?
Jesus said, A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 12:39). What was “the sign of the prophet Jonah?” In one place Jesus says it was this, that “as Jonah was three days and nights in the stomach of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). But, at the same time, He says that it was the fact that the men of Ninevah repented at the preaching of Jonah (Luke 11:32). The Gentiles would repent when the Jews did not, that is also the sign of the prophet Jonah. He gave two equally CO-valid interpretations of what that sign is. So, where Protestant hermeneutics say that there is only one interpretation, all the rest is application, it is out of step with Jesus.
Another rule of Reformed Hermeneutics says that, if the plain wording of Scripture makes sense, seek no other sense. Take it at its face value, full stop. That is also total rubbish!
A First or Second Century Jewish Christian reading John’s Gospel, chapters one, two and three, would have said it was the new Creation narrative – the story of the new Creation. He would have seen that God walked the earth in Genesis, and now God walked the earth again in the new Creation in John. He would have seen that the Spirit moved on the water and brought forth the Creation in Genesis, and now the Spirit moved on the water and brought forth the new Creation in John. He would have seen that there was the small light and the great light in the Creation in Genesis, and now there was the small light – John the Baptist – and the great light – Jesus – in the new Creation in John. The fig tree, midrashically, in Jewish metaphor, represents the Tree of Life that we see in the garden in Genesis, in Ezekiel 47, and in the Book of Revelation. So when Jesus told Nathaniel, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree” (John 1:48), He was not simply saying to Nathaniel that He saw him under a literal fig tree (although He did), He was telling him that He had seen him from the garden, from the Creation, from the foundation of the world.
By reading the Bible as literature and history, as the Humanists did, you only see part of it. The Humanists were reacting to medieval Scholasticism and the Gnosticism that much of Roman Catholicism is based upon. Nonetheless, their approach prevents people from seeing much of the depth of Scripture. Using the grammatical-historical method, the Reformers were able to discover truths such as Justification by Faith and the Authority of Scripture. But that is all they could see; they could not go beyond it. Martin Luther considered Romans to be the main book of the Bible. He totally rejected the Book of Revelation. Yet the Book of Revelation is the book for the Last Days. Luther admitted that you cannot understand it with a Protestant mind.
What is wrong? Is the Book of Revelation wrong? Or is the Protestant mind wrong? Be very careful. Daniel (Daniel 12:4) and John (Revelation 10:4) were told to “seal these things up” until the time of the end. In the fullness of God’s time, the interpretation of these books will be manifested to the faithful. When you see people writing out diagrams and charts, saying that they have got the whole eschatological program and all of Revelation figured out, be very cautious. It is sealed up until the appropriate time. God will unveil it in His way and in His time. And that will be done step by step. The first step is going back to reading the Bible as a Jewish book, instead of as a Greek one.
The Epistles are commentary on other Scripture; they tell you what other Scripture means on a very practical level. It is fine to read the Epistles as literature and history, using grammatical-historical methods. But there are different kinds of literature in the Bible, different literary genre that God put in there for different reasons. Psalms (Hebrew poetry), Revelation (apocalyptic literature), the Gospels (narrative), and Proverbs (wisdom literature).
You do not read a letter in the same way as you read poetry. You do not read The Narnia Chronicles (C.S. Lewis) in the same way as you would read a letter from Aunt Harriet back in England. If you read the Epistles, you will see that the apostles did not interpret the other books of the Bible by the grammatical-historical method. The book of Hebrews is a commentary on the symbolism of the Levitical priesthood and the Temple. Look at Galatians 4:24 onwards, the story of the two women – it is a midrash on the purpose of the Law. Look at the epistle of Jude, it is midrashic literature. The apostles did not handle the Scriptures according to Protestant grammatical-historical methods.
There are different kinds of prophecy in the Bible. The two kinds that are important in understanding the Last Days are Messianic prophecies and, connected to those, eschatological prophecies. When we come to consider biblical prophecy, this is very important. Because the Western mind, with its basis in Sixteenth Century Humanism, says that prophecy consists of a prediction and a fulfillment. To the ancient Jewish mind, it was not a question of something being predicted, then being fulfilled. Rather, to the ancient Jewish mind, prophecy was a pattern which is recapitulated; a prophecy having multiple fulfillments. And each fulfillment, each cycle, teaches something about the ultimate fulfillment. For example: In a famine, Abraham went into Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20). God judged Pharaoh. Abraham and his descendants came out of Egypt, taking the wealth of Egypt with them, and went into the Promised Land. Abraham’s descendants replayed the same experience. In a famine they went into Egypt (Genesis 42). God judged Pharaoh again, a wicked king. Abraham’s descendants came out of Egypt, taking the wealth of Egypt with them (Exodus 12:36), and they went into the Promised Land.
What happened to Abraham happened to his descendants. Then the same thing happened with Jesus. When they had gone, 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.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:16).
Matthew says that when Jesus came out of Egypt, after the wicked King Herod died, that fulfilled the prophecy of Hosea. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1-2). Very plainly, Hosea chapter 11 is talking about the Exodus, about what happened with Moses. In its grammatical-historical context, it is talking about the Exodus, not about the Messiah. But Matthew appears to take the passage out of all reasonable context and twist it into talking about Jesus. We have to ask, is Matthew wrong? or is there something wrong with our Protestant way of interpreting the Bible?
There is nothing wrong with Matthew, and there is nothing wrong with the New Testament. But there is something wrong with our Protestant mentality. The Jewish idea of prophecy is not prediction, but pattern. Abraham came out of Egypt, when Pharaoh was judged; his descendant’s came out of Egypt when the wicked king was judged; then another wicked king was judged and the Messiah came out of Egypt. There are multiple fulfillment’s of prophecy. Midrashically, “Israel” alludes to Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah. When you see verses like: “Israel my glory and Israel my first born,” they are midrashic allusions to the Messiah.
Then, in 1 Corinthians 10, something else happens: We come out of Egypt, which Paul tells us is a symbol of the world. Pharaoh, who was deified by the Egyptians and worshipped as God, is a symbol of the devil, the god of this world. Just as Moses made a covenant with blood and sprinkled it on the people, so did Jesus. Moses fasted forty days, and so did Jesus. Jesus is the prophet like Moses, predicted in Deuteronomy 18:18. Just as Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, through the water, into the Promised Land, so Jesus leads us out of the world, through baptism, into heaven. It is a pattern.
Then the horse and its rider are thrown into the sea (Exodus 15:1). We sing the song of Moses – the horse and rider thrown into the sea – in Revelation 15:3. Why? Because it is a pattern. The ultimate meaning of “coming out of Egypt” is the resurrection and rapture of the Church. The judgments that happen in Exodus are replayed in Revelation. And just as Pharaoh’s magicians were able to counterfeit the miracles of Moses and Aaron, so the antichrist and False Prophet will counterfeit the miracles of Jesus and His witnesses. They brought Joseph’s bones with them when they came out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19). Why? Because the dead in Christ will rise first. It is a pattern
The ancient Jewish mind that produced the New Testament looks at prophecy, not as prediction, but as pattern. To understand what is going to happen in the future, you look at what did happen in the past. There are multiple fulfillments, and each successive fulfillment teaches something about the ultimate one.
You will never understand the Book of Revelation with the kind of limited approach to biblical interpretation that is taught in Protestant seminaries. Midrash is like a quadratic equation or a very complex second order differential equation, a thirteen or fourteen step equation. Some people take the first step of grammatical-historical exegesis and think the equation is solved. There is nothing wrong with what they do, but there is plenty wrong with what they don’t do. The equation is not solved. There is nothing wrong with grammatical-historical exegesis. It is a necessary first step, it is a necessary preliminary, and it is okay for reading the Epistles. But that is all.
It takes the wisdom of the ancients to really understand these things – Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast… (Revelation 13:18) – not the wisdom of the 16th century, but the wisdom of the first century.