Friday, September 18, 2009

Is Matthew 1-2 Midrash?

Roger Le Deaut, “Apropos a Definition of Midrash,” Interpretation 25 (1971) 276.

Perrot…hesitates to use the term midrash for the narratives of Matt. 1-2, because of the central reference to Jesus rather than to Scripture. But for the Christians, did not the life and word of Christ themselves represent Scripture?

A number of years ago, I read John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels, and his point was that the Gospels are midrash: their accounts of Jesus did not literally happen, but they were stories concocted from biblical concepts.

Take Matthew 1-2, for example. The story of Jesus’ birth draws upon a variety of biblical ideas. We have Joseph the dreamer, and the Book of Genesis has a dreamer named Joseph. A star in the heavens heralds the Messiah’s birth, and Numbers 24:7 mentions a star from Jacob who will crush Israel’s enemies. The wise men bring Jesus gold, frankincense, and myhrr, and Isaiah 60:6 says to Israel: ”A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD” (NRSV). King Herod tries to slaughter the little children of Bethlehem, much like the first Pharaoh of the Book of Exodus, who ordered the slaughter of every Hebrew baby boy.

Many conservative Christians would point to this as evidence that the Old Testament points to the new, while many liberals would contend the New Testament is concocting a narrative out of Old Testament concepts.

But I wondered at the time that I read Spong: Is construction of a story out of biblical concepts the same thing as midrash? When I read Jewish midrash, what I see is an attempt to interpret the biblical text. It goes verse by verse, explaining the meanings of words and phrases. Granted, it often goes on tangents, and one can legitimately ask if it’s doing exegesis (drawing ideas out of the text) or eisegesis (reading ideas into the text). But it claims to be interpreting Scripture. And the verb in the Hebrew word “midrash,” “darash,” means to search. The idea of midrash is to search for meaning in Scripture.

Does Matthew 1-2 do that? I don’t think that it’s doing midrash every time it draws a concept from Scripture and uses it in its story. But it does interpret Scripture, as when it applies Isaiah 7:14 to Jesus’ virgin birth, or Micah 5:2 to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Unlike midrash, however, Matthew 1-2 doesn’t present a wide array of interpretive possibilities, for its only assertion is that Jesus fulfilled these prophecies. Matthew resembles the interpretive method known as pesher, which was used at Qumran: pesher applied the Scriptures to the situation of the Qumran community. That’s what Matthew does when he interprets scriptures as referring to Jesus.

But Matthew differs from midrash and pesher in that his method is not to go line-by-line through Scripture and interpret it; rather, he tells the story of Jesus, and draws on Old Testament verses and themes to illustrate who Jesus is.

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