Terminology Tuesday: Midrash

Midrash (Heb, ‘investigation/study [sc. of Scripture]’). The term, which occurs as early as 2 Chron. 24:27 (‘midrash of the Book of Kings’, commonly rendered in English Bibles as ‘commentary’ or ‘discourse of the book of the kings’) and in the *Dead Sea Scrolls in the Manual of Discipline, 8:15 (‘midrash of the *Torah’), is commonly applied to the whole tradition of Jewish biblical exegesis (incl. the Book of *Jubilees, *Philo, and the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum). However, it primarily denotes Rabbinic interpretation of the Bible as it flourished in Palestine, and to a lesser extent in Babylonia, in the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods (2nd–8th cent. AD). The extensive corpus of midrashic texts is classified in a number of ways. The Halachic Midrashim (i.e. the Mechilta on Exod., Sifra on Lev., and Sifrei on Num. and Deut.) concentrate on the *halachic (or legal) portions of the Pentateuch, as opposed to the *haggadic (narrative, non-legal) portions. They are also known as the Tannaitic Midrashim, because they largely cite authorities from the time of the *Mishnah (i.e. before c. AD 200). The Homiletic Midrashim (e.g. Tanḥuma and Pesiqta de Rab Kahana) expound only the opening verse(s) of the Sabbath or Festival lection used in synagogue, in contrast to the Exegetical Midrashim (e.g. Genesis Rabba), which give a running commentary on each biblical verse. The largest collection of classic Midrashim is Midrash Rabba. First published in Constantinople in 1512, it contains texts ranging in date from the 5th cent. AD (Genesis Rabba and Lamentations Rabba) to the 13th (Numbers Rabba, in its present form).All the Midrashim exhibit a similar hermeneutical approach to Scripture, the spirit of which is summarized in the maxim, ‘Turn it [Torah] over and over again, for everything is in it. Reflect upon it. Grow old and worn in it, and do not stir from it, for you have no better rule than it’ (*Pirqe Aboth, 5:22). Scripture is the primary source of all wisdom and truth. It originated in the mind of God and so is inerrant and totally coherent. The aims of the expositor (the darshan) are to explain apparent errors, to harmonize contradictions and demonstrate the unity of Scripture, and to draw out the teachings of the Torah and apply them to Jewish life. To this end he may resort even to extreme techniques of text-manipulation, such as notariqon (treating the words of Scripture as acronyms), *gematria (computing the numerical values of the words of Scripture), and al tiqrei (revocalizing words). Though they make some use of a tradition of popular Bible exegesis in synagogue (the Petiḥah [Proem] and Yelammedenu forms appear to represent preaching styles), the Midrashim as they stand are scholastic commentaries which reflect learned discussions on Scripture in the Rabbinic academies. They sometimes incorporate much earlier material, but broadly they appear to be post-Mishnaic in origin, an attempt to read Scripture in the light of the Mishnah and to justify the distinctive Rabbinic view of the world.

The classic phase of midrash ended around the 8th cent. AD. Though Midrashim were composed later, in the 10th cent. a new style of biblical commentary (known as parshanut) emerges, which, though sometimes citing Midrash (notably in the case of *Rashi, 1040–1105), is distinct from it. Despite the chronological problems the Rabbinic Midrashim have been used to elucidate the methods, content, and form of NT exegesis of the OT. They also shed light on the writings of *Origen and *Jerome, both of whom drew extensively on Jewish tradition. In recent years literary critics have seen in midrash anticipations of modern ways of reading texts.
Trs. of major Midrashim (into Eng., unless otherwise specified) include: Mechilta by J. Z. Lauterbach (3 vols., Philadelphia, 1933. 5); Sifra by J. Neusner (Brown Judaic Studies, 138–40 and 142; Atlanta, Ga. [1988]) and J. Winter (Schriften der Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaft des Judentums, 42; Breslau, 1938; Ger.); Sifrei Numbers be J. Neusner (Brown Judaic Studies, 118–19 [1986]); Sifrei Deuteronomy by R. Hammer (Yale Judaica Series, 24; New Haven, Conn., and London [1986]); Midrash Rabba by H. Freedman, M. Simon, and others (10 vols., London, 1939); Pesiqta Rabbati by W. G. Braude (Yale Judaica Series, 18; 2 vols., 1968); Pesiqta de Rab Kahana by W. G. Braude and I. J. Kapstein (Philadelphia and London, 1975) and J. Neusner (Brown Judaic Studies, 122–3 [1987]); Tanhuma by J. T. Townsend (Hoboken, NJ, 1989 ff. [Gen.-Deut only to date]) and H. Bietenhard (2 vols., Judaica et Christiana, 5–6; Bern and Frankfurt, 1980–2; Ger.); Midrash Psalms by W. G. Braude (Yale JudaicaSeries, 13; 2 vols., 1959).

The best general introd. is H. L. Strack, Einleitung in Talmud und Midrash (1887; 7th edn. by G. Stemberger, 1982; Eng. tr., Edinburgh, 1991), with bibl., incl. details of major edns. of the texts. Other works incl. G. Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism; Haggadic Studies (Studia Post-Biblica, 4; Leiden, 1961, 2nd edn., 1973); id., ‘Bible and Midrash: Early Old Testament Exegesis’, in P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Bible, 1 (1970), pp. 199–231, repr. in Vermes, Post-Biblical Jewish Studies (Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity, 8; Leiden, 1975), pp. 59–91; J. Neusner, Midrash in Context: Exegesis in Formative Judaism (Philadelphia [1983]); P. S. Alexander, ‘The Rabbinic Hermeneutical Rules and the Problem of the Definition of Midrash’, Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association, 8 (1984), pp. 97–120; id., ‘Quid Athenis et Hierosolymis? Rabbinic Midrash and Hermeneutics in the Graeco-Roman World’, in P. R. Davies and R. T. White (eds.), A Tribute to Geza Vermes (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series, 100; Sheffield [1990]), pp. 101–24; G. G. Porton, Understanding Rabbinic Midrash: Texts and Commentary (Hoboken, NJ, 1985); M. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford, 1985); A. Goldberg, ‘Form-Analysis of Rabbinic Literature as a Method of Description’, Journal of Jewish Studies, 36 (1985), pp. 159–74; id., ‘The Rabbinic View of Scripture’, in A Tribute to Geza Vermes, op. cit., pp. 153–66; G. H. Hartman and S. Budick (eds.), Midrash and Literature (New Haven, Conn. [1986]); D. Boyarin, Intertex-tuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington, Ill., and Indianapolis [1990]); A. Samely, ‘Between Scripture and its Rewording: Towards a Classification of Rabbinic Exegesis’, Journal of Jewish Studies, 42 (1991), pp. 39–67; C. L. Quarles, Midrash Criticism: Introduction and Appraisal (Lanham, Md., and Oxford, [1998]).

Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). In The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., pp. 1091–1092). Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press.

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