Understanding the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life hinges upon our ability to understand the mindset of a first century Jew, and to understand what midrash is and how it was used by Jewish scribes and storytellers.
In a nutshell, midrash was a technique employing ancient spiritual and cultural images to describe and explain current experiences. It was used to give descriptive image and voice to events that stood otherwise outside the realm of description.
By way of example, and to put it in modern, American terms, I might write midrashically on the greatness of General George Meade during the battle of Gettysburg by saying the following:
Gathering his troops around him, General Meade was faced with a difficult decision. His troops needed food and shelter from the cold, but the closest town – Gettysburg – was on the other side of an ice-bound river. The enemy was closing in from the south, and a messenger galloped through Meade’s temporary barracks warning that the Greycoats were coming. Making a decision that would change the course of the war, Meade set his face for Gettysburg and loaded his troops into makeshift rafts, crossing the frozen, treacherous river. He lost not a single man in the crossing, and his troops took up defensive positions in Gettysburg, awaiting the Rebel attack.
Now, what I have done is describe a real event, but I have woven in images and stories from the Revolutionary War in order to enliven the account and to make sense of Meade’s greatness in the battle. By comparing him to George Washington (through alluding to Washington’s famous crossing of the frozen Delaware River), I am honoring Meade and showing what a great general he was. I have also tied in a second Revolutionary War image, by alluding to a messenger on horseback stating that the “Greycoats” are coming. This is midrash on the story of Paul Revere’s Ride, tied into the account of Meade and Gettysburg to show the timeless importance of the battle.
What I have written is not literal history. Instead, it is a colorful account of a real event (that is, the Battle of Gettysburg), told metaphorically through the lens of several commonly known American stories.
This is how the ancient Jewish midrash tradition worked. It was a storytelling tradition, employed to bring life to modern events and to raise the importance of such events to the realm of mythology. It was the way ancient Jews attempted to explain the inexplicable, describe the indescribable, and give legend to the legendary.
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life are midrash. They are told through the lens of Jewish cultural and spiritual images from Jewish scripture. The Gospels were not written, and were never meant, to be read literally. They were meant, instead, to be written tributes to the transcendent greatness met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Their intent was to give written honor to Jesus’s life-changing teachings and example. And they were created as written venerations to an individual who had brought to his followers a spiritual awakening that seemed to stand outside the realm of space and time.
It was not until the Christian movement began to spread in large numbers to the Gentiles – people who had no clear knowledge, background in, or understanding of Jewish culture – that the Gospel accounts and oral traditions began to be misinterpreted and read literally.
Thus, when we look at Mark’s account of the resurrection through the lens of midrash, discarding literal interpretations that were never the intent of the author, we can see a clear liturgical element to the events surrounding the description of the resurrection.
Mark 16:2-7 – Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
“He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” These statements, and, indeed, the entire passage, reads like an early, developing liturgical tradition when seen through the lens of midrash. The proclamation was not that a dead body had literally, at some point in historical time, stood up and walked out of a tomb. Instead, it was a proclamation that death could not contain the meaning of this person’s life. Death could not stop the life-changing power that was met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” In other words, the spiritual awakening that defined the Easter experience for Jesus’s followers occurred in Galilee (not in Jerusalem, as the later Gospels attest).
Even in the latest Gospel – the Gospel of John, written around 100 C.E. – we see signs of liturgical and midrashic tradition.
John 20:11-16 – Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’s body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).
You can almost see the liturgy in this passage being enacted in first day of the week services within early Christian communities.
Leader: Christians, why are you crying?
Congregation: They have taken our Lord away and we don’t know where they have laid him.
Leader: Who is it you are looking for?
Congregation: Our Teacher.
In this passage, and through these liturgical elements, we can see pieces of early tradition surrounding the spiritual awakening that occurred in the midst of pain and grieving over Jesus’s death. Mary was looking for Jesus, grieving at his loss, distraught and unsure of where to turn. But then she saw him and he spoke to her – that is, she began, finally, to understand the meaning of his life and how his words and teachings could change her own existence and bring about newness of life in God. The grave could not contain him!
When I read the Gospel accounts through the lens of midrash and with the understanding that I believe was the original intent of the writers, the resurrection accounts take on new and powerful meanings. Not literal accounts of historical events, but midrashic and metaphorical explanations of a spiritual awakening that occurred in the lives of the followers of Jesus in the wake of his tragic and seemingly meaningless death.