Tuesday, June 05, 2007

An Illustration of the Jewish Midrash Tradition

You all have heard me talk many times in the past about the Jewish midrash tradition. This tradition was a writing style wherein stories of real people would be imbued with fictitious accounts meant not to promote myth and lies, but to explain in clear language the importance of the person being written about. Rather than use traditional language, the person or event would be described against the backdrop of ancient stories and myths, in order to show how the subject person or event was bigger than life, and vitally important to the continuing story of the Jewish culture. Jesus's life was described in this way in the bible.

This tradition worked both on the positive and the negative. Just as intentional metaphor and mythology would be used to describe the greatness of certain individuals or events, intentional metaphor and mythology would be used to describe the depravity of certain individuals or events.

One such example is in the case of the Roman emperor Titus.

Titus was emperor of Rome from 79 to 81 C.E., and was considered by most secular historians of the time as a good emperor. He reigned during the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E., as well as through a devestating fire and plague in Rome in 80 C.E. He distinguished himself during these events through charity, monetary and peronsal aid, and an active policy to relieve the suffering these events caused. He personally visited the site of the destroyed Pompeii twice. Furthermore, because of his moderate and charitable reputation, he is considered the model emperor for the later "Five Good Emperors" described in Edward Gibbon's seminal work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Be that as it may, Titus was a general prior to becoming emperor, and as such, he was the figure who led the battle for the Romans against the Jews in the revolt of 70 C.E. His armies put the Jewish revolt down, secured Jerusalem as a province of Rome, and destroyed the Temple, thereby dispersing the Jews for good (that is, until 1947).

As you can imagine, despite his glowing reputation among Romans and Roman historians, Titus is viewed quite negatively in Jewish histories.

The Babylonian Talmud describes Titus as "wicked," saying that he "blasphemed and insulted heaven." There is a story of him taking his mistress into the holy of holies (a place only the high priest was allowed to go), opening a scroll of the Torah, then having sex on top of the scroll in the middle of the holy of holies.

Later, after the war, when Titus was returning to Rome, a great gale came up on the sea, and Titus mocked God, saying that the Jewish God only has power on the water. God, in turn, told Titus he would meet him on land, and destroy him with the tiniest creature on earth, a gnat, to prove his power.

The Babylonian Talmud goes on to say that a gnat, which, it claims, has only an orifice for eating but not for excreting, entered Titus's nose and went up into his brain. There it lived for the next 7 years, before finally killing Titus. Upon a post-morten examination, Titus's head was opened and the gnat was discovered, the size of a sparrow.

All of this is midrash. It was metaphor and mythology, intentionally devised to show how the Jews felt about Titus. Describing him conducting a sex act on a scroll of the Torah, inside the holy of holies, was about the worst possible thing imaginable to a 1st or 2nd century Jew. Describing a scene in which God's power is displayed on the water harkens back to stories of the parting of the Red Sea and the story of Jonah (this same theme is used in the Gospels when describing Jesus's power to calm the storm).

Describing a "gnat" as entering Titus's brain also harkens back to the stories of the Exodus. One of the plagues was a swarm of gnats. Gnats, as well as any flying insect that swarmed or "went about on 4 legs" were considered detestable and unclean to the Jews, as outlined in Jewish Law (see Leviticus 11:20 and Deuteronomy 14:19). So to suggest God sent a gnat to kill Titus not only describes God's power over earthly rulers, but also portrays earthly rulers as so insignificant, weak, wicked, and depraved as to be destroyed by an unclean, detestable insect.

All of this illustrates well the Jewish midrash tradition. Titus never copulated on the floor of the holy of holies. Titus never had a conversation with God during a storm at sea. Titus did not get killed by a gnat entering his brain through his nose (as if such an opening even exists there), and there was certainly no sparrow-sized insect found in Titus's skull after death. These stories were incorporated into the Jewish written tradition in order to illustrate in an overt and unconcealed way just how the Jews felt about this man Titus.

Understand midrash, and you will see the Gospel stories of Jesus in an entirely new, refreshing, and spiritually meaningful light.

3 comments:

deine schwester :) said...

So, THAT'S where Urban Legends got started. :)

Really!

Elisheva Schlanger said...

I think you are mostly right, but I also think that the sex act in the holy of holies is a reference to the fact that he had a Jewish girlfriend.

Scott said...

Thanks for adding an interesting point to the discussion, Elisheva. If Titus had a Jewish mistress, then certainly that could have played a role in the Holy of Holies account.

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