Read Part I
Read Part II
Read Part III
THE JEWISH TRADITION OF MIDRASHIC WRITING
Midrash is a Hebrew term that means something akin to “interpretation,” specifically of a religious text. Its English equivalent is the word “exegesis,” which is often used in theological circles. When a pastor preaches a sermon based on an interpretation of a text in the Bible, his sermon is based on exegesis. But the term midrash, like so many others in the Hebrew language, is a very complex one, involving more than just simple “interpretation.”
One facet of the midrashic tradition in ancient Judaism involved interpreting, and re-telling, modern events through the lens of the collective cultural past. This was done for the purpose of describing, in a literary way, the significance of modern events. It was not unlike how Americans, on 9/11, continually compared the horror of the event to the attack on Pearl Harbor or Kennedy’s assassination. Jewish scribes used midrashic techniques in their storytelling to elevate significant modern events to legendary status. But they went a step further than simply comparing a modern event to a similar significant event in the past. They would actually tell the story of the modern event through the lens of the past event, as a way of bringing the modern event into historical significance.
To put this into a perspective that is a bit easier to understand, consider this midrashic account of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg:
Gathering his troops around him, General George Meade – a large, stoic man with a brilliant military mind – 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. One way I have done this is by comparing Meade obliquely to George Washington. The physical and mental characteristics I have applied to Meade are actually characteristics associated with Washington, and it was Washington who crossed a frozen river to lead his army into battle. By tying Meade midrashically to Washington, I am honoring Meade and demonstrating what a great general he was. I have also tied in a second Revolutionary War image, 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.
In writing this story midrashically, I have compromised some of the literal nature of the event. There was no frozen river that Meade crossed to get into Gettysburg. Meade did not go to Gettysburg because his troops needed food and shelter. There was no rider warning of approaching enemy troops. The actual circumstances of the build-up to the battle are dramatically over-simplified. Finally, it was not winter when the battle took place, but the dead of summer.
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 one way that ancient Jewish scribes employed midrash. It was a storytelling tradition, used to bring life to modern events and to raise the importance of such events to epic realms. It was the way ancient Jews attempted to explain the inexplicable, describe the indescribable, and give legend to the legendary. While it may seem foreign to our modern black and white way of thinking, this was normal to a 1st century Jew. This is how their rabbis and scribes interpreted and retold the stories of the Jewish past and present. The tradition, in fact, exists heavily in the Old Testament. The two books of Chronicles, for instance, are very likely midrash on the preceding two books of Kings.
THE VIRGIN BIRTH STORIES AS MIDRASH
After a lot of textual study, I am persuaded by the arguments presented by many scholars suggesting that the virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke were midrashic stories, told for the purpose of interpreting the life of Jesus through the lens of the Jewish past as told in the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament). They employed this technique throughout their Gospels for the purpose of describing the indescribable power met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Nowhere does this midrashic tradition present itself more obviously than in the stories of the virgin birth.
If this theory is correct, and I believe it is, then the various aspects of the virgin birth accounts were never meant to be understood literally. Matthew and Luke were not intending to give journalistic, “just the facts, ma’am,” accounts of Jesus’ origins. They were creating midrash on the birth of Jesus to demonstrate the timeless power of God met in Jesus.
Thus, they are neither literal history, as traditional Christians assume, nor are they superstition, myth, or intentional lie, as skeptics, non-Christians, and atheists assume.
There are literally dozens of midrashic elements in the virgin birth stories, far too many for me to list individually. However, I will outline a few.
First, the Magi. In Isaiah chapter 60, the writer says that “kings” will arrive on camels to see the glory of God’s light, bearing with them gold and frankincense. This same passage says that people will come from the land of Sheba, and other Old Testament texts tell of a story where the Queen of Sheba arrived on camels to King Solomon’s palace bearing great quantities of spices. The land of Sheba was most famous for its myrrh.
Second, the swaddling clothes. This image draws on a passage from a Jewish text not in the Old Testament, but part of ancient Jewish scripture, known as the Wisdom of Solomon. In that text, King Solomon is said to have been “nursed with care in swaddling clothes.” By drawing on that image, the Gospel writers were comparing Jesus to one of Judaism’s greatest kings, the son of David himself.
Third, the manger. It is interesting to note that neither Luke nor Matthew actually mention anything about a stable. The image of the stable, with the animals lowing in the background, comes from Luke’s account because he notes that Mary laid Jesus “in a manger,” since there was no room in any local inns. The significance of the manger comes, like so many other elements of the story of Jesus, from Isaiah. In the very first chapter of that book, the writer states that “the ox knows its master and the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” As John Shelby Spong puts it, Isaiah was saying that the Israelites “did not even recognize that they were fed each day from the [manger] of God’s bounty.” By having Mary place Jesus in a manger, the writer of Luke was showing that Jesus was the sum of God’s bounty – he was the “food from the manger” that would give eternal life to those who partook.
Fourth, Bethlehem. King David, the first and greatest king of the Jews, had come from Bethlehem. David was known as a shepherd before he became a king. Later prophets predicted a new king coming from the line of David in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, according to Jewish scriptures, was also the home of the “tower of the flocks,” which was a structure that helped local shepherds keep watch over their enormous flocks of sheep. The Gospels writers, therefore, when writing about the man who would later be called the “Good Shepherd,” placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, where the first shepherd king had originated. And Luke, drawing on the image of the “tower of the flocks,” added other shepherds, who were “watching over their flocks” by night.
Fifth, Joseph. Joseph is characterized in the virgin birth accounts as wholly obedient to God’s will. He is given numerous divine instructions in dreams. Following one of these instructions, Joseph takes his family to Egypt. According to Matthew, Joseph has a father named Jacob. In the Old Testament, there is another prominent character named Joseph. His father was also named Jacob. Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. Once there, he came to prominence in the court of the pharaoh because he was able to interpret dreams. He won favor with God because he was wholly obedient to God’s will. The midrashic connections are very obvious, and the reason for tying Jesus’ father to the Joseph of the Old Testament becomes even clearer when one considers the political background. Joseph and his brother Judah were the two ancient Jews whose descendents eventually settled and unified the Jewish kingdom. Joseph’s descendents ruled over the northern kingdom, which became known as Israel, while Judah’s descendents controlled the southern kingdom, which was known simply as Judah. The northern kingdom was destroyed fairly early in Jewish history, and only Judah (which included Jerusalem) remained. Jesus was already linked midrashically to Judah through his Bethlehem birth (Bethlehem was also in Judah). It was widely known, however, that Jesus came from Galilee, which was in the area of the old northern kingdom of Israel – Joseph’s area. So by tying Jesus’ father to the Joseph of the Old Testament, the Gospel writers were giving Jesus a connection to both sides of Jewish history.
What these examples show is that virtually every aspect of the birth accounts of Jesus, as given in Matthew and Luke, can be tied midrashically to stories from the Jewish scriptures – the Old Testament. The writers of these Gospels were not writing literal history, but they were also not telling intentional lies or just making things up for kicks. They were depicting Jesus’ origins against the collective stories of the Jewish people, as a means of describing the profound and otherwise indescribable power met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
When we, as Christians, begin to understand the distinctly Jewish way that the virgin birth stories were written, we begin to understand Jesus in new and profound ways. The writers of these stories did not intend for the stories to be understood literally. They intended for them to be understood midrashically, as creative portraits describing the ineffable power met in Jesus of Nazareth. They were not writing for an audience plagued with gentile 21st century (or even gentile 2nd century) black and white thinking. They were writing for an audience that understood the world through 1st century eyes, and they were writing in a style that was distinctly Jewish. To overlook this fact is, in my opinion, to completely miss the point of not only the virgin birth stories, but the Gospel tradition in its entirety.
Many commentators would point out that without the virgin birth, the theology of mainstream Christianity is in vain. If Jesus was just a human being, conceived like everyone else, then he cannot be God’s son. And if he was not God’s son, then there is no reason to put faith in the Christian story. The virgin birth is the core around which most other Christian theology revolves. Remove it, and you must begin to dramatically rethink what it means to be a Christian. Yet to avoid the ramifications of the textual evidence out of spiritual discomfort is not acceptable to many people. If that requires a rethinking of one’s own Christian faith, then I believe we should not avoid that opportunity for personal and spiritual growth.
John Shelby Spong has called the misunderstanding that plagues New Testament interpretation the “Gentile Captivity of the Bible.” Only by, as he says, “reading the Bible with Jewish eyes,” can we hope to move more deeply into an understanding of how God was met through Jesus, and what the life-changing power was that led Jesus’ followers to call him the very Christ and savior of the world.
* Anyone who is interested in reading more about the midrashic methods used by the Gospel writers is encouraged to read scholar and theologian John Shelby Spong’s book “Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible With Jewish Eyes,” which is based in part on the works of British biblical scholar Michael Goulder.