Midrash in Matthews Gospel

Midrash is not a term familiar to most Christians, though Jewish people who have trusted in Jesus as their Messiah might recognize the term. My latest book, The Path to the Cross, uses midrash to explain Matthew 1-2. The purpose of this post is to define midrash so that you will understand what is said about it in the upcoming series on The Path to the Cross.

Midrash is an ancient exegetical technique where exegetical relates to the critical interpretation of a text and it was used by the ancient rabbis. Midrash is based on certain assumptions about the biblical text. According to Charles T. Davis, the ancient Jewish interpreters believed: The ultimate goal of midrash is to search out [from Hebrew darash inquire about, examine, seek] the fullness of what was spoken by the Divine Voice.[1] Davis adds: Since Scripture is the Word of God, no word is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning. I make extensive use of this last idea in explaining the presence of five womens names (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary) in Matthews genealogy of Jesus (The Path to the Cross, chapters 1-3).

Because they believed every word expressed by the Divine Voice had purpose and meaning, the ancient rabbis would earnestly seek connections between various texts of the Old Testament. They did this by comparing texts that seemed to share common themes or similar patterns of events. By their assumptions, such similarity would have meaning intended by God.

James Kugel explains some of the principles of early Jewish biblical interpretation by using the following ideas[2]:

  • The biblical text is basically cryptic. It has subtle nuances.
  • The biblical story contains a lesson for today.
  • The Bible is not only internally consistent, but it also allows for confirmation of the interpreters beliefs and practices.
  • Questions about the Scriptures may be resolved via a scrupulous examination of the precise wording of the biblical text sometimes using a verse, a phrase, or even a single word.

Of course, the bulk of Matthews Gospel is narrative, and his genealogy of Jesus gets it started. Two Jewish experts on midrash say, In the narrative portions of the Bible, on the other hand, there was always a curiosity about what was left out of the story.[3] This encouraged informed speculation about the missing facts. They further explain: There is more to the Bible than initially meets the eye. In each sentence, word, and letter, there was either a direct message from God or an opportunity for the Rabbi to elucidate what God wanted from the Jewish people. Therefore, the text couldnt just be read; it had to be studied. It could not be perused; it had to be deciphered.[4] In my opinion, Matthew was encouraging such decipherment by inserting the names of the five women.

Further insight into Matthews methods may be gained by considering the methods used by ancient synagogue teachers. Katz and Schwartz describe this teaching by saying that the speaker would display his skill by using a distant verse of Scripture and employing a germ of an idea to connect that verse with the Bible passage scheduled for congregational reading on that day. The audience would be held in suspense to see how the speaker intended to connect the two by some form of midrashic comparison.[5] The germ of an idea Matthew uses to suggest this distant connection is the five womans names that he inserts into the genealogy of Jesus. In The Path to the Cross (chapters 1-3), I explain how the distant connections illuminate and supplement the birth narrative of Jesus in Matthews Gospel.

As useful as midrash was in illuminating the meaning of the Old Testament writings, a danger always presented itself. Charles Davis describes this danger by saying, The great weakness of this method is that it always threatens to replace the [biblical] text with an outpouring of personal reflection.[6] Careful use of midrash can lead to profound discoveries in the biblical text, but careless use of midrash is simply the fanciful product of a human mind. At best, midrash is the skillful comparison of Scripture with Scripture; at worst it is invention.

In what may seem like a shift of topics — but is not! — midrash is roughly like the technique employed by some translators involved in publishing English Bibles that are based on the method called dynamic equivalence. The NIV 2011, for example, is very good, but it has a potential flaw. The Committee on Bible Translation says, The NIV tries to bring its readers as close as possible to the experience of the original audience[.][7] Clearly, the key word is experience. The big problem is that we have no way of knowing exactly how the original audience experienced the Word; we have to guess. On a good day, that will make certain parts of NIV 2011 like the positive form of midrash illuminating and helpful. In less favorable situations, NIV 2011 may be more like the speculative form of midrash. How much guessing is too much?

Copyright 2011 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.

 


[1] Charles T. Davis, Midrash, based on Rabbi Burton Virotskys Reading the Bible. 10 September 2011 < http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/03-Torah-Halacha/section-25.html>.

[2] James L. Kugel, Early Jewish Biblical Interpretation, The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, Eds. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 2010) 131137.

[3] Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, Searching for Meaning in Midrash (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002) 9.

[4] Katz and Schwartz, Searching for Meaning, 11.

[5] Katz and Schwartz, Searching for Meaning, 22.

[6] Davis, Midrash. 10 September 2011 < http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/03-Torah-Halacha/section-25.html>.

[7] Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation, page 1.

Review of NIV 2011 by Daniel Wallace

In late July, 2011, Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary completed a four-part review of the NIV 2011, the latest major entry in English Bible translations. It is well worth your time to read his views. I forewarn you that when you first land on his blog, Dan’s picture makes him look like a Scottish mullah — however unlikely you find that description. Don’t let that stop you!

In Part 1, Dan provides a brief history of English Bible translation in order to set the NIV 2011 in its historical context. That is a helpful way to begin, especially for those who have no knowledge of trends in the production of such translations. Please don’t be one of those people who think history does not matter, because this field would prove you wrong.

In Part 2, Dan gives his now-familiar spiel on how literal translation is totally inadequate for idioms, and I suppose he does so to forestall those who demand that a translation always be literal. His argument is convincing, though it fails to address the legitimacy of less-than-literal translation in the vast territory outside of idioms.

One key statement says, “The primary focus of the NIV 2011 is an accurate translation (more on this later), and one has to admit that they have accomplished this objective admirably.” Another summary conclusion says: “The scholarship behind the NIV 2011 is probably as good as it gets. And the textual basis [Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic text within the Bible] is both bold and exceptionally accurate.” This is high praise from someone of Wallace’s standing among textual critics.

In Part 3, Dan discusses weaknesses of NIV 2011. The most important finding, in my opinion, is stated this way: “In this instance [1 Tim. 3:2], as in many instances throughout the NIV, I would have preferred that the translators retained a more interpretive-neutral stance as long as the English rendition wasn’t nonsense.”

Wallace offers “husband of one wife,” in 1 Tim. 3:2,  but NIV 2011 has “faithful to his wife.” This translation by NIV 2011 picks a favored interpretation from “a myriad of views.” The translation “husband of one wife” is what Wallace calls “an interpretive-neutral stance,” but the reader who has no skill with New Testament Greek reads the narrower “faithful to his wife” and does not realize that a choice has been made when other viable choices were available. NIV 2011 does not even provide a footnote, which would have been preferable here.

Wallace has some other material you will not want to miss, including a table that compares the NET Bible, NIV 2011, ESV, KJV, RSV, NRSV, RV, ASV and NASB in relation to elegance, accuracy and readability. Fascinating! One thing Dan did not do was to sum up all the scores and see how they stood in relation to each other. Out of a possible 30 points, ESV took the honors with 24, closely trailed by NET Bible and RSV at 23 points and NIV 2011 at 22 points. Remember that I am the one who summed up the points; Dan would probably say that elegance, accuracy and reliability are only three factors among many ways to compare translations. But it was still fun!

In Part 4, Dan puts a nice bow on the package: “As with the handful of other exceptional translations, the NIV 2011 definitely should be one that the well-equipped English-speaking Christian has on his or her shelf, and one that they consult often for spiritual nourishment.”

For what it’s worth, that is my conclusion as well.

Copyright © 2011 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 9:12–15

Genesis 9:12–15
And God said, “This is the guarantee of the covenant I am making with you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all subsequent generations: 13 I will place my rainbow in the clouds, and it will become a guarantee of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 then I will remember my covenant with you and with all living creatures of all kinds. Never again will the waters become a flood and destroy all living things.”(NET Bible)

 A commitment to calm fears

On one level it is astonishing that the all-powerful Creator makes a binding agreement with the living things he has made. But he did so in unmistakable terms.

What is the significance of God making a covenant with humankind? What was the idea behind making known what he expected of us and what he would do in return?

The language of Genesis 9:12 seems formal in its careful enumeration of the covenant parties. The Hebrew text makes very clear that God is establishing a covenant “between me [God] and you [Noah, his sons and their wives] and every living being that was with you for farthest generations” (Gordon Wenham).[1] We should be equally careful in considering the covenant parties, but ordinarily we ignore the animals, whom God always includes! Perhaps this blind spot is a demonstration of how we have lost sight of our stewardship for God over the earth and its life forms.

The first words of Genesis 9:13 are “my rainbow” to emphasize it. But the time-sense of the verse, is an issue between translations:

NET Genesis 9:13 “I will place my rainbow in the clouds, and it will become a guarantee of the covenant between me and the earth.” (emphasis added)

ESV Genesis 9:13 “I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (emphasis added)

NET is alone among major translations in saying “will . . . will,” placing all action in the future. ESV joins NIV 2011, The Jewish Bible, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible in some variant of “have . . . shall/will,” placing the initial action in the past and the subsequent action in the future.

I consider the ESV and other translations better than NET here, because rainbows would have already existed as a matter of physics (sunlight falling on water droplets at a certain angle); the newly introduced element was the significance God was giving the rainbow as a sign.

For God to bless Noah and his sons, rain would have to fall on the earth to nurture crops. But imagine the potential for panic when a storm rolled in. To provide peace of mind during his new start with Noah, God re-brands the meaning of a storm (Gen. 9:14). Instead of being a reminder of judgment, a rainbow would serve as a reminder of God’s covenant promise (Gen. 9:15). It is God who brings the necessary rains, and in doing so he provides rain for both the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45).

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 151.