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I agree that much of the New Testament text – and especially the gospels – are populated by what Richard Hays describes as “echoes,” meaning echoes of Old Testament passages.
To adjust terms to my own nomenclature, I would like to subdivide these echoes into at least three categories: allusions (allusions that are only allusions and nothing more1), parallels (in concept, occurrence, or foreshadowings), and midrash.
To add these echoes to our interpretational melting pot, it is necessary for the reader (or listener) to be fluent – or at least familiar – with the Tanakh (the Jewish term for our Old Testament).
Allusions are generally understood as expressions that bring to mind a past event or reference without mentioning it explicitly. As used here, an allusion would be an implicit (unvoiced) connection of a New Testament text to an Old Testament text or event. For example, when Jesus referred to Gehenna as a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48), He was alluding to Isaiah 66:4, “For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched.” But the text doesn’t tell us that He is doing this. The wording is so similar that listeners fluent in Isaiah would immediately recognize the connection. When reading about Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes, the well-versed reader would immediately connect this to Elisha’s miracle of multiplying 20 pita loaves to feed over 100 men (2 Kings 4:42-44). Jesus’ provision of bread greatly exceeded Elisha’s, even though Jesus began with much less. A possible inference would be that Jesus is greater than Elisha.
Parallel concepts (which include parallel happenings and foreshadowings) designate the second category, and are found throughout Scripture; our God frequently works out His divine will through patterns and repetition. For example, the four horsemen men of Zechariah 6:1-8 parallel the four horsemen of Revelation 6:1-8. This parallelism seems particularly common when it comes to Bible prophecy (in my view); Biblical prophecies may have repeated parallel fulfillments – but, I would suggest, only one that is the most extensive, ultimate, and complete.2
Although I will refer to a variety of echoes and Jewish Roots backgrounds, the third category – midrash – will be emphasized the most. Midrash is the most extensive echo, the reverberating Swiss Alps of the lot. But what do we mean by midrash? It is a word that can be understood in a variety of nuanced ways. I will introduce my use of the term with its narrow focus, a particular strand of what might be meant by “midrash.” I will address other potential meanings of the term later in our study.
When I use the term midrash, I mean a New Testament teaching that is –in some way – an elaboration of an Old Testament (“mother”) text. We will attempt to pair a mother text with its New Testament (in our case, Gospel) midrash – a couplet. That elaboration could involve the interpretation of a text, a focus upon an implication from the text, the revelation of an obscure sub-point from a text (thus “revealing a mystery”), the application of a text or its principles, or even a broad outline that the New Testament author/speaker apparently uses to organize his teaching.
By perusing one of Jesus’ more clear cut midrashim,3 we observe Him unlocking a “mystery.” Here is an example. When resurrection-denying Sadducees tried to trap Jesus with a question about marriage in the afterlife, Jesus not only clarified that there is no marriage in heaven, but also that even the Torah (which the Sadducees professed to believe) spoke of life after death. Note how He unlocks the mystery of eternal life from a text that does not, at first glance, seem to deal with the subject. This is quoted from Matthew 22:29-32:
But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”
That this verse teaches life after death is not immediately apparent. But, after Jesus draws out the implication, it does, in fact, make the point. He has unlocked a mystery.
In a sense, even an Old Testament quotation cited to prove a point might be considered midrash, although the point being proven would technically be the actual midrash. In such instances, midrash is quite obvious. Quotations can also alert us that the New Testament author had been contemplating a certain passage in the Tanakh, and we could look in the neighborhood (nearby verses) to see if he might also be doing midrash from those neighborly verses.
When a verse is not directly quoted, that is where the detective work begins. And – like all detective work – it is an imperfect science. While an allusion or parallel might make us tip our hat to an Old Testament reference, a midrash suggests the author is using an Old Testament passage as a beginning point for a New Testament text. Pondering the original Old Testament passage might help us better understand the New Testament passage. We have, in a sense, found more context.
So we begin with an Old Testament (Tanakh) text, which I refer to as the “mother text.” If evidence suggests it, we postulate that the mother text is being applied in a New Testament context; if our deductive reasoning seems convincing (we see what we would expect to see if this is indeed a midrash), we can conclude we have discovered a midrash. Nonetheless, this is an imperfect science with differing levels of certainty.4 A midrash couplet is extremely useful when the confidence rating is high.5
In my understanding, the disciples who made up the early church were frequently fluent in the Old Testament scriptures. Observant Jews would have at least memorized the Torah6 and been fluent in the rest of the Old Testament. Gentile converts would work hard at studying the Old Testament, and some understand Acts 15:19-21 to imply that early gentile believers were trained in the Torah (and likely the Tanakh in general) via attending synagogue services as God-fearing gentiles. Of course, this practice was terminated when members of the “heretical sect” were no longer welcome in the synagogues.
It takes significant familiarity with the Old Testament to pick up on New Testament midrash. Richard Hayes puts it this way:
The story is intelligible, at one level, for readers who do not hear the scriptural echoes. But for those who do have ears to hear, new levels of complexity and significance open up….
Hayes bemoans the “…readers who lack the requisite ‘encyclopedia of reception’…to ‘get’ the allusion…”7
It seems incredible that an intently studied book like the Bible – which has been the focus of many brilliant minds over a span of 2,000 years and read by tens of millions – should have anything left that has not already been detected or postulated. And it may not: many truths or connections that some have perceived do not always make it into the books or were not passed down. Although the main teachings of the Bible have always been clear, our understanding has not reached perfection. We can always deepen our knowledge of the Word.
1 Sometimes allusions are actually signs of a midrash. In that sense, an allusion can be a chunk of ice (merely an allusion) or the tip of an iceberg (cluing us to a midrash).
2 I refer to this concept as “Parameter Fulfillment.” When the conditions of a prophecy are met somewhat (though not completely), we sometimes see a “less literal” fulfillment of the prophecy. The more literal fulfillment is often yet future. This conclusion derives from basic observation. Thus Christ may have fulfilled some millennial prophecies in a less-literal sense in His first coming, but will fulfill those same prophecies in a more literal sense as His second coming. Joel’s prophecy, quoted in Acts 2:16-21, is an example par excellence.
3 “Midrashim” is the plural of “midrash.”
4 In some ways, this resembles ratings in the footnotes of the Greek Testament when a textual variant arises; do we give the text an A, B, or C confidence rating? Both studies (midrash and attempt to discern the original text) are imperfect sciences, and both studies are valuable to the student of Scripture.
5 For example, when Jesus Himself provides the Old Testament mother text, as in John 3:14, we have no doubt about it: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
6 Even today, Orthodox Jews encourage the memorization of the entire Torah (See, “How Memorizing the Torah Benefits Jewish Kids,” www.chicagojewishnews.com/did-jewish-kids-memorize-the-torah, accessed 2-4-2023).
7 Hayes, Richard B., Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 9. 113.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has published over 1,000 columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers which are available at edvasicek.com. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul's Teachings.