Midrash & Jewish Roots: An Overlooked Bastion for the Fundamentals

Many scholars—whether non-Christians (such as David Flusser or Shmuel Safrai), Christians of a different flavor than we (such as Jacob Neusner), or evangelicals (such as Brad Young or David Bivin) have demonstrated that many NT passages are in the form of midrash: Jewish-style expositions, explanations and expansions of OT verses.

When one accepts the idea that many NT teachings are actually midrashim (the plural of midrash), the equation shifts. We are no longer trying to connect Paul to the Greek or Roman culture, neither are we interpreting him Platonically. We are asserting that much of the NT is based upon the OT—with some new revelation, yes, but not merely as much as many think. Most—of the major doctrines we believe and defend can be extracted from the OT. We are avowing that the NT writers were often such extractors.

Once we learn to interpret NT passages in conjunction with their OT origins (what I call “mother texts,”), we will find that many erroneous doctrines rescind and shrivel into non-existence. Conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists have essentially overlooked the wealth midrash brings to apologetics, hermeneutics, and theology. Midrash is a good friend to conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, yet many of us are oblivious to it.

Most of us have already embraced the concept of midrash without knowing it. Biblical Theology—tracing the progress of doctrine from Genesis through Revelation—is a cousin to midrash. Proving the deity of Christ through Isaiah 9:6-7 is getting even closer. Interpreting the NT virgin birth teaching (Matt. 1:23 and Gal. 4:4-5) in light of Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14 is almost full-blown midrash.

What is missing in these approaches, however, is the realization that many passages in Scripture resulted from intentional, conscious decisions by NT authors to expound OT passages for the current church age. These decisions, we believe, were directed by the Holy Spirit using men prepared by God for this purpose. In Galatians 1:15 Paul writes that God “set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace.”

The Book of Hebrews is a series of midrashim on a variety of OT passages, most notably the wilderness wanderings. My book, The Midrash Key, summarizes the point:

Hebrews 6:1-8 is an obvious Midrash from Numbers 13-14; the people saw the produce and tasted of what potentially awaited them in the future (13:27); yet, they were conquered by unbelief; after determining not to enter Canaan, the Hebrews later changed their minds, but it was too late (Numbers 14:39-45). Hebrews 2-3 is clearly based on the events of Numbers 13-14. (p. 147)

This same phenomenon—NT passages applying OT passages—is seen frequently in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout the NT. This is particularly true regarding the teachings of Paul, teachings now being challenged by The New Perspective, the Emerging Church, as well as other incognito forms nudging, or racing, toward theological liberalism.

I intend to eventually follow my first book with a second, titled perhaps as, The Amazing Doctrines of Paul as Midrash. Let me share two examples of passages I intend to elaborate upon.

Romans 5:1 as midrash

Paul’s picture of justification has been (rightly) understood as the believer being declared righteous upon faith in Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1 is probably based (in part) on Isaiah 32:17: “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever” (ESV). I am suggesting that Paul arranges these elements into a cause and effect paradigm in Romans 5:1. He then adds new revelation, the agency: Jesus our Messiah. Romans 5:1 reads, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV). Keep in mind that the term “justified” and “righteous” are related in the original language.

As a result of coupling these passages together, we can derive a pretty good definition of saving faith: a trust and quietness of soul. We are resting in Jesus Christ.

Zechariah 3:1-9 as a source for many midrashim

One amazing passage, surely foundational to Paul’s midrashim on justification, must be Zechariah 3:1-9. Numerous NT teachings are derived from this passage, in my opinion.

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.

The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?”

Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel.

He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the filthy garments from him ” Again he said to him, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.”

Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments, while the angel of the LORD was standing by.

And the angel of the LORD admonished Joshua, saying,

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘If you will walk in My ways and if you will perform My service, then you will also govern My house and also have charge of My courts, and I will grant you free access among these who are standing here.

‘Now listen, Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who are sitting in front of you—indeed they are men who are a symbol, for behold, I am going to bring in My servant the Branch.

‘For behold, the stone that I have set before Joshua; on one stone are seven eyes Behold, I will engrave an inscription on it,’ declares the LORD of hosts, ‘and I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day…’” (NASB)

We find four obvious NT doctrines here. Many more NT teachings can be found here, but I am not trying to be exhaustive.

1. The Pre-existence of the Son.

We find the Son of God as the Angel of Yahweh, thus God the Son existed before the incarnation.

2. Yahweh as more than one Person.

The words mouthed by the Angel of Yahweh are said to be spoken by Yahweh. Additionally Yahweh surprisingly rebukes Satan in the Name of Yahweh instead of saying “I rebuke you.” Thus Yahweh is more than one Person. He refers to Himself in both the first and third person. We see a similar phenomenon in Zechariah 12:8-10.

3. Christ as our advocate.

Satan is the accuser, but the Son stands up to defend the accused. Thus Romans 8:31-34 (NKJV) appears to be an exposition and expansion of this passage:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.

1 John 2:1-2 is also based on this theme—Christ arising to our defense: “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”

4. Imputed Righteousness.

We can define what Paul meant when he spoke of the “righteousness of Christ.” The ESV of Philippians 3:9 reads, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” We can also understand the great exchange of 2 Corinthians 5:21 as well: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In the Zechariah passage, we have the picture of Christ’s righteousness that Paul is describing. It involves the instant removal of filthy garments (sin) and the gracious bestowal of a clean garment (righteousness) by the command of the Son. With this graciously given righteousness comes the obligation to walk in obedience, but note that the clean garment comes first. Thus, justification is not something we receive at the end of life, but rather when the great exchange is made (by faith).

Conclusion

Much NT doctrine is OT teaching adapted from pre-Messianic times to the era after Messiah’s first coming. Jesus drew heavily from Deuteronomy, and Paul from Isaiah and Psalms.

Paul’s gospel found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 (“according to the Scriptures”) can only refer to Isaiah 53, for no other passage contains all three elements (“died for our sins,” buried, and resurrected). Thus, Isaiah 53 makes it abundantly clear that Jesus died as a penal sacrifice offering Himself to the Father as a sin offering for us. Case closed.

By coupling passages, interpretation comes into sharper focus; we have essentially increased context. In the process, the fundamentals of the faith shine as the most obvious, natural doctrines taught in God’s Word. Hopefully this sample has sparked your interest in the practical value of understanding biblical midrash.

[node:bio/ed-vasicek body]

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

What I appreciate here:
- more attention to OT context when interpreting NT texts
- effort to avoid missing what is 'already there' in OT texts

But...
- I don't really know who is suggesting that we should interpret Paul platonically instead of interpreting him in light of the OT. I can't really think of any reason why Paul couldn't be expanding on an OT text, revealing new truth, applying an OT text and speaking in terms that are similar to some aspects of Greek thought (where the Greeks had it right).

And there is a danger to being too quick to identify OT allusions as applications rather than new revelation:
- Danger of reading into the OT ideas that were "mysteries," only revealed in the apostolic age
- Danger that, in the process of doing that, we adopt a hermeneutic that makes us vulnerable to really imaginative readings of the NT as well.

Ed Vasicek's picture

JobK wrote:
I wonder if Jewish Christians, or Messianic Jews, have done some work in this area also.

There has been a lot of work done in this area, some of it by Messianic Jews, but much of it by mainline protestants like Jacob Neusner and E.P. Sanders (not recommended).

G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament get into this a little, and so especially does Richard N. Longenecker, in Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period. He offers much from and evangelical perspective. Many of these books discuss how many NT portions are Midrashim on the OT, but they do not hash it out much. The foundation has been laid, but the grunt work needs to be done.

Aaron -- I caught a typo (my fault); conscience decisions should be "conscious." Please fix.

Most Messianic Jews get into this matter in the process of answering their critics. I highly recommend all 5 volumes of Michael L. Browns, "Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus." Brown is amazing as a Messianic Jew but also as an apologist. Many "Jewish" objections are also gentile ones! I like to use the Scripture indexes to add luster to my sermons as Brown brings up fascinating insights and tidbits of information.

"The Midrash Detective"

RPittman's picture

Ed, I find much interest in what you have to say. I'm trying to thoroughly understand your ideas before making comment but I do have a couple of questions. Would not midrash tend toward allegorical preaching and teaching? Also, what about a bend toward mystical interpretation? Would you please comment?

Ed Vasicek's picture

RPittman wrote:
Ed, I find much interest in what you have to say. I'm trying to thoroughly understand your ideas before making comment but I do have a couple of questions. Would not midrash tend toward allegorical preaching and teaching? Also, what about a bend toward mystical interpretation? Would you please comment?

From my book, The Midrash Key:

Quote:
Longenecker comments:
Evidently, the early rabbis felt that their exegesis – whatever their methods later might be called, and however we might classify them – was a setting forth of the essential meaning of the biblical texts and therefore to be identified as either peshat or midrash, with the two terms considered to be roughly equivalent.
Thus, during Christ's ministry, the distinction between midrash and peshat was not as pronounced as it later became. For our purposes, we should think of an early first century midrash as a Jewish sermon that resembles, in some ways, a modern expository sermon.

The term "Midrash" (sometimes shortened as "Drash") NOW means an allegorical interpretation; The Hebrew word is used in Nehemiah 8:8

Quote:
They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

The word "meaning" is midrash. An example of Midrash in Jesus' ministry would be how he harvested a truth from a passage in Exodus that was not the main point of the verse, but a legitimate inference nonetheless in Matt. 22:29-33 (ESV)

Quote:
29But Jesus answered them, "You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 '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." 33And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.

This would be an example of Midrash in Jesus' day, which is my perspective. Good question, brother!

"The Midrash Detective"

nbanuchi's picture

Hi Ed,

I really appreciate your article on this much neglected subject.

I'm finding out that we need as much familiarity with the OT (Hebrew Scriptures) as we have with the NT in order to gain a proper understanding of the latter. I'm under the impression that certain theological systems have been cultivated by undue emphasis on methods of exegesis that leave out any consideration of the Hebrew Scriptures (HS). It seems to me, James White does that. I think his exegesis lacks consideration of the Hebrew texts of the Bible.

I listened to a debate between White and Dr. Michael Brown and the latter showed a more extensive knowledge of the Bible as a whole and he was able to correct and clarify NT texts consistent with the HS and showing where White's interpretations of certain NT texts were deficient and erroneous.

I think what is considered by some to be the most difficult portion of the NT - Rom 9-11 - is terribly misunderstood by many because the exegesis done leaves out in large part any consideration of the Hebrew Scriptures. A great book that fills such a deificiency is Brian Abasciano's, Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:1-9: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis (Library Of New Testament Studies).

Maybe I'm wrong, but I get the impression that we depend too much on a Western (the Greek mindset?) and not enough on the Hebraic mindset to understand the Bible.

For example, much of what I read and hear regarding a man's actions and intentions is that they are separate; that is, that although a person may be sinning, his heart can still be right with God. However, and please correct me if I'm mistaken, the Hebrew concept is that action and intention are one, that there is no seperation between wnat a person intends to do and what he actually does or vice-versa. The Hebrew concept of "person" is looked at it holistically (is that the right word to use?) and not in separate units. Is this not correct?

When I discovered that, it gave me a better understanding of, for example, where 1 John reads, "the one who does righteousness is righteous." Before that I always wondered how a person who acts evil can be considered to have a good heart? It puts a damper on the cliche that says, "God doesn't see your sin; He see Christ (or, His righteousness) in you" ...doesn't it?

Furthermore, I'm of the opinion that the Hebrew Scriptures judge the NT and not the other way around (something which the Muslims and Mormons claim for their respective books). I think we need to interpret the NT revelation by the Hebrew Scriptures. What do you think?

Right now I'm reading the Jewish New Testament and the accompanying commentary; and while I have some reservation on some things, as a whole, I believe I am receiving a more accurate understanding of the NT.

The only thing I would caution about is the idea that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew (although one or two of the Church Fathers has indicated something to that effect, at least, for the Gospel of Matthew). We have no copies (as far as I know) of the NT in Hebrew or Aramaic so I am concerned that trying to "translate" it into English by attemtping to figure out how it may have been worded in Hebrew/Aramaic may lead to undue emphasis within a Hebraic context when it's just not there. That's a little of what I think I see in the JNT and the commentary. Or, maybe I'm getting it all wrong? Would you be able to clarify this issue for me?

Anyway, I don't know if I've expressed myself well here, but to put it in one sentence, we need to get a better grasp of the Tanakh if we are to have a better grasp of the NT. No?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Nelson,
I'd suggest some reading on the subject of progressive revelation. Ryrie maybe.
The NT encourages us to view it as bringing substance to what was previously shadow, etc. So, while OT certainly informs NT and provides all of its context, we really do have read OT in light of NT. I do think we also read NT in light of OT.
They are not unequal in authority, but what comes later definitely builds on what came before.

nbanuchi's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
They are not unequal in authority, but what comes later definitely builds on what came before.

Hi Aaron, thanks for your reading suggestion.

Just that little sentence you wrote above is a good corrective for all that I said. Hadn't realized my comments can be taken to imply that one has authority over the other; divine inspiration is divine inspiration. Thanks for pointing this out.

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