What is midrash?


I attend a Catholic College in Connecticut, i’m 41 and finishing up my degree at night. I took a religion class as an elective when I started back in school. In it we were taught about mid-rash, which I believe is a way of communicating historical events in a type collage format. For example- The sermon on the mt was a collection of various sermons, or the dead rising from the grave after the Passion being equivalent to us in the US saying “ground zero” for where the 9/11 attacks started. Ground zero represents a nuclear strike which to the people living today don’t confuse. There was a lot of discussion on the story of Jesus being known to the followers of the disciples and how their testimony was artistic in nature as everyone knews the facts. Spoken word would of been the form to carry the message on back then, not written word etc.

Let me say this wasn’t shoved down our throat but I got the impression from the professor that it is accepted by many?

Midrash is a bit more nuanced than that. We need to remember that in the ancient world there were no book stores and most people couldn’t read or write. Books were not written for general consumption, they were written with specific audiences/populations in mind and usually the book would be read to them. To the ancients, the hand of divine providence was seen everywhere. History was thus seen not as a mere collection of facts but as a moral story. Ancient stories would have all the basic facts, but the story that strings them together might be adjusted for the current audience and issues it faces. There is midrash that is believed to be in Scripture and there is the traditional collection of midrash that is found in various Judaic rabbinical traditions.

The problem with midrash in Scripture is that we don’t always know where it is used and where it is not. So we need to be careful when saying something did not happen or is unlikely to have happened. Just because something is unlikely to have happened does not mean it didn’t, its unlikeliness might be why it was written down.

Picking apart Scripture verses or passages to determine if they meet the modern definition of “historical” or if they are midrash might be fun but it does little to help us know God better. Our effort should rather be on discerning what the author in Scripture is trying to communicate to us about God and the salvation He offers.

For further reading:
Catholic Encyclopedia entry Midrashim
Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church

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