Reading the Gospels as midrash


Question & Answer

Ginny from Reno, Nevada asks:


Why is it so important to you to view the Gospels as “midrash” rather than as history?

Answer: Rev. Mark Sandlin


Dear Ginny,

It’s not so much that it is important to anyone personally to view the Gospels as midrash as much as it is that careful scholarship rather strongly suggests that viewing the synoptic Gospels as such puts us much closer not only to their original intent, but also closer to how they would have been received by Jewish ears of the day.

The reality is that it is very difficult to read the Gospels as history through modern eyes. Having just passed through the Christmas season, let’s take the stories of the first Christmas as an example.

The first thing to notice is that I said the “stories,” plural. We have two very different stories of the first Christmas. If it were history you’d expect them to match more closely. Not necessarily perfectly match, but you’d expect them to have more in common. Also, for such remarkable stories it is even more remarkable that the earliest writing in the New Testament either found the birth of Jesus to be somewhat unremarkable (Paul) or didn’t even bother to mention it at all (Mark). Add to all of that the reality that historical documents do not support several of the events mentioned in the stories (such as the census and King Herod killing the male babies in the area), it becomes increasingly difficult to see the events recorded as actual history.

That can seem somewhat devastating to those of us who grew up being told that the stories were real and shouldn’t be questioned, but if we read it as midrash, we are very likely to find it packed with meaning every bit as important as it would be were it meant to be recorded history. Much like letting go of the story of Santa being real does not make the lesson of the joy of giving to others any less important.

For example, the virgin birth tells us that Jesus had a very special connection to the Divine. Let’s face it, biologically it really does take two to tango and in that day and age they believed the entirety of a human being was held in the man’s seed and women nourished and grew those seeds. A birth without a man involved? Both then and now, it would have been seen and should be seen as an impossibility. So, you dig for the deeper understanding and meaning.

Ultimately, midrash is a way of making a truth more timeless. It takes the present (in this case the historic Jesus) and houses it in the concepts and symbols of yesterday (the OT) in order to preserve the mean of the faith story for future generations. As Spong suggests in “Resurrection: Myth or Reality,” using midrash to relate Jesus to Hebrew traditions speaks to him being on a timeless, holy journey. The idea here is not simply to record the history of Jesus, but as Spong says, to “canonize” him on a more mythic level.

Ultimately, the Gospel writers were Jewish and, not surprisingly, used Jewish techniques to communicate their stories. The Gospels they wrote were mostly written for Jewish people who were very familiar with midrash and could recognize it and understand its purpose. As the Christian movement grew and included more and more folks outside of the Jewish tradition, it began to lose its connection and understanding of those Jewish techniques.

For some people, re-embracing midrash as a way to understand the Gospels can seem like it undercuts their importance, but quite the opposite is actually true. Midrash elevates the stories and places them in the realms of the holy. It packages them in stories that are so magical and unbelievable that it invites the reader to explore more deeply the hiding meaning, all the while, recognizing that they are stories of the extraordinary.

In the end, reading the Gospels this way should bring us closer to the way they were originally understood and in doing so should bring us closer to the way Jesus was understood in those days. For me, that is a remarkable gift that excites me, challenges me, and inspires me.

~ Rev. Mark Sandlin

About the Author

Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) from the South. He currently serves at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant. He is a co-founder of The Christian Left. His blog, has been named as one of the “Top Ten Christian Blogs.” Mark received The Associated Church Press’ Award of Excellence in 2012. His work has been published on “The Huffington Post,” “Sojourners,” “Time,” “Church World Services,” and even the “Richard Dawkins Foundation.” He’s been featured on PBS’s “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” and NPR’s “The Story with Dick Gordon.” Follow Mark on Facebook and Twitter @marksandlin

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