Christian Midrash: An Adventure in the Fusion of Theological Methodology

Given my staple here as a writer who submits to and defends the authority of the Catholic Church, I am taking a bit of a step back in these three articles, where I will explore some random theological ideas. The articles are based on a paper I wrote in college in which I hope to take what good has come from Midrashic texts and blend it with Christianity. In this article I will first explain what Midrash is and how Christian Midrash can exist. In the next article I will go into what I see to be a form of Christian Midrash, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord, by Anne Catherine Emmerich. In my third article I will address how Midrash can function as theology. In my final article I will discuss the limitations of using Midrash, and how it can be used by the Church today.

Defining Midrash unequivocally proves a difficult, perhaps impossible, task as the number of understandings of Midrash reflect the multivocality within the text itself.  One technical definition of Midrash is a reference to rabbinical commentaries on the Bible written between the third and eleventh centuries. Another definition, often more discussed, refers to the method the Rabbis used in commenting on the Bible. In this essay, I will primarily argue assuming the definition of Midrash as a method. I recognize that my attempt to define Midrash does not encapsulate the entire meaning of Midrash to all people for all ages – however, it is necessary for the progress of my argument that I make some attempt at Midrash’s definition. I will begin by defining Midrash through drawing on Daniel Boyarin and Cass Fisher. I will then address the way that Christian Midrash can exist as similar issues arise in Christian Scripture as in the Jewish texts. After developing an understanding of Christian Midrash, I will use Anne Catherine Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord to demonstrate what Christian Midrash looks like in practice. Finally, I will analyze the drawbacks of a midrashic approach in the context of Christian, specifically Catholic, tradition and the extent to which Midrash can be used productively in conjunction with traditional Catholic theology.

Daniel Boyarin provides a useful understanding of Midrash that can be further expanded upon. Boyarin lays a foundation of his understanding of Midrash in intertextuality. He focuses on three principles of intertextuality in his understanding of Midrash – namely, that a text is made up of “conscious or unconscious citation of an earlier discourse,” that texts are “dialogical in nature” and that there are “cultural codes… which both constrain and allow the production of new texts.” To say that texts are the result of conscious or unconscious citation of an early discourse is to argue that “the romantic view of literary creation as creatio ex nihilo (such as Heinemann’s) cannot be sustained.”  In the context of my own understanding of Midrash, I agree with Boyarin as it appears absurd to think such a multifaceted text can originate with no reference to earlier texts. Boyarin’s next assertion, that texts are dialogical, stipulates that Midrash is especially dialogical as demonstrated though the direct dialogue with the books and verses of scripture as well as various Rabbis’ discussions and debates. The third point, concerning the significance of cultural codes affect, affects the Rabbis in “doing the best they could to make sense of the Bible for themselves and their times and in themselves and their times – in short, as readers.”  The Rabbis have quite the task of working through a process of tikkum olam in understanding how biblical gaps can be worked out, and this goal limits and allows the production of Midrash. According to Boyarin, Midrash is an archetypal work of intertextuality that attempts to produce a work that fills in the brokenness of a single biblical narrative. The Midrash accomplishes this task by bringing various verses of scripture together to see what learning comes out of the textual combinations. 

Boyarin’s definition appears to mesh well in Jewish and Christian contexts. Given the significance of scriptural gaps for Boyarin, it should come as no surprise that religions which share some of the same scripture have similar gaps to deal with. In the New Testament, a uniquely Christian sacred text, conflicting narratives create difficulties in how a text should be used for theological purposes. For example, did the Roman centurion say, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” at the death of Christ as Matthew writes or, “This man was innocent beyond doubt” as Luke writes? (Matt 27:54; Luke 23:47) How can Paul’s statement that “man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” be reconciled with James’s “thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”? (Romans 3:28; James 2:17) Do we understand Sola Fide to be true or anathema? Christian texts maintain many of the same types of dilemmas posed by Jewish texts, perhaps even to a greater extent since theological differences separate various Christian groups. Since the Reformation, the impact of scriptural disagreements has led to much dissent within the Christian community and the creation of multiple churches with differing theological beliefs. The problems Midrash addresses exist in Christianity to the same extent, if not more so, than in Judaism.

Unlike Boyarin, Cass Fisher does not approach Midrash as a mechanism for filling scriptural gaps – rather, she understands Midrash to be a theological mechanism of Jewish practice. Fisher is concerned with the struggle Judaism has had with theology over time, specifically a debated scholastic theology, and attempts to undercover a more uniquely Jewish approach to theology. Her answer ultimately lies in Midrash, which she explains through examining the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael. This Mekhilta is a halakhic Midrash that Fisher uses to illustrate a debate within rabbinic thought between halakhic and aggadic Midrash. Fisher explains that, “halakha includes legal discussions and matters of practice, while aggadah is an amorphous category encompassing all other topics of discussion, including theological reflection.”  While Fisher intends to focus on the aggadic Midrash to format her Midrashic approach to theology, halakha remains important for our purposes of understanding what Midrash is and how it could be coupled with Christian theology. While aggadah remains important for theology since it deals with stories and how we should answer difficult situations, halakha deals with practice which remains important in both Christian and Jewish circles. In her focus on aggadah, Fisher intends “to present a comprehensive typology of the forms of theological predication” provided in Midrash.  Theological predication views the speech from the text as an act and a way by which we can enter into a relationship with the “acts” made in the speech of the text by understanding them and their effect on scriptural eisegesis. Fisher expands our understanding of Midrash from one of filling scriptural gaps to a method of retrieving wisdom and theology from scripture.

I would be remiss to continue on while ignoring one of the most essential parts of Fisher’s approach, namely its Judaism. Unlike Christianity, most Jews believe that there should be no required belief to be part of Judaism. The stories that developed within the Jewish tradition are oriented to focus on understanding and improving ourselves and humanity, not on understanding the traits of God. Midrash and rabbinic theology is characterized by a division “along legal and non-legal lines” that correspond to determining Jewish practice without creating “systematic or dogmatic” theology.  Fisher develops a model in which theological claims “arise out of religious practices and often point backward toward them.” She refers to this model as Jewish Theological Practice (JTP).  This method seeks to avoid systematic theology by focusing on Midrashic debate concerning practice (halakha) and stories (aggadah) by which theological claims can be arrived at. However, it is essential to Fisher’s method that the process of studying and understanding Midrash is theology. That is, the process is more important than the resulting theological claim. Since Judaism focuses on humanity and personal improvement to a greater extent than on understanding salvation history and the nature of God, the process of coming to an understanding of the latter should be a means of improving the former. Christianity takes a different approach to theology than Judaism. At its roots, Christianity places significance on the beliefs of its adherents, specifically in Jesus, and creates a theology that focuses on God before human improvement. As a result, while the process of acquiring theological claims may help one grow, the theological conclusions are the purpose of such endeavors. Judaism often tries to avoid the systematic theology that dominates Christian circles. Given this tension, I will now begin to discuss my own understanding of Midrash in relation to Christian writings.

The definition by which I utilize Midrash to approach Christianity borrows from Boyarin and Fisher’s approaches. For Boyarin, one of Midrash’s essential duties is to work out the problems that arise in sacred texts filled with passages that contradict each other or raise questionable morality. Moreover, Boyarin’s understanding of Midrash as part of a greater intertextuality puts contemporary cultural attitudes in dialogue with ancient texts that underline how Midrash can function in a Christian context, as it does in a Jewish setting. Fisher adds the connection between Midrash and theological predication. Though Fisher sees Midrash as primarily significant for the process and not the theology, theological claims still flow out of Midrash. I write not to undermine the contention between Midrashic and systematic theologies, but to point out that the two methods are not mutually exclusive. For this essay, I understand Midrash to be the process of (an) author(s) attempting to bring together aspects of a sacred text through predication that results in determinable theological claims. There are two important aspects to note in this definition: first, that Midrash must deal with sacred texts and second, these texts must result in theological prediction. Concerning the first, Midrash, as it is traditionally understood, works to bring together texts that do not mesh well but still exist together in the same canon. Midrash is founded in the cognitive dissonance achieved by looking at conflicting verses that we must abide by both. Once the imperative to abide by both verses is taken away, there remains no need for textual reconciliation as the texts simply stand in opposition to each other. From this need for filling in gaps, the second point of theological predication is a necessary ingedient. The way a text is reconciled results in, and from, theological assumptions of how the text should be reconciled. It is with this definition of Midrash that I will understand how Christianity can use Midrash.

Since Christianity has the precondition of maintaining sacred texts, as necessary in the above definition of Midrash, there is a cause for great many questions to be asked. The Midrashic method can be used to approach these questions. There is one such Midrash in the Mekhilta that discusses the difficulty of such a task. The Mikhilta of Rabbi Ismael 20:8:1 begins with a discussion of the Sabbath and how one should rest on the Sabbath and do no work, but one is also called to do the work of sacrificing two yearling lambs. The passage later quotes Psalms: “One thing has G-d spoken, these two have I heard” (62:12). From this passage arises the question: how can we follow the orders of God if we are told things that seemingly contradict? The Mikhilta doesn’t offer a specific explanation concerning what should be done in this situation. Rather, it simply states the dilemma as part of the nature of a great and incomprehensible God. Though the question posed is not answered, we do not walk away from this passage empty handed. First, there is much to be gained personally from seeing the value in different approaches to God as equally valid. Yet we find the theological claim that God is so incomprehensible and great that he cannot be reduced to human understanding perfectly. Though Midrash does not give necessarily singular clear answers to the questions, it can be helpful to those wrestling with scripture.


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