Christian Midrash: In the Church Today

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 four articles where I will explore some random theological ideas. The articles are based on a paper I wrote in University in which I hope to take what good has come from Midrashic texts and blend it with Christianity. In my first article, I explained what Midrash is and how Christian Midrash can exist. In my second I went 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 addressed how Midrash can function as theology. In this final article, I discuss the limitations of using Midrash and how it can be used by the Church today.

While Midrash can be used with good results in a Christian context, some inherent limitations do not exist in a Jewish setting. In a Jewish context, there is no list of beliefs required of Jews. Even the list of Maimonides, which is the closest one can get to a Jewish creed, is accepted by a substantial minority of Jews in its totality. Christianity, especially Catholicism, is not this way. In the Catholic Church, a Catechism exists to “aim at presenting an organic synthesis of the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine.” One does not need to go as far as the Catholic Church to realize that a belief in Jesus Christ as divine, the Savior, who died for the sins of man so that we might reach salvation, is universal throughout Christianity. Even Saint Paul writes that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Christianity can’t exist without shared beliefs; it was not founded, like Judaism, through a chosen people. As such, there is tension between Christianity and Midrash that cannot go without being addressed. If Christianity accepted a Midrashic reading over the New Testament that affirmed that Christ was not divine but a prophet, it would cease to be Christianity. Though this example is exaggerated, one can see the tension between Christian doctrine and the Midrashic technique. For Catholicism, this problem is only deepened given the number of truths that must be assented to when divine authority is given to the Church and her traditions. Midrash, in this tradition, can still be harnessed, but within a fence created by doctrine.

It is essential to point out the alternative method to acquiring doctrine used by Christianity for ages, which brings together Greek thought, tradition, and scripture to form systematic theology. Systematic theology, understood in contrast to the Midrashic theological method, is the study of God and the divine to attain truth through reason. Scholasticism, with its height in Saint Thomas Aquinas, is the clearest example of such systematic thought. That said, it should be noted that not all of Christianity holds systematic theology in the highest esteem. Eastern Orthodoxy tends to emphasize the incomprehensibility of God and an appreciation of the mystery. Yet even Orthodoxy holds many truths. This is the first contention between religious traditions with systematic theology and Midrash – namely that Midrash is limited to the truth claims a religion asserts. Such a constraint also exists within a Jewish context. Fisher writes about the Mekhilta that “while the rabbis may not have articulated the precise parameters of their background beliefs, they were surely aware when the boundaries of those beliefs had been crossed.” The boundary of beliefs exists within Judaism, but it exists to a much greater extent in Catholic tradition. This contention does not dismiss Midrash, though it limits its use. The second contention between systematic theology and Midrash is more challenging: the primary goal of systematic theology is to attain divine truth, whereas the primary motivation to enter into Midrash is to improve oneself and how one sees the world. The human oriented nature of Midrash sets up a stark contrast with the divine oriented systematic theology.

Despite this last contention, there is still room for Midrash in Catholicism. This function comes in two ways: first, using Midrash can provide insight for personal reflection that helps individuals without touching too much on theological points. The second function is for a limited sort of theology that exists within the confines of Church teaching. For the first point of reflection, it is imperative for Catholics to enter the Bible not just for theological purposes but to grow in their relationship with God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states of the Trinity, “his mystery [the Trinity], then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God.” The importance of such an action is clear, especially given the Christian belief that God became human and entered into various relationships that all humans are accustomed to. This literal, “down to earth” concept of Christ in the Trinity gives greater importance to the use of Midrash for Christianity. While it is an important and essential part of Midrash that determinable theological claims exist, when one enters into relationship with Jesus it is hard to do so without some assertations of truth concerning the nature of Jesus in relation to the divine. Early Christians recognized this challenge, which is why it was dealt with in the early Church councils.

I will use the following common example of Christian teaching and argue why it is Midrash. Christ’s death on the cross has been given the meaning by Christians as as being connected to salvation from sin. Yet this formula is never expressed in the Gospels. Instead, it is used by Paul who performs a Midrash of his own by comparing the death of Christ with the story of Passover in Exodus. Just as the blood of the lamb protects the Hebrew first born children from death, Christ protects man from what is deserved by his death. As a result of Jesus’ sacrifice, the building of a relationship with God becomes all the more real when you believe, through Midrashic method, that God died for you, though you did nothing to deserve it. This drastically personal conception is created through a combination of quotes from different works and would not be possible if each book in scripture is read without reference to another.

The ability to use Midrash as Theology was touched on above, so I am going to inquire into how such Theology can form in the presence of a large systematic influence. Midrashic theological predication can be understood to either be conflictual with systematic theology or complimentary to it. That said, the relationship between systematic theology and Midrash does not appear to be naturally conflictual. The purpose of Midrash lies in the process of doing it; the purpose of systematic theology lies in the result. In fact, systematic theology necessitates a form of Midrash to improve itself. There are several principles in systematic theology that are assumed before a systematic use of reason uses these principles to various conclusions. In this system, Midrash can be used to challenge or create foundational principles on which systematic theology depends. Midrash occurs when a gap exists in scripture and Midrash brings the verses together to make sense of it. In the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:8:1 there are a string of verses from the Torah that are put together to demonstrate the conflict between these verses. One example uses the verse from Deuteronomy 5:12 that the Sabbath must be sanctified by rest. While Numbers 28:9 tells the Israelites to perform the work of a ritual sacrifice, Exodus 31:14 reads that the profaners of the sabbath should be put to death and we have a real Dilemma! While Midrash does not attempt to explain the answer to this specific question, the Mekhilta ends with a verse from Psalms 62:12 that reads, “One thing has G-d spoken, these two have I heard.” Though we do not have specific answers to any specific questions, we have a general principle that God is incomprehensible, a general principle that lays at the foundation of, and limits to, systematic theology.

Midrash, a Jewish method through tradition, can extend beyond Jewish scripture and theological practice. Although the anti-Semitism of Emmerich should not be understated, the understanding of her work as Midrash enhances, rather than undermines, the method. Midrash is fundamental to the difficulties of scripture to reveal religions that an author like Emmerich could be using Midrash even if not consciously so. To limit Midrash, or any other concept, to the culture it was founded in prevents others from being able to see and understand the value of it. While Midrash’s Jewish origin should be remembered, if Midrash is not allowed to move beyond the Jewish Community it will not be able to aid other religious traditions. The problem of gapped texts exists in Christianity to the same extent in Judaism, and Midrash is a useful method for dealing with such struggles for Christians as it has, and does, for Jews.


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