Something that comes up repeatedly when one is exposed to those in the Hebrew Roots/Messianic Judaism movements is their primary method of interpreting Scripture called “midrash”. In various venues I’ve seen those in the HR/MJ camp invoke superior knowledge and insight rendered by the use of midrash, which they imply means “context” – just from a decidedly Jewish point of view. They appeal to the Christian believer’s affinity for context by saying things like, “The Scriptures were written by Hebrews, about Hebrews, for Hebrews”, making their approach seem to make perfect sense. Never mind that if we really look at the actual context of several of the Epistles, the “by Hebrews, about Hebrews, for Hebrews” shtick doesn’t hold up. But I digress.
After all, as Christian believers, we’re all for looking at the Scriptures in context! Considering a Scripture passage’s author, time of writing, the history of the day, who the passage was written to/about, the cultural traditions/implications of all of those things, etc., etc. – we find that those things give us a better understanding of many biblical texts. For those who are serious about understanding the Scriptures, well, context is our thing!
That said . . .
While context may or may not be an element of midrash, it is at best a fragmentary element, as you will see below. As you will also see below, even if a midrash does contain even an element of context, the subjectivity of midrash cancels out any context because of that subjectivity! Add to that the rabbinic prejudices and the potential mystical components of midrash, and, well . . . just keep reading . . .
Let’s look at just what is Midrash:
Midrash minimizes the authority of the wording of the text as communication, normal language. It places the focus on the reader and the personal struggle of the reader to reach an acceptable moral application of the text. While it is always governed by the wording of the text, it allows for the reader to project his or her inner struggle into the text. This allows for some very powerful and moving interpretations which, to the ordinary user of language, seem to have very little connection with the text. The great weakness of this method is that it always threatens to replace the text with an outpouring of personal reflection. At its best it requires the presence of mystical insight not given to all readers.
Midrash (Hebrew: מדרש; plural midrashim, lit. “to investigate” or “study”) is a Hebrew term referring to the not exact, but comparative (homiletic) method of exegesis (hermeneutic) of Biblical texts, which is one of four methods cumulatively called Pardes. The term midrash can also refer to a compilation of homiletic teachings (commentaries) on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), in the form of legal and ritual (Halakhah) and legendary, moralizing, folkloristic, and anecdotal (Aggadah) parts.
What is PaRDeS? Also from Wikipedia:
The term, sometimes also spelled PaRDeS, is an acronym formed from the name initials of these four approaches, which are:
- Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain” (simple) or the direct meaning.
- Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints” or the deep (allegoric) meaning beyond just the literal sense.
- Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: “inquire” (seek) — the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.
- Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in gold) — “secret” (mystery) or the mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.
Each type of Pardes interpretation examines the extended meaning of a text. As a general rule, the extended meaning never contradicts the base meaning. The Peshat means the plain or contextual meaning of the text. Remez is the allegorical meaning. Derash includes the metaphorical meaning, and Sod represents the hidden meaning. There is often considerable overlap, for example when legal understandings of a verse are influenced by mystical interpretations or when a “hint” is determined by comparing a word with other instances of the same word.
From My Jewish Learning:
Midrash: The Interpretive Tradition
Midrash is a tool of interpretation which assumes that every word, letter, and even stroke of the pen in the Torah has meaning. Midrash Aggadah focuses on biblical narratives, Midrash Halakhah interprets legal passages. In modern times, midrash can include any retellings, additions, or twists on Torah stories.
From Jewish Virtual Library’s Glossary:
(pl. midrashim). From darash, “to inquire,” whence it comes to mean “exposition” (of scripture). Refers to the “commentary” literature developed in classical Judaism that attempts to interpret Jewish scriptures in a thorough manner. Literary Midrash may focus either on halaka, directing the Jew to specific patterns of religious practice, or on (h)aggada, dealing with theological ideas, ethical teachings, popular philosophy, imaginative exposition, legend, allegory, animal fables—that is, whatever is not halaka.
Hebrew term for “Interpretation” or “Exposition.” The word generally used for any written or oral commentary on a biblical text. The original purpose of midrash was to resolve problems in the Hebrew text of the Bible. As early as the 1st c. CE rabbinic principles of hermeneutics & philology were used to bring the interpretation of difficult passages in the literal text of scripture into line with the religious & ethical values of the teachers. This method of interpretation was eventually expanded to provide scriptural pretexts to justify oral tradition. Thus, midrash exposes the values & worldview of the rabbinic interpreter & audience rather than the original intention of the author of the biblical text.
There is more information about midrash online and a myriad of websites out there with “midrashic” points of view, but one gets the general idea from the references above.
When one uses a midrash as a lens through which to interpret Scripture, based on the above it is likely that that person is seeking to mold Scripture to a predetermined opinion or belief system, rather than seeking to mold their opinion or belief system to what Scripture actually says. Even if one is sincere in their desire to seek truth using midrash, the method of midrash is fundamentally flawed, from its subjective nature (not to mention its rabbinic prejudice) to the possibility of mystical influence.
It is also interesting to note the Scripture passages that are targeted for midrash within the HR/MJ belief system. Those passages are not limited to Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) as with Judaism, but are often those New Testament Scriptures (which were written in Greek) that deal with issues such as the Old and New Covenants, whether or not those who have faith in Jesus Christ are or are not subject to the Law of Moses, even the issue of the Deity of Jesus Christ. The list goes on, and the topics subjected to midrashic methods typically line up with the basic tenets of Christianity in an effort to tear them down or “modify” them one by one. A number of HR/MJ teachers and lay people even claim that the New Testament was written in Hebrew in an attempt to justify their use of midrashic techniques.
So if someone is trying to tell you that midrash is a “Bible study” or that it is looking at the Scriptures “in context”, or that midrash is simply looking at Scripture from a “Jewish perspective as opposed to our Western mindset”, don’t buy it. Those telling you such things likely believe them to be true – I don’t doubt the sincerity of most folks who are in the HR/MJ movements. But if you go to the simple definitions of midrash, its origins, and read what leadership influencing those in the HR/MJ movements has to say about and how they use midrash, deep flaws in the use of such a subjective method of interpretation comes into focus.
For further reading related to this topic, see
- Doublemindedness in the Hebrew Roots Movement – The Use of Kabbalah and Gemetria
- Hebrew Roots Movement – Messin’ With the Word
- Hebrew Roots Movement – The Issue of Hellenization
- Hebrew Roots Movement – Salesmanship 101
May God grant you wisdom and discernment as you consider all of these things.
Other articles of interest:
- Hebrew Roots Movement – Are They Judaizers?
- Jesus’ Gospel? Paul’s Gospel?
- Romans 14: Indisputable Matters – Torah or the Gospel?
- Gateways into the Hebrew Roots Movement – An Examination of ‘Identity Crisis’ and Related Teachings of Jim Staley
- Tzit Tzit For the Believer In Christ?
If you or someone you know is in the HRM or a related Law-keeping sect and are questioning what you believe, a clear presentation of the Gospel can be found HERE. For more resources regarding the Hebrew Roots/Messianic movements see the Post Index and the Articles Page. General study helps, discernment, and apologetics sites can be found HERE. Good, foundational studies with a special emphasis on Old Covenant/New Covenant Truths can be found HERE. Be sure to check out the other testimonies on the Testimonies Page, as well. Make use of the tabs with drop-down menus found at the top of this site – there’s tons of info there, and it’s very navigable. May God guide and bless you as you seek His Truth.
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