What is the Midrash method of interpreting a Biblical verse and what application does it have in Christian studies as a hermeneutic principle?
Midrash is part of the rabbinic tradition and expounds on the torah text. It comes from the word dalet-reish-shin (d'rash), to "seek" or "enquire" (per 501 Hebrew Verbs).
There are two types of midrash, aggadah and halachic midrash. Aggadot are stories. Sometimes this type of midrash fills in gaps in the narrative, for example filling in dialogue between Avraham and God when God commands the sacrifice of Yitzchak. Sometimes it adds new information to address perceived problems in the text, for example explaining that God held Mt. Sinai over the heads of the Israelites when asking if they would accept torah, because the text says they stood tachat (under) the mountain. We understand "under" to mean "at the foot of", but that's not quite what it says. So the rabbis expounded on that. Sometimes aggadot are parables, not meant to be taken literally.
Many aggadic midrashim contradict each other, so they do not have the same status as halacha (law). But midrash is a tool for interpretation, and some of the stories that "everybody knows" from the torah aren't actually in there but are famous midrashim (for example Avraham smashing his father's idols).
The other type of midrash is used to derive halacha. It derives meaning using the talmudic rules of exegesis, including Hillel's seven rules and Rabbi Yishmael's thirteen rules. Both types of midrash rely on careful, close reading of the text, noticing apparent problems, contradictions, or similarities, and seeking ways to resolve them.
As for application to Christian studies, sorry, no idea.
For the Jewish perspective of midrash, I refer you to this answer.
Bob Jones' answer covers Sensus Plenior, which uses many of the same methods as midrash and is uniquely Christian.
Martin Pickup's article in the June, 2008 Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society documents the attitude of current evangelical scholarship: reluctant acceptance that New Testament writers used midrashic techniques to interpret the Hebrew Bible. He also documents that liberal critics sometimes assume New Testament texts (especially the Gospels) are examples of early Christian midrash explaining the life of Jesus. Neither camp, however, uses midrash to understand their texts. Rather they see midrash as a part of the intellectual background of the 1st and 2nd century Judah.
It could be argued that Jewish midrash has links to various mystic disciplines such as hesychasm in that interpretation is more of an art than a science. Meaning doesn't arise from impersonal rules, but from the interpreter developing a deep, mystic connection to the mind of God as expressed in the Scriptures. However, these ideas may be more a legacy of ancient Greek thinking (such as Pythagoras and Plato) than ancient Jewish thinking.
Personally I struggle with how the midrash methods ought to be blended with the inductive method I prefer. I know that the Apostles practiced something like midrash and that I'm singularly ill-equipped to follow them. Perhaps one answer lies in understanding the Bible as True Myth. C. S. Lewis wrote in "Myth Became Fact":
As Jon Ericson said:
The Midrash can be applied in Christian studies, moreover if we want to understand the Word of Jesus, to know His cultural and historical context, get to know Him better.
The Midrash was part of "Jewish traditions of interpretation and exegesis" of the time, so as Joseph Shulam wrote: ignore it "is to miss a very important tool for understanding the Word of God." It is like start to see a movie in its second hour.
You can find an example in this: Hidden Treasures, pages 13-14. Here is explained a relation between an ancient rabbinic midrash, Micah 2:12-13 and Matthew 11:12, the extract is:
The Midrash is taken from the Tana Debi Eliyahu, Ish-Shalom Edition, p. 82.
From the perspective of Sensus PLenior:
When Jesus was 12 he taught the teachers how to read the scriptures in a way they had never seen before. As a Jewish child he was taught to ask "What are these stones, referring to a pile of rocks by the water. But instead he asked about the cleft in the rock where Moses hid, and the five smooth stone which David put in his "shepherds pouch", the stone that gave water, etc. Since God said that he was the rock...
...the boy Jesus would see that all the rocks spoke of God.
The teachers saw the hidden pictures of the Messiah for the first time.
Over the next 18 years they perverted the method so that when Jesus began his teaching, they would not lose their control over the people. This is why they were called 'vipers' not misguided teachers. They knew the truth but lied about him.
Midrash and Sensus Plenior use the same methods of solving riddles, but in Midrash, one is forbidden from considering Christ as an answer to them. In the parable of the four rabbis they were warned: "When you see the white rock, don't say water, water". In sensus plenior, Jesus is the White Rock, and "Water, water" means the "Word of God in heaven and on earth".
The apostles use the methods of Sensus Plenior as their focus is ALWAYS on Christ.
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A well-known acronym for the Midrashic method of biblical interpretation is the acronym PaRDeS (meaning orchard, garden, or paradise), which comprises four levels of meaning, from the literal meaning to the deepest of meanings. They are peshat, remez, derash (or midrash), and sod, which are, respectively,
When Moshe struck the rock and water gushed out, he struck a real rock with a real rod, and real water issued forth. When Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the water was real water, the wine was real wine, and the clay pots were real clay pots (the ones used, perhaps, for ceremonial washing).
Peshat may often be taken for granted, but it is foundational, as it requires knowledge of denotations, literary styles, historical and cultural settings, and context (within the canon of the OT scriptures; viz., TaNaKh, or the acronym for the three-fold division of the OT into Torah, Nevim, and Ketavim; see Lk 24:27,44).
From the ridiculous: A sketch in Monty Python features a guy who is trying to talk to a married man about sex, but instead of coming right out and saying he's curious about marital sex, he keeps saying, "Wink, wink; nudge, nudge." To the sublime: Remez is the spiritual equivalent of a wink. It's deeper than the surface, literal, or peshat meaning.
As Dr. Keita Kenyatta points out in his brief article "Principles of Biblical Interpretation, when we read in Proverbs 20:10,
there is obviously a peshat meaning, and one has to understand what an ancient scale is and how it worked in the days of Solomon. In weighing out produce, for example, a merchant when asked for a pound of figs would take the one-pound weight, put it on one side of the scale and the figs on the other side so that the two sides balanced each other. What would happen, however, if he used what appeared to the customer to be a one-pound weight which was actually closer to a three-quarters-of-a-pound weight?
That's when the remez meaning kicks in. The merchant who used the full one-pound weight with one customer and the less-than-a-pound weight for another customer is obviously cheating one customer. That literal act brings the text into the realm of everyday ethics, fairness, and honesty in one's dealings with people, which is remez interpretation.
When my wife was growing up in the Middle East, she noticed that the live chicken her mother bought from the butcher shop and brought home to kill, de-feather, cook, and eat, had a wad of undigested corn in its gullet. Why? Because the merchant who sold her the chicken wanted it to weigh more than it did, sans the corn stuffed down its gullet! That trick is the equivalent of a differing weight and measure.
In a sense, the drash takes the peshat and/or the remez, and draws out a law, an application, a teaching, an exposition, or a sermon from one or both levels of meaning. The Midrash, a compendium of folklore, historical anecdotes, moral exhortations, practical advice, and homiletic and non-legalistic texts from the rabbinic literature of Judaism, pre-dated the Mishnah by hundreds of years. The more important material in Midrashic interpretation was halakikh content in Collection #2, and the less significant, aggadic material in Collection #1.
The former, the Halakikh Midrashim, interpreted the traditionally received laws from the text of the Tannach, whereas the latter, the Aggadic Midrashim, were explanatory, homiletical stories, deriving sermonic or hortatory content from a text and other material contributed by rabbinic sages over many years.
The concept of sensus plenior (or the analogy of scripture) is relevant in this regard. According to sensus plenior, scripture is its own best interpreter, especially when spiritual light increases through additional revelation over time.
We know, for example, that the Mosaic law, the tabernacle, the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system are replete with "shadows" (He 8:5; 10:1) that became substance with the appearance and accomplishments of Jesus of Nazareth.
This rule is important when trying to understand Jesus' many parables. Usually, each of Jesus' parables has one primary meaning. To make each and every detail of the parable mean something would be tantamount to eisegesis, something the prophets of old did not do, according to Peter (2 Pe 1:20,21).
Likewise, in both Testaments, there are numerous metaphors that are meant to be interpreted spiritually. God, of course, was never literally a shepherd, and yet He chose the metaphor of the shepherd to communicate certain aspects of the relationship He had with the descendants of Israel. As in an analogy, there are points of comparison, or analogs, between the literal and the figurative meanings of a metaphor.
One must not take these comparisons to an extreme, however. All analogies and all metaphors "break down" at some point. That is why allowing scripture to interpret scripture is so important. Christians, for example, insist that YHWH as Shepherd in the Old Testament is an extended metaphor that applies not only to YHWH but to the Son of YHWH, who said
The fourth element in PaRDeS is
The sod meaning is the deepest of the four, and it cannot be understood readily, if at all. If God had not intervened in the life of the prophet Daniel, revealing to him the meaning of King Nebuchadnezzar's dreams, Daniel and his compatriots and fellow exiles from Judah would certainly have lost their lives. Daniel realized, however, that
The applications of Midrashic principles of interpretation to the interpretation of texts from both the Old and the New Testaments, are quite clear.
During Jesus' final seder meal, He revealed even more to His disciples about His body and His blood when He gave thanks for the bread, broke it, and said to the 12,
And in the same manner after supper, He took the last cup of the seder, the "cup of salvation," and said to the 12,
Rabbi Hillel the Elder is reputed to have said to a scoffing Gentile who came to him one day, asking the master to teach him the law while he stood on one foot,
Likewise, when explaining the Scriptures to the two disciples on Emmaus Road, Jesus said in effect: