What is the Midrash method of interpreting a Biblical verse and what application does it have in Christian studies as a hermeneutic principle?
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":
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. ... God is more than god, not less: Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about "parallels" and "pagan Christs": they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren't. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic?
As Jon Ericson said:
Rather they see midrash as a part of the intellectual background of the 1st and 2nd century Judah.
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 Lord was wondering how He could know which of His servants serve Him out of fear and which of them serve Him out of love. He devised a method that would discover this knowledge. He built a room four by four, a four-square room with only one small peep hole of four by four spans. The Lord put all His servants into this room. Those servants who served Him out of fear stood in that “four by four” room and said: “If the Lord had wanted us to break out of this room He would not have built it and put us into it.” The servants who loved the Lord said, “We want to break out of this room and join the Lord in the outside in the wide open spaces.” However the little peep hole was too small, and they had to make themselves suffer and lose much weight to be able to fit through the small peep hole in the door and join the Lord in the wide open spaces. They loved the Lord so much that they could not stay closed in the “four by four” room even knowing that the Lord had built it and placed them there.I They wanted to “break out” by force and violence from the “four by four” room and join the Lord who was sitting on His throne in the wide open spaces.
This midrash is very interesting in many ways. The first important truth from this midrash is that it is based on the text of Micah 2:12-13, “I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob, I will surely gather the remnant of Israel; I will put them together like sheep of the fold, like a flock in the midst of their pasture. They shall make a loud noise because of so many people. The one who breaks open will come up before them; they will break out. Pass through the gate, and go out by it; their king will pass before them, with the LORD at their head.” The use of the word, “breaker” or “poretz” in Hebrew, which also means “violent man,” brings us to Yeshua(Jesus,ישוע)’s words in the Gospel of Matthew 11:12, “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” The Prophet Micah says that God will put Israel in the “sheep fold.” Then the “one that breaks open” will “go out,” and “their King will pass before them, with the LORD at their head.” The whole story from the midrash is here in the words of Micah the prophet. Yeshua captures the story by describing the entrance into the Kingdom of God as a forceful, violent act of breaking out and entering the realm where the King is, outside of the fold. Here, therefore, we have a Rabbinic use of the text of Micah in the framework of a “parable” that demonstrates the words of the Prophet in relationship to the King and the Lord who walks out before the whole multitude.
The Midrash is taken from the Tana Debi Eliyahu, Ish-Shalom Edition, p. 82.
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,
1) the literal, plain, or simple meaning of the text ("sometimes a cigar is just a cigar")
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).
2) deep or implied meanings, hints, allegories (sometimes a cigar is not a cigar)
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,
"Differing weights and differing measures, Both of them are abominable to YHWH,"
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.
3) comparative meaning (< Heb. darash, to inquire, to seek, or to draw out), which would include metaphors, similes, and analogies. In order to "draw out" the meaning of a text, certain rules of analytical procedure, or hermeneutics, must be observed. Three basic rules in Midrashic interpretation (and there are many others; see this answer, above) comprised the following principles:
- drash cannot be used to strip a text of its peshat meaning. As the Talmud warned, "No passage loses its peshat"
- scripture interprets scripture; as when, for example, you are looking for the elements of an allegory, be aware of what other texts say about a given element
- the primary components of an allegory represent specific realities, so one must limit his interpretation to these primary components when attempting to understand a text.
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
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep" (Jn 10:11; cf. He 13:20 and 1 Pe 5:2).
The fourth element in PaRDeS is
4) hidden, secret, mysterious, or philosophical meaning.
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
". . . there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will take place in the latter days. . . . But as for me, this mystery has not been revealed to me for any wisdom residing in me more than in any other living man, but for the purpose of making the interpretation known to the king, and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind" (Dan 2:28,30).
The applications of Midrashic principles of interpretation to the interpretation of texts from both the Old and the New Testaments, are quite clear.
Good hermeneutics begins, of course, with the literal and simple meaning of the words of a text. Having a good vocabulary, being aware of the historical and cultural milieu in which the text was written, having a grasp of extant literary styles, and of course having an awareness of a text's context--both micro and macro, are all part and parcel of the first stage of interpretation. Proficiency in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek can be a huge advantage to theologians, professors, and laypeople alike.
Good hermeneutics continues with exegesis, going deeper into the text, using the properly translated literal meaning as a springboard for understanding the hints or implications of the contents of the passage. Using the Proverb above, we can deduce that false weights and measures are an abomination to God because He is a just God, which should serve as a lesson to us that unethical behavior is an offense to both man and God. Furthermore, God will one day apply His perfect scale of justice in the judgment of all humanity. He is the God before whom every creature must appear and to whom he or she must give an account for each and every deed, whether good or bad.
Next comes the heart of hermeneutics, where we draw out of a passage a teaching, an exposition, or an application, using the same basic principles of Midrashic interpretation; namely, respect for the literal meaning; the application of sensus plenior; and avoidance of fanciful interpretations that conflate and/or confuse the literal and the figurative meanings, overemphasizing one at the expense of the other. Many of Jesus' followers, for example, were offended by Jesus' words about His flesh being food and His blood being drink, and they subsequently stopped following Him. They failed to understand Jesus was speaking spiritually, not literally (Jn 6:59-66).
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,
"This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me."
And in the same manner after supper, He took the last cup of the seder, the "cup of salvation," and said to the 12,
"Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins."
- And last comes the deepest level of interpretation of all, which Jesus illustrated for us when He joined Cleopas and another disciple as they walked dejectedly from Jerusalem to Emmaus after Jesus' crucifixion.
"O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory? Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained [diermeneuo, from which we derive our word hermeneutics] to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures" (Lk 24:27,44,45).
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,
"No problem. The main idea of the Torah is, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Everything else is commentary."
Likewise, when explaining the Scriptures to the two disciples on Emmaus Road, Jesus said in effect:
"The main idea of the Scriptures is, 'the things concerning Myself in all the Scriptures.'" [All the rest is commentary.]
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...
De 32:4 He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.
De 32:18 Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee.
1Sa 2:2 There is none holy as the LORD: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.
2Sa 23:3 The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.
...the boy Jesus would say that all the rocks spoke of God.
SP says that the teachers saw the hidden pictures of the Messiah for the first time.
According to this doctrine, 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 Sensus Plenior adds consideration of Jesus as an answer. 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.