Judaism’s Commentaries, preserving a nation's thoughts
The commentaries produced by rabbinic Judaism and known as Midrashim, such as the Mishnah
and the Talmud, seek to apply the Hebrew canon of scripture
to daily circumstances. Most were transmitted as oral traditions and first written down centuries after Jesus. However, some of this body of
teaching dates back to the First Century C.E. and earlier. The word midrash meant enquiry and these
documents were intended to be places where one could enquire for wisdom. Midrash could be implicit, e.g. by retelling a passage with careful
choice of words, or explicit, in which case the passage is quoted and then interpreted (Evans
1992, 544-7). In this respect some of the Antitheses within the Sermon on the Mount are effectively midrash.
Within Judaism, considerable reliance is still placed upon the Midrashim as they record case law and also many traditions. The latter often offer suggested explanations for difficult passages, mention traditions surrounding scriptural events, or offer stories to fill awkward gaps in the biblical narrative.
Types of Midrashim
There are two basic types of midrashim:
- Halakah, which sought to be a legal framework that would distance its advocates from the possibility of breaking the divinely given Law (the Torah);
- Haggadah, which offered speculative interpretations and often addressed apparent inconsistencies or filled in gaps in scripture.
Halakah is found primarily within:
- The ‘repetition’ (Mishnah) written down about 200 C.E., though sections may be much older as this document records oral traditions, where it is broken into sections designed to facilitate learning (Evans 1992, 544-7);
- The ‘supplement’ (Tosefta) written down about 300 C.E., which supplements the Mishnah, e.g. by attributing some of its anonymous teachings or providing additional commentary (Evans 1992, 544-7);
- The ‘learning’ (Talmud), of which there were distinct geographical variants (Evans 1992, 544-7):
- The Jerusalem Talmud, written down about 500 C.E.;
- The Babylonian Talmud, written down about 600 C.E., but recording teaching from rabbis, some of whom were active as early as the First Century C.E. The majority of the comments date from later than that.
Prior to the production of written versions, most of these Halakoth (plural of Halakah) existed as oral traditions. There is evidence that some of them were extant at the time when Jesus taught.
Techniques of interpretation
Rabbis worked with a range of interpretive techniques in the composition of a Midrashic interpretation of a passage. Around the time of Jesus, they generally applied the seven rules of interpretation formalized by the Rabbi Hillel the Elder (Evans 1992, 544-7). The following summary is based on that given by Evans (1992, 544-7).
- Light and heavy.
- What is true for a lesser situation is surely true for a greater one.
- An equivalent regulation.
- Where two passages mention the same regulation, the same interpretation is applicable to both.
- Constructing a father from one.
- If a passage contains unique information but is part of a 'family' relating to a specific topic, then that information also applies to all
the other passages in the family.
- Constructing a father from two writings
- If two scriptural witnesses agree on the correct judgement for a certain type of situation, then the same judgement is applicable in any
- General and particular.
- A general point may be interpreted by the particular points adjacent to it, and vice-verse.
- Like something in another place.
- A passage can be interpreted by appeal to an analogous but clearer passage .
- Word of instruction from its context.
- Where there is an apparent contradiction, it suggests that the principal is context specific.