07 June 2007

Midrash, metaphor, and Messiah

A "Liberal Buddhist Agnostic Christian"(did I get that right, Scott?) of my online acquaintance has posted a discussion about midrash (and how it might affect understandings of the New Testament) on some messageboards I frequent. In the ensuing discussion, I added the following in response to a more traditional Christian's post:

A quick thought from a Jew, not a Christian:

Understanding some of the gospel accounts midrashically can add to our common Scriptural ground, where you & I "agree to disagree" about Jesus as the son of God/a divine member of the Trinity vs. as a gifted human teacher. I have no particular stake in persuading you that Jesus did not, say, turn water into wine, walk on water, raise Lazarus from the dead -- just as I have no particular stake in persuading some Orthodox Jews that the Torah we have is not the product of God's dictation to Moses on Mount Sinai, or that Abraham and Sarah observed the Jewish dietary laws and other elements of halakhah (Jewish law) long before they were revealed at Sinai [which is a story contained in Jewish midrash]. But if I don't believe those things, a midrashic understanding of them gives us some common basis on which we can discuss them as having spiritual significance, rather than my saying "well, I don't believe that's literally true, so it's false/nonsense/'a lie.'" My main academic background is in literary interpretation (and in Jewish Studies: so I do read Hebrew, some Greek, and a little Aramaic [at this point], as well as Yiddish, Spanish, French, some German, and can make my way with Italian and some medieval/simpler Latin) -- most of the texts I love and that say, to me, "true" things about the world, are fiction or poetry: their facts are not always literally true (even real experiences put into a poem or story may be altered in some way), but that doesn't mean that they're false. Plato thought this was the case (poets are liars, so they get banished from his Republic) -- but I disagree. :)

That said, since I'm NOT a scholar of the New Testament I can't speak definitively without more research, but I suspect that at least some of Jesus's followers and those who wrote down or transmitted the Gospel accounts did in fact believe in a more "literal" understanding of what we see there: that Jesus really did turn water into wine, or heal the sick. Some people believe in various kinds of miraculous occurrences today: faith healing, miraculous rescue, divine apparitions in everyday objects, etc. Schmoo and I may see such things more metaphorically, but that doesn't mean there aren't others that do take them literally. But our willingness to see them as important -- rather than saying, as a pure logical rationalist might, that such stories only show the folly of believers and how duped they are -- means that we can share in a common love and exploration of these religious texts and traditions with you.

The New Testament is not part of my religious tradition, except inasmuch as it grows out of it -- it is, however, part of my cultural and literary heritage as part of the Western world, and I treasure it for both of these aspects.



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