Midrash in the New Testament

by David Flusser[*]

The word מִדְרָשׁ (midrāsh; plural: midrashim) in Hebrew simply denotes the explanation of scriptural verses. “Midrash” occurs as a technical term as early as the Dead Sea Scrolls (cf., e.g., 4QFlor [4Q174] 1-2 I, 14). Generally “midrash” is used for typological interpretations or some other non-literal explanation of Scripture. This fact in itself shows that there could be different types of midrashim. Not only does modern New Testament scholarship frequently use the Hebrew word, it often attempts to imitate its methods. Some researchers have ventured to invent new midrashim of their own, midrashim that are not attested in the ancient sources, in order to find a bridge between an Old Testament and a New Testament passage. In this way they hope to explain the New Testament passage and reveal its origin. It is obvious, however, that such a method is hazardous, especially if the scholar attempting it is neither well versed in the extant midrashim nor truly grasps the ancient midrashic methods. For this reason I will discuss below only those passages in the New Testament that are based on extant midrashim, or mention those passages in the New Testament that prove to be Christian midrashim. I am able to deal with only a few examples here, since the material is extensive. I will therefore choose examples that will help readers better understand the New Testament.

Midrashic Method in the Beatitudes

It is is not widely recognized that Jesus’ preaching contains little exegesis of scriptural passages. The exception that proves the rule is the Sermon on the Mount. In his teaching Jesus rarely gives complete midrashim, although quite often his words were based on preexisting midrashim. It seems that Jesus simply assumed familiarity with the midrashim on the part of his listeners so that he was able to allude to them, but his style was not to speak in midrashim.

To illustrate Jesus’ style, let us quote the first three Beatitudes[1]:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.

Blessed are the mourners, for they will be comforted!

(Matt. 5:3-5)

Here I have presented the Beatitudes according to the Catholic order, which is just as justifiable on scientific grounds as the order customary among Protestants, in which the mourners are addressed before the meek. But if we are familiar with the nature of midrash, the Catholic order is preferable, for it appears that Jesus wished to draw a parallel between the meek and the poor in spirit. The second beatitude is a paraphrase of a verse in the Psalms: “The meek shall inherit the land” (Ps. 37:11). The first beatitude is thus a kind of midrash on this verse. Jesus explains that “meek” in Ps. 37:11 are the “poor in spirit,” and the phrase “inherit the land” needs to be understood in a midrashic sense; the “land” is “the Kingdom of Heaven.” However, Jesus does not cite this midrash in full, for it seems to have been already familiar to his audience. In rabbinic literature, too, the scriptural phrase “inherit the land” is interpreted as referring to the world to come: “All Israel has a share in the world to come, as it is said, Your people, all of them, will be righteous, they will inherit the land forever [Isa. 60:21]” (m. San. 10:1).

Midrash in Hebrews

Whereas in the Gospels Jesus does not cite complete midrashim, it is different in the other parts of the New Testament. Entire midrashim are expounded there, although sometimes in abbreviated form. For example, consider how the author of Hebrews (Heb. 3:7-4:11) explained the following passage in the Psalms:

Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, as on the day of testing in the desert… so that I swore in my anger, “They will not enter my rest.”

(Ps. 95:7-11)

The Christian author of Hebrews interpreted this passage in terms of salvation history. He relates the beginning of the Psalm to his time and his generation: the days of the Messiah will arrive immediately. If we do not harden our hearts “today” we will be saved. This is also how the rabbinic midrash understands it. When will the Messiah come? Today—if you will obey his voice. The Christian author interprets the “rest” into which the redeemed will enter symbolically as the Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:9), and a midrash says in a different sense that the rest in Psalm 95 is the Sabbath: If only Israel would keep a Sabbath perfectly, then the messianic “Today” would come immediately (y. Ta’anit 1a).[2] The passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews is important for the study of Judaism because it is by far the oldest witness for midrashim of this kind.

The author of Hebrews also gives the word “today” in Psalm 95 a morally practical interpretation. The Psalmist said: “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Ps. 95:8). From this the author of Hebrews concludes: “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ so that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). Here the author of Hebrews alludes to a verse in Leviticus where it says: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you must surely admonish your neighbor…!” (Lev. 19:17). But when should one admonish his neighbor? We learn the answer from the Psalm: “Today…do not harden your hearts.” Hence we should admonish one another every day. This was also the teaching of the Dead Sea sect:[3] “Everyone should admonish his brother according to the commandment and not be angry from one day to the next” (CD VII, 2-3).

Thus the interpretation of the author of Hebrews was firmly rooted in the midrashic style of exegesis as it is known from rabbinic literature and the writings of the Qumran sect. Our approach has not only helped us better understand a passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews, it has broadened our understanding of how creative the midrashic method can be.

An Early Christian Pesher in Acts

I have just mentioned the famous Dead Sea sect, which is to be identified with the Essene sect. In addition to the usual midrashic method the sectarians cultivated a special kind of Scriptural exegesis, which is called Pesher according to Essene terminology. The method was to take verses from the prophets or the Psalms and explain them as if they were related to recent history and the present. Similarly, according to Luke, the risen Jesus said: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses and in the prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).[3a] However, the Essene Pesher is not only characterized by the actualization of Scripture verses, it is also characterized by a violent interpretation of the Scriptural text: sentences were chopped up into small bits, and sometimes the exegete even ignored the form of words in the text, for instance whether it was in the singular or in the plural.

As far as I know, the New Testament has only one truly Essene-style Pesher, namely in Acts 4:25-28, where we find a Pesher on the verses: “Why do the Gentiles rage and the peoples ponder vain things? The kings of the earth make a stand, and the princes band together against the LORD and against his anointed [i.e., Messiah]” (Ps. 2:1-2). In the Acts of the Apostles these verses are interpreted as follows: “For in truth in this city Herod and Pontius Pilate banded together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel…” (Acts 4:27).

The beginning of this early Christian “Pesher” is clear: an attack was directed “against the LORD and against his Messiah,” that is, against God’s “holy servant Jesus,” whom God had anointed. It is more difficult to understand the rest of the interpretation. It appears that Luke simply recorded a Pesher from the oral tradition of the early church in Jerusalem, which he reproduced in abbreviated form in Acts, since he did not understand the Pesher’s technique. With our understanding of the of the Pesher method it is possible to reconstruct Luke’s source. The early Christian Pesher probably went something like this: “Why do the Gentiles rage and the peoples ponder vain things? The kings of the earth make a stand, and the princes band together against the LORD and against his anointed. The Gentiles—its interpretation: the Romans. And the peoples—its interpretation: Israel. The kings of the earth—its interpretation: King Herod (Antipas). And the princes—its interpretation: Pontius Pilate. They banded together against the LORD and against his Messiah—its interpretation: against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.”[4]

From this early Christian Pesher it is clear that the early church found references to the trial of Jesus in the opening of Psalm 2. Moreover, because this genre of midrash faithfully reflects the historical cirmcumstances that serve as its starting point, it is apparent that this Pesher is an important historical source for the story of Jesus’ passion. It indirectly confirms the report in Luke 23:6-12 that Herod Antipas was involved in the trial of Jesus. Thus, contrary to a common view of the Acts of the Apostles encountered in the research, one gets the distinct impression that this book preserves authentic historical testimony, and is not simply an ideological document.

It would have been easy, for those skilled in the Pesher technique, to adapt the same passages of Scripture to completely different events. Fortunately for us, part of an Essene Pesher on the beginning of Psalm 2, the very Psalm quoted in Acts.[5] The words of the Psalm are understood there as follows: “The kings of the Gentiles will rage, and they will plot a vain thing against the elect of Israel” (4QFlor [4Q174] 1-2 I, 19).[6] Note that whereas the Christian Pesher interpreted the plural מַלְכֵי אֶרֶץ (“kings of the land”) and רוֹזְנִים (“princes”) with the singular “Herod” and “Pilate,” the Pesher from Qumran interpreted the singular מְשִׁיחוֹ (“his anointed one”) with the plural בחירי ישראל (“elect of Israel”).[7] So we see that the early Christian interpreter, like other Jews of his time, did not see himself as bound by the wording of the Psalm. On the contrary, he forced his historical perception into the words of Scripture. It appears that the Pesher technique was lost in the Greek-speaking church and in Acts Luke clearly shows that it was no longer understood and therefore in Acts 4 he abbreviated the tradition he had received.

The Translation of Moses and the Ascension of Christ

In rabbinic literature, too, there are midrashim whose typological apporach seems strange to us today, but which sometimes reveal deep truths in themselves. This applies, for example, to a midrash about the death of Moses or—perhaps more accurately—about Moses’ translation into heaven. The death of this giant of Scripture has long been shrouded in a cloud of aggadic tradition. The books of Moses themselves relate that Moses, the man of God, died like all other men, but one senses from the mysterious laconic language of Deuteronomy that a different mythical tradition was lurking in the background. “So Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab by the LORD’s command. And he buried him…but nobody knows his grave to this day” (Deut. 34:5-6). Later, in the post-biblical period, the aggadic tradition developed freely in the most varied streams. It even became possible to claim that Moses did not die, but that God took Moses to himself as he had done with Enoch and Elijah the prophet. In all these more or less mythological variations on the end of Moses, Satan becomes God’s adversary—as also in the Epistle of Jude in the New Testament (v. 9).

In one of the aggadic legends on this theme the Angel of Death seeks Moses in vain, for only God knows where he is. This aggadah[8] is a midrash on Job 28:13-23. The Angel of Death went to the sea to look for Moses, but the sea said: “He is not with me” (Job 28:14)[9]. Then the angel went to the land,[10] but it answered: “It is not found in the land of the living” (Job 28:13). So the angel went to the clouds of glory, but their answer was: “It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing” (Job 28:21). And when the Angel of Death asked the ministering angels about Moses’ location, they said, “It is hidden from the birds of heaven” (Job 28:21). He went to the abyss, but the abyss said: “It is not in me” (Job 28:14). And when he asked Gehenna about Moses’ whereabouts, it answered: “With our ears we heard hearsay of it” (Job 28:22). And so the Angel of Death searched for Moses in vain, for it is God who prepared his way, it is he alone who knows its place (Job 28:23).[11] Thus the midrash on Moses relates the Book of Job’s words about Wisdom to Moses and his translation to heaven.

In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul interprets the words of Deut. 30:11-14 about the Torah as though they concerned the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 10:5-11). The passage from which Paul begins reads:

For this commandment which I am commanding you today, it is not too difficult for you, and it is not far away. It is not in heaven, for you to say, “Who will ascend into heaven for us and fetch it for us that we may hear it and do it?” It is not on the other side of the sea, for you to say, “Who will cross the sea for us and fetch it for us that we may hear and do it?” For the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it!

(Deut. 30:11-14)

And this is what Paul writes:

But the vindication that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart: ‘Who will ascend for us into heaven?’”—that is, to bring Christ down—or “‘Who will go down into the abyss?’”—that is to bring Christ up from the dead—but what does it say? “The word is near to you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is the word of faith which we proclaim.

(Rom. 10:6-8)

The striking similarity of these two midrashim—i.e., that on the translation of Moses and the ascension of Jesus—becomes comprehensible from the fact that ancient Judaism understood the law of Moses, the Torah, to be Wisdom herself. Thus Wisdom is personified in the Jewish midrash as Moses, while in Paul’s midrash what Deut. 30:11-14 says about the Torah is transferred to Jesus.

Moreover, a version of the midrash on Job in the name of Yehoshua ben Levi replaces Moses with the Torah: “When Moses descended from before the Holy One, blessed be he, Satan came and said before him, ‘Master of the Universe, where is the Torah?’ He said to him, ‘I gave it to the land.’ He went to the land and said to it, ‘Where is the Torah?’ It said to him, ‘God established its way.’ He went to the sea, but it said to him, ‘It is not with me.’ He went to the abyss, it said to him, ‘It is not in me’—as it is said, The abyss said ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea said ‘It is not with me,’ Abaddon and Death said, ‘With our ears we heard hearsay of it. Satan returned and said before the Holy One, blessed be he, ‘Master of the Universe…’” (b. Shab. 89b). The end of this exposition is a later reworking and strays from the original subject. Of course this midrash expounded, first and foremost, on Moses, but it was transformed into a midrash on the search for the Torah itself, and in this connection it was possible for Paul to create his midrash.

It is instructive to note that in the Jewish midrash on Moses the quotations from Job are not in their original order. First it mentions the sea, then the land, then the clouds of glory, ascending up to the ministering angels and only then descending down into Sheol and Gehenna. It is similar with Paul in the search for Christ. He quotes the words of Deuteronomy about the ascent to heaven—namely to bring Christ down—but he does not speak, as does his source text, about crossing the sea. Rather he asks: “Who will climb down into the abyss?” referring to Christ bring up from the realm of the dead. Perhaps Paul relied upon a verse from the Psalms (Ps. 107:26) for this change.[12] As Hugo Grotius noted, the contrast between heaven and abyss is natural. Indeed, it also occurs in Job 28:13-23 with respect to Wisdom, although the sea is also mentioned there; and the contrast between heaven and Gehenna, as has been said, is worked out more clearly in the midrash on Job. Although Paul wanted to use the verse from Deuteronomy for the search for Christ, who was “caught up” into heaven, he did not want to set the sea in opposition to heaven, but the realm of the dead, since Christ not only ascended, he also died beforehand. Paul mentions this fact at the climax of his midrash (“because if you confess the Lord Jesus with your mouth and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”; Rom. 10:9).[13]

In order to understand Paul’s midrashic method correctly, one must refer back to the verse from Deuteronomy. Paul broke this verse into pieces and added to them his special interpretation. As if on purpose he did not relate them to the Torah, as in his source, rather he transformed them into an explanation of what he had written a few verses earlier in his epistle. In other words, Paul adopted the manner of a Pesher. It is not easy to understand what Paul’s interpretation means. Perhaps Paul wanted to say:[14] “You cannot bring Christ back heaven or from the netherworld because he has already come from both places.” Or perhaps we should understand Paul as follows: “One should not snatch Christ out of heaven and the netherworld,” that is, deny his atoning death and resurrection. Hugo Grotius, comparing this passage with John 3:13 (“And no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man”), supposed Paul wanted to say: “The resurrection and ascension of Christ should not be our concern, because God did it for us.” Whatever the meaning of Paul’s words, they are easier to explain if we assume that Paul repurposed an existing Jewish midrash on Deut. 30:11-14 similar to the midrash on Job that featured the resting place of Moses, the location of which is known only to God, so that every search for it is pointless, since not even the Angel of Death could succeed in discovering it. But even though the man Moses was taken up from us, his instruction, his word, remains near to us, it is in our mouths and in our hearts to do it (cf. Rom. 10:8). Such a midrash fits a translated Moses better than a Christ ascended to his Father in heaven, since it is known where Christ is. Nevertheless it did not prevent Paul from using it as the background for his statement, “The word is near to you, in your mouth and in your heart—this is the word of faith, which we proclaim” (Rom. 10:8).

Be that as it may, the hypothesis that this passage in Romans is a Christian midrash helps us understand it better. Paul continues: “For with the heart one has faith unto vindication, but with the mouth one confesses unto salvation” (Rom. 10:10). These words are an interpretation, in the spirit of midrash, of Deut. 30:14 (“For the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it!”), which Paul had loosely quoted previously in Rom. 10:8. According to Paul this doing with the mouth means verbally confessing the lordship of Jesus. Philo explained this verse using the same midrashic method. Significantly, the Greek translation of the Scriptures (Septuagint) read: “The word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, and in your hands to do it” (LXX Deut. 30:14). Philo claimed that the mouth, the heart and the hands in this passage are symbolic of speech, thought, and actions (Praem. §80).[15]

The Septuagint added “hands” to “mouth and heart” to further emphasize action—doing the commandments. Paul, on the other hand, omitted the words “to do it” in the quotation (Rom. 10:8), since the concept of “works” in the literal sense was suspect to him—after all, Paul rejected works. Earlier in the same passage Paul cited another verse dealing with works: “Keep my statutes and my ordinances; the man who does them will live by them” (Lev. 18:5). Paul says: “For Moses writes concerning the righteousness from the Law that the person who does these things will live by them” (Rom. 10:5). The “doing” Paul omitted in Rom. 10:8 connects the two verses he quoted (Lev. 18:5 in Rom. 10:5 and Deut. 30:14 in Rom. 10:8). Paul, the disciple of Gamaliel, knew that a midrashic technique is to bring together two Scripture verses that share one word in common. Paul did this here, but he omitted the the shared word “to do” in the second quotation because of his theological concerns. But only if we understand that “to do” is common link can we understand the connection between Rom. 10:5 and what is said in the verses that follow.

This omission is even more curious since Paul almost certainly cited Lev. 18:5 because he was reading the verse in terms of a universalistic rabbinic midrash.[16] The midrash[17] is preserved in the name of Rabbi Jeremiah:[18] “For it is not written that the priests, the Levites, and the Israelites who keep my statutes shall live by them, but it is written, The person [אָדָם] who does them shall live by them. Thus one must say that a Gentiel who does the commandments is equal to the high priest.” Here the midrash, as it is found in the words of the sages, interprets אָדָם (‘ādām, “person”) as though it meant “Gentile.” As I mentioned, Paul quoted Lev. 18:5 verse in Rom. 10:5, and later, relying on other universalistic Scriptural passages, he writes: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same is Lord of all” (Rom. 10:12). So it is almost certain that Paul quoted the verse about the “person” who will live by doing the Law because he knew its universalistic interpretation. Paul could not cite the midrash itself, for its tendency was contrary to his entire life’s work. Paul, who waged a “holy war” against believing Gentiles living according to the Law, could not claim with the Jewish midrash that a Gentile who observes the commandments is equal to a Jew (and even the high priest)!


We have discussed some examples of midrashim in the New Testament. By understanding the midrashic method, we were able not only to better understand the beginning of Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-5), but also to determine their original order. We also examined a passage in Hebrews and found that this passage (Heb. 3:7-4:11) was influenced by two Jewish midrashim. This discovery enabled us to interpret the Hebrews passage correctly. Then we examined a passage in the Acts of the Apostles. It became clear that this passage (Acts 4:25-27) is an early Christian midrash, in the style of an Essene Pesher. Only then could we truly understand the passage and assess its historical value for the passion of Jesus. The final passage (Rom. 10:5-11) has also proved to be a Christian midrash. It now seems probable that this midrash on the search for Christ is a Christiaized midrash on the translated Moses. In any case, in our analysis we observed the peculiarity of the theologian Paul. All in all we have discovered that knowledge of the Jewish roots of Christianity is not merely of historiographical significance, it also helps to bring the New Testament closer to the understanding of the Christians themselves.


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[*] This article is translated from David Flusser, מדרש התנ″ך בברית החדשה in his יהדות ומקורות הנצרות: מחקרים ומַסוֹת (Jewish Sources in Early Christianity: Studies and Essays [Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim, 1979]), 305-312 and idem, “Die Auslegung der Bibel im Neuen Testament,” in Entdeckungen im Neuen Testament (2 vols.; Neukirchener, 1987-1999), 1:32-39. The two versions of this essay are not identical. I have attempted to give as complete a translation as possible, including whatever was added to the German version or dropped from the Hebrew version. Whenever possible I have attempted to harmonize the two versions, but sometimes it has seemed preferable to choose one version over the other—JNT.

[1] For more on this topic, see David Flusser, “Blessed are the Pour in Spirit,” in his Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 102-114.

[2] W. Bacher, Die Agada der palästinischen Amoräer I-III, (Straßburg, 1892, 1896, 1899), 1:190.333, 2:314f.429, 3:638.

[3] See J. Licht, The Rule Scroll (Jerusalem, 1965), 136 [in Hebrew].

[3a] For more on Luke 24:44 and its relationship to the Pesher style of exegesis, see David Flusser, “‘Everything Written…in the Psalms About Me’ (Luke 24:44),” on WholeStones.org—JNT.

[4] This is how O. Bauemfeind (Apostelgeschichte [Leipzig, 1939], 79) explained the passage quite correctly.

[5] John M. Allegro, Qumran Cave 4, Oxford 1968, 53-54.

[6] So rightly reads J. Strugnell, “Notes en marge du volume V,” in Revue de Qumran 7 (1970): 222.

[7] The Essene exegete appears to have read the word מְשִׁיחוֹ (meshiḥō, “his anointed one”) as מְשִׁיחָיו (meshiḥāv, “his anointed ones”) for the purpose of his exegesis. According to the author of the Pesher the Essenes are God’s anointed, like the Christians according to 2 Cor. 1:21. In the Pesher of Habakkuk, בְּחִירוֹ (beḥirō, “his chosen one”) is written the other way round instead of בְּחִירָיו (beḥirāv, “his chosen ones”).

[8] Sifre Deut. §305 (ed. Finkelstein; Berlin, 1939; New York, 1969), 326f.; Midrash Tannaim, 224-225; Avot de-Rabbi Natan (ed. Schechter; New York, 1945), Version A, 51; Version B, 52. (Here I am following the text preserved in the second version of ARN and Midrash Tannaim.) See also the important essay by S. E. Loewenstamm, מות משה in 31-16 ,ספר היובל לגרשום שלום (ירושלים, תשי″ח).

[9] This answer is not recorded in the sources.

[10] According to the sources: to the land of Israel.

[11] According to the sources, this is how human beings—or Israel—respond to the Angel of Death.

[12] Other parallels in O. Michel, Der Brief an die Römer (Göttingen, 1963), 257, n. 1; on 4 Ezra 1:8. And cf. 1 Enoch 92:12-14.

[13] So the confession of Jesus as Lord is a confession of faith that Jesus has ascended into heaven.

[14] O. Michel, loc. cit., 257.

[15] See the note on Praem. §80 in the German translation, Vol. II, 402. Hugo Grotius (on Rom. 10:6) drew attention to its relationship to the Epistle to the Romans.

[16] I owe this insight to my friend and colleague Shmuel Safrai.

[17] See references in W. Bacher, Die Agada der Tannaiten II (Straßbourg, 1890), 31.

[18] This is the correct attribution. In other parallels the tradent is Rabbi Meir.

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