Friday, October 15, 2010

Call it Midrash

Bart Ehrman's Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene deals heavily in early Christian mythology. From early on in the book, Ehrman recognizes that there is very little of use that can be said about the historical figures of Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene. Instead, Ehrman finds a far more fruitful line of discussion in using these figures to shed light on the early Christian communities; what stories did they tell about the founders of their religion and for what purpose. I find this to be a useful exercise for students in that it gets them past the trap issue of whether scripture is TRUE or not, begetting either a fundamentalist line of this is true and the academics no nothing or the New Atheist line of this is simply ridiculous and irrelevant. Both positions would render the whole study of history to be meaningless, the handmaiden of polemics.

Part of the problem here I think is that we lack a useful word for this entire process. Words like "myth" and "legend" connote something that is simply false, made up and therefore irrelevant. We need a word to cover a process of textual interpretation that fills in the narrative gaps in order to deal with weaknesses within the narrative, adds clarity and offers a final product that is useful and fits the present ideology. While the Christian tradition never produced a word for this process, the Jewish tradition has, it is called Midrash. (Islam has the concept of Hadith, but I think Midrash is the better fit here as it implies a process that is more informal and organic.)

Take the example of Abraham. Abraham enters the biblical stage at the age of seventy-five when God tells him to journey "to the land which [God] will show him" (ultimately the land of Canaan). The reader is struck by the fact that the Bible has failed to tell us anything about the first seventy-five years of Abraham's life, particularly how Abraham came to believe in God. Come the rabbis to the rescue and we are provided with the story. Little Abraham once saw a magnificent building; he concluded that something as complex as a building must have been created by a master craftsman, who was simply out of sight. Abraham looked out at the world and wondered who could have created something so unbelievably complex; the world must have a hidden designer. Abraham's father, Terah, owned an idol shop. Abraham, no longer a believer in idols, was put in charge of the shop and proceeded to dissuade customers from buying anything: why would an old person like you want to bow to something that was made yesterday? Why would you want to buy an idol to protect your home when the idol cannot even protect itself? Finally Abraham smashes all the idols in the shop, leaving only the largest in which he placed an ax. When Terah comes back, Abraham explains that the idols had gotten into a fight and the biggest one had smashed the rest. Terah smacks Abraham: what nonsense is this. Idols do not walk or talk. To which Abraham responds: then why do worship them? Abraham is taken in front of King Nimrod (just a name in the Bible, but now fleshed out into a useful villain). Nimrod throws Abraham into a fiery furnace, but God does a miracle and saves him. So here we have it, a really good story that improves on the biblical narrative, helps it make a lot more sense and on top of it all gives me useful talking points to use against my Hellenistic pagan neighbors. I should be able to prove the existence of God, refute paganism and tell an entertaining story all in under forty-five minutes. This back story about Abraham was so good that a version of it even ended up in the Koran. In looking at such a Midrash it is irrelevant as to how this story might relate to some theoretical historical Abraham. It is not really about Abraham; it is about Jews living in Classical times and interacting with their Hellenistic pagan neighbors.

Now we are doing Robert Harris' Imperium, a novel about Cicero. One can think of Harris as writing his own Midrash about Cicero, taking Plutarch's biography, Cicero's speeches and letters as the foundation material and filling the story in as a political thriller to suit a twenty-first century audience.


Lauren Sheil said...

Christians do have a word for this. It's called Apocrypha, we have stories of Jesus as a boy making birds out of clay and then bringing them to life to play with his friends and similar esoteric ideas. They never made into the canon of the new testiment because their origins are suspect but they do add some interesting context to the rest of scripture.

Izgad said...

Apocrypha was Jerome’s word for books that never made it into the Old Testament. It does not cover any specific mode of exegesis. Apocrypha does cover something like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. We have Christian Kabbalah so why not have Christian Midrash?

in the vanguard said...

You say,"This back story about Abraham was so good that a version of it even ended up in the Koran."

Is that right? What else do they say about him?