Midrash refers to two separate, but related things. The manner of Jewish interpretation of Scripture, the different rules of interpretation developed to apply to the biblical text. And the literary collections of Jewish interpretation which grew up because of Jewish interpretation of the Bible. The word, Midrash, comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to search, seek.” As such, Midrash comes to mean “interpretation.”
Midrash as a method for interpretation refers to interpretations which created homilies as well as legal rulings derived from Scripture. Rabbinic tradition ascribes to different Sages principles of interpretation. We must keep in mind, ancient biblical manuscripts did not have chapters, verses, punctuation, or vowels. They had minimal paragraphing. Thus, the act of reading was interpretation. How you read the text offered your interpretation. The reader supplied the vowels and punctuation to the text.
So too, meanings of words changed from when the biblical books were written to the later period of Jewish interpreters. They sought to understand what words meant, especially archaic words. They did not have dictionaries; therefore, they had to look for other places where the word appeared within the biblical text. For this reason, language became a key factor in the interpretive process.
Jewish interpretation approached the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament, with four basic assumptions. (1) Scripture was a cryptic document that should be scrutinized for every detail and hidden meaning. (2) Scripture is one book of instruction, not a library of separate books. (3) Scripture is harmonious with no mistakes or contradictions. (4) All Scripture is divinely inspired. These assumptions governed Jewish Midrash.
Midrash also refers to the literary collections of Jewish biblical interpretation which use the interpretive method of midrash. Many of these collections are organized around biblical books, like Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Midrash will not necessarily comment on every verse within the biblical text, nor even on every chapter. A section is often organized by the biblical citation and the following interpretations.
The Midrash will include multiple and differing interpretations by different Sages or even anonymous Sages. The interpretation will often make use of other biblical passages to explain the interpretation. Thus, the interpretation and commentary on a verse does not progress in a systematic or comprehensive manner. Rather, it collects various interpretations on a passage or part of a passage.
The collections of the Midrash (plural, midrashim) date from various periods in Jewish history. None are earlier than the Mishnah, and many are later than the Babylonian Talmud. Nevertheless, even later Midrashim include very early sayings and traditions of interpretation.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.