Gospel Perspectives, vol. 3, Studies in Midrash and Historiography

Written by R. T. France and David Wenham (eds.) Reviewed By Donald A. Hagner

This is the latest volume in a series that is proving itself to be indispensable to evangelical students of the gospels who need both to be kept abreast of recent scholarship and to know what may be said in defence of the historical integrity of the gospels. This volume focuses on possible Jewish historical and literary parallels to the gospels with special emphasis on ‘midrash’, a slippery term that is nevertheless used more and more in contemporary writing on the gospels.

It is of course impossible within this short review to do justice to the ten essays contained in this volume. Five of them deal directly with Jewish materials, exploring the extent to which the handling of historical tradition may be comparable to the gospels. R. T. France contributes a helpful article in which he surveys the full range of Jewish writings and demonstrates the variety of the approach to the writing of history, concluding that whether it be in the retelling of the biblical story or in the narrating of recent history these Jewish writers did not engage in ‘creative midrash’, e.g. the free creation of narrative. More specific, and hence more detailed, articles on rabbinic interpretations of Isaiah 24:23 by Bruce Chilton, on Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum by Richard Bauckham, on Qumran by F. F. Bruce, and on the Jewish lectionaries by Leon Morris, complete the study of Jewish materials. Bruce and Morris, each having written on his subject before, enrich the volume with their mature insight and their interaction with questions of midrash and historiography. Morris is especially effective in challenging the lectionary hypothesis of M. D. Goulder.

The contributions of Chilton and Bauckham are particularly impressive. Chilton admirably strives for terminological clarity, arguing that ‘midrash’ be used for the process of searching out the meaning of scripture, ‘Midrash’ be used for the specific rabbinic literature that is the result of the process, and that in narratives where scripture is used only in a subsidiary way, the term ‘midrashic haggadah’ be used. Chilton explores varieties of midrash (in relation to Is. 24:23) ranging from translational interpretation to thematic and haggadic midrash. This at once acquaints the reader with the complexity of the Jewish midrashic materials and the difficulty of appealing to midrash as a genre to explain the gospels. Bauckham provides a masterly study of midrash and historical narrative in the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum. He concludes that despite a degree of freedom and minor embellishment, Pseudo-Philo is largely controlled by the tradition with which he worked.

Three essays in the volume consider directly the question of midrash in the gospels. In a careful essay, Douglas J. Moo investigates Matthew 27:3–10 and finds little basis for designating the passage as midrash either in terms of literary genre or creativity so far as historical narrative is concerned. Craig L. Blomberg, in a strong contribution, discusses the extent to which the structure of Luke’s central section (9:51–18:34) is to be explained as a midrash on Deuteronomy (thus C. F. Evans, J. Drury, and M. D. Goulder) or as a large chiasm (thus C. H. Talbert and K. E. Bailey). Philip Barton Payne provides an extensive review of R. H. Gundry’s recent and controversial commentary on Matthew, focusing particularly on Gundry’s claim that portions of Matthew are midrashic in character. Though something of a tirade, Payne’s essay contains some telling criticisms of Gundry’s conclusions.

The last essay proper in the volume, D. S. Greenwood’s ‘Poststructuralism and Biblical Studies: Frank Kermode’s, The Genesis of Secrecy’ is rather an anomaly in that only briefly does it touch on the issues of midrash and historiography. I, for one, however, am grateful to the editors for including this informative and useful article in an area of hermeneutics that is becoming increasingly important and influential.

The volume concludes with a helpful postscript by R. T. France which synthesizes and summarizes the net result of the essays. This can be articulated as follows: (1) That the Jewish sources do not provide evidence of wholesale creation of historical narrative apart from any historical basis: and (2) that midrash is not an appropriate category with which to describe the contents of the gospels. This historical reliability of the gospels, in short, cannot be decided by an appeal to Jewish midrash, but rather, as France indicates, by intensive study of the gospels themselves.

To my mind this volume serves a most useful purpose and is to be judged as a basically successful venture. There is, of course, much more work to be done, as France admits, particularly on the gospel material itself. The editors indicate their awareness that the essays are to a large extent reactions to what others have written. This, however, is only to be expected in a volume of this nature.

The main weakness of the volume, in my opinion, is the total neglect of the fourth gospel. (Thus far there have been relatively few essays on the gospel of John in the three volumes of the project that have appeared.) The fourth gospel would seem to be particularly important to the questions of midrash and historiography, not simply because of the interesting role of the Old Testament material, but also because the discourses, and even the gospel itself, could be conceived as a kind of midrash on the synoptic tradition. Can we be satisfied to establish the lack of historical creativity in the synoptics if we have not yet faced the same problem, but to a much more severe degree, in the gospel of John? Should not the more difficult problem be addressed first? And could work on the fourth gospel possibly shed light on what the synoptists were doing in their own more limited way?

We can only be grateful, however, for the work hitherto accomplished by the Gospels Project, and particularly for the contents of the present work. It is an achievement of this volume, and no small one at that, to have proven false, as France rightfully claims, the two premises of the simplistic syllogism which some seem to advance:

Midrash is unhistorical writing in the guise of history

The Gospels (or parts of them) are midrash

Therefore the gospels (or those parts of them) are not to be taken as history.

It is good at least to be rid, let us hope finally, of this faulty argument through the solid scholarship of this volume. But there is also much more here that is constructive and helpful in these essays which are of such a high quality and excellence.

Donald A. Hagner

Fuller Theological Seminary