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5170Re: [XTalk] Midrash vs. Mythologization

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  • Rikki E. Watts
    Oct 4, 2000
      Re: [XTalk] Midrash vs. Mythologization Thanks for the comments Bob,

      At 12:06 PM 10/02/00 , Rikki Watts wrote:
      ...First, to equate mythology with Midrash is simply wrong ...
      Second, Midrash in all but its most jejune sense is precisely a commentary
      on ancient scripture and never involved the creation of episodes which were
      then presented as recent history.  This is why Philip Alexander, director of
      the Hebrew Studies Centre at Oxford (probably an intelligent person), was so
      devastating in his critique of NT scholars who use this language of the
      gospels. ...

      Well, I'd certainly like to know more about what Alexander wrote. Lewis Reich once wrote to us (I don't have his gem available on this computer) that there was a range of 5 types of  traditional Jewish scriptural commentary, ranging from very literal to very conjectural. I think the case could be made that the book of Enoch was an extended commentary on Genesis 6. It was, as you know, quite creative. Whether all this falls under the umbrella of Midrash, or whether Midrash was but one of the categories within the 5 types Reich summarized, I can't recall for sure.

      Re Midrash, see P. S. Alexander, "Midrash and the Gospels" in C. M. Tuckett, ed., Synoptic Studies(Sheffield: JOST, 1984) 1-18, and "Midrash" in R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden, eds., A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, (London and Philadelphia: SCM and TPI, 1990) 452-9. See also Neusner, Invitation to Midrash, where he sees Midrash working in three dimensions: an explanation imputed to particular verses of Scripture (= fixed canonical text), a mode of stating important propositions, syllogisms, in conversations with verses or sustained passages of Scripture, third, as a way of retelling (ancient) scriptural stories that imparts new immediacy to these stories.  On this reading, I'd be hard-pressed to see how one could describe the Gospels in this fashion.  Re Lewis, I'm not sure I'd accept Enoch as Midrash--it doesn't look much like what later Jews explicitly labeled Midrash.  My point is again that I think folk are using Midrash to describe any kind of interaction with a canonical text.  This is so broad as to be almost meaningless--especially when the term is already explicitly used of a certain kind of Rabbinica.  

      Third, don't worry, I didn't think you thought the Gospels were pure
      mythology.  I'm taking you to task because you stated that Jesus was
      'highly' mythologized and given what I know of anthropology this seems most
      unlikely.  Myth concerns relating in symbolic and imaginative language the
      fundamental structures upon which a given culture rests, generally told in
      terms of events from the earliest time, and dealing with mythic time which
      is qualitatively different and discontinuous from ordinary, existential time
      (so Eliade). ...

      I think the topic of mythologization is a legitimate one (whether or not it involves Midrash), and I think it is quite possible for a "myth" to develop from an actual historical event. To me, the process of mythologization involves the progressive stripping from the original story some of its most unique temporal and geographical particularities. Many of the remaining elements of the story hold increasingly symbolic rather than literal meaning. I don't have Eliade with me (I'm on vacation, and only managed to bring a small portion of my library with me), so I cannot look for what he had to say about mythologization.

      I think the Gnostics tried hard to mythologize Jesus. They were never particularly comfortable with his humanity anyway. But the mainstream of the church insisted on retaining particularities of time and place (even if some of the particularities were invented, as the Jesus Seminar often claims), and resisted much of the mythologization. There was a dual theological tendency pulling at every NT text: Immanence vs. Transcendence. The mythologizers tended to side with transcendence, I think, while those who insisted on Immanence also insisted on the humanity of Jesus. We depend on the latter for most of what we know of the historical Jesus, IMHO.

      As we attempt to differentiate material about the historical Jesus, I think we might do well to understand the process of mythologization better, so as to control for whatever mythologizing tendencies there were in the literary process out of which our present texts evolved. Whether this process had anything to do with Midrash is, of course, another matter.

      Hmm, very interesting ideas (transcendence etc).  If you have the time I'd be interested in hearing you further on this.  Given what you've said, it is fascinating e.g. that John has in some respects the highest Christology but also in some ways the earthiest, human Jesus.  

      However, again, my main concern is with some control on this language.  I'm not au fait with Gnostic literature, but if their story world can be shown to have been mythological (according the definition offered earlier) then to conform Jesus to that worldview would indeed be to mythologize him.  But seeing that I'm much happier with Eliade's definition than with Bultmann et al who, not surprisingly perhaps, are not especially qualified to speak about this, I need to be convinced that the term should be applied to the tailoring of stories of recent individuals (which no doubt happens) and to do so in history-like narrative set in this-worldly time.  I know lay persons might speak of the Lincoln "myth" (cf. the recent fascinating post: does that mean that Jesus himself might  already have shaped his actions with a view to how they might be viewed later?), but if you don't mind me saying so, I personally find this use sloppy since as far as I can see those stories look nothing like what the ancients called myth and nor do they serve the same function (at this rate ancient Bioi become mythical and then one wonders what's the point of the terminology?).  So, sure, let's see if there are any viable ways we can test to see what goes back to Jesus and what doesn't, I'm just not convinced (to put it mildly, :-)) that "myth" is a helpful way to describe it.  


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