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Midrash in the New Testament

Is the Gospel of John a type of Midrash?

John the Evangelist
John the Evangelist. Manuscript illumination from an Ethiopian Gospel Book

Q. In the introduction to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18), Jesus is called the Word of God. Then, the Gospel sets out to interpret Jesus’ life and deeds, often giving them spiritual and even mystical meanings. Could it be said, then, that the Gospel of John is a kind of midrash of Jesus?

A. The short answer, I’m afraid, is the scholar’s typical non-answer: well, that depends. You are certainly right in pointing to the fact that the Gospel of John is very focused on the interpretation of Jesus (Christology), not least on Jesus’ own self-understanding as illustrated in the dialogues and monologues of the Gospel. It was probably a similar observation that prompted Clement of Alexandria (around 200 C.E.) to describe John’s Gospel as “the spiritual Gospel.”

Yet, whether this observation renders the Gospel more or less ‘midrashic,’ is another question. Midrash (from Hebrew: drsh to seek, inquire) can be taken in a broad sense as simply relating to the act of interpreting the Jewish Bible/Old Testament; its narrow meaning, however, concerns a certain kind of rabbinic exegetical literature engaging in biblical interpretation (e.g. Mekhilta, Midrash Genesis). These works date from around 200 C.E. and later but may contain traditions that go back to the time when the Gospel of John was written (around 90 C.E.).

Whereas one may say that all New Testament gospels fit the first and broader definition, I would be more cautious to simply call John’s Gospel a midrash in the narrower sense. In terms of genre, scholars tend to understand the gospel as an ancient biography (bios/vita) that incorporates elements from other genres such as drama, romance, rhetoric, testament literature—and midrash. In terms of the latter, scholars have seen, for example, the bread-from-heaven discourse in John 6 as a ‘midrashic’ homily that reinterprets the biblical exodus story.

So, is the Gospel of John a midrash? I suppose the short answer remains: well, that depends.

  • Kasper Bro Larsen

    Kasper Bro Larsen is associate professor of New Testament Studies at Aarhus University, Denmark. He is author of Recognizing the Stranger: Recognition Scenes in the Gospel of John (Leiden, 2008) and editor of The Gospel of John as Genre Mosaic (Göttingen, 2015).