Midrash: Ancient Bible Study for a Postmodern World – Part 2

By Ken Howard

Part 2: Jots and Tittles – Applying Midrash to the Words of Jesus

In my previous blog post on Midrash, I reflected on the dilemma in which the Church finds itself today: attempting to apply univocal, linear approaches to the study and interpretation of Scripture in a world in which both science and theology have discredited Enlightenment Modernism’s promise that human reason could arrive at objectively certain, universal truths in all areas of human knowledge, including religion.

To extricate ourselves from this predicament, I suggested, we need a deeper approach to the study of Scripture – one that would allow us to “triangulate in on the truth” by harnessing the Bible’s multiple voices – and that such an approach already existed in the ancient Jewish method of Bible study and interpretation known as Midrash, the workings of which I then set about to explain.

Having set forth the principles and the process of Midrash, I would like to invite my readers to participate in applying them. Over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to walk through the steps of Midrash with time in between each of the steps for your observations, comments, and questions. The text I have in mind is very familiar – the “jot and tittle” passage from Matthew, in which Jesus says “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass , one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mt. 5:17-18 – KJV).

To review, the four steps of Midrash are:

  1. Peshat (lit. Simple). Read the text for its simplest, most literal meaning.
  2. Remez (lit. Hint). Rather than seeking to avoid or rationalize what appear to be contradictions or textual errors, seek them out as hints of deeper meaning.
  3. Drash (lit. Investigation). Use imagination to explore all possible meanings of the text.
  4. Sod (lit. Secret). Meditate on the mysteries revealed through the Drash and open ourselves to surprising revelations.

In today’s post I will walk us through the first two steps of Midrash.

Midrash on Matthew 5:17-18

Step 1: Peshat (Simple).

Since the first step In Midrash is examining the simple meaning of the text, let’s establish the literal definitions of a few key words:

  • Destroy (vs. 17). From the Greek katalu’sai. Literally, to dissolve, to disunite, or to break down into component parts.
  • The Law (vss. 17 & 18). From the Greek nomon. Corresponds to the Hebrew ha-Torah. Literally, Law or Instruction. Refers to the portion of the Hebrew Scriptures known as The Law (i.e., the five books of Moses).
  • The Prophets (vs. 17). From the Greek propheta). Corresponds to the Hebrew ha-Navim. Refers to the portion of the Hebrew Scriptures know as The Prophets.
  • Fulfill (vs. 17). From the Greek plarosai. Literally, “to fill completely.”
  • Jot (vs. 18). From the Greek iota. Smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. Corresponds to the Hebrew yod, the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet.
  • Tittle (vs. 18). From the Greek keraia. Literally, little horn. Often translated as “the smallest stroke of a letter” (e.g., a serif, a breathing mark in Greek, the dot on the “i” in English). Corresponding mark in Hebrew is unclear.
  • Fulfilled (vs. 18). From the Greek genatai. Literally, brought into existence or being.

Step 2: Remez (Hint).

Our familiar exegetical methods tend to assume that a specific Biblical text must have a single, definitive meaning. Therefore, when we come upon what looks like a contradiction or textual error, depending upon where we fall on the conservative-liberal theological continuum, we are predisposed to make one of two choices. Those of us on the conservative “side” tend to ignore or rationalize contradictions in order to harmonize them, while those of us on the liberal “side” tend to discount the authenticity or authority of the passage.

Midrash considers such choices as a false dichotomy and avoids them both. Rather than seeking to avoid or rationalize apparent contradictions/errors, or discount the text because of them, Midrash assumes that God meant them to be there as hints to make us dig deeper. So let’s track down a few of those “contradictions,” shall we?

Within the Passage. There are several apparent inconsistencies within the two verses we are examining.

  • Mt. 5:17 – Jesus lists only two of three parts of Hebrew Scripture:The Law and The Prophets. The section of known as The Writings (ha-Ketuvim) – roughly equivalent to what Christians know as the Psalms, the Proverbs, and the books of Wisdom – is omitted.
  • Mt. 5:18– Jesus lists only The Law, dropping any reference to The Prophets.
  • Mt. 5:17-18– The words translated as “fulfill” and “fulfilled” have different meanings: to fill to the full” and “to bring into existence or being,” respectively.
  • Mt. 5:18– The literal meaning of “tittle” is unclear. We do not know its equivalent mark in the Hebrew and Aramaic with which Jesus and the Gospel writer were familiar.

In the Context of the Passage. After making a statement that appears to rule out making the smallest of changes to any text, Jesus appears to do exactly that, making them more specific and strict.

  • Mt. 5:21-22: You have heard it said…that you shall not kill…but I say…
  • Mt. 5:27-28: You have heard it said…that you shall not commit adultery…but I say…
  • Mt. 5:33-34: You have heard it said…that you shall not make false oaths…but I say…

In Comparison to Related Passages. In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus appears to go even further in amending the Law, overturning the entire section dealing with kosher food laws.

  • Mk. 7:19: Thus [Jesus] made all foods clean.

Examine the passage yourself. You may well find other apparent contradictions, omissions, or errors that I overlooked. If you do, I hope you will include them in any comments you care to make.

Step 3: Drash (lit. Investigation).

This step is your chance to fully engage this passage. In the step of Midrash known as Drash or Investigation, we are called upon to use our imagination and creativity in order to explore all possible meanings of the text.

So here are your instructions:

  1. Review all of the apparent contradictions/omissions/errors I identified above along with any you have spotted yourself.
  2. Assume that every apparent contradiction/omission/error is inspired: that God caused them to be placed there as hints to spur your curiosity and imagination, and to drive you toward a deeper, broader, and more complete understanding of God’s word.
  3. Using your imagination and creativity, brainstorm all of the possible meanings of the text.

When you have completed these three steps, I hope you will share your thoughts with me. After all, Drash is at its best when it is done as communal dialogue.

I look forward to Midrashing with you!


“Jonah in Prison” by Alma Sheppard-Matsuo (a visual midrash)

Originally posted on August 13, 2012 on the blog “Paradoxical Thoughts”