Is There a Text in this Midrash? Biblical Exegesis during the Second Temple and
Early Rabbinic Periods—A Quest


Paul Mandel

Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies


Midrash has been understood by traditional students and scholars alike as the quintessential rabbinic method of textual interpretation of the Bible. While Jewish tradition teaches that midrashic canons of legal exegesis were transmitted along with the Torah itself on Mount Sinai, scholars of rabbinic literature since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and continuing to the present day, emphasize the independent nature of midrashic exegesis – both legal (halakhah) and non-legal (aggada) – as a vehicle for the rabbis' presentation of their concerns and thoughts, as well as their attempts at solving textual difficulties in the Bible. Many scholars have attempted to view rabbinic midrash in the context of biblical interpretation of the Second Temple period, which has, indeed, been dubbed an “Age of Interpretation.” The verb darash , originally used for the search and inquiry for a revelation of God's word either directly or through intermediaries, is usually understood to have been applied to the search for the divine message in Scripture starting at the time of Ezra, thus resulting in the particular textual exegesis of midrash.

A study of the use of the terms darash (verb) and midrash (noun) in early rabbinic texts, in the historical context of Second Temple period usage of these terms, has produced a surprising conclusion: These terms are used, from the time of the Mesopotamian diaspora (as evidenced in Ezra and other late Biblical passages) and through the Second Temple period, in the context of legal instruction , and not textual interpretation . Thus, the ubiquitous use of darash in rabbinic texts is actually a secondary usage of this term. These conclusions, along with studies of the descriptions of Pharisaic instruction by Josephus and of the nature of the so-called ‘scribe' ( sofer ) in Second Temple period literature, lead to a revision of the above-mentioned consensus regarding Scriptural interpretation in early Judaism. My presentation will thus lead to a renewed search for conscious activity of Scriptural interpretation in pre-rabbinic Jewish culture, ultimately attempting to refocus our view of the relationship between law and text, and, indeed, the very essence of textual hermeneutics, in Jewish culture during these formative periods.