Anyone who has done much reading of certain modern skeptics has probably come across the claim that the Gospels are an example of midrash. This line of argument has gained some popularity among the Jesus-myth crowd, fueled by internet atheists masquerading as scholars. So for example Robert Price has a lengthy exposition on what he claims are examples of midrash from each of the four Gospels. One of the complaints from actual scholars about many of these sorts of arguments is that the one making the argument spends little or no time defining midrash or explaining how they are using the term. In the view of critics like Price the Gospel writers read the Old Testament and then made up stories to conform to certain elements in the Scriptures. The implicit view of midrash here is one that was in vogue among earlier critics like Julius Wellhausen but has since been discredited: namely that midrash is a synonym for legend or fable. But this isn’t the case.
Jacob Neusner and other Jewish scholars define midrash as essentially a synonym for exegesis, or interpretation, done by Jewish interpreters on the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, it encompasses a wide range of literary practices and forms, including everything from translations of the Old Testament, to apocalyptic readings of the prophets, to allegorical interpretations. But the idea that the Gospels are essentially midrash has nothing to support it, and in fact there are no examples in Jewish literature of anything like the Gospels, nor of the practice of simply making up stories as some sort of creative interaction with the Old Testament. R.T. France writes in his study on Jewish historiography that “it would certainly be going far beyond the evidence to speak of the imaginative creation of stories out of scripture as a characteristic of any such approach [ie. Jewish historiography], particularly with reference to recent, non-biblical events.”
This is not to say that there might not be midrashic elements within the Gospels. For example, places where the Gospel writers quote an Old Testament passage and then cite an event from the life of Jesus as fulfillment of that Scripture would qualify as midrash. But this does not imply or even hint that the event itself did not actually happen. Indeed in many cases, at least by modern standards, it looks like the Gospel writers have stretched the meaning of the original OT passage in a way that makes it highly unlikely that they created the event to fit the passage.
One example is when Matthew narrates the flight of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt until after Herod’s death and then writes that this fulfilled Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my son.” The original context of Hosea was in reference to the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. Price asserts with no evidence that Matthew saw the word “son,” decided it must have been fulfilled as part of some “more or less vague savior myth,” and then made up a story to go along with. This he calls midrashic, even though this does not correspond to anything in Jewish midrash. It is also a stretch to think that early Christian interpreters would have felt the need for some fulfillment of Hosea 11:1, since it was in fact a reference to something that already happened. Instead this is an example of typology, where something from the Old Testament is used as a type of something in the New. In this case Matthew is viewing Israel as a type of Jesus. The idea of fulfillment is not a simple prediction, like “Hosea predicted that Christ would be called out of Egypt,” it is a deeper understanding of how God works in history.
Neusner, writing as a Jewish writer, notes some of the midrashic elements in Matthew but also notes the distinctive of Christianity. In other Jewish midrash, the Old Testament text always stands at the center as the organizational principle. With the Gospels, it is the biography of Jesus that is central. As Neusner insightfully writes, “the biography of the person under discussion serves as the architectonic principle of the compilation of exegeses into a single statement of meaning. . . . No rabbinic composition in antiquity presents the life of an individual person as the principle of editorial cogency, whether of scriptural exegeses or legal teachings, and the uniqueness of Christianity in its Judaic context is seen in these simple compositions of a highly formalized character in Matthew’s Gospel.”
How or why did the Gospel writers come up with this remarkable innovation? The answer is provided by Richard Burridge, whose highly influential book, What Are the Gospels?, helped to sway scholarly opinion to the consensus view today that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greek biography. Burridge writes that this is itself a theological statement. First he notes that there are no examples of biographies of any other Jewish rabbi comparable to the Gospels even though many noteworthy rabbis lived in that time. For the early followers of Jesus, it was not the Torah (the Jewish law) that was central as it was for their Jewish contemporaries. Rather it was Christ himself as the embodiment and fulfillment of the Torah. They were thus forced “to move out from the Jewish tradition of stories and anecdotes to use a Greek genre of continuous biographical narrative. The actual writing of a gospel was a Christological claim in itself.”
So the Gospels are not examples of midrash, and midrash does not mean “a story that someone made up based on inspiration from the Old Testament.” But the modern internet skeptic still gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that they can talk about midrash and be sure that the vast majority of their readers have no idea what they are talking about and thus cannot refute their claims. Meanwhile, actual scholars are too busy with real scholarship to bother with such complete nonsense.