New French Mythicist Book

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by Neil Godfrey

My routine was interrupted this week with the arrival of a new book in the mail, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier by Nanine Charbonnel. Nanine Charbonnel is an emeritus professor of philosophy who describes herself as a specialist in hermeneutics. The publisher of her new book has given prominence to the fact that it contains a preface by Thomas Römer.

I once posted on another French philosopher who contributed articles and books presenting a case that Jesus originated as a mythical figure, Paul Louis Couchoud, and would like to do the same for Nanine Charbonnel. Unfortunately, my high school and one year of undergraduate French is very rusty indeed and I rely heavily on machine translation as my first foray into what lies before me. Expect me to appeal to readers more fluent in French to help out from time to time.

I think I can post a machine translation (with minor corrections, added fluencies and clarifications from me) of Römer’s preface without infringing copyright. I have changed the formatting (paragraphing, highlighting) totally, though:

This book which will surprise and undoubtedly also disturb many readers could also have been entitled “The Invention of Jesus”. Its author, Nanine Charbonnel, professor of philosophy breaks a taboo that has existed for more than a century in academic research on Jesus of Nazareth, the origins of Christianity and the New Testament.

From the beginning of the so-called “historico-critical” exegesis arises the question of the “historical Jesus”. His virgin birth, his encounter with the devil at the beginning of his activity, his miracles, even his resurrection of the dead, are understood by the Rationalists as mythical reinterpretations of a human figure.

  • Thus, Ernest Renan, in his inaugural lecture at the College de France, spoke of “the man Jesus” who “reached the highest religious level that ever before man attained” was “deified” after his death (OEuvres Complètes, n, 329-330). In 1862 these words caused a scandal and provoked the temporary dismissal of Renan from his professorship at the College de France.
  • Renan’s statement is part of what is now called “the first quest” of the historical Jesus, which began in the eighteenth century with the posthumous publication of the texts of Hermann Samuel Reimarus by the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Reimarus highlighted the historical Jesus who never wanted to found a new religion, even the Church, but who was an eschatological preacher. His failure was transformed by his disciples who created the myth of his resurrection and ascension. A distinction was made between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith”, a distinction accepted until today by the totality of university researchers and historians.

At the beginning of the research on the historical Jesus, the question of the proofs of his existence (outside the New Testament texts) was nonetheless posed.

  • In the middle of the nineteenth century, Bruno Bauer argued that Christianity born in the second century was a sort of syncretism combining different religious ideas (Jewish, Greek, Roman). Jesus is not at the origin of this Christianity, but a literary fiction to give this “new religion” a founder.
  • At the beginning of the twentieth century the German philosopher Arthur Drews published a book The Christ Myth, in which he considered the figure of Jesus as the personification of an earlier Christic myth, showing that all the epithets of Jesus were borrowed from mythologies Jewish and Greek.

These theories remained marginal however and, despite the fact that in the 1st and 2nd centuries there are no texts outside the New Testament clearly attesting to the existence of a Jesus of Nazareth, the historicity of such a character is almost no longer questioned.

  • Thus Daniel Marguerat, eminent exegete of the New Testament, says: “the meaning of his deeds and actions, not his existence, is debated today” (p.13, in his Introduction to the edited volume Jesus de Nazareth. Nouvelles approches d’une énigme, Geneva, Labor and Fides, 1998).

According to Nanine Charbonnel, author of this book, this distinction between the historical Jesus and the reinterpretations of his life and death in the Gospels has been detrimental to research. Relying on a “rationalization” of evangelical texts, it has prevented the deep understanding of these texts by questioning them almost exclusively from this idea of ​​a historical core and thus seeking the historical basis of certain pericopes as well as indications of borrowing from Judaism or reinterpretations after the death of Jesus in others. Faced with the affirmation shared by believing scholars and agnostic intellectuals that Jesus is a historical figure of whom we know almost nothing historically, the author of this book proposes to read the New Testament texts from the idea that Jesus Christ would be a “paper figure”. The philosopher’s approach includes a severe critique of hermeneutics, and in particular the current called “hermeneutic phenomenology”.

This book proposes to read the Gospel tales as midrashim, reminding us rightly that it is impossible to read the New Testament texts without locating them in their relation to the Old Testament (in Hebrew and Greek). As a midrash, an exegesis and reinterpretation of earlier texts, evangelical tales set up a theology of fulfillment through narratives, drawing largely on the texts and themes of the Hebrew Bible. Nanine Charbonnel shows it in pedagogical tables indicating the different borrowing and rewriting that can be found behind the tales of the Gospels. She then details the function of the characters appearing in the Gospels, like the twelve apostles, representing the twelve tribes of the new Israel, and Mary, the Jewish people who begets the Messiah. Jesus is the new Adam, the new Moses, the new Elijah and the new Elishah, but also the new Joshua and the incarnation of the “suffering servant”, a messiah who brings together different messianic traits. The Gospels no longer appear as compilations but as creative works repeating and transforming statements in the Hebrew Bible.

To understand the figure of Jesus Christ as a sublime invention of the human mind is the main thesis of this book. It is possible that many readers are reluctant to follow the author in this way. Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny the midrashic character of many pericopes of the Gospels. Everyone will be free to draw conclusions from this midrashic reading which will have the great merit of going beyond the dichotomy between “myth” and “history”.

Charbonnel and Römer

Before I post an outline of Charbonnel’s discussion in her opening chapter I want to address the word “midrash” and how it has been related to the gospels. I don’t believe this will seriously detract from her presentation, or from the theses presented by others who have used the term in similar ways, but I think we should be aware of scholarly differences pertaining to the term whenever we see it.


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24 thoughts on “New French Mythicist Book”

  1. But this midrash is a work widely done by Robert G Price.

    Jesus is not simply a sublime invention of the human mind, as if one day someone invented it. Jesus derives from a widespread and careful observation of the sky and from the great precessional myths, such as that of Taurus and Aries.

    1. R. M. Price, “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash,” in Encyclopedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism, ed. Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery Peck (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 1:534-73.

  2. Per an Amazon review:

    Charbonnel resumes in particular,
    • the work of Maurice Margui
    • the theses of Bernard Dubourg.

    Charbonnel pays homage to Bernard Dubourg: “Dubourg will have been in the 20th century, and particularly in France … a true liberator”.

    Cf. Dubourg, Bernard (1987). L’invention de Jésus (in French). Gallimard. ISBN 9782070710935.

    1. Bibliographie pp. 484–485:
      • Maurice MERGUI, Un étranger sur le toit. Les sources midrashiques des Évangiles, Paris : Nouveaux savoirs, 2003
      • Maurice MERGUI, Comprendre les origines du christianisme. De l’eschatologie juive au midrash chrétien, Paris : Nouveaux savoirs, 2005
      • Maurice MERGUI, Paul à Patras. Une approche midrashique du paulinisme , Paris : Objectif Transmission, 2008
      • Maurice MERGUI, “Introduction. Esther : une figure du Midrash” in Le Midrash Rabba sur Ruth, suivi de Le midrash Rabba sur Esther, Paris : Gallimard, coll. Tel, 2009

  3. Yes…I shall be interested in your discussion of midrash. I came to the opinion that the GMark and the gospels are the work of midrash. Particularly, I suspect they are midrash done by those who were not quite sure how midrash ought to be done.

    1. I’d say more that perhaps Mark can be considered midrash, and all the rest are just copies of Mark trying to build on Mark in ways that are derived from Mark itself, not from an independent connection to Jewish literary traditions. I think it was more like, after Mark came out, others were like, “Oh I see what he did there and copied him.”

      1. Only an extreme pious naiveté about the dating of rabbinical sources could make one believe that ‘midrash’ is properly applied to anything within two or three centuries of Mark’s gospel. Mark is trying to find intimations of Jesus everywhere in what was understood as scripture at the time, but is not writing Bereshith Rabba.

        1. Don’t be too hasty. There is nothing in what I have seen so far in Charbonnel that suggests Mark is writing “Bereshith Rabba”. I’m prepared to hear the argument out.

          1. That is what the ‘midrash’ means. It is pure anachronism. Everything in the topic of ‘Jewish origins of Christianity’ is still damaged by naive dating of rabbinic materials and credulity about the rabbinic representation of the past. It works for rabbinized villages in Mesopotamia a few centuries later. The treatment of the gospels – much less ‘the New Testament’ – en bloc as a single object of theorization is also a catastrophe. The unity is purely ecclesiastical, a late imposition, and two of the ‘gospels’ are visibly harmonies anyway.

            1. I have posted many times on midrash and have some idea of its range of meanings. You need to learn to stick to the data itself and hear the case being argued before making assumptions and jumping to conclusions.

  4. Re “To understand the figure of Jesus Christ as a sublime invention of the human mind is the main thesis of this book.”

    Sublime? This is a sop to believers. The character Jesus never says one thing that was original/new. Not a single thing. How can this be sublime? There seems to be a common practice of academic writers on a path that could lead to severe criticism from believers to offer throw away lines like this.

    And it is common that believers dismiss Jesus mythicists as not being accepted by the majority of Biblical scholars. This is because the majority of Biblical scholars are desperately trying to prove their religions true. Biblical archeologists have discredited themselves almost to extinction and I suspect that Biblical scholars are soon to follow.

    1. I have a question. It is not a rhetorical question. I am curious.

      Is it in fact true that, “The character Jesus never says one thing that was original/new. Not a single thing.” ?

      I lack the erudition to answer the question. Let’s take as a given that there are indeed some detailed elements such as parables that are new or at least new variations of old material. Presumably details such as his saying he is or is not going to this town are not present in identical words in prior works. Apart from making such potential pedantic arguments, but instead discussing generalized meanings attributed to Jesus, can anyone provide exceptions to the statement above?

      1. Well, that’s hard to really answer because ti depends on what you mean and your understanding of how the Gospels were written.

        I think we can say that there are a few things in the Gospels that seem to be new teachings, but I would argue that these really come from Paul. So yes, Paul said a few things that were new.

        One of the big things that was claimed to be new about “Jesus'” teachings was the use of parables, but this turns out not to be the case as pre-Jesus parables have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. But since virtually everything in the Gospels is derived either from the Jewish scriptures or the letters of Paul, it makes since that it’s all rehashing existing ideas. Even several elements from the Sermon on the Mount appear to be draws from the writings at Qumran, aka Dead Sea Scrolls.

        Now Paul’s big innovation was the idea that the kingdom of God would be in heaven as opposed to on earth. The dominant claim of messianic Jews at the time was that the kingdom of God would be established on earth. The War Scroll describes how the Jews were going to slaughter all of the non-Jews in the world with God’s help and would then establish the kingdom of God on earth. So I think Paul’s idea of peace between Jews and Gentiles was new.

        But Paul’s idea of peace was related to his idea of the kingdom of God being in heaven. By placing the kingdom of God in heaven he eliminated the need for conflict between Jews and Gentiles because now the kingdom of God wasn’t going to be a literal nation on earth.

        But as I say, I consider all of this to be Pauline innovation, not something coming from Jesus.

        1. Thank you very much for the interesting and (certainly for me) enlightening response, which seems (to my naive mind) right.

          Yet I suppose even the idea of a kingdom of God in heaven might not be so innovative in 2 senses:

          First ( a trivial objection) — Who knows what was already floating around in some way of thinking back in this or that cult then that we can’t know about now?

          Second — I suppose that one could reasonably argue that the idea of ‘kingdom of God’ in heaven if defined very abstractly — might not be too too different from some concepts of what some (I don’t know), let’s say Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians were aiming at, and if you perhaps had gotten a couple of certain Christian Gnostics in the same room with, say, Buddhists of a certain flavor at that time as well as in the current era they might have thought they were aiming in similar directions. (????) I am a total amateur so I am flailing away naively. In any case the idea is a different version of other, much older, religions’ versions of if XYZ then after death things will be A-ok in ways much better than we can imagine.

          1. Perhaps the “kingdom of God in heaven” was something for the plebes, whereas the higher initiates understood otherwise. Paul’s Christ as the second-god is well suited to a Middle-Platonic soteriology.

            1. Niehoff, Maren R. (2010) [now formatted]. “Philo’s Role as a Platonist in Alexandria”. Études platoniciennes. pp. 35–62. doi:10.4000/etudesplatoniciennes.623.

              [65] It is well known that Philo’s discussion of the image of the architect [i.e. second-god] is rather convoluted and even implies some contradictions.

              • The intelligible world is thus once said to have its place in the Divine Logos,

              • while in another context it is said to be « nothing else than the word of God when He was engaged in the process of creation ».

              NB: I hold that “word of God” is another epithet for second-god, like the epithets: architect; Divine Logos; Jesus; etc.

          2. JBeers: There are two Buddhist “kingdoms of Buddhas in heavens”, so to speak, that are relevant to your query: Akshobhya Buddha and his realm Abhirati (first attested in a Chinese translation from 186 CE, but presumably much older); and Amitābha Buddha and his realm of Sukhāvatī. Linking the two is Nattier, Jan (2000). “The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism”. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 23 (1): 71–102.

            As a Theravada Buddhist, I regard such Mahayana claims as being at best allegories.

  5. Jean KALMAN (2018). “JESUS, A SUBLIME PAPER FIGURE by Dr Nanine Charbonnel”. charbonnel.populus.org.

    Charbonnel’s book might be a more convincing approach to the challenge faced by scholars who acknowledge that the New Testament is part and parcel of 1st century Jewish literature but is also fraught with anti-Judaism and has been considered foreign to Jewish thought until very recently.
    She shows that Christianity created stories and a new kind of hermeneutic. The Hebrew Bible was downgraded to materialistic phenomena and legal rules while the New Testament introduces its readers to highly spiritual events and to brotherly love. Those narratives can often be traced back to midrashim but whereas they can be read as literary devices within their Jewish context they are to be considered true facts in the Christian tradition. Not because they are historically proven but because they are the consequence of the accomplishment postulate.

    Not only do events happen according to the Scripture but characters are also modeled after their Old Testament typos or figura. God’s plan was to anticipate Christianity through the History of the Hebrews, Israelites and Jews. But Vetus Israel has given way to Verus Israel. In a context where the times have come to their end, God reveals his final intention. New Testament characters can live a life of perfection (Jesus, Mary, John…). Not only do they act according to the role they are expected to play but they become the accomplishment itself, or a non-human creature, a philosophical concept (Logos or Sophia) made flesh.

    Jesus can preach moral perfection as exemplified in the Beatitudes. But, paradoxically he also points at a period of time when the worst sinners can be saved. Both moral perfection and complete depravation are evidence of the eschatological era which we are in rather than a new form or wisdom or the preaching of self-indulgence and moral licensing.

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