Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 1a . . . — Something Untouchable about the Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

After posting Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 1. Hermeneutical Impasse I regretted not addressing Nanine Charbonnel’s discussions of “modern” critics of the gospels such as David Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann and their significance for the standing of the gospels as historical documents today. One reason was that I found it difficult to be sure I was understanding correctly the precise nuances of her argument (my French is very rusty). But when I turned to the works she was citing I began to see what I believe is a consistent argument that fits the larger theme of her chapter one. What I present here is my own interpretation of the sources Charbonnel discusses and their relation to what I interpret to be her primary theme. If anyone with a better grasp of French and Charbonnel’s book has anything to add or correct they are most welcome to do so.

Something Untouchable about the Bible

What I take from Charbonnel’s first chapter is that scholars have either avoided the Bible in their discourses or have afforded it a special status of authority. Even the secular critics of the Bible who have mocked its supernatural elements in its narratives have imputed to it a worthy source of moral instruction and containing an unquestioned core of historical information.

Spinoza rejected the miraculous elements in the narratives and was convinced that these could be replaced by natural explanations, but he did not question the core of the events themselves. Kant believed that the Bible required interpretation in a manner (even if that interpretation resorted to metaphor) that made its narratives morally edifying according to rational moral sense (See the previous post).

Voltaire, Charbonnel adds, in all of his vicious attacks on Christianity, aimed his fire not at Jesus but at the Church, the priests.

We begin to see a pattern, it seems to me. Criticism avoids criticizing the Bible in a manner that would reduce its authoritative or at least honourable status.

Here we come to David Strauss and his Life of Jesus first published in the 1830s.


David Friedrich Strauss narrated the way Greek philosophers found traditional myths unacceptable and looked for ways to rationalize them. Some interpreted them as allegories; others saw in the gods symbols of physical elements (wind, storms, earthquakes) of the natural world. Some of the myths were “demythologized” and believed to have originated as genuine historical events among humans on earth — humans who were later in retellings exalted to god-status.

At an early period the rigid philosophy of the Greeks, and under its influence even some of the Greek poets, recognized the impossibility of ascribing to Deity manifestations so grossly human, so immediate, and so barbarous, as those exhibited and represented as divine in the wild conflicts of Hesiod’s Theogony, and in the domestic occupations and trivial pursuits of the Homeric deities. Hence arose the quarrel of Plato, and prior to him of Pindar, with Homer ; hence the cause which induced Anaxagoras, to whom the invention of the allegorical mode of interpretation is ascribed, to apply the Homeric delineations to virtue and to justice ; hence it was that the Stoics understood the Theogony of Hesiod as relating to the action of the elements, which, according to their notions, constituted, in their highest union, the divine nature. Thus did these several thinkers, each according to his own peculiar mode of thought, succeed in discovering an absolute meaning in these representations : the one finding in them a physical, the other an ethical signification, whilst, at the same time, they gave up their external form, ceasing to regard them as strictly historical.

On the other hand, the more popular and sophistical culture of another class of thinkers led them to opposite conclusions. Though, in their estima­tion, every semblance of the divine had evaporated from these histories ; though they were convinced that the proceedings ascribed to the gods were not godlike, still they did not abandon the historical sense of these narratives. With Evemerus they transformed the subjects of these histories from gods to men, to heroes and sages of antiquity, kings and tyrants, who, through deeds of might and valour, had acquired divine honours. Some indeed went still further, and, with Polybius, considered the whole system of heathen theology as a fable, invented by the founders of states to awe the people into subjection.

(Strauss, 40f)

The same scholarly tradition directed the same types of criticisms at the Christian myths:

The other principal mode of interpretation, which, to a certain extent, acknowledges the course of events to have been historically true, but assigns it to a human and not a divine origin, was developed amongst the enemies of Christianity by a Celsus, a Porphyry, and a Julian. They indeed rejected much of the history as alto­gether fabulous ; but they admitted many of the incidents related of Moses, Jesus, and others, to be historical facts : these facts were however considered by them as originating from common motives ; and they attributed their apparently supernatural character either to gross fraud or impious sorcery.

(Strauss, 44)

Are not scholars today doing just the same thing? But I am getting ahead of myself (and Charbonnel). Continue reading “Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 1a . . . — Something Untouchable about the Bible”