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of the gospels such as David Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann and their significance for the standing of the gospels as historical documents today.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.
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.
Are not scholars today doing just the same thing? But I am getting ahead of myself (and Charbonnel).
At this point Charbonnel cites Edgar Quinet (who has written about Strauss’s work) to express dismay that modern ideas that have attempted to “explain away” the miraculous elements of the Bible are themselves as absurd and far-fetched as what they are attempting to replace. A translation of Quinet’s point:
Quant à la figure rayonnante de Moïse sur les flancs du mont Sinaï, c’était un produit naturel de l’électricité. La vision de Zacharie était l’effet de la fumée des candélabres du temple ; les rois mages, avec leurs offrandes de myrrhe, d’or, d’encens, trois marchands forains qui apportaient quelque quincaillerie à l’enfant de Bethléem ; l’étoile qui marchait devant eux, un domestique porteur d’un flambeau ; les anges dans la scène de la tentation, une caravane qui passait dans le désert chargée de vivres ; les deux jeunes hommes vêtus de blanc dans le sépulcre, l’illusion d’un manteau de lin ; la transfiguration, un orage. Ce système conservait fidèlement, comme on le voit, le corps entier de la tradition : il n’en supprimait que l’âme. C’était l’application de la théologie de Spinosa dans le sens le plus borné, à la manière de ceux qui ne voient dans sa métaphysique que l’apothéose de la matière brute. Il restait du christianisme un squelette informe, et la philosophie démontrait doctement, en présence de ce mort, comment rien n’est plus facile à concevoir que la vie, et qu’avec un peu de bonne volonté elle en ferait autant. Le genre humain aurait-il été, en effet, depuis deux mille ans, la dupe d’un effet d’optique, d’un météore, d’un feu follet, ou de la conjonction de Saturne et de Jupiter dans le signe du poisson ? . . . .
As for the radiant face of Moses on the slopes of Mount Sinai, it was a natural product of electricity. Zechariah’s vision was the smoke effect of the candelabra of the temple; the wise men, with their offerings of myrrh, gold, and incense, three fairground merchants who brought some hardware to the child of Bethlehem; the star who walked before them, a servant carrying a torch; the angels in the scene of temptation, a caravan passing through the desert laden with provisions; the two young men dressed in white in the sepulcher, the illusion of a linen coat; the transfiguration, a storm.
This system faithfully preserved, as we see, the whole body of tradition: it only suppressed the soul. It was the application of Spinosa’s theology in the narrowest sense, in the manner of those who see in its metaphysics only the apotheosis of brute matter. Christianity remained a shapeless skeleton, and philosophy showed, in the presence of this dead man, how nothing is easier to conceive of than life, and that with a little good will it would do the same.
For the last two thousand years, the human race has been the dupe of an optical effect, a meteor, a will-o’-the-wisp, or the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the sign of the fish? . . . .
I am speaking apart from anything I knowingly recall reading in Charbonnel’s book at this point, but I believe Strauss himself regularly explores natural explanations for the miraculous in the gospels. (It is a long time since I read Strauss but no doubt someone can correct me if I am wrong.)
Before moving on to Bultmann Charbonnel presents Paul Ricouer‘s approach to “myth” in the gospels. As cited in my earlier post Ricouer explains how the Bible’s account of “the fall” of Adam and Eve finds meaning in a modern person’s acknoweldgement of guilt and sin; how the Exodus in the Bible finds its meaning today in the idea of personal alienation, and so forth.
Again, we see the authority of the Bible being justified anew. There is an untouchable core here.
Here Charbonnel refers to the French version of Bultmann’s Jesus Christ and Mythology. For Bultmann, the “mythology” in the gospels represents the “best explanation” available to the author of that time. So he writes,
The thinking which is not yet capable of forming the abstract idea of transcendence expresses its intention in the category of space; the transcendent God is imagined as being at an immense spatial distance, far above the world: for above this world is the world of the stars, of the light which enlightens and makes glad the life of men.
(Bultmann, p. 20)
So for Bultmann, demythologizing did not diminish the supernatural authority of the Bible but made it more “real”:
To de-mythologize is to reject not Scripture or the Christian message as a whole, but the world-view of Scripture, which is the world-view of a past epoch, which all too often is retained in Christian dogmatics and in the preaching of the Church. To de-mythologize is to deny that the message of Scripture and of the Church is bound to an ancient world-view which is obsolete.
The attempt to de-mythologize begins with this important insight: Christian preaching in so far as it is preaching of the Word of God by God’s command and in His name does not offer a doctrine which can be accepted either by reason or by a sacrificium intellectus. Christian preaching is kerygma, that is, a proclamation addressed not to the theoretical reason, but to the hearer as a self. In this manner Paul commends himself to every mans conscience in the sight of God (II Cor. 4:2). De-mythologizing will make clear this function of preaching as a personal message, and in doing so it will eliminate a false stumbling-block and bring into sharp focus the real stumbling block, the word of the cross.
For the world view of the Scripture is mythological and is therefore unacceptable to modem man whose thinking has been shaped by science and is therefore no longer mythological.
Charbonnel quotes a commenter who gets Bultmann exactly right:
Profondément pieux, très attaché à la Bible, Bultmann n’entend pas transformer ou élaguer l’Evangile, mais au contraire le proclamer comme un appel à la conversion personnelle.
Deeply devout, very attached to the Bible, Bultmann does not intend to transform or prune the Gospel, but on the contrary proclaim it as a call to personal conversion.
The principle message that I take away from Charbonnel’s chapter one is that hitherto the Bible has managed to maintain a unchallenged place of authority — either for morals or for historical information — despite its patently mythological features.
I think we can begin to see where this is going to lead us when we come to the second part of the book that addresses the historicity of Jesus.
Bultmann, Rudolf. 1964. Jesus Christ and Mythology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International.
Gounelle, André. n.d. “Theologien Bultmann: La Démythologisation.” Accessed June 10, 2019. http://www.erf-hainaut.net/protestants/Portaits/Theologien_Bultmann.html.
Quinet, Edgar. 2010. “La Vie De Jésus-Christ, Du Docteur Strauss.” Flaubert [En Ligne], no. 4 (December). http://journals.openedition.org/flaubert/1218.
Ricoeur, Paul. 1969. The Symbolism of Evil. Boston: Beacon Press.
Strauss, David Friedrich. 1892. The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. 2nd ed. London: Swan Sonnenschein.
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