Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 2a. The Sacred and Creative Power of the Hebrew Text

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by Neil Godfrey

Forgive the longer than desirable delay since my last post on Nanine Charbonnel’s book, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. (See the Charbonnel tag for all posts in this series.) The fault lies entirely with my failure to maintain my knowledge of basic French over the years so that it’s been a harder than usual struggle to be reasonably confident that I have grasped the details of the rather technical discussion in the second chapter.

The theme of this chapter is the remarkable range of meanings that can be teased out of the basic consonants of the early Hebrew biblical text. It is a mistake, Charbonnel points out, to think of the Hebrew text as being vowel-less. Yes, it is true that vowels were not written down as part of the original text, but without vowel sounds the consonants could not be pronounced at all. Seen from that perspective the vowel sounds can be considered the very soul, life, of the otherwise lifeless consonant text.

Further, the fundamental unit of the Hebrew language, consistent with other Semitic languages, was a (generally) three consonant root. To this three-letter foundation could be added suffixes and prefixes and, and by changing the internal vowel sounds one could produce a very wide array of nouns, adjectives and verbal forms. To paraphrase a quotation Charbonnel draws from a doctoral thesis by David Banon (University of Strasbourg),

it is as if the Semitic language had an unfinished character, a character that requires the reader to complete. In this respect the Hebrew text would look like the Creation that is not yet quite completed and that requires the man, the Adam, to perfect.

With such flexibility inherent in the text there is a possibility of endless play on interpretations and meanings.

Some other ways in which the Hebrew text acquires such plasticity:

Hebrew letters are also numbers. So words have numerical values. The sum of the value of each letter can be compared with the value of another word and inferences of interpretation can be thus drawn between the two words.

Each letter has a meaningful name. The letter for “b” (ב), for instance, is beth (or rather, BTH), and beth means house. So each consonant can be likened to a meaning or another word.

Some letters double as grammatical essentials. He (ה) is also the definite article, “the”; it is also a feminine ending; and also a word-ending signifying direction (towards); it can also indicate a question.

Certain letters can change the meaning or time or tense (whether an action has been completed or is on-going) associated with a word. To roughly paraphrase rather than exactly translate another passage,

When there is no yod (י) the verb’s meaning is assigned to the past, the action is accomplished. When there is a yod prefix, the verb is unfulfilled, or conditional, subjunctive. To assign the sense of future, simply add a yod before the verb. The yod is shaped like a hand with a pointing finger, indicating something to be arrived at or decided. So the future is open. And it is because of this openness that yod is the first letter of the name of the Lord, Yahweh. Whenever a yod will be written or read its will evoke the name of the Lord and His opening up of the future.

Encore plus étonnant, il suffit bien d’une autre lettre, un waw (jouant le rôle de préposition, donc avec une voyelle), pour ‘’convertir” (sémantiquement) la forme verbale de l’inaccompli en accompli (en gardant cette fois, pour le ‘’il”, le yod, qui marquait le futur), et inversement (la forme de l’accompli, avec son suffixe). C’est le fameux ‘’waw conversif” :

« Ce W- qui ajoute une nuance de succession est parfois appelé waw conversif, car il donne à chacune des formes la valeur temporelle ou aspectuelle qui est celle de l’autre forme quand cette dernière n’est pas précédée de waw. Les formes précédées de ce waw sont appelées formes converties. Ce trait syntaxique et stylistique, […] est caractéristique de la langue littéraire biblique. »

Le phénomène est énigmatique.

Peut-être son apparition est-elle liée à la narration, et elle s’expliquerait dans le cadre de l’évolution de celle-ci (il correspond à un passé simple, dans une suite narrative). Quoi qu’il en soit de son origine, il paraît cependant difficile de nier son existence sémantique, et la structure mentale qu’il peut forger. Qu’en est-il de l’influence de ce mécanisme sur la pensée biblique ? Faut-il dire que l’accompli obtenu ainsi, peut exprimer «le temps passé mais avec l’espoir de l’avenir» ? Il nous semble au moins qu’il accentue encore l’instabilité dans la temporalité, que nous allons approfondir plus loin.

Restons-en au poids des lettres. Insistons sur un degré de plus dans la possibilité de confusion. Pour cette transformation de la forme inaccomplie en un accompli, le waw dit conversif (ou inversif) se distingue du waw conjonctif (car le waw peut aussi être simplement la conjonction de coordination : le ‘’et” français), en ce qu’il est vocalisé ‘’a” et est suivi d’un redoublement de la consonne suivante. Mais quand il s’agit de transformer la forme accomplie (en inaccompli), le waw qui la précède est vocalisé ‘’shewa” (= é), ce qui ne permet pas, dans ce cas, de le distinguer d’un waw conjonctif…

Ainsi c’est le contexte seul, mais aussi parfois la pure décision du lecteur qui interprète le waw comme étant la conjonction ‘’et”, ou comme étant le signal de la forme inversée (qui par un accompli signifie alors un inaccompli…).

Charbonnel, 44-46

Charbonnel follows with a discussion about what I take to be the waw consecutive and that looks interesting but, alas, that I have given up attempting to translate even with the aid of Google. I quote the passage in the side-box for anyone with the competence to do the honours and be kind enough to produce a translation in the comments.

The final point enabling further multiplications of interpretations listed, surely especially significant at the time the New Testament works were being composed, was familiarity of many authors with Aramaic as well as Hebrew. The languages are very close but significantly some differences involve reversals of meaning.

Such details about the scripts and languages need to be kept in mind whenever we seek to make sense of the biblical writings, Charbonnel concludes.

Mystical Power of the Letters

— It is the written text that is sacred but what is read or seen on the page can be different from what is actually read aloud or spoken. The writing is sacred but the meaning is impossible to comprehend without an instructor.

— While the text itself is sacred, there can be some confusion in the meaning. Puns and word-play, moreover, can become an integral part of the meaning of the text and not mere incidental coincidences. Some letters are very similar and easily confused (e.g. resh ר and daleth ד) with potentially disastrous changes in meaning. Again to offer another crude paraphrase of my interpretation of a passage in Charbonnel’s text:

Letters serve not only as support for revelation but as an integral part of it. Since the world stands on the Torah, according to one tradition, any attack or breaking of the text puts creation in danger. . . . An 11th century saying: “If by accident you omit or add a single letter you destroy the whole world.”

It is forbidden to allow two letters to touch one another in order to preserve the distinctive sacredness of each, with all of its variable potentials of meaning. Quoting Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mystères de la Bible,

The letters are all autonomous. Every letter is a world, every letter is a universe. The scribe therefore scrupulously writes each letter paying attention that there is no contact between two letters. In case that happens the book would be unfit for liturgical reading. (Machine translation, p. 48)

Letters, their forms, ranks, numbers, meanings, have something of a mystical power:

In Hebrew, father and mother begin with Aleph, son and daughter begin with Beth: Beth is thus the second generation, the one who has already received the teaching of her eldest, Aleph. (Charbonnel’s quotation, p.49, from LES SYMBOLES DANS LA BIBLE: LE SENS CACHÉ DES LETTRES HÉBRAÏQUES )

In the back of my mind as I read these pages I am wondering to what extent it all applies to the authors of Second Temple and early Christian texts. As if reading my mind Charbonnel states:

The belief that the letters of the alphabet are sacred powers is not only found in the esoteric doctrines of the Middle Ages (the Kabbalah) but certainly also in the period of the writing of the Old Testament texts (from the sixth to the first century before Christ.) (machine assisted translation, p. 49)

How the Bible Stories are Shaped by the Above Mechanisms

Charbonnel explains that in the stories of the Old Testament when God modifies a person’s name God is in that process giving the person a certain quality and a mission. The very content of the stories is intimately related to the mystical meaning of the letters.

«l’Alliance […] consistera en l’infusion dans les noms d’Abram et de Saraï des deux hei du Tétragramme, à savoir la deuxième et la quatrième lettre de ce Nom divin.» [Raphaël Draï, Abraham ou la recréation du monde, Paris : Fayard, 2007, p. 38.]

De même Saray, son épouse, qui reçoit elle aussi (à 99 ans) le He. On peut lire le rappel de l’interprétation traditionnelle par Raphaël Draï, ainsi qu’une autre lecture. Notons cette remarque de Raphaël Draï : «La lettre hei ainsi élucidée est appelée à s‘incarner en cet homme, Abram, afin que, devenant Abraham, il confère sa pleine stature et sa complète capacité à l’Humain, à Haadam».

Le Hé est censé aussi avoir permis de créer le monde : «d’après l’exégèse biblique, le signe Hé est l’instrument de la création et de la vie : une lettre Hé de petites dimensions apparaît dans le mot BéhéBaRaM, (Genèse 2, 4), mot qui veut dire que “Dieu créa les vivants avec le Hé”. »

Charbonnel, 49-50

— Abraham, at age ninety-nine, receives the letter He (ה) in his name, and He is a letter in the name of God (YHWH, יהוה ); further, it is in the same passage (Genesis 17:1-5) that the tetragram YHWH appears for the first time with the double He, a Waw and a Yod. So Abram (=exalted father) is changed to Abraham (father of a multitude). Then the second He (Yahweh has two of them) is given to Abraham’s wife, Sarai, also at ninety-nine years, to be called Sarah.

Likewise with other key characters:

— Hoshea, son of Nun, received the Yod (first letter of YHWH) and was called by Moses Yehoshua, Joshua, Jesus (Numbers 13:16). (Charbonnel additionally addresses the addition of a Waw but I am unable to follow that detail without access to possible textual variants.)

— Judah, who “had the privilege of having in his name all the letters of the holy name” — YHWDH (Yehuda). He bears the name of God to which is added the fourth letter of the alphabet, Daleth ד , number four, and he is the fourth generation after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the fourth son of Joseph.

— de même Joseph, qui devient JHoseph, Ps. 81 (Septante 80), 6 : « un témoignage en Iehosseph, mis à sa sortie de la terre de Misraïms » (trad. Chouraqui, p. 1180). [Looks like a lot of homework involved to grasp each of the details addressed here.]

— As for Yod (י), though the smallest letter in the alphabet, has a major role. As pointed out above it can indicate an uncompleted (future) action, and so is a suitable signifier of the future, and of faith — including faith in the eventual survival of the people of God through trials and even death. The letter also indicates the ongoing fulfilment of the law. A later rabbinic legend had Solomon attempting to remove a Yod in order to get around the command forbidding him to have many wives.

The Yod in Jesus (Joshua) is significant: it is Yahweh who saves, being the meaning of the name. Jerusalem also significantly carries the Yod as its first letter.

Charbonnel repeats the reminder that such mystically creative meanings of the letters were part of the scribal understanding and interpretations of the text from the Second Temple era, thus long predating the Kabbalah of the Middle Ages.

Word Games and the Thoughts of God

What we would call a mere “word game”, playing with letters and words to create esoteric or quite erroneous meanings from the text, was at the centre of early hermeneutics. The quest to find layers of meaning everywhere was well known in the Kabbalistic tradition of the thirteenth century but, Charbonnel stresses, the technique is much older. It was, she informs us, part of the traditional Oral Torah that was subsequently written down after the first century AD. The techniques go back to the “biblical period”:

— gematria: calculating the numerical value of the letters then observing matches with other words.

— acrostic: interpreting a sentence according to the first letters of words or a verse.

— swapping the positions of letters: thus changing (and finding new!) meanings in words. (I’m sure there must be a technical term here but it escapes me at the moment. Charbonnel transliterates Hebrew terms la TeMouRaH and du HiPouKH)

One illustration:

Birthright (Genesis 25:34) have the root BKR and blessing (Genesis 27:35) has the same letters in different sequence, BRK. The birthright, BKR, was despised and so the blessing, BRK, was lost. BKR is also the root of firstborn, and it is to the firstborn that the BRK, blessing, belongs.

It is through such techniques that early exegetes were able to construct a story, for example, of Job making an appearance at Pharaoh’s court, that is, the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Such a novel creation out of two unrelated texts was a technique designed to have one book comment on the message found in another.

And so forth.

That brings us to a conclusion of the first half of a two-part chapter. The rest will follow.

I regret that I lack the mastery of the French text to do more than a mediocre presentation, but see it as “looking through a glass darkly” — it’s not entirely without benefit to anyone interested.

Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International.


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12 thoughts on “Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 2a. The Sacred and Creative Power of the Hebrew Text”

  1. Very interesting. This deals with a lot of the issues I’m also grappling with in regard to material from the DSS and how much of the creative interpretation of the Jewish scriptures was taking place in the century leading to the beginnings of Jesus worship. As he says, so much of this involved what we would call “word games” – finding hidden meaning in texts via various linguistic puzzles.

  2. Hello Neil:

    Thank you for making known to your readership an important topic that is fairly well known to regular “learners” of the Torah. Torah commentators include in their texts a fourfold scheme interpretation commonly referred to by the acromym PaRDeS (“garden”):
    (1) Pashat – the plain meaning of the text
    (2) Remez – hints or deeper meaning beyond the plain meaning of the text (e.g. allegoric, allusion)
    (3) Derash – hermaneutics
    (4) sod – the esoteric, mystical, the kabbalah

    In addition, over time, the rabbis and sages developed various rules of interpretation:
    (1) the Seven Rules (middot) of R. Hillel
    (2) the Thirteen Rules of R. Ishmael ben Elisha
    (3) the Thirty-two rules of R. Eliezzer ben Yose ha-Gelili (especially 26-30)

    These topics directly relate to your important post and should be explored.

    You wrote: “Some letters are very similar and easily confused (e.g. resh ר and daleth ד) with potentially disastrous changes in meaning.”

    RESPONSE: For instance, in the Shema (Deut 6:4), if the ד (dalet) of the word echad, אחד, would be mistaken for a ר (reish)—as the two look almost identical—then echad (“one”) would be read acher (“other”). This would make our belief in one G d look like a belief in two gods.

    You wrote: “The Yod in Jesus (Joshua) is significant: it is Yahweh who saves, being the meaning of the name. Jerusalem also significantly carries the Yod as its first letter.”

    RESPONSE: Most significant, the letter Yod is the first letter in the Tetragrammaton, God’s holy four letter name. It also has the gematria of ten, symbolizing completeness.

    You wrote: — gematria: calculating the numerical value of the letters then observing matches with other words.

    RESPONSE: An example is both the words ahavah (love) and echad (one) equal 13.

    You wrote: “swapping the positions of letters: thus changing (and finding new!) meanings in words. (I’m sure there must be a technical term here but it escapes me at the moment.”

    RESPONSE: Perhaps the best known example is called the AT-BASH (see Wikipedia). In Michael Alter’s, Why the Torah Begins with the Letter Beit (Jason Aronson, 1998, pp.10-11), thirty-two permutations of the word Bereshit, the first word of the Torah are provided. Also see the Wikipedia entry for gematria.

    Insofar as the NT, numerous commentaries have been written on the 153 large fish pulled ashore by Simon Peter (John 21: 21:11). Why the exact number 153? A detailed review of the literature can be found in The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015), 608-615.

    Last, numerous books in English may assist your interested readers:

    Yehoshua Hartman. Jewish Wisdom in the Numbers. Mesorah, 2013
    Aaron L. Raskin. Letters of Light: A Mystical Journal Through the Hebrew Alphabet. Jason Aronson, 2003.
    Robert M. Haralick. The Inner Meaning of the Hebrew Letters. Jason Aronson, 1995.
    Yitzchak Ginsburg. The Hebrew Letters (Teachings of Kabbalah). Gal Einai Institute, 1990.
    Michael L. Munk. The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet. Mesorah, 1983.

    And, there exists numerous material on the internet.

    1. You wrote: “in the Shema (Deut 6:4), if the ד (dalet) of the word echad, אחד, would be mistaken for a ר (reish)—as the two look almost identical—then echad (“one”) would be read acher (“other”). This would make our belief in one G d look like a belief in two gods.”

      This reminded me of the apparently binitarian passage in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, declaring that there is “one God (Theos)” and “one Lord (Kyrios)”

  3. The New Testament was written in Greek; it drew on the Septuagint, also Greek . In its supposed time and place the people spoke Aramaic. I fail to see to see the point of this, if they took any notice of Hebrew such things as the Virgin Birth would never have gained traction.

    1. Oh of course! How silly of me or even Nanine Charbonnel to even half way breathe a hint that anything in the Greek New Testament owed a single thing to anything in the Hebrew/Jewish tradition. What fools we have been for even raising the possibility.

      1. :-). Arch, but I can be exasperating. I suffer myself often from taking to long to get to the point and not connecting what precedes adequately to the meat. There is an argument in embryo that the Septuagint preceded the Hebrew; I saw that long before I encountered Wadjbaum and Gmirkin. Why did Moses appear to be speaking Attic Greek? “The tradition chrystalised and was canonised in an Hellenistic, Greek-speaking environment, duh.” seems to be as good an answer as any at the present. I’m not quite following that myself, but the field seems to have been semi-obliviously sawing off the branch it is sat on for some decades. Can we say anything about Yehud, Shomron and the Galil before the Hasmoneans? Increasingly it seems not besides some bald details.

        I was not saying anything more, nor anything less, than I was not seeing the connection between anything you are epitomising in your post and Jesus being a “Sublime Figure de Papier” (Beware false friends, I suspect this means something other than what on-line translators are spitting out.) I’m not disparaging NC, you, or anyone else. I have a different comprehension, that is all.

        I might dissagree massively with a minority of things on here; but that does not mean I am unsympathetic, either to the blog as a whole or the minority of things or persons I might disagree with, m’kay? I think it magnificent; probably the one blog I’d take to a desert island.

        1. I’m leaving behind my past misunderstandings and misreading of your comments. But I will add a note here to say that as I have been reading the intro to NC’s second part of the book she does indeed side with those who see the Gospel of Mark having been originally written in Hebrew. It would be unfair for me to say more at this point (and I trust others will hold off the eye-rolling until they learn more), but there are a number of books I am looking forward to reading now. Unfortunately most (5 of the 7) are not translated from the French:

          Bernard Dubourg, L’Invention De Jesus, 2 vols. (L’Hebreu du Nouveau Testament ; La Fabrication du Nouveau Testament)

          Maurice Mergui: Un Etranger sur le toit; Paul a Patras; Comprendre les origines Christianisme

          Jean Carmignac: The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels

          Claude Tresmontant: The Hebrew Christ

          1. Ah! The dots do connect. I’ll be intrested to see if she can make the case. R.G. seems to think there is a lot more to the Marcan author that has been passed over. Might a useful control be Josephos? He tells us, I think, one of his works was originally in Hebrew and he reworked, with ameunenses, into Greek. If we didn’t know that, could we work that out from his Greek text alone?

          2. I just read a synopsis of Jean Carmignac’s theories, if it is accurate, the linguistics sound plausible. The early datings and the believer’s naivete about about the Apostles and their companions being the Gospel authors, not so much. A 40AD Gospel of Peter behind, and solving the problem of, the Synoptics won’t hunt.

            Tresmontant apparently believes

            that “in the era before the destruction of the Temple” it was forbidden to put the gospel in Aramaic and only Hebrew was allowed

            Amazon.com “review”. Daffy, but again the linguistic analyses might be plausible.

            I have plenty of daffy books, but I keep them for the nuggets amongst the dross and the cropping up of the odd thing that unintentionally helps with, or supports, something else. I’m skeptical, but prepared to be pleasantly surprised by what you find out.

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