Let’s begin the third and final chapter in part 1 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Part 2 of the book is titled The Gospels are Midrash. Some readers will be aware of my ambivalent feelings about calling the gospels midrash but let’s hear the meat of the argument, whatever labels are used. But if Charbonnel intends us to read Part 2 through Part 1, let’s complete that step. (To see all posts in this series go to the Charbonnel archive.)
Chapter 3’s thesis is the uniqueness of the Hebrew Bible, meaning its alien character by comparison with Greek and Latin literature. The chief idea Charbonnel wants to get across (and that the previous two chapters have been leading us towards) is that in the Hebrew scriptures form and content are interrelated.
Notre thèse est celle-ci : ce sont des écrits où forme et contenus sont réciproquement liés. (Charbonnel, 67)
This chapter examines firstly the nature of typology in the Hebrew Scriptures and secondly the impossibility of separating out literal from figurative meanings.
The Individual and the Collective
The Google translation works very well here:
All the great characters in the biblical text are what cold call “corporate personalities”. This notion was proposed in the inter-war period by the Anglican Henry Wheeler Robinson and the Danish theologian Pedersen, and was particularly developed in French in the work of the late J. De Fraine, Adam and His Lineage, published in 1959. Here is how he summarizes this notion . . .
Notice the fluidity in which the singular and plural function in Hosea 11:1-2
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
Similarly for Rebeccah for whom any humane person would trust the promise given her was figurative, an individual representing a collective (Genesis 24:60):
60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
“Our sister, may you increase
to thousands upon thousands;
may your offspring possess
the cities of their enemies.”
And Genesis 25:23
23 The Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”
We see the same in the Psalms, the Prophets (in particular the Servant of YHWH — which will come into the discussion in more depth in Part 2 of the book), . . .
To make one remark upon Isaiah 53’s Servant passages, we are aware that Christians see here the singular messiah — a single individual who takes upon himself the collective sins of the nation — while Jews see the collective nation in exile.
Job is another figure who has been deemed by some Jewish thinkers to be a collective symbol of the Jewish people at the time of Hezekiah.
Recall, also, Judges 19-20, and how the Levite cut up his concubine’s body into twelve pieces and sent them to the various tribes in order to bring them together as one nation. . . . The unity of Israel as “one man” (Judges 20) being repeatedly stressed in response to the twelve-fold dissection of the woman who evokes the sacrificial animal (Max Weber) to restore the nation as one.
The book of Judith — does not the name represent “the Jews”?
The Song of Songs, similarly, is widely interpreted as referring to a collective, a people, in relation to their God.
The story of Joseph has also been interpreted as a story of the relationship between the Jews and gentiles, the Jews being despised at first but eventually proving to be the salvation of humanity.
Charbonnel welcomes Daniel Boyarin’s words:
Indeed, are not the biblical narratives of the “patriarchs” in some sense plausibly read as “allegories” of the origins, connections, and fates of communities? (Boyarin, Border Lines, p. 318)
In prophets like Amos we read of references to Isaac, Jacob and Joseph as clear indicators of entire peoples.
In Daniel 7:13 it is evident that the Son of Man (or the one like the Son of Man) is in fact speaking of an entire people. The figure represents the victory of the Maccabean led rebellion against the Seleucid empire. Charbonnel quotes Daniel Boyarin:
From the earliest layers of interpretation and right up to modern times, some interpreters have deemed the “one like a son of man” a symbol of a collective, namely, the faithful Israelites at the time of the Maccabean revolt, when the Book of Daniel was probably written. Other interpreters have insisted that the “[one like a] son of man” is a second divine figure alongside the Ancient of Days and not an allegorical symbol of the People of Israel.
. . . [O]pponents could clearly have retorted, then: “Is a heavenly being or junior God subject to oppression by a Seleucid king who forces him to abandon his Holy Days and his Law for three and a half years? AbsurdI The Son of Man must be a symbol for the children of Israel!”
Both sides of this argument are right. As we’ve just seen, Daniel’s vision itself seems to require that we understand “the one like a son of man” as a second divine figure. The angelic decoding of the vision in the end of the chapter seems equally as clearly to interpret “the one like a son of man” as a collective earthly figure, Israel or the righteous of Israel. No wonder the commentators argue. (Boyarin, 39, 43. Charbonnel’s quotation – pp. 73 f – was from the French translation, Le Christ juif.)
We find the same allegorical meaning throughout the stories of the patriarchs. Judah, like Joseph, is separated from his brothers but the story is a justification for the political condition much later with Judah being the dominant nation to whom belongs the rightful king of Israel.
That is, Charbonnel is pointing out that the authors of those biblical narratives were addressing political situations pertaining to their own day, such as the division of the kingdom of Israel and what its authors saw as a need for reunification, and so forth. Further, Charbonnel recognizes more recent scholarship that questions the very existence of a united kingdom of Israel. If so, the biblical narratives may well be best understood as a sophisticated attempt to create myths to justify and promote unity or cement the status quo.
The Tools Used for That Purpose
Biblical Hebrew frequently confuses singular verbs with plural subjects and vice versa. Often it is only the context that enables us to determine if a word is referencing a singular item or a collective. Charbonnel appears to be saying that this characteristic of biblical Hebrew goes well beyond what is comparable in other languages we are more familiar with. The reader of the Hebrew text is constantly shuffling between the collective and individual meanings, and even between the concrete and the abstract.
In Biblical Hebrew the compound name is often formed from the singular form with a feminine mark added. A proper name of a collective can be either masculine, as when it is considered the name of the ancestor, or feminine, as when seen as the whole, the “mother” of all. There is nothing problematic when the context clearly concerns a collective, but what is striking is the way the language makes it so easy to create individual characters to represent a whole community. Not only facilitates but even pushes a narrator into that direction.
Another rhetorical device is personification. Communities, abstractions, can be represented by literary figures.
We see this directly in Ezekiel 16 where Jerusalem is personified as a prostitute (the point would be lost if I update the term to sex-worker) and in Ezekiel 23 where Jerusalem and Samaria are two sisters. Baruch meditates on wisdom as a woman. Wisdom is often personified as a woman.
Biblical authors used such tools to produce characters and stories that united communities and individuals in a way that allows direct substitution and identification. (Charbonnel even relates this heritage to the development of thinking that moved in the direction of conceptualizing individual human rights: each individual could identify with a larger body said to be the elect of God.)
Isaiah 60 to 62 fluctuates the image of Israel between that of a collective nation and another of an individual. Each individual in Jerusalem becomes another Abraham (a little one will become a thousand), and the prophet portrays the new Israel as a new Abraham (as per the commentator Jacques Cazeaux).
Philo of Alexandria allegorizes the stories of Genesis to invoke every Jew, every man, in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
One stands for all. The individual and the collective are one.
I’ll complete this chapter in two more posts then move to the second half of Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier.
Boyarin, Daniel. 2012. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. New York: The New Press.
Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International.
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