Paul as a Midrashic Creation

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by Neil Godfrey

I am beginning to suspect that Nanine Charbonnel’s book on the Christ Myth theory is really something quite different from any other argument for the Jesus of the gospels having been a figure crafted entirely out of “revelation”, especially “revelation” through the Jewish Scriptures. So far I have steadily worked my way through the first part of the book in which NC presents a wide range of ways Jewish scribes of the Second Temple era wrote and interpreted their sacred books. Having since read NC’s introduction to the second part of Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier I have begun to glimpse the relevance of all of that unexpected introduction.

I’ll save the big guns for later, but here is something, or just a morsel of something, that I picked up through beginning to read one of the works in NC’s bibliography. It’s another book in French (so again, it’s not one I can read quickly or even skim) —

What Do We Mean by Midrash?

Let’s first get the term midrash out of the way. Here I fall back on the simplest explanation of the word used by a Jewish scholar of some note, Daniel Boyarin:

Although a whole library could (and has been) written on midrash, for the present purposes it will be sufficient to define [midrash] as a mode of biblical reading that brings disparate passages and verses together in the elabora­tion of new narratives. It is something like the old game of anagrams in which the players look at words or texts and seek to form new words and texts out of the letters that are there. The rabbis who produced the midrashic way of reading considered the Bible one enormous signifying system, any part of which could be taken as commenting on or supple­ menting any other part. They were thus able to make new stories out of fragments of older ones (from the Bible itself), via a kind of anagrams writ large; the new stories, which build closely on the biblical narratives but expand and modify them as well, were considered the equals of the bibli­cal stories themselves.

(Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, 76)

That won’t satisfy certain purists and it does conflict with my most recent posts on the term but I’m also a believer that words mean what we mean them to mean and if we can all accept for the sake of argument the use of a term for a particular purpose then we are removing an unnecessary barrier to getting a discussion under way. (Boyarin’s is also a definition that NC herself references.)

Paul’s Career Began in Scripture

Again, I emphasize I am not presenting here a full argument but merely a small detail of a much larger presentation. (I have read no more than 2% of the Kindle version of Mergui’s book.)

Paul, we all know, was originally called Saul, according to the Book of Acts.

Saul, pronounced closer to “shawl” in Hebrew, is based on the King Saul of the books of 1 and 2 Samuel.

Saul was a persecutor of the church. He bound the men and women of the Christian faith (Acts 8).

Where did that biographical detail originate? It is not in Paul’s letters: if in doubt see Paul the persecutor? and Paul the Persecutor: The Case for Interpolation.

The Book of Acts is written to tell several stories, one of which is the gradual replacement of the Jews by the gentiles as God’s people.

The author’s use of Saul as the precursor or first-life of Paul was chosen to advance this theme of Jews being gradually replaced by the gentiles.

Saul represented the first glory of the Jews, a majestic king and conqueror. But he failed to listen to God’s message through his prophet, Samuel, so was replaced by David. Before that replacement took effect Saul became a persecutor of David, and even killed the priests of Nob, both men and women (I Samuel 22).

Paul the persecutor as per Acts 8 was worked up from the life of Saul.

Why did Paul need letters from the High Priest to authorize his persecution of the new faith?

Recall those posts on NC’s chapters about how the Hebrew Scriptures were written and interpreted. One of them spoke of the importance of gematria, the numerical significance of Hebrew words. Words with the same numerical values of the consonants were interpreted in light of one another, drawing out esoteric meanings through their linkages, and so forth.

Well, the word for “letters” in Hebrew has a numerical value of 52, which happens to be the same value as the word for “anoint” (or “messiah”). (There are actually two numerical systems, so stay calm if you find out that the most common numbers found on the internet don’t support the total of 52.)

So the idea is that while Saul of the OT was given authority as king by his anointing by God’s prophet, the Saul of the NT was given authority by letters from the High Priest, both the former and latter Sauls were authorized by “52” — same thing, same anointing or authorization. (Like “42” being meaning of life for those old enough to know about the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.)

I know many readers are thinking that one swallow [=52] does not make a summer [=52] but that’s why I said I am presenting here just a morsel, not a full argument. From what I’ve glimpsed so far it seems there are a lot of coincidental numerical equivalences or valences (the term used). The more coincidences there turn out to be I guess we will be able to draw one of two conclusions: the coincidences are remarkable enough to be indisputable evidence of deliberate planning; or, the coincidences match any number of other meaningless coincidences are so are quite meaningless themselves. (Btw, don’t get sidetracked with the 52 equivalences for swallow and summer. That was just a rhetorical flourish of mine. I’d be stupefied if those words really did = 52.)

So a Saul persecutes the godly, both “men and women”, in both the OT and the NT. (Nob, the place where the first Saul killed the priests and families, also = 52.)

But then Jesus suddenly appears to the second Saul. Now recall that Saul was pronounced like shawl and that pronunciation is very like sheol, the Hebrew for “hell” or hades.

Jesus descended to sheol, Saul. Another little word game of the author who was drawing on his knowledge of Hebrew to create a story for Greek readers. Saul fell to the ground, just as did the first Saul when confronted by spirit of God in the prophets. He was blinded,

Saul in Acts represents the Jews who persecute the faithful (like the OT Saul). Both Sauls are struck to the ground when they hear the word of the spirit. Both Sauls represent failure of God’s chosen. The second Saul represents the failure of all Jews to accept the new faith.

Mergui has much more to say about the raw materials for Saul’s/Paul’s life being found in the Hebrew Scriptures but that’s all I can or wish to present at this stage.

The assumption is that the authors of the gospels (and Acts) knew their Hebrew scriptures well even though they quoted the Greek versions for their Greek readers — or perhaps the point is that later authors translated or rewrote the first gospels and made use of the Septuagint in the process. But as for Paul in Acts, I have yet to learn what views are out there in this line of argument.

Just a glimmer at this stage. Let’s see where further exploration and, as we can, testing, will lead us.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Paul as a Midrashic Creation”

  1. Interesting, but is also makes me wonder about my growing suspicions that the writer of Acts may not be the same person as the writer of Luke.

    Certainly the introduction of Acts claims that its the same person, but Acts seems more sophisticated than Luke, if for no other reason than that Luke is mostly copied material, while Acts required a lot of original composition.

    But if the author of Luke and Acts are the same, a greater appreciation of “Luke’s” sophistication could resolve some issues with how Luke used Matthew and Luke’s birth narrative. It could be that Luke was actually more sophisticated than Matthew, and thus that is why Luke revised Matthew’s birth narrative and changed Jesus’ genealogy, etc.

    But this also points to Luke being a much ore intentional developer of narratives than I had thought.

  2. Neil, you seem to have missed that Mergui’s explanation of Paul’s biography, as you give it here, does not square with the definition of midrash that you and Boyarin provide.

    Boyarin claims that midrashic stories “build closely on the biblical narratives but expand and modify them as well.” In other words, midrash about King Saul, regardless of how much it might modify or amplify the biblical precedent, still results in material about King Saul. Likewise, midrash about Moses leads to new narrative about Moses; and so on.

    What Boyarin does not claim is that midrash means using the Hebrew Bible to invent biographical details about personages unrelated to and outside of the Hebrew Bible–the very thing Mergui apparently claims was done with Paul, which means Mergui is not talking about midrash, at least not according to Boyarin’s definition.

    1. I think what you’re saying is correct Nathan. That is what midrash is generally taken to mean.

      We are then left with two options.

      1) Acts doesn’t fall within this definition of midrash, but may have been developed using a similar technique, just expanding the scope of its execution.

      2) The “Paul” of Acts is King Saul. This would make the “Paul” of Acts more comparable to Enoch. The Enoch of 1st century lore is also really an entirely new figure, and has very little relation to the Enoch of the Torah who went on to become Metatron is later lore.

    2. Boyarin argues that the Passion of Jesus in the gospels is a Midrash on the Book of Daniel. (p. 129)

      “close biblical reading in the style of midrash can best explain the passages in Mark that speak of the shaming and death of Jesus” (p. 135)

      “Once again, the primary mode of early Jewish biblical exegesisjis midrash’, which is the concatenation of related- (or even seemingly unrelated) passages and verses from all over the Bible to derive new lessons and narratives. It is midrash that we see at work here [i.e. the passion of Jesus in the gospel of Mark] too.” (p. 141)

      “Jesus’ story and his progressive self-revelation to his disciples return again and again to Scripture—and to midrash on that Scripture.” (p. 145)

      and more of the same.

      According to Mergui, Saul in Acts is as symbolic a figure as the Saul in 1-2 Samuel. Both represent the same point: the failure of the chosen nation to obey, and its subsequent rejection and replacement by another. The story of Saul in Acts is an extension of the story of the Saul in the OT, with the same meaning, the same role, the same moral point — only brought up to date for the new generation. Just the same way Jesus is a new character in a different story to expand on the message of the Son of Man in Daniel.

  3. Well, my, my this post has sure stimulated the imaginative and critical faculties of everyone here sharing in these blogs . Thanks Neil… I will myself share what these posts and dialogues have done to influence my own ideas , idiosyncratic or not! As a scholar in this field for so long, though not having published acclaimed monographs or books I completely committed to critical scholarship without having to make a lot excuses for this or that due to theological committments. Not every presupposition is on equal footing as those very presuppositionalists want to affirm in every field and especially biblical studies!!!

    So thankful to Charbonnel for helping us all observe what we have missed or deliberately ignored.

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