Jesus Christ as a sublime paper persona

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Last year I posted my understanding of Part 1 of the French publication, Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier. See for the ten posts covering that introductory section of Nanine Charbonnel’s book. Anyone who read through those posts would have realized that they were preparatory for what they expected to read about from the book’s title. They would also have begun to appreciate that there is much more to understand about the background to any “biblical” writing than a layperson’s or generalist’s knowledge will prepare them for. It may be some weeks (even months?, god forbid!) before I resume my chapter by chapter posts on the second half of Charbonnel’s work but in the meantime here is some background and overview of what is to come.

The author


A specialist in hermeneutics, Philosophy Professor Dr Nanine Charbonnel (University of Strasbourg, France) published various books among which …

    • Philosophie de Rousseau (Rousseau’s philosophy), 3 vols., Aréopage, 2006 ;
    • Comme un seul homme. Corps politique et Corps mystique (Together as one. Body Politic and Mystical Body), Aréopage, 2010 ;
    • Critique des métaphysiques du propre. La ressemblance et le Verbe (Critique of the literal sense in metaphysics. Similitude and Logos), Hildesheim / Zürich / New York: Olms Verlag, 2014;
    • Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier (Jesus Christ as a sublime paper persona), Paris : Berg International, 2017.

I. A few words by the French publisher

Nanine Charbonnel’s major points

Her book provides a deep insight into Jesus as a literary construct. In no way is it a diatribe against Christianity, nor the debunking of a hoax but an apt introduction to Jewish culture and the Hebrew bible which highlights the devices underlying the gospels as unparalleled written masterpieces. This book is based on an articulate academic research conducted by a philosopher well aware of the Christian tradition and culture and keen on what Christianity has brought to Western civilisation.

For quite a few centuries, critiques who, in their own right, are reluctant to believe in a God who was made Man, have fallen back on a seemingly simple distinction between the ”Jesus of History”, about whom nothing is known, and the ”Christ of faith” who would only depend on a confessional affirmation. This standpoint actually leads to a deadlock and we had better look for another kind of approach. It sounds more consistent to consider how the gospels fit in the Hebrew-Greek midrashic tradition. Everything takes place in the text and only in the text, in keeping with the Hebrew Holy Scriptures in which words and reality are the two sides of the same coin. Therefore nothing is to be put aside in what the Gospel characters are said to do, including the miracles they are supposed to operate since this is part and parcel of their identity. On the other hand, whatever they do is a form of accomplishment – within the text – of what is adumbrated in the Hebrew Bible. As far as the Jesus character is concerned, his name – Yeshua – stands for Salvation and embodies both the Jewish people and the presence of YHWH within his people.

In her book, Nanine Charbonnel shows that the evangelists wrote out … dramatized portraits with no consideration of their historical existence, which cannot be understood within the framework of legendary fiction or other traditional literary genres. The gospel narratives are thoroughly symbolic and composed within first century Judaism. The belief in a historical man called Jesus is mainly due to a hermeneutic confusion, i.e. what was actually figurative came to be read literally. The multiplicity of languages used in those days increased that misunderstanding. We are therefore invited to re-examine those unique masterpieces.

II.  A brief presentation of my research, THE GOSPELS AS MIDRASH

No sooner is the issue of the historical Jesus’ existence considered than, amazingly, it is immediately dismissed as off-topic. Nobody would say so… Atheists, themselves, do not question the existence of historical Jesus… The times are over when you could doubt… which nicely implies that you have to be a stupid nitwit or a complete ignoramus to indulge in such a preposterous assertion. To put it bluntly, it reminds us of what the judge said at Zola’s trial during the Dreyfus affair, “It is out of point to broach the issue of Dreyfus’ guilt…”. Last but not least, the matter is deemed ridiculous. And yet this fascinating question cannot be overlooked or left aside.

My concern is not how to cope with faithful believers, their various denominations or Christianity as such. On the other hand, as a philosophy professor, I always put emphasis – in my lectures as well as in my books – on the close link between the history of western metaphysics and the progress of theology. I wonder how to undermine the lukewarm consensus of nonbelievers who would rather bypass one of the most inspiring adventures of the human spirit. Far from considering the gospels as legendary tales from which we could leave aside whatever we consider questionable or due to the faulty memory of awkward disciples, I claim that they should be thoroughly examined and scrutinized.

It is the necessary condition to read them as Jewish Midrashic literature, intended to feature the coming of the latter-day Messiah. They are sophisticated masterpieces, not only because of the traits of the central persona but also because of the skills of those who could delve into the subtleties of Hebrew texts.

The French word ’mythiste’ usually has a pejorative connotation. It refers to 20th century doctrines which attempted to find Greek myths in the founding texts of Christianity and blamed catholic and protestant churches for their dishonesty and even for distorting their sources instead of probing the Hebrew background of the New Testament. My standpoint is quite different. I do claim that the Jesus-Christ character is not based on the life of a historical historical being – and to that extent I can be labelled a ‘mythiste’ – but I would like it better if my standpoint was regarded as a midrashic approach of Christian Scriptures. Instead of talking of distorted sources I would rather point out a major misunderstanding of the semantic status of New Testament.

Beside an academic quest of the truth this approach may open up new exciting perspectives and make it possible for Christians to keep away from antagonizing the Jewish tradition.

To sum it up in a humorous vein there is perhaps no better way of making my point than by quoting this sentence from the Washington Post.

Presidential portraits are usually revealed after a president has left office, but the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery made an exception today when it unveiled a painting of Francis J. “Frank” Underwood, the fictional president played by Kevin Spacey on the Netflix series, “House of Cards.”

A portrait of Kevin Spacey as President Frank Underwood in “House of Cards” will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery starting Wednesday. (Sadie Dingfelder/For Express) . . . “We were trying to mimic the formality of an official portrait, but at the same time leave some of the loose lateral brushstrokes to suggest a digital image flickering on a screen,” Yeo said.
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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Jesus Christ as a sublime paper persona”

  1. Re “the gospels as unparalleled written masterpieces” the publisher must have read different gospels from those I have read. Sounds like a gun shy publisher trying to avoid blow back from what might be interpreted as criticism undermining the faithful. (Why there would be blow back from an esoteric academic publication that expensive is mysterious because it would only draw attention where it was not wanted.)

    Then after tiptoeing past the graveyard of theistic criticism they go on to say “The gospel narratives are thoroughly symbolic and composed within first century Judaism. The belief in a historical man called Jesus is mainly due to a hermeneutic confusion, i.e. what was actually figurative came to be read literally.”

    Which basically belies their original disclaimer. Apparently they haven’t learned anything about messaging.

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