2020-03-08

Jesus Christ, Sublime Literary Creation of the Human Spirit

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by Neil Godfrey

“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” said my friend.
“What nonsense you do talk!” replied the Prefect, laughing heartily.
“Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,” said Dupin.
“Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?”
“A little too self-evident.”
“Ha! ha! ha—ha! ha! ha!—ho! ho! ho!” roared our visiter, profoundly amused, “oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!”— Edgar Allen Poe, The Purloined Letter

Such is the epilogue introducing Nanine Charbonnel’s introduction to the second and major part of her book, Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier. What follows is my attempt to pass on the main sense of Charbonnel’s chapter. (See the Charbonnel archive for the previous posts.)

 . . . o . . .

No matter how much we have prepared for a calm discussion on the hypothesis of the non-existence of Jesus (see the previous posts in this series), a paper persona yet nonetheless a sublime creation of the human spirit, we are inevitably faced with a different reality:

  • mainstream media may pretend neutrality when publishing on the notion but is in fact quite ignorant of the issues;
    .
  • which opens the way to numerous charlatans of the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code variety, with suggestions of lost secrets, usually of a sexual nature, such as involving a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. These sorts of readings feed on a hatred of the institution of the Church and paradoxically only serve to strengthen the position of the Church as the only true rational voice;.
  • * The Russian novelist Mikhaïl Bulgakov in The Master of Margarita wrote of the president of one of the most significant literary associations of Moscow ordering a young poet to compose “a great anti-religious poem”. He is, however, dissatisfied with the result: “Berlioz therefore wanted to show the poet that the main thing was not to know how Jesus was – good or bad – but to understand that Jesus, as a person, never existed, and that everything we told about him was pure invention – a myth of the most ordinary kind.” (Le Maître et Marguerite, Lère Partie, ch. I, trad, du Russe by C. Ligny, Robert Laffont, 1968; pocket ed., 2009, p. 27).

    Charbonnel, on the contrary, affirms that it is by no means a “myth of the most ordinary kind”, and refuses in advance to be designated as “mythicist” — a term that is applied as a convenient way to disqualify her thesis.

    the historical baggage (at least in France) of the earlier mythicist views: Dupuis and Volney (18th century) reduced Christianity to either an astral mythology or an essentially pre-existing pagan religion without any regard for Judaism or key specifics of the texts. These theories became associated with Freemasons, “free-thinkers” and even state communism.*.

  • the naive pusillanimity of the “rationalists” (such is the literal translation and one I find it too delicious to alter.)
    .

    • We have seen in relation to the Old Testament how the Holbach-style Enlightenment inadvertently led us into the ruts of an “objectivist” hermeneutic. A fortiori, as for Jesus, the loss of religious belief, far from allowing a grasp of the admirable richness of the production of sublime texts, led to pseudo-evidence: the Gospels would become a testimony about a normal man so that everything supranormal in the gospels would be removed in some way.
      .
    • We have also seen how Spinoza unfortunately made “rationalization” coincide with psychological or naturalistic reductionism. As far as Jesus is concerned, Spinoza opens the impasse into which a pseudo-enlightened modernity will go astray: dividing up testimony between a real man and imaginary additions. Oldenburg asked Spinoza:

      “This story of passion, death, burial, the resurrection of Christ seems to be told in such vivid colors that I will not be afraid to appeal to your conscience: do you believe that this story should be taken for an allegory or literally […]?”

      Spinoza answers: “I understand the passion of Christ, his death and his burial, literally; his resurrection on the contrary, in an allegorical sense.”

    • And this is how we destroy this very thing that we seek to explain. We come to a situation where it is standard to believe in real, historical persons behind the narrative but that the stories themselves have been embellished. (Not that we should ridicule these efforts since they — names like Paulus and Renan — displayed great courage to promote such “critical” views in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as accounting for miracles by coincidences or psychological confusion, etc.)
      .
    • We arrive then at the supreme impasse which faces us today: belief in the distinct existence of a “historical Jesus and the Christ of faith”. The terms date from the great author David Friedrich Strauss in 1865, but have entered everyday thought, especially since the influence of the great theologian Bultmann (1930s to 1960s). We will see that these terms, this dichotomy (historical Jesus vs Christ of faith) constitute the most formidable barrier to any scientific advance. Let us first recall some other popular views . . .
      .
  • Reduction to the ethical message: The biblical text is treated as a repository of the highest of sacred ethical teachings emanating from the great teacher Jesus. Of course, such an approach must ignore the similar contemporary teachings of Judean rabbis, of cruel judgemental pronouncements, and so forth.
    .
  • The superficiality of so-called historical studies: Reading a work such as that of Dan Jaffé, Jésus sous la plume des historiens juifs du XXe siècle, is heartbreaking, notwithstanding the academic value of these historians. It never occurs to them that the New Testament texts may not be history at all, that it is as absurd to examine them from this angle as to milk the billy-goat, to use Kant’s famous expression in Critique of Pure Reason.No wonder they don’t get anything new. They exhaust themselves comparing what the person does with what we know from various groups from the time of the end of the Second Temple, with uncertainty about the dates of his “life” not helping things, and the information being a little less complete on the period after 70 than before. Assumptions are made on the basis of extrapolating information into times without clear records. Imagine and compare a Cinderella work at the hands of French historians teaching us a lot about mothers-in-law during the time of Louis XIV without ever saying anything about the essentials, the genre “fairy tale”.
    .

    • ^ For David Flusser, in Jesus: “Few people seem to realize that in the synoptic gospels, Jesus is never shown in conflict with current practice of the law—with the single exception of the plucking of heads of grains on the Sabbath. . . . The general opinion was that on the Sabbath it was permissible to pick up fallen heads of grain and rub them between the fingers. According to Rabbi Yehuda, also a Galilean, it was even permissible to rub them in one’s hand. Some of the Pharisees found fault with Jesus’ disciples for behaving in accordance with their Galilean tradition. The Greek translator of the original evidently was unacquainted with the customs of the people.

      — the focus is limited to “uncovering” the  “historical reality”.

      We can also see the great fantasy of these “historic” reconstructions. Some tell us that “the historical Jesus” was a Pharisee, even a Hasid (although these are opposed); others, that he never broke Jewish law, or the contrary; that he was zealous, or not at all. The cost of retaining only what a historical Jesus could do makes the research of these historians very sterile: they are forced to flee in an imaginary psychology (yes, the acts of his life are worthy of a prophet, but “Was he aware” of his prophetic role? Yes, he is presented as a Messiah, but did he himself believe he was a Messiah?). Did he want to break the Law, even though he is on other occasions more rigorous than others? The so-called historical research dwells on these questions alone (as well as on the trial), leaving entirely aside this very textual fact: that not a single element of the Gospels is comprehensible apart from the direct re-use of a passage from Old Testament. It never occurs to them that “plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath day” can mean something other than horticultural activity.^

      .

    • At the same time, the most honest admit that they can hardly assign the character of Jesus to a box. (1) First of all, the dates remain unclear: if we believe in a historical person from the 30s, “we can not say anything about him”. All comparisons are made with information surviving from 70 (after the Fall of the Temple, and the birth of rabbinical Judaism). Should we therefore settle on the position of claiming that the historical person existed, but that everything we know about him comes from the tall tales of unscrupulous disciples? (2) Also problematic, what is said about the character does not fit with other historical information. For example: on the one hand, Jesus as a miracle worker could well fit with the Talmudic tales of miracle workers but on the other hand Jesus never prays for a miracle and so is unlike any other miracle-worker and more like a figure we would expect a messiah to be (he just speaks and a miracle is performed). Or consider the supposed breaking of the law episodes. Or his supposed prophetic self-consciousness. He is depicted as acting in ways that correspond to the stories of the great biblical prophets. Rather than see these narratives as intertextual creations the scholar asks about the psychological awareness of a person behind the narrative, of an assumed historical figure. (Another famous instance of a vast work into the historical Jesus is John Meier’s four volumed A Marginal Jew. It works in the same sort of vacuum as outlined here.)

Some attempt to conclude that Jesus is a unique figure in history, or he is divine, but those conclusions are unacceptable for many of us. We have in the first part of the book examined the nature of the Jewish Bible. This has been a necessary step before we examine the way the Jesus figure has been constructed. But let us first look at the conceptual tools at hand and why they have failed us.

(Continuing….)


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


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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Jesus Christ, Sublime Literary Creation of the Human Spirit”

  1. Again, way too many sops thrown in the direction of Christians, e.g. “a paper persona yet nonetheless a sublime creation of the human spirit” and “The biblical text is treated as a repository of the highest of sacred ethical teachings emanating from the great teacher Jesus.”

    Great teacher? he said nothing that hadn’t already been said, so none of his teachers were new. Was he a great teacher because of the way he taught (a great educational technician as it were)? Nothing in the gospels leads me to this conclusion. At most there was a three year mission and many rejected what they were being taught. The people taught fit into a tiny circle in Palestine, so no world wide impact. The world-wide impact was through acolytes who distorted who he was and what his mission was about (Paul said the Law didn’t apply any more. How would Jesus have reacted to that?).

    And, just how did the “human spirit” create the paper persona? How were more than a small handful of people involved in this creation?

    1. Charbonnel does not agree Jesus was a “great teacher’ — to paraphrase her words, “Of course, such an approach must ignore the similar contemporary teachings of Judean rabbis, of cruel judgemental pronouncements, and so forth.”
      .

  2. None of us here doubt the enormous effort and skill that Neil and Tim put into this site, but the translation of Charbonnel sounds horribly kludged. I see the Gospels in the same light; they sound horibbly kludged; but they were not written in our language nor written in our cultural milieu. Only the McGraths and Allens of this world would see Neil and Tim as a couple of numpties; neither should we see Paul or the Evangelists as such. We can give them their proper due, while others are lost in religious fantasy.

    It is times like this I regret not paying attention in French and German lessons.

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