. . o . .
Legend? Tale? Novel? — If these labels can be applied to any of the Old Testament works they fail when we attempt to relate them to the New Testament narratives.
The impasse of the “legendary” additions to a “biography”
The eighteenth-century scholars of the Enlightenment sought to pull Jesus down from his divine status but to endorse him as a wise and exceptional teacher and human being. Lessing (Education of the Human Race, 1780) spoke of humanity going through various psychological stages and being ready for Jesus at the time he came to bring us out of childish legalism and into the light of the rational and spiritual appropriate for emerging adolescence.
A BETTER Inftructor muft come and tear the exhaufted Primer from the child’s hands. Christ came !
That portion of the human race which God had willed to comprehend in one Educational plan, was ripe for the fecond ftep of Education. . . .
That is, this portion of the human race had advanced fo far in the exercife of its reafon, as to need, and to be able to make ufe of, nobler and worthier motives of moral action than temporal rewards and punifhments, which had hitherto been its guides. The child has become a youth. Sweetmeats and toys have given place to the budding defire to become as free, as honoured, and as happy as its elder brother. (Lessing, Education, sections 53-55)
Ernest Renan caused a storm when he published a study of Jesus (1863) that humanized him, psychologized him and stripped him of his divinity, in the process establishing his more “genuine” place in history.
Let us then place the person of Jesus on the highest summit of human grandeur. Let us not permit ourselves to be led astray by exaggerated distrust in regard to a legend which continually draws us’ into the supernatural world. The life of a Francis d’Assisi is also only a tissue of miracle. Still has anybody ever doubted the existence and the character of Francis d’Assisi ? . . . .
The evangelists themselves, who have bequeathed to us the image of Jesus, are so far below him of whom they speak, that they constantly disfigure him because they cannot attain his hight. Their writings are full of mistakes and misconceptions. At every line we recognise discourse of a divine beauty reported by writers who do not understand it, and who substitute their own ideas for those which they but half comprehend. Upon the whole, the character of Jesus, far from having been embellished by his biographers, has been belittled by them. Criticism, to discover what he really was, must eliminate a series of mistakes, arising from the indifferent understanding of the disciples. They have painted him as they conceived him, and often, while thinking to make him greater, have in reality made him less. (Renan, Life of Jesus, 368-69)
According to Renan (and historical Jesus studies are in one sense still following in his train) everything in the Gospels can be explained in terms of mixing the historical with the legendary. Renan excels at it and that’s what caused a scandal in France at the time: the gospels are full of invention, alteration, metamorphosis, the illusions of followers, when it suits him, and authentic sayings whenever they correspond to the idea that he makes Jesus “the incomparable man”. Renan’s efforts are still being undertaken today though with ongoing efforts to hone sharper analytical tools.
Another false foundation has been the “logia”, the supposedly authentic words of Jesus that registered on the spot by original witnesses. Not mentioned by Charbonnel but Maurice Casey’s claim is one of the more extreme: he proposed that a disciple took down words and wrote on wax tablets the words of Jesus as he heard Jesus speak. Edgar Quinet from 1838 could joke about this research on the logia:
Lessing held them to be free translations of a lost original which one imagined in turn to be Hebrew, Aramaic, Chaldaic or Syriac, even Greek, and which finally was supposed never to have been written; this is what was called an oral gospel.(Edgar Quinet, ”La vie de Jésus-Christ, du Docteur Strauss”, en ligne § 33)
We have theories woven around the purported words of Papias that an original Gospel of Mathew contained words of Jesus in Hebrew. We have Q, the source hypothesized to explain similarities between Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark, and that is thought to consist primarily of sayings material. But none of these hypotheses, even if there were such documents, can possibly be verified as originating with the words of Jesus and accordingly they can bring us no closer to a historical Jesus.
Treating the gospels as primarily “legendary” colouring of the life of Jesus does not help us get closer to a historical Jesus behind them. On the contrary, the concept contributes to obscuring the question of the nature of “biography”. Renan was forced to admit the vagueness of the notion:
Let the Gospels be in part legendary, that is evident since they are full of miracles and the supernatural; but there are different species of legends. Nobody doubts the principle traits of the life of Francis of Assisi, though in it the supernatural is met at every step. Nobody, on the contrary, gives credence to the “Life of Apollonius of Tyana”, because it was written long after the hero and in the conditions of a pure romance. (Renan, Life of Jesus, 17-18)
A more radical view of the gospels is that they consist largely of myth. But this view does not help bring us closer to a historical Jesus, either.
Blurring myths and allegory
The preface to the Gospel according to Saint Luke, so reasoned, so methodical, so philosophical, is this really the introduction of a collection of myths? Do not the epistles of Saint Paul bear such an imprint of reality that this testimony reflects on the previous era? and this man, so similar to us, so close to us that we touch him with our hands, does he not plead for the truth, for the historical integrity of the characters whom we reach only through him? These are all points that should be examined closely. With regard to the comparison of the gospels and poems of popular origin, I accept it, and I say: Charlemagne was transfigured by the imaginations of the Middle Ages; but under the fable was the story hidden; under the fiction of the twelve paladins there is the author of the Capitulars, the conqueror of the Saxons, the legislator and the warrior. How, in the tradition of the apostles, would there be only a shadow?
It is obvious that there is a stumbling block over the notion “collection of myths”. And just as problematic is “popular tradition”. Is it conceivable that vague multitudes could forget or have different ideas about origins, beliefs, teachings, suddenly come together and produce a remarkably common ideal figure? Quinet again,
Do not most parables end with these words or other equivalent: ” In truth, he spoke thus, but they did not hear him “? Clear evidence, irrefutable proof that the initiative, the teaching, that is to say the ideal, did not come from the crowd, but that they belonged to the person, to the authority of the master, and that before being accepted by the greatest number, the religious revolution was conceived and imposed by a supreme legislator.
Right criticism, false conclusion, writes Charbonnel. The text can be written as totally symbolic and have nothing to do either with fraudulent manipulation, or with a popular elaboration of legends, or with a popular presentation of ethical truths.
Layers of text forms
With form criticism came the quest to identify the original form of a saying or description, but though the texts could be dissected and analysed through supposed layer upon layer, it has been impossible to know if any particular form of a text originated with Jesus or even if it went back to original disciples.
(To extend the thought beyond Charbonnel’s work, we also see ongoing efforts to achieve the same end, and based on the same assumption that the gospels originated with a historical figure and his followers, with other tools such as memory theory and “grasping the gist” of the gospel narratives.)
Charbonnel concludes that we must extricate ourselves from two critical ruts: treating the gospels as fables, deceptions of various sorts; and treating them as inevitable exaggerations of stories that had their beginning with eyewitnesses.
In the next section Charbonnel addresses the hypothesis of the gospels as “midrashic” literature.
Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International.
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