A Midrashic Hypothesis for the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing my reading of part 2 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . .

. . . o . . .

At the heart of Nanine Charbonnel’s thesis lies the question of how much we read in the gospels was written in a figurative sense and how much literal. Arthur Schopenhauer famously declared that all religious truth is expressed allegorically or mythically. But then the question becomes how such a beast can be controlled and not leave us pondering all sorts of fancies. And what devils arise if we know we are reading allegory and conclude that it is therefore not true! To bypass such anarchy Charbonnel determines to explore the precise mechanisms that have gone into the production of the gospels.

We have referred earlier to the nineteenth critical author David Friedrich Strauss. Strauss declared many episodes in the gospels to be myths but what he meant by that was a narrative constructed around an Old Testament precedent. Strauss recognized the OT origins of the infant Jesus having to flee tyrants (Pharaoh and Moses), the star of Bethlehem (the star of Balaam’s prophecy), the magi visiting Jesus (the magi of Isaiah and gifts of  Psalm 72), Jesus’ multiplications of the loaves (the manna in the desert and Elisha’s 20 loaves), the water into wine (Moses converting the brackish water into pure), the transfiguration of Jesus (Moses and Elijah with YHWH on the mountain), and so forth.

Where Strauss most notably failed was in his belief that Judaism does not allow for any notion of a suffering Messiah. He failed, therefore, to see that the most central event of the gospels was likewise a “mythical” adaptation of the OT. The significance of this viewpoint is that Strauss recognized that the author of the Jesus story was not starting from a “historical event” but from a theme, an idea. He wrote, for example, how the idea of a literal Messianic “son of God” grew out of texts like Psalm 2:7 (“Thou are my son, this day have I begotten thee”) and the prophecy in Isaiah for a child to be born to a “virgin” (Life of Jesus Critically Examined, I. ch.3, §29).

A Different Type of Symbolic Writing

Central to Charbonnel’s thesis is an understanding of different types of symbolic writing. Ernest Renan captures the most common view of the gospels as being quite unlike any form of allegory or symbolism:

That our Gospel is dogmatic I recognise, but it is by no means allegorical. The really allegorical writings of the first centuries, the Apocalypse, the Pastor of Hermas, the Pista Sophia, possess quite a different charm. (Renan, Life of Jesus, Appendix)

For Charbonnel the symbolism of the gospels is also striking even though quite unlike that of texts we typically think of as symbolic. Rabbinic writings contain another form of figurative tales that are typically called midrashic. But for Charbonnel there is another type of midrashic literature not found in those later Jewish texts.

Look at the Shepherd of Hermas, for example. Much of the text is clearly symbolic with characters personifying the church, virtues, etc. However, at other times it relates scenes that could well pass as realistic story even though we know they should be interpreted allegorically. Charbonnel raises the suggestion that our canonical gospels and the canonical Book of Revelation might be two sides, an obverse and reverse, of a symbolic form of narrative.

Similarly with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many are written as pseudepigraphs, in the names of the patriarchs, or of the prophets. They appear to be a new type of literature at variance from what we are familiar with in the Old Testament collection. The scrolls indicate the presence of a particular community and a leader, the Teacher of Righteousness. Many assume both of these to be a literal group and a historical leader. Yet we have no way of proving either thought. As the “community” in the scrolls in fact an ideal community, a “new Israel”? (Charbonnel does not make the specific connection with Philip Davies but the same possibility can be seen underlying some of his discussion of the meaning of “Israel” — see What do we mean by Israel?) Are we reading a literary creation of a visionary utopia rather than a historical account of an actual group of persons?


So far I have used the term “midrashic”. Charbonnel speaks of “midrash”. We have come across considerable controversy in some quarters of the meaning of this term so let’s settle what we mean, exactly, in this series, or in Nanine Charbonnel’s text. Charbonnel draws upon the definition set forth by the Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin. I quote from the relevant section of The Jewish Gospels:

Although a whole library could [and has been) written on midrash, for the present purposes it will be sufficient to define it 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 supplementing 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, p. 76)

Such a definition is broad. The later rabbinic midrash can be made to fit a narrower definition. In this discussion, however, we are looking at a form of Jewish literature that preceded those rabbinic texts.

So in this context what can be said about the Gospels?

The Gospels – the certainties in our inquiry

What we know for certain, unfortunately, too often gets overlooked.

1. We do not know when the Gospels were written, least of all when they were completed in their canonical forms, before their canonization in the fourth century. Nor do we know the sequence of their composition. Were the Synoptics written before John and Paul’s letters? Or were Paul’s letters first, followed by John then the Synoptics? We need to test all possibilities.

2. It is impossible to read any passage in the New Testament without taking into account the “Old Testament” — in both its Hebrew and Greek editions, though we might expect the Jews to know only the Hebrew perfectly.

3. It is necessary to take account of the original language of the NT before commenting on it. The manuscripts are in Greek, but . . . .

4. One must take account of the many other forms of Jewish literature generally classified as “intertestamental”, Jewish texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek before the Christian era, including the Qumran texts

5. Equally necessary for consideration are the early Christian works known as the apocrypha; these include other gospels and especially gnostic works.

6. It is obligatory to take account of the rival exegetical schools within Judaism of that time

7. One must further weigh the events shaping Jewish history up to two hundred years before the temple’s destruction in 70 CE and the reactions those events provoked.

Going beyond traditional views of origins

Nanine Charbonnel commends one book we have in English as “an absolute necessity to read” as an introduction to the themes she is about to explore. It is the one from which we took the definition of midrash above: The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ by Daniel Boyarin:

The French work from which she quotes at some length is Didier Long’s L’Invention du christianisme. I will attempt to translate the passages quoted (pp. 21-22), with my formatting and highlighting:

We know today that most Christian beliefs are Jewish beliefs that were developed in the five centuries before our era.

Thus the idea of ​​a Messiah “son of God” was born during Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC.

That of the resurrection of the body, during the confrontation of Judaism with Hellenism in the Maccabean crisis two centuries before Jesus.

That of the “Son of man” present with God before the creation of the world exists in the Apocalypse of Enoch at the time of exile in the sixth-fifth centuries BC. J.-C.;

Enoch like Elijah, both translated, were said not to have suffered death in first-century beliefs, which gave hope for their return.

Concepts which, anachronistically, seem to us today Christians are Jewish inventions:

the resurrection of the dead,

the Word before God before the creation of the world,

the apocalyptic and the messianism which periodically re-emerge in the course of Jewish history in times of unbearable crisis,

the presence (shekhina) of God in this world in the form of the Spirit,

of his Wisdom . . .

or his Word . . . ,

the gospel,

sharing the cup and the bread,


the white-bearded God on his throne of the Apocalypse in the midst of the martyrs,

the Pantocrator (a term used by the Jews of Asia Minor to designate Almighty God) …

This strange Jewish world will provide their foundations for the early Christologies.

. . . . .

It is therefore a mistake to think that to believe that a simple prophet of Judaism, Jesus, gradually became God because of Roman or Greek beliefs. Basically, Christianity was born as a Jewish prophetic and apocalyptic movement. For those who take the trouble to read Jewish and intertestamental literature, angelology, messianism, the Jewish apocalyptic, gnostic … precede the disciples of Jesus by at least two or three centuries.

I have posted alternative interpretations of the origins of the Hebrew Scriptures but here I am sharing my reading of Nanine Charbonnel’s book and I will leave it to readers to raise such questions themselves. The next section may prove the most challenging in this respect.

Embracing Hebrew originals

Posts on Carmignac’s thesis are archived here.

Scholars who once proposed (going back to the 1970s) that the gospels were originally composed in Hebrew have been left forgotten by the wayside. Some of the names responsible for that view are the philosopher Claude Tresmontant and Father Jean Carmignac. Carmignac, in 1976, stated (Google translation):

I have been working on the Dead Sea scrolls since 1954 […]. These works have led me, since 1963, to translate the Gospel of Saint Mark into the Hebrew of Qumran. I was surprised how easy it was. The words in Mark’s Greek text are in the order intended by Hebrew grammar, and many expressions are Hebrew. […] So I wanted to translate all Saint Mark into Hebrew and, at the same time, the parallel passages of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, to compare them. […] And what I end up with is quite revolutionary conclusions: the Gospels were composed much earlier and in a completely different way than one generally thinks in specialist circles. […]

Carmignac and Tresmontant believed that by getting back to the Hebrew “original” they were getting closer to the historical Jesus. Charbonnel calls for holding on to the analysis while moving beyond the rut in which their conclusions fall. Continuing with Carmignac:

Bultmann believes that the Gospels were composed by the Hellenistic communities of Corinth, Ephesus, etc. But all this is radically false if Mark and Mathew were composed in Hebrew and if Luke was written in dependence on this Hebrew text, because then there is no influence of the Hellenistic communities, since the composition of the text is not in their language. Now, we can prove (and this is the object of my current work) that Mark and Matthew were written in Hebrew, that Luke is, ultimately, Greek and Hebrew, and that these texts are passed from one to the other by visual tradition (their editor having before him a written Hebrew text) and not by oral tradition …

Charbonnel writes that a reading of the work of Carmignac is indispensable in order to accept the view that our Greek gospels have come to us ultimately from Hebrew originals. There is an English translation by Michael Wrenn of Jean Carmignac’s La Naissance des Evangiles Synoptiques titled The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels.

Un sublime personnage de papier

So we return to the title. Some readers have suggested the image of a cut-out doll. Another possibility is a papier-mache doll. Charbonnel is more concerned that readers will be quick to accuse her of not knowing that paper was not part of the ancient Roman world. But of course, she uses the word as a formulaic expression and refers to the title of a book researching the fabricated character of a medieval French poetess, Louise Labé. Une créature de papier, by Mireille Huchon. Another expression that comes to NC’s mind is the Maost “paper tiger” label.

It is certainly a pity that the formula “papyrus creature” does not exist, because the papyrus had this peculiarity of being thought then as being alive … (Charbonnel, p. 133, my trans)

. . . o . . .

That’s enough for now. Will complete this chapter in a future post.

Boyarin, Daniel. 2012. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. New York: The New Press.

Carmignac, Jean. 1976. “« Le système de Bultmann est extrêmement dangereux » Extrait d’une interview de l’Abbé Jean Carmignac, par le père André Boulet.” La Jeunesse de Dieuhttp://notredamedesneiges.over-blog.com/article-le-systeme-de-bultmann-est-extremement-dangereux-abbe-jean-carmignac-95391356.html.

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


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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “A Midrashic Hypothesis for the Gospels”

  1. Was Carmignac fluent in Koine, such that he could rule out the idea that the particular form of demotic Greek in which Mark was written did not itself account for the similarities to Hebrew? In other words, how reliable is his hypothesis that Mark was originally written in Hebrew? When he says written “much earlier,” what does he mean, and how does he know?

  2. Color me skeptical. Paul’s letters were definitely written in Greek. The Gospel of Mark definitely borrows from Paul’s letters. Passages in Mark are built on the Septuagint using language that more closely matches the Septuagint than Hebrew scriptures. I don’t doubt that the person who wrote Mark knew Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, but I very much doubt that the Gospel of Mark was written in Hebrew, not least of which I believe that the intended audience of the Gospels was Greek speaking. The Jesus of Mark is essentially a Gentile Jesus. He’s a figure rejected by Jews and embraced by Gentiles.

    So I’ll be interested to see the case he makes, but I’m highly skeptical.

    1. Charbonnel (she) is influenced by Bernard Dubourg, who concludes that: “New Testament writers, by writing in Hebrew, know that they are working on the sacred-divine language of the Torah; but they also know that they are working on a double language, both exoteric and esoteric. They therefore work on it both in plain language and within the framework of its traditional operating methods (kabbalistic, in the etymological sense of the term)”. [L’Invention de Jésus , Vol 1, p. 272]

  3. Thank you Neil. Citing from your thoughts above, I make some observations
    1. “how much [of what] we read in the gospels was written in a figurative sense and how much literal ?”
    ………there are other possibilities : fraud, propaganda, mythic redaction
    2. “Christianity was born as a Jewish prophetic and apocalyptic movement”
    ………while Jewish communities may have had the need for holiness and rescue from Roman oppressors, the Romans owned Christianity from shortly after. I find the birth of Christianity less and less interesting as it is not so much the birth of a man / child but rather a maternity ward or melting pot of ideas
    3. “What we know for certain, unfortunately, too often gets overlooked”
    ……….the seven points cited don’t really amount to much in my view. In fact, we do not even know that Jesus existed. I agree that a good knowledge of the inter-testamental period is vital – anyone reading the gospels without it will get practically no context or proper understanding. I agree again that an understanding of gnosticism is another key, and few there be that find it. And again, that the politics of rivals sects is a key, and a knowledge of the Roman politics of dividing and uniting them. I think your last point of the seven is the most exciting – the relevance of the destruction of the temple.

      1. And, even then, not until later in Constantine’s reign than is commonly asserted and thought. The chi and rho – as a combined chi-rho – did not appear until on a Constantinian silver coin until c. 317 ad/ce; and the first known use of them by Emperor Constantine on a military standard, the labrum incorporating the Chi-Rho sign, was in the wars against Licinius in the mid 320s ad/ce.

        The accounts otherwise of Lactantius and Eusebius are contradictory and the common narrative derived from them is legend: the only thing both authors agree on is that the sign was not readily understandable as denoting Christ.

      2. I’m not sure I fully understand what is meant by “owned” and “shortly after”, but I’d say that “Christianity” was always Roman. The worship of the heavenly messiah Joshua was Jewish. By the time the term “Christianity” comes on the scene the religion has been adopted by Romans. The Gospel of Mark is written for a Roman audience, hence the reason that it is a Roman centurion who recognizes Jesus as the son of God. Of course Paul’s letter of the Romans is for a Roman audience, but the religion has really been taken over by the Romans yet.

        I’d say the religion becomes taken over by Romans by the early 2nd century. As soon as the religion starts to develop based on interpretations of the Gospels it becomes a Roman religion, as it is the Romans who are the ones interpreting the Gospels.

        Justin Martyr was likely a member of Roman family who settled in Israel after the First Jewish-Roman War. It seems Martyr knew the Gospel of Peter, which of course had been copied from the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Peter has an even more Roman bent to it than Mark. I’d say that basically everything that developed based on readings of the Gospels is Roman. The Jewish period of the religion is the pre-Gospel period.

        1. In the comment I was referring to the Roman reference flowed from the context of earlier Roman oppression so I understood Roman here to refer to Roman power, the imperial system.

    1. I often come back to the notion that our first gospels were a new literature intended to be an adaptation and extension of the OT narrative texts.

      1. The case I’m making in my new book, and that I mention in the upcoming Loftus book, is that Mark is a form of mystery religion theogony. Paul had cast the worship of Christ Jesus in the form of an Orphic style mystery religion for his Gentile audience. The writer of Mark was a companion of Paul, and thus an insider in the mystery religion. The “Gospel of Mark” is an Orphic style theogony rooted in Jewish scriptures. The literary blending of Jewish scriptures with Orphic and other pagan works had been going on for 3 centuries by this time, and I trace the development of these genres from earlier Jewish works and apocalyptic writings, showing the tropes that Mark uses from these other genres.

        1. It struck me doing catechism in Confirmation classes that Catholicism was the dessicated husk of a Hellenstic mystery cult. I see G.Mk much as you do, as the expression of a mystery cult. I don’t know whether you think it expresses anything of the inner mysteries of such a cult. I see it as written for outsiders or the outer circles of the cult. That it became a base writing for a very different religious expression seems to speak of the survival only of those who were catechumens, and not of those who were initiates and privy to the inner workings of the original sect, into the time the Gospels were written.

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