. . . 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 . . . ,
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
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 Dieu. http://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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