This post follows on from A Midrashic Hypothesis for the Gospels . We are going through Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier by Nanine Charbonnel. All posts so far are archived at Charbonnel: Jesus Christ sublime figure de papier.
Nanine Charbonnel [NC] at this point begins to study how the fictive figure of Jesus in the gospels was created. A footnote refers any readers who trust “historical testimony” as establishing the historicity of Jesus to read either pages 37-55 of the third edition (1967) of Guy Fau’s La Fable de Jésus-Christ or Nicolas Bourgeois’ Une invention nommée Jésus (2008). Comparable works in English would be G. A. Wells’ Did Jesus Exist?, Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle or Jesus Neither God Nor Man and Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus for their discussions of Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius and others.
NC’s thesis is that the gospels are a type of literature quite unlike anything else most of us have experienced. Old Testament passages are recycled in a way that presents them as predictors of the person and life of Jesus. The proof of this creative process is that every act, attitude, sentiment attributed to Jesus is found in the Jewish Scriptures, that these Scriptures were the raw material from which the authors worked. NC includes forty-four pages of two columns listing Gospel references and their proposed OT sources.
Compare David Strauss’s account of how the evangelists stitched together the scene of Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wilderness. It is evident that the gospel scene is a reworking of Moses’ and Elijah’s forty-day fasts and Israel’s testing for 40 years in the wilderness. NC differs from Strauss’s analysis by suggesting that not only a few scenes but the entire contents of the gospels are shaped from the OT material.
Quant aux doctrines, il faut bien différencier, quand on parle du ‘’christianisme”, ce qui est lisible dans les textes du Nouveau Testament, de la construction théologique qui leur est peut-être concomitante, mais dont on n’a des échos qu’à partir de 150, avec Justin de Naplouse. Tout ce qui est affirmé dans les Évangiles est lié à des problématiques du judaïsme, que l’on connaît par des traditions mises par écrit également à partir du II siècle2; même si l’élaboration doctrinale chrétienne, elle, va se faire par définition dans ce que nous appelons un *Régime sémantique différent : la prise-au- propre de ce qui devait être pris comme invention textuelle.
2 Dans la *Mishna, partie du Talmud. (p. 134)
As for the doctrines — I cannot be sure I fully grasp the complete sense of the paragraph in the side box. Perhaps a kind reader who has a better grasp of French than I do can help us out here.
As for the dates of the text — we cannot be sure. Many interpreters look for certain crises in the first century to see if they are referenced in the gospels. Example, Pierre Bonnard in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (13:21) believes that the persecutions “because of the word” that Jesus speaks of are in fact Domitian’s persecutions of Christians. However, the gospel could be just as easily have in mind the harsh treatment of the Jews by the Romans. The evangelists are writing about “end times” and the generalized language they use can be applied to many situations — and they have been applied to subsequent events for millennia. What we are reading is not a new message by a Christian Christ figure but rather we have a person named “Yahweh Who Saves” delivering the teaching of Yahweh. Rather than seeing debates that were part of the multi-faceted Judaism of the time, including attempts to make sense of the calamity of 70 CE.
The kind of “midrashic” writing being examined here has been long known among Christian commentators and scholars, in particular among Catholics and French research. But the conclusions drawn are usually limited to the notion that OT references are little more than colouring of historical events.
Très frappant est le fait que l’existence des midrashim est connue depuis quarante ans chez les commentateurs chrétiens (plus exactement : catholiques, car on est étonné de la qualité de l’équipement intellectuel des (quelques) spécialistes protestants, professeurs d’université allemands, dès la fin du xviiie siècle), mais qu’ils y voient une influence superficielle permettant de saisir de simples mises en forme de la réalité historique. Parfois cependant (nous écrivons ceci en 2016), c’est dans la recherche francophone, au sein même de milieux catholiques, que se lisent les recherches les plus fécondes. (p. 135. I would rather another offer a more exact translation this passage than I think I would be able to provide.)
NC speaks of a “glass ceiling” that seems to prevent scholars from seeing that a passage rich in OT intertextuality is actually created entirely from the author’s imagination working on those OT passages. (Again, she reminds readers that she is not attacking the church or Christianity, that she sees herself as culturally Christian, and is only interested in uncovering the truth of where the evidence leads.
The Midrashic Hypothesis of Bernard Dubourg and Maurice Mergui
Bernard Dubourg (1945-1992) paved the way with his pioneering work exploring the depth of the role of gematria in L’invention de Jésus, volume 1 titled L’Hébreu du Nouveau Testament, and volume 2, La fabrication du Nouveau Testament [Links are to the full text available at archive.org]. His work has been taken up and developed by the Hebrew scholar Maurice Mergui, though Mergui has apparently preferred to move away from placing so much emphasis on gematria. [Mergui’s webpage: Le Champ du Midrash]. Mergui’s ten principles for interpreting the New Testament (translation is Google’s with my refinements):
- The New Testament is a text of the same nature as the Jewish midrash. It is an extension of it.
- It operates at two levels of meaning.
- It deals with eschatology and hence cannot be used read as a historical account.
- All of its mechanisms, tools, are found in Jewish midrash.
- The many pericopes (narrative units) that make up the Gospels can be reduced to a very small number of generic pericopes. These stem pericopes deal with the entry of pagans into the Sinai covenant and the alleviation of the Law.
- Healings are the true core of the Gospels. The stories of childhood and the Passion are secondary.
- These healings are a metaphor for the entry of the pagans into the divine covenant. To heal is always to heal from idolatry.
- The theme of the lightening of the law for gentiles is a theme within Judaism elsewhere attested in the Midrash Rabba on Ruth.
- The New Testament writers produce their narratives according to set specifications. Their lexicon and rhetoric follow a relatively rigid code.
- Christianity was built on texts with a double meaning. As a result of passing through three major translations, and the loss of the Midrashic reading key, the current reader has no way of returning to the original meaning. We have been condemned to a naive and historicizing reading of the New Testament.
NC parts with Mergui on the central role of the healings and sees the Passion as more fundamental to the structure and narrative of the gospels, and especially if interpreted with the 70 CE destruction of the Jewish people and Temple in mind. This event would be a significant addition to the tools and themes of midrash addressed by Mergui. Building on Mergui NC summarizes her own perspective:
- The Gospels are entirely a work of fiction. There is no difference between the parables told by the character, whose purely symbolic meaning is well understood, and the narration of the character’s “life”. Both are cut from the same cloth.
- They are midrash to “describe” the end times. Certainly they are not apocalypses (in the sense of the literary genre developed at the same time), but they are entirely immersed in eschatology. All that is described is supposed to show that the end of time has arrived: this is the major code of history, and it is this which explains all the “exaggerations”, transgressions, excesses of all kinds in the gospels.
- The midrash is describing the ultimate in extraordinary events: the fact that the pagans convert before the Jews;
- The message being advanced is the “lightening of the yoke the law”. This should be read in the context of Jewish debates at the time — note the school of Hillel which accepted the lightening of the law’s demands (of the 613 commandments to be practised) and its more legalistic rival led by Shammai.
Of course, such a discussion is impossible with those who refuse to admit the possibility that there was no historical Jesus. So be it. Our interest is in examining this midrashic hypothesis.
If this hypothesis is correct, the next significant question to ask is not when the gospels were written but when this understanding of the gospels was lost.
NC suggests around 80 CE for the beginning of the Synoptic gospels, in the fallout from the catastrophe of 70 and attempting to cope with new messianic ideas and what Yahweh intended for his people. Could the Jewish people be reborn after that event? If so, how? Could they return from the dead?
A close reading of the pseudepigrapha of the Second Temple era is critical. The period is rich in homilies, parables and apocalypses (i.e. revelations of the end times), fantastic journeys and novels — all texts created by rewriting the Jewish Scriptures. It is all “midrash” in the sense that these works paraphrase, transpose and comment on the biblical texts. Characters are invented, visions are depicted, life-stories are narrated. Authority was bestowed on certain texts by having them appear to be written by biblical figures like Moses, Enoch and others.
It was a time of literary creativity and the production of the gospels should be seen in this context. The critical moment was the divide between Jews who understood the dual (literal and figurative) meanings of the texts and those Christians who interpreted them only one way.
Hellenism: the possible contribution of Greek text and thought and its influence on subsequent theology
Recent studies have pointed to a very late partition between Judaism and Christianity. NC points to Daniel Boyarin’s Border Lines and fortuitously I have a few posts on that work: Boyarin: Border Lines. (Another reference: On peut lire aussi un résumé de cette problématique de la “séparation des chemins” (parting of the ways) dans André Paul, Autrement la Bible. Mythe, politique et société, Paris : Bayard, 2013, pp. 180-196.)
Christians may not exist as such before the use of our Judeo-Greek midrashic texts (i.e. our Gospels) by Greek pagan intellectuals, such as Justin of Neapolis (Nablus), circa 150. So non-Jewish Greek speakers (Justin, then Irenaeus, Origen) begin to take the content of the texts as describing the real existence of a God-man (and not of a man-god), and soon, the theology of the Incarnation was created in the third century, but on the basis of Jewish concepts.
2. Voir la contribution d’Érich S. Gruen, « 3. Judaïsme hellénistique », in Les cultures des Juifs, Éditions de l’Éclat, 2005, pp. 99-147.
The English version of this chapter is available online (open access and downloadable) as chapter 2, Hellenistic Judaism, (pp. 21-76) in Erich Gruen’s The Construct of Identity in Hellenistic Judaism.
Because we must always remember the intensity, from the first century BC, of the interweaving (with all the confusions, misunderstandings, puns intended and unwanted) of Jewish culture and Greek culture. The same cities housed Stoic academies and synagogues, theaters and beth-midrash, temples in Zeus and places of Jewish prayer2. These are the same men who read Hebrew and Greek. This changes our views on the Judaism of the time:
One may wonder […] whether it is right to make a sharp distinction between Judeo-Christians and Christians . . . , since archeology highlights the influences of Athens on Jerusalem every day. […] It suffices […] to refer to rabbinical literature and to the example of R. Gamaliel de Javne [late 1st century] who taught Greek in his yeshiba. […] The rabbis and meturgeman [interpreters] in the synagogues developed l’aggadah precisely to supplement the Greco-Roman culture and to give their audience the equivalent of what they could have found in a Roman theater. And it is not uncommon to see the rabbis take up a fable by Aesop or an idea of Homer by comparing it to a verse from Scripture. Greek culture thus remained the servant of Jewish theology.1
1 Frédéric Manns, o.f.m., Le judéo-christianisme, mémoire ou prophétie ?, Paris : Beauchesne, 2000, pp. 139-140.
[Google translated from NC, pp. 142 f)
There are many Greco-Roman influences on Jewish and biblical literature and Jewish story-telling regularly follows literary models of creating vivid visual images. Others have noted the influence of the Odyssey on the story of Paul’s sea voyage in Acts and the supremely confident Christ in the storm. Bruno Delorme sees parallels between the gospels and Greek biographies. NC interestingly sees the influence of Plato on the transfiguration of Jesus: just as Jesus is found alone with Elijah and Moses, so in the Symposium Socrates is left awake and conversing with the tragic and comic poets, Agathon and Aristophanes, either side of him, the scene ending ironically with Agathon and Aristophanes finally falling asleep just as we see Elijah and Moses disappearing from the side of Jesus. Yet the content itself of the NT texts can be almost entirely explained as a deliberate rewriting of passages from the OT.
For NC the big question is how the shift in reading of the gospels happened. It is that shift in understanding that can be said to be the beginning of what we think of as Christianity. Did the shift occur among those who read Hebrew or those who read Greek, or those who read it all, including Aramaic and Latin (was that Latin titulus above the cross of Jesus an editorial wink?), and who perhaps read it badly?
NC directs anyone still clinging to the notion of eyewitness traditions being the raw material of the gospels to Origen:
. . . “many have tried” to write gospels, but not all have found acceptance. You should know that not only four Gospels, but very many, were
composed. The Gospels we have were chosen from among these gospels and passed on to the churches. We can know this from Luke’s own prologue, which begins this way: ”Because many have tried to compose an account.” The words “have tried” imply an accusation against those who rushed into writing gospels without the grace of the Holy Spirit. Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke did not “try” to write; they wrote their Gospels when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. . . .
 “Just as those who from the beginning saw and were ministers of the Word handed it down to us.” Scripture says, in Exodus, “The people saw the voice of the Lord.” . . . In the Gospel, however, it is not a voice that is seen but a word, which is more excellent than a voice. . . . The apostles themselves saw the Word, not because they had beheld the body of our Lord and Savior, but because they had seen the Word. If seeing Jesus’ body meant seeing God’s Word, then Pilate, who condemned Jesus, saw God’s Word; so did Judas the traitor and all those who cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him, remove such a one from the earth.” But far be it that any unbeliever should see God’s Word. Seeing God’s Word means what the Savior says: “He who has seen me has also seen the Father who sent me.”
Origen, Homilies on Luke, I, 1 and 4
NC: The apostles contemplated the Word, not because they saw the body of the Saviour, but because they had seen the Word.
The remainder of NC’s book promises to attempt to “untie the hermeneutic knot” that has led to so much confusion over the concepts of scriptural fulfillment, incarnation, salvation, the Passion. Her argument will be that the fulfillment of the promises of Yahweh occurs not in reality but in textuality; that the incarnation emerged from the personification of the Jewish people in the figure of Jesus and a personification of Yahweh in a body; that salvation occurs in the mere fact of “doing” or “working”, the Name of Yahweh, just as in the Torah (cf James 1:22 — become doers of the word and not hearers only); and that the Passion and death of Jesus are the story of the suffering and death of the Jewish nation followed by the promised reversal of the resurrection.
Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International.
Mergui, Maurice. 2005. Un Étranger Sur Le Toit: Les Sources Misdrashiques Des Evangiles. Paris: Editions Nouveaux Savoirs.
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