How Jewish Gospels Became Christian Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

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 Ton 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

NC has some caustic words about the Wikipedia article Thèse Mythiste: there the work of Dubourg is grossly misrepresented being related to occultism, solar mythology, etc. No contrary voices are raised — presumably the work of the anonymous guardians of the article.

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):

  1. The New Testament is a text of the same nature as the Jewish midrash. It is an extension of it.
  2. It operates at two levels of meaning.
  3. It deals with eschatology and hence cannot be used read as a historical account.
  4. All of its mechanisms, tools, are found in Jewish midrash.
  5. 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.
  6. Healings are the true core of the Gospels. The stories of childhood and the Passion are secondary.
  7. These healings are a metaphor for the entry of the pagans into the divine covenant. To heal is always to heal from idolatry.
  8. The theme of the lightening of the law for gentiles is a theme within Judaism elsewhere attested in the Midrash Rabba on Ruth.
  9. The New Testament writers produce their narratives according to set specifications. Their lexicon and rhetoric follow a relatively rigid code.
  10. 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.

Hermeneutic dislocation

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?

Jewish hermeneutic

NC directs anyone still clinging to the notion of eyewitness traditions being the raw material of the gospels to Origen:

[1]. . . “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. . . .

[4] “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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Neil Godfrey

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  • MrHorse
    2020-03-18 10:45:00 GMT+0000 - 10:45 | Permalink

    “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 …”

    Matthew 13:12 -22ff

    12… what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it.

    I think it’s more about not following the word, λόγον, the Logos, regardless of what has befallen them.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2020-03-19 01:55:19 GMT+0000 - 01:55 | Permalink

      This question opens up a vast field I have scarcely had the opportunity to touch on. I look forward to delving into these concepts in Second Temple Judaism in coming months.

  • Peter Grullemans
    2020-03-18 12:23:33 GMT+0000 - 12:23 | Permalink

    I have enjoyed the exerpts so far and Neil’s commentary. It is food for thought to test my hypothesis about why the original gospels were written and by whom. Linking in with Doherty and Carrier gets my attention, with references to fiction and fable. That the gospels are “quite unlike any other genre” may mean either that they were Roman originated propaganda, or, secret teachings to reinvent post temple worship and evade Roman detection. I tend towards the former, but need to be better versed in Roman history before being too sure. Given the disconnect between the first century history and the oldest copies of the gospels, I ask who benefited by destroying the originals ? Were they destroyed by the Romans to hide Roman involvement in their authorship or rather to quash the Christian movement itself ? That’s where I’m up to.
    While I concur that the entire gospels were shaped by OT, they were also shaped by the Homeric epics, as Denis MacDonald so well presents. In that respect, they were certainly very cleverly woven together. Not only do the 40 days of temptation echo 40 years in the wilderness, but the Duteronomy shema theme of loving the Lord with all one’s heart, mind and soul echos in the three types of temptations and in the three bad soils in the parable of sower; and even stretches back to Hebrew ideas in the garden of Eden i.e. lust of the eyes, flesh and pride of life are echos of the fruit being seen as good, to be tasty and to make wise.
    Surely only a genius, a mystic, a master propagandist on a big contract or God himself could have masterminded the gospels. As it was put above, the figure of Jesus was the the personification of the Jewish people.

    • 2020-03-18 14:13:52 GMT+0000 - 14:13 | Permalink

      “Surely only a genius, a mystic, a master propagandist on a big contract or God himself could have masterminded the gospels. As it was put above, the figure of Jesus was the the personification of the Jewish people.”

      I think this is totally true. The Gospel of Mark is a literary masterpiece. As for the rest, those are all imitations that mostly degrade Mark, at least in terms of symbolism and meaning. The other writers produced better prose, but that’s because they were all writing at a superficial level, whereas Mark is writing at multiple levels.

      But the literary mastery of Mark belies the notion that Mark is some kind of historical account or field notes of someone who was just recording oral anecdotes. And not only does Mark contain all of this symbolism, its written in chaisims on top of it. And not just any chaisims, but chaisims within super-chaisims, and its the whole story, not just a few little scenes here and there. The one thing I haven’t seen in Mark is acrostics. I actually suspect there may be some acrostics in Mark, which I think would be typical of this type of literature.

      And this is something that could confirm whether Mark was originally produced in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Because the acrostics would only work in the original language. But, since I don’t know any of these languages, nor do I know the original form of the writing, I can’t really do anything to help search for acrostics. But I suspect they are there. Maybe not, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Mark originally contained some acrostics.

      • Bob Jase
        2020-03-18 14:50:11 GMT+0000 - 14:50 | Permalink

        z”The Gospel of Mark is a literary masterpiece. ”

        I hear a lot of comments like this but I think that it is the cultural weight that makes it seem a masterpiece. If it were about some Joe whom a religion wasn’t named after it would just be another ancient curiosity like the Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers.

        Don’t let the poetic pompous translations fool you.

      • 2020-03-19 16:46:24 GMT+0000 - 16:46 | Permalink

        I heartily concur with the above comments made by these bloggers re Jesus representing “all of Israel” (a common word in the OT and NT). I came into the folds of Jesus mythicism through the works of William B. Smith ..regarding the issue of the personifications of the son(s)of God motif….and Jesus fulfills in his person and mission “the ideal type”(an incredible composite) of what it means to be a son of God….

        I would recommend his works highly and I think he is not given much attention, unfortuanately. I have gathered together most of his published stuff and I consider his works The Birth of the Gospel and his Ecce Deus to be his best pieces,,not to mention all of the incredible articles he once wrote for the journal The Monist a long time ago. I found him so clear and perhaps the only one from that era that shed incredible light on the Biblical texts. A good place to begin would be his The Birth of the Gospel. What an eye-opener!! I have read it at least a half a dozen times and get more and more out of it. That is the way it should be with great books concerning these issues. If you are lucky you can find his works online.

        Thanks Neil for these studies….believe it or not …I am using the same methods and issues you are discussing to also paint a new picture of the “satan/devil” figure in the OT and NT. My research is leading me in some very fascinating directions and conclusions.

        In any case thanks for this particular series…super helpful!!

    • Neil Godfrey
      2020-03-19 01:53:16 GMT+0000 - 01:53 | Permalink

      While I concur that the entire gospels were shaped by OT, they were also shaped by the Homeric epics, as Denis MacDonald so well presents. In that respect, they were certainly very cleverly woven together.

      Yes indeed. Yet we can focus this point further by noting that the Greek literature and its genres, motifs, etc were brought the service of promoting the superiority of “Jewish” ways or the superiority of Jewish Scripture narratives and beliefs. The online (open access) Gruen chapter linked in the main post demonstrates this point.

  • 2020-03-18 13:12:46 GMT+0000 - 13:12 | Permalink

    I agree with a lot of this. However, I think there is an element of Orphic style mystery religion as well. I address this in my upcoming book, which dives into the activities of evangelical Judaism in the centuries leading up to the rise of Christianity, in which numerous Jewish/Gentile crossover writings were produced, and Jews were heavily engaged in an effort to convince Gentiles that Judaism was the one true religion, which had preceded Greek and Roman religion. This involved the arguments put forward by Philo and many others that the Jewish scriptures predated the great works from Greek literature and that Greek culture was derivative of Jewish culture, etc. I see Paul’s ministry in the context of those efforts and Paul’s use of mystery religion practices and themes in his outreach. The writer of Mark is a companion of Paul’s who was a co-founder of Paul’s mystery religion. His name could actually have been Mark, as Mark was a known companion of Paul, or it could have been Barnabas or Timothy, or some unknown companion. But this was all a part of the greater project of evangelical Judaism that produced pseudo-Orphic theogonies, pseudo-Sibylline prophecies, and a number of works of revisionist history that put Jews at the root of all civilization. All of these other works, of which there are hundreds, contain these types of Jewish/Gentile crossover elements, many of which we see directly in the Gospel of Mark.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2020-03-19 01:50:32 GMT+0000 - 01:50 | Permalink

      We’ll have to start charging for advertising space. 🙂

      • 2020-03-19 14:09:19 GMT+0000 - 14:09 | Permalink

        I’m just saying that I agree with this because a lot of the research I’ve been doing leads in this same direction, but also in some broader directions as well.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2020-03-19 22:16:51 GMT+0000 - 22:16 | Permalink

          If by the “same direction” you mean the gospels are not based on a historical person that’s one thing, but I don’t see that as the point of these posts. For me, the nonexistence of Jesus is a nonstarter. The evidence a historian would normally require is simply not there to begin with. (Even some biblical scholars who otherwise believe in a historical Jesus accept that the gospels have little to do with any historical figure.) The real question is to explore the origins of Christianity, including our gospels of course — and there we have very different, even incompatible, hypotheses.

        • Dave Mack
          2020-03-20 05:40:47 GMT+0000 - 05:40 | Permalink

          I enjoy reading your comments, R.G.

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