We discuss here the second of three parts of the chapter about "scriptural fulfillments" in Nanine Charbonnel's Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . .
. . .
The Jewish Scriptures spoke of times that were supposed to be fulfilled in coming days and in the text of the New Testament we read of those events having been fulfilled.
What is going on here? Nanine Charbonnel (NC) picks up from her earlier discussion of “midrash” and other specifically Hebrew techniques [the links below take you to posts where that earlier discussion was presented here] and begins to show how they apply to the creation of Jesus in the gospels.
- Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 2a. The Sacred and Creative Power of the Hebrew Text
- Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 2b. A God Bound to the Mechanics of Language
- Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3a. Representing a Collective in a Single Individual
- Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3b. Creative Intertextuality
- Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3c. … Word Play Undermining Historicity
- Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3d … Metaphors of Exodus and Lion Dens Become History
- Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3e … A Different Kind of Literary Heritage
The word of God has the power to create its own fulfilment
Readers of the Jewish Scriptures were confronted with passages such as Isaiah 55:11
. . . my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
There is a point of Hebrew grammar here that needs some explanation because it is quite unlike anything in English.
Our verbs have tenses, most simply, past, present and future. Hebrew verbs don’t, well not quite. Instead, they express either completed and incomplete actions, perfect and imperfect. The perfect form or completed action can be translated as the past tense: e.g. I said, I have said, etc.; the imperfect or incomplete action can be translated as either the present or future tense: e.g. I shall say, I am saying, etc.
But there’s a catch. The little consonant, waw = ו (meaning “and”), just to make it interesting, can be added to either of these Hebrew “tenses” and reverse them! So a ו added to a perfect verb (I said) turns it into a present or future tense; and a ו added to an imperfect (future tense) turns it into a past or perfect tense.
Such is my no doubt very simplistic and overly simplistic explanation of the little I have read about Hebrew and what I gleaned from NC’s discussion of that particular point.
The point is that Hebrew expressions can be ambivalent about when, or the time, they are supposed to refer to. Many of us are aware, for example, of how a passage translated in the past tense in the Bible is understood by the reader to refer to a future event.
I better stop here before I get myself in over my head. It’s a long time since I’ve attempted to learn any basic Hebrew. But I am reasonably confident that the above is more or less how Hebrew works and what NC is addressing.
And Jeremiah 1:12
Then the Lord said to me, “You have seen well, for I am ready to perform My word.”
Then Jeremiah 33:
14 ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘that I will perform that good thing which I have promised to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah:
15 ‘In those days and at that time
I will cause to grow up to David
A Branch of righteousness;
He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.
16 In those days Judah will be saved,
And Jerusalem will dwell safely.
And this is the name by which she will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.’
That “I will perform” is an instance of that waw at work: וַהֲקִֽמֹתִי֙ — so the past or perfect tense (have performed) is transformed into a present or future tense (will perform).
The Church Fathers were aware of this linguistic aspect of the Hebrew. Irenaeus explains it in his Discourse in Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, para 67:
At this point let us speak of His healings. Isaiah says thus:
He took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses: (Isa. liii. 4)
that is to say, He shall take, and shall bear. For there are passages in which the Spirit of God through the prophets recounts things that are to be as having taken place. For that which with God is essayed and conceived of as determined to take place, is reckoned as having already taken place: and the Spirit, regarding and seeing the time in which the issues of the prophecy are fulfilled, utters the words (accordingly).
NC stresses the importance of “the intensity of eschatological anticipation” in Israel from the time of their Babylonian exile and especially through to the time of Daniel and no doubt at the time of the Roman conquest and plundering of the Jerusalem temple in 63 BCE. The great sociologist Max Weber’s testimony is brought in to emphasize the point.
Peculiar for the Israelite expectation is the increasing intensity with which paradise, or the savior prince, were projected into the future: the first out of the past, the last out of the present. This did not happen in Israel alone, but this expectancy has never become central to religious faith with such obviously ever-increasing momentum. Yahwe’s old berith with Israel, his promise in conjunction with the criticism of the miserable present made this possible. But only the momentum of prophecy made Israel to this unique degree a people of “hope” and “tarrying” (Gen. 49: 18).
This messianic hope in the life of Israel was “messianic”. An ideal figure, an “anointed” one, was “typically Jewish”, we might say. What made the Messiah or Christ figure of Christianity so different was that this figure was to be preached to the entire world, to all nations; he transcended “the Jewish people”. Jesus will be the “anointed” (=”messiah”, “christ”) for all of humanity, not just the Jews. This is the message of “Third Isaiah” — Isaiah 56-66.
For the sake of a refresher here are some passages from those chapters (though not quoted by NC here):
56:6 “Also the sons of the foreigner
Who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him,
And to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants—
. . . .
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
8 The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says,
“Yet I will gather to him
Others besides those who are gathered to him.”
60: 3 The Gentiles shall come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your rising.
4 “Lift up your eyes all around, and see:
They all gather together, they come to you;
. . . .
5 Then you shall see and become radiant,
And your heart shall swell with joy;
Because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
The wealth of the Gentiles shall come to you.
66:23 All flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the Lord.
The details are vague and that fact, NC suggests, surely contributed to the success of their appeal: creative imagination was allowed abundant room for maneuver, especially with respect to the “oral Torah” of the Second Temple era. NC proposes three levels of meaning in reading and interpreting scriptures: the literal or basic meaning; the moral lesson one could infer from that passage and apply in one’s life; and finally the actual “prophetic” accomplishment or fulfilment of what that passage signified for the future.
One example is given from the Mishna where there is an account of a discussion with Rabbi Akiba. Deuteronomy 6:5 says
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
I translate NC’s comment on this passage:
And as if by chance, the examples that can be found in the Mishnah (concerning “events” of the end of the first century, in this case the life of Rabbi Aqiba) are these: the exegesis he made of a verse from Deuteronomy (6, 5: “with all your soul”, which he interpreted as “even if he takes your soul”, and on which he wondered “When will I reach the fulfillment? ”[‘aquayye-mennu]); then he finds the fulfillment in martyrdom (he gives his life out of love for God, . . . ) . . . .
The Rabbi Akiba was “martyred” in the Bar Kochba rebellion.
NC does not make it explicit here with this particular example (but I am not an expert in French) yet I think we can see the way even a straight biblical command to love God can be interpreted in a way to speak of a past historic event.
Fulfilled by the redactors
Fulfilment in the world of the text — Midrash
NC discusses different kinds of midrash.
- We have midrash halakha (midrash on the many – 613 – laws in the holy texts)
- and midrash ‘aggadah (midrash stories of folklore, anecdotes, all sorts of “edifying” tales)
NC follows the last point with a mention of Josephus who creates quite imaginative scenarios involving Abraham and Jacob, imputing to each of them detailed dialogue that has no place in our biblical narratives.
NC follows that point with the claim that midrash follows rules that are quite astonishing to us, inventing textual narrative as much as adding commentary to the scripture.
- and “midrash” pesher (the sort of midrash we see often in the Qumran texts).
The pesher type is this: after each verse we find an explanation of the prophet’s text applied to the Qumran community or “present-day” of the reader. These commentaries tell us that the readers believed the Scriptures were writing about the readers’ own times, the “end times”.
Everything is meant to refer to the present time. Everything about the Scriptures was believed to relate to the time of the readers. The times of the reader are assumed to be the “last days”, the “end times”, to which the Scriptures supposedly refer. The literal sense of the words is taken to be only the beginning of fully understanding them.
An example is found in the Habakkuk commentary among the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Then the Lord answered me ‘[and said, Write down the vision plainly] on tablets, so that with ease [someone can read it” [Habakkuk 2:2]
This refers to . . .] … ‘then God told Habakkuk to write down what is going to happen to the generation to come; but when that period would be complete He did not make known to him. When it says, “so that with ease someone can read it,” this refers to the Teacher of Righteousness to whom God made known all the mysterious revelations of his servants the prophets.
[The Teacher of Righteousness is thought by some to have been a historical figure but by others to have been a fictive figure.]
Scripture was read as if it spoke of the future and with the belief that that future was the time of the readers. Prophets were apparently prolific (see Genot-Bismuth) and are thought to have announced the same message. As Scriptures were read they were applied to the contemporary world of the readers. In this context, Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is acknowledged by scholars to have been depicted as the “fulfilment of David and Abraham” promises and therefore the “end of history” — but they continue to assume that that Jesus figure is historical. We will see good reasons to think of him as a literary personification of a new Israel that a new generation of readers were grasping to comprehend in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Midrash as interpretation of fulfilment
There are two types of midrashic activity that are central to NC’s argument:
- 1 – Narrative creativity
Biblical accounts are supplemented with additional details: unnamed figures are given names and background (and anachronistic) details, elaborates events with analogies, resolves contradictions in the original account. NC cites a Maurice Mergui (MM) to make the point. I copy the relevant passage from an English (modified machine) translation of MM’s webpage article:
The Bible does not contain any “prophetic announcement” properly speaking. Indeed, such an announcement supposes an assignable moment for its realization. Otherwise anyone can always “announce” an accident, or a war, or a birth, that does not involve anything if this person does not designate a precise moment. The Bible speaks of mysterious things that will have to happen at the end of time, that is to say in a nonexistent time, an unassignable moment, a time out of time. It always remains in the incomplete.
Take a passage from the Bible. For example, this one: and the bravest of the brave will flee naked, on that day, the oracle of Yahweh (Amos 2:16) If you want to “accomplish” this biblical passage on In the Christian mode, you will have to produce a second text which narratively accomplishes this first text and to make it read when accomplished and end up giving the illusion of being a historical event. For example: you will have to write: A young man was following him, wearing only a sheet, and we grabbed him; but he, dropping the sheet, fled naked (Mark 14.5-52)
At that moment only, the biblical passage that you want to “fulfill” can be read as the announcement of your text. You have created an announced prophecy. Amos miraculously announces Mark. And you also created history. Because the pre-announcement will further strengthen the credibility of your text, which was initially based only on the illusion inherent in any story. It is the performative power of the narrative which transforms the words: “once upon a time, a family …” — you believe a priori in the existence of this family. We always give credit to a story, “subject to reservation”. Subject to further verification; of verifying expected notions. So there was a family who had to go into exile because of the famine …. Why would the listener not believe in this beginning of a story? And so on, until the end of the story. This is how everyone believes a priori in the historicity of Ruth, Rahab, Tamar or Esther.
- 2 – Jewish liturgy
NC notes that this aspect of Jewish midrash is too often set aside in our efforts to make sense of it. The preaching in the synagogue was the very reason for the midrashic exercise. Midrash was meant to serve as a teaching tool in weekly sabbath-synagogue services. (NC cites Father Charles Perrot as a major source for advancing our understanding of this process and practice in synagogue worship.) The process is depicted so ironically in Luke 4:16-21:
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Confusion between fulfilment in text and fulfilment in real-time
Christianity has confused the fulfilment in the text with fulfilment in real history. Narrative draws us into a kind of belief or “make-believe” that can become real without any boundaries to tie us down. Further, a tale that speaks of the messiah having already come is one that is people will want to believe. It is not surprising that stories that speak of promises being fulfilled lead some people to believe that they have happened in history. This is the point at which Jewish midrash became “Christian midrash”.
NC’s hypothesis is thus:
- that Jewish midrash addresses the end times, the times of fulfilment, are the times about the arrival of the messiah who comes to bring in the gentiles, the whole world, to be at one with the Jews;
- and that Christianity was “invented” by interpreting this “Jewish midrash” as historical reality.
Midrash works from word-games (alliteration, dissonance, allusion, gematria, ….) Not understanding this can easily lead to reading a midrashic story as a literal (non-figurative) narrative. The Gospels are not fictional narratives like the Odyssey. They do not correspond in any way to what we normally think of as “literature”. Rather, they are a fiction constructed entirely by certain rules of interpretation of existing texts, and intimate knowledge of those earlier texts.
The central figure of the gospels has been constructed out of all the experiences of the OT Israel: the sojourn in Egypt, the crossing of the Jordan, the baptism and purification in the desert. . . .
The grand illusion
In midrashic style interpretations every detail is treated as having a special meaning. The gospels, moreover, are chock-full of details (all symbolic). And many of them have erroneously been taken as proofs of historicity. Take the healing of the paralyzed man in the Gospel of John, for example.
Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. (John 5:2)
Archaeology has demonstrated that such a place did exist. Those details are exact. This sort of confirmation increases many readers’ confidence in the narrative. Credibility is enhanced.
But here’s the problem. This sort of detail is not what we find in other works that really are historical accounts in the ancient Greco-Roman world. As NC quotes (and I quote below) from another scholar who fails to discern the illusion at work, most places mentioned in the historical writing of Julius Caesar, for example, cannot be so precisely located. The same for Lucan’s historical epic (Pharsalia) about the Civil War involving Julius Caesar. Ditto for Tacitus and the biographies of Suetonius. Or even in novels from the period of the NT writings, Petronius’s Satyricon or Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe: one searches in vain, in the majority of cases, for anything comparable in the depicting such precise topographical detail.
So when we read,
Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.
the depth of detail and the authorial intrusion to suggest the narrator is speaking from the very site itself assaults our senses and we are taken vicariously back into the time and place of the story and into the “actual reality” of it all. We easily believe we are reading a story that came directly from the time before the destruction of Jerusalem. We easily read the narrative as historical recollection.
We too easily fail to notice that the sort of detail given here is not relevant to a naive reading of the text and is not typical of the what we find in narratives — either historical or fictional — in contemporary Greco-Roman writings.
NC points to a perfect illustration of how this illusion takes hold of a reader by quoting a section of Carsten Peter Thiede’s article, Tradition littéraire et archéologie.
In other words, while the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is not proven by the topography and archaeological research in Jerusalem, as a precise sequence of an early event, the historian and the archaeologist are in a state of note that the information contained in the Gospels, and even in an epistle – that which is addressed to the Hebrews – corresponds to observations, discoveries and archaeological reconstructions. Consequently, the accounts and the details of these texts underline the credibility of the authors. This is all the more remarkable since other contemporary texts of Greco-Roman antiquity, which tell stories about one or the other hero, hardly provide localizable details. Most of the places mentioned in the writings of Julius Caesar, for example, cannot be found, and in the stories of a Lucan – “Pharsalia” and the “Civil War” – or of a Tacitus, in the biographies of a Suetonius or in novels contemporary with the New Testament like that of Petronius – the “Satiricon” – or Chariton – “Chaereas and Callirhoe” -, in the majority of cases, we search in vain for precise details on the topography.
In comparison, the texts of the New Testament, on the one hand, follow this way of writing and, on the other hand, insist on the verifiable nature of the places. Luc and Jean are the two most assiduous authors in this genre. Before returning to the question of the Emmaus site, I would like to quote the Gospel of John (5: 2): the healing of a paralyzed man in Jerusalem:
“After that and on the occasion of a Jewish holiday, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. However, there is in Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate, a swimming pool which is called in Hebrew Bethzata (= Bethesda). It has five porticos under which lay a crowd of the sick, blind, lame, helpless. There was a man there crippled for thirty-eight years. “
Let us note the times used here: John relates the actions of Jesus and the daily life of the sick in the past, but he describes the place in the present. And he describes it with all the topographic and architectural details. He tells us that when he was writing his story, we could visit and recognize the places of this healing. Archaeologists have confirmed the accuracy of John’s words and have established that this part of the pool was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Jean, who specifies that the place still exists, had therefore written his text before 70.
NC points out the flaw in the argument. To use my own analogy, it’s no different from arguing that Walter Scott himself lived in the twelfth century because he wrote about Ivanhoe who is depicted as living in the twelfth century.
The next section of the chapter delves more deeply into how the Gospels work.
Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs.
Mergui, Maurice n.d. “Paradoxe de l’accomplissement.” Le Champ Du Midrash. Accessed March 23, 2020b. https://www.lechampdumidrash.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=111:accomplissement&catid=98:midrash-et-histoire&Itemid=517.
Thiede, Carsten Peter. 2003. “Tradition littéraire et archéologie : à la recherche du miracle d’Emmaüs.” La Revue réformée, no. 224 (September). http://larevuereformee.net/articlerr/n224/tradition-litteraire-et-archeologie-a-la-recherche-du-miracle-demmaus.
Weber, Max. 1967. Ancient Judaism. Translated by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. London: Free Press.
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