2020-04-06

To Ask if Bible Events Actually Happened Guarantees the Bible Will Be Misunderstood

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing with my discussion of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . .

An earlier post in this series, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3b. Creative Intertextuality, briefly touched on the ways stories in the Pentateuch came to be rewritten so that one mirrored another: e.g. Abraham and Sarah’s experience in Egypt and being expelled under duress pairs with the subsequent Exodus narrative. Deuteronomy itself is a rewriting of the earlier books of the Pentateuch. We read stories as “fulfillments” of other stories; scenario types are written as a kind of commentary on other stories, or as indicative of a deeper meaning of other stories. We see narrative “typology” within the works of the Hebrew Bible so when we find the New Testament narratives similarly drawing events and persons of the Jewish Scriptures we must understand that we are witnessing a continuation of a literary practice that was centuries old. And just as Deuteronomy was a certain kind of rewriting of the previous books so the Acts of the Apostles may have a similar function with respect to the preceding canonical gospels.

But Charbonnel goes further yet. The Incarnation itself was a literary product of the way the Hebrew language conceptualizes temporality.

At this point, I have to confess I am still grappling to acquire a fluent understanding of Charbonnel’s discussion. It involves Hebrew grammar, changes in Hebrew grammar during the Roman era and its relationship with Greek. The best I can do for now is to give some idea of the conclusion and a few details of Charbonnel’s argument but only so readers can see it “through a glass darkly”.

When reading this section of Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier I was reminded of my first lecture in French 101 at university. “If there is one lesson I want you to take away from this course, it is to understand that other people think differently” — those were the first words of the professor in that classroom and I can hear his voice still. The same lesson certainly applies to biblical Hebrew and time.

The general idea being argued is that stories (a kind of midrash) were written as if taking place in the past yet in the minds of the original storytellers and audiences they were “outside time”, “ever-present” — both future and also past but always present. (Compare the brief discussion of Hebrew “tenses” in the previous post.)

In the OT Prophetic writings the expression for “in those days” was essentially a pointer to messianic time and not a literal historical (or specific future historical time) marker. When the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke begins “in those days” it is a signal that we are reading of the messianic time spoken of in the prophets. It is not, despite our natural English translation reading and context, primarily pointing to the historical time of Augustus and Herod. To help us see what is going on here, compare the Protoevangium of James. We read there an elaboration of the nativity scenes in Matthew and Luke. The elaboration of those canonical stories fills in gaps and ties up loose ends that are left with us from the bare canonical accounts. Those “fillers” are taken from other narratives in the Jewish Scriptures, especially 1 Samuel. We read about the birth of Mary in circumstances that recall the births of Samuel and Isaac. Then we read of the childhood of Mary and her giving birth to Jesus in scenes that involve midwives and Salome and a new setting, a cave. We are reading a retelling of the canonical narratives with ideas from both the Scriptures and other interpretations presumably discussed among the author’s contemporaries. The new story is not historical. It is an interpretation constructed from attempts to answer questions about the canonical stories by weaving in new ideas from Scriptures and elsewhere. The story is about “the coming of Christ”.

I am reminded of the argument of Thomas L. Thompson about the way the stories of the Hebrew Bible were written. He is discussing what we classify as the “historical” books of the Bible.

When we ask whether the events of biblical narrative have actually happened, we raise a question that can hardly be satisfactorily answered. The question itself guarantees that the Bible will be misunderstood. One of the central contrasts that divide the understanding of the past that we find implied in biblical texts from a modern understanding of history lies in the way we think about reality.

. . . 

Chronology in this kind of history is not used as a measure of change. It links events and persons, makes associations, establishes continuity. It expresses an unbroken chain from the past to the present. This is not a linear as much as it is a coherent sense of time. It functions so as to identify and legitimize what is otherwise ephemeral and transient. Time marks a reiteration of reality through its many forms. Nor is ancient chronology based on a sense of circular time, in the sense of a return to an original reality. The first instance of an event is there only to mark the pattern of reiteration. It is irrelevant whether a given event is earlier or later than another. Both exist as mirrored expressions of a transcendent reality. Closely linked with this ancient perception of time is the philosophical idea we find captured in the Book of Ecclesiastes (1: 9-11):

There is nothing new under the sun. If we can say of anything: that it is new, it has been seen already long since. This event of the past is not remembered. Nor will the future events, which will happen again be remembered by those who follow us.

When God created the world, he created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. All of history is already included in the creation. This is also what lies behind the idea of ‘fate’, which, as a classic premiss of Greek tragedy, reflects the human struggle against destiny. The only appropriate response is acceptance and understanding.

. . . 

This sense of history as an illustration of creation, this view of humanity living out a fate determined by its nature, dominates the biblical view of history as a reiteration of what always has been. It can best be seen through the many stories that present the recurrent theme of new creation, new beginnings and new hope. All play out their contrast to stories of human wilfulness. In the creation of such reiterative story chains, one finds recurrent echoes of characters who perform the same or a similar function. Within a biblical perspective, all reflect a single transcendent reality. Three examples of such echoing clusters of stories should make this clear.

1) There are two great stories in the Bible in which old Israel is led through water to begin a new life. In Exodus 14-15, Moses leads the people through the sea on dry land. The waters stack up like Jello on each side. Those who had been helpless slaves in Egypt become a victorious people led to victory by their God. The same motif of crossing the waters from defeat to victory finds its place in Joshua. The divine presence leads the people dry-shod across the Jordan River, whose waters ‘stand in one heap’ (Josh. 3: 7-17). It is a new Israel, coming out of the wilderness that enters the land. A minor echo of this motif can also be seen when the patriarch Jacob crosses the Jabbok in Genesis 32: 22. In this crossing, he becomes Israel. The transcendent reality that each of these stories reiterates is the original division of the waters of chaos at the creation, when God caused the waters ‘to be gathered in one place, letting the dry land appear’ (Gen. 1: 9).

2) The great collection of poems that prophesies Babylon’s destruction at the hands of ‘Yahweh of the Armies’, in the Book of Jeremiah (chapters 50 and 51) rings with obvious echoes of Genesis 11’s story of the tower of Babylon. That story, however, also reiterates the paired and nearly indistinguishable stories of the destructions of Samaria and Jerusalem we find in II Kings 17 and 25. All of the prophecies of destruction against Israel’s enemies (Jer. 46-49) are mere variations of a single theme. As commentary on human events, such poems and stories about God’s wrath against cities and nations reiterate the transcendent reality of Yahweh’s war against the godless. The fundamental mythology that structures this war and destruction metaphor is seen much more clearly in the obviously cosmic allusions in the stories of the great flood (Gen. 6-9) and of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19). Noah and Lot both fill the exilic role of Israel’s surviving remnant. They find ‘favour in Yahweh’s eyes’ (Gen. 6: 8). Yet another mythic variation of this leitmotif recurs throughout the Book of Psalms, where the transcendent struggle between the way of righteousness and the way of evil is captured in the metaphor of the cosmic war that Yahweh and his Messiah wage against the nations, as in Psalms 2, 8, 89 and 110. All are expressive of the divine dominance over reality. Offering a template for comparable recreations of this theme in the Books of Daniel and Revelation, Yahweh says to his Messiah (as well as to the poet’s implicit audience, revealing for a moment this metaphor’s importance in file language of piety): ‘Pray, and I will give the nations into your possession, and you will own the ends of the earth. You will crush them with an iron mace, break them into pieces like the shards of a pot’ (Psalms 2: 8-9).

3) My third example of a cluster of metaphors reiterating transcendent reality throughout the Bible’s narrative of the past is a central part of the structure of what has been thought Israel’s historical past. The theme of crossing the wilderness forms an initial setting for the expansive collections of law and wisdom we find throughout the rest of the Pentateuch. Israel sets out across the desert after the crossing of the sea and is prepared as early as Exodus 23 to enter into the promised land. Moses accumulates his ever-growing torah as he climbs Mount Sinai at least eight different times. ‘Murmuring’ and ‘backsliding’ are used to delay the plot throughout their wilderness trek. Finally, at the end of Numbers, Yahweh in his anger declares that this generation will never enter the land of promise. The desert becomes a place of exile for ‘those who refuse to walk in Yahweh’s path’. The story line waits the full generation of forty years for its new Israel to enter the land with Joshua. The transformation from the motif of wilderness-crossing to one of being held captive in a desert of exile is a shift that allows the entire final portion of the Pentateuch to be the subject of an exile’s reflection with Moses on Mount Nebo in the Book of Deuteronomy. Israel progresses through the themes of punishment, understanding and acceptance, allowing the Pentateuch’s narrative to close in mirrored step with the similarly meditative closure of II Kings in the city of Babylon.

. . .

The techniques of this discourse are similar to the way the gospel stories at times present Jesus in the classic philosopher’s role of the man of piety and discernment, a role we find played throughout the literature of the ancient world, and not only by the Jobs and Solomons of the biblical world, but in all ancient philosophical literature from the schoolroom textbooks of Bronze Age Egypt to the peripatetic cynic philosophers of Hellenistic literature. I can think of no clearer example than two paired stories of David and of Jesus. In each, the central hero of the narration goes to the mountain to pray.

. . .

This is reiterated history, a philosophical discourse of a tradition’s meaning.

(The Mythic Past, 16-23 – my bolding)

One small snippet of Thompson’s discussion of the gospels’ continuation of the technique and mindset:

The interpretive technique that Matthew uses shares the perspective of the Psalter. Matthew 26: 30 introduces the story of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: ‘After they had sung a psalm, they went out to the Mount of Olives.’ The reference to singing a psalm at first appears inconsequential, until one realizes that Matthew knows his Psalter well. Not only does he use the David story of II Samuel 15 for Jesus’ prayer, but he introduces his reiteration of this story with a cryptic reference to the singing of Psalm 3, the very same song that the titles in the Book of Psalms had placed in David’s mouth. Psalm 3: 6-7 makes this argument certain. ‘I lay down to sleep; I awake because the Lord has supported me.’ Matthew reiterates this verse as his audience’s voice of a new Israel, in a subtle contrast to the threefold episode of the faithless disciples who sleep but do not wake (Matt. 26: 38-46).

(The Mythic Past, 71 – my bolding)

Nanine Charbonnel’s focus is on the gospels as narratives of “messianic time”, a time that exists in one sense “outside time” in a way similar (I won’t go further than “similar“) to Thompson’s understanding of “biblical history”. From Charbonnel’s perspective, then, Thompson’s thoughts on the messianic passages in Psalms are interesting:

The messianic metaphors of Psalms 2 and 8 are not evidence of beliefs or expectation that such a figure will some day come and save the people. That is an expectation and characteristic implicit only in later literature. It is possible that such millennial beliefs do not become typical of the tradition until some time after Jerusalem’s destruction in the year 70 CE. In the Old Testament, and in most New Testament texts for that matter, we are dealing primarily with literary metaphors and motifs. The recurrent interplay of such song and story did create what we can well describe as a metaphorical reality: a myth, as an expression of the heavenly reality implied by our texts. Here the heavenly battle of Yahweh and his messiah against the powers of evil, which is echoed in the daily struggles of the followers of the theology of the way, seems to have been quite real to the bearers of this tradition. In their faithfulness to the way of the torah, they too fight in such a battle. The evidence for this is abundant throughout most of the tradition that deals with the messiah. It particularly marks the traditions that have presented David as the messiah.

(The Mythic Past, 291 – my bolding)

There is much I could discuss from these passages but I will hold back and allow each of you your own reflections.

I am in new territory here. It is slow but interesting work.


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

Thompson, Thomas L. 1999. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books.


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Neil Godfrey

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7 Comments

  • Steve Ruis
    2020-04-06 13:57:32 GMT+0000 - 13:57 | Permalink

    Since it seems that everyone I read now indicates the gospels are not to be taken as actual history, why is it that the people most insistent that they are are theists? Are they not demeaning their own scriptures?

  • proudfootz
    2020-04-07 10:33:10 GMT+0000 - 10:33 | Permalink

    This is very helpful. There does seem to be a lot of ‘ret conning’ in the books of the Bible.

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/retcon-history-and-meaning

    • Neil Godfrey
      2020-04-08 08:41:45 GMT+0000 - 08:41 | Permalink

      I was about to use your retcon notion in my next post but as I came to write it I wondered if it says the opposite of what I want to express. Retcon explores different themes, but to be technical, the different biblical stories might rather be said to express the same theme through a variety of stories and genres. If the rewriting of the stories is a form of retconning, fine. I think Thompson (and NCs source, Mergui) argue for the same theme being expressed in new ways.

      • Gary
        2020-04-08 15:56:38 GMT+0000 - 15:56 | Permalink

        I have never heard of the term “retcon” before. But after looking at a google on it – “A retcon might equally well convert an established history into a secret history. A retcon affects the past history of characters and/or the whole shared universe, and says that the new changed events “have always been that way”.”

        Bingo – I think that is exactly what happened in the writing of the gospels. The “new changed events” are the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. The “have always been that way” part is a rehash if the exile and 1st Temple destruction. An attempt to say a “new Jerusalem” will eventually rise back up. Just need their new David.

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