2020-04-11

Gospel Parables and the “Birth” of the Messiah as a Personification of Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series . . .

Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] last pages of her chapter on the meaning of “fulfilment” in the gospels dovetail with John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable and Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus (links are to Vridar posts discussing these works) – and with any other writing that has argued that the Gospels are parables.

We know that Jesus was famous for speaking in parables but NC (like “Jesus historicist” Crossan and “Jesus mythicist” Brodie) goes further and suggests that the gospel stories about Jesus and all that he did are written as parables.

In what follows I attempt to convey some rough sketch of NC’s thesis. We will see that she delves into deeper technical reasons for reading the gospels as “parables”.

That the character of Jesus himself is a parable is most clearly seen in the Gospel of John where we read, explicitly, that Jesus is “the word”, that his appearance in flesh is a visible form of “the word”. In this gospel it is accordingly easier to grasp that “biographical” episodes of Jesus, such as his encounter with the sisters Martha and Mary, are parables whose meaning is not hidden very far beneath their surfaces. The acts of Jesus are dramatizations of the word.

Explicit and hidden

There are places in the gospels where an implied narrator informs readers that a specific thing happened as a fulfilment of an “Old Testament” prophecy. Matthew 2 contains the most memorable instances:

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

. . . 

 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

NC writes that these explicit pointers are there to highlight for the reader the rule of the game. The fulfilment applies to the whole narrative. Parables in the mouth of Jesus ought not lead the reader to think that the gospel narrative itself is a parable. The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as told in Luke 4 announces the fulfilment of a text that served as a major inspiration for the author of the gospel’s larger narrative:

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.

Crucifixion by Leon Bonnat (Wikimedia)

The immediate narrative meaning is that Jesus is announcing that his presence before the Nazareth congregation is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The reader knows, however, that what is being fulfilled is the entire life and death of Jesus as fleshed out through the entire gospel.

If in Luke we read Jesus’ opening words declaring that he is fulfilling the scriptures, in the Gospel of John chapter 19 we read Jesus’ last words declaring that he has fulfilled them all.

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, It is finished.”

The Greek words are different but the meaning is the same:

Luke 4:21 — πεπλήρωται / peplērōtai (is fulfilled)

John 19:30 — τετέλεσται / tetelestai (it is finished/accomplished)

The Gospels as fulfilment

To take a closer look at those two words:

We find the first (from πληρόω pléroó), and its derivatives, in the following:

Mark 1:15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Matthew 26:54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?

Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

As for the second (from τελέω teleó), in addition to John 19:28-30 quoted above, . . . .

Luke 1:44-45 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Hebrews 7:11  If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood—and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood—why was there still need for another priest to come . . . .

Hebrews 7:28  For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

Hebrews 9:11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation.

Hebrews 10:1 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.

Hebrews 12:2  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

It is easy to miss the full or appropriate contextual meaning if we rely upon a single instance of translation as our baseline for understanding.

Fulfilment (πλήρωμα / pleroma) and the Name; the End ( τέλος / telos) and the completion of the Genesis

For both these Greek words and their different forms, there were ranges of meanings some of which must have registered with Hebrew readers.

Let’s go back to the verbs around pléroó first. We begin with the temporal meaning of “fulfilled” in Luke 2:6

“it happened that the days were fulfilled (eplesthesan) to give birth”

Circumcision by Vincenzo Catena (Wikimedia)

The time has come, been completed, for the birth of the messiah. But the climax of that fulfilment event is not the actual birth but his being given the gift of the name Jesus, as we read in Luke 2:21

And when eight days were accomplished (ἐπλήσθησαν / eplēsthēsan) for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Then look at telos. The Septuagint of Genesis 2:1-2 uses συνετελέσθησαν (sun-etelesthèsan) in its translation of the Hebrew for ‘fulfil/complete/end’:

Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were completed. And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.

The word in the New Testament is said to have derived its meaning from its first use in Genesis. It has a temporal sense: a time beyond mundane time.

Another form of the word, teleiosis, usually translated “accomplishment, completion, perfection” has, in the Septuagint, another very particular meaning. The word has a strong link with sacrifice and the temple; the word teleiosis means first of all, in the Septuagint, the major sacrifice which enables the communion of the people with Yahweh.

The word regularly designates the consecration of the high priest, especially in the two main chapters which deal with this investiture rite, Exodus 29 (four times) and Leviticus 8 (once). The noun teleiosis, derived from teleioo and designating in this case the action, the procedure of consecration, appears moreover as a technical term used to evoke the whole of the ritual. Out of seventeen uses of this term in the Septuagint, there are thus five in Exodus 29 and six in Leviticus 8, or more than half! Teleiosis, by instituting the person who was its essential character, thus made it possible to perform worship and could appear in this capacity as the key enabler of worship. It is impossible, in fact, to imagine a worship which takes place without a person qualified to carry out the mediation . . . between the men and God. Teleiosis could therefore appear as the rite par excellence by which the people, through the duly consecrated high priest, had access to a possible communion with God, a communion which constituted, it should be remembered, the very culmination of worship and accomplishment even of the vocation of Israel as a people of the Covenant.

(Grappe and Marx, Sacrifices Scandaleux?: sacrifices humains, martyre et mort du Christ pp. 94-95 — part translation part paraphrase of the quotation in NC p. 179)

The word has taken on a different meaning in the Pauline letters, however. There it means our sense of moral perfection. In those letters we are introduced to the notion of suffering bringing about perfection of character. What NC proposes here is that this change has come about as a “hermeneutical mutation”. The Greek language has facilitated either confusion or literary creativity to extend the meaning of the OT usage.

The promise is the message, the (good) news; the fulfilment is begettal, pregnancy, birth . . .  

NC notes that it is essentially the same word, or two words with a single letter difference, used for the promise and for the announcement, or the message, of that promise.

the promise: ἐπαγγελία (epangelia)

the announcement: ευαγγελία (euangelia)  — (c.f. evangelize; the good news = the gospel) 

Thus,

Luke 24:49 — I am going to send you what my Father has promised (ἐπαγγελίαν)

Acts 1:4 — wait for the gift my Father promised (ἐπαγγελίαν), which you have heard me speak about

Acts 2:33 — he has received from the Father the promised (ἐπαγγελίαν) Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear

Acts 13:32-33 — “We tell you the good news (εὐαγγελιζόμεθα): The promise (ἐπαγγελίαν) God made (γενομένην) to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: “‘You are my son; today I have become your father.'”

The promise is thus something made or pronounced and because of that it is also something received.

“The Children Of Israel Crossing The Red Sea” by Henri-Frederic Schopin (from ARTUK)

At this point NC points towards an association or metaphor that appears strange or unusual to us. The Hebrew Scriptures speak of God “begetting” and “giving birth” to the heavens and earth and to Israel itself.

Deuteronomy 32:18 — You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.

The Exodus was a birth from the womb of Egypt where Israel had been “begotten”. (NC cites Armand Abécassis, ‘En vérité, je vous le dis Une lecture juive des évangiles. Livre de Poche, p. 48.)

A form of the same word is used in Genesis 2:4 and 5:1

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created . . . 

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man . . .

And Matthew 1:1

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

To accomplish in the text is therefore to describe the generation of the Messiah

Above we spoke of the Greek word pléroó means to fill, and its participle, πεπλήρωται / peplerotai, means to be made full and is used to indicate being “fully pregnant”. (I have yet to find the evidence for this statement by NC. This is a point I am still following up.)

In the earlier posts of this series we noted NC’s discussion of the importance of numerical values of words in the Jewish tradition. In this context is could well be significant that the Hebrew words for Son (= ben) and Messiah (= mə·šî·aḥ) both equal the same number, 52 (which is also the value for “peace/shalom”.)

NC does not spell it out at this particular point, but the message I take from that observation is that a common numerical value would conceivably inspire an identification of the “son” Israel with Messiah. If so, we are moving towards a motive for personifying Israel as the Messiah in a gospel narrative.

The two books, whether Genesis or the midrash of Matthew, are books of genesis, that is, of begetting/giving birth. To create is to beget, for God, for the Jewish people, for the one who holds the pen.

To fulfill in the text it is necessary to describe the “generation” of the messiah. 

(NC, 181. My translation. I really miss the work of a serious translator.)

Continuing . . . 


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


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Neil Godfrey

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2 Comments

  • Sidney Martin
    2020-04-11 08:17:00 GMT+0000 - 08:17 | Permalink

    My book, Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark, analyzes the Gospel of Mark as parable. Specifically, an allegory of the history of Israel in which Jesus is the personification of divine salvation, which is what the name “Jesus” means.

    • MrHorse
      2020-04-13 23:31:13 GMT+0000 - 23:31 | Permalink

      I’ve just started reading it, Sid, and am enjoying it very much.

      A quick question: Where you say in the introduction, “Jesus stands for the idea of salvation … salvation concretely embodied in a series of historical figures”, I presume you’re referring to figures presented in the Hebrew bible as historical, such as Yeshua, the second Isaiah, etc …?

      Regards.

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