Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .
John the Baptist
Maybe I’m just naturally resistant to new ideas but I found myself having some difficulty with Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] opening stage of her discussion about John the Baptist. (Recall we have been looking at plausibility of gospel figures being personifications of certain groups, with Jesus himself symbolizing a new Israel.) NC begins with an extract from Maximus of Turin’s interpretation: by cross-referencing to Paul’s statements that the “head of a man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3) Maximus concluded that the decapitation of John the Baptist represented Christ being cut off from the adherents to the Law, the Jews. Without the head they were a lifeless corpse.
We may not like that interpretation but at least Maximus recognized something symbolic about John the Baptist. As NC reminds us, he was the one who greets the messiah from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41), the one who asks questions designed to recognize Jesus, the one who acts out Elijah’s confrontation with the lawless Jezebel and king Ahab. Even if we accept the entry about John the Baptist in Josephus as genuine and acknowledge that there was a historical “John the Baptist”, this person is depicted in symbolic roles in the gospels.
NC has more to say but permit me to give my own view, or perhaps a mix of my own with NC’s. John the Baptist is presented initially in the physical image of the arch-prophet, Elijah, and is calling upon all Israel to repent and prepare for the messiah. They all come out into the wilderness to do so. In Luke’s gospel when different groups (soldiers, tax collectors and others) ask John what they should do John replies with the fundamental spiritual intent of the law in each case: be merciful. Surely this is all symbolic of the Law and Prophets being the articles of the covenant made between Israel and God in the wilderness, and just as the early Christians found Jesus predicted in the prophets so John, the final prophet, points them to Jesus the messiah. Later we find the same prophet asking Jesus if he is the one, with Jesus replying with signs as recorded in the Prophets to assure him. John, meanwhile (as NC herself notes as significant), is martyred just as many other prophets before him, and just as Jesus himself will be. The tale is surely told as symbolism and the character John as a literary personification. Jesus emerges from the Prophets. It is the Prophets who all point towards Jesus Christ.
So when John says he is not worthy to baptize Jesus, he is saying that Jesus is greater than the Law and Prophets. Jesus, however, replies that he has come to submit to the Law and Prophets. His baptism represents the emerging in his full spiritual reality the new Israel, the one prophesied in the prophets. This is not the baptism described in Josephus. It is a baptism of repentance, of preparation for the Christ.
The absence of biographical or other historical information is telling. We only have details that call out for symbolic interpretation. The reason each evangelist can modify the narrative is not because they were working with historical data but entirely in their own imaginative interpretation of the way the Prophets pointed readers to Christ.
“John” and Peter race to the tomb
The famous Gregory who became the Pope in the sixth/seventh century identified a possible symbolic meaning of the Gospel of John’s account of John and Peter running to the empty tomb. Quoted by NC, Gregory sought a meaning in John arriving first at the tomb but not entering, with Peter coming later yet being the first to enter. John was interpreted as the Synagogue, the Jews, who had “come first” to Christ, but failed to “enter”. Peter, representing the gentiles, arrived later but was the first to believe. [See Gregory the Great Homily 22 on the Gospels; see also comments below for further discussion]
The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed . . . (John 20:4-8)
Interesting possibility. But if the “beloved disciple” is rather meant to be an unfalsifiable witness (and he, not Peter, is said to be the one who believed), it is hard to identify the same with the “Jews of the synagogue”. On the other hand, given what we know of Peter as the apostle to the gentiles, the one who stands between Jews and gentiles (hence his “double-minded” reputation?) something along the lines of Gregory’s interpretation does have some appeal.
Other points to consider, as per NC: John (meaning God is gracious) does have a sound similarity to Jonah, another representative of Jews in the old story. (Then we also have Peter being identified in the Gospels of Matthew and John with the son of Jonah.) NC promises to return to Peter in the last chapter. I will be patient.
Again, we have details that are not typically found in biographies. Recall the same point (especially with respect to the Gospel of John) in How the Gospels Became History. Such details appear pointless in themselves; they scream out for symbolic interpretation — and many ministers and preachers have understood this point well enough to prepare many sermons drawing out various meanings for their congregations.
The Twelve Apostles: the twelve tribes of Israel
This one is easier. The twelve patriarchs in Genesis are treated as symbolic representatives of the tribes that bore their names. I think many of us have seen in the Twelve Disciples a new founding group of the “new Israel”.
NC sees three principles underlying any interpretation of the Twelve.
1. Some clues of collective symbolism are given even with the twelve disciples: Matthew the publican, another is a Canaanite or zealot. Simon (or Shimon = “one who has heard”) is the son of Jonah. (He was later renamed as a “stone” or “rock”. Jonah means “dove” and we are of course reminded of the OT prophet. The symbolism of a dove? My attempt at a translation of NC’s explanation:
Now, the name of the prophet Jonah [=Dove] symbolized the Jewish community immersed in the diaspora to preach the word of God; faithless to his mission, he rediscovers it through the shipwreck at sea, which evokes the power of evil and death. Before being the stumbling block and at the same time chosen as a cornerstone, Simon is therefore the Jewish people being chosen to speak to the gentiles.
Likewise with the first two disciples called. They are brothers, Andrew and Simon. Andrew means “man” in Greek. We have the first calling of disciples being a symbolic narrative of the calling of gentiles (Greeks) and Jews as brothers (NC, p. 239).
2. The characters obey the meanings of their names. Again a rough translation of NC:
We never notice:
– that the full Greek surname of Judas is Ioudas Simonos Iskariōtou (John 6:71). This surname is made up of the names of three sons of Jacob
– all Leah’s sons – . . . Judah, Simeon and Issachar,
– that at the time of Jesus the family of the high priest was made up for two centuries of the descendants of Simeon the Just,
– and that Peter’s full Greek name is Simon, called Cephas. Now, this Simon Cephas denies Jesus to Caiaphas, the high priest.
Judas and Peter are both Simon (name of the lineage of the high priest), both in connection with the high priest (in his courtroom a denial and a betrayal), one focused on lies, the other on betrayal . . . . These two really have things in common . . . . and both disappear from the story at about the same time, one on betrayal, the other on a lie (Peter will reappear after the Resurrection of Jesus).
The names may be fleshed out from Hebrew counterparts (e.g. James from Jacob) but they may also be crafted anew as Apollonius of Tyana appears to have been a work of fiction. (NC refers to a work by Louis Benoit that notes similarities between the brother of Jesus, James the Just, and Apollonius of Tyana in writings of Eusebius, one about James the Just and another against the author the story of Apollonius of Tyana.)
Further, NC raises a point singled out by David Friedrich Strauss: the curious fact that through the New Testament, for the same name we have a multitude of characters.
The real perplexity in the matter, however, originates in this: that besides the James and Joses spoken of as the brothers of Jesus, two men of the same name are mentioned as the sons of another Mary (Mark xv. 40, 47, xvi. 1, Matt. xxvii. 56,) without doubt that Mary who is designated, John xix. 25, as the sister of the mother of Jesus, and the wife of Cleophas: so that we have a James and a Joses not only among the children of Mary the mother of Jesus, but again among her sister’s children. We meet with several others among those immediately connected with Jesus, whose names are identical. In the lists of the Apostles (Matth. x. 2 ff., Luke vi. 14 ff.) we have two more of the name of James: that is four, the brother and cousin of Jesus included; two more of the name of Judas: that is three, the brother of Jesus included; two of the name of Simon, also making three with the brother of Jesus of the some name. The question naturally arises, whether the same individual is not here taken as distinct persons?
(Strauss, Life of Jesus, I, iii, 30)
NC’s comment: if such a multiple use of names undermines historicity, it does support the possibility of a kind of evangelist midrash at work. Is the reader meant to combine the names into one? Something does look odd.
3. Persons appearing as doublets, sometimes as pairs, sometimes opposites
So we have to Jameses. One major and the other minor. Two Judes, one Iscariot, the other son of Thaddeus (a “chest”). Two Simons, one Simon Peter, the other Simon the Zealot. In (with?) John we have Thomas, the Twin. In that latter instance we have a positive and negative character, one who believes quickly and the other reluctant to believe.
We have pairs of names in the same role. The two sons of Zebedee, James and John, appear symbolically to take the place of the two thieves either side of the crucified Christ. They asked to be at Jesus’ right and left, and Jesus promised they would, and see his glory. They saw his glory at the Transfiguration. For a fuller discussion, perhaps with the assistance of Google Translate, see James and John, Like Two Thieves . . .
Again, we have Matthew and his other apparent namesake Levi, a son of Alphaeus. (I once struggled with this curious detail in an earlier post, The Call of Levi not to be one of the Twelve.)
What of the three inner disciples, Peter, James and John. NC links them with the three sons of Leah, three of the twelve tribes of Israel. I have difficulty seeing that one, but I copy here NC’s footnoted quotation:
Three Apostles seem to be set apart for a particular initiation … They are Peter, Jacques and John: they are the ones who attend the Transfiguration (Luke 9-28); in Luke (9-54) we read that Jacques and Jean know how to make lightning fall; in Luke (22-8) it is Peter and John who are sent to prepare the feast of the Passover; in Luke (8-51) only Pierre, Jean and Jacques must attend the resurrection of the twelve year old girl. Pierre, Jean and Jacques correspond to Ruben, Juda and Lévi all three sons of Léa …
On the breastplate of the High Priest their stones engraved with their names are at the head of the three rows of four … But above all we must remember that these are the three elders of Jacob-Israel(Jude-Simeon being excluded by the curse due to the Sichem affair). Thus nothing is done at random in the choice of the Apostles. (https://gallican.org/douze2.htm)
From Simon to Peter
Another interpretation and one that I have less difficulty with is found not in NC’s book but in a more conventional study of the Gospel of Mark. It is in Sowing the Gospel by Mary Ann Tolbert. She writes of the reason Simon was named Peter:
The first disciple listed, Simon, whose name is additionally set off from the rest grammatically, is nicknamed “Peter” (Πέτρos) by Jesus, but the narrator offers no further elaboration. The explanation of the nickname will come in the parable of the Sower when the second type of ground upon which the seed is sown is described as πετρῶδης (και άλλο ἔπεσεν ἐπὶ τὸ πετρῶδες, 4:5). Simon Πέτρos, Simon the “Rock,” signals the basic relationship of the disciples to the πετρώδης, the “rocky ground.” Unlike Matthew and Luke, who identify the leading disciple as Simon Peter very early in their narratives, thus obscuring the correspondence between Simon’s nickname and the second type of ground in the parable, Mark has unfailingly and with utter consistency referred to the leading disciple simply as Simon up to Mark 3:16. From 3:16 to the end of the Gospel, he is just as consistently called Πέτρos. This striking change of name is then followed in close proximity by the description of the “rocky ground” in Mark 4:5, and the resulting rhetorical paronomasia, or word-play, establishes the bond between Πέτρos and πετρώδης, the “Rock” and “rocky ground.”
In fashioning such a play on words, Mark has also implicitly developed a kind of etiological legend for the origin of Simon’s nickname: Jesus names him “Rock” because of his hardness; he typifies hard and rocky ground, where seed has little chance of growing deep roots. For the Gospel of Mark, hardness, especially hardness of heart, signifies the rejection of Jesus’ word (e.g., 3:5; 6:52; 8:17). For the Gospel of Matthew, the hardness of rock suggests a different image altogether.
Which brings us to the name Mary. . . .
Continuing . . .
Meanwhile, here are some of my earlier posts addressing curiosities in the names we find in the gospels:
Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs.
Strauss, David Friedrich. 1892. The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. 2nd ed. London: Swan Sonnenschein.
Tolbert, Mary Ann. 1989. Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
“Des Douze Tribus d’Israël Aux Douze Apôtres – 2.” 1983. 1983. https://gallican.org/douze2.htm.
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