Nanine Charbonnel casts a net back to catch an interesting observation by the nineteenth-century French Jewish scholar Joseph Salvador who wrote that since early Christian writings were in the tradition of Jewish writings they had to be interpreted in the same way as Jewish writings. That sounds mundane enough, but he went on to point out that Jewish literary figures like Adam, Israel, Esau clearly were constructed as personifications of humanity (Adam) and the peoples of Israel and Edom. The same for Abraham, Ishmael, Judah, Joseph, and so forth. (Their very names advertised that they were representations of collectives of people.) In the same way, Jesus was delineated to represent all of humanity, both “Jews and gentiles”. Jewish literary tradition was partial to the idea of a people rising up in vindicated glory after having suffered unjustly and cruelly at the hands of others. Indeed, who would not find such a myth appealing? From this perspective Jesus was read as a figure whom all peoples, in particular anyone or any collective who deeply felt a sense of unjust victimhood, could aspire to relate. The Jesus figure was likewise created as a representative figure, one whom all peoples could relate to in some significant way.
Yet the literary artifice has led generations of readers to think of all of these characters as individual (and historical) persons. Such is the nature and power of their stories.
The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53
We see a very early debate over this same principle in Origen’s third-century writings against the Jewish critic of Christianity, Celsus. Celsus, Origen complains, does indeed claim just what Joseph Salvador wrote, that the Jewish writings cleverly wrote of whole nations through a literary individual. NC quotes the entire chapter 55 of Book 1 of Contra Celsum:
Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies; to which my Jewish opponent replied, that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations. And in this way he explained the words, Your form shall be of no reputation among men; and then, They to whom no message was sent respecting him shall see; and the expression, A man under suffering. Many arguments were employed on that occasion during the discussion to prove that these predictions regarding one particular person were not rightly applied by them to the whole nation. And I asked to what character the expression would be appropriate, This man bears our sins, and suffers pain on our behalf; and this, But He was wounded for our sins, and bruised for our iniquities; and to whom the expression properly belonged, By His stripes were we healed. For it is manifest that it is they who had been sinners, and had been healed by the Saviour’s sufferings (whether belonging to the Jewish nation or converts from the Gentiles), who use such language in the writings of the prophet who foresaw these events, and who, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, applied these words to a person. But we seemed to press them hardest with the expression, Because of the iniquities of My people was He led away unto death. For if the people, according to them, are the subject of the prophecy, how is the man said to be led away to death because of the iniquities of the people of God, unless he be a different person from that people of God? And who is this person save Jesus Christ, by whose stripes they who believe in Him are healed, when He had spoiled the principalities and powers (that were over us), and had made a show of them openly on His cross? At another time we may explain the several parts of the prophecy, leaving none of them unexamined. But these matters have been treated at greater length, necessarily as I think, on account of the language of the Jew, as quoted in the work of Celsus.
To which NC replies (translated):
Fascinating discussion, which only forgets that, if “there is no reason to apply to the whole people these prophecies which target a single individual”, it is because we ignore the full range of the text, of the speech, of the make-as-if rhetoric, not to mention the grammatical vagueness of the Hebrew language, which allows one to pass from the plural to the singular as it pleases as soon as one intends to refer to the collective. What may seem like a strong objection (how can the personification of the people be brought to death by the iniquities of the people?) is that the midrash mentality is not appreciated: without concern for contradiction, personifications can be those of different applications and aspects in the people.
We have an example in the Garden of Eden where God tells Adam (singular) that he can eat fruit from every tree in the garden but then switches to a plural form when issuing the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
The flux between singular and collective and back again has been part of the interpretative apparatus of Jewish exegetes from the earliest days. With respect to the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 NC cites two scholars whose names are known to many of us, Daniel Boyarin and Charles Dodd.
Boyarin on Isaiah 53:
It has been generally assumed by modern folks that Jews have always given the passage a metaphorical reading, understanding the suffering servant to refer to the People of Israel, and that it was the Christians who changed and distorted its meaning to make it refer to Jesus. Quite to the contrary, we now know that many Jewish authorities, maybe even most, until nearly the modern period have read Isaiah 53 as being about the Messiah; until the last few centuries, the allegorical reading was a minority position. (152)
Dodd on the same and with an added note on the same singular-plural confusion with the Son of Man figure in Daniel:
In the New Testament there is only one place where the Servant is unambiguously identified with Israel, Lk. i. 54. Elsewhere, even passages in which the original distinctly equates the Servant with Israel are directly applied to Christ (e.g. xlix. 3). Yet there are evidences that the corporate, or representative, character of the Servant-figure is not entirely out of view. Thus xliv. 1-2, which most emphatically declares Israel to be the Servant, is echoed in passages of the New Testament where his attributes, “the beloved,” “the chosen” are given to Christ; yet the promise of water to the thirsty (verse 3) is confirmed not to Christ but to His people, as the Spirit, even in the original, is promised to the “seed” of the Servant, and as in xliii. 1-5, xliv. 21-24 the assurances “I have redeemed thee,” and “I am with thee,” are made to Israel, the Servant, and fulfilled to the Church.
There is a certain parallelism here with the treatment of the “Son of Man” figure, which is in Daniel vii declared to be a personification of “the people of the saints of the Most High,” but in the New Testament is applied as a title of Christ, yet frequently in contexts where the collective or corporate aspects of the figure are clearly in view. We shall be confronted with similar phenomena in our next group of scriptures, taken from the Psalter. (96)
NC does not continue with Dodd’s discussion of this phenomenon in the Psalms (she is discussing the Isaiah 53 verse, after all) but I will quote two sentences. On Psalm 69, a psalm quoted by Paul and all four evangelists, Dodd writes,
Through most of the poem we should suppose the writer to be speaking of his individual lot, but from time to time it is evident that he represents a larger unity, and in the end it is the salvation of Zion which is acclaimed. (97)
Of the well known and well-mined Psalm 22,
Once again, the sufferings are described as if those of an individual, but with verse 22 interest shifts to the ecclesia, and the poem culminates in the proclamation of the universal kingdom of God. (98)
The Son of Man, a People in the form of an Individual
We first meet the Son of Man in Daniel 7 where he is explicitly said to be a representation of “the people”. We have seen four beasts in vision representing four kingdoms; the fifth kingdom to arise is represented by a “son of man”.
17 These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even for ever and ever.
Jewish apocalyptic literature embraced the Son of Man character (Daniel, Enoch, Apocalypse of Ezra, Testament of Abraham) and these apocalyptic influences (e.g. the Son of Man as judge in the last days) have influenced the gospels’ understanding of Jesus. Yet NC reminds us that so often in the gospels Jesus as a Son of Man appears in a present tense eschatology, a here-and-now or “realized eschatology” if you like. So there has been a subtle shift in the understanding of the role of the Son of Man. But look again at Daniel Boyarin’s discussion:
Those Jews who read the Son of Man in accord with the end of the chapter as representing the People of Israel had to do some harmonizing work to explain away the clearly divine implications of the vision in the first part, but those Jews, in turn, who gloried in the divinity of the Son of Man also had some hard harmonizing work to do to explain the end of the chapter in accordance with their reading of the first part, understanding the “People of the Most High” as that divine Messiah. (p. 144)
Here Boyarin observes the inherently conflicting attributes of the Son of Man as found in Daniel 7: he clearly has divine attributes yet he clearly represents “the people”. Jews who stressed either interpretation had some “hard harmonizing work to do”, he says. NC:
Is not the Christian invention a clever synthesis? (266)
As NC further notes in a footnote at this point, Boyarin adds:
It is the Christ, Jesus, who is accordingly handed over to the wicked one for a prescribed interval, here said to be “a time, two times, and half a time.” This narrative of the Messiah was not a revolutionary departure within the religious history of the communities of readers of the Bible but an obvious and plausible consequence of a well-established tradition of reading Daniel 7 as being about a divine-human Messiah.10 Jesus’ resurrection “after three days,” according to the Markan version, as opposed to the “in three days” of the later evangelists, could possibly derive as well from a close reading of the Daniel passage, . . . (144)
The gospel Son of Man further draws upon the Son of Man in the books of Ezekiel and Enoch. On Enoch’s transformation of Daniel’s Son of Man,
The mysterious character of Daniel’s Son of Man, whose features are barely sketched in the perspective of the Maccabean struggles will be fully developed by the author of the Words of Enoch, probably on the occasion of the capture of Jerusalem by Pompey in 63 BC. In this way, the terrestrial plane is abandoned in favor of the celestial plane. The place where the fate of Israel and the world is played out is no longer Palestine, it is no longer the world, it is Heaven with its myriad angels in the service of God. (Hadot, quoted by NC, translated)
In depth discussions elaborating on the essentially the same point being made by NC about this evolution of the Son of Man concept prior to Christianity have been posted at
- How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?
- The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity
- The Evolution of the Son of Man, the Human & Divine Messiah
NC quotes a passage from Enoch 48 describing the Son of Man in terms that transform Daniel 7’s visionary symbolic representation of the saints into a celestial being, one close to God and worthy of worship:
1 In that place I saw the spring of righteousness, and it was inexhaustible,
and many springs of wisdom surrounded it;
And all the thirsty drank from them and were filled with wisdom;
and their dwelling places were with the righteous and the holy and the chosen.
2 And in that hour that son of man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits,
and his name, before the Head of Days.
3 Even before the sun and the constellations were created,
before the stars of heaven were made,
his name was named before the Lord of Spirits.
4 He will be a staff for the righteous,
that they may lean on him and not fall;
He will be the light of the nations,
and he will be a hope for those who grieve in their hearts.
5 All who dwell on the earth will fall down and worship before him,
and they will glorify and bless and sing hymns to the name of the Lord of Spirits.
6 For this (reason) he was chosen and hidden in his presence,
before the world was created and forever.
7 And the wisdom of the Lord of Spirits has revealed him to the holy and the righteous;
for he has preserved the lot of the righteous.
For they have hated and despised this age of unrighteousness;
Indeed, all its deeds and its ways they have hated in the name of the Lord of Spirits.
For in his name they are saved,
and he is the vindicator of their lives.
The Jewish scribes were quite capable of reinterpreting literary symbols of visions into real beings with a claim to be worshiped.
In conclusion, NC introduces the thoughts of Armand Abécassis, author of “En vérité, je vous le dis” : une lecture juive des Évangiles [= “Truly I tell you”: a Jewish Reading of the Gospels], who sees in the Son of Man concept the “end” or goal of history, the summation of mankind’s ethical, political and metaphysical aspirations. He sees in the gospels a continuation of Jewish thought on the gradual unveiling of the Torah, humanity’s destiny to be born and grow and learn, step by step, until those so enlightened will become a “light” to the others, and lead all into a mature and fulfilled humanity. This is the message of Christianity’s incarnation, Abécassis suggests — an ongoing generational journey of humanity growing into a spiritually mature humanity. Yet NC notes the irony of Abécassis failing to see that such a Son of Man figure in the New Testament is a literary embodiment of a collective people, even though his entire understanding of the meaning of that Son of Man might be expected to lead him to that conclusion. (From an interview on LVS I suspect Abecassis does acknowledge that “the Christ” concept in the gospels is a (noble) myth but he cannot get past the conventional view that this myth was imposed upon a historical figure. The idea that the supposedly historical figure was a literary myth created for the purpose of the “Christ myth” eludes him.)
. . .
Next, we look at Jesus as the symbol of a new people formed out of two.
Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. New York: The New Press, 2012.
Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.
Dodd, C.H. According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology. London: Nisbet, 1952.
Hadot, Jean. “Contestation Socio-Religieuse Et Apocalyptique Dans Le Judéo-Christianisme.” Archives de Sociologie Des Religions 12, no. 24 (1967): 35–47. https://www.persee.fr/doc/assr_0003-9659_1967_num_24_1_2632
Salvador, Joseph. Jésus-Christ Et Sa Doctrine. Histoire De La Naissance De L’église, De Son Organisation Et De Ses Progrès Pendant Le Premier Siècle. Bruxelles, Hauman et compagnie, 1838. http://archive.org/details/jsuschristetsado00salv.
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2 thoughts on “How Collective Messianic Figures Mutated into Jesus — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”
Thanks Neil, insightful and provocative. I’m looking forward to your comments about Jesus as the symbol of a new people formed out of two.
Perhaps I repeat myself ad nauseum but studies such as this still make me ask why the gospel story was written featuring the Jesus character – either by religious Jews wanting to save their religion from Roman destruction (the DEVOUT view), or, by elitist Jews, in league with Romans, as Roman propaganda to destroy Judaism (the DEVIOUS view).
I don’t want to detract from the value of your study and Charbonnel’s work. I think this study supports the devout view rather than the devious (my own) and I congratulate you for it.
The whole idea of one Jesus, dying for the sins of all, by substitute attonenent, personification, etc, has long been regarded as problematic.
But the literary notion of an individual standing for, as metonym or synecdoche for, all his people, or all humanity, is a widespread cultural convention. A hero who exemplifies his people, humanity, etc..
And if one Jesus stands for many, then maybe he stands for even Romans too.
Though possibly there is deviousness in all of them, as well. Even in the trickster God himself.