Continuing the series Charbonnel: Jesus Christ sublime figure de papier . . .
The figure of Jesus Christ is first and foremost the personification of his people
Most of us have little difficulty imagining that the authors of the gospels conceptualized Jesus as a personification of the people of Israel. In Nanine Charbonnel’s words, the gospel narratives are not so much presenting Jesus and Israel as parallels but rather Jesus as a personification, an embodiment, the figure of “a new Israel” itself. Here’s a refresher of the points we all know. The character who is named “YHWH Saves” . . .
° is born through the miraculous intervention of YHWH, as the people of Israel were born from the miraculous fertility of the aged Sarah and Abraham.
° escapes the royal edict to slay all male newborns [my note: Pharaoh ordered all male infants slain in order to keep Israel in subjection to Egypt]
° is called from Egypt as were the people of Israel,
° is baptized, recollecting Israel’s passage through the Red Sea,
° After his baptism he spends forty days in the wilderness as Israel spent forty years in the wilderness,
° he is a target for trials or tests [not “temptations” — I have changed NC’s term] as Israel succumbed to tests in the wilderness
° he explicitly quotes in each of his three responses to these tests verses from Deuteronomy that had been addressed to the people in the wilderness,
° he takes twelve disciples as Israel has twelve tribes, etc.
NC’s list is fine as an overview but leaves questions hanging when one realizes that it is true only of the Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. As we have seen, Jesus in the wilderness in the Gospel of Mark more likely represents the new Adam, not Israel. In this context it is of interest to note that the Gospel of Mark, unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, portrays Jesus as reaching out to gentiles as well as Jews to bring them together “in him” (see the post on the “sea voyages” of Jesus, The Story of Mark, History or Theology?) — so an opening presentation of Jesus as a New Adam is fitting. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke change Mark’s plot so that the gentiles are to be evangelized after the resurrection of Jesus.
So I think Mark’s variation supports NC’s view of Jesus being a literary creation to function as the theological interests of the authors decided. Matthew and Luke created a Jesus who personified the people of Israel. But we will see in the next section that Paul’s concept was closer to Mark’s.
Throughout this series of posts we have referred to NC’s repeated point that the Hebrew Bible so easily portrays entire peoples as individual characters (e.g. the “two nations” in Rebecca’s womb, Jacob and Esau). NC cites David Strauss’s words that neatly encapsulate this sort of personification in Hosea where we read Matthew’s inspiration for how he created his Jesus: the people of Israel are, collectively, the son (singular) of God.
While Herod awaits the return of the magi, Joseph is admonished by an angelic apparition in a dream to flee with the Messianic child and its mother into Egypt for security (v. 13-15). Adopting the evangelist’s point of view, this is not attended with any difficulty ; it is otherwise, however, with the prophecy which the above event is said to fulfil, Hosea xi. 1. In this passage the prophet, speaking in the name of Jehovah, says : When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. We may venture to attribute, even to the most orthodox expositor, enough clear-sightedness to perceive that the subject of the first half of the sentence is also the object of the second, namely the people of Israel, who here, as elsewhere, (e.g. Exod. iv. 22, Sirach xxxvi. 14), are collectively called the Son of God, and whose past deliverance under Moses out of their Egyptian bondage is the fact referred to : that consequently, the prophet was not contemplating either the Messiah or his sojourn in Egypt. Nevertheless, as our evangelist says, v. r5, that the flight of Jesus into Egypt took place expressly that the above words of Hosea might be fulfilled . . .
(Strauss Part 1, Chapter IV §34 – p.167)
Jesus, as the “new Israel”, resists temptations, overcomes trials, unlike the old. NC emphasizes that Jesus does not personify the Christian church but the people of Israel. To half paraphrase and half translate the words of Jean Radermakers whom NC quotes:
What was said about Israel is in the gospels said about Jesus because he is both a son of Israel and one who takes on the totality of the nation in order to bring it to its destined fulfilment. Thus he is the Son called from Egypt (Matt 2:5 = Hos 11:1), the Beloved Son, the one who is the object of divine indulgence (Matt 3:17; 17:5 = Gen 22:2; Ps 2:2; Isa 42:1), and after crossing the Jordan he walks through the Promised Land to Jerusalem. In Matthew Jesus appears in Galilee, noted as being “Galilee of the Nations” (Matt 4:5). In Jesus, therefore, Israel fulfils its calling to be a “people for the nations” according to the promise made to Abraham: In you will all the nations of the earth be blessed (Gen 12:3; cf Jer 4:2; Sirach 44:21). In this same way he also fulfils the universal message of the prophets (Matt 4:15-16 = Isa 8:12; 11:5 = Isa. 35:5-6; 61:1), as we read “in his name the Nations will place their hope” (Matt 12:2 = Isa 42:4) (Approximates the words of Jean Radermakers)
In future posts we will see how NC develops the point that Jesus, as the people of Israel, will further be presented as God. If the Jews are understood to be the bearers of the divine presence in their midst we can more easily understand how Jesus, as the embodiment of Israel, can simultaneously be depicted as God. Above we saw that what was said of Israel was said of Jesus; so also what is said of God is likewise said of Jesus. Again, to borrow from Radermakers (p 371):
- he speaks with authority (Matt 7:28),
- he commands the sea (Matt 8:26-27)
- and forgives sins. (Matt 9,:1-8),
- he summons his people (Matt 16:19)
- and feeds them in the desert (Matt 14,:15-24 and 15:32-39),
- he remains in the midst of his own as the very presence of God (Matt 18.20; 28.20; cf 1:1-23) in whom the history of his people converges and is fulfilled.
To expand on NC’s discussion, it is commonplace among biblical scholars to think of the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as the “more human” than in the other gospels. They point to episodes where he appears to lose his temper and needs to heal a person in two stages. Yet there are interpreters who have argued that this “very human” Jesus in Mark is misguided. But there is nothing “human” about one who commands the storm (Mark 4:39 = Ps 107:29; 148:8) and walks on water (Mark 6:48-49 = Job 9:8; Sirach 24:5-6). We have covered in depth how a number of scholars have shown that the supposedly human emotions of Jesus were deemed in ancient times to be divine and/or the noblest of feelings:
- Saving Jesus From Hypocrisy: Explaining Jesus’ temper tantrum and mudslinging
- Understanding the Emotional Jesus: temple tantrums, name-calling and grieving
Returning to NC: What we see the evangelists doing, and most directly in Matthew, is quoting passages in the Old Testament that refer to the people of Israel and bringing those passages to fulfilment in the person of Jesus, whose name means “YHWH saves”, and who is the personification of those people. The gospel works to bring to pass in the individual “YHWH Saves” what the Scriptures said about the sons of Israel.
Two People in One New Man
This collective character of Jesus is thus a personification, a new Israel, but also a new man who will be formed from the unity of two peoples, gentiles as well as Israel. This is hardly a new idea. It is spelled out explicitly in Ephesians 2:11-16
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man [ἄνθρωπον / anthropon] out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
To interrupt with my own comment again, modern translations of the Bible render anthropon as humanity. Yet anthropon/s is the same word translated “man” in the creation account of Genesis (in the Greek Septuagint Bible) and it is surely of some interest that if the Gospel of Mark is influenced by Paul’s writings (as many believe) that there we find Jesus introduced as the “new man” or “new Adam” in the wilderness scene (see The Gospel of Mark’s Jesus as the New Adam).
Notice further that Paul speaks of having “persecuted the church” (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13, 23; Phil 3:6) and that this can be understood as “persecuting Jesus” — “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” (Acts 9:4). Paul never saw “the historical Jesus” for good reason.
Paul was focused on “the last days” (his own time) and in that context what was envisioned was the people collectively submitting to God and being filled with the Spirit. It is as a collective that people are often associated with being open to “spiritual experiences” (as we read in Acts of the Apostles) and to make this point NC quotes the sociologist Max Weber:
In the apostolic age the spirit did not come upon the solitary individual, but upon the faithful assembly or upon one or several of its participants. This, at least, was the rule and the form of experience which the community evaluated as typical. The “spirit was poured out” to the community when the Gospel was preached. Speaking in tongues and other gifts of the spirit including, also, prophecy, emerged in the midst of the assembly and not in a solitary chamber. All these things obviously resulted from mass influence, or better, of mass gathering and were evidently bound up with such, at least, as normal precondition. The culture-historically so extremely important esteem for the religious community as depository of the spirit in early Christendom had, indeed, this basis. The very community, the gathering of the brethren was especially productive of these sacred psychic states.
The body metaphor is carried over into radical ethical pronouncements such as when Jesus is made to order his followers to cut off offending hands and eyes (Matt 5:29-30), and when in the synagogue he heals the man with the withered hand (Matt 12:10), a symbol of the Jewish people and their early rejection of the new community.
. . .
Next — how Jesus was made to be a Messiah who embodied different messianic viewpoints of the period.
Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.
Radermakers, Jean. Au fil de l’évangile selon Saint Matthieu. Volume 2 : lecture continue. Bruxelles : Institut d’Etudes Théologiques, 1974
Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. 2nd ed. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1892.
Weber, Max. Ancient Judaism. Translated by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. London: Free Press, 1967.
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