2021-02-14

The Mystery of the Incarnation Solved? — Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series  . . .

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According to the conventional scholarly view, Jesus began his career as a remarkable man who so impressed his closest associates that they came to view him as more than a mere man after his death. Admiration for Jesus grew to the extent that by the time the epistles and gospels were written he was deemed to be a heavenly divine figure alongside God, one who during his earthly sojourn had been a “new Moses”, a “new Israel” and “son of God”. This Jesus that is found in the gospels and epistles is generally acknowledged to be a mythical figure even though there was some at some point a “mere mortal” upon whom all those grandiose concepts were bestowed over time. A popular Christ myth idea today proposes the converse: that Jesus began as a heavenly figure and that his earthly career was a later “mythological/theological” development.

Nanine Charbonnel [NC] in her book Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier proposes that there is more explanatory power in replacing both trajectories (from human to divine and from heavenly to earthly) with a kind of “big bang” in which all the essential attributes of Jesus, both his core divine and human attributes, appeared together. The method by which this Jesus emerged following the same Jewish literary-theological techniques that generated other biblical figures and events: that is, by various ways of playing with word meanings, sounds, and images that were found in the “Sacred Scriptures”, and by a rich use of allegory and metaphor. See the box below for illustrations of this point.

For example: the name and character of Abraham, meaning “father of many nations”, was constructed to be representative of “many nations”; the twins Jacob and Esau, and then the twelve sons of Israel, were created to represent the twelve tribes, and several of these figures were given narrative roles to represent the historical fates of the people they were said to represent; waters were divided and gathered to let life-giving land appear, and this motif was repeated with the creation of the new world founded by Noah’s family, and again with the new nation of Israel being born through the Red Sea and Jordan River, and again when Elisha took over the reins from Elijah by crossing the brook that miraculously parted for him . . .  and again when the skies themselves were parted at the commencement of the ministry of Jesus. We see related techniques at work with the development of the Son of Man figure emerging first as a metaphor in Daniel and associated with the imagery of another metaphorical figure for Israel, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, and how this literary Son of Man became a “real” Son of Man dwelling in heaven by the time of the writings attributed to Enoch. Paul’s idea that a saviour figure had undergone a curse by being hung on a tree appears to have been inspired by a creative reflection on the offering of Isaac in Genesis and another passage in Deuteronomy. Certain correspondences between Jezebel and Esther have led some scholars to suggest that Esther was created in part as a righteous foil to the wicked Jezebel. And so forth and so forth — examples could be multiplied many times over (and the ones listed here represent only a few of the creative methods employed). [I have mixed some of NC’s examples with a few others I have read in various other publications.]

The relevance for NC’s thesis is that the way Jesus was created was consistent with the way other figures in the Jewish scriptures were created. The main difference is that the figure of Jesus was overloaded with more layers of Scriptural tropes than others. But there was a good reason for this hyper overlay: Jesus of the gospels was being created as the personification of the new and ideal Israel itself, that is, the Israel of prophecy that was filled with the presence of God. We begin to understand here the origin of the coalescing of two natures in Jesus, the human and the divine.

So we come now to NC’s next step in her discussion of the incarnation of Jesus. Recent posts have addressed the way Jesus was shaped to represent key biblical heroes (Adam, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha) and even the people of God collectively, the new Israel, the union of Jews and gentiles in the one new body. That has been only half the story, though. NC calls this Jesus’s “horizontal” personification. Jesus was also the personification of the divine and of all things ordained for the worship of God, including the temple. But NC begins with the tabernacle of the wilderness, the tent in which God first dwelt among his people. Jesus is also the embodiment of Scripture itself, the Word of God, and the very name of God. NC’s thesis is that the gospel Jesus was the unique product of these two types of personification, horizontal and vertical.

Recall, further, from previous posts the frequency of the confusion of the literal and figurative that NC points to in the Jewish Scriptures. Sometimes the reader is left wondering which is which. So it is with the gospels.

NC sees three primary horizontal-vertical “constructions” making up the figure of gospel Jesus:

  1. As the personification of the People the person named “Yahweh Saves” (= Jesus) is simultaneously the personification-incarnation of the Son of God.
  2. As the nation of kings and the messiah he is the personification-incarnation of the Temple.
  3. More precisely he is the personification-incarnation of the Presence of God, the shekinah, which was originally in the Tabernacle or Tent. Now the word that is translated tabernacle/tent (in the LXX) is used elsewhere as a reference to the human body. But we will come to that in due course.

In the remainder of this chapter draws out the depths of the above three components of the gospel Jesus and I’ll attempt to cover these in the next post (or maybe three). A later discussion explores details of Jesus as the Name, Word and Law of God.

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


 

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Neil Godfrey

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One thought on “The Mystery of the Incarnation Solved? — Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”

  1. I doubt that NC knows the difference between the two trajectories (from human to divine and from heavenly to earthly). Nowhere she talks about the latter, so probably she has only two paradigms in mind: the historicist one and the her own paradigm (everything invented from day zero).

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