[To readers not so interested in the depth of these posts I have added an apology at the end.]
Though Jesus and Christianity appear to most of us as being very different from what we think of as Judaism, NC is setting forth reasons to believe that Christian beliefs about Jesus (that he was God in the flesh) were in fact natural adaptations of certain Jewish beliefs in the Second Temple era and prior to what we now think of as orthodox rabbinic Judaism. The view that early Christian and Jewish beliefs were much closer to each other than we tend to imagine today is not new among scholars. NC, therefore, can quote a critical work of the life of Jesus from the early 1800s in partial support of her argument that the figure of Jesus we read about in the gospels was initially created as a personification of various attributes of God.
Personified attributes of God in certain Jewish traditions
Pre-Christian Jewish thought has long been known to have personified various attributes of God. In 1835 David Friedrich Strauss in his Life of Jesus Critically Examined wrote:
We find in the Proverbs, in Sirach, and the Book of Wisdom, the idea of a personified and even hypostasized Wisdom of God, and in the Psalms and Prophets, strongly marked personifications of the Divine word; and it is especially worthy of note, that the later Jews, in their horror of anthropomorphism in the idea of the Divine being, attributed his speech, appearance, and immediate agency, to the Word (מימרא) or the dwelling place (שכינתא) of Jehovah, as may be seen in the venerable Targum of Onkelos. These expressions, at first mere paraphrases of the name of God, soon received the mystical signification of a veritable hypostasis, of a being at once distinct from, and one with God. As most of the revelations and interpositions of God, whose organ this personified Word was considered to be, were designed in favour of the Israelitish people, it was natural for them to assign to the manifestation which was still awaited from Him, and which was to be the crowning benefit of Israel,—the manifestation, namely, of the Messiah,—a peculiar relation with the Word or Shechina. From this germ sprang the opinion that with the Messiah the Shechina would appear, and that what was ascribed to the Shechina pertained equally to the Messiah: an opinion not confined to the Rabbins, but sanctioned by the Apostle Paul.
(Strauss, Life, Pt II Ch IV §64. Bolding is NC’s re the French translation)
NC rightly remarks that many aspects of the texts of the New Testament would remain obscure without reference to the later Jewish writings. Talmudic writings, though late, certainly contain ideas, debates, sayings, that were known before the fall of the temple in 70 CE. NC goes further, however, and suggests that even the late Jewish mystical writings of the Kabbalah incorporate ideas much older than the Middle Ages. This is an area I have read too little about so all I can do at this point is repeat NC’s point and attach questions to them, especially when citing a Kabbalist.
In the nineteenth century, Joseph Salvador (in 1838), then especially the rabbi of Livorno Elijah Benamozegh (in a manuscript of 1863 which has remained unpublished, but written in French and having been sent to Paris, and which has just been published), La Kabbale et L’origine des Dogmes Chrétiens, have thrown very interesting light on these questions – if at least one accepts to name Kabbalah all that has not been accepted by rabbinical Judaism, and which must have had much more older than the Middle Ages alone. [machine translation of NC, p. 313. I have ordered a copy of La Kabbale but will have to wait a couple of weeks for it to arrive.]
NC further indicates that, according to Benamozegh, New Testament passages relating to the relationship between Father, Son, Holy Spirit under various metaphors and the incarnation of the Word of God are explained best by certain of those mystical notions, such as the Malkuth. The types of esoteric Jewish beliefs that entertained some of these ideas presumably from as early as the Second Temple era also would go a long way towards explaining the origins of various forms of Christianity (e.g. gnostic) that were delegated as heretical by what became orthodoxy. As mentioned, I know too little at this stage about Kabbalism to comment, although I have to add that the relevance of Kabbalist ideas to NC’s quest is underscored by Daniel Boyarin in Border Lines.
We are now in a position to state the result of our discussion. It has led us to the conclusion which, in view of those ideas of the value of suffering and particularly of the suffering of the righteous and of martyrs which we enumerated above, we should have expected, namely, that the assumption is at least possible that the conception of a Suffering Messiah was not unfamiliar to pre-Christian Judaism. (p. 283)
So returning to Boyarin (with NC), some of whose more fascinating ideas cohere with other works by his scholarly peers*, NC directs us to this section of Border Lines:
This leads me to infer that Christianity and Judaism distinguished themselves in antiquity not via the doctrine of God, and not even via the question of worshiping a second God (although the Jewish heresiologists would make it so, as we shall see in the next chapter), but only in the specifics of the doctrine of this incarnation.78 Not even the appearance of the Logos as human, I would suggest, but rather the ascription of actual physical death and resurrection to the Logos was the point at which non-Christian Jews would have begun to part company theologically with those Christians—not all, of course—who held such doctrines.
78. It is not beside the point to note that, in traditional Jewish prayer from the Byzantine period to now, prayer to the “attributes” of God is known as well as prayer to the Ministering Angels (Yehuda Liebes, “The Angels of the Shofar and the Yeshua Sar-Hapanim,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 6, no. 1-2 : 171-95, in Hebrew). These prayers were rectified by nineteenth-century Jewish authorities, who saw in them (suddenly?) a threat to monotheism.
[NC quoted the bolded part in the French translation. The passage above is from Boyarin, Border Lines, pp 125 and 294]
In the next section of this post, we will delve further into Boyarin’s discussion on the relationship between early Christianity and Judaism.
Innovative interpretations: theology of the Memra in the Targum
The Word: Logos (Greek); Memra (Aramaic)
In the early Aramaic translation/interpretations of what became our Old Testament texts, the Targums, we find that the “word of creation” in Genesis 1 is equated with the “I am” identity of the speaker in Exodus 3:14. In this early Aramaic interpretation of the Pentateuch we thus find the Memra, the Word of God, becomes “personified”, becomes a person. Again from Boyarin (the highlighting and emphasis are those of NC in French translation):
In the Targums we can see, or at any rate paint, a picture of how the Memra has also come into being in the exegesis of Genesis 1:3. Exodus 3:12-14 (the theophany of the burning bush), when read together with that verse, and its targumic expositions are key texts. The Hebrew of verse 12 reads that Moses, having asked God his name so that he may say in whose name it is that he comes, receives the famous reply:
And God said to Moses: “I am that I am,” and he said: “Thus shall you say unto them, ‘I Am has sent me to you.”‘
“I Am” is thus a name of God (the name that would be claimed by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel: Ego Eimi). On this verse, the Palestinian Targum translates: “And the Memra of H’ said to Moses: He who said [אמר], to the world from the beginning, ‘Be there,’ and it was there, and who is to say [יאמר] to it ‘Be there,’ and it will be there; and he said, Thus shall you say to the Israelites, He has sent me to you.” In other words, the name “I Am” has been glossed in the Targums by a reference to Genesis 1’s “And God said: Let there be” and thus to the Word by which God brought the universe into being, namely, the Memra. In the verse following this one, this name for God—”He who said to the world ‘Be there’— has become transformed into a divine being in its own right, the very word that was said, separate from but homoouosios with God: “I, My Memra, will be with you: I, My Memra will be a support for you.” In verse 13, in answer to Moses’ apprehension that he will not be sufficient to go to Pharaoh to bring out the Israelites, God answers: “I [Am] [אהיה] will be with you.” According to the Palestinian Targum . . . the Aramaic here reads: “I, My Memra, will be with you.” The other Targums maintain this interpretation, but add the element of the Memra as supporter, thus: “And he said: Because my Memra will be for your support.”84 From this we see how this Memra, Logos, is that which is revealed to Moses in the declaration I Am, provides support for him, redeems the Israelites, and so forth. In the Targum, as in Logos theology, this Word has been hypostasized, treated as an actual divine person.85 In other words, this targumic midrash provides us with a point of origin for the term Memra as derived from an interpretation of Genesis 1:3. One could say that “I Am” [Ego Eimi] is a name for the Memra from this targumic text.
84. The association of Memra with supporting, as well as redeeming, and revealing is almost commonplace in the Targums, as we have seen above.
85. It is fascinating that in the binitarian theology of later medieval Kabbalism, the first “I am” is taken to refer to the Demiurge and the second to Wisdom (Idel, “Prayer in Provençal Kabbalah,” 274-75).
[Boyarin, Border Lines, pp. 125-56 and 294. I have omitted several endnotes that identify specific manuscript sources.]
What does this Memra do? Again, taking liberty from NC’s very brief quotation to quote something extra from Boyarin:
We find the Memra working as the Logos works in the following ways:
Creating: Genesis 1:3, “And the Memra of H’ said Let there be light and there was Light by his Memra” In all of the following verses, it is the Memra that performs all of the creative actions.
Speaking to humans: Genesis 3:8 ff., “And they heard the voice of the Memra of H’…. And the Memra of H’ called out to the Man.”
Revealing himself. Genesis 18:1, “And was revealed to him the Memra of H’.”
Punishing the wicked: Genesis 19:24, “And the Memra of H’ rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Saving. Exodus 17:21, “And the Memra of H’ was leading them during the day in a pillar of cloud.”
Redeeming. Deuteronomy 32:39, “When the Memra of H’ shall be revealed to redeem his people.”
These examples lead inductively to the conclusion that the Memra performs many, if not all, of the functions of the Logos of Christian Logos theology (as well as of Wisdom), and an a priori case can be made, therefore, for some kind of connection between these two, after all, etymologically cognate entities in nonrabbinic Judaism.
There is much more I would like to cover from Boyarin’s work especially where he engages with other New Testament scholars (Alan Segal, John Ashton, Raymond Brown, Burton Mack, Larry Hurtado and others) I have covered in other posts on Vridar but I’ll try to keep much of it for a separate post and focus here on NC’s discussion. NC does bring in another author to supplement Boyarin’s contribution, Claude Tassin, who in Réécrire les saintes Écritures discusses one of the targums on Genesis 22:14 : Abraham is said to pray to the name of the Word of Yahweh; that is, he does not pray to the Lord but to the Word. The same targum passage says that the glory of the Shekhinah (= presence, abode) of Yahweh appeared to him. Tassin stresses the close association of these three terms and their place in “synagogue theology”: the Memra (the Word), meaning the creative and redemptive work of God; the Shekhinah (God’s dwelling), underscoring God’s closeness to his people; the Yeqar (glory), implying the shining presence of God as he brings salvation. The last sentence is worth quoting in full, though in translation:
The Christian reader will notice the astonishing reflection of these three synagogical terms in the Johannine Prologue: The Word  was made flesh and he remained  among us and we saw his Glory  (Jn 1:14)
What all of this documentary evidence adds up to is that the personification of the Logos, the Word, as the Messiah, is not necessarily or even likely to be a “mutation” from “real Judaism” — “the Logos personifying the Messiah seems not to have been a mutation at all” (Boyarin, 124); and “Although Segal correctly points to the Fourth Gospel as the earliest Jewish text that explicitly makes this connection, its presence in other Jewish texts not directly influenced in any way by the Gospel suggests a wider Jewish circulation, perhaps even a pre-Christian one” (Boyarin, 293f) — or even more than a personification, the Word in these contexts can even be understood as a hypostasis (as per French anthropologist Marcel Jousse).
Last quotation from Boyarin’s Border Lines in this post, one that states as clearly as possible that the idea of a personified Logos, the word becoming a person and dwelling among us, is as Jewish as it is Christian, and that it was most probably Jewish before it was Christian:
[T]he Logos of the Prologue — like the theological Logos in general . . . — is the product of a scriptural reading of Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8 together. This reading will bear out my conclusion that nothing in Logos theology as a doctrine of God indicates or even implies a particularly Christian as opposed to generally Jewish, including Christian, kerygma. “The dialogical play of scriptural interpretation” . . . is acted out on the stage of Jewish traditional hermeneutics, on which non-Jesus Jews, Jesus Jews, and those exotic Jews/Christians that we call Gnostics all had a part in the play.
Proverbs 8:22 The LORD brought me [Sophia, Wisdom] forth as the beginning [רֵאשִׁית reshith] of his works, before his deeds of old
Compare Genesis 1:1 In the beginning [בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית reshith] God created the heavens and the earth.
Proverbs is speaking of Sophia, Wisdom, which in Jewish interpretation was made the agent of creation, the personified agent of creation, not only in Proverbs but in extra-canonical texts like Sirach, too.
Such concepts were Jewish, we may fairly suggest, before they became identified as Christian.
. . .
Wheh! I have been doing loads of extra reading around these pages in NC’s book and it’s taking me a long time to get through but I think it is worth it. This is part 2 of a small section of Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier and there is one more part to come in what was originally expected to be a relatively short single post. Apologies to those of you who are not interested in such depth, and believe me, I really have a mountain of quotes and readings I have dug up while following the various leads on this thesis of the pre-Christian existence of key concepts, or the indistinguishability of earliest Christianity with aspects of Second Temple Judaism.
Boyarin, Daniel. Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.
Davies, W. D. Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Fortress Press, 1980.
Strauss, David Friedrich. The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. 2nd ed. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1892.
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