2021-04-12

Jewish Origin of the “Word Became Flesh” / 2 … (Charbonnel: Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier)

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues an exploration into the origin of the gospel figure of Jesus, in particular the case made by Nanine Charbonnel [NC] in Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier.

[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)

Elijah Benamozegh (Wikipedia)

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.

* e.g. Boyarin argues in The Jewish Gospels that the idea of a suffering messiah was a pre-Christian Jewish idea. Compare W. D. Davies in Paul and Rabbinic Judaism who also writes, How far are we justified in finding the same conception [suffering Messiah] among the Rabbis of the first century? Two factors ought to be borne in mind when we think of this question. First, that a methodical consideration is involved. We find an idea well attested in the early second century, and we have pointed out that the concept of the Servant of Yahweh of Deutero-Isaiah had become associated with that of the Messiah before the first century. We are led to the feeling that if the idea of the Suffering Messiah were not a burning issue in Christian theology the evidence before us would have led naturally to the assumption that it existed in the first century despite the absence of specific evidence. Moreover, in the second place, we must presuppose that behind the punning interpretation of והריחו in Isa. 11.3, as the burden imposed on the Messiah, and of חוליא (the sick) and חיורא (the leper) in Isa. 53. 4, there was probably a very long development.
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 [1987]: 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)

Daniel Boyarin

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.

(p. 119)

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 [1] was made flesh and he remained [2] among us and we saw his Glory [3] (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.

(p. 95)

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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3 thoughts on “Jewish Origin of the “Word Became Flesh” / 2 … (Charbonnel: Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier)”

  1. “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.”

    I think it’s even closer than this. Firstly, in that it seems clear that Jewish thought from this period is completely misunderstood today. The definitions of what Sadducee, Pharisee and Essene are or who these people are is wildly inconsistent. At times the Pharisees are the arch-legalists and ruling priests, with the Sadducees as aristocratic hedonists. Other times, the Sadducees are arch-orthodox with the Pharisees as innovators and accommodators. It appears that most of the priesthood was attracted to the “fourth branch”.

    Judaism was a local tradition subject to multiple waves of innovation and internal political problems. Priests were hereditary, so would the orthodoxy of their beliefs matter? The backwards redaction of Jewish thought – the idea that ancient Jews would remotely agree with how modern rabbis interpret the religion – is inappropriate.

    It appears that first century Judaism had three major factions. The Alexandrians/Philonics including the later Herodians (and Ananians), which sought to accommodate foreign ideas while also aspiring to transform Judaism into a cosmopolitan religion. The Pharisaical element, perhaps of the lower gentry, which was anti-radical but therefore also anti-nationalist, theologically bland. The Zealots, who seem to have absorbed all the energy of esoteric Judaism, and who were connected to that race of Iturean/Galilean converts to Judaism near the plain of Damascus and in Lebanon. Add to that a fourth group of pure rabble-rousers, which is more of a phenomenon than a faction (this is not Josephus’s “fourth philosophy”).

    The messianic movement seems to be a combination of repurposed Maccabean era eschatology (it having been coincident with the ascendency of Jewish political power) with a reintroduction or restoration of Canaanite folk religion which served as the original basis for Jewish religion. It invokes the nationalist sympathies associated with the Jewish identity and suffering in the Hellenic/Roman world and adds (with likely use of perception and mood enhancing drugs) a deeper spiritual meaning to it. Jews are persecuted for having a different religion, but because they have a different religion, God will grant them victory and a national paradise – thus suffering has meaning, and suffering finds its purpose.

    Certainly, the interpretations of messianic Judaism will have exceeded the then contemporary understanding of scripture. However, it’s only in the false conceptions of rabbinical Judaism where this is a problem. Daniel and some of the prophets aren’t original Judaism. They were added because of a political and historical context. The exodus tale didn’t happen that way, it was either invented or altered to fit a later purpose. So, first century messianism is actually consistent with the pattern of development of the Jewish religion, and it’s really only after bar Kokhba and Akiva that an orthodox purity begins to emerge. No doubt, from the influence of this lower pharisaical gentry and its frustration with the turmoil caused by innovation and radicalism to the received religion they had known.

    The most current interpretation of Christianity that makes sense has it as something that is not a modification or divergence from Judaism. Rather, Jews retreated from the messianism of the zealots. It’s perfectly clear that messianic Judaism evolved into the many gnostic religions. Under messianism, the archons and prince of the world would be overthrown, and replaced by the messianic leaders. This would remake the world metaphysically into a paradise. The Enochian beliefs about metaphysics are present in the Pentateuch, but left without elaboration. Good luck convincing the Jews who still remembered the ancient context for those beliefs that they’re not “jewish”. Gnosticism is merely an internal, and pacifistic version of these metaphysics. The false world of the archons is escaped, not overthrown. Obviously, considering Valentinius’ rise the same year as Bar Kokhba’s defeat, gnosticism emerged directly out of Hadrian’s persecutions of messianic Judaism as a pacified alternative. I’d venture further to say that Enochian beliefs probably parallel and have a common root with other Eastern, Canaanite and even Anatolian/Armenian/Indo-European beliefs. The Mitanni split the Assyrian world in two, and brought a Vedic religion. I have no doubts that Armenian Mithraism, for instance, has some common root with Enochian Judaism. There’s no sudden spring of ideas here, just an overlooked wetlands.

    What explains Christianity, however, is the casting of Philonic Judaism on top of the corpse of messianic Judaism. It’s really simple, in this light, though it does require understanding Pauline Messianism as a discrete instance of Philonic advocates attempting to repurpose messianism.

    As messianic Judaism evolved into Gnosticism, some might have seen Gnosticism as less authentic, and seek something they would believe is more faithful to the original. Keeping in mind that because of Hadrian, dealing with the original was a death sentence. Marcion himself may very well have been a catalyst for a kind of out-of-context authenticity-seeking, given his timing.

    Somehow, the rejecters of Gnosticism found the shell of the bizarre Flavian interpretation (which existed possibly only in Pontus and Rome) of the Philonic messianism which Paul built as a failed counterweight to the zealot ideology. Note that the messianic star prophecy has parallels with the false Nero phenomenon. I’m continually frustrated that historians don’t consider this. Paul has a ministry to the Praetorian elites, and is corresponding with Epaphroditus. Vespasian’s mission, Nero’s death, the Jewish War altogether can’t be a coincidence. Pauline messianism is clearly a Philonic/Herodian/Ananian “joint venture” with elements in Rome including the victorious Flavian family. The Herodian family was always closely linked with the Imperial dynasty. None of this is a stretch.

    I favor the idea that the now lost true history of Jesus (brother of James, son of Judas) was repurposed as a stage play using Greek literary tropes and loose history (including Josephus) to present the “story” behind the Pauline teachings circulating in the Flavian household. That a text of this one-off play made it to Pontus when the Flavian Christians were exiled there by Domitian (their cult not lasting a generation). That Marcion found it, along with some Pauline materials, in an old chest or something. That he retailored it to have gnostic elements to appeal to the more popular gnostic cults. That he hoped to use this discovery as a claim to fame. Finally, that he brought it to Rome, causing them to dig up their copies of these same texts and promoting them as the synoptics.

    This would mean that the Roman community might have known this was a stage play, but Marcion’s circulation of his gospel forced these erstwhile Philonic messianists to play along and advance their less gnostic version as an authentic history.

    Now you have an ancient world where the Jesus following messianics are totally defeated. You have a growing Pauline/Philonic movement forced to promote a version of history that contradicts the real Jesus. You have a Roman authority that has crushed all authentic expressions of the ideology. You have a rabbinical movement which seeks to redact and canonize Jewish theology and remove all references which ever remotely acknowledged the messianic movement as a legitimate expression of Jewish thought. Add in Byzantine power, the Roman Church and the crusader discoveries, Islam and its position on Christianity (following the literary narrative and rejecting the Jewish element). Also the fact that the original movement was born out of a power struggle and the consequent intrigue even between factions within the priesthood and among Herodians etc. No wonder not a shred of evidence of the life of Jesus outside of the gospels and a couple interpolations exists.

    We might know Jesus. He might be, actually, John the Baptist, who might actually be Theudas. Or maybe he was just himself, and the evidence of the real him was totally eradicated.

    Still, if we really want to say there was an apostolic Christianity, we have to restrict ourselves exclusively to Paul’s movement. If we want to define it, it’s merely Philonic Judaism. That’s it, and that defines who is involved in it. A cosmopolitan religion with a philosophically pure monotheistic bent and basic, Noahide moral practices. Vespasian moves the temple menorah to his universalist “Temple of Peace”. He is the Jewish messiah. He is also Serapis. I don’t think the Philonics would have objected. As peace-seeking world emperor, he is an incarnation of Logos. The Pax Romana is the apotheosis of Philonic aspirations.

    What Paul does is that he repurposes the zealots’ messiah – no doubt to compete with or undermine them – and then this is later used to rebrand Philonic Judaism as a savior cult. That’s it. The personal spiritual messiah isn’t essential to the cult, but rather incorporated to make it sell better in an environment with many savior cults. To the Philonics, Jesus is just another Logos incarnation, and of course Logos can be construed as a spiritual savior.

    Only once the synoptics enter the stage do you see a Christian orthodoxy which starts to require the earthly sacrifice. The earthly incarnation – a metaphor or at a minimum a spin on Logos incarnation – becomes essential to the sects which are defined by it. Thus, the theology must explain why the earthly incarnation is essential. Thus, atonement theology.

    So, the most Christian of Christian groups – Paul’s Philonic messianism – is tolerably Jewish. It only becomes Christian once the gospel texts imply the necessity of an earthly incarnation and atonement, no doubt something the zealot messianists would amplify as consistent with their beliefs. And, there’s more reason to believe the gospels discuss the incarnation more as an accident of narrative circumstance, rather than an essential belief.

    1. Please consider the types of comments we prefer here — see https://vridar.org/about/comments-and-moderation/. A comment such as yours here is better suited for your own blog or other discussion group. The point of the post was very specific and engagement with those specifics is welcome. I doubt many readers will be interested in a lengthy alternative scenario that bears no direct relevance to the specific point of the post.

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