Continuing here Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. This post covers pages 398 to 411. I have questions and some doubts about certain connections that are being made in these pages and note NC’s occasional expressions of tentativeness. But I’ll try to present here the key points expressed and from time to time add what I think is an alternative (or additional) rationale for some of the points made. One question raised is whether some of the connections proposed are the results of reflection on the cross rather than inspirations for introducing the cross into theological imagery in the first place.
1. Two Sides of the Passion: Positive Outcome of an Ordeal
The message is that the people of Israel, though dead, will be victorious. Through death comes resurrection. Some specifics:
Crown of Thorns
NC suggests that this “apparent instrument of torture is in fact the emblem of divine kingship”. The possibility of its relationship with the Burning Bush in the Exodus is raised (think of the bush as the place where the divinity dwells), as also the possible allusion to the thorn bush that became king in Judges 9:7-15. Salomon Reinach states that the idea that the crown of thorns was intended to inflict suffering on Jesus was “very late” (“très postérieure”) — though the reasons for this claim are not given at Le Roi supplicié.
Marc-Alain Ouaknin, NC with some caution notes, points to kabbalistic associations, and others have remarked on the crown being a rabbinical metaphor for the Torah, but surely more significant than any of these suggestions is the eschatological significance, in this case, the link with the Feast of Tabernacles. To quote Jean Daniélou in Les Symboles chrétiens primitifs:
But we confine ourselves here to the use of crowns of foliage at the feast of Tabernacles. And it seems to us, from all the texts that have been brought together, that it is to this usage that the Jewish and Judeo-Christian symbolism of the crown to symbolize eschatological glory. This usage, like its symbolism, seems relatively recent in Judaism. Judaism. It is related to the development of the messianic of messianic expectation and, in literary terms, with apocalypticism. (Daniélou, p. 30)
Original:Et il nous paraît, d’après l’ensemble des textes rapprochés, que c’est à cet usage que se rattache le symbolisme juif et judéo-chrétien de la couronne pour symboliser la gloire eschatologique. Cet usage, comme son symbolisme, paraît relativement récent dans le judaïsme. Il se trouve en relation avec le développement de l’attente messianique et littérairement avec l’apocalyptique.
In my mind, however, a crown of plants suggesting a return to the original Garden of Eden situation does not seem compatible with a crown of thorns.
The magnificent purple cloak
The cloak draped upon Jesus was “lampran” (Luke 23:11) – glorious, magnificent; Mark 15:17 and John 19:2, 5 inform us it was purple. NC raises questions: is this the garment of the High Priest? or the robe of King Saul? Certainly, it is a royal garment, but it is a cloak and not a full dress. “Many midrashim” speak of God putting on a royal mantle as he prepares to act in bloody vengeance on the “last day” — e.g. Isaiah 63:2-4. Again there is reference to late Ashkenazi messianic imagery with the suggestion that certain ideas could be “much older”. All of these points briefly touched by NC may be suggestive but I can’t help thinking they are inconclusive. (One point: I am left wondering about the colour red in some of the references instead of purple.)
Behold the man
John 19:5 “Behold the man” — with these words Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd. This is the same phrase as the Septuagint (Greek version) uses to present the first king of Israel: ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος — “behold the man” in 1 Samuel 9:17 (Greek text). One may well see here a “subtle” announcement of Jesus as the “king of the Jews”, the words to be placed on the titulus above the cross.
Pilate washes his hands: Possible allusions — Deuteronomy 21:6-7 and Psalm 26:6. Is it a leap too far to think of the practice of Jews washing hands before writing the name of YHWH? (I think that last suggestion is too indirect to be sustained.)
47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.
The above passage follows on the heels of the death and raising of Lazarus. Lazarus (or Eleazar) was a well-known Jewish martyr (2 Maccabees 6:18-31). By placing the episode of Lazarus’s death and recovery at this point in the narrative the author was signaling a non-literal meaning. Lazarus is a personification of the Jewish people, one who had been bound and whom Jesus now ordered to be untied; one who had died but was not restored to life. That one man should stand for the entire nation was hardly a novel idea. It is found in Numbers 14:15 (kill this people as one man) and by gematria (a technique that we have seen can be argued to go back to that time) people and man are equivalent in the number 110.
The clearest indicator that Jesus’ death is a substitution is the Barabbas episode. The earliest manuscripts show that Barabbas from the outset was apparently named Jesus. Jesus, son of the father, substituted for another Jesus, son of the Father. (Compare the earlier discussion where NC addressed the derivation of this exchange from the Day of Atonement ritual.) Nothing about this scene was ever thought historical. There was no such custom of prisoner exchange.
NC here discusses the scholarly viewpoints on the meaning of “for” in the sentence “Jesus died for our sins”, with the differences between the Septuagint origin of the idea (Isaiah 53’s suffering servant) and the Hebrew text — the differences between expressing the redemptive reason for the death on the one hand and the beneficiary of the death on the other. This is followed by scholarly views that have been posited on the origin and significance of the Barabbas exchange. NC here also returns to a discussion of the Kapparah ritual (introduced and illustrated in Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures #7) that was practiced by Ashkenazi Jews on the eve of the Day of Atonement — Yom Kippur (cf Kapparah). NC quotes an interesting explanation of this ritual that is available in French at Barabbas vs Barrabas and where we read (thank the browser translator) that the event hangs on a wordplay: the sacrificed rooster in Talmudic Hebrew means man in Biblical Hebrew. Guyon drives home a direct comparison with the Pilate scene in the gospels:
After the slaughter, the priest pours a few drops of the blood of each animal on the forehead of each child. The mother keeps most of the sacrificed animals but also gives some for the poor of the synagogue. The priest, for each beast, therefore asks what to do with it …
Let us return to the Gospels and notice three fundamental points of the episode:
– Pilate proposes an exchange to the gathered crowd: a MAN for a MAN, one being sacrificed to atone for the sins of the other
– Pilate asks the crowd: What will I do with Jesus, who is called the Messiah? !
– The crowd answers him by shouting: let his blood fall on us …
How not to see in this episode a picture of that atonement . . . Jesus sacrificed as the animal ofKappara, “offering his life as an expiatory sacrifice” ( Isaiah 53,10) so that men may have Life.
The idea of substitution has a long history. The Talmud tells the story of a confusion between two rivals, one named Kamza and the other named Bar Kamza, that led to the war with Rome and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. See Gittin 56b-57a. The Gospel of Barnabas tells us of confusion between Judas and Jesus so that Judas, who was said to be very like Jesus, was crucified. Better known is the substitution of Simon of Cyrene (NC suggests he has been shaped from the Samson character, one who has the strength of God) for Jesus on the cross according to the second century “gnostic” Basilides. A Coptic manuscript from late antiquity describes a meal shared by Pilate and Jesus with Pilate offering to sacrifice his own son in place of Jesus.
The point here is that the idea of substitution lies at the heart of the making of midrash and the shaping of the narrative and figure of Jesus. The idea extends to what we read in the earliest extra-canonical Christian writings where it the “true Israel”, the church, is ordained to replace the “old Israel”, the Jewish people.
The whole narrative and the diverse personifications that we have seen all subtly ride on the themes of substitution and inversion. And it is in that context that the next section, the crucifixion itself, is explored.
We read about Jesus, on the eve of his death, as the eucharist or Last Supper meal, or as the ideal end-time sacrifice, that is, the sacrifice that effects not only forgiveness of sins but the communion of God and his people. The Passover feast has been reinterpreted but the changes have all come from other ideas found within the Jewish interpretations of Scriptures at the time.
In the view of Grappe and Marx (authors of Sacrifices scandaleux? quoted in the previous post) Jesus returns to the original (pre-Flood) ingredients of sacrifice, bread and wine, to function as both the sacrifice of reparation for sin and the sacrifice of the communion of God and his people (see the previous post for these two sacrifices explained). Further, these same ingredients represent the feast of the eschatological Kingdom of God. “Bread and cup become the place of the encounter with the one who gives his life” in the inauguration of God’s kingdom where both forgiveness and communion are freely offered.
In the old blood sacrifice, different parts of the animal were separated out and divided among the respective participants: offerer, priest, God. With the grain offering, on the other hand, God and priests share the same food that has been prepared the same way for both of them. So the ideal that was meant for the beginning of creation is projected to the end time. (Grappe and Marx, pp. 139-40)
We have seen this ideal from the beginning being re-instituted at the end-time in the Community Rule scroll from Qumran.
And when they shall gather for the common table, to eat and to drink new wine, when the common table shall be set for eating and the new wine poured for drinking, let no man extend his hand over the firstfruits of bread and wine before the Priest; for it is he who shall bless the firstfruits of bread and wine, and shall be the first to extend his hand over the bread. Thereafter, the Messiah of Israel shall extend his hand over the bread, and all the congregation of the Community shall utter a blessing, each man in the order of his dignity.
It is according to this statute that they shall proceed at every meal at which at least ten men are gathered together
(1QSa 2:11-22 — Vermes, Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English)
Variations on the Passover liturgy and meal
What we see in the gospels is not an interpretation of a historical Jesus, an interpretation that makes him a worthy sacrifice replacement for Passover. No, what we see is the reverse: the rituals and traditions relating to Passover have led to the creation of the figure of Jesus. The bread of the Passover meal and the sacrifice itself are together personified in the figure of Jesus. Here it is important to bring to our attention a custom associated with Passover that is not apparent from reading the gospels.
A Passover custom that appears to have had roots among some Jewish circles back into the Second Temple period and following is the breaking of a piece of bread and setting it aside, having wrapped it in white cloth to remain unseen, hidden, and to be eaten as the last thing of the meal. This piece of bread, the final item tasted, is called the aphikoman. This piece is said in rabbinic literature to represent Isaac, the son whom Abraham was willing to sacrifice. (For a description of this ceremony in French see the online article by R. Guyon beginning from Comment Jésus peut-il s’identifier à une matsah? – quoted by NC)
Now the word aphikoman/afikoman means “dessert”, or literally “he who is to come”, the dessert being delayed until the end of the meal. But of course “he who will come” has other connotations.
NC cites several scholarly works in this discussion and I have delayed posting this outline until I was able to track down some of them, in particular, essays by Eisler and Daube. Eisler’s article caused quite a storm when it appeared, as one can see from a section of Israel Jacob Yuval’s Two Nations in Your Womb:
In 1925—1926, Eisler published a rwo-part article named “Das letzte Abendmahl” in the journal Zeitschrift fur die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kundeder âlteren Kirche, in volumes 24—25, presenting an approach that comparcd the afikoman of the Jewish ceremony with the Host of the Christian one. Eisler was a great scholar of the New Testament, but he knew less about Judaism, and his article suffered from some errors. Yet this fact still does not confute his essential argument, and his article was an important contribution to uncovering the messianic significance of the afikoman and the potential for research latent in an understanding of the parallel developments of Passover and Easter.
This approach became a thorn in the flesh of both Jewish and Christian scholars. Immediately after the first part of Eisler’s paper was published, the journal’s editor, Hans Lietzmann, wanted to rescind his agreement to publish the second part. Eisler refused to give in and insisted that Lietzmann honor his commitment to publish the complete article. He even hired an attorney and threatened a lawsuit. Lietzmann was forccd to corne around, and Eisler’s attorney even forbade him to append an editor’s note stating that the article was published against his will and under legal duress. Instead, at the beginning of volume 25 (1926), Lietzmann published his own critique of Eisler’s theory, along with a sharp article by Marmorstein. Eisler demanded the right to reply in volume 26 (1927), but Lietzmann refused. Eisler then suggested that Lietzmann publish his reply in a journal outside Germany, on condition that Lietzmann report its contents in the “From Foreign Journals” section, but Lietzmann refused to do even that. Eisler remained isolated, attacked on ail sides, and unable to reply to his critics.
Forty years later, in 1966, Daube delivered a lecture on the afikoman at Saint Pauls Cathedral in London, vindicating Eisler’s interprétation of the afikoman, with certain necessary corrections and adding his own new find- ings. Daube told his audience of the bitter fate of his predecessor and expressed doubts whether the time had come for such comparative studies between Christianity and Judaism. To illustrate his concerns, he pointed out the fact that in the Goldschmidt edition of the Passover Haggadah there was no mention of the New Testament, even though it contains valuable information on the ancient version of Passover customs. Since Daube was not sure that the time was ripe, he refrained from disseminating his lecture widely and was satisfied with its publication in a pamphlet available only through personal request to the secretariat of the Committee for Christian-Jewish Understanding in London. Unlike Eisler, Daube was not muzzled, but his interpretation remained on the periphery of scholarship and has not yet been accorded the scholarly recognition it deserves.
Ah, the gentle ethereal world of scholarly exchanges.
Having read Yuval’s account I had to track down the articles by Eisler (both of them), Lietzmann, Marmorstein and Daube. You can access them through the links I supplied in the bibliography at the end of this post. In short, to quote the conclusion of Yuval,
If we trace the history of the afikoman and that of the Host in parallel, we discover a very ancient similarity. In I Corinthians 11:26, Paul addresses the following injunction to the disciples: ‘For as often as you eat this bread (…) you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. The consumption of the consecrated bread and wine during the Eucharistic meal is indeed an evocation of the crucifixion and the Parousia. This is also the precise meaning of the afikoman – a term that does not derive etymologically from the Greek epikomon but from aphikomenos, i.e. ”He who is to come”, as Robert Eisler (1925) and David Daube (1956) have glossed. Eating the afikoman therefore means anticipating the coming of the Messiah, according to the well-known rule: that “in Nissan comes deliverance and in Nissan comes salvation”.
(translated from p. 322 of the French edition of Yuval’s book in Hebrew, Deux peuples en ton sein, — quoted by NC, p. 380-381)
Contrary to Yuval’s conclusion elsewhere, Eisler and Daube insist that it is the gospel of Matthew that has been influenced by the Jewish custom.
There is an article in French by René Guyon describing the Passover customs and relating them to their reinterpretation in the gospels: http://www.garriguesetsentiers.org/article-12116051.html. Scroll down to the heading “Rite of Jesus”: a web translator is always an option, too. Included here are suggestions that Jesus is understood to have fulfilled the meanings of the several cups drunk at the Passover meal, with the fifth cup, normally not touched because it is poured out for Elijah, being drunk by Jesus. The suggestion is that by drinking the fifth cup at the end of the meal Jesus is declaring that he has fulfilled what Elijah came to proclaim: his own advent. (Perhaps, but I would have thought an evangelist would have dropped in a hint that it was explicitly the final or fifth cup that Jesus drank.)
It’s as if the Project for the New American Century never existed. The reason that the U.S. ever “entered” Afghanistan in the first place was that they were stunned at what happened on 9/11 and, quite understandably, like a dazed and confused giant, felt compelled to wage war on Al Qaeda and the tactic of “terrorism” based in Afghanistan. Of course, they did everything by the book and first asked the Afghan government to hand over Bin Laden for trial. The Taliban government, “as we all know”, flatly refused to do so. So the inevitable happened. No choice. And while they were at it, what could be better than restoring democracy and human rights to all the Afghan people!
But I recall so well the prominence at the time given to the manipulations and pressure of key political leaders to take the opportunity to implement the program of the New American Century. And I even recall that brief moment in the news when it was reported that the Afghan government (also doing everything by the book) asked the U.S. for the evidence that Bin Laden was the key suspect behind 9/11 so they could follow the normal practices of extradition. Maybe they were lying. But why would they want to give the U.S. an excuse to “enter” their country? And we’ll never know because we were told that they were “refusing” to hand over Bin Laden and therefore war had to be declared “immediately”.
So many of us shook our heads and thought, Sheesh, that is going to be a disaster! How can the U.S. succeed where no other power has managed to do so! Woe to Afghanistan. Another Vietnam.
And now we’re being told not to believe the online video clips and that Kabul is not at all like Saigon 1975.
Several discussions have broken out on “Biblical Criticism & History Forum” over the verses in 2 Corinthians describing Paul’s escape from Damascus by being lowered in a basket from a window in the city wall.
2 Corinthians 11:
30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.
This passage is the only explicit chronological marker in Paul’s letters. In this post I leave aside the question of which Aretas is being referred to and play the villain by looking at those arguments that raise doubts about the very authenticity of the passage.
First, a brief word in defence of its authenticity:
Against all these conjectures [against authenticity] one must object that manuscript evidence of an interpolation is lacking. “There is no evidence that the epistle ever existed without these verses at this point.”60 Nor is the difficulty alleviated by the hypothesis of a scribal gloss, which merely transfers the problem to the copyist who would have inserted the verses at this point.61
60Plummer, Second Epistle, 332. [the link is to archive.org where Plummer suggests that if there is interpolation it may even have been made into the original letter by the Apostle himself]
61Barrett, Second Epistle, 303. [again, like is to the relevant page in archive.org where this time Barrett sees a problem if we try to imagine a scribe inserting such a passage at this point.]
Welborn, Laurence L. “The Runaway Paul.” The Harvard Theological Review 92, no. 2 (1999): 122.
Welborn also posted a list of critics who have thought the passage should be deleted entirely:
J. H. A. Michelsen, “T Verhaal van Paulus’ vlucht uit Damaskus, 2 Kor. XI:32,33; XII: 1, 7a een interpolatie,” Theologisch Tijdschrift 7 (1873) 424-27;
J. M. S. Baljon, De tekst der brieven van Paulus aan de Romeinen, de Corinthiers en de Galatiers als voorwerp conjecturalkritiekbeschouwd (Utrecht: Boekhoven,1884) 159-61;
Windisch,Zweite Korintherbrief, 363-64;
Hans Dieter Betz, Der Apostel Paulus und die sokratische Tradition: Eine exegetische Untersuchung zu seiner “Apologie” 2 Kor 10-13 (BHTh 45; Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, n. 201.
What did they say?
In short, the episode is thought not to fit with the other experiences Paul has been writing about and it doesn’t seem to follow from the preceding words. It even seems to get in the way of what would otherwise be a coherent sentence. Paul insists that he will boast of his weaknesses, and then declares most emphatically that he is not lying …. and then, the basket escape. Is that not an odd scenario to follow a boast in weakness and an oath that he is not lying?
Remove the basket escape and we have Paul saying he will boast in his weaknesses, then swears he is not lying — then speaks of his vision and being taken up to the third heaven and being made to suffer a thorn in the flesh as a result. Does not that sound like a coherent line of thought? Where does the escape from Damascus fit?
Machine translations, with a little human polishing here and there, follow. Highlighting added for easier focusing on the main points.
First, for reference, here is the passage in context:
30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.
12 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say,7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
I quickly glossed over Nanine Charbonnel’s discussion of what the various sacrifices meant in the Temple cult of Israel in my previous post. I need to back up and cover the key points of those sacrifices before moving on but I’ll try to do so without getting into the details of certain Hebrew and Greek words and manuscript lines.
Key point #1: The temple cult was essential for communion between God and his people. Cain and Abel could offer sacrifices anywhere because God was still on earth with them. After God left the planet a mediator or mediation ceremony of some sort was necessary to enable some form of communion between God and his people.
Key point #2: The covenant between God and Israel made at Sinai was made between God and Israel in the presence of each other; the people (it can almost be said) effectively saw God, stood with him, certainly experienced a theophany.
Key point #3: The temple cult enabled in some sense a repeat of that theophany, or at least a restored communion with God through a mediator and a mediating cult.
Key point #4: The cult of mediation required several sacrifices.
One of these was the “asham” or guilt/sin/trespass offering that was made as reparation for damage done to the relationship and thus established the condition for the subsequent restoration of communion or a close relationship with God. This “asham” offering was a particular type of “sin offering” (“hattath” offering) . . .
The other sacrifice of note here (there are others but these two are most to the point of the broader discussion) followed the sin offering for reparation above and was the “hattath” or sin offering. “Sacrifices for sin are sometimes called sacrifices of atonement. In Hebrew, they are simply designated by the word hattath, sin, rendered according to the case by sacrifice for sin or the victim offered for sin. A part of it was burned on the altar, the major part was eaten by the priest who thus absorbed the sinner’s guilt in some way.” (From https://leschretiens.fr/lexique.php#S)
Key point #5: The sacrifices came to cover the sins of the entire community of Israel. (That is, the temple cult was concerned with more than individual sins.)
Key point #6: The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 offers his life as a sacrifice of atonement. He took on the sins of the multitude and had God lay all of Israel’s sins upon him.
Key point #7: In Hellenistic times (second century BCE) the temple cult of sacrifices was halted and a version of the Book of Daniel had the three Jewish martyrs praying from the fiery furnace that their sacrifice be a fulfilment of all that was necessary for atonement and restoration of the communion of Israel with God.
Key point #8: The same concept of sacrifice as accomplishing the goal of fellowship or communion with God is found in the Day of Atonement ritual. The High Priest undergoes various stages of purification to bring him ever closer to a place and condition where he can be in the presence of God who descends to grant his blessing on Israel. His ritual begins with an “asham” or “reparation for sin” sacrifice of a ram and culminates with a more elaborate sacrifice of a second ram, a sin offering that consecrates him and allows for a restored communion of God with his people.
Below I copy a translation of the key pages of Grappe and Marx from which Charbonnel extracts a quotation to explain these sacrifices and their significance for restoring Israel’s relationship with God.
We are now ready to move on to the next critical part of NC’s discussion.
We now arrive at Nanine Charbonnel’s discussion of the source of the Passion narrative in the gospels. Her approach is in three parts:
the failure of traditional approaches to bring us to a satisfactory answer and a recognition that the expectation of a suffering messiah who liberates his people was very much a part of Second Temple Judaism;
the relationship between the “killing of the messiah-body of the people of Israel”, the eucharist, the Passion, the Jewish Scriptures;
the central roles of personification, the substitution involving Barabbas and midrash.
The false leads of past enquiries
A man is put to death as atonement for the sins of others. The idea is found in other ancient religions, folklore and customs so it has seemed quite reasonable to look there to understand the origins of the gospel story.
Do mystery religions hold the key? No, they have not given a fully satisfactory explanation of what we read in the gospels. Other gods did not die as sacrifices to save their devotees. It cannot be said that Dionysus, Attis or Tammuz “died for our sins”. Gods in their wrath did require substitutes (an animal, even a child) as sacrifice at times but that’s not the same thing.
What of the Saturnalia? In 1898 Paul Wendland a specialist in Philo of Alexandria and future professor at Göttingen, in an article entitled “Jesus als Saturnalien-Koenig“, suggests that the mockery of Jesus by the Roman soldiers could be linked to the Saturnalia, an annual custom observed by Roman soldiers in which victim was crowned as a god-king (Kronos/Saturn) and mocked until finally executed quite some time later. But this was a December custom.
A better hypothesis, however, is one that caught my attention some years ago now, so it’s like catching up with an old friend. NC alerts us to Salomon Reinarch’s 1902 text online:
However, the resemblance of the Passion with the Sacaea is even more striking than that which it presents with the Saturnalia. Here is the text of Matthew (XXVIII, 26-31): “So Pilate released Barabbas to them; and after having whipped Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. And the soldiers brought Jesus to the Praetorium, and they gathered the whole company around him. And having stripped him, they put on him a scarlet robe. Then, having made a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed on his right hand; and kneeling before him, they laughed at him, saying: “Hail, King of the Jews!” And spitting at him, they took the reed and hit him on the head. After making fun of him,they took off the mantle and put his clothes back on him, and led him away to crucify him. “
Compare this passage with the treatment of the king of the Sacaea, as reported by Dion Chrysostom:
“They take one of the prisoners sentenced to death and have him sit on the royal throne; they dress him in royal clothes and let him drink, amuse himself and use the king’s concubines for several days. But then they strip him of his clothes, scourge him and cross him. “
Other suggestions have surfaced: that Jesus was filling the role of the villain Haman in the Esther story: Jews celebrated the occasion annually by destroying an effigy of Haman; and Philo’s account of Carabbas in Alexandria:
There was a certain madman named Carabbas, afflicted not with a wild, savage, and dangerous madness (for that comes on in fits without being expected either by the patient or by bystanders), but with an intermittent and more gentle kind; this man spent all this days and nights naked in the roads, minding neither cold nor heat, the sport of idle children and wanton youths; and they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a sceptre they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him; and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state. Then from the multitude of those who were standing around there arose a wonderful shout of men calling out Maris; and this is the name by which it is said that they call the kings among the Syrians; for they knew that Agrippa was by birth a Syrian, and also that he was possessed of a great district of Syria of which he was the sovereign . . .
René Girard refers (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 49ff) to a horrific episode in the life of Apollonius of Tyana when the prophet stopped a plague in Ephesus by inciting the crowd to stone a poor beggar to death in the belief that he was a demon. The citizens are cured of the plague. Everything is restored to rights. They acted as necessity required.
But how can one reconcile these scapegoat ideas with the sacrifice of the messiah? The scapegoat in non-Christian scenarios above is a fool, an innocent, an unworthy reject whose death draws away all the evil inflicting a community. That scenario clashes against the gospel Passion where the “scapegoat” is indeed the son of God and order is not restored merely as a result of his death alone. The crowd is acting correctly and necessarily, if mercilessly and cruelly, in the scapegoat traditions.
There are analogies in the mystery religions and other practices. There are the rites of death and rebirth as we see in the gospels, and the death of the god or scapegoat does have a benefit for many others. It is conceivable that such ideas in the Greco-Roman world made the spread of the Christian message somewhat recognizable or at least comprehensible and facilitated its spread. But those Greco-Roman analogies cannot explain the content of what we read of the death of Jesus in the gospels.
What we read in the gospels is almost entirely made up of a rewriting of Jewish Scriptures. Yes, the book of Esther with its violent fate of Haman is relevant, and so is the scapegoat theme as we find it in Leviticus 16. But these sources are some of the threads selected to weave a quite different story for a new situation.
NC finds an idea stressed by Girard of special interest. With the gospels we find a shift from the view that the persecuting mob are acting correctly against a necessary and demonic target:
myths are based on a unanimous persecution. Judaism and Christianity destroy this unanimity in order to defend the victims unjustly condemned and to condemn the executioners unjustly legitimated.
(Girard, I See Satan Fall, p. 172)
One must understand that we are not talking about a real divine man or man believed to be divine. The story is a historical fiction in which the people of God (who are the “son of God”) was sacrificed as an innocent victim, and therefore as an expiatory victim, a victim who gives new life to the people. This is a new story of a different type of death and resurrection.
The dramatic innovation that this gospel story introduces is identified by the French Dominican scholar Étienne Nodet. To begin with, one must recognize that John the Baptist had been preaching the imminence of the Final Judgment and the arrival of the Messiah and Kingdom of God with that Day of Judgment. On that Day of Judgment each person will be punished or rewarded according to their sins or to having their sins cleansed by the sacrifice of a victim in their stead.
The model for this [sacrificial exchange] is the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement, who is pure and who receives the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:20-22); it is he who bears the condemnation. It is a precept of the Law, but in another sense, it is like all sacrifices an injustice, if one equates the animal with a reasonable being. The persecuted righteous person, or more generally the martyr, represents a transfer of the same nature, where the injustice is clearer, especially if it is not obedience to a precept. Such is the case of John the Baptist or James. This is also the case with Jesus, but there is a major difference, which is underlined by Peter’s speech at Pentecost: he began by recalling the injustice of the crucifixion (Acts 2:23), and then he declares (vv. 32-33):
“God has raised this Jesus from the dead; we are all witnesses to this. And now, exalted at the right hand of God, he has received the Holy Spirit of promise from the Father and has poured him out.”
In other words, the final judgment is done, the injustice is redressed, and the Spirit is poured out.All these aspects are concentrated in the affirmation of the resurrection, which is a kind of thwarted sacrifice: the being on whom the faults are transferred is finally promoted, since he is resurrected, that is, justified. The Epistle to the Hebrews, by making Jesus both the high priest and the victim, develops at length this whole sacrificial dimension.
We know the account Josephus gives of his telling Vespasian that he would be the next emperor. Less well known is a rabbinic tradition that another prominent rabbi delivered the same prophecy to Vespasian.
When Vespasian came to destroy Jerusalem . . . . Vespasian learned that R. Johanan b. Zakkai was friendly to Cæsar (and so he really was, and confessed it frankly to the leaders of Jerusalem).
When R. Johanan b. Zakkai saw that his efforts during several days in succession to win the leaders for peace proved futile, for the leaders did not listen to him, he sent for his disciples, R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, and said:
“My sons, try to take me out of here. Make me a coffin, and I will sleep in it.”
They did so, and R. Eliezer held the coffin by one end, and R. Joshua held it by the other, and thus carried him at sunset to the gates of Jerusalem. When the gate-keepers asked them whom they had there, they answered:
“A corpse; and you know that a corpse cannot remain in Jerusalem over night.”
They were allowed to go, and they carried him till they came to Vespasian.
There they opened the coffin, and he arose and introduced himself to Vespasian, who said:
“Since thou art the Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai, I give thee the privilege to ask a favor of me.”
He answered: “I request nothing but that the city of Jamnia shall be free to me to instruct there my disciples. I will build there a prayer-house, and will perform all the commandments of the Lord.”
Hereupon Vespasian said: “It is well. Thou mayest go thither, and undisturbed carry out the object of thy desire.”
R. Johanan b. Zakkai then asked permission to say something to Vespasian. This having been granted, he said:
“I can assure you that you will become a king.”
“How dost thou know it?”
He answered: “We have a tradition that the Temple will not be delivered to a common man (in the name of the king), but to the king himself.”
As it is written [Is. x. 34]: “And he will cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and the Lebanon shall fall by (means of) a mighty one.” [Elsewhere the Talmud explains that Lebanon means the Temple, and “mighty one” a king.]
It was said that scarcely had a few days elapsed when a messenger came from the city of Rome with the tidings that Cæsar was dead, and the resolution was adopted that Vespasian be his successor.
Vespasian, coming from a non-aristocratic family, made much of the prophecy “from the east” that he was divinely destined to become emperor in his massive propaganda campaign after taking that position. Josephus is not mentioned in the rabbinic writings. Was Josephus the only one to deliver the prophecy to Vespasian? Is the above story true? Did Josephus claim credit for the sayings of another? No answers here.
In preparing my next post on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier I remarked that I had posted a few times along the lines of a theme her work explores: the idea of a suffering and dying messiah among Jewish circles prior to the Christian era. I began to list those posts but found way too many to mention there so I’m posting the list separately here.
Posts addressing the question of the Jewishness of a suffering and dying messiah:
Nanine Charbonnel’s next chapter addresses the Jewish origin of the Passion of Jesus, or the climax of the gospel narrative: “sacrifice and the glory of the cross”. Here much material I have covered in other posts is discussed so this will be a quicker write up for me than the previous three posts.
The coming of the messiah was understood to be the sign that evil had reached its climax and with the messiah’s arrival the world was to begin being turned back to righteousness.
NC speaks of the gospel setting of the “eschatological geography”: Bethlehem is necessary as the birthplace of the messiah according to the prophet, and it was from there that the first David was anointed, but Jerusalem, the “city of peace”, was the prophesied focus of the final battle. The reference to “beyond the Jordan” at the opening scene brings to mind the deliverer named Joshua/Jesus, the one to whom YHWH says, “Moses my servant is dead, it is up to you to cross the Jordan and bring the people into the Promised Land.” Twelve men were chosen to open the way and the moment was memorialized by twelve stones (Joshua 1:2; 3:12; 4:3)
Subsequently in the narrative we find Jesus crossing the lake or “sea” of Galilee which has been understood to represent Jesus taking his salvation to the gentiles and bringing Jew and gentile into a unity. (Cf an earlier post, The story of Jesus: History or Theology?). Galilee itself has significance as an end-time setting being the place of prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-2, as made explicit in Mathew 4:13-16.
End-time Elijah and miracles
Other signs of the end-time setting of the gospels: John the Baptist is depicted as the new Elijah prophesied to appear at the end times. The miracles of Jesus themselves are the signs of the new age e.g. Isaiah 35, in addition to repeating the miracles of Moses, Elijah, Elisha. Certainly it is evident to readers of Isaiah 35 that we are reading metaphors of spiritual revival but it is also not difficult to see many of the miracles in the gospels being symbolic of conversions of the gentiles, spiritual awakening and salvation, and so forth. Even more mundane events such as the controversy over the plucking of wheat on the sabbath cease to pose any historical problems when we read them as metaphors (e.g. the removal of legalistic boundaries to the partaking of the bread or law/word of God.) Several of the miracles point to the healing or salvation of gentiles (e.g. the leper, the child or servant, the centurion).
The Lord’s Prayer is another eschatological passage. The sanctification of the name of God is an end-time event (Isaiah 30:27; 59:19) and the request for daily bread speaks of the time when the new manna, the spiritual law of God, will be delivered daily. The Kingdom to come has begun to arrive already with the advent of Jesus.
There remains only one explanation: Paul believed in such a celestial being, in a divine Christ, before he believed in Jesus. — Paul, by William Wrede
I found this little book of particular interest not because of the ideas themselves but because of who wrote them. William Wrede is best known for his study of the Gospel of Mark, The Messianic Secret. I was unaware until recently that he also wrote a book about Paul. It’s available on archive.org — http://archive.org/details/Paulpaulus The link is to the English language translation. (It’s not a long book: 180 somewhat small pages only a light population of words on each.)
Wrede cannot accept that Paul himself arrived at all of his concepts and theology relating to Christ simply from meditating on what he knew of the historical Jesus. Even the ethics that Paul teaches derive from Judaism and not from Jesus, he explains. From the reports of the life of a man who existed only a few years earlier it is inconceivable, Wrede argues, that Paul could have arrived at his vision of the celestial pre-existence of the risen Jesus or so magnified the stories of the mortal man that he imagined him as a “superhuman Son of God”.
There remains only one explanation: Paul believed in such a celestial being, in a divine Christ, before he believed in Jesus. Until he became a Christian it seemed to him sacrilege to call Jesus the Christ. This man did not answer at all to the divine figure of Christ which Paul bore within him. But in the moment of conversion, when Jesus appeared before him in the shining glory of his risen existence, Paul identified him with his own Christ, and straightway transferred to Jesus all the conceptions which he already had of the celestial being—for instance, that he had existed before the world and had taken part in its creation. The man Jesus was really, therefore, only the wearer of all those mighty predicates which had already been established; but the bliss of the apostle lay in this, that he could now regard what had hitherto been a mere hope, as a tangible reality which had comeinto the world. Here again we see the great importance ofthe fact that he had not known Jesus. Intimate disciples could not so readily believe that the man with whom they had sat at table in Capernaum, or sailed on the Lake of Galilee, was the creator of the world. But in Paul’s way there was no such obstacle.
If Paul was acquainted with this divine Christ before his conversion, there must have beencircles in Judaism which held the same belief. But can such a belief in this field be really authenticated? So much is certain, that Jewish apocalyptic books are really cognizant of a Messiah, who before his appearance lives in heaven, and is more exalted than the angels themselves. This is a datum of the highest importance. Whether, however, every feature in the Pauline Christ can be explained by means of the extant apocalyptic accounts of Messiah, is a question we shall not here attempt to decide. Investigation is only now beginning to master the problem aright. The immediate point of supreme importance is the perception of this fact: that the Pauline Christ cannot be understood unless we assume that Paul, while still a Pharisee, possessed a number of definite conceptions concerning a divine being, which were afterwards transferred to the historical Jesus?
So how did it all happen in Wrede’s view?
First comes the idea of Christ. On this the whole conception of the redemption rests. For the death and resurrection of Christ are not regarded as the experiences of a man, but as the experiences of an incarnate divine being. It is upon this that their universal, world-redeemed significance depends. The key to the problem, in itself so enigmatical, why the Son of God became a man, was found by Paul in this twofold event. The idea of the redemption itself was again determined by the conceptions which the apostle brought with him. He expected his Christ to vanquish the evil powers of the world, including the demons, and to inaugurate a new condition of things. The accomplishmentof this task was found, where but in the two events of salvation? How Paul came to find it there must remain an open question. Probably these thoughts had long been definitely formulated in his mind before he was led by polemical exigencies to mint the doctrine of justification.
Not that Wrede was allowed the last word. As we would expect, others disagreed. For a two-part critical engagement with Wrede’s ideas see
The German psychologist Klaus Conradcalled this premonitory state apophenia, defined as perceiving patterns that don’t actually exist and referring them back to an unseen authority who must be pulling the strings. It’s a theory he developed as an army medical officer specializing in head traumas under the Third Reich.
Today, it’s analogized to political conspiracy thinking.
. . . leading us to….
The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men. As opposed to this view, the social theorist should recognize that the persistence of institutions and collectives creates a problem to be solved in terms of an analysis of individual social actions and their unintended (and often unwanted) social consequences, as well as their intended ones.
. . . . The social theorist is a public thinker, oriented toward improving society; the conspiracy theorist is a victim of institutions that lie beyond their control.
3. The Incarnation of the two forms of the Torah, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah
Nanine Charbonnel stresses the Jewishness — the “Jewish rootedness” — of the interpretations that have been discussed in this series of posts. In the words (translated) of Jacqueline Genot-Bismuth,
The principle of the dissociation of the Message and the Messenger at work with Moses (Moses receives a text to be transcribed and transmitted: the “Law of Moses” is the Law or Torah written by the intermediary Moses) is substituted by a new logic of the combining of the Message and the Messenger: according to the teaching of Jesus written by John, God does not send a new revealed book, a new written text, but a revealed man-book, a revelation in act and not in writing, rather like having a materialization of that prophetic dream of Ezekiel [. . where the prophet ingests the megilah [scroll], thus making it his living substance, his … “flesh and blood”.
(Genot-Bismuth, Un homme nommé Salut, p. 222. My highlighting in all quotations)
Jesus is not the bearer of the new revelation; rather, he is himself, in person, the revelation. Jesus/Joshua means “Yahweh saves” and the Word of “Yahweh Saves” is the totality of the word of God in one’s being, life and acts.
We have seen that there is nothing novel about the idea of the incarnation, in some manner, of the Torah in Jewish thought. So what makes Christianity distinctive? The answer that NC offers is the incarnation of the two types of Torah, the written and the oral.
In Pharisaic Judaism great emphasis was placed on the inseparability of the Oral and Written Torah. For the Pharisees (we are going back into the BCE era) it was necessary for an Oral Torah to explain how to apply the Written code in concrete situations of everyday life. The Oral Torah was a way of maintaining the relevance of the Written Torah. The Oral Torah, it can be said, “manifests” or renders “visible” the Written law in daily life, making it a living code of conduct. In this way we find in rabbinic writings that every Jew was encouraged to become “a living Torah”. Indeed, when the Torah enters the flesh in Israel then the word of God finds its fulfilment. (Lorsque la Torah prend chair en Israël, elle accomplit le dynamisme de la Parole. — Massonnet, p. 286)
We have evidence that the relationship between Oral and Written Law was being debated in Palestine in the decades around the turn from BCE to CE. One example is a story of two sages from that era, Hillel and Shamai (only indirectly referenced by NC via Jean-Christophe Attias in Les Juifs et la Bible):
The Sages taught: There was an incident involving one gentile who came beforeShammai. The gentile said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. The same gentile came beforeHillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.
Among these Jews the Oral Law was deemed to be a divine revelation that Israel alone had the privilege of receiving; the Written Law was said to be a sealed book to anyone who does not read it by the lights of the Oral Law; and the Oral and Written Law are not two Laws but one and the same law of which only Israel holds the key. (Attias, p. 140)
The Qumran library yields further evidence of discussion of these concepts. In the Damascus Document we read of an eschatological figure who appears to have prophetic and messianic traits, one called Interpreter of the Law, who :
The books of the Torah are equivalent to the booth of the king as it says, And “I will raise up the fallen booth of David” (Amos 9:11). The king refers to the <prince> of the congregation and the Kiyyun of their images are the books of the prophets whose words Israel has despised. The star is the Interpreter of the Torah who is to come to Damascus, as it is written, “A star has stepped forth from Jacob and a scepter has arisen from Israel” (Num 24:17).
Some have interpreted this figure as one comparable to a new Moses who gives interpretations of Torah in his lifetime and again as an end-time Elijah who will return to teach righteousness.
[But the righteous shall live by his faith] (2:4b).
…. Interpreted, this concerns all those who observe the Law in the House of Judah, whom God will deliver from the House of judgement because of their suffering and because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness. . . . (The words of the prophet are understood in terms of a qualified relationship to an exceptional person, the supreme guide of the “community” or Teacher of Righteousness (probably a fictitious figure).
(André Paul, Qumrân et les Esséniens, p. 102)
NC follows André Paul and others who view the Teacher of Righteousness as a personification of the pious study of Scriptures or Torah. The process followed is midrash, built upon new understandings emerging from interpretations of the Law. Such a process would make a strictly legalistic application of the Torah impossible, as we see in the example of Hillel who is reputed to have taught a merciful application of the Law.
Personification … of Exegesis Itself?
NC refers to the insights of the Jewish scholar Armand Abécassis who, while believing in a historical Jesus, ironically provides insights that offer every reason to understand Jesus was a midrashic fabrication. Abécassis explains that the Voice at the Revelation at Mount Sinai was needed to render God’s meaning in language in order to be understood. Moses was not the voice nor the language, otherwise he would be a prophet like any other. Instead, Moses is the mediator or link between the voice — he is neither the voice nor the message of the voice.
Contrast Jesus (continuing the exposition of Abécassis): As a divine figure he is necessarily beyond all human language and would himself be the voice itself. But he is also a human figure, and so he translates the divine voice into human language and meaning so that his message can be understood.
What would his listeners hear when they heard him speak?