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.
End-time entry into Jerusalem
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the messianic king is another end-time event. It is told with the symbols of the final feast of the year, Tabernacles or Booths, the recollection of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness (with God travelling among them, Exodus 34:9) and celebrating the anticipation of Yahweh’s universal rule through his messiah-king (Zechariah 14:16-19). The narrative indicators of the end-time open up a way to introduce the trial:
For the surprised crowd, Jesus presents himself to them as the Messianic king: Behold, your king is coming, he is seated on an ass, the young of an ass… (Zechariah 9,9). It is the sign of an imminent change. But the high priests, worried that John the Baptist would have a successor, read it differently: they see it as a way to accuse Jesus before Pilate. Jacob’s blessings to his sons say, for the scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the staff of command from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs, and to whom the peoples owe obedience. . He who ties his donkey to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the vine… (Gn 49,10-11). Jesus, taking the sign of the donkey, affirms in short that the peoples owe him obedience; and by this reading, he is no longer the rival of Herod, but that of Caesar. The chosen image is ambiguous, it refers to two texts and it produces a double effect: the crowd hopes; and the high priests believe they can eliminate Jesus, accusing him before Pilate of conspiring against Rome. (Christian Amphoux, https://web.archive.org/web/20140702145037/http://oratoiredulouvre.fr/evangile-et-liberte/La-vie-de-Jesus-dialogue-avec-Renan.php – quoted by NC, pp. 358-59))
The Messianic Climax: the Inversion of Values
NC is unable to resist a side-glance at Paul’s writings at this point. When Paul universalizes the Christian life (“no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all one…”; “from henceforth, let those who weep be as those who do not weep” – Galatians 3:28; 1 Corinthians 7:30) we should not read these so much as new commandments as descriptions of the end times.
It is easy to think of the gospels as presenting an “inversion of [normal] values”, a new idealistic Christian ethic. These reversals are actually accounts of the end-time with the arrival of the Messiah. One should recall the insights of Thomas L. Thompson in The Messiah Myth concerning the imperial propaganda of Near Eastern potentates: see Jesus: a Saviour Just Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon. (This book is not part of NC’s work.)
The Height of Sin
The end cannot come until evil has reached its full height. That motif of delayed fulfilment goes back to Genesis:
In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure. — Genesis 15:16
Hence Jesus can bring this to a fulfilment when he admonishes the Pharisees
Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your fathers. — Matthew 23:32
As understood by the author of the Epistle of Barnabas:
So then the Son of God came in the flesh for this reason, that he might complete the total of the sins of those who persecuted his prophets to death. — Barnabas 5:11
This is the time of other heights, too. John 13:1 is translated as Jesus loving his disciples “to the end” but it can well mean that he “completed” or “fulfilled” his love for them – another messianic hyperbole.
The Book of Esther, Template of a Tale of Climax and Inversion
Before the gospels there was the Book of Esther.
In the Jewish midrash, this idea of the climax is clearly expressed in the book of Esther. The scroll of Esther tells us how the cup comes to overflow: there is not only the Exile, but the sale of the Jews. Not only the sale, but the plan to destroy them. Not only this deadly plot, but the irrevocable edict. Not only the edict, but the prohibition to intercede with the King. Not only the impossibility of intercession, but the carnival of the pagans that is being prepared. To make us feel that we are at the height of our powers, even the name of God has been removed from the text of Esther. […] And then, at the height of despair, God reverses the spell(s). Such is the quasi-mathematical formula of eschatological inversion. — Mergui, 19
Next we cover NC’s discussion of the suffering and death of Jesus and its midrashic origins.
Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.
Mergui, Maurice. Comprendre Les Origines Du Christianisme: De L’eschatologie Juive Au Midrash Chrétien. Objectif Transmission, 2015.
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