Nanine Charbonnel’s thesis: Jesus of the gospels originated as a natural product of Jewish interpretation of their Scriptures and belief that the Divine Presence was to be found in the words of the Torah. The Oral Torah was understood to teach how to apply the Written Torah and Jesus was created as the personification of both. Jesus was also the personification of Israel, as earlier posts have demonstrated. Further, if the body of Israel itself was understood in certain quarters to have embodied the Torah (as there is some reason to believe) then the events of 70 CE have significant power to explain the death and resurrection narrative.
Making the Voice Visible — and Personified
How can one “see” a voice? We know that at Sinai the Israelites were said to have “seen” the voice of God. Here is a later rabbinic account of what the Jewish exegetes made of this passage in Exodus:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah at Sinai, He showed wonders of wonders to Israel. How is it? The Holy One, blessed be He would speak and the voice would go out and travel the whole world: . . . . And it is stated, “And all the people saw the sounds (literally, voices — Exodus 20:18)” – it is not written, “[voice],” here, but rather, “[voices].” Rabbi Yochanan said, “The voice would go out and divide into seventy voices for the seventy languages, so that all the nations would hear. — Exodus Rabbah 5:9
We recall Pentecost in Acts 2. We also recall the play on hearing and seeing when Paul hears a voice but does not see and when the Emmaus disciples hear the voice of Jesus but only “see” him as he vanishes.
For Nanine Charbonnel and her sources, there is nothing remarkably strange about Jewish interpreters imagining an incarnated voice or inventing a character to represent the word (and law and wisdom) of God.
A passage in Numbers may at a glance seem straightforward to many of us but it evoked serious commentary among Jewish exegetes:
When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim — Numbers 7:89
The earliest Jewish commentary (Sifre) on this passage found much room for interpretation. God is obviously meant by “the voice” but the context of this verse is far removed from the mention of God. Azzan Yadin, cited by NC, explains:
Ha-katuv is essentially a rabbinic synonym for torah but with the difference that here it refers to Scripture as an agent that “acts” in a manner or “does” something in a way we imagine a person acting or doing — in this case “teaching” those it meets through reading and hearing.
The isolation of Numbers 7:89 from any context makes it impossible to link “with him” to God in a direct, grammatical sense, since God was last mentioned in Numbers 7:11, almost eighty verses earlier and is not the preceding noun. Since, grammatically speaking, neither the voice nor the pronominal “with him” necessarily refers to God, the assertion that the speaker in Numbers 7:89 is God is ultimately theological, not grammatical. The assertion is also common sense; after all, who but God would be speaking to Moses in the Tent of Meeting? But common sense is not always the best guide in these situations, so it is worth noting that from a strictly grammatical perspective, it is possible to read Numbers 7:89 as claiming that Moses entered the Tent of Meeting to speak with the same entity that spoke to him, namely “the voice,” understood as a divine intermediary.
Whether or not this is a plausible interpretation of Numbers 7:89 is not relevant to the present discussion. The argument is that (plausible or not) this is the interpretation found in the Sifre Numbers. Note how the biblical “voice” is picked up by the Sifre’s gloss:
Numbers 7:89 “When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice …” Sifre Numbers “HA-KATUV [see box insert above] states that Moses would enter into the Tent of Meeting and stand there, and the voice descended from highest heavens to between the cherubs, and he heard the voice speaking to him from within.”
The Sifre Numbers is alive to God’s absence from Numbers 7:89 and reproduces this absence in the gloss — Moses hears “the voice” speaking in the Tent. More importantly, the Sifre provides additional information on the voice, information unrelated to the contradictory verses: upon Moses’ entry into the Tent of Meeting, the voice “descended from the highest heavens” — where it presumably resides at other times. If the intention of the [passage] were merely to argue that Moses encounters God inside the Tent of Meeting, why use a prooftext that does not mention God but only a voice, and then — compounding what should be an unfortunate omission — make no reference to God in the [passage] but rather pick up on the voice leitmotiv? Because that is precisely the point of the [passage]: a voice, a divine voice that regularly resides in the highest heavens, descends to speak with Moses in the Tent of Meeting, serving as an intermediary and thus allowing God to remain divorced from human affairs.
Can we imagine a voice, a voice alone, descending and speaking as a mediator with Moses? That is what is understood here.
Azzan Yadin is discussing the midrashic method of interpreting Scriptures that was practised by the rabbis from the late first to early second centuries CE, or from the era when the New Testament literature was in development. The name associated with this method was Rabbi Ishmael and Yadin’s discussion is found in Scripture as Logos: Rabbi Ishmael and the Origins of Midrash. I quote some interesting sections directly related to the personification of the Voice and Scripture.
The following section demonstrates how the rabbinic personification of the Law as a Teacher has remarkable affinities with the NT idea of Christ being the representative and teacher of the Law. What is most noteworthy here, for me, is the support for Nanine Charbonnel’s case that early Christian interpretations of Scripture grew out of Jewish interpretations that personified Scripture.
Thus Clement writes: “With the greatest clearness, accordingly, the Logos has spoken respecting Himself by Hosea: ‘I am your instructor’ (Hos 5:2).” Moreover, it is worth noting that Clement’s terminology is also similar to Rabbi Ishmael’s. For instance, Clement states that Christ’s coming could be known to the reader of the Hebrew Bible prior to the event since ή γραφή παιδαγωγήσει “the written [Scripture] will instruct [you].” The use of ήγραφή (the written) for Scripture is not common among early Christian writers. The singular η’ γραφή usually refers to a verse or phrase while the plural form at άι γραφαί (or άι’ιεραί γραφαί, the holy writings) refers to Scripture as a whole. Clement, however, regularly uses ή γραφή as Scripture. Coupled with the verbal predicate παιδαγωγήσει (will teach, or, will instruct), the result is strikingly similar to the “Ishmaelian” “ha-katuv [the written] teaches” ( הכתוב מלמד ).
The issue of Christ does, of course, represent a formidable theological boundary between Rabbi Ishmael and Clement, but should not obscure the very significant hermeneutical similarities. Clement’s full and consistent identification of the instructor with Christ marks him as the apogee of the Christos Didaskalos tradition; Rabbi Ishmael’s identification of the instructor with personified Scripture suggests a structurally similar Nomos [=Torah] Didaskalos tradition.
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In his important article on Jewish binitarianism, Daniel Boyarin argues against the venerable idea that the Rabbis rejected divine intermediation in general and the Logos in particular. More accurately Boyarin shows that the eventual rejection is best understood against the backdrop of earlier shared theological traditions and language, largely excised from rabbinic literature, but still visible as a palimpsest beneath later editorial strata, or in rabbinically marginal works such as the Targumim. I would argue that the parallel between the understanding of Christ in the Christos Didaskalos tradition and Rabbi Ishmael’s representation of Scripture as personified teacher — Nomos Didaskalos — is part of such a shared reservoir of theological language and imagery.