I so often find a real fascination in reading old newspapers. How refreshing it is to read editorials, articles and letters using cheeky tones to address the most serious political and social issues of their day. If only more news and social media could be more like those days! Is it my imagination or has something in our national mood seriously shifted in a darker direction since the nineteenth century?
Anyway, here’s the point of this post. Read how alike are the thoughts expressed here in a letter to the colonial newspaper that we find expressed and discussed today — our confidence that we are not racists being compared with our attitude towards immigrants of a different race fleeing horrendous conditions in their own country and seeking refuge with us.
Englishmen are great admirers of abstract philanthropy. They delight in all those exhibitions of human rights which awaken the profoundest emotions. They can weep over the pain and suffering endured by men of colour, and they warm towards all the inferior races who groan under the power of tyrants. But when these forms of misery and wretchedness come within their own vicinity, and present themselves in the aspect of some barbarian Chinaman, driven from the home of his fathers by an internecine war, and seeking the shadow of institutions said to be founded on the common benefit, all their philanthropy vanishes.
— , 13 June 1859, 4.
That was written not long after the Opium Wars and an earlier part of the same letter made mention of a sense of national “war guilt” for imposing reparations on the Chinese for daring to resist the British right to sell opium to their citizens. Reference is also made to the horrific wars in China at that time. That would be the Taiping Rebellion. The same letter acknowledged “backward” customs of the Chinese but concluded by reminding readers of “their veneration of parents, their love of knowledge, and their quiet and tolerant spirit.”
In his review of the GRC eConference on the historicity of Jesus Richard Carrier wrote with respect to the claim that the town of Nazareth did not exist in the early first century CE
There is no good case to be made that Nazareth did not exist as a town in the early first century, nor would it at all matter (OHJ, index, “Nazareth”). All the arguments to this effect ignore contrary evidence (e.g. an inscription establishes Nazareth as one of the towns that took in priests after the destruction of the temple, which entail Nazareth had to be a well-developed town by then—indeed, not a hick village either, but a place a member of the temple elite would not be embarrassed to settle at) and derive from invalid arguments from silence (e.g. we simply have not excavated hardly any of the locality now identified as Nazareth and cannot even establish that that is the same town as anciently named—a problem also with Bethlehem, which Zindler also incorrectly said we could “prove” didn’t then exist). And continuing to insist on this unprovable makes mythicism look crank, not least because the town’s not existing would have no more to do with the historicity of Jesus than Bethlehem’s not existing would: every historicist agrees Jesus was never associated with Bethlehem outside scripturally-inspired fiction, so its not existing has zero effect on the probability Jesus existed. Jesus was clearly linked to Nazareth for the same scriptural reasons, which also means the town had to actually exist when the Gospel authors chose it as fulfilling a prophecy they themselves admitted did not actually mention it (e.g. Matthew says the prophecy was that the messiah would be a Nazorian, not a Nazarene—a fact obscured by over-meddling translations—so if they were inventing a town to match, it would have been Nazoria, not Nazareth: see Proving History, index, “Nazareth”). It’s unlikely some obscurely new village would be known to the authors of the Gospels so as to be employed this way.
I did not listen in on that conference but I expect that Frank Zindler would have referred to René Salm’s study of the scholarly publications on the archaeological excavations of Nazareth in his two books and on his webpage.
Carrier’s first sentence is a value judgment that I believe can be demonstrated to be based on ignorance or misunderstanding of the details of the arguments advanced in Salm’s work. Carrier’s second sentence is false and leads one to suspect that he has either never read or has forgotten what he read in Salm’s and another’s arguments.
The Inscription Best Left Unmentioned
The inscription that Carrier indicates as evidence of “a well-developed town by” the first century was in fact “discovered” under highly questionable circumstances by Jerry Vardaman, a person whom Carrier has elsewhere and in another context described in terms such as “insane”, “not to be trusted”, tainted with “chronic mental illness”, “madness”, “absurdity”, “weirdness”, “nonsense on stilts”, a maker of “profoundly absurd” and “fanatical assertions”, “[ranking] right up there with Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods.”
Likely agreement with Carrier’s assessment is found in a letter by a president of the American Society for Overseas Research (ASOR) that he wrote to an academic peer about his experience with Jerry Vardaman’s competence and character as witnessed on an archaeological dig:
Jerry Vardanian was an unmitigated disaster from start tofinish. Hence, we could not invite him back for solid training. He does not have the judgment, the temperament, nor the essential honesty andsolidity of personality that he could be trusted with any work in the NearEast on his own. . . .
Then, while the Director of Antiquities in Jordan, Awni Dajani, was on his death bed, the current Department of Antiquities, as well as the University of Jordan, believe it to be a fact that Jerry bribed Awni’s cousin, Rafiq Dajani, to get a permit to dig at Machaerus. . . . . .That expedition was, from every point of view, a disaster. In any event, when Jerry came back into the country to see about digging again, the Department of Antiquities issued orders to the police to arrest him at the airport. The only way he was rescued from arrest and having to stand trial was that the American ambassador went to bat for him and asked that the matter be settled quietly to prevent the scandal from appearing in the papers. Now, as though that were not enough, this man has the continental gall to start it again. . . .
. . . He simply cannot be trusted to do anything right, not even whenhe is watched every minute. He is as devious and as untrustworthy anambassador in the Near East as any man could possibly be.
Salm’s translation of Enrico Tuccinardi’s research into the authenticity of the Caesarea Inscription begins here. Salm’s fuller discussion of the circumstances of the so-called discovery of that artefact begins here and the subsequent posts can be followed easily from this point.
One has to conclude that Carrier has forgotten or failed to read earlier work that René Salm tried to point out to him, including the publication by Enrico Tuccinardi.
Carrier’s cavalier swipe at the validity of the arguments on the basis that “we simply have not excavated hardly any of the locality now identified as Nazareth and cannot even establish that that is the same town as anciently named” ignores the arguments from the evidence that does exist. Even if the area Jesus happened to have grown up in is under a block of units and for that reason cannot be excavated, archaeologists can see what remains do exist in the surrounding areas and it is clear when nearby settlements were extant and when they were not. Settlements exist with surrounding farm areas, cemeteries, and other markers and it is the fact that we have evidence for these things at the wrong time.
The issue at hand is chronology, not location. The valley floor is now heavily built over and will in all likelihood never be excavated. This is convenient for those who claim a village there in the time of Christ, but it is untenable on several grounds. First of all, it is hardly likely that the village predated its tombs. The dozens of scattered tombs from Roman Nazareth that have been excavated on the hillsides all postdate 50 CE. This shows that the village did also. As was stated: “The earliest tomb at Nazareth is a significant clue regarding the existence of a village” (Chapter 4, p. 157). . . . . (Salm, Myth, p. 289)
And as for not addressing counterarguments, Salm continues,
It is worthwhile to consider the various counter-arguments to the evidence, because the issue of Nazareth in the time of Jesus is so explosive. In the case of the putative Hellenistic tombs mentioned above, once such tombs are shown not to be on the hillside of the Nebi Sa‘in, then one might assert that they were elsewhere—perhaps on the valley floor itself. But this too makes little sense, and is a reversal of what one would expect: presumably, the ancient Jews were living on the steep and rocky hillside, and constructing their tombs on the flat valley floor! (p. 290)
And so forth. A full treatment would take several lengthy posts but René Salm has already set much of it out — apart from his books — on his website.
I will mention just one more support for Salm’s work. It is correspondence from one the archaeologist Hans-Peter Kuhnen. I have posted about that here.
The Fear of Being Called a Crank Factor
Another acerbic online critic who often makes sweeping claims that have a misleading appearance of sounding well-researched and knowledgeable is Tim O’Neill. O’Neill has made one of his motivations quite clear: mythicism will make atheists look like nutters. So he knee-jerks and kicks mythicism whenever he can, usually from a position that is only partially informed. I fear that it looks as though Carrier may be a victim of a similar fear when he complains that arguments against the existence of Nazareth make mythicists look like cranks.
So let’s take a sober look at what is at stake here.
Is the Nazareth Question Important?
Postscript, 2nd Oct 2021:
Of course, Nazareth is a significant factor in the historical Jesus debate. True, it is not necessary for Nazareth to have been settled to support Richard Carrier’s “minimalist historical Jesus” figure that he uses in his hypothesis for the unlikelihood for the historicity of Jesus. Many of us see its irrelevance from such an intellectual perspective. But in the wider culture, or in “the real world” we might say, it does have a very strong significance. Witness the tourist industry related to Nazareth, the holy sites historically preserved there over the centuries, for starters. Even in mainstream scholarly circles, we can find the argument presented that the “criterion of embarrassment” “proves” the historical Jesus came from Nazareth. It is a prominent feature of mainstream historical Jesus scholarship that the authors of both the gospels of Matthew and Luke supposedly tied their narrative in knots just to work out a way to get Jesus from Bethlehem (where he had to be born to fulfill the messianic prophecy) to Nazareth (from where “oral tradition” was so insistent as the place he was known to come from). The same scholarship is very clear: it posits that the Nazareth association was so important in the wider knowledge about Jesus that the evangelists somehow felt compelled to write contradictory and convoluted narratives to explain how that “general knowledge” came about.
It is no wonder that some mainstream historical Jesus scholars choose to respond to René Salm’s research with insult than engage in an intellectually honest way with the evidence he has published.
Is any knowledge important? Is any research into learning more about our world and our history important?
If Nazareth was not a town at the time of Jesus’ upbringing then legitimate and productive questions must arise. If the gospels speak of Nazareth, presumably their authors wrote at a time when the village existed and presumably that must be some considerable time after the setting of the events they narrate, most reasonably well after 70 CE. If Nazareth did not exist then it strengthens any argument that Jesus was originally known by an epithet that was not related to the town and refutes the view that some continue to hold that Jesus was known by his place of early residence. What were the origins of the revival of settlement at Nazareth some time after 50 CE, what were the general conditions of the time, what was happening in that region?…. all of this information would be potentially significant for any investigation into the period leading up to the Bar Kochba war and final destruction of Jerusalem.
Carrier cites his works On the Historicity of Jesus and Proving History for further discussion but a quick re-scan tells me that neither of these references go much beyond saying that the existence of Nazareth is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of Jesus. Of course, it is fallacious to argue if Nazareth didn’t exist then Jesus didn’t either. But its nonexistence certainly raises questions about when the gospels were written and how and when Jesus came to be associated with that town. Yes, Matthew twists a prophecy to make Nazareth seem the logical place for Jesus’ early years, so presumably Matthew knew of the town, and presumably he believed it to be long-established by his time, so presumably he was writing as late as…..? The answer to that question has major consequences in any reconstruction of Christian origins.
That opponents of the view that Nazareth did not exist (and I am thinking here more broadly than Carrier) react with such vitriol against the thesis and against René Salm personally, with misrepresentation and worse, suggests to me that the question of Nazareth is most certainly very important in many quarters. So much so that tactics that go beyond mere intellectual tools of honest inquiry are brought to bear in the “debate”.
Salm, René. The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus. American Atheist Press, 2008.
I like the above work better for its consistently academic style but the one below is of course more complete with updated material. In the 2008 work, Salm discussed the Caesarea Inscription demonstrating its irrelevance to the main thrust of his thesis despite some views at the time that it verified a settlement at Nazareth in Jesus’ time. It was only after Enrico Tuccinardi alerted him to the character of the “discoverer” of the inscription that Salm eventually came to the same conclusion that it was a forgery.
Salm, René J. Nazarethgate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus. American Atheist Press, 2015.
Nanine Charbonnel now asks how the understanding of how the gospels have been written should affect how we read them. Metaphors abound in her discussion of how to read metaphorical narratives. Think of Hebrews 10:20, where readers are directed to enter the divine presence through the veil of the inner sanctuary, a veil which itself represents the flesh of Jesus.
The book is there, then, but the work is still hidden. It is absent, perhaps radically so; in any case it is concealed, obfuscated by the evident presence of the book, behind which it awaits the liberating decision, the “Lazare, veni foras.”
To make this stone fall seems to be reading’s mission: to render it transparent, to dissolve it with the penetrating force of the gaze which unimpeded moves beyond. There is in reading, at least at reading’s point of departure, something vertiginous . . . But there is more; and what makes the “miracle” of reading still more singular . . . .To roll back the stone, to obliterate it, is certainly something marvelous, but it is something we achieve at every moment in everyday language. At every moment we converse with Lazarus, dead for three days — or dead, perhaps, since always. In his well-woven winding sheet, sustained by the most elegant conventions, he answers us and speaks to us within ourselves.
Following on from Maurice Blanchot who saw Lazarus in his burial cloths as the incarnation of a book and Jesus’ command for Lazarus to “Come forth!” as the act of reading, NC runs with an image of strips of cloth as the surface material for writing and the need for readers to find new ways to understand those words. (Did scribes also write on linen? I am not aware of the practice so I will only touch on a few passages in the closing pages: my grasp of French is too elementary to read with confidence the nuances and subtleties that are embedded in the metaphors in these closing pages.)
Peter ran to the tomb and, bending down, saw only the strips of cloth that had been used to bind the body of Jesus: Luke 24:12 (C’s text has a small error here with the Greek word used in our manuscripts). In John 20:5 another disciple sees the same bands of linen that had been used to wrap Jesus lying on the ground. In 2013 Father Antoine Adam delivered an Easter homily on radio France-Culture in which he said the cloth is rolled up, like the book that has to be unrolled, to see the impression of the face of Jesus left on it, like the body of Scripture, for Jewish Scriptures are a corpus.
The phylacteries or tefillin were known in early times (Matthew 23:5) and the leather strips contained writings. Leon of Modena described the way these strips would be bound so that they formed the letter yod on the left arm and were inscribed with the letter shin on the forehead, which, one might note, are the first two letters of Jeshua. One would like to propose the image of a comparison between the burial cloths and the tefillin strips, both are left lifeless on the floor after the resurrection of and transformation of the old body.
It is easy to over-reach in the world of metaphors. I think NCs suggestion of Maurice Mergui’s comment on the striking of Jesus with the reed (the same word is used to translate the writing instrument — Matthew 27:30) to signal Jesus being struck according to Scripture, that is, by midrash. When we read in the New Testament the phrase “in/by the spirit” (e.g. Acts 20:22-23) should we always think of the Holy Spirit or is there sometimes an allusion to “the spirit of the author” or midrashic interpretation?
NC finds an interesting explanation by Marc-Alain Ouaknin in La Tora expliquée aux enfants.
In the Torah, “creation of the world” does not mean “creation of the physical world”, the moment when matter came into being. No, it means the creation of the world in a story: it is the first time that a written text is considered a creation of the world. Not the first time that a written text tells of the creation of the world, but the first time that men consider that writing is a way of “creating: “I write, therefore I create!” Writing becomes a tool by which the world is created ‘in stories’.
Excerpt From: Marc-Alain Ouaknin. “The Torah Explained to Children.” Apple Books. (I have quoted a little more than NC quotes on p. 447. As per John 6:63, NC recalls, the words spoken are spirit and life. )
Pentecost, the anti-Tower of Babel
The punishment of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel is reversed in the midrash of Pentecost. Here an author has set down in a text a fortuitous miracle of comprehension without a mediator. But without a mediator has something else become hidden, lost? NC concludes this chapter with the words of Michel Serres:
The new meaning spread everywhere starting from wind and noise. Not a single language translated in several languages, but several spoken and several heard at the same time. . . . If the orator is heard as is, the network is decentered, even locally: there is no longer an intercepter, no longer a crossroads or intermediate; there is no longer a town; Hermes, the father of Pan, died on the Pentecost.
(The Parasite, from pages 41 and 43)
And that brings NC to the observation that it is the Paraclete that is introduced in the gospels as the new interpreter — a subject for a future study.
By the time I finished reading Nanine Charbonnel’s penultimate chapter of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier a queasy sense of déjà vu dragged my mind back decades to a time when I believed that the Bible was a coded book that needed “keys” to open up its true meaning to modern readers. Before Michael Drosnin‘s The Bible Code made its appearance I had memorized all “seven keys” that one particular cult said were required for “understanding the Bible” (according to that cult’s own doctrines, of course). So after I finished reading Nanine Charbonnel’s quite different approach to understanding the nature and origins of the gospels in which she does indeed raise the spectre of authors writing narratives whose meanings are hidden, I had to pause. Had I in one sense come full circle after all these years? What is the difference between Drosnin and Armstrong on the one hand and what Charbonnel [NC] was proposing on the other?Read on and see.
The Key of Creative Multilingualism
One man’s fish is another man’s poisson captures in a humorous way what much of midrash is about: word games, double entendres, mixtures of languages. (By the way, that link is to Mal Webb’s page of his recording of the song that I first heard him sing at a Woodford Folk Festival.) The wordplay in gospel midrash is more serious, of course, with its ambiguities in the names and events making up the gospel narratives and their doctrinal themes and innovations.
NC earlier pointed out the multiple layers meaning in the inscription on the cross written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. Similarly, the stories are told at multiple levels. (Another example: We read of Greeks making their appearance at the final feast of Jesus and are led to recall the prophecy that testifies of the hour the Son of Man is to be glorified — John 12:19-23.) To focus on one passage . . . .
Eli, eli . . .
We are familiar with the last words of Jesus on the cross where he quotes the first line of Psalm 22:
About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”
But scratch the surface and interesting questions appear . . . .
Two divergent religious traditions can be identified by the slight change of rhythm arising from where one places a single accent in one word translated from a Psalm spoken by Jesus on the cross: Depending on where one places the accent of lama (in lama lama sabachthani) we have either the Christian “Why [asking for God’s motivation] have you forsaken me?” spoken by Jesus on the cross or the Jewish “To what end [asking what will be the outcome] have you forsaken me (or exiled us)? The explanatory details of this difference are added at the end of this post.
2 “So what does the word sabachthani used in the Gospels mean? It means: You have praised me, You have glorified me! For it must be linked to the Hebrew and Aramaic root sabath, meaning: to praise, to glorify, and not to the Aramaic root sabaq, meaning to leave. Therefore, the Word spoken by Christ would not be: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? But: ‘My God, My God, why have You glorified me?’ or, better still: ‘My God, My God, how much You have glorified me'”. (various encyclopaedias). — NC, footnote p. 434
There is something more serious: the meaning of the verb. One might be surprised that the phrase transcribed in Matthew’s Greek is “lama sabachtani” and not the Hebrew of the psalm text, i.e. “lama azavtani“? This is because the psalm is in Hebrew, and Matthew’s phrase in Aramaic. But there would be an error of translation, already made by the Septuagint2.
One can think that in the original midrash there was a play on words on this root, allowing the word to be read as meaning either “abandoned” or “glorified”, and that the translator of the Gospel, inspired by the Septuagint, did not see the play on words, and took up the translation of the Septuagint, giving exclusively to “AZaVtaNi” the meaning of “abandoned”.
(Translated from page 434 of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier)
The authors of Matthew and Mark directly draw our attention to possible misunderstandings arising from similar-sounding words heard in the last words of Jesus on the cross. Jesus speaks the words of the “messiah David” but bystanders mishear him and think he is calling for the prophet Elijah. The author is drawing our attention to confusions arising from languages.
NC adds another pun that is indirect but perhaps meaningful: Is not Levi-Matthew the changer, the changer of language? If Matthew is the same as Levi in the Gospel of Mark we find there that he is identified as son of Alphaeus, a name meaning “change” — see one of the Vridar posts on puns in Mark. Here NC takes a glance (in a footnote) at another suggestion by Maurice Mergui:
Immediately after the healing of the paralytic, Jesus-Joshua called on Levi-Matthew.
Mk 2:14 – As he passed by, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs office, and said to him, “Follow me. And he got up and followed him.
Why is this Levi the son of Alphaeus (from the Hebrew root meaning to change, to switch, to convert money). Son of a money-changer, that should remind us of something. Money changers were among the merchants in the temple. Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple. He drives their sons, the Levi, out of the Temple. This is (again and again) the leitmotif of the eschatological reversal (The first shall be last) that hides under the guise of an innocuous verse.
As he passed by he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs office
“Passing by” here also means “forgiving” (Hebrew meaning of ‘avar). This is a repeat of the midrash quoted above: the proselytes will marry kohanim and be inside, while the Levites will be outside. At the end of time (but this clause is still absent and the verbs in the present tense) the election will be reversed. The Gentiles will “come in” and you Jews will be out.
Plays on the above multilingual ambiguities are readily grasped once we have our attention drawn to them. There are other forms of multiple meanings with special attention directed to the lack of comprehension of outsiders. We find this theme stressed most bluntly in the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John: staged misunderstandings
The evangelist relishes making the confusion public:
John 2:19-21 — Exchange with the Jews: Temple is the Body and Rebuilding is the Resurrection (though what happens in the mind of a reader who recalls the metaphor of the people of God being the Temple?)
John 3:3-4 — Exchange with Nicodemus: Born again is confused with Born from above
John 4:10 — Exchange with Samaritan woman: running water and living water
John 4:31 — Exchange with disciples: Food is Doing God’s will
John 8:33-35 — Exchange with accusers of the adulterous woman: Slavery is subjection to sin
John 11:11-13 — Exchange with friends of Lazarus: sleep is death
The Key of Narrative Interpretation
In contrast to the absence of subtlety in the Gospel of John, we find “consummate art” in the Synoptics. Notice Luke 4:21
Now he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your ears’
Here Jesus (whose name means “God saves”) is presented as reading the very prophet (Isaiah, the name likewise means “God is salvation”) who is the source of Luke’s less obvious agenda. That agenda is to proclaim that the time of the prophets and the accomplishment of the end-time on earth is being taught on this sabbath by the prophet Isaiah through Jesus, “Yahweh saves”. The passage being read is specifically addressing the place of gentiles among God’s people who have been suffering because of their sins, the time when all must be brought together under God. That being the beginning of Jesus’ preaching, the author of the Gospel of Luke draws it all to a fitting closure: Luke 24:27 Continue reading “Are There Really “Keys” to Understanding the New Testament? (Charbonnel continued)”
This post continues my series on Nanine Charbonenel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure De Papier but this time I will begin with a personal experience. I posted about it a couple of years ago under the title The Faith Trick. The experience was the realization that the power by which I was “transformed into a new person” (as per Ephesians and Colossians) was my faith, my conviction, that it was so: it was my own faith in “the faithfulness of God” to transform me that doing it: here lay the dark and fearful dawning on my consciousness — that it would make no difference if the object of my faith were Jesus or a magic crystal, were a sheltering mountain or a leprechaun, if I believed the same things of them as I did of Jesus the personal result, the change in my own life, would be the same. I had been believing in metaphors and similes, figurative images, as if they had been absolute reality and even more real than the reality of physics and chemistry.
There is something remarkably powerful about the images, the figurative images, that make up the gospel story that has infused it with a power to dominate the Western landscape for close to two millennia.
Let’s resume our discussion of NC’s study with this passage from the Book of Revelation ch 19:
11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword . . . .
Is that rider on the white horse who wages war, whose eyes are fire, who wears multiple crowns and who has a secret name, a literal person? Is the vision of John that we are reading here a vision of a literal, true, flesh and blood person? Of course not (though I suspect a good number of Christian readers of that text would be more likely to hesitate and say Yes, it is, only not “flesh and blood” in the earthly sense). How do we know? The obvious giveaway is the name: the author tells us that the vision is a metaphor of the “Word of God”. The Word of God is what will judge the world, according to this text. But even that turn of phrase is metaphorical – a personification. In reality, a word is merely a pattern of sound or shapes of lines that humans have encoded to register a certain meaning. It is hard to get beyond the metaphors, the personifications, when one thinks deeply about the teachings of Christianity.
* This is not the place to explore other arguments that identify different strands of Christian traditions in the various canonical texts.
** C’est bien l’équivalent apocalyptique de Jésus. Pourquoi alors reconnaître que «Le Verbe de Dieu est le nom propre du cavalier eschatologique. La parole est identifiée à une personne»[quoting Frédéric Manns], et ne pas saisir le même processus dans les Évangiles? (p 431)
The reader of the Christian canon recognizes the above figure as the apocalyptic equivalent of the Jesus encountered in the gospels.* NC asks** rhetorically, why, since we can recognize that the Word of God is being personified in the end-time horseman, do we fail to grasp the same personification at work in the gospels.
As we have seen NC demonstrate in the previous posts, literary figures of speech have taken on ontological realities and dimensions in their own right, existences beyond mere metaphors and similes. Reality is further confused with prolepsis (speaking of events that really belong to the future as if they were past history) and analepsis (the converse, removing past events to the present), so that prophecy is confused with history and history with prophetic sayings.
I am not fluent enough in French to grasp the full import of NC’s writings at this point so I will copy a passage in its original French and hope some readers can clarify the meaning for me. I think NC is saying in the following that the expression for “humbled oneself” is an extreme hyperbole (figure of speech) and never meant literally, but that it has been interpreted literally by the faithful readers. But I look forward to clarification on the third point listed here:
On pourrait montrer les rapports étroits des théologèmes chrétiens, avec ce que nous appelons des figures de rhétorique ontologisées, saisies dans un Régime sémantique qui n’est pas le bon. Ainsi il faudrait :
° non seulement rattacher Prolepse et prophétie,
° mais s’interroger sur l’étonnante proximité de grands dogmes avec des figures de rhétorique ontologisées : la Transfiguration, en grec Metamorphosè ; l’Ascension, en grec Analepsis, qui est aussi le nom de la figure de rhétorique qu’est non le retour en arrière, mais le saut (pseudo)-logique ; la Trinité et l’Hendyadin… ;
2On le trouve aussi en 2 Cor. 10, 1 (« humble parmi vous »), et Jacques 1, 9.
° et l’on pourrait rapprocher aussi la Kénose et la Tapinose. On sait que la kénose désigne, dans le célèbre passage de la Lettre aux Philippiens 2, 8, le ‘’vidage’’ que la divinité fait, et que juste après ce passage, apparaît le verbe tapeinoun (s’humilier volontairement). On le trouve aussi en Matthieu 18, 4 ; 23, 12 ; 11, 29 (l’adjectif tapeinos2 traduit dans ce dernier cas par « je suis doux et humble de coeur »). Or la Tapinôsis (en latin humiliatio, extenuatio) est en grec l’hyperbole négative, l’exagération voulue dans la dépréciation, la caractérisation apparemment dépréciative et à ne pas prendre en réalité comme telle.
The Christ story has long been acknowledged as containing a mystery at its core. NC cites from the fourth century the words of “Pseudo-Chrysostom”,
All that we know of Christ is not only a pure proclamation of the Word, but a mystery of piety. For the whole order of salvation of Christ is called a mystery because the mystery does not appear only in a pure letter, but is published in an act, in fact preached.”
And that, in a nutshell, is NC’s hypothesis. Christian teachings owe their success to the creative and superlative way they have combined realism and figurative techniques so that distinguishing reality from mere image, the physical from the moral, the natural from the artificial: these supposed opposites have become so intertwined that together they have emerged as new realities for believers.
We go back to the mid-nineteenth-century’s Ernest Renan, renowned as “the” pioneer of an attempt to recover “the historical Jesus” with his Life of Jesus, who arguably failed to grasp as fully as he might have the depth of the figurative character of his sources:
It is impossible to translate into our essentially hard and fast tongue, in which a rigorous distinction between the material and the metaphorical must always be observed, habits of style whose essential character is to attribute to metaphor, or rather to the idea it represents, a complete reality. — Renan, Life of Jesus
The figurative language of the gospels has always been an invitation to erroneous readings. As far back as Chrysostom, Ambroise and Cyrill we find that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was interpreted literally. Notice once more from Chateaubriand’s account of his travels to Jerusalem:
Here the path, which was heading east-west reached a bend and turned north, and I saw, on the right hand, the place where Lazarus the beggar lay, and opposite, on the other side of the street, the house of the rich sinner.
‘There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.’ (Luke 16:19-23)
Saint Chrysostom, Saint Ambrose and Saint Cyril believed that the story of Lazarus and the rich sinner was not simply a parable, but a true and established fact. The Jews themselves have preserved the name of the rich sinner, whom they call Nabal (see 1 Samuel:25).
Pope Gregory I of sixth-seventh century fame, known in history as “the Great”, came closer than he knew to identifying the game at play when he wrote in his 23rd Homily on the Gospels about the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus:
[Jesus] exchanged a few words with them, reproached them with their slowness in understanding, explained to them the mysteries of Holy Scripture concerning him, and yet, their hearts remaining foreign to him for lack of faith, he pretended to go further. Feindre [Fingere] can also mean [in Latin] modeling; that’s why we call potters’ clay modelers [Figuli]. Truth, which is simple, did not do anything with duplicity, but it simply manifested itself to the disciples in its body as it was in their minds.
It was necessary to test them to see if, not yet loving him as God, they were at least capable of loving him as a traveler.
The passage alluded to is Luke 24:28 where the word for “pretended” is a “once only” in the gospels, προσεποιήσατο (prosepoiēsato), to seem, to shape or form into another appearance. The exegesis of the believer is to recognize the pretence and the hidden meaning behind it but nonetheless to still believe the pretence itself is another level of reality. Close, but so far. The last word of that verse is a form of the same Greek word used to translate the Hebrew Halakhah, to take one’s journey, πορεύωμαι (poreuōmai), another intriguing irony in the context of all that NC has been addressing up to this point.
NC introduced this section of her discussion with a look at a significant idea we read in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I found the language barrier just a little too far beyond my reach to share her thoughts in the way they surely deserve so I quote the section in its original French here. The theme is the phrase “as if”: recall where Paul instructs his converts to live in the remaining time they now have left (between the death and resurrection of Jesus and his return and “end of this world”) “as if” this present situation no longer has any relevance. They are to make use of the world and their place in the world but not to think of themselves as belonging to the world. They are to live an “as if” existence.
. . . the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not;those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep;those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. — 1 Cor. 7:29-31
The Greek word translated as “form” is schema and means appearance or in some contexts, apparently, figurative language. I would be grateful to anyone who can help me with the key points NC makes of her discussion of another philosopher’s discussion of this passage. (I don’t mean to provide a mere literal translation, an easy enough task, but an explanation of the key ideas that I believe need to go beyond a merely literal translation.) Continue reading “The Secret of the Power Behind the Gospel Narrative (Charbonnel Continued)”
On October 10, early in the morning, I left Jerusalem through the Ephraim Gate, always accompanied by my trusted Ali, with the aim of examining the battlegrounds immortalized by the poet Tasso.
For twelve pages in the chapters devoted to the Holy Land, the story of the pilgrim stands out for its exceedingly natural and sincere enthusiasm. He forgets the Holy Sepulcher, the Via Dolorosa, the convents, and the monks. He simply tries to rediscover on the spot the framework, not of the last days of Jesus and of the Passion, but of the principal heroic and moving episodes from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, in a kind of romanesque topographical revery:
Proceeding to the north of the city, between the grotto of Jeremiah and the Sepulcher of the Kings, I opened Jerusalem Delivered and was immediately struck by the accuracy of the poet’s description. Solime (that is, Jerusalem), says Tasso, stands on two opposing hills …. Nature offers only an earth that is arid and naked; no springs, no streams refresh the barren grounds; one never sees flowers blooming; no stately trees spread their shelters against the sun’s rays. At a distance of more than six miles there emerges only a forest casting a baleful shade that inspires horror and sadness. Nothing can be more clear and precise. The forest situated six miles from the camp, in the direction of Arabia, is not an invention of the poet. William of Tyre speaks of the wood where Tasso makes so many marvels happen. Godfrey finds there the timber for the construction of his war machine’ … Aladin sits with Erminia on a tower built between two gates from where they can observe the fighting on the plain and the camp of the Christians. This tower is still standing, together with several others, between the Gate of Damas and the Gate of Ephraim.
In fact, the tower exists in the imagination of Chateaubriand, for he imagines the shadow of a tower and the phantom of a forest. He continues: . . .
. . . . It is not as easy to determine the place where the runaway Erminia meets with the shepherd on the edge of the river.
Note that we deal here with pure fiction (the episode of Erminia among the shepherds at the beginning of the seventh canto); yet Chateaubriand looks for its location with the same seriousness one would use in localizing a historical fact. . . .
This is an evocation, on site, of a romanesque tale-that of Chateaubriand’s detour to the Holy Sepulcher when he went to visit the holy places. It reminds us of the detour Renan made, during his mission to Phoenicia, to find the sites and the framework of that other fiction which would become the Gospels.
And still it is true that the events told by Tasso are not without verifiable historical reality, since they agree in many points with the history of the Crusades, on which we can rely. “We will see,” says Chateaubriand, “how much Tasso had studied the original documents when I translate the historians of the Crusades.” But for the story of the Gospels we have no text, no testimony concerning most of the events they recount, a century after they happened.
Nanine Charbonnel, whose book Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure De Papier we are continuing to discuss in this post, then drives home the key point for her thesis that Halbwachs dares to affirm about the gospels and that I quote from the English edition of On Collective Memory:
This is the source of the thesis that “the Gospels, which were an apocalyptic revelation in the first century, became a legendary form of narrative in the second.” Let us understand by this that a mystical belief, a vision that moved the mind into the religious and supernatural realm, was transformed into a series of events that developed on the human level, even though these also had a transcendental significance.
(Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, pp 205-209, formatting and bolding is mine in all quotations)
We are now entering NC’s final main chapter examining the “masterful creative syntheses” with which the gospel narratives have been written and that the previous posts have been covering.
The creative method of the evangelists has had a more enduring spell than we find in Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and was explained long ago, NC notes, by David Friedrich Strauss:
Further, the fishermen, at the call of Jesus, forsake their nets and follow him; so Elisha, when Elijah cast his mantle over him, left the oxen, and ran after Elijah. This is one apparent divergency, which is a yet more striking proof of the relation between the two narratives, than is their general similarity. The prophet’s disciple entreated that before he attached himself entirely to Elijah, he might be permitted to take leave of his father and mother; and the prophet does not hesitate to grant him this request, on the understood condition that Elisha should return to him. Similar petitions are offered to Jesus (Luke ix. 59 ff.; Matt. viii. 21 f.) by some whom he had called, or who had volunteered to follow him; but Jesus does not accede to these requests: on the contrary, he enjoins the one who wished previously to bury his father, to enter on his discipleship without delay; and the other, who had begged permission to bid farewell to his friends, he at once dismisses as unfit for the kingdom of God. In strong contrast with the divided spirit manifested by these feeble proselytes, it is said of the apostles, that they, without asking any delay, immediately forsook their occupation, and, in the case of James and John, their father. Could anything betray more clearly than this one feature, that the narrative is an embellished imitation of that in the Old Testament intended to show that Jesus, in his character of Messiah, exacted a more decided adhesion, accompanied with greater sacrifices, than Elijah, in his character of Prophet merely, required or was authorized to require?
(Strauss, Life of Jesus, Part II, chapter v § 70)
NC stresses that there is more here than imitation and amplification: it is the messianic situation of the End Times that demands the difference.
We need to understand and at some level to know that the gospels are not like other literature. They are not like the Iliad and Odyssey or Greek novels, nor are they like allegorical Greek myths, nor are they typical tales of the marvelous and fantastic.
Some ways they differ from other literature:
The gospels put into narratives the principles of Judaism. The miracles, for example, are not tales of the marvelous but are coded signs within the hermeneutics of the Hebrew Bible. It is impossible to genuinely understand anything in the New Testament if it is read apart from the context of the Hebrew Bible.
The principles of Greek literature (e.g. Greek tragedy) only function to give form to an entirely Judaic theme. (NC refers to Bruno Delorme and his Le Christ grec: De la tragédie aux évangiles but a similar discussion is found in Gilbert G. Bilezikian’s The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy.)
Above all, “perhaps the key to their genius”, is that the gospels transform into supposedly real characters and situations statements that are expressions of language or poetic formulations from OT texts.
Transforming persons and actions into meaningful words
Recall the discussions where we noted that not only were names of persons given for symbolic reasons but even characters themselves were created as symbols of entire communities: the Samaritan woman is the Samaritan people; Mary is the Jewish people and the other Marys are different facets of the Jewish people (e.g. Israel as a prostitute, etc).
Another example points to the complexity we sometimes find here. Manna, the word meaning “what is it?”, was given to the “bread” in the wilderness. Bread elsewhere becomes a symbol of the word of God. Prophets are made to eat scrolls full of written words. The question “what is it?” becomes the question one asks of the meaning of God’s word.
“Walking in the way” is a metaphor for righteous living according to the law. So in the gospels the healing of a paralytic, one who cannot walk, brings to mind the restoration of the gentiles who were hitherto without the law of God.
no claim is above the requirement of justification
Anyone who reads widely about how historians work and how we can know anything about the past — as well as how to critically analyse news and media reports and any information at all — will likely at some point come across an interesting perspective in an article by Peter Kosso, Observation of the Past. I describe it as “interesting” because Kosso compares how we (should) read scientific instruments with how we (should) read our sources of information.
Here are some key points from that article.
There are three ways that knowledge of history is said to differ from our knowledge of the natural sciences:
History is largely the study of unique objects and singular events. Thus history cannot make generalizations about principles seen in nature. (Historians who once did try to find laws in history were called positivists but they are a rare species now.)
Historical subjects of inquiry cannot be manipulated to test hypotheses as can those of the natural sciences.
The third point is one that Kosso criticizes in his article: it is the common view that since historical events “are dead and gone, they are not amenable to observation.” Historians are like the jury at a criminal trial: they can listen to the testimony of witnesses but they can never see the crime itself.
But, argues Kosso, that third statement is misleading. The pastness of the phenomena that historians study is “not an epistemically significant factor in the process of our observation.”
Thus, “No Egyptologist has ever seen Ramses,” but particle physicists routinely observe the telltale tracks of electrons.
But here is the deep flaw in that analogy according to Kosso:
it is based on a mismatch between the objects of theoretical interest in history, for example Ramses, and the evidence, the tracks, for objects of theoretical interest in physics. (p. 23 – highlighting is mine in all quotations)
What would be a more accurate comparison? Either a comparison between studies of Ramses himself and studies of electrons themselves; or, a comparison between the evidence we have for Ramses (textual, archaeological) and the evidence we have for electrons (the tracks in a bubble chamber).
The interesting comparative analysis then is of the link, in each case, between the objects of interest and their image as shown in the evidential objects. (p. 23)
We come now to the quotation with which we opened this post,
no claim is above the requirement of justification (p. 26)
The scientist who proposes a description or theory on the basis of what the instruments have indicated about something — via electron microscopic image, seismic waves, ultrasonic image — that is invisible to the human eye will not, every time he or she speaks, explain how each point is justified by a particular reading of a particular program with known conditions, etc, but that background information is vital nonetheless and the scientist as a professional will always be able to produce whenever questioned about it.
Scientific observation, in other words, is observation, all things considered. It depends on an understanding of how the image was formed, that is, how the information got from the object of an observation report to the reporter. Only then is it reasonable to accept the report as reliable. (p. 27)
For a claim to be justified among scientists they must understand the principles by which a bubble chamber, a seismometer, a particle accelerator, a radio telescope detect information and how that information is interpreted. Much of the data collected is indirectly derived from the objects and recorded in what, to the untrained eye, look like meaningless lines and splotches. And before that end product of lines and splotches, there will have been earlier stages in the transmission of information involving various unfocussed images and electrical pulses that are in themselves unrecognizable as information. So what counts as information at the end of the process must include an understanding of how that data was derived.
Kosso refers us to Maxwell’s continuum of our increasing indirectness of observation of the natural world: personal spectacles are necessary for some of us simply to see a tree or house in focus; microscopes and telescopes distort the “natural” image for us to gain more insight into an object; then we have other instruments that register different kinds of waves beyond the light spectrum. Similarly, Kosso notes,
Historical observing involves a continuum of observability similar to Maxwell’s continuum. In the historical case there is an increasing indirectness in the observation of an event due to its distance in the past and the amount of mediation of information. (p. 30)
As scientific data is filtered through a range of indirect processes that observers must understand in order to best evaluate the results of their instruments, so historians have similar challenges with the interpretation of their data:
Atkinson, citing David Hume, suggests (and subsequently opposes) that “Statements about the past are claimed necessarily to diminish in credibility as time goes on. First observation, then memory, then first-, second-, third-hand testimony, and so on to the point of complete incredibility.” This scale of credibility of information will have more epistemological significance if it is sensitive not simply to how many stages are involved in the transmission of information but to the nature of those stages and their reliability for conveying information accurately. Thus one’s own memory may be no more credible than the testimony of an eyewitness, especially a witness with independent credentials as a competent, reliable, and even expert observer. This testimony is little different from a newspaper account by a reporter on the scene, which is in turn similar to an historical account, such as Thucydides’ description of the Peloponnesian wars, where the witnessing and faithful recording of the events are independently accountable. The point is that objects of historical interest, like objects of scientific interest, fill out a tight spectrum in terms of indirectness in the process of observation. Rather than drawing a dubious dichotomy in this spectrum it is epistemologically more enlightening to analyze the various kinds of stages in the indirectness and their potential threat to the conveyance of information. (pp. 30-31)
So if we follow the comparison with Maxwell’s continuum of observability in the sciences (from eye-glasses to Hadron colliders) we find that we have a continuum of degrees of clarity in the traces of historical events. The question to ask is not, “Can we observe Ramses?” but
Ask instead, Is this information of the event and does it come to us through interaction with the event? How is the information transmitted? Is there a reliable, independent account of the flow of information? (p. 31)
That’s worth highlighting again:
Is this information of the event and does it come to us through interaction with the event? How is the information transmitted? Is there a reliable, independent account of the flow of information?
In detail, that means the following for the historian and anyone interested in researching history:
Historical studies, no less than the sciences, are able to deal with these questions of information and accountability and are therefore able to analyze and use observation reports as do the sciences. In the case of written information from the past, the historical record, accounting claims are a standard part of the case for credibility of the evidence.
One ought to know, for starters, whether the information from the past has been intentionally passed on by the author, as in explicit chronicles or histories, or is unintended information which has been teased out of documents of the times by our reading between the lines and noting presuppositions or implications of the text. Attending to this unintended evidence in texts, looking “not for what their authors wanted to say, but for the unarticulated assumptions they carry with them,” not only increases the informational content but makes it more difficult for the authors to deceive or mislead. The background understanding of the intent behind textual evidence, in other words, helps account for the reliability of the information by describing aspects of the process by which the information was conveyed. The advice of M. I. Finley for assessing the credibility of textual evidence, “The first questions to be asked of any written source are, why was it written, why was it published?” initiates the process of accounting . . . (pp. 31-32, my formatting)
There are other questions to ask, too. What were the circumstances of the interaction between the event how the information came to us: how did the author know about the event? what has happened to the text in the hands of editors and copyists since it was composed? what do we know about the author, his status, his interests?
And don’t look for or complain about the lack of “objective accounts”. But do look for independent verification or “external controls”.
The objectivity of evidence is secured not by using foundational, indubitable observational claims, for there are none.
Objectivity comes with the prevention of circularity in the accounting whereby a claim of evidence contributes to its own verification. If an author describes things which can be evidenced in alternative ways, as Pausanius writes of monuments and topography which can be seen in the archaeological record, there is this independent check on his credibility in general. References to one author by another, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes the historical method of Thucydides, and coincidence of an author’s account with inscriptional reports, where the dating and authenticity of the inscription can be verified by independent means, both contribute to the assessment of the credibility of the textual information from the past. The reports from past historians, like the observation reports in science, must come with independent accounting claims if they are to be responsibly accepted as evidence. (p. 32)
What we read, then, in Josephus or Herodotus is not a focused image of the past. No. What we get is an “information-bearing signal” of something in the past that has begun with certain events, and been conveyed through various interactions that lead to us. That is Kosso speaking, but I would add a further point to be aware of: sometimes a signal can appear to be about a past event but is in fact a false signal. The historian must attempt to establish if what he or she is observing is “a false-positive”. It took a long time before historians came to understand that the accounts of the Trojan War and the Worldwide Flood were myths.
For the historian, then, the text
…. is not a light signal and it is very slow, but neither of these features disqualifies observational information in the case of science, nor should it in the historical case. What counts for observational information in science is that it gets to the observer by interaction with the object and that there is a credible account of the interaction. The same standards can apply in history. (p. 33)
To encapsulate the comparison:
The point is that the data in history, the tokens of written reports of the past, play an evidential role that is similar to the data in science, the images in microscopes, tracks in particle detectors, and the like. Both bear information of less accessible objects of interest and both are amenable to an analysis of the credibility and accuracy of that information in terms of an independent account of the interactions between the object and the final medium of information, an account, that is, of the formation of the image. As long as we understand the formation process, in science or in history, we can be quite liberal in allowing many kinds of signals to carry the information. (p. 33)
And that last sentence applies especially to ancient history where we find historians using all kinds of sources, not just ancient historians but even poets and playwrights to attempt to get a better handle on, say, an inscription unearthed by archaeologists.
And a word here for biblical apologists:
As with empirical evidence in science, the important epistemic standard is independence between the accounting claims and the benefactors of the evidence. (p. 34)
How does a researcher who prays to the resurrected Jesus spoken of in gospels do serious research into “the historical Jesus”? What would we make of an Egyptologist who was known to communicate — privately, of course — with the eternal pharaohs whose spirits had been immortalized in the pyramids?
What is necessary at all times is that the observer, scientist or historian, be able to see that the information has been “transferred by some accountable chain of interaction.”
all informational claims must have some justification (p. 34)
We think of science as being more theory-laden than history but that is an error. Theory, values, … these determine all our observations, our selections of topics of interest. Our background knowledge similarly determines our selection of topics of interest, how we interpret it and how we justify our observations and conclusions.
Kosso is writing about historical inquiry. I think the principles apply to anything we read. “All information claims must have some justification.”
Kosso, Peter. “Observation of the Past.” History and Theory 31, no. 1 (February 1992): 21. https://doi.org/10.2307/2505606.
“Memory studies” have become the “new thing” among scholars seeking to identify our earliest indicators of the historical Jesus. Before memory studies there were the “criteria of authenticity” that were used as a tool to identify the more reliable or original pieces of the gospel narratives. Those criteria have not been completely replaced, certainly not among all scholars searching for the historical Jesus, but “memory studies” have certainly gained in prominence. The name that is very often mentioned as a pioneer in understanding how “collective memories” of societies are formed is that of the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. The main point Halbwachs developed was that social memories are formed as a result of contemporary needs. The past that we as a society “remember” is what is meaningful for our own identities and outlooks today.
One day I would like to cover some of Halbwachs’ demonstrations of that particular point. But for now, I want only to mention one detail: what Halbwachs had to say about the so-called “memories” preserved by the “oral traditions” of Jesus that eventually fed into the gospel narratives.
(Another post I’d like to do, partly because it is in some ways quite amusing (sadly amusing, unfortunately), is the responses of quite a few biblical scholars who, while acknowledging the importance of Halbwachs to their use of memory theory, quickly inform their readers that Halbwachs was terribly mixed up and confused and flat wrong about how memory relates to the study of the “historical methods” biblical scholars use to track down (or nearly track down) the historical Jesus!)
Anyway, here is what Halbwachs had to say about oral traditions that are assumed by scholars generally to be the primary sources of our canonical gospels.
From Revelations & Mysticism to Earthly Biographical Narrative
First, Halbwachs explained the thesis he holds for the origin or creation of the “memories” that we find in the gospels. He writes that the earliest Christian documents knew no historical outline or biography of Jesus:
Things look different when it comes to the story of the Gospels. The facts of which they speak have not retained the attention of historians. Josephus does not mention them. According to Renan, the account of the death of John the Baptist, as it appears in the Gospel of Mark, would be “the only genuinely historical page in all of the Gospels.” In the authentic epistles of Paul, we are told only that the son of God has come to earth, that he died for our sins, and that he was brought back to life again. There is no allusion to the circumstances of his life, except for the Lord’s Supper, which, Paul says, appeared to him in a vision (and not through witnesses). There is no indication of locality, no question of Galilee, or of the preachings of Jesus on the shores of the lake of Gennesaret.In the Apocalypse of John, which is, according to Couchoud, together with the epistles of Paul, “the only Christian document that can be dated with certainty in the first century,” all we are told of Jesus is that “he died and was resurrected, but not suffering or crucified.” Naturally, no specific location is provided either.
(Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, p. 209)
Halbwachs noted that the earliest biographical narratives about Jesus appeared late, certainly post 70 CE, though he took them even later, noting that there is no independent witness to their existence until the second century. What Halbwachs proposed was that the need for historical accounts of the life of Jesus in Palestine did not arise until late in the first century or even well into the second century. Before legendary narratives of Jesus appeared there were only “apocalyptic revelations”, “mystical beliefs and visions”.
Halbwachs thus discounted the thesis that the gospels documented in any way “authentic traditions” that went back to the early first century.
This thesis excludes authentic traditions, those that went back to the events themselves. The latter, one believes, did not take place.
The Assumption of Oral Traditions Cannot Yield Historical Data
So what ought a historian make of the view that oral tradition lies behind the gospels? Halbwachs explains:
But it does not exclude tradltlons in the first [century], oral form these fictitious tales would have taken before being written down.8This idea of oral traditions moreover puts the whole thesis in question: what means do we possess to determine to which date the oral traditions refer? How can we determine whether they are authentic or not if we cannot come to grips with them and cannot determine at what moment they were formed? In any case, since no authentic text allows us to disprove the hypothesis according to which the Gospels were imagined tales, we must now determine what this means in regard to localizations in the Gospels.
8. According to Renan also, one third of the text of Luke (Lucanus or Lucas, disciple of Paul in Macedonia, member of the Church of Rome after 70) is to be found in neither Mark nor in Matthew. He would have been largely dependent on the oral tradition.
(p. 210 – bolding in all quotations is my own)
Indeed. How can we know if the first “oral tradition” was not composed, say, in 50 or 60 or 70 CE? And what were the circumstances that led to a story-teller creating that first story?
This brings us to Halbwachs’ second point: how the geographic settings indicate the novelistic character of the gospel narratives.
Without going into a study of the composition of the Gospels, one can say that the tales they introduce concern in general two clearly distinct regions of Palestine: Galilee and Jerusalem.9 The first concerns the Sermon on the Mount and contains the preachings and miracles that are supposed to have occurred on the shores of the lake of Gennesaret. The stories located in Jerusalem concern essentially the Passion. In Galilee we find discourses, above all in the form of parables; in Jerusalem we have facts, actions, events, which are the only ones, moreover, to develop the mythic drama that would be at the origin of Christianity on the human level. The Galilean materials are more or less independent of this mythic drama. Let me also add that localizations are essential for the events. It would seem that the Messiah could have been arrested, judged, crucified, and resurrected nowhere other than in Jerusalem. There had to be specifiable relations between the respective places. These localizations formed a system that was part of a definite spatial framework. This was not the case for the parables, the discourses, and the miracles. They were not necessarily placed at one location or another. Many of them in fact are localized in only a very vague fashion in Galilee, on the shores of the lake, or they are not localized at all.
9. This is what struck Renan and accounts for what is called the Palestinian dualism in his Vie de Jesus. Renan has noted “the striking agreement of the texts and the places.” “By this he means that the Galilean idyll fits in well with the charming nature of the countryside and its inhabitants, whereas the drama of the Passion is at home in gloomy Judea, in the dessicated atmosphere of Jerusalem. But one may wonder whether this is not simply a private fancy …. The antithesis that he established between northern an southern Palestine results so little from an actual vision of the places that he had formulated it already in a note prior to his Palestinian voyage and also in his introduction to the Song of Songs” (Alfaric, Les manuscrits, p. xxix). But the study of the texts themselves suffices in effect to suggest this supposition.
See the curious note of Taine regarding Renan: “He read a big piece of the Vie de Jesus to me … He gathers all the sweet and agreeable ideas of Jesus into the period of Nazareth, and, by omitting the sad facts, creates a happy, mystic pastoral. Then, in another chapter, he puts all the threats and the bitterness he tells of into his account of the voyage to Jerusalem … Berthelot and I told him in vain that this was to replace a legend with a novel, etc.” (Alfaric, Les manuscrits, pp. lviii-lxi).
Many books and articles have addressed the two-part structure of the Synoptic Gospels: the fruitful ministry in Galilee spoiled only by scribes or Pharisees visiting from Jerusalem who chance to catch Jesus perform a miracle on a sabbath, for example, and the second part of the voyage to Jerusalem to suffer and die.
The Galilean episodes and teachings are, as Halbwachs points out, quite independent of the mythic drama upon which Christianity was founded. It is as if the evangelists wrote knowing that only at Jerusalem could the messiah be “arrested, judged, crucified and resurrected.” The parables and miracles, on the other hand, could be placed anywhere or nowhere in particular or in “only a very vague fashion in Galilee.” I think that Galilee did have other prophetic reasons for being chosen as the locale for Jesus’ teaching ministry (compare Matthew 4:14-16 with Isaiah 9:1-2), but Halbwachs’ point is well made, I think.
Halbwachs adds that we find confirmation of the significance of this geographical structure in the earliest resurrection stories where the disciples were told to return to Galilee in order to see the happy ending to their ordeal.
One may of course assume that the part of the Gospels that occurs on the shores of the lake was written on the basis of those local traditions which the Galileans preserved when they were in Jerusalem, or when, after the war of the Jews, they had moved to other regions. But (and this is the hypothesis on which I base myself at the moment) one can also assume that the Galilean part of the Gospels had been imagined toward the end of the first century or at the beginning of the second by a group that knew the places and situated the discourses and miracles there in a more or less arbitrary manner.
No wonder so many biblical scholars who mention Maurice Halbwachs write somewhat nervously, even defensively, about Halbwachs own views on reasoning about the nature of historical evidence and its relation to memory theory.
Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Translated by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1992.
Originally published in 1941 as La topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre sainte. Étude de mémoire collective.