The Gospels as Figurative Narratives (Charbonnel continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

Note the historicizing imagination at work….

François-René de Chateaubriand

We find this same phenomenon with Chateaubriand. He writes at the beginning of the fifth part of his Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem:

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.

Maurice Halbwachs

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:

From https://famvin.org/en/2018/09/14/signs-vincents-charism-is-alive-and-well-today/

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.

Examples follow.

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.

Invention of Nazareth and the Nazorean

Nazareth never appears in the Jewish text of the time so it is not necessary to insist on the existence of a historical village as the basis of the epithet for Jesus. (Richard Carrier has written again recently that he sees no good argument against the existence of the town but appears not to have even taken the time to read René Salm’s case and I hope to post a response to Carrier’s assertions soon.) NC lists three possible origins for the label “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus the Nazorean” and does not exclude the possibility that they might have worked together to create the literary name.

  1. There is the obvious similarity to the Hebrew ‘Nazir’ or Nazirite, the name given to those who were vowed to abstain from cutting one’s hair and alcohol (e.g. Samson, Judges 16:17) and who were thereby designated as a “holy one” or “dedicated to” God. So we read in Mark 1:24 the demons addressing “Jesus Nazarene” as “the holy one of God”.

NC quotes a section of Christian Amphoux‘s online engagement with Renan and that I put through a machine translation and copy here:

Christian Amphoux

The gospels give Jesus birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, which obviously serves to make Jesus a royal messiah. But during his life, Jesus bears the name “Jesus of Nazareth”: was Jesus born in Nazareth, as Renan thinks? In reality, the name Nazareth is more strongly symbolic than Bethlehem: the word is formed on the root n-z-r, which is the central notion of Leviticus of “consecration”, applying to all the Jewish people, who are destined to become the people of the priests of other nations. In sum, the name Nazareth establishes a link between Jesus and the priestly function. This is especially true since the geographical affiliation in antiquity always refers to a city or a region, not a village. We could have said Jesus of Galilee; but we say Jesus of Nazareth. The reason for this name is not geographical, and its presence does not mean that Jesus was born in Nazareth.

In short, we do not know where Jesus was born, but Bethlehem links him to the royal messiah, and Nazareth to the Jerusalem priesthood.

The Gospel of Matthew draws attention to the pun. Compare Matthew 2:23

So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene [Ναζωραῖος].

with Judges 13:5, speaking of the miraculous birth of Samson

for the child shall be a Nazarite [ναζὶρ] to God from the womb; and he shall begin to save Israel . . .

  1. Further, we have the Hebrew for “branch” as found in Isaiah 11:1

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch [נֵ֧צֶר/ nzr] will bear fruit.

A sprouting, a germination, is precisely what we would expect of the messianic age.

  1. Finally, Jeremiah 31:6 n

There will be a day when watchmen [צְרִ֥ים / נָצַר – nzr] cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.’”

The guards, the watchmen, reminders of an image of guarding and keeping (words, one’s brother, one’s covenant, promises….) throughout the Scriptures, Old and New.

Bethany, Joseph of Arimathea, Emmaus…

In his Commentary on the Gospel of John Origen disputed the reading of Bethany as the place where Jesus was baptized. The original text would have read Bethabara, he said, because Bethabara more appropriately means “House of Preparation” while Bethany means “House of Obedience”.

As for Joseph of Arimathea, the one who buried Jesus in his tomb, we run into a difficulty when we come to the Book of Acts. There we read that it was the Jews who condemned Jesus, not his sympathizers, who were responsible for burying Jesus after they crucified him:

The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him . . . they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. (Acts 13:27-29)

Clearly historical accuracy is of little concern. We are entitled, then, to look for the possibility of a symbolic meaning being a higher priority for the evangelist who introduced the sympathizer from Arimathea. Look at Judges 1:1-4

After the death of Joshua [= ’aḥărê mōwṯ yəhōwōšua‘ – reversing the written word order to conform to speech order] the Israelites asked the Lord, “Who of us is to go up first to fight against the Canaanites?” The Lord answered, “Judah shall go up; I have given the land into their hands.” The men of Judah then said to the Simeonites their fellow Israelites, “Come up with us into the territory allotted to us, to fight against the Canaanites. We in turn will go with you into yours.” So the Simeonites went with them. When Judah attacked, the Lord gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands, and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek.

The Hebrew word order as spoken for “after the death of Jesus” is ahare mot or ‘ararey moth and “after the death of Joshua” reads as “after the death of Jesus” since Joshua is the Hebrew form of the name Jesus. Aramathea … compare the Hebrew for “after the death”.

The webpage cited for this information is by René Guyon and he adds a little more: The remainder of that quoted passage from the introduction to the Book of Judges relates Judah and his brother Simon taking the lead after Joshua’s death to conquer the land of Canaan. Guyon raises the notion of Judas (Iscariot), the son of Simon, taking a leading role in the death of Joshua/Jesus, apparently, according to some, in hopes of reconquering Palestine from the Romans. Two evangelists then speak of Joseph of Arimathea waiting (the word apparently means an anxious wait, as per Psalm 130:6 where we read of waiting for the Lord with more longing than the watchman waits for the dawn) for the kingdom appearing on the scene “after the death of Jesus”.

Similarly with Emmaus. Again, as always, the allusion is to the Hebrew Scriptures. Possibilities abound (again see Guyon and Mergui and also past Vridar posts for many of these, especially the celebrated military victory at Emmaus in 1 Maccabees 3 and 4.) NC summarizes the Garden of Eden allusions noted by Guyon:

If we compare the accounts of Emmaus [Luke 24:13-35] and the Garden of Eden [Genesis 3], we notice that these two texts develop their themes in a completely parallel way:

  • a question of knowledge: the man and the woman have neither knowledge nor the right to eat from the tree that gives it; the two disciples have knowledge: you are the only one who does not know, says Cleopas to Jesus;
  • blindness in front of the obvious: the man and the woman do not see their nakedness; the two disciples do not recognize Jesus;
  • a mistaken idea: the man and the woman are mistaken in believing, according to the divine defense, that they will die if they eat from the tree; the two disciples are mistaken in thinking, according to the common opinion, that the Messiah must liberate Israel from the Roman domination;
  • a question from the character who arrives when he was not expected: the serpent asks: so God said… Jesus asks: “What are these words…?
  • the affirmation of the character who knows: the serpent misleads the woman: you will not die; Jesus disabuses the disciples of their belief that it was not necessary for the Christ to suffer…?
  • the explanations of the character who knows: your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods knowing good and evil, says the serpent; Jesus interprets to the disciples, in all the Scriptures, what concerned him; […]
  • the disappearance: the man and the woman disappear from before God by hiding under a tree; Jesus disappears from before the disciples;
  • the departure from Paradise to the world: the man and the woman are chased by God from the Garden of Eden to enter the life of the real world; the disciples leave the inn to go to Jerusalem, to the world, and to find the Eleven and their companions to testify.

The most essential parallel detail:

It is “the act that opens to knowledge“, in the Genesis account, “the woman took the fruit and gave it to her husband (…) and their eyes were opened and they (re)knew that they were naked: the eating of the forbidden fruit opens their eyes”. And in our Luke finale: “Jesus took the bread (…) and gave it to the two disciples, and their eyes were opened and they recognized him”: the eating of the bread opens their eyes.

A pavement that became a woman, a woman that became a pavement


We read in 2 Samuel 21 the tragic tale of Rizpah, concubine of King Saul, who stood watch upon seven hanged corpses at Gibeah, two of them being her own sons. Rizpah stayed with the hanged bodies to protect them from the wild beasts and placed a sackcloth, the garment of mourning, over the ground as it also was in mourning per the drought.

The name Rizpah is the common word for the earth or pavement, and translated into Greek means a pavement of stones. (In the OT story Rizpah represents the mourning of the earth, the natural calamity that resulted from the injustice done to the Gibeonites.) In the gospels, that story of Rizpah towards the end of 2 Samuel is played out in the trial and death of Jesus. We begin in John 19:13

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha).

Gabbatha echoes Gibeah, the place where Saul’s sons were hanged. From Gabbatha Jesus is taken to Golgotha. At Golgotha the gospel takes up the very image of Rizpa at the foot of her dead sons when Mary is standing at the feet of Jesus on the cross. (La Vierge au livre Marie et l’Ancien Testament / Philippe Lefebvre)

The character Peter

A. The Foundation on a Stone Pun

We are familiar enough with the pun on the nickname Jesus assigned to his lead disciple Simon. Matthew 16:18 indicates that Simon Peter is to be the rock of the church (though others argue that Jesus was the rock and Peter the pebble).

In Hebrew the sounds of the words for “son” (ben) and “stone” (eben) are alike. Accordingly, the line in Matthew “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah… You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church” when spoken in Hebrew leaves no doubt about the pun: “ashreikha shim’on benyona… atah eben veal eben zo ebneh benyoni” (David Belhassen in Hébreu ? Araméen ? Au fondement des évangiles.) (Another instance of the pun, again not mentioned by NC, is in Josephus’s account of the Jewish War when he relates the way the guards on the walls would give warning of a catapult stone that was headed for them by calling out, “Here comes sonny!”)

B. Stumbling Block/Stone

And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling. We first meet this one in Isaiah 8:14 and we recognize this saying as it is applied to Jesus in the gospels:

And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling

The image is turned around in Psalm 118:22:

The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner

(Not mentioned by NC but surely of significance: Mary Ann Tolbert in Sowing the Gospel makes the case that before Matthew exalted Peter by having Jesus call him the rock upon which the church was to be built, Peter was likened to the “rocky soil” in the parable of the sower and a cause for spiritual stumbling.)

C. Turning the Stone at the Tomb

NC quotes a passage from the fifth century Bede but it does not relate to Peter. Translation:

We know from the account of the evangelist Matthew that an angel descended from heaven and came to roll away the stone at the entrance of the tomb. It was not a matter of clearing the way for the Lord to come out, but of revealing to men, through the opening and the emptiness of the tomb, that he had risen. The turning of the stone also has a mystical meaning: it signifies the revelation of the divine mysteries, locked up in the past and hidden by the letter of the Law; for the Law is written on the stone. This is true for each of us: when we accepted faith in the Lord’s passion and resurrection, his tomb, which was previously closed to us, was opened for us. (sermon iv après l’octave de Pâques)

Characters created as the function of declarative texts

The naked young man who flees from the scene when Jesus is being arrested, may well be nothing more than “the enactment of a sentence”:

Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,” declares the LORD.Amos 2:16

Alone, that incident is surely meaningless, insignificant. Why would such an episode be “recalled and preserved in historical memory” and incorporated into the gospels? But the figure does present a significance when we turn to the young man clothed in a white garment in the tomb of Jesus at the end of Mark’s gospel. Then the garment that was abandoned by the fleeing young man becomes the shroud wrapping the body of Jesus and the glorious dress of his resurrected form. It is associated further — Genesis 39:12 — with the abandoned cloak of Joseph as he escaped the clutches of Potiphar’s wife.

The episode of the young man in the linen tunic then enters into a “hermeneutical intrigue”. It is the sign indicating to the reader the necessity of a figurative reading which seeks under the narrative the meaning that another narrative will reveal.

Once we acknowledge that proposition, we must concede that the Gospel is no lonoger a historical testimony going back to eyewitnesses. The narrative

bears witness to the fulfillment of the Scriptures. The account of Peter’s denial is part of a hermeneutical plot intended first of all to attest to the concordance of Scripture with itself. And this plot aims to separate those who know how to unravel plots from those who do not. The gospel story, as literature and as a model of all literature, has the function of separating those for whom it is intended from those for whom it is not intended.

(Translation of NC’s quotation of Jacques Rancière’s discussion of Frank Kermode’s Genesis of Secrecy, pp. 425-26)

Continuing. . .

Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure De Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.

Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Translated by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1992.


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “The Gospels as Figurative Narratives (Charbonnel continued)”

  1. By a curious coincidence, John Loftus has been posting on his DC blog a serialisation of an unpublished book by John Beversluis. Time and again this scholar argues for the non-historicity of the gospel texts, but does not answer the question “if not history, then what?” This seems to be where Charbonnel has made an enormous and thought provoking contribution. All the odd little phrases (e.g. “in those days”) and events (e.g. the fleeing naked young man) which are clearly not history find a purpose in her interpretations. Her argument that the gospels need to be seen as Jewish, eschatological, figurative texts elucidates a lot.

        1. Her argument that the gospels need to be seen as Jewish, eschatological, figurative texts elucidates a lot

          True only partially, insofar NC overlooks the polemical feature of the Gospels. She appears to be victim of the false view that an “apocalyptic revelation” can only be made by people who are not seriously involved in sectarian conflicts against other sects. The grotesque portrait of the disciples in Mark is hardly an innocent ‘apocalyptic revelation’ and probably it reveals that there was a matter of contention, also. Something of more cynical is in action, I think, and I am disappointed that Nanine does not touch this point at all.

          1. A quite different explanation for the way the disciples are portrayed in the Gospel of Mark, and an explanation that is entirely coherent within its own parameters, without any need to introduce additional hypotheses of rival sectarians involving Marcionism or something similar, is presented by Mary-Anne Tolbert in Sowing the Gospel. The story changes over time, of course. But let’s first stick with what we can understand about first things.

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