The Secret of the Power Behind the Gospel Narrative (Charbonnel Continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

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… ;

2 On 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.

Ernest Renan

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)”


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

Continue reading “The Gospels as Figurative Narratives (Charbonnel continued)”


How to Read Historical Evidence (and any other information) Critically

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by Neil Godfrey

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. Historical subjects of inquiry cannot be manipulated to test hypotheses as can those of the natural sciences.
  3. 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)

Particle Tracks In Bubble Chamber

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?

Whence Objectivity?

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.

In sum…

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.


Oral Traditions Behind the Gospels Lack Historical Foundations. A Sociologist’s View

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by Neil Godfrey

Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945)

“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.

(p. 210)

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.8 This 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?

Novelistic Topography

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).

(pp. 210-11)

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.

(p. 211)

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.


The Crucifixion as a Victorious Elevation (Charbonnel continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing here Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. This post covers pages 398 to 411. I have questions and some doubts about certain connections that are being made in these pages and note NC’s occasional expressions of tentativeness. But I’ll try to present here the key points expressed and from time to time add what I think is an alternative (or additional) rationale for some of the points made. One question raised is whether some of the connections proposed are the results of reflection on the cross rather than inspirations for introducing the cross into theological imagery in the first place.

1. Two Sides of the Passion: Positive Outcome of an Ordeal

The message is that the people of Israel, though dead, will be victorious. Through death comes resurrection. Some specifics:

Crown of Thorns

NC suggests that this “apparent instrument of torture is in fact the emblem of divine kingship”. The possibility of its relationship with the Burning Bush in the Exodus is raised (think of the bush as the place where the divinity dwells), as also the possible allusion to the thorn bush that became king in Judges 9:7-15. Salomon Reinach states that the idea that the crown of thorns was intended to inflict suffering on Jesus was “very late” (“très postérieure”) — though the reasons for this claim are not given at Le Roi supplicié.

Marc-Alain Ouaknin, NC with some caution notes, points to kabbalistic associations, and others have remarked on the crown being a rabbinical metaphor for the Torah, but surely more significant than any of these suggestions is the eschatological significance, in this case, the link with the Feast of Tabernacles. To quote Jean Daniélou in Les Symboles chrétiens primitifs:

But we confine ourselves here to the use of crowns of foliage at the feast of Tabernacles. And it seems to us, from all the texts that have been brought together, that it is to this usage that the Jewish and Judeo-Christian symbolism of the crown to symbolize eschatological glory. This usage, like its symbolism, seems relatively recent in Judaism. Judaism. It is related to the development of the messianic of messianic expectation and, in literary terms, with apocalypticism. (Daniélou, p. 30)

Original:Et il nous paraît, d’après l’ensemble des textes rapprochés, que c’est à cet usage que se rattache le symbolisme juif et judéo-chrétien de la couronne pour symboliser la gloire eschatologique. Cet usage, comme son symbolisme, paraît relativement récent dans le judaïsme. Il se trouve en relation avec le développement de l’attente messianique et littérairement avec l’apocalyptique.

In my mind, however, a crown of plants suggesting a return to the original Garden of Eden situation does not seem compatible with a crown of thorns.

The magnificent purple cloak

The cloak draped upon Jesus was “lampran” (Luke 23:11) – glorious, magnificent; Mark 15:17 and John 19:2, 5 inform us it was purple. NC raises questions: is this the garment of the High Priest? or the robe of King Saul? Certainly, it is a royal garment, but it is a cloak and not a full dress. “Many midrashim” speak of God putting on a royal mantle as he prepares to act in bloody vengeance on the “last day” — e.g. Isaiah 63:2-4. Again there is reference to late Ashkenazi messianic imagery with the suggestion that certain ideas could be “much older”. All of these points briefly touched by NC may be suggestive but I can’t help thinking they are inconclusive. (One point: I am left wondering about the colour red in some of the references instead of purple.)

Behold the man

John 19:5 “Behold the man” — with these words Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd. This is the same phrase as the Septuagint (Greek version) uses to present the first king of Israel: ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος — “behold the man” in 1 Samuel 9:17 (Greek text). One may well see here a “subtle” announcement of Jesus as the “king of the Jews”, the words to be placed on the titulus above the cross.

Pilate washes his hands: Possible allusions — Deuteronomy 21:6-7 and Psalm 26:6. Is it a leap too far to think of the practice of Jews washing hands before writing the name of YHWH? (I think that last suggestion is too indirect to be sustained.)

2. The Cross: between language and object

Continue reading “The Crucifixion as a Victorious Elevation (Charbonnel continued)”


Personification, redemption and substitution (Charbonnel continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

John 11:47-52

47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.

The above passage follows on the heels of the death and raising of Lazarus. Lazarus (or Eleazar) was a well-known Jewish martyr (2 Maccabees 6:18-31). By placing the episode of Lazarus’s death and recovery at this point in the narrative the author was signaling a non-literal meaning. Lazarus is a personification of the Jewish people, one who had been bound and whom Jesus now ordered to be untied; one who had died but was not restored to life. That one man should stand for the entire nation was hardly a novel idea. It is found in Numbers 14:15 (kill this people as one man) and by gematria (a technique that we have seen can be argued to go back to that time) people and man are equivalent in the number 110.

The clearest indicator that Jesus’ death is a substitution is the Barabbas episode. The earliest manuscripts show that Barabbas from the outset was apparently named Jesus. Jesus, son of the father, substituted for another Jesus, son of the Father. (Compare the earlier discussion where NC addressed the derivation of this exchange from the Day of Atonement ritual.) Nothing about this scene was ever thought historical. There was no such custom of prisoner exchange.


NC here discusses the scholarly viewpoints on the meaning of “for” in the sentence “Jesus died for our sins”, with the differences between the Septuagint origin of the idea (Isaiah 53’s suffering servant) and the Hebrew text — the differences between expressing the redemptive reason for the death on the one hand and the beneficiary of the death on the other. This is followed by scholarly views that have been posited on the origin and significance of the Barabbas exchange. NC here also returns to a discussion of the Kapparah ritual (introduced and illustrated in Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures #7) that was practiced by Ashkenazi Jews on the eve of the Day of Atonement — Yom Kippur (cf Kapparah). NC quotes an interesting explanation of this ritual that is available in French at Barabbas vs Barrabas and where we read (thank the browser translator) that the event hangs on a wordplay: the sacrificed rooster in Talmudic Hebrew means man in Biblical Hebrew. Guyon drives home a direct comparison with the Pilate scene in the gospels:

After the slaughter, the priest pours a few drops of the blood of each animal on the forehead of each child. The mother keeps most of the sacrificed animals but also gives some for the poor of the synagogue. The priest, for each beast, therefore asks what to do with it

Let us return to the Gospels and notice three fundamental points of the episode:

– Pilate proposes an exchange to the gathered crowd: a MAN for a MAN, one being sacrificed to atone for the sins of the other

– Pilate asks the crowd: What will I do with Jesus, who is called the Messiah? !

– The crowd answers him by shouting: let his blood fall on us …

How not to see in this episode a picture of that atonement . . . Jesus sacrificed as the animal of Kappara, “offering his life as an expiatory sacrifice” ( Isaiah 53,10) so that men may have Life.

The idea of substitution has a long history. The Talmud tells the story of a confusion between two rivals, one named Kamza and the other named Bar Kamza, that led to the war with Rome and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. See Gittin 56b-57a. The Gospel of Barnabas tells us of confusion between Judas and Jesus so that Judas, who was said to be very like Jesus, was crucified. Better known is the substitution of Simon of Cyrene (NC suggests he has been shaped from the Samson character, one who has the strength of God) for Jesus on the cross according to the second century “gnostic” Basilides. A Coptic manuscript from late antiquity describes a meal shared by Pilate and Jesus with Pilate offering to sacrifice his own son in place of Jesus.

The point here is that the idea of substitution lies at the heart of the making of midrash and the shaping of the narrative and figure of Jesus. The idea extends to what we read in the earliest extra-canonical Christian writings where it the “true Israel”, the church, is ordained to replace the “old Israel”, the Jewish people.

The whole narrative and the diverse personifications that we have seen all subtly ride on the themes of substitution and inversion. And it is in that context that the next section, the crucifixion itself, is explored.



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


Jesus’ Death as the Death of the People of God: Communion and Passion

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by Neil Godfrey

continuing the series of

Eucharist: Body and Blood of the People

We read about Jesus, on the eve of his death, as the eucharist or Last Supper meal, or as the ideal end-time sacrifice, that is, the sacrifice that effects not only forgiveness of sins but the communion of God and his people. The Passover feast has been reinterpreted but the changes have all come from other ideas found within the Jewish interpretations of Scriptures at the time.

In the view of Grappe and Marx (authors of Sacrifices scandaleux? quoted in the previous post) Jesus returns to the original (pre-Flood) ingredients of sacrifice, bread and wine, to function as both the sacrifice of reparation for sin and the sacrifice of the communion of God and his people (see the previous post for these two sacrifices explained). Further, these same ingredients represent the feast of the eschatological Kingdom of God. “Bread and cup become the place of the encounter with the one who gives his life” in the inauguration of God’s kingdom where both forgiveness and communion are freely offered.

In the old blood sacrifice, different parts of the animal were separated out and divided among the respective participants: offerer, priest, God. With the grain offering, on the other hand, God and priests share the same food that has been prepared the same way for both of them. So the ideal that was meant for the beginning of creation is projected to the end time. (Grappe and Marx, pp. 139-40)

We have seen this ideal from the beginning being re-instituted at the end-time in the Community Rule scroll from Qumran.

And when they shall gather for the common table, to eat and to drink new wine, when the common table shall be set for eating and the new wine poured for drinking, let no man extend his hand over the firstfruits of bread and wine before the Priest; for it is he who shall bless the firstfruits of bread and wine, and shall be the first to extend his hand over the bread. Thereafter, the Messiah of Israel shall extend his hand over the bread, and all the congregation of the Community shall utter a blessing, each man in the order of his dignity.

It is according to this statute that they shall proceed at every meal at which at least ten men are gathered together

(1QSa 2:11-22 — Vermes, Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English)

Variations on the Passover liturgy and meal

What we see in the gospels is not an interpretation of a historical Jesus, an interpretation that makes him a worthy sacrifice replacement for Passover. No, what we see is the reverse: the rituals and traditions relating to Passover have led to the creation of the figure of Jesus. The bread of the Passover meal and the sacrifice itself are together personified in the figure of Jesus. Here it is important to bring to our attention a custom associated with Passover that is not apparent from reading the gospels.

From Jewish Boston

A Passover custom that appears to have had roots among some Jewish circles back into the Second Temple period and following is the breaking of a piece of bread and setting it aside, having wrapped it in white cloth to remain unseen, hidden, and to be eaten as the last thing of the meal. This piece of bread, the final item tasted, is called the aphikoman. This piece is said in rabbinic literature to represent Isaac, the son whom Abraham was willing to sacrifice. (For a description of this ceremony in French see the online article by R. Guyon beginning from Comment Jésus peut-il s’identifier à une matsah? – quoted by NC)

Now the word aphikoman/afikoman means “dessert”, or literally “he who is to come”, the dessert being delayed until the end of the meal. But of course “he who will come” has other connotations.

NC cites several scholarly works in this discussion and I have delayed posting this outline until I was able to track down some of them, in particular, essays by Eisler and Daube. Eisler’s article caused quite a storm when it appeared, as one can see from a section of Israel Jacob Yuval’s Two Nations in Your Womb:

Robert Eisler

In 1925—1926, Eisler published a rwo-part article named “Das letzte Abendmahl” in the journal Zeitschrift fur die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kundeder âlteren Kirche, in volumes 24—25, presenting an approach that comparcd the afikoman of the Jewish ceremony with the Host of the Christian one. Eisler was a great scholar of the New Testament, but he knew less about Judaism, and his article suffered from some errors. Yet this fact still does not confute his essential argument, and his article was an important contribution to uncovering the messianic significance of the afikoman and the potential for research latent in an understanding of the parallel developments of Passover and Easter.

This approach became a thorn in the flesh of both Jewish and Christian scholars. Immediately after the first part of Eisler’s paper was published, the journal’s editor, Hans Lietzmann, wanted to rescind his agreement to publish the second part. Eisler refused to give in and insisted that Lietzmann honor his commitment to publish the complete article. He even hired an attorney and threatened a lawsuit. Lietzmann was forccd to corne around, and Eisler’s attorney even forbade him to append an editor’s note stating that the article was published against his will and under legal duress. Instead, at the beginning of volume 25 (1926), Lietzmann published his own critique of Eisler’s theory, along with a sharp article by Marmorstein. Eisler demanded the right to reply in volume 26 (1927), but Lietzmann refused. Eisler then suggested that Lietzmann publish his reply in a journal outside Germany, on condition that Lietzmann report its contents in the “From Foreign Journals” section, but Lietzmann refused to do even that. Eisler remained isolated, attacked on ail sides, and unable to reply to his critics.

David Daube

Forty years later, in 1966, Daube delivered a lecture on the afikoman at Saint Pauls Cathedral in London, vindicating Eisler’s interprétation of the afikoman, with certain necessary corrections and adding his own new find- ings. Daube told his audience of the bitter fate of his predecessor and expressed doubts whether the time had come for such comparative studies between Christianity and Judaism. To illustrate his concerns, he pointed out the fact that in the Goldschmidt edition of the Passover Haggadah there was no mention of the New Testament, even though it contains valuable information on the ancient version of Passover customs. Since Daube was not sure that the time was ripe, he refrained from disseminating his lecture widely and was satisfied with its publication in a pamphlet available only through personal request to the secretariat of the Committee for Christian-Jewish Understanding in London. Unlike Eisler, Daube was not muzzled, but his interpretation remained on the periphery of scholarship and has not yet been accorded the scholarly recognition it deserves.

(pp 90-91)

Ah, the gentle ethereal world of scholarly exchanges.

Having read Yuval’s account I had to track down the articles by Eisler (both of them), Lietzmann, Marmorstein and Daube. You can access them through the links I supplied in the bibliography at the end of this post. In short, to quote the conclusion of Yuval,

If we trace the history of the afikoman and that of the Host in parallel, we discover a very ancient similarity. In I Corinthians 11:26, Paul addresses the following injunction to the disciples: ‘For as often as you eat this bread (…) you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. The consumption of the consecrated bread and wine during the Eucharistic meal is indeed an evocation of the crucifixion and the Parousia. This is also the precise meaning of the afikoman – a term that does not derive etymologically from the Greek epikomon but from aphikomenos, i.e. ”He who is to come”, as Robert Eisler (1925) and David Daube (1956) have glossed. Eating the afikoman therefore means anticipating the coming of the Messiah, according to the well-known rule: that “in Nissan comes deliverance and in Nissan comes salvation”.

(translated from p. 322 of the French edition of Yuval’s book in Hebrew, Deux peuples en ton sein, — quoted by NC, p. 380-381)

Contrary to Yuval’s conclusion elsewhere, Eisler and Daube insist that it is the gospel of Matthew that has been influenced by the Jewish custom.

There is an article in French by René Guyon describing the Passover customs and relating them to their reinterpretation in the gospels: http://www.garriguesetsentiers.org/article-12116051.html. Scroll down to the heading “Rite of Jesus”: a web translator is always an option, too. Included here are suggestions that Jesus is understood to have fulfilled the meanings of the several cups drunk at the Passover meal, with the fifth cup, normally not touched because it is poured out for Elijah, being drunk by Jesus. The suggestion is that by drinking the fifth cup at the end of the meal Jesus is declaring that he has fulfilled what Elijah came to proclaim: his own advent. (Perhaps, but I would have thought an evangelist would have dropped in a hint that it was explicitly the final or fifth cup that Jesus drank.)

Personification makes sense of it all

Continue reading “Jesus’ Death as the Death of the People of God: Communion and Passion”


Propaganda Time (Again)

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s as if the Project for the New American Century never existed. The reason that the U.S. ever “entered” Afghanistan in the first place was that they were stunned at what happened on 9/11 and, quite understandably, like a dazed and confused giant, felt compelled to wage war on Al Qaeda and the tactic of “terrorism” based in Afghanistan. Of course, they did everything by the book and first asked the Afghan government to hand over Bin Laden for trial. The Taliban government, “as we all know”, flatly refused to do so. So the inevitable happened. No choice. And while they were at it, what could be better than restoring democracy and human rights to all the Afghan people!

But I recall so well the prominence at the time given to the manipulations and pressure of key political leaders to take the opportunity to implement the program of the New American Century. And I even recall that brief moment in the news when it was reported that the Afghan government (also doing everything by the book) asked the U.S. for the evidence that Bin Laden was the key suspect behind 9/11 so they could follow the normal practices of extradition. Maybe they were lying. But why would they want to give the U.S. an excuse to “enter” their country? And we’ll never know because we were told that they were “refusing” to hand over Bin Laden and therefore war had to be declared “immediately”.

So many of us shook our heads and thought, Sheesh, that is going to be a disaster! How can the U.S. succeed where no other power has managed to do so! Woe to Afghanistan. Another Vietnam.

And now we’re being told not to believe the online video clips and that Kabul is not at all like Saigon 1975.



New Bruno Bauer Translation Page

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s listed in the Pages in the right-hand column. See BRUNO BAUER: Criticism of the Gospels and History of their Origin – in English Check back from time to time because this is a (very) long-term project. But if you know that the 3 volumes of his study of the gospels are already available in English do please let me know!


Reason to Doubt the Only Historical Date Marker in Paul’s Letters?

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by Neil Godfrey

Several discussions have broken out on “Biblical Criticism & History Forum” over the verses in 2 Corinthians describing Paul’s escape from Damascus by being lowered in a basket from a window in the city wall.

2 Corinthians 11:

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

This passage is the only explicit chronological marker in Paul’s letters. In this post I leave aside the question of which Aretas is being referred to and play the villain by looking at those arguments that raise doubts about the very authenticity of the passage.

First, a brief word in defence of its authenticity:

Against all these conjectures [against authenticity] one must object that manuscript evidence of an interpolation is lacking. “There is no evidence that the epistle ever existed without these verses at this point.”60 Nor is the difficulty alleviated by the hypothesis of a scribal gloss, which merely transfers the problem to the copyist who would have inserted the verses at this point.61

60 Plummer, Second Epistle, 332. [the link is to archive.org where Plummer suggests that if there is interpolation it may even have been made into the original letter by the Apostle himself]

61 Barrett, Second Epistle, 303. [again, like is to the relevant page in archive.org where this time Barrett sees a problem if we try to imagine a scribe inserting such a passage at this point.]

Welborn, Laurence L. “The Runaway Paul.” The Harvard Theological Review 92, no. 2 (1999): 122.

Welborn also posted a list of critics who have thought the passage should be deleted entirely:

  • J. H. A. Michelsen, “T Verhaal van Paulus’ vlucht uit Damaskus, 2 Kor. XI:32,33; XII: 1, 7a een interpolatie,” Theologisch Tijdschrift 7 (1873) 424-27;
  • J. M. S. Baljon, De tekst der brieven van Paulus aan de Romeinen, de Corinthiers en de Galatiers als voorwerp conjecturalkritiekbeschouwd (Utrecht: Boekhoven,1884) 159-61;
  • Windisch, Zweite Korintherbrief, 363-64;
  • Hans Dieter Betz, Der Apostel Paulus und die sokratische Tradition: Eine exegetische Untersuchung zu seiner “Apologie” 2 Kor 10-13 (BHTh 45; Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, n. 201.

What did they say?

In short, the episode is thought not to fit with the other experiences Paul has been writing about and it doesn’t seem to follow from the preceding words. It even seems to get in the way of what would otherwise be a coherent sentence. Paul insists that he will boast of his weaknesses, and then declares most emphatically that he is not lying …. and then, the basket escape. Is that not an odd scenario to follow a boast in weakness and an oath that he is not lying?

Remove the basket escape and we have Paul saying he will boast in his weaknesses, then swears he is not lying — then speaks of his vision and being taken up to the third heaven and being made to suffer a thorn in the flesh as a result. Does not that sound like a coherent line of thought? Where does the escape from Damascus fit?

Machine translations, with a little human polishing here and there, follow. Highlighting added for easier focusing on the main points.

First, for reference, here is the passage in context:

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33 But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.

12 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

The arguments quoted: Continue reading “Reason to Doubt the Only Historical Date Marker in Paul’s Letters?”


The Sacrifices to be Fulfilled by the Messiah Jesus (Charbonnel continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

I quickly glossed over Nanine Charbonnel’s discussion of what the various sacrifices meant in the Temple cult of Israel in my previous post. I need to back up and cover the key points of those sacrifices before moving on but I’ll try to do so without getting into the details of certain Hebrew and Greek words and manuscript lines.

Key point #1: The temple cult was essential for communion between God and his people. Cain and Abel could offer sacrifices anywhere because God was still on earth with them. After God left the planet a mediator or mediation ceremony of some sort was necessary to enable some form of communion between God and his people.

Key point #2: The covenant between God and Israel made at Sinai was made between God and Israel in the presence of each other; the people (it can almost be said) effectively saw God, stood with him, certainly experienced a theophany.

Key point #3: The temple cult enabled in some sense a repeat of that theophany, or at least a restored communion with God through a mediator and a mediating cult.

Key point #4: The cult of mediation required several sacrifices.

  • One of these was the “asham” or guilt/sin/trespass offering that was made as reparation for damage done to the relationship and thus established the condition for the subsequent restoration of communion or a close relationship with God. This “asham” offering was a particular type of “sin offering” (“hattath” offering) . . .
  • The other sacrifice of note here (there are others but these two are most to the point of the broader discussion) followed the sin offering for reparation above and was the “hattath” or sin offering. “Sacrifices for sin are sometimes called sacrifices of atonement. In Hebrew, they are simply designated by the word hattath, sin, rendered according to the case by sacrifice for sin or the victim offered for sin. A part of it was burned on the altar, the major part was eaten by the priest who thus absorbed the sinner’s guilt in some way.” (From https://leschretiens.fr/lexique.php#S)

Key point #5: The sacrifices came to cover the sins of the entire community of Israel. (That is, the temple cult was concerned with more than individual sins.)

Key point #6: The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 offers his life as a sacrifice of atonement. He took on the sins of the multitude and had God lay all of Israel’s sins upon him.

Key point #7: In Hellenistic times (second century BCE) the temple cult of sacrifices was halted and a version of the Book of Daniel had the three Jewish martyrs praying from the fiery furnace that their sacrifice be a fulfilment of all that was necessary for atonement and restoration of the communion of Israel with God.

Key point #8: The same concept of sacrifice as accomplishing the goal of fellowship or communion with God is found in the Day of Atonement ritual. The High Priest undergoes various stages of purification to bring him ever closer to a place and condition where he can be in the presence of God who descends to grant his blessing on Israel. His ritual begins with an “asham” or “reparation for sin” sacrifice of a ram and culminates with a more elaborate sacrifice of a second ram, a sin offering that consecrates him and allows for a restored communion of God with his people.

Below I copy a translation of the key pages of Grappe and Marx from which Charbonnel extracts a quotation to explain these sacrifices and their significance for restoring Israel’s relationship with God.

We are now ready to move on to the next critical part of NC’s discussion.

From pages 92-96 of Sacrifices scandaleux?: sacrifices humains, martyre et mort du Christ by Christian Grappe and Alfred Marx. This section is discussed and quoted in part by NC (pp. 375ff). The bolded highlighting is mine to enable an easier scan for key points. Continue reading “The Sacrifices to be Fulfilled by the Messiah Jesus (Charbonnel continued)”


Understanding the Sacrifice of Jesus (Charbonnel contd)

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by Neil Godfrey

Book cover: Jesus-Christ, sublime figure de papierWe now arrive at Nanine Charbonnel’s discussion of the source of the Passion narrative in the gospels. Her approach is in three parts:

  1. the failure of traditional approaches to bring us to a satisfactory answer and a recognition that the expectation of a suffering messiah who liberates his people was very much a part of Second Temple Judaism;
  2. the relationship between the “killing of the messiah-body of the people of Israel”, the eucharist, the Passion, the Jewish Scriptures;

  3. the central roles of personification, the substitution involving Barabbas and midrash.

The false leads of past enquiries

A man is put to death as atonement for the sins of others. The idea is found in other ancient religions, folklore and customs so it has seemed quite reasonable to look there to understand the origins of the gospel story.

Do mystery religions hold the key? No, they have not given a fully satisfactory explanation of what we read in the gospels. Other gods did not die as sacrifices to save their devotees. It cannot be said that Dionysus, Attis or Tammuz “died for our sins”. Gods in their wrath did require substitutes (an animal, even a child) as sacrifice at times but that’s not the same thing.

Paul Wendland
Paul Wendland

What of the Saturnalia? In 1898 Paul Wendland a specialist in Philo of Alexandria and future professor at Göttingen, in an article entitled “Jesus als Saturnalien-Koenig“, suggests that the mockery of Jesus by the Roman soldiers could be linked to the Saturnalia, an annual custom observed by Roman soldiers in which victim was crowned as a god-king (Kronos/Saturn) and mocked until finally executed quite some time later. But this was a December custom.

A better hypothesis, however, is one that caught my attention some years ago now, so it’s like catching up with an old friend. NC alerts us to Salomon Reinarch’s 1902 text online:

Salomon Reinarch
Salomon Reinarch

However, the resemblance of the Passion with the Sacaea is even more striking than that which it presents with the Saturnalia. Here is the text of Matthew (XXVIII, 26-31): “So Pilate released Barabbas to them; and after having whipped Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. And the soldiers brought Jesus to the Praetorium, and they gathered the whole company around him. And having stripped him, they put on him a scarlet robe. Then, having made a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed on his right hand; and kneeling before him, they laughed at him, saying: “Hail, King of the Jews!” And spitting at him, they took the reed and hit him on the head. After making fun of him,they took off the mantle and put his clothes back on him, and led him away to crucify him. “

Compare this passage with the treatment of the king of the Sacaea, as reported by Dion Chrysostom:

“They take one of the prisoners sentenced to death and have him sit on the royal throne; they dress him in royal clothes and let him drink, amuse himself and use the king’s concubines for several days. But then they strip him of his clothes, scourge him and cross him. “

Haman hanging from gallows
Haman hanging from gallows

Other suggestions have surfaced: that Jesus was filling the role of the villain Haman in the Esther story: Jews celebrated the occasion annually by destroying an effigy of Haman; and Philo’s account of Carabbas in Alexandria:

There was a certain madman named Carabbas, afflicted not with a wild, savage, and dangerous madness (for that comes on in fits without being expected either by the patient or by bystanders), but with an intermittent and more gentle kind; this man spent all this days and nights naked in the roads, minding neither cold nor heat, the sport of idle children and wanton youths; and they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a sceptre they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him; and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state. Then from the multitude of those who were standing around there arose a wonderful shout of men calling out Maris; and this is the name by which it is said that they call the kings among the Syrians; for they knew that Agrippa was by birth a Syrian, and also that he was possessed of a great district of Syria of which he was the sovereign . . .

Philo, Flaccus VI (36)

Rene Girard
Rene Girard

René Girard refers (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 49ff) to a horrific episode in the life of Apollonius of Tyana when the prophet stopped a plague in Ephesus by inciting the crowd to stone a poor beggar to death in the belief that he was a demon. The citizens are cured of the plague. Everything is restored to rights. They acted as necessity required.

But how can one reconcile these scapegoat ideas with the sacrifice of the messiah? The scapegoat in non-Christian scenarios above is a fool, an innocent, an unworthy reject whose death draws away all the evil inflicting a community. That scenario clashes against the gospel Passion where the “scapegoat” is indeed the son of God and order is not restored merely as a result of his death alone. The crowd is acting correctly and necessarily, if mercilessly and cruelly, in the scapegoat traditions.

There are analogies in the mystery religions and other practices. There are the rites of death and rebirth as we see in the gospels, and the death of the god or scapegoat does have a benefit for many others. It is conceivable that such ideas in the Greco-Roman world made the spread of the Christian message somewhat recognizable or at least comprehensible and facilitated its spread. But those Greco-Roman analogies cannot explain the content of what we read of the death of Jesus in the gospels.

What we read in the gospels is almost entirely made up of a rewriting of Jewish Scriptures. Yes, the book of Esther with its violent fate of Haman is relevant, and so is the scapegoat theme as we find it in Leviticus 16. But these sources are some of the threads selected to weave a quite different story for a new situation.

NC finds an idea stressed by Girard of special interest. With the gospels we find a shift from the view that the persecuting mob are acting correctly against a necessary and demonic target:

myths are based on a unanimous persecution. Judaism and Christianity destroy this unanimity in order to defend the victims unjustly condemned and to condemn the executioners unjustly legitimated.

(Girard, I See Satan Fall, p. 172)

One must understand that we are not talking about a real divine man or man believed to be divine. The story is a historical fiction in which the people of God (who are the “son of God”) was sacrificed as an innocent victim, and therefore as an expiatory victim, a victim who gives new life to the people. This is a new story of a different type of death and resurrection.

The dramatic innovation that this gospel story introduces is identified by the French Dominican scholar Étienne Nodet. To begin with, one must recognize that John the Baptist had been preaching the imminence of the Final Judgment and the arrival of the Messiah and Kingdom of God with that Day of Judgment. On that Day of Judgment each person will be punished or rewarded according to their sins or to having their sins cleansed by the sacrifice of a victim in their stead. 

Étienne Nodet
Étienne Nodet

The model for this [sacrificial exchange] is the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement, who is pure and who receives the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:20-22); it is he who bears the condemnation. It is a precept of the Law, but in another sense, it is like all sacrifices an injustice, if one equates the animal with a reasonable being. The persecuted righteous person, or more generally the martyr, represents a transfer of the same nature, where the injustice is clearer, especially if it is not obedience to a precept. Such is the case of John the Baptist or James. This is also the case with Jesus, but there is a major difference, which is underlined by Peter’s speech at Pentecost: he began by recalling the injustice of the crucifixion (Acts 2:23), and then he declares (vv. 32-33):

“God has raised this Jesus from the dead; we are all witnesses to this. And now, exalted at the right hand of God, he has received the Holy Spirit of promise from the Father and has poured him out.”

In other words, the final judgment is done, the injustice is redressed, and the Spirit is poured out. All these aspects are concentrated in the affirmation of the resurrection, which is a kind of thwarted sacrifice: the being on whom the faults are transferred is finally promoted, since he is resurrected, that is, justified. The Epistle to the Hebrews, by making Jesus both the high priest and the victim, develops at length this whole sacrificial dimension.

Nodet, Baptême et Résurrection, p. 117

NC’s thesis

Continue reading “Understanding the Sacrifice of Jesus (Charbonnel contd)”


Another prophecy that Vespasian would become the next emperor

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by Neil Godfrey


We know the account Josephus gives of his telling Vespasian that he would be the next emperor. Less well known is a rabbinic tradition that another prominent rabbi delivered the same prophecy to Vespasian.

When Vespasian came to destroy Jerusalem . . . . Vespasian learned that R. Johanan b. Zakkai was friendly to Cæsar (and so he really was, and confessed it frankly to the leaders of Jerusalem).

When R. Johanan b. Zakkai saw that his efforts during several days in succession to win the leaders for peace proved futile, for the leaders did not listen to him, he sent for his disciples, R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, and said:

“My sons, try to take me out of here. Make me a coffin, and I will sleep in it.”

They did so, and R. Eliezer held the coffin by one end, and R. Joshua held it by the other, and thus carried him at sunset to the gates of Jerusalem. When the gate-keepers asked them whom they had there, they answered:

“A corpse; and you know that a corpse cannot remain in Jerusalem over night.”

They were allowed to go, and they carried him till they came to Vespasian.

There they opened the coffin, and he arose and introduced himself to Vespasian, who said:

“Since thou art the Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai, I give thee the privilege to ask a favor of me.”

He answered: “I request nothing but that the city of Jamnia shall be free to me to instruct there my disciples. I will build there a prayer-house, and will perform all the commandments of the Lord.”

Hereupon Vespasian said: “It is well. Thou mayest go thither, and undisturbed carry out the object of thy desire.”

R. Johanan b. Zakkai then asked permission to say something to Vespasian. This having been granted, he said:

“I can assure you that you will become a king.”

“How dost thou know it?”

He answered: “We have a tradition that the Temple will not be delivered to a common man (in the name of the king), but to the king himself.”

As it is written [Is. x. 34]: “And he will cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and the Lebanon shall fall by (means of) a mighty one.” [Elsewhere the Talmud explains that Lebanon means the Temple, and “mighty one” a king.]

It was said that scarcely had a few days elapsed when a messenger came from the city of Rome with the tidings that Cæsar was dead, and the resolution was adopted that Vespasian be his successor.

From Chapters of the Fathers

Vespasian, coming from a non-aristocratic family, made much of the prophecy “from the east” that he was divinely destined to become emperor in his massive propaganda campaign after taking that position. Josephus is not mentioned in the rabbinic writings. Was Josephus the only one to deliver the prophecy to Vespasian? Is the above story true? Did Josephus claim credit for the sayings of another? No answers here.




Pre-Christian Jewish Ideas of a Suffering and Dying Messiah

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

In preparing my next post on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier I remarked that I had posted a few times along the lines of a theme her work explores: the idea of a suffering and dying messiah among Jewish circles prior to the Christian era. I began to list those posts but found way too many to mention there so I’m posting the list separately here.

Posts addressing the question of the Jewishness of a suffering and dying messiah:

  1. How Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and Isaac’s Sacrifice Together Prepared for Jesus Christ 2020-08-14
  2. Horbury Argued Similarly: Jewish Messianic Ideas Explain Christianity 2019-03-02
  3. A Suffering Messiah Before Christianity? — the other side of the question 2019-01-20
  4. Questioning the Claim of a Pre-Christian Suffering Messiah 2019-01-20
  5. Why a Saviour Had to Suffer and Die? Martyrdom Beliefs in Pre-Christian Times 2019-01-04
  6. Summing Up a Case for Pre-Christian Exegesis of Dying and Suffering Messiahs by J. Jeremias (8) 2018-12-19
  7. The 10th Testimony for a Dying Messiah Before Christianity (7) 2018-12-18
  8. Rabbinic Traditions that the Messiah was to Suffer? (6) 2018-12-17
  9. Jewish Pre-Christian Prophecies of Suffering Servant Messiah (5) 2018-12-16
  10. Jewish Understandings of a Suffering Messiah before the Christian Era (4) 2018-12-15
  11. Evidence of a Suffering Messiah Concept before Christianity (1) 2018-12-14
  12. A Pre-Christian Jewish Suffering Messiah (2) 2018-12-13
  13. Evidence of a Suffering Messiah Concept before Christianity (1) 2018-12-11
  14. How Early Did Some Jews Believe in a Slain Messiah son of Joseph? 2017-04-19
  15. Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs 2017-04-16
  16. How Did Daniel Understand Isaiah’s Suffering Servant? 2015-11-12
  17. Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity 2015-11-10
  18. Suffering Messiah Is a Very Jewish Idea 2015-08-26
  19. From Israel’s Suffering (Isaiah’s Servant) to Atoning Human/Messianic Sacrifice (Daniel) 2014-11-24
  20. The Influence of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Before Christianity 2014-11-23
  21. Jewish Expectations of a Slain Messiah — the Early Evidence 2014-11-08
  22. Messiah to be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence 2014-11-04
  23. The Dying Messiah Before Christianity 2014-09-14
  24. The Evolution of the Son of Man, the Human & Divine Messiah 2014-07-08
  25. So some Jews did expect a suffering Messiah? 2013-01-22
  26. How Could a Crucified Jesus Be Identified With God? 2013-01-12
  27. Does the notion of a crucified messiah need a historical easter experience? 2011-04-05
  28. Jewish scriptures as inspiration for a Slain Messiah 2010-07-26
  29. Jesus displaces Isaac: midrashic creation of the biblical Jesus . . . (Offering of Isaac . . . #6) 2008-06-06

Let’s add for good measure our recent post on William Wrede’s view of Paul and some earlier Vridar posts that may serve as good companions of that one:

  1. Only One Explanation: Paul Believed in a Divine Christ “Before Jesus” 2021-08-07
  2. How Paul Found Christ Crucified – “on a Tree” – In the Scriptures 2020-06-12
  3. Jesus supplants Isaac — the contribution of Paul 2008-06-26