Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Reviewing The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel by Helen K. Bond.

The First Biography of Jesus

(In which I finally get around to reading Bond’s The First Biography of Jesus.)

After the initial trickle of “Gospels Are Biographies!” books, we might have expected a flood of works exploring the implications of such a designation. After all, when we approach a text, we usually try to identify (at least provisionally) its genre in order to understand it. If scholars in the past had failed to recognize the true genre of the canonical gospels, then we must have myriad assumptions to sweep away, interpretations to reassess, conclusions to re-evaluate, and new questions to ask.

Missing Books?

Yet here we sit, still waiting for that big splash. In the first chapter, Bond herself recognizes the dog that didn’t bark. As an aside, I would note that the usual suspects, naturally, have added the biographical credo as an ancillary argument — Bauckham for touting eyewitness testimony and Keener for promoting historical reliability. But where are the massive monographs written by grad students, the insightful papers on the cutting edge of gospel research? Where are the 400-page books laden with turgid prose that recycle the same ideas ad nauseam?

All in all, the list of scholarship is not particularly long for an issue that seemed so pressing only a few decades ago, and it is still possible (not to mention largely unremarkable as far as reviewers were concerned) to write a long book on gospel origins without devoting any attention to their genre at all. (Bond 2020, p. 52-53)

You might wonder whether modern scholars had actually been more interested in changing the consensus than building upon it. Maybe. But you should understand that redefining the genre of the gospels represents a small part of a much larger overall project, namely the rewriting of New Testament scholarship’s own history and a redrawing of its self-conception. This process of reconstruction has gradually remapped the terrain and redrawn the borders, so that scholars who once dwelt securely in a fairly broad mainstream now sit in no man’s land, out in the mud which lies beyond the barbed wire. NT scholarship’s Overton Window has slid far to the right, and erstwhile respected scholars are now rebuked for sounding too radical, for going too far, for being too skeptical, for engaging in oldthink.

Nothing demonstrates this recent change better than the now fashionable stance against form criticism. Bond has little good to say about it, and what she does say often misses the mark. For example: Continue reading “Mark: The First Biography of Jesus? (Part 1)”


How the Holy Spirit Replaced Jerusalem in a Power Game

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by Neil Godfrey

In a former life I was led to understand that when I was baptized God would give me the Holy Spirit, which was his power, and with that power I would be able to overcome my carnal nature and fulfil the law in its full spiritual intent. After my baptism I was often troubled by the fact that I felt no different from before — but don’t be misled by looking for “feelings”, they said — and I certainly did not recognize any extra power within my person to “overcome” my sinful nature. Years later I finally was able to admit I was lied to. But where did this idea of the Holy Spirit having such a central role in the lives of Christians come from?

Here is an interesting thought from Paul Tarazi in first volume of his introduction to the New Testament, Paul and Mark.

Ezekiel: Vision of Shekinah — Ezekiel, pearled nimbus, left hand raised, semi-reclines next to river Chebar. Above, below Arc of Heaven (?), are four Beasts of Apocalypse, all winged, with pearled nimbi, and holding books. . . . From The Morgan Library & Museum

Paul concludes this section (i.e. 1 Thess. 4:1-12) dedicated to the relationship between the Thessalonians and God with a sudden reference to God as the grantor of the Holy Spirit: “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” (v.8) The previous mention of the Holy Spirit occurs in 1:56:

For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you; for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The Thessalonian Gentiles were chosen and became God’s people just as the “chosen” biblical Israel was, through the gospel that was both preached and accepted in the Holy Spirit. The next reference to the Spirit is found in 5:19-20 in conjunction with pro phrophecy: “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying.” What can be made of all this?

My conviction is that Paul himself raised to prominence the biblical element “Holy Spirit” among his Gentile churches in order to minimize any chance that the Jerusalemite church would be able to gain and keep hegemony over them. He took the lead mainly from his predecessor Ezekiel, the Jerusalemite priest who made out of the Babylonian, and thus Gentile, locality Chebar not only a place where the God of Jerusalem could also speak, but actually the location from which he would authoritatively address Jerusalem itself. To do so, God and his prophet Ezekiel, or their spoken word, had to be eminently mobile and it was God’s spirit that supplied the agency for that mobility of the divine/prophetic word and allowed it to travel from the Gentile Babylonia to Jerusalem. Paul followed Ezekiel’s pattern and made it clear to his churches that they were, through the Pauline gospel, in direct contact with God’s word through his spirit, and not via Jerusalem and its leaders. Those Jerusalem leaders were actually bound by God’s word in the gospel, and not vice-versa. Thus, Paul was actually laying the foundation for his churches’ dependence on the gospel and, at the same time, their independence from Jerusalem.

(Tarazi, Paul Nadim. The New Testament: An Introduction. Volume 1, Paul and Mark. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999. pp. 21f)




“The war of 70 is not a major issue” in the Gospels?

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by Neil Godfrey

Not too long ago I posted my thoughts on the gospel narratives placing the public ministry and death of Jesus in a round 40 years prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Maybe I was trying to convince myself because the thing that has bugged me is the absence of any early recognition of this setting.

Surely a catastrophe as momentous as the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE had to be linked in the minds of the authors of the first gospels with the crucifixion of Jesus. Is that not what the “Olivet Prophecy” of Jesus (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) was all, or in large part, about?

I have further suspected that the destruction of the temple and the mass crucifixions of the same period so chaotically upended Jewish life and beliefs that a new Jewish narrative emerged to help make sense of those events and that that narrative is what we read in the gospels.

Of course, if such a “new Judaism” did emerge and eventually morphed into “Christianity”, the first question that naturally comes to mind is: What of the letters of Paul? Other questions that arise from passages in Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius have been covered many times and the various arguments relating to them cover well-worn tracks. One common factor running through Paul’s writings and relevant passages in Josephus and Tacitus and that makes any assessment of their origins and functions problematic is that they appear to exist in isolated islands without any acknowledgement of their existence by outsiders until a good century or more after their presumed creation.

Some of the tell-tale signs that Justin was not using the gospels for his sources: he speaks of Jesus being born “near”, not in, Bethlehem; Jesus’ Davidic descent is through Mary; no genealogy of Jesus; Jesus “sweat blood” before, not after, asking to be released from the coming torment; John the Baptist was sitting by Jordan; the Jordan was engulfed in flame or fiery light when Jesus entered it; Justin has no awareness of a Judas or betrayal narrative; the point of the eucharist was to remember that Jesus came in the flesh; Jesus sends out the twelve from Jerusalem to preach to the world from the day of his resurrection…

But the same is true of the four canonical gospels. There is little hint that anyone knew about them at least until the time Justin Martyr was writing (140-160) and I personally think a reasonable case can be made that even Justin’s apparent references to gospel episodes were derived from a pre-gospel source (or more than one).

Problem: the further away from 70 CE we get before the gospels were written, the harder it is to think that the events of 70 CE were as critical as I have long supposed them to be.

An idiot, or one who treated his audience as idiots, once said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so we can’t assume that the first gospel was not written soon after 70 CE, but that goes without saying: we cannot justifiably rely upon mere (unsupported) assumptions at any time. But if there is no evidence to be found in the places we would most expect to see evidence, then questions do need to be answered.

Whilst in my moment of doubt Satan (who else?) led me to read a chapter that seemed to reassure me that a very late date for the gospels was not a completely lonely position to maintain. In “The Emphasis on Jesus’ Humanity in the Kerygma” Étienne Nodet lists three indicators that suggest a date far removed from 70 CE but it is the third one that I will quote here. All bolding is my own:

Another feature of the Gospels has puzzled many commentators: the war of 70 is not a major issue. In this respect, the evolution of Josephus himself is interesting. His first work was The War of the Jews, the original title being probably The Capture of Jerusalem; he gloomily states that “God now dwells in Italy” (J.W. 5:367). But some twenty years later, he hardly speaks of the war in his major work, The Antiquities of the Jews. He briefly states in Life § 422, summing up the war, that Titus has resolved the disturbances in Judah. In Ag. Ap. 1:33–36 he casually indicates that the priestly archives have been restored in Jerusalem, so that the priests may be fit to take part in divine worship.

In the Gospels, Jesus announces a ruin. In Lk 21:20–22, he sees an oncoming war, with Jerusalem surrounded by armies, but he explains that “all that Scripture says must be fulfilled” by allusion to Jer 25:15, who speaks of the destruction of Judah and the enslavement of the people “according to everything that is written in this book.” This may refer to the war of 70, but the main point is Biblical typology. In Mt 24:15–16 and Mk 13:14 he says, “When you see the appalling abomination set up in the holy place, then those in Judea must escape to the mountains.” This refers to Daniel’s prophecy, and behind it to the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BCE, after which Mattathias and his sons “fled into the mountains” (1 Macc 2:28). Indeed, the expression “set up” suggests a cultic device. The event alluded to can be either Caligula’s tentative plan in 40 to set up his statue in the Temple, or Hadrian’s politics aiming to transform Jerusalem into a Greco-Roman city with a forum and a capitol, in 132, which triggered the rebellion of Bar Kokhba. The second circumstance is by far the most fitting one.30 On the contrary, the war in 70 corresponds poorly, because even if the Romans actually worshipped their standards in the holy enclosure (J.W. 6:316), this was after the Temple burnt, but not to impose anything to the Jews. Titus’ triumph shows that the Romans wanted to bring the Jewish cult to Rome. The Sibylline Oracles present a better picture of this war in a prophetic style (4:125–127):

A Roman governor will come from Syria. He will burn down the temple of Jerusalem, and while doing so he will kill many people and destroy the great land of the Jews with its wide roads.

30 As is shown by the detailed study in Hermann Detering, “The Synoptic Apocalypse (Mk 13 par): A Document from the Time of Bar Kokhba,” JHC 7 (2000): 161–210. He notes that Mk seems to depend on Mt and not the reverse.

The entire article by Nodet is worth reading for its larger argument that the earliest theology about Jesus stressed his heavenly origin and spiritual nature and that the heavy focus on his humanity was a later development.

So many questions; so much yet to know.

Nodet, Etienne. “The Emphasis on Jesus’ Humanity in the Kerygma.” In : James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Research : New Methodologies and Perceptions (Princeton-Prague Symposium 2007), Eerdmans, 2014, pp. 753–68, https://www.academia.edu/6864927/The_Emphasis_on_Jesus_Humanity_in_the_Kerygma


Finding Jesus in (or through) Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

No, this post is not about the Testimonium Flavianum, that disputed passage about the “crucified-under-Pilate-Jesus”. It is about other figures in the works of Josephus that various authors have proposed are the original persons from whom the Christian myth was derived. Possibly the most well-known one that comes to mind is Jesus ben Ananias, the “mad man” who cried Cassandra warnings of doom on the city of Jerusalem before being hit with a stone catapulted by the Romans. Others have embraced the possibility that an earlier person, Jesus ben Saphat, was the “original Jesus”. His scene was in the Galilee area where he castigated wayward rivals by appealing to the Law of Moses and attracting “low-class” followers like “seamen” before making a fateful journey to Jerusalem. Another view sees Josephus’s account of “the Egyptian” as the true original. He gathered followers at the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem before meeting his demise. Others have even argued for the Roman military commander, Titus, as the template for details in the gospel narratives. One such view interprets Jesus’ call to his disciples to “fish for men” as an ironic twist on the moment when Romans butchered rebels who had fled into the lake of Galilee.

I wonder if the ability to identify different persons acting out scenarios that remind us of this or that in the gospels is because the first evangelist, in seeking a way to frame the first story about a life of Jesus, drew inspiration from, among other sources, what he had read in works by Josephus.

Some readers will feel uncomfortable with such an idea because it would mean the first gospel was not composed until the last few years of the first century at the earliest. Might not the author have been drawing on his memory of persons and events quite independently of any reading of Josephus, and if so, have even written the gospel before Josephus wrote Antiquities? Different readers will come to different conclusions on the likelihood of that explanation.

Let’s have a closer look at some of these purported precursors of the gospel Jesus.

Jesus son of Ananias

The scholar and churchman Theodore Weeden is associated with many parallels between Jesus ben Ananias and the gospel Jesus. I have set out his 23 points of parallel items on a separate webpage:  http://vridar.info/xorigins/josephus/2jesus.htm This Jesus made a nuisance of himself by crying “Woe Woe to Jerusalem”, its people and its Temple but was dismissed as a harmless madman by a Roman authority before meeting his fate. You can read the other details set out in two columns on the linked page. Some of the more significant incidents in common include the presence of Jesus ben Ananias in the Temple prior to his death, his quotation of Jeremiah, his silence before his Roman interrogator, his subsequent flogging and loud cry at his death.

I find it hard to imagine this particular figure having any historical existence at all. He appears amidst a list of divinely sent signs that Josephus says were harbingers of the city’s destruction. He looks very much like a stock figure of doom, of a Cassandra figure whom people are ordained to ignore and mock but only to their own peril. Hence I have doubts about the view, that some have expressed, that the evangelist responsible for the Gospel of Mark was drawing on memory of a real figure. If Josephus was the source of the figure then yes, the first gospel was indeed written later than commonly said.

The parallels are too many and specific to be discounted as coincidence. I can imagine our evangelist taking the model of ben Ananias — his assumed madness, his prophetic declaration of doom, his silence at his trial, his being flogged — and relating some of those sorts of details to what he was imagining about Jesus from the Scriptures: rejection by his own family, as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant being silent before his accusers, and so forth. The Jewish Scriptures presented him with a theme, a motif, but a relevant narrative application inspired by Josephus, modified for his new setting, of course, assisted with fleshing out a narrative context for those themes.

Jesus son of Saphat / Sapphias

Frans J. Vermeiren in A Chronological Revision of the Origins of Christianity argues that beneath the peaceful gospel Jesus lies a darker, more violent figure: think of his saying about “not coming to bring peace but a sword”, his assault on the temple, the fleeing herdsmen from the scene where Jesus confronted “Legion”, and so forth. From this perspective, Vermeiren sees the various references to the rebel military leader Jesus ben Saphat in Josephus’s writings as significant. This Jesus was active in Galilee. His followers were the lower class, including sailors.

Even though this Jesus was certainly a historical figure might we not imagine a similar influence as with Jesus ben Ananias at work on the creative mind of the gospel author? The idea of Galilee as a setting may have already been floated through a prophecy in Isaiah 9 (though it is not until Matthew that we find an explicit appeal to this passage as the source for the narrative setting); if so, then one can imagine his ears pricking up when he hears about another Jesus who gathered followers in Galilee. When he learned from Josephus that this same Jesus appealed to the Law of Moses when castigating his countrymen then surely he, the author, must have turned over such a figure and event in his mind. The gospel Jesus was to be the origin of the new “philosophy” or what became Christianity, so the idea of twelve disciples surely came to him from his reading of the twelve sons of Israel who became the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. But did the idea of making the first of those disciples of the new Jesus’ “fishermen” derive from the Josephan rebel’s followers including many “sailors”? Is that why we have come to read of Jesus walking along the shore to find and call his first disciples?

There were numerous literary precursors for a travel narrative available to our author but one can imagine him reading of Jesus’s flight from Galilee, probably to Jerusalem, as having some creative influence as well.

The Egyptian

We have discussed Lena Einhorn’s Shift in Time thesis in other posts. In one of those posts, we focused on Josephus’s account of a false prophet, known to be a magician, and an Egyptian, who called his followers to the Mount of Olives. From there, he promised them, they would see the walls of Jerusalem collapse as they had done for Joshua (=Jesus).

Now the evangelist had the model of the OT messianic figure, David, ascending the Mount of Olives in deep grief, fearing for his life, pursued by his enemies (2 Samuel 15). Yes, the biblical models for a suffering messiah were there, but how to fit these models into a new narrative for the one to become the “mother of all Messiahs”? I can imagine this author thinking about that more recent calamity befalling a prophet on the Mount of Olives. Yes, that would be an idea: let his Jesus who has travelled from Galilee pronounce destruction on the city of Jerusalem and on the eve of his fate he also, at that moment, walks up the Mount of Olives with his disciples.

Einhorn further explores the possible significance of Josephus describing a Theudas, active in the Jordan River region and who was beheaded, prior to the Egyptian episode. Again, it is not hard to imagine one looking for a new narrative to associate some of this detail with a sub-plot of the precursor of his new Jesus.


I have not covered in depth any of the cases that have been made for the Josephan figures pointing to “the real Jesus” behind the Jesus of the gospels. I confess I have found each of the above hypotheses that attempts to establish its respective figure as the original Jesus lacking when it comes to explaining how the details of the story changed into what we read in the gospels today. If, however, we begin with our first evangelist filled with biblical interpretations and motifs (silence before accusers, ascending the Mount of Olives, calling followers) is it not easier to conceptualize the relevance of the Josephan passages for helping him flesh out those isolated ideas into a coherent narrative?



Mary, Mary, who are you? – part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

In order to gain possible insights into the origins of persons and events in the gospels, we have, over the past year and more, been attempting to read the Scriptures with the same types of “midrashic” mindsets that ancient Jewish scribes exercised. What follows is from Portrait d’Israël en jeune fille: Genèse de Marie by Sandrick Le Maguer. You may not be persuaded by all of what follows but I hope it will at least make us wonder about the possibilities.

In Part 1 we saw that Miriam was associated closely with the miracle rock or “well” that produced flowing water for Israel as they wandered in the wilderness — the rock accompanying them on their trek. (The inspiration for this association arose from Numbers 20:1-2 we read first that Miriam died and then, in the following sentence, there was no water for Israel. Rabbis put two and two together and decided Miriam’s death had to be the reason: Moses this second time had to turn on the tap by speaking to the rock but, as we know, he struck it twice with his rod instead.)

Wisdom = Miriam = Well = Torah

Now early Jewish exegetes compared a well of water to the Torah, the Law. In Rabba Genesis 1:4 we find, as well, an equation of Wisdom with Law.

R. Banayah said: The world and the fullness thereof were created only for the sake of the Torah: The Lord for the sake of wisdom [i.e. the Torah] founded the earth (Prov. iii, 19).

The Hebrew word for well is “beer” (we wish!), as in Beersheba, etc., the three root consonants being beth, aleph, and resh: באר 

If you feel uncomfortable introducing such a late source as Rabba Genesis then you may prefer instead to savour the Damascus Document from among the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 6:4 there we read the same interpretation, this time while discussing Numbers 21:18

The Well is the Law, and its “diggers” are the repentant of Israel who went out of the land of Judah and dwelt in the land of Damascus.

Now the same three root consonants (beth, aleph, and resh), in the same order, also mean to “make clear and plain”, as we read in Deuteronomy 27:8 in connection with how the Law was to be written:

And you shall write very plainly [באר] on the stones all the words of this law.

Marc Chagall: Miriam Took a Timbrell. From Georgetown Frame Shoppe

We can transcribe this as baar. The point is that, as Maguer would say, we here have an “over-determination” of the link between the Law and the well. What is written clearly, plainly, the root for the word “well”, is the Law.

So where does Miriam enter?

We recall from Part 1 that in Exodus 15:20 Miriam is called “the prophetess”: hanaviah [הנביאה] – ha=the, navi or nabi=prophet, ah=feminine ending.

We have also seen indications that the numerical values in some words, or gematria, were an important element in rabbinic interpretations and that it is not unreasonable to think that this method was known very early. (Numerical techniques in the Gospel of John alone have been the subject of a monograph.) Now there are two types of gematria: one, row gematria, assigns a number in sequence from 1 to 22 to each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet; the other, classical gematria, does the same up to number 10 but then assigns multiples to the other numbers:

The row gematria value for “the prophetess” is 37; the classical gematria value is 73. A magical number, some might wonder.

Now the word for wisdom in Proverbs 7:4 is chokmah [חכ‎מה‎]. I am not taking this passage at random. We will see that it has a most significant connection with Miriam in rabbinic interpretations.

Say to wisdom [chokmah /חכ‎מה ‎], “You are my sister,” And call understanding your nearest kin

It turns out that, you guessed it, chokmah, het or chet-kaf-mem-he, also = 37 and 73.

Midrash Exodus is a late writing but we will see what thoughts it contains nonetheless and perhaps wonder about the provenance of such ideas. Midrash Exodus or Shemot Rabbah 1:22 associates each word or phrase with others in the Scriptures to find a message about the close watch God was maintaining over the fate of Moses. We see that Miriam is equated with the “Sister Wisdom” that we just read in Proverbs 7:4 — following the passage we addressed in our earlier post that makes us wonder if the evangelist describing the women “far off” from the cross expected readers to recall the image of Miriam:

And this is why the verse says “And his sister stood by from afar”, for she wanted to know what would be the results of her prophecy. And the Rabbis say the entire verse was said with the Divine Spirit. “And she stood” similar to (1 Samuel 3:10) “And G-D came and stood”. “His Sister” similar to (Proverbs 7:4) “Say to wisdom, she is your sister”. “From afar” similar to (Jeremiah 31:2) “From afar G-D is seen to me”. “To know what will happen to him” similar to (1 Samuel 2:3) “For G-D is all knowing”.

So we have Wisdom=Law=Well . . . the prophetess Miriam.

We have not exhausted the well, though. Wisdom is, according to the Scriptures, hidden. In Job 28:21 …

It is hidden [ne-alamah /  נעלמה ] from the eyes of all living, And concealed from the birds of the air.

Miriam “hid” her family relationship to the infant from Pharaoh’s daughter — according to that late Exodus Midrash 1:25.

But that word for “hidden” contains the same consonant roots — fair game for the wordplay that is the meat of midrash — as another description of Miriam, and a word that has become famous as the source for the prophecy of the virgin Mary. That word is “almah”, young girl or woman. Continue reading “Mary, Mary, who are you? – part 2”


Miriam stood afar off

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by Neil Godfrey


And his sister stood afar off [μακρόθεν in LXX], to know what would be done to him. — Exodus 2:4

1.22. And his sister stood afar off (ii, 4). Why did Miriam stand afar off? R. Amram in the name of Rab said: Because Miriam prophesied, ‘My mother is destined to give birth to a son who will save Israel’; and when the house was flooded with light at the birth of Moses, her father arose and kissed her head and said: ‘My daughter, thy prophecy has been fulfilled.’ This is the meaning of: And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel (Ex. xv, 20);’ The sister of Aaron,’ but not of Motes?—[She is so called] because in fact she said this prophecy when she was yet only the sister of Aaron, Moses not having been born yet. Now that she was casting him into the river, her mother struck her on the head, saying : ‘ My daughter, what about thy prophecy ?’ This is why it says: And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be the outcome of her prophecy. — Exodus Rabbah

And there were also women looking on from afar off [μακρόθεν], among whom also were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the least and of Joseph, and Salome — Mark 15:40





Mary, Mary, where did you come from?

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by Neil Godfrey

This is not the second part to the previous post that I had planned but it is related.

While exploring what the rabbinic literature had to say about Miriam I was led to focus on the fact that Miriam “stood far off to watch” what would become of her baby brother in the basket floating down the Nile. My mind immediately left the rabbinic discussion (Miriam was wanting to see how her prophecy of the saviour of Israel would pan out now that he was abandoned) and focussed on the fact that that’s how the two Marys and Salome are introduced in the Gospel of Mark: they stand “watching from far off” the crucifixion of Jesus.

Exodus 2:4

And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him.

Mark 15:40

There were also women watching from afar, among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome

Was that little detail meant to be what some scholars call a “flag” to alert readers to the source of the gospel narrative?

Women are the stereotypical mourners in literature and customs of the time none of the women in the gospel of Mark are explicitly said to do any mourning. The Miriam association, however, does alert us to another role of women and that is the life-givers.

Recall the suggestion that Arimathea was derived from the expression for “After Death”. Joseph does the burying — or more correctly, he lays the body in the tomb — but the women are watching the dying and the burying, looking on, “from afar”, but they move in on the third day to witness the evidence of the resurrection.

If Miriam was watching from afar to see what would happen to the hope of Israel after he was “left to his fate” in the river, she was thereby ready to enter the narrative more actively when he was pulled out of the river by the Egyptians.

When Pharaoh’s daughter took the infant, we read a quite amazing scene: Miriam, who is evidently a young girl and of a slave race, confronts the princess with her request for the baby in order to find care for it.

Now that’s an act of boldness on Miriam’s part. When in the Gospel of Mark we read that Joseph of Arimathea “boldly” approached Pilate, we try to force our minds to imagine something more than otherwise appears in the narrative. Joseph is said to be of the ruling class and Pilate was reluctant to crucify Jesus in the first place, so one would think that it would not take much “boldness” on his part to ask Pilate for Jesus’s body. Was the author thinking here of Miriam’s bold approach and request of the Egyptian princess for the rescued infant?

I’m beginning to think that our evangelist was doing more with the women at the end of his gospel than merely toss in some extras as mourners. The women were there to represent the opposite of Joseph “After Death” who buried Jesus.

Like Miriam, it is not unlikely that they were watching the crucifixion “from afar” in order to see (“midrashically”) what would become of Jesus. They represent the life sustainers. One of the Marys is said at that moment to be a mother, and a mother of a Jacob and a Joseph. Not just any “Jacob”, but a “Jacob the Younger”. A new Jacob? A new Israel? Joseph’s rise “from death” we know about.

Thus endeth my thought for the day.


Mary, Mary, who are you? – part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

On another forum lately there has appeared the question of why there are so many Marys in the gospels and why Jesus’ mother is given that name. With the partial exception of Jesus’ mother, they have no significant plot function at all. They appear then disappear with no obvious narrative role. What’s going on? These questions have arisen coincidentally at a time when I have returned to exploring the gospels as midrash, that is, as writings similar to the Jewish technique of creating new stories by rearranging passages from here and there in their Scriptures. So with the above questions in mind — why is Jesus’ mother named Mary and why so many Marys in the gospels — consider some of the early Jewish beliefs about Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron. The stories as we know them all post-date the gospels.

This post is part one.

Prophet and leader of Israel

Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. – Exodus 15:20

Miriam and Aaron began to speak . . .  “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” – Numbers 12:1-2

I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam. – Micah 6:4

Ancient Dura Europos Synagogue fresco of Moses being drawn from the Nile.

As a prophet, Miriam was said to have predicted that the saviour of the people of Israel would be born to Amram and Jochebed, her parents.

When Pharaoh issued his decree to slay all newborn male children of the Hebrews, Amram, said to be a leading figure among the Israelites, announced that it would be better to divorce his wife to ensure Pharaoh’s will could not be carried out. The rest of the Israelite men followed his example and divorced their wives. Miriam, his daughter, was outraged against her father and sharply chastised him for neglecting his higher duty to God and the future of Israel: a saviour to deliver them had yet to be born, after all. More specifically, Miriam prophesied that her mother would give birth to a saviour who would rescue them all from Egypt.

Amram was humbled and remarried his wife. Meanwhile, God had restored Jochebed to her youthful state so she was, in effect, a virgin when she remarried her husband.

And a man went from the house of Levi” (Exod. 2:1). Where did he go? Rabbi Yehudah son of Zevinah said: He followed the advice of his daughter. A tannaitic source states: Amram was the greatest man of his generation. When evil Pharaoh decreed: “Every son that is born shall be thrown into the river” (Exod. 1:22), he said: We are toiling in vain. He got up and divorced his wife. They all got up and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him: Father, your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s, for Pharaoh decreed only concerning the males, and you have decreed concerning the males and the females; Pharaoh decreed only in this world, and you, in this world and for the world to come; evil Pharaoh—perhaps his decree shall be fulfilled, perhaps it shall not be fulfilled, but you are righteous—certainly your decree shall be fulfilled. . . . He got up and brought back his wife. They all got up and brought back their wives. . . . (Sotah 12b)

. . . . —is it possible that she [Jochebed] was a hundred thirty years old and it calls her a daughter [young girl]? . . . Rabbi Yehudah said: Because signs of youth were generated in her. (Sotah 12a)

Then when Moses was born, Amram kissed his daughter in gratitude that her prophecy had been fulfilled. But when Moses was placed in the river Amram lost heart and slapped her on the head for prophesying falsely.

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took.. . .” (Exod. 15:20). The sister of Aaron, and not the sister of Moses? . . . : This teaches us that she used to prophesy when she was the sister of Aaron and say: In the future my mother will give birth to a son who will redeem Israel. And when Moses was born the entire house was filled with light. Her father stood and kissed her on the head. He said: My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled. And when they threw him into the river, her father stood and slapped her on the head. He said to her: My daughter, where is your prophecy? And thus it is written: “And his sister stood from afar in order to know what would be done to him” (Exod. 2:4)—to know what would come of her prophecy. (Sotah 12b-13a)

Yet Miriam did not lose faith and “stood afar off” watching over Moses to ensure his safety. We know how it ended. Miriam managed to retrieve Moses from the Egyptian princess so that his own mother could nurse him.

Miriam is, therefore, the one who prophesied the birth of the saviour of Israel, the one who forbade her father to divorce his wife (or at least to remarry her), the one who protected Moses and ensured his entry into the world. (Similarities and overlaps with any other Christian narrative are surely entirely coincidental.)

God rewarded Miriam for her courage and faithfulness: she was to become the ancestress of the kingship of Israel.

Ancestor of David

The full midrashic explanation of how Miriam is hidden behind several names in 1 Chronicles is a doozy: Miriam was deserted by men but married “for the right reasons” by Caleb, and changed her appearance, etc. And Caleb the son of Hezron begot [through] the woman Azubah and [through] Jerioth, and these are her sons: Jesher and Shobab and Ardon” (1 Chron. 2:18). . . . Azubah is Miriam. And why was she called Azubah? Because everyone left her at the beginning. “Begot”—but he was married to her! Rabbi Yohanan said: Whoever marries a woman for a higher purpose, the text considers it as if he begot her. “Jerioth”—because her face resembled curtains. “And these are her sons”—do not read “her sons,” but “her builders.” .. . “And Ashhur the father of Tekoa had two wives, Helah and Naarah” (2 Chron. 4:5). Ashhur is Caleb. And why was he called Ashhur? Because his face turned black from fasting. “The father of”— because he became like a father to her. “Tekoa”—because he dedicated his heart to his father in heaven. “Had two wives”—Miriam became like two women. “Helah and Naarah”—not Helah and Naarah, but in the beginning she was sickly, and afterward she was youthful. (Sotah 11b-12a)

In the Talmud (Sotah 11b) it is explained that the names used in I Chronicles (2:18) for Caleb’s wives Azubah and Ephrath are one or the other a pseudonym for Miriam. — Moshe Reiss, p. 190 n.13

Caleb son of Hezron had children by his wife Azubah (and by Jerioth). These were her sons: Jesher, Shobab and Ardon. When Azubah died, Caleb married Ephrath, who bore him Hur. Hur was the father of Uri, and Uri the father of Bezalel. — 1 Chronicles 2:18-20

To return to that Sotah 11b passage cited by Moshe Reiss, here is the relevant section:

David, who also comes from Miriam, as it is written: “And Azubah,” the wife of Caleb, “died, and Caleb took to him Ephrath, who bore him Hur” (I Chronicles 2:19) and, as will be explained further, Ephrath is Miriam. And it is written: “David was the son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah” (I Samuel 17:12). Therefore, he was a descendant of Miriam.

The midrashic explanation goes back to the opening chapters of Exodus and the story of the two midwives who delivered the Israelite babies. Pharaoh, again we know the story, ordered the midwives to kill every newborn male but the midwives responded by pleading that the Israelite women were popping them out so fast that it was impossible to reach any of them in time to kill the infant. God was pleased so we read,

And it came to pass, since the midwives feared God, He made houses for them — Exod. 1:21

You don’t know what “made houses” means? Did God come down and make them each a bungalow? Rabbis debated the mystery line, too. One of those midwives, you guessed it, was Miriam albeit by another name. Miriam’s cipher was Puah (Exodus 1:15), the reasons offered being many: one, she cooed at the babies (pu pu…); another, that the word suggesting weeping and wailing over the threat to Moses’ life; yet another drawing upon an indication that the word meant defiant resistance, her attitude against Pharaoh. (By this time you will not be the least surprised to learn that the other midwife was Miriam’s mother, Jochebed, but we’ll leave that explanation aside for now.)

So back to the reward:

Rav and Shmuel disagree. One said: Priestly houses, and one said: Royal houses. According to him who said priestly houses, this refers to Aaron and Moses, and according to him who said royal houses, David also came from Miriam, as it is written: “And Azubah died, and Caleb took Ephrath, and she bore Hur to him” (1 Chron. 2:19). And it is written: “And David was the son of that Ephrathite . . .” (1 Sam. 17:12). — Sotah 11b

And so it was.

Mother of a martyr

Josephus writes that Hur, the one who, with Aaron, held up Moses’ hands to defeat the Amalekites (Exodus 17:10-13), was Miriam’s husband (Antiquities III, 2, 4) but another view appears in later rabbinic literature: Miriam was the mother of Hur. From this perspective, we re-read 1 Chronicles 2 (quoted above) and notice that Hur was said to be the son of Caleb and Ephrath, the alternative name for Miriam.

Hur was said to be murdered by the worshippers of the Golden Calf. Here is one of the rabbinical passages explaining what happened:

When Moses had gone up [Mount Sinai], he had agreed with Israel to come down at the end of forty days. When he delayed coming down, all Israel came together to the elders. . . . They said to them, Moses agreed with us that he would come down in forty days. Now here it is forty days and he has not come down. And in addition, six hours more [have passed] . . .  yet we do not know what has happened to him. So (in the words of Exod. 32:1 cont.) ‘Arise and make a god for us.’” When [the elders] heard that, [the elders] said to them, “Why are you angering Him, you for whom He performed all the miracles and wonders?” [But] they did not heed them and killed them. Then because Hur had stood . . . up to them with harsh words, they . . . rose up against him and killed him [as well]. Then all of Israel gathered around Aaron . . . Midrash Tanchuma 3

And so they threatened Aaron unless he made the golden calf.

Grandmother of craftsman of the Tabernacle

Following the genealogy of the tradition above, Bezalel, “filled with the spirit”, the skilled craftsman responsible for all the decoration and furnishings of the Tabernacle, was the grandson of Miriam.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. . . . — Exodus 31:1-5

We can’t prove a connection but it is interesting to wonder here about Jesus, son of Mary, a carpenter and builder of the church which in Christian literature was symbolized by the Tabernacle and Temple.

Miriam’s Well Illuminated Manuscript: Hagadot.com

Miriam’s well

Again in Midrash Tanchuma Buber Bamidbar 2, we see that the rock that miraculously supplied water for Israel accompanied Israel in the wilderness because of Miriam. When Miriam died the same rock ceased to supply water. The original narrative may not have had any cause-effect relationship in mind but rabbis did see one. One of the functions of midrash was, after all, to create new narratives that tied adjacent episodes in the Bible. We are aware that biblical narratives tend to be collections of many smaller units strung together “like beads on a string” and so were the rabbis. Midrash was one imaginative way they had of making more coherent links between these beads but the links had to draw upon selected words or oddities in the texts to tie them together. Here is a midrashic explanation that tied the death of Miriam with the next episode that began with the Israelites complaining about lack of water:

. . . as stated (in Micah 6:4): AND I SENT MOSES, AARON, AND MIRIAM BEFORE YOU. Thus through their merit, Israel was sustained. The manna was through the merit of Moses. [You yourself know that it is so. When Moses passed away, what is written (in Josh. 5:12)? THE MANNA CEASED ON THE NEXT DAY (i.e., the day after Moses died).] The clouds of glory through the merit of Aaron. You yourself know that it is so. When Aaron passed away, what is written (in Numb. 21:4)? BUT THE TEMPER OF THE PEOPLE GREW SHORT ON THE WAY, because the sun was shining down upon them (without a cloud cover). And the well through the merit of Miriam, since it is stated (in Numb. 20:1-2): BUT MIRIAM DIED THERE. NOW THE CONGREGATION HAD NO WATER. And how was [the well] constructed? Like a kind of rock. It rolled along and came with them on the journeys. When the standards came to rest and the Tabernacle arose, the rock would come and settle down in the court of the Tent of Meeting. Then the princes would stand beside it and say (in the words of Numb. 21:17): RISE UP, O WELL; and the well would rise up.  

To be finished in the next post.

Reiss, Moshe. “Miriam Rediscovered.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 38, no. 3 (2010): 183–90.

Steinmetz, Devora. “A Portrait of Miriam in Rabbinic Midrash.” Prooftexts 8, no. 1 (1988): 35–65.


Reading the Gospel of Mark as Midrash

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by Neil Godfrey

What is midrash? I use here the explanation of the Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin:

Although a whole library could (and has been) written on midrash, for the present purposes it will be sufficient to define it as a mode of biblical reading that brings disparate passages and verses together in the elaboration of new narratives. It is something like the old game of anagrams in which the players look at words or texts and seek to form new words and texts out of the letters that are there. The rabbis who produced the midrashic way of reading considered the Bible one enormous signifying system, any part of which could be taken as commenting on or supplementing any other part. They were thus able to make new stories out of fragments of older ones (from the Bible itself), via a kind of anagrams writ large; the new stories, which build closely on the biblical narratives but expand and modify them as well, were considered the equals of the biblical stories themselves.

Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, 78 – my highlighting in all quotations

Boyarin in the same volume refutes a Christian scholar who spoke of the same kind of interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures as “Christian exegesis” as they wove passages from Daniel, Isaiah and the Psalms to tell the story of the Passion. No, says Boyarin, it was part and parcel of the Jewish way of reading their sacred writings and some of those Jews took that “anagram” game into the direction that we read in the gospels:

C.H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology (London: Nisbet, 1952), 116-19 . . . ascribed the transfer of this theme from the People of the Holy Ones of God (a corporate entity) to Jesus (an individual) on the basis of an alleged “Christian exegetical tradition which thinks of Jesus as the inclusive representative of the People of God.The “Christian” exegetical tradition has its point of origin in Daniel 7, which was then naturally joined in the manner of midrash with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and to the Psalms of the Righteous Sufferer, for which there was apparently also a tradition of messianic reading. I think, however, that this is not a special Christian exegetical tradition but one that is plausible enough to have been the extant Jewish tradition even aside from Jesus.

Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, 186

When we read the later rabbinical literature we find various rabbis are documented as having interpreted various biblical passages — names mentioned, turns of phrase, situations — in mutually supporting of conflicting ways. I wonder if whoever wrote the gospels expected readers to approach them the same way. When we read, for example, the sudden appearance of characters in the narrative who seem to add nothing to the story, we find ourselves asking, “What was the author thinking?” Why does he unexpectedly name certain women at the cross of Jesus and even their son’s names and tell us nothing more about them? What’s going on?

I am going to try to write a couple of posts in which I let my imagination play with a “what if” scenario. What if the Gospel of Mark were written to be read as midrash with readers meant to ask, Why does the text say this? — and look for answers in the “Old Testament” the way rabbis used to do.

It’s speculative, yes, but it’s a game — of narrative anagrams — to see what is possible.

We start with Mark 15:42-46

It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. (NIV)

Rabbi Benjamin asked, Why does it say that Joseph of Arimathea placed the body of Jesus in the tomb cut out of rock?
Rabbi Maguer  answered, Because Joseph placed the body of his father Israel in a cave (Genesis 50:13). Jesus was like Israel, as it is written, after Jesus was baptized he went into the wilderness for forty days and was tested as Israel went through the Red Sea into the wilderness and was tested forty years. So the last Israel, Jesus, was buried by Joseph in a tomb, like a cave, carved out of rock.

And do not wonder why Joseph should bury Jesus as Joseph buried his father. The answer is in the saying that the first Jesus (Joshua) was from Joseph. So Joseph is in spirit the father of Jesus. (Exodus Rabba 48:4 cites a Jewish truncated genealogy for Joshua “And so you find in Joshua that he came from Joseph” — see translation. cf Joshua 24:29-33; 1 Chron. 7:20-27)

Rabbi Gershom asked, But why does it say Joseph of Arimathea? We know of no town Arimathea.
Rabbi Maguer said, Because Arimathea is in Hebrew “After Death” (’a·ḥar mōṯ). Joseph was as dead when he was cast in the pit by his brethren but he came back, as if after death, to become one of the leaders in Egypt. He appears again after the death of Jesus to bury him in the cave. 
Then Rabbi Benjamin  awoke and said, And that is why the gospel says Joseph was a “prominent member of the Council”. Joseph was a ruler in Egypt. We read that Joseph, as ruler, went to Pharaoh and his counselors to ask for permission to bury Israel his father. So it was fitting that the new Joseph approach Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. (Genesis 50, 4, 6)

They stroked their beards and knew they were wise.

Someone searching for the meaning of the name Maguer I have used will find the answer in

  • Maguer, Sandrick Le. Portrait d’Israël en jeune fille: Genèse de Marie. Gallimard, Paris: 2008.

because Sandrick Le Maguer is the one who published most of the above explanation in that book.

I’m going to venture another one, this time my own. Why does Mark take the trouble to list the names of Jesus’ brothers and then drop them from the narrative? And why does he select the names he does, as if, as Paula Fredriksen said,

It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past. (Jesus of Nazareth, p.240)

But if the author wanted to identify Jesus’ brothers with Israel’s past, why choose Simon and not Isaac or Reuben? Here is the passage, Mark 6:1-4 Continue reading “Reading the Gospel of Mark as Midrash”


Conclusion: Nanine Charbonnel, Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier

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by Neil Godfrey

Nanine Charbonnel now asks how the understanding of how the gospels have been written should affect how we read them. Metaphors abound in her discussion of how to read metaphorical narratives. Think of Hebrews 10:20, where readers are directed to enter the divine presence through the veil of the inner sanctuary, a veil which itself represents the flesh of Jesus.

The book is there, then, but the work is still hidden. It is absent, perhaps radically so; in any case it is concealed, obfuscated by the evident presence of the book, behind which it awaits the liberating decision, the “Lazare, veni foras.”

To make this stone fall seems to be reading’s mission: to render it transparent, to dissolve it with the penetrating force of the gaze which unimpeded moves beyond. There is in reading, at least at reading’s point of departure, something vertiginous . . . But there is more; and what makes the “miracle” of reading still more singular . . . .To roll back the stone, to obliterate it, is certainly something marvelous, but it is something we achieve at every moment in everyday language. At every moment we converse with Lazarus, dead for three days — or dead, perhaps, since always. In his well-woven winding sheet, sustained by the most elegant conventions, he answers us and speaks to us within ourselves.

— Blanchot, The Space of Literature, 195

Following on from Maurice Blanchot who saw Lazarus in his burial cloths as the incarnation of a book and Jesus’ command for Lazarus to “Come forth!” as the act of reading, NC runs with an image of strips of cloth as the surface material for writing and the need for readers to find new ways to understand those words. (Did scribes also write on linen? I am not aware of the practice so I will only touch on a few passages in the closing pages: my grasp of French is too elementary to read with confidence the nuances and subtleties that are embedded in the metaphors in these closing pages.)

Peter ran to the tomb and, bending down, saw only the strips of cloth that had been used to bind the body of Jesus: Luke 24:12 (C’s text has a small error here with the Greek word used in our manuscripts). In John 20:5 another disciple sees the same bands of linen that had been used to wrap Jesus lying on the ground. In 2013 Father Antoine Adam delivered an Easter homily on radio France-Culture in which he said the cloth is rolled up, like the book that has to be unrolled, to see the impression of the face of Jesus left on it, like the body of Scripture, for Jewish Scriptures are a corpus.

The phylacteries or tefillin were known in early times (Matthew 23:5) and the leather strips contained writings. Leon of Modena described the way these strips would be bound so that they formed the letter yod on the left arm and were inscribed with the letter shin on the forehead, which, one might note, are the first two letters of Jeshua. One would like to propose the image of a comparison between the burial cloths and the tefillin strips, both are left lifeless on the floor after the resurrection of and transformation of the old body.

It is easy to over-reach in the world of metaphors. I think NCs suggestion of Maurice Mergui’s comment on the striking of Jesus with the reed (the same word is used to translate the writing instrumentMatthew 27:30) to signal Jesus being struck according to Scripture, that is, by midrash. When we read in the New Testament the phrase “in/by the spirit” (e.g. Acts 20:22-23) should we always think of the Holy Spirit or is there sometimes an allusion to “the spirit of the author” or midrashic interpretation?

NC finds an interesting explanation by Marc-Alain Ouaknin in La Tora expliquée aux enfants.

In the Torah, “creation of the world” does not mean “creation of the physical world”, the moment when matter came into being. No, it means the creation of the world in a story: it is the first time that a written text is considered a creation of the world. Not the first time that a written text tells of the creation of the world, but the first time that men consider that writing is a way of “creating: “I write, therefore I create!” Writing becomes a tool by which the world is created ‘in stories’.

Excerpt From: Marc-Alain Ouaknin. “The Torah Explained to Children.” Apple Books. (I have quoted a little more than NC quotes on p. 447. As per John 6:63, NC recalls, the words spoken are spirit and life. )

Pentecost, the anti-Tower of Babel

The punishment of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel is reversed in the midrash of Pentecost. Here an author has set down in a text a fortuitous miracle of comprehension without a mediator. But without a mediator has something else become hidden, lost? NC concludes this chapter with the words of Michel Serres:

The new meaning spread everywhere starting from wind and noise. Not a single language translated in several languages, but several spoken and several heard at the same time. . . . If the orator is heard as is, the network is decentered, even locally: there is no longer an intercepter, no longer a crossroads or intermediate; there is no longer a town; Hermes, the father of Pan, died on the Pentecost.

(The Parasite, from pages 41 and 43)

And that brings NC to the observation that it is the Paraclete that is introduced in the gospels as the new interpreter — a subject for a future study.


Other personnages de papier

Continue reading “Conclusion: Nanine Charbonnel, Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier”


Are There Really “Keys” to Understanding the New Testament? (Charbonnel continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

By the time I finished reading Nanine Charbonnel’s penultimate chapter of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier a queasy sense of déjà vu dragged my mind back decades to a time when I believed that the Bible was a coded book that needed “keys” to open up its true meaning to modern readers. Before Michael Drosnin‘s The Bible Code made its appearance I had memorized all “seven keys” that one particular cult said were required for “understanding the Bible” (according to that cult’s own doctrines, of course). So after I finished reading Nanine Charbonnel’s quite different approach to understanding the nature and origins of the gospels in which she does indeed raise the spectre of authors writing narratives whose meanings are hidden, I had to pause. Had I in one sense come full circle after all these years? What is the difference between Drosnin and Armstrong on the one hand and what Charbonnel [NC] was proposing on the other? Read on and see.

The Key of Creative Multilingualism

One man’s fish is another man’s poisson captures in a humorous way what much of midrash is about: word games, double entendres, mixtures of languages. (By the way, that link is to Mal Webb’s page of his recording of the song that I first heard him sing at a Woodford Folk Festival.) The wordplay in gospel midrash is more serious, of course, with its ambiguities in the names and events making up the gospel narratives and their doctrinal themes and innovations.

NC earlier pointed out the multiple layers meaning in the inscription on the cross written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. Similarly, the stories are told at multiple levels. (Another example: We read of Greeks making their appearance at the final feast of Jesus and are led to recall the prophecy that testifies of the hour the Son of Man is to be glorified — John 12:19-23.) To focus on one passage . . . .

Eli, eli . . .

We are familiar with the last words of Jesus on the cross where he quotes the first line of Psalm 22:

Matthew 27:46-67

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.” 

Mark 15:34

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

But scratch the surface and interesting questions appear . . . .


Two divergent religious traditions can be identified by the slight change of rhythm arising from where one places a single accent in one word translated from a Psalm spoken by Jesus on the cross: Depending on where one places the accent of lama (in lama lama sabachthani) we have either the Christian “Why [asking for God’s motivation] have you forsaken me?” spoken by Jesus on the cross or the Jewish “To what end [asking what will be the outcome] have you forsaken me (or exiled us)? The explanatory details of this difference are added at the end of this post.


2 “So what does the word sabachthani used in the Gospels mean? It means: You have praised me, You have glorified me! For it must be linked to the Hebrew and Aramaic root sabath, meaning: to praise, to glorify, and not to the Aramaic root sabaq, meaning to leave. Therefore, the Word spoken by Christ would not be: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? But: ‘My God, My God, why have You glorified me?’ or, better still: ‘My God, My God, how much You have glorified me'”. (various encyclopaedias). — NC, footnote p. 434

There is something more serious: the meaning of the verb. One might be surprised that the phrase transcribed in Matthew’s Greek is “lama sabachtani” and not the Hebrew of the psalm text, i.e. “lama azavtani“? This is because the psalm is in Hebrew, and Matthew’s phrase in Aramaic. But there would be an error of translation, already made by the Septuagint2.

One can think that in the original midrash there was a play on words on this root, allowing the word to be read as meaning either “abandoned” or “glorified”, and that the translator of the Gospel, inspired by the Septuagint, did not see the play on words, and took up the translation of the Septuagint, giving exclusively to “AZaVtaNi” the meaning of “abandoned”.

(Translated from page 434 of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier)


The authors of Matthew and Mark directly draw our attention to possible misunderstandings arising from similar-sounding words heard in the last words of Jesus on the cross. Jesus speaks the words of the “messiah David” but bystanders mishear him and think he is calling for the prophet Elijah. The author is drawing our attention to confusions arising from languages.


NC adds another pun that is indirect but perhaps meaningful: Is not Levi-Matthew the changer, the changer of language? If Matthew is the same as Levi in the Gospel of Mark we find there that he is identified as son of Alphaeus, a name meaning “change” — see one of the Vridar posts on puns in Mark. Here NC takes a glance (in a footnote) at another suggestion by Maurice Mergui:

Immediately after the healing of the paralytic, Jesus-Joshua called on Levi-Matthew.

Mk 2:14 – As he passed by, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs office, and said to him, “Follow me. And he got up and followed him.

Why is this Levi the son of Alphaeus (from the Hebrew root meaning to change, to switch, to convert money). Son of a money-changer, that should remind us of something. Money changers were among the merchants in the temple. Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple. He drives their sons, the Levi, out of the Temple. This is (again and again) the leitmotif of the eschatological reversal (The first shall be last) that hides under the guise of an innocuous verse.

As he passed by he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs office

“Passing by” here also means “forgiving” (Hebrew meaning of ‘avar). This is a repeat of the midrash quoted above: the proselytes will marry kohanim and be inside, while the Levites will be outside. At the end of time (but this clause is still absent and the verbs in the present tense) the election will be reversed. The Gentiles will “come in” and you Jews will be out.

(translated from Le Centurion indigne)

The Key of Gospel Emphasis on True Meaning

Plays on the above multilingual ambiguities are readily grasped once we have our attention drawn to them. There are other forms of multiple meanings with special attention directed to the lack of comprehension of outsiders. We find this theme stressed most bluntly in the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John: staged misunderstandings

The evangelist relishes making the confusion public:

  • John 2:19-21 — Exchange with the Jews: Temple is the Body and Rebuilding is the Resurrection (though what happens in the mind of a reader who recalls the metaphor of the people of God being the Temple?)
  • John 3:3-4 — Exchange with Nicodemus: Born again is confused with Born from above
  • John 4:10 — Exchange with Samaritan woman: running water and living water
  • John 4:31 — Exchange with disciples: Food is Doing God’s will
  • John 8:33-35 — Exchange with accusers of the adulterous woman: Slavery is subjection to sin
  • John 11:11-13 — Exchange with friends of Lazarus: sleep is death

The Key of Narrative Interpretation

In contrast to the absence of subtlety in the Gospel of John, we find “consummate art” in the Synoptics. Notice Luke 4:21

Now he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your ears’

Here Jesus (whose name means “God saves”) is presented as reading the very prophet (Isaiah, the name likewise means “God is salvation”) who is the source of Luke’s less obvious agenda. That agenda is to proclaim that the time of the prophets and the accomplishment of the end-time on earth is being taught on this sabbath by the prophet Isaiah through Jesus, “Yahweh saves”. The passage being read is specifically addressing the place of gentiles among God’s people who have been suffering because of their sins, the time when all must be brought together under God. That being the beginning of Jesus’ preaching, the author of the Gospel of Luke draws it all to a fitting closure: Luke 24:27 Continue reading “Are There Really “Keys” to Understanding the New Testament? (Charbonnel continued)”


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)”


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.