2021-02-14

The Mystery of the Incarnation Solved? — Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series  . . .

.

According to the conventional scholarly view, Jesus began his career as a remarkable man who so impressed his closest associates that they came to view him as more than a mere man after his death. Admiration for Jesus grew to the extent that by the time the epistles and gospels were written he was deemed to be a heavenly divine figure alongside God, one who during his earthly sojourn had been a “new Moses”, a “new Israel” and “son of God”. This Jesus that is found in the gospels and epistles is generally acknowledged to be a mythical figure even though there was some at some point a “mere mortal” upon whom all those grandiose concepts were bestowed over time. A popular Christ myth idea today proposes the converse: that Jesus began as a heavenly figure and that his earthly career was a later “mythological/theological” development.

Nanine Charbonnel [NC] in her book Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier proposes that there is more explanatory power in replacing both trajectories (from human to divine and from heavenly to earthly) with a kind of “big bang” in which all the essential attributes of Jesus, both his core divine and human attributes, appeared together. The method by which this Jesus emerged following the same Jewish literary-theological techniques that generated other biblical figures and events: that is, by various ways of playing with word meanings, sounds, and images that were found in the “Sacred Scriptures”, and by a rich use of allegory and metaphor. See the box below for illustrations of this point.

For example: the name and character of Abraham, meaning “father of many nations”, was constructed to be representative of “many nations”; the twins Jacob and Esau, and then the twelve sons of Israel, were created to represent the twelve tribes, and several of these figures were given narrative roles to represent the historical fates of the people they were said to represent; waters were divided and gathered to let life-giving land appear, and this motif was repeated with the creation of the new world founded by Noah’s family, and again with the new nation of Israel being born through the Red Sea and Jordan River, and again when Elisha took over the reins from Elijah by crossing the brook that miraculously parted for him . . .  and again when the skies themselves were parted at the commencement of the ministry of Jesus. We see related techniques at work with the development of the Son of Man figure emerging first as a metaphor in Daniel and associated with the imagery of another metaphorical figure for Israel, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, and how this literary Son of Man became a “real” Son of Man dwelling in heaven by the time of the writings attributed to Enoch. Paul’s idea that a saviour figure had undergone a curse by being hung on a tree appears to have been inspired by a creative reflection on the offering of Isaac in Genesis and another passage in Deuteronomy. Certain correspondences between Jezebel and Esther have led some scholars to suggest that Esther was created in part as a righteous foil to the wicked Jezebel. And so forth and so forth — examples could be multiplied many times over (and the ones listed here represent only a few of the creative methods employed). [I have mixed some of NC’s examples with a few others I have read in various other publications.]

The relevance for NC’s thesis is that the way Jesus was created was consistent with the way other figures in the Jewish scriptures were created. The main difference is that the figure of Jesus was overloaded with more layers of Scriptural tropes than others. But there was a good reason for this hyper overlay: Jesus of the gospels was being created as the personification of the new and ideal Israel itself, that is, the Israel of prophecy that was filled with the presence of God. We begin to understand here the origin of the coalescing of two natures in Jesus, the human and the divine.

So we come now to NC’s next step in her discussion of the incarnation of Jesus. Recent posts have addressed the way Jesus was shaped to represent key biblical heroes (Adam, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha) and even the people of God collectively, the new Israel, the union of Jews and gentiles in the one new body. That has been only half the story, though. NC calls this Jesus’s “horizontal” personification. Jesus was also the personification of the divine and of all things ordained for the worship of God, including the temple. But NC begins with the tabernacle of the wilderness, the tent in which God first dwelt among his people. Jesus is also the embodiment of Scripture itself, the Word of God, and the very name of God. NC’s thesis is that the gospel Jesus was the unique product of these two types of personification, horizontal and vertical.

Recall, further, from previous posts the frequency of the confusion of the literal and figurative that NC points to in the Jewish Scriptures. Sometimes the reader is left wondering which is which. So it is with the gospels.

NC sees three primary horizontal-vertical “constructions” making up the figure of gospel Jesus:

  1. As the personification of the People the person named “Yahweh Saves” (= Jesus) is simultaneously the personification-incarnation of the Son of God.
  2. As the nation of kings and the messiah he is the personification-incarnation of the Temple.
  3. More precisely he is the personification-incarnation of the Presence of God, the shekinah, which was originally in the Tabernacle or Tent. Now the word that is translated tabernacle/tent (in the LXX) is used elsewhere as a reference to the human body. But we will come to that in due course.

In the remainder of this chapter draws out the depths of the above three components of the gospel Jesus and I’ll attempt to cover these in the next post (or maybe three). A later discussion explores details of Jesus as the Name, Word and Law of God.

.


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


 


2021-01-16

What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Before returning to the Johannine stories containing the words and deeds of Nicodemus, I must digress briefly to discuss the issue of dependence. The Gospel of John contains countless mysteries, many of which can keep a scholar busy for a lifetime. Who actually wrote the gospel? What were his sources? Who is the Beloved Disciple? Can we find seams (aporias) that might reveal both sources and later redaction?

These puzzles may entertain the mind, but they can often become dark, twisting, endless rabbit holes. I would offer here a rather imperfect analogy to the so-called hard sciences in which we may not understand certain things (yet), but rather than beat our heads against the wall, we measure what we can and try to derive workable models and submit modest predictions. With that in mind, let’s look at larger patterns — looking less at syntax and semantics and more at pragmatics and narrative frames.

Literary Dependence

Typically, scholars will demonstrate the probability of independent, unique Johannine sources by means of declaration rather than explanation.
The Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio, 1310–11 (Wikipedia)

As you probably know from my previous posts on Vridar, I believe that the author of John knew the Synoptics — especially Mark — and used them as source material. Anyone who argues for absolute independence must either ignore or explain the astonishing fact that John re-invented the gospel genre. We have discussed in earlier posts the ways in which John follows narrative boundaries already laid out in Mark.

The author of the Fourth Gospel has built his own road, but he was clearly following already established paths. As an example, we have the narrative “Dead Zone” between Jesus’ burial and the discovery of the empty tomb. The curtain closes as the tomb is sealed. Nothing happens in the story for about 36 hours. The curtain lifts, the sun rises, and the truth is revealed.

Many scholars posit the existence of “traditional material” that lies behind the Fourth Gospel. They insist that John’s usage of such unknown, unseen, never-referred-to sources is more likely than John’s appropriation of and embellishment upon existing Markan frames. Typically, scholars will demonstrate the probability of independent, unique Johannine sources by means of declaration rather than explanation.

However, I would argue that the silence in the Dead Zone represents a Markan frame adhered to by John. We can more simply explain it as an artifact of literary dependence than as a coincidence among pre-existing (yet somehow always magically independent) sources. The silence signals dependence. Yet despite this shared silence, we can find clues that John ached to say more.

The Raising of Lazarus and the Dead Zone

In fact, we can find the missing action between the burial and Sunday sunrise somewhere else. What are we missing from Jesus’ resurrection stories in Mark and John? Continue reading “What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 2)”


2021-01-11

Why was the Gospel Narrative set around 30 CE?

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by Neil Godfrey

I cannot prove that the gospel narratives are deliberately set in the time of Pilate so that the death of Jesus occurs a generation of forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE but I do think there are several reasons for suspecting that this setting was a conscious decision for theological reasons.

The first question that arises is this: How can we think that the gospels set the time of Jesus’ crucifixion forty years before the destruction of the Temple given that there is no explicit claim in the gospels to lead us to this conclusion?

I’ll begin by noting the existence of two implied prophetic timetables that are easily overlooked because the texts do not explicitly draw our attention to them.

  • Adam / Year 1
  • . . . .
  • Exodus from Egypt / Year 2666 (= two thirds point)
  • . . . .
  • Rededication of temple / Year 4000 (164 b.c.e)

One: Nowhere in the Old Testament books do we read that the Temple was to be rededicated after the Maccabean revolt 4000 years after the creation of Adam. Yet scribes appear to have edited the chronologies of the books in order to make the beginning of the new Israel in 164 CE to occur a neat 4000 years after God began his project with the creation of Adam. For some reason those editors did not feel a need to explicitly advertise the presence of this remarkable chronology but there it is. (For an explanation of this chronology which is taken from Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past see The Bible’s 4000 years from Creation to the New Israel — or if you are pressed for time there is a shorter earlier version, The Meaning of Biblical Chronology).

Two: Josephus in Antiquities indicates that he believed that the 70 weeks of the prophecy in Daniel 9 ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. (Antiquities X, 11, 7 — Beckwith, 533 ff). However, when we read in his earlier work about the Jewish War about the death of a high priest being responsible for the fall of the city, we find no explicit direction to suspect that either of these events had any connection with Daniel’s prophecy. Josephus writes about the death of a high priest without an explicit link to Daniel, but once we know from the later work what he believed about Daniel’s prophecy, then we are compelled to read the death of the high priest as the fulfilment of the prophecy of the “anointed one” who was “cut off” and whose death led to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem as the culmination of Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy. Josephus doesn’t spell out the connection for readers. He is so quiet about it that one can say “only those in the know will know” the prophetic significance (the end of Daniel’s 70 weeks) of what he has described.

. . . an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. — Daniel 9:26

“I should not be wrong in saying that the capture of the city [= 70 CE] began with the death of Ananus [= 66 CE]; and that the overthrow of the walls and the downfall of the Jewish state dated from the day on which the Jews beheld their [anointed] high priest, the captain of their salvation, butchered in the heart of Jerusalem. . . . But it was, I suppose, because God had, for its pollutions, condemned the city to destruction and desired to purge the sanctuary by fire, that he thus cut off those who clung to them with such tender affection” (War IV, v, 2, 318. 323 — Beckwith, 535 f).

So there is no rule that requires that a fulfilled prophetic time can only be validly found in a text if an author spells it out directly. Do the gospels contain inferences that their setting in the time of Pilate has been fabricated to make the Jesus event happen forty years prior to the fall of Jerusalem?

The Book of Jubilees pre-dates the gospels. In the view of a good number of scholars (although challenged by Davies and Chilton) Jubilees 17:15-18:19 associates the (“would-be”) sacrifice of Isaac with the Passover. The Jubilees passage speaks of the twelfth day as the day on which the episode of testing Abraham’s loyalty to God begins, and “the third day” after that being the time of his offering of Isaac, that is, the 15th Nisan. The objection of Davies and Chilton appears to have been refuted on the evidence of Qumran texts according to Geza Vermes:

These views [associating the Binding of Isaac with Passover as early as the second century BCE] have found general favour among scholars during the last three decades, with the exception of Philip Davies and Bruce Chilton, who set out in an article published in 1978 to substitute for them ‘a revised tradition history’. I believe that in the light of the evidence from 4Q225 their counter-argument can be finally refuted. (Vermes, 144)

The Gospels do not always draw attention to their allusions to “Old Testament” themes and motifs and for most part rely on the knowledge of readers to make the connections. So the significance of Christ enduring 40 days in the wilderness is only recognized by a reader who is familiar with the story of the generation of Israel wandering 40 years in the wilderness.

The remainder of this post is based heavily on an article that I have had in my collection for quite some years now but unfortunately the name of the author is missing from my copy. The title is Sub Pontio Pilato: The Chronological Analogue of Supercessionism? The last words are only Trondheim, November 2008, M. W. N. If any reader knows who the author is and where the article was published please do get in touch. From the article (p.2):

Compare the many references to “this generation” in Luke: 7.31; 11.29; 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 17.25; 21.32

And yet there are indications within the NT that the time of Jesus’ entrance into public activity may have been pinpointed only after the destruction of the Second Temple, so as to reaffirm the central doctrines of Christian beliefs. Forty is, after all, a symbolic number that appears several times in the HB and NT. One could hypothesize tentatively that the number forty had symbolic significance in the gospel chronology, too. But this is not what is meant here. In Mark 8.38 the following words are attributed to Jesus: ‘For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation [έν τη γενεά ταύτη τη μοιχαλίδι και άμαρτωλφ], of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’. The designation ‘this generation’ and related phrases allude to Deuteronomy, where Moses relates how God eventually swore that not a man of ‘this evil generation’ would look upon the Promised Land (Deut. 1.35; see also Deut. 32.5, 20; Num. 14.11, 27, 35; Ps. 95.10).6 This language, according to J. N. Rhodes, is ‘an important rhetorical vehicle for evoking the history of Israel as one of disobedience and failure’.7 Since God had condemned the wilderness generation to wander in the desert for forty years, the associations inherent to the phrases, as used in the Synoptics, are strengthened by the chronological claim that Jesus made his appearance forty years before the disastrous events of 70 CE. The underlying premise seems to be that, by rejecting Jesus, the inhabitants of Jerusalem provoked God’s anger in a similar way as the wilderness generation had done in ancient times.

6 See U. Mauser, Christ in the Wilderness: The Wilderness Theme in the Second Gospel and its Basis in the Biblical Tradition (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1963).
7 J. N. Rhodes, The Epistle of Barnabas and the Deuteronomic Tradition (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 162- 163, n. 86.

Parable of the Wicked Tenants. Image from Catholic Exchange

All of that may be suggestive but is there more? Our unknown author makes some interesting observations about Parable of the Wicked Tenants. I highlight what I take to be the key sentence:

In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (123; 135), Christians are said to be ‘the true Israelite race [γένος]’. This commitment to Christian supercessionism is scarcely justified by the vague argument that, in the gospels, the authority of Jesus replaces the guidance of the, Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests (cf. Matthew 5-7). However, the idea that the Church supplants the Jews is expressed more explicitly in the gospels than might be supposed at first sight. This conclusion presupposes the position that Jesus’ harsh words on ‘this generation’ would not have been intelligible in a pre-destruction context.

The parable presupposes that the destruction of Jerusalem was the result of the killing of Jesus. As a direct consequence God slew that generation and replaced them with a new people, a new Israel.

If read allegorically, the parable presupposes that the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE came as a Divine reaction to the crucifixion of Jesus. The parable may therefore be taken as an indication that early Christians adopted and expanded on an already established idea, namely, that the fall of Jerusalem came as a Divine reaction to sin. This idea, variants of which can be found in several contexts outside the NT, has a scriptural foundation in Deuteronomy, which states that disobedience to the commandments will bring war, famine, pestilence, and exile (cf. Deut. 28.15-68). Josephus, for instance, held that the fall of Jerusalem started in 68 CE, when the high priest Ananus was killed by zealots (War 4.5.2).

If the parable alludes to the Fall of Jerusalem as a consequence of rejecting Jesus then “this generation” likewise . . . Continue reading “Why was the Gospel Narrative set around 30 CE?”


2021-01-06

What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Longtime Vridar readers may recall a post from 2013 in which I discussed an argument put forth by William Wrede regarding the priority of Mark’s gospel. Wrede noted that when Matthew took over Markan accounts, he sometimes condensed or rewrote his source, which led to oddities in the finished product. It turns out Volkmar and Wrede described this evidence of “inaptness” of the text well before Mark Goodacre discovered editorial fatigue.

Editorial Clues in the Burial Story

Vienna – Plaster statue of Burial of Jesus with the Nicodemus and Joseph from Arimathea in Michaelerkirche, Vienna.

In a similar fashion, in a post back in 2018, we considered the possibility that a grammatical error in Mark 8:27-30 might indicate a redactional seam that may hold clues to the original (hypothetical) source material. Recently, I became interested in whether such inconcinnities might be found in the narrative layer of the Fourth Gospel. Specifically, I wondered if we might find hints in the empty tomb story of editorial fatigue, which could have been caused by the intrusion of the Nicodemus legend in the burial story.

Recall that Mark’s burial story neatly pre-answers several continuity questions posed by the women-at-the-tomb story.

  1. Q: Why did the women wait until Sunday morning?
    A: Jesus died and was buried on the Day of Preparation (Mark 15:42). They rested and waited on the Sabbath.
  2. Q: Why were they bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body?
    A: Joseph of Arimathea had quickly wrapped the body and buried it in a tomb. (Mark 15:46)
  3. Q: Who’s this Joseph guy?
    A: A member of the Sanhedrin who was seeking the Kingdom of God. (Mark 15:43)
  4. Q: So Pilate just gave him the body? How did that happen?
    A: He was really brave. He demanded it, and Pilate relented. (Mark 15:43-45)
  5. Q: If the women didn’t participate in the burial, how did they know where to find the tomb?
    A: They followed Joseph and watched from a distance. (Mark 15:47)

The Stone

However, as Sunday morning rolls around, we begin to see some substantial inconsistencies in John’s account.

Mark’s attention to detail in the empty tomb story extends to the stone that blocks the tomb. As an afterthought, the women wonder how they’re going to move “the” stone that’s blocking the entrance. What stone would that be? Continue reading “What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 1)”


2021-01-05

Spit at a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?

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by Neil Godfrey

Eric Eve

Last month I posted Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark? but this morning I was reminded of an article I read and posted about some years back that surely calls for a date soon after 70 CE. That article does not address the date per se but it does raise difficulties for a date very much later than the days of Vespasian’s reign: 69-79.

The article is Spit in Your Eye: The Blind Man of Bethsaida and the Blind Man of Alexandria by Eric Eve (if a nearby library subscribes to Proquest you might be able to access it at no cost there) and my derivative post is Jesus out-spitting the emperor. I won’t repeat the details I set out there except where they overlap with a few points I will highlight here. (See that earlier post for the extracts from Suetonius and Tacitus describing Vespasian’s healing miracles.)

In short, the core of Eric Eve’s thesis is that the author of the Gospel of Mark was responding to Vespasian propaganda that promoted him as a healer and as such either possessed by or strongly favoured by the god Serapis to be the rightful ruler of the world. Vespasian, you might recall (the details are in the earlier post), is known to have “miraculously” healed a blind man through the use of spittle while he was in Egypt and preparing to return to Rome to claim the emperorship.

Since Vespasian was not from the Roman aristocracy he relied heavily on propaganda programs to justify his aspirations to replace Nero and subsequent short-lived rulers. Roman historians, especially Tacitus, inform us that

while Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria. . . many marvels occurred to mark the favour of heaven and a certain partiality of the gods toward him (Hist. IV. 81)

The god Serapis was a composite deity constructed some generations earlier by Egypt’s post-Alexander Hellenistic rulers to encourage the unification of different peoples: (you will note the similarity with other posts suggesting the reason for the creation of Jesus was likewise to encourage a certain unity of Jews and gentiles in another context …. but we leave that for another discussion)

Serapis (Liverpool Museum)

The Egyptian cult involved the worship of the sacred bull Osiris-Apis, or Osarapis, which became Sarapis in Greek translation. It may have been this god’s connections with the underworld and agricultural fertility that made him appear particularly suitable for the grafting on of Hellenistic elements. Sarapis took on the attributes of a number of Greek deities including first Dionysus and Hades, and subsequently Zeus, Helios and Asclepius [my note: Asclepius was the god of healing]. He may originally have been intended as a patron deity for the Greek citizens of Ptolemaic Alexandria, but he became particularly associated with the royal family, and thus, perhaps, with a ruler cult. Although Sarapis was probably intended to unite the Greek and Egyptian populations (of Alexandria, if not of Egypt), he failed in this purpose, since he never caught on with the native Egyptian population. He proved more popular with the Greek inhabitants, although his popularity declined towards the end of the Ptolemaic period. By the Roman period, Sarapis’s popularity seems to have been on the rise once more, and his cult had long since spread well beyond Egypt, aided, no doubt, by the fact that he was the consort of Isis; both deities had cults in Rome by the time of the late republic. That said, the major rise of the cult of Serapis was to come about through Flavian interest in the god. Vespasian arrived in Alexandria at a time when association with an aspiring emperor could benefit an aspiring god as much as the other way round; the Sarapis cult’s support for Vespasian helped both parties, and that may well have motivated the priests of Sarapis to play their part in the Flavian propaganda campaign. 

The healings carried out by Vespasian seem designed to demonstrate the close association between the new emperor and the god. Healing was one of the powers long attributed to Sarapis, and the first healing miracle to be attributed to him was restoring sight to a blind man, one Demetrius of Phaleron, an Athenian politician. . . . In some minds Vespasian’s two healings might be taken as a sign, not simply that Vespasian enjoyed Sarapis’s blessing, but that he was in some sense to be identified with the god. This is in part suggested by the ancient Egyptian myth that the kings of Egypt were sons of Re, the sun-god, and is further borne out by the fact that Vespasian was saluted as ‘son of Ammon’ as well as ‘Caesar, god’ when he visited the hippodrome only a short while later.

Presumably the main targets of this propaganda were the population of Alexandria and the two legions stationed there, whose support Vespasian clearly needed to retain. No doubt different people will have understood this cluster of events in different ways. Some may have seen Vespasian as quasi-divine, others as a divinely aided thaumaturge and others as an exceptionally lucky man smiled on by fortuna and the gods. In any case the healing miracles and their association with Sarapis seem to have been designed more for eastern than western consumption

The classicist and specialist in Suetonius, David Wardle, is more direct with the reason for Vespasian’s miracles: Continue reading “Spit at a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?”


2021-01-03

Jesus embodies all the Jewish Messiahs — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series  . . .

A Messiah to combine the different messianic visions

Nanine Charbonnel [NC] has been exploring various ways the Jesus figure of the gospels was drawn to embody certain groups of people and now proceeds to discuss the way our evangelists (gospel authors) also found ways to encapsulate the different Jewish ideas about the Messiah into him as well. I have posted many times on Second Temple messianic ideas and questioned a common view that there was “a rash of messianic hopes” in first-century Palestine. I post links to some of these posts that illustrate or expand on NC’s points.

Various Messiahs

Vridar posts on Second Temple Messiahs

Here are some tags linking to the posts. (As you can see, there is some overlap here that needs to be tidied up but this is the state of play at the moment):

Dying messiah 5 posts
Jewish Messianism 11 posts
Messiah 17 posts
Messiahs 11 posts
Messianic Judaism 2 posts
Messianism 15 posts
Second Temple messianism 41 posts

And a catch-all category

Messiahs and messianism 95 posts

NC lists different views of the messiah as listed by Armand Abécassis (En vérité je vous le dis):

  • the messiah would be a priest (said to be “the Sadducee” view — though I cannot vouch for all of these associations)
  • the messiah would be a royal heir of David (said to be “the Pharisee” view)
  • the messiah would be a scribe descended from Aaron (said to be an Essene view)
  • the messiah was related to a kind of baptist or purification movement (said to be the Boethussian view)

Among the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are found at least three different types of messiah

1. the royal messiah, the branch or offspring of David, who is accompanied by a prophetic figure who is an interpreter of the law
2. the priestly messiah, an ideal priest from the line of Aaron

In some scrolls these two messiahs appear together. They are perhaps the idealistic corrective to historical kings and priests who were considered corrupt.

3. a “Son of God” figure, “probably a unique celestial figure”, appears to be divine, without a name assigned although in other manuscripts he is given the name Melchisedech, the agent of divine judgment against evil.

André Paul (whom NC is quoting) concludes that these three messianic figures were part of Jewish thinking in the century or century and a half preceding the time of Jesus of Nazareth.

Pre-Christian Jewish thought about these three different messiahs drew upon Scriptures to flesh out what they were to accomplish. The promise Nathan made to David in 2 Samuel 7 that his throne would endure “forever”, and the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1-5 that a “branch will arise from the stump of Jesse”, and that of Isaiah 61:1 that “he will heal the wounded and revive the dead and proclaim the good news and invite the hungry to feast”, and many others, were applied to their respective messiahs.

One striking example outside the biblical texts is found in the Messianic Apocalypse of the Dead Sea Scrolls. To translate Andre Paul’s observation (quoted by NC):

We are struck by the astonishing relationship between this description of future blessings linked to the coming of the Messiah and Jesus ‘answer to John the Baptist’s question in the Gospels:’ “The blind see, the lame walk ” (Matthew 11, 5 and Luke 7, 22). […] A tradition identifiable in other writings of ancient Judaism serves as their common basis. 

The gospel authors were doing what Jewish writers before them had done. They were creating their messiah by pastiching different passages from the Scriptures. The gospels were even copying or incorporating the works of earlier exegetes as we see in the example of the Messianic Apocalypse.

It is these three types of messiah that “Christianity” will unite: Mashiach-Christos, High Priest (in particular in the Epistle to the Hebrews), and Son of Man. It has long been known that in the period of Christianity’s establishment there were struggles over the titles to be given to Jesus Christ. Can we not think that far from depending on different “legends”, the Gospels are midrashim voluntarily composed with a view to celebrating an existing messiah (existing in texts) to unite these divergent expectations? Those who call themselves the disciples of Jesus will make him at the same time the prophet, the priest and the king “thus cumulating all the functions of society and guaranteeing them” (Abécassis p. 290), aided in this by traditions already anchored in the Jewish society of the time.

(Charbonnel, 278, my translation with Google’s help)

We further have texts that have long been known to us, those we label pseudepigrapha. Among these are the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Some of these (the Testaments of Levi and Judah) speak of messianic variants: see TLevi ch2 and TJudah ch4.

NC next turns to biblical scholars questing for the historical Jesus and the significance they attach to the contexts of and emphases on different messianic allusions and sayings in the gospels — all in an effort to attempt to discern what Jesus may have thought about himself vis a vis what others (contemporaries, later generations) thought about him. But the whole exercise collapses when one approaches the gospel Jesus as a literary creation woven from the many messianic threads known to Second Temple Judaism.

From Amazon. Disclaimer: I know nothing about this CD set apart from what is stated on the Amazon site. I chose it entirely for the sake of adding a quick and easy graphic to the post and do not suggest that the contents relate to the principle theme of the post.

Both the Messiah Son of David . . . .

The view that the messiah was to be a son of David is well understood: Isaiah 9:5-6; 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 30:9; etc …; Psalms of Solomon 17:21-43) — even if the details varied somewhat in the different writings. Matthew and Luke make Jesus a genealogical descendant of David; and whereas David was anointed with oil by Samuel Jesus was anointed directly by the Holy Spirit, and so forth. 

NC takes us in for a closer look at what it means to be a “Davidic” figure.

First: the name David means Beloved. At Jesus’ baptism we are to hear a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be God’s Beloved son (Matthew 3:17). (The name given for the Jesus figure in the Ascension of Isaiah is Beloved; further, see the series on Jon Levenson’s book The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. There we learn that the “Beloved son” is virtually a technical term for an only or firstborn son who is destined for sacrifice. NC does not touch on this work, however.)

That Jesus was resurrected from the dead is another “Davidic” qualification given that a “Psalm of David” was interpreted by early Christians as a prophecy that “David” would not “be abandoned to Hades” — Acts 2:22-23.

(NC does not mention in this context other Davidic features of Jesus such as his ascent to the Mount of Olives in mourning for his life; his suffering of false and cruel persecutions by his former associates and family; his role as a meditative figure. See What might a Davidic Messiah have meant to early Christians?)

What NC does bring out, though, is the link with the nation of Israel itself being named by God as his Beloved. In the Septuagint we find Continue reading “Jesus embodies all the Jewish Messiahs — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”


2021-01-02

Jesus Created to Embody Two Peoples in One New Man — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series  . . .

The figure of Jesus Christ is first and foremost the personification of his people

Most of us have little difficulty imagining that the authors of the gospels conceptualized Jesus as a personification of the people of Israel. In Nanine Charbonnel’s words, the gospel narratives are not so much presenting Jesus and Israel as parallels but rather Jesus as a personification, an embodiment, the figure of “a new Israel” itself. Here’s a refresher of the points we all know. The character who is named “YHWH Saves” . . .

° is born through the miraculous intervention of YHWH, as the people of Israel were born from the miraculous fertility of the aged Sarah and Abraham.

° escapes the royal edict to slay all male newborns [my note: Pharaoh ordered all male infants slain in order to keep Israel in subjection to Egypt]

° is called from Egypt as were the people of Israel,

° is baptized, recollecting Israel’s passage through the Red Sea,

° After his baptism he spends forty days in the wilderness as Israel spent forty years in the wilderness,

° he is a target for trials or tests [not “temptations” — I have changed NC’s term] as Israel succumbed to tests in the wilderness

° he explicitly quotes in each of his three responses to these tests verses from Deuteronomy that had been addressed to the people in the wilderness,

° he takes twelve disciples as Israel has twelve tribes, etc.

NC’s list is fine as an overview but leaves questions hanging when one realizes that it is true only of the Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. As we have seen, Jesus in the wilderness in the Gospel of Mark more likely represents the new Adam, not Israel. In this context it is of interest to note that the Gospel of Mark, unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, portrays Jesus as reaching out to gentiles as well as Jews to bring them together “in him” (see the post on the “sea voyages” of Jesus, The Story of Mark, History or Theology?) — so an opening presentation of Jesus as a New Adam is fitting. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke change Mark’s plot so that the gentiles are to be evangelized after the resurrection of Jesus.

So I think Mark’s variation supports NC’s view of Jesus being a literary creation to function as the theological interests of the authors decided. Matthew and Luke created a Jesus who personified the people of Israel. But we will see in the next section that Paul’s concept was closer to Mark’s.

Throughout this series of posts we have referred to NC’s repeated point that the Hebrew Bible so easily portrays entire peoples as individual characters (e.g. the “two nations” in Rebecca’s womb, Jacob and Esau). NC cites David Strauss’s words that neatly encapsulate this sort of personification in Hosea where we read Matthew’s inspiration for how he created his Jesus: the people of Israel are, collectively, the son (singular) of God.

While Herod awaits the return of the magi, Joseph is admonished by an angelic apparition in a dream to flee with the Messianic child and its mother into Egypt for security (v. 13-15). Adopting the evangelist’s point of view, this is not attended with any difficulty ; it is otherwise, however, with the prophecy which the above event is said to fulfil, Hosea xi. 1. In this passage the prophet, speaking in the name of Jehovah, says : When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. We may venture to attribute, even to the most orthodox expositor, enough clear-sightedness to perceive that the subject of the first half of the sentence is also the object of the second, namely the people of Israel, who here, as elsewhere, (e.g. Exod. iv. 22, Sirach xxxvi. 14), are collectively called the Son of God, and whose past deliverance under Moses out of their Egyptian bondage is the fact referred to : that consequently, the prophet was not contemplating either the Messiah or his sojourn in Egypt. Nevertheless, as our evangelist says, v. r5, that the flight of Jesus into Egypt took place expressly that the above words of Hosea might be fulfilled . . .

(Strauss Part 1, Chapter IV §34 – p.167)

Jesus, as the “new Israel”, resists temptations, overcomes trials, unlike the old. NC emphasizes that Jesus does not personify the Christian church but the people of Israel. To half paraphrase and half translate the words of Jean Radermakers whom NC quotes:

What was said about Israel is in the gospels said about Jesus because he is both a son of Israel and one who takes on the totality of the nation in order to bring it to its destined fulfilment. Thus he is the Son called from Egypt (Matt 2:5 = Hos 11:1), the Beloved Son, the one who is the object of divine indulgence (Matt 3:17; 17:5 = Gen 22:2; Ps 2:2; Isa 42:1), and after crossing the Jordan he walks through the Promised Land to Jerusalem. In Matthew Jesus appears in Galilee, noted as being “Galilee of the Nations” (Matt 4:5). In Jesus, therefore, Israel fulfils its calling to be a “people for the nations” according to the promise made to Abraham: In you will all the nations of the earth be blessed (Gen 12:3; cf Jer 4:2; Sirach 44:21). In this same way he also fulfils the universal message of the prophets (Matt 4:15-16 = Isa 8:12; 11:5 = Isa. 35:5-6; 61:1), as we read “in his name the Nations will place their hope” (Matt 12:2 = Isa 42:4) (Approximates the words of Jean Radermakers)

In future posts we will see how NC develops the point that Jesus, as the people of Israel, will further be presented as God. If the Jews are understood to be the bearers of the divine presence in their midst we can more easily understand how Jesus, as the embodiment of Israel, can simultaneously be depicted as God. Above we saw that what was said of Israel was said of Jesus; so also what is said of God is likewise said of Jesus. Again, to borrow from Radermakers (p 371):

    • he speaks with authority (Matt 7:28),
    • he commands the sea (Matt 8:26-27)
    • and forgives sins. (Matt 9,:1-8),
    • he summons his people (Matt 16:19)
    • and feeds them in the desert (Matt 14,:15-24 and 15:32-39),
    • he remains in the midst of his own as the very presence of God (Matt 18.20; 28.20; cf 1:1-23) in whom the history of his people converges and is fulfilled.

To expand on NC’s discussion, it is commonplace among biblical scholars to think of the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as the “more human” than in the other gospels. They point to episodes where he appears to lose his temper and needs to heal a person in two stages. Yet there are interpreters who have argued that this “very human” Jesus in Mark is misguided. But there is nothing “human” about one who commands the storm (Mark 4:39 = Ps 107:29; 148:8) and walks on water (Mark 6:48-49 = Job 9:8;  Sirach 24:5-6). We have covered in depth how a number of scholars have shown that the supposedly human emotions of Jesus were deemed in ancient times to be divine and/or the noblest of feelings:

Returning to NC: What we see the evangelists doing, and most directly in Matthew, is quoting passages in the Old Testament that refer to the people of Israel and bringing those passages to fulfilment in the person of Jesus, whose name means “YHWH saves”, and who is the personification of those people. The gospel works to bring to pass in the individual “YHWH Saves” what the Scriptures said about the sons of Israel.

Two People in One New Man Continue reading “Jesus Created to Embody Two Peoples in One New Man — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”


2020-12-31

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 4)

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by Tim Widowfield

A Short Excursus on Descensus

In previous posts, we looked at dying-and-rising gods as a category, specifically as a Weberian ideal type, which could help us compare Christianity to other religions in late antiquity. Jonathan Z. Smith (among many others) found the category misleading and lacking any firm foundation. Robert M. Price took Smith to task, accusing him of not understanding ideal types.

Sir James George Frazer (image from Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most rigorous refutation of Smith’s conclusions (which, incidentally, have become more or less the consensus among scholars of comparative religion) came from Tryggve N. D. Mettinger (see: The Riddle of Resurrection, 2001). However, even Mettinger admits one can hardly defend Frazer’s original conception. After all, Frazer’s “central idea,” as stated in the preface to the first edition of The Golden Bough was that of a “slain god” — which would seem to leave out those gods who voluntarily move to the underworld for alternate periods.

Moreover, despite Price’s apoplectic protests over Smith’s supposed “throwing out the box” just because many dying-and-rising gods don’t fit exactly, Smith has an important point. We should consider it reasonable to expect that members of the category would include (1) gods who (2) die and (3) return to life. Mettinger has his own core characteristics, in which the definition of “dying” includes not just murder, execution, accidental death, etc., but any descensus into the realm of the dead. He writes:

The minimum requisites for me to speak of such a dying and rising deity are:

(a) that in the specific cult the figure in question is a real god, whatever his previous history, and
(b) that he is conceived of as dying (his death represented as a descensus to the Netherworld or in some other way) and reappearing as alive after the experience of death.

Two other points are also worthy of particular attention, but do not hold the status of criteria, namely,

(c) whether the fate of the deity is somehow related to the seasonal cycle, and,
(d) whether there is a ritual celebration of the fate of the deity in question. [Mettinger 2001, p. 42, bold emphasis mine]

Mettinger, in case you were wondering, does view this category as an ideal type.

When in the following I use the term “dying and rising god(s)”, I use it in the Weberian sense referring to an ideal type (ldealtypus): the terminology does not per se presuppose genetic relations. We must always remember that the various deities belong to different religious contexts. It is no longer necessary to restate the profound differences between the symbolic universes of the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the peoples of the West Semitic realm. Meaning is always contextual. Structural analogies may, however, occur, and these may be of the kind to indicate that we are, in specific cases, confronted with the results of contact and influence. [Mettinger 2001, p. 41]

The King of the Dead

Regarding Mettinger’s minimum requirements, I would argue that his second criterion should actually contain separate, albeit related, subcriteria — namely, these three actions: (1) dying, (2) sojourning in the realm of the dead, and (3) rising to the realm of the living. With these in mind, I find it difficult to regard Osiris as fitting the criteria, since he remained in the underworld. He isn’t visiting; he has taken up permanent residence. He isn’t merely dead; he has become the Lord of the Underworld and the Judge of the Dead. In fact, Osiris forms the pattern for dying Egyptian pharaohs, who will “live” in the world of the dead. Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 4)”


2020-12-30

Rewritings and Composite Contradictions: the Way of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation

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by Neil Godfrey

There can be little doubt that many of the gospel stories are derived from the Jewish Scriptures: Jesus in the wilderness reworks the nation Israel’s and the prophet Elijah’s sojourn there; Jesus feeding the multitudes and raising the dead are surely inspired by comparable miracles by Elijah and Elisha and many more. What I find particularly interesting about this process is that the Jewish Scriptures themselves invite, or even entice, readers to undertake that very kind of rewriting we find in the gospels.

Embedded in the narratives of the books from Genesis to 2 Kings are two types of repetition:

  • composite stories where two different accounts of the same event are placed side by side
  • reiterations of common events and motifs in new contexts inviting readers to reflect on and compare quite different narratives

Composites

Look at opening chapters of Genesis and the creation of Adam. There are actually two stories of Adam’s creation in the first two chapters and each one is different. In the first Adam and Eve are evidently created equal. In the second Eve is an afterthought who was contemplated only after God finally realized that he absentmindedly overlooked giving Adam the same sort of sexual partner he had provided for other animals. Here is Robert Alter’s interpretation of what is going on here:

Just such a technique of placing two parallel accounts in dynamically complementary sequence is splendidly evident at the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible. There are, of course, two different creation stories. The first, generally attributed to P, begins with Genesis 1:1 and concludes with the report of the primeval sabbath (Gen. 2:1–3), probably followed, as most scholars now think, by a formal summary in the first half of Genesis 2:4: “This is the tale of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” The second version of the creation story, taken from the J Document, would then begin with the subordinate clause in the second half of Genesis 2:4, “When the LORD God made earth and heaven … ,” going on to the creation of man, the vegetable world, the animal kingdom, and woman, in that order, . . . . 

The decision to place in sequence two ostensibly contradictory accounts of the same event is an approximate narrative equivalent to the technique of post-Cubist painting that gives us, for example, juxtaposed or superimposed, a profile and a frontal perspective of the same face. The ordinary eye could never see these two at once, but it is the painter’s prerogative to represent them as a simultaneous perception within the visual frame of his painting, whether merely to explore the formal relations between the two views or to provide an encompassing representation of his subject. Analogously, the Hebrew writer takes advantage of the composite nature of his art to give us a tension of views that will govern most of the biblical stories—first, woman as man’s equal sharer in dominion, standing exactly in the same relation to God as he; then, woman as man’s subservient helpmate, whose weakness and blandishments will bring such woe into the world.

A similar encompassing of divergent perspectives is achieved through the combined versions in the broader vision of creation, man, and God. God is both transcendent and immanent (to invoke a much later theological opposition), both magisterial in His omnipotence and actively, empathically involved with His creation. The world is orderly, coherent, beautifully patterned, and at the same time it is a shifting tangle of resources and topography, both a mainstay and a baffling challenge to man. Humankind is the divinely appointed master of creation and an internally divided rebel against the divine scheme, destined to scrabble a painful living from the soil that has been blighted because of man.”

Similarly with the rise of David. Again, two incompatible stories about his rise to power are told side by side. Whoever combined the stories was not interested in making them look like a seamless whole but left the inconsistencies for all to see and no doubt talk about.

The effectiveness of composite narrative as a purposeful technique is even more vividly evident when the primary aim is the presentation of character. The most elaborate biblical instance is the introduction of David, which, as has been often noted, occurs in two consecutive and seemingly contradictory versions (1 Samuel 16 and 17). In the first account, the prophet Samuel is sent to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as successor to Saul, whose violation of divine injunction has just disqualified him for the kingship that was conferred on him. . . . Following the anointment, David is called to Saul’s court to soothe the king’s mad fits by playing the lyre, and he assumes the official position of armor-bearer to Saul. In the second account, David is still back on the farm while his older brothers (here three in number rather than seven) are serving in Saul’s army against the Philistines. There is no mention here of any previous ceremony of anointing, no allusion to David’s musical abilities or to a position as royal armor-bearer (indeed, a good deal is made of his total unfamiliarity with armor). In this version David, having arrived on the battlefield with provisions for his brothers, makes his debut by slaying the Philistine champion, Goliath, and he is so unfamiliar a face to both Saul and Abner, Saul’s commander-in-chief, that, at the end of the chapter, they both confess they have no idea who he is or what family he comes from, and he has to identify himself to Saul. . . . 

Both stories, though drawn from disparate sources, are necessary, however, in order to produce a binocular vision of David. In this case, the inference of a deliberate decision to use two versions seems especially compelling, for the redactor of the David story, unlike the redactor of Genesis, is not working with traditions sanctified by several centuries of national experience. One may infer that he had greater freedom as to what he “had” to include than did his counterpart in Genesis, and therefore that if he chose to combine two versions of David’s debut, one theological in cast and the other folkloric, it was because both were necessary to his conception of David’s character and historical role. Much the same point has been made by Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis in an intelligent essay on the larger David story: “But surely whoever put the narrative into this final form was aware of the inconsistency too; such inconsistency in close proximity in a narrative is more than an author’s nodding; it is the equivalent of deep sleep.” . . . . .

[T]he joining of the two accounts leaves us swaying in the dynamic interplay between two theologies, two conceptions of kingship and history, two views of David the man. In one, the king is imagined as God’s instrument, elected through God’s own initiative, manifesting his authority by commanding the realm of spirits good and evil, a figure who brings healing and inspires love. In the other account, the king’s election is, one might say, ratified rather than initiated by God; instead of the spirit descending, we have a young man ascending through his own resourcefulness, cool courage, and quick reflexes, and also through his rhetorical skill. All this will lead not directly to the throne but, as things usually happen in the mixed medium of history, to a captaincy; further military successes, a devoted following; the provocation of jealousy in the king, which brings about his banishment; a career of daring action, subterfuge, hardship, and danger; a bloody civil war; and only then the throne. Without both these versions of David’s beginnings and his claim to legitimacy as monarch, the Hebrew writer would have conveyed less than what he conceived to be the full truth about his subject. . . . 

Embracing complexity and contradictions
The fundamentalist view of the Bible that “there are no contradictions in God’s word” would seem to turn the Bible into a collection contrary to the purpose of its authors. One can imagine the discussions, the debates, in which authors and many readers must have once engaged.

Other Vridar posts exploring this same question of contradictory narratives in the Bible:

Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve (this post focuses on comparisons and contrasts with the methods of the Greek historian Herodotus)

Comparing the Rome and Israel Foundation Stories, Aeneas and Abraham

Another but with a less direct approach:

From Babylonia to Moses and Enoch to Paul: Questions

In regard to larger blocks of narrative material, the characteristic biblical method for incorporating multiple perspectives appears to have been not a fusion of views in a single utterance but a montage of viewpoints arranged in sequence. Such a formula, of course, cannot smooth away all the perplexities of scribal and editorial work with which the biblical text confronts us; but we are well advised to keep in mind as readers that these ancient writers (and their redactors), like later ones, wanted to fashion a literary form that might embrace the abiding complexity of their subjects. The monotheistic revolution of biblical Israel was a continuing and disquieting one. It left little margin for neat and confident views about God, the created world, history, and man as political animal or moral agent, for it repeatedly had to make sense of the intersection of incompatibles—the relative and the absolute, human imperfection and divine perfection, the brawling chaos of historical experience and God’s promise to fulfill a design in history. The biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things, and it is toward the expression of such a sense of moral and historical reality that the composite artistry of the Bible is directed.

Excerpts from: Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981. pp. 141-153

Reiterations: “all reflecting a single transcendent reality throughout the Bible’s narrative”

Then there is the other type of repetition: the reverberations of the same motifs, images, actions in different contexts and with augmented meanings. Here I will cite Thomas L. Thompson and his thoughts in The Mythic Past. Continue reading “Rewritings and Composite Contradictions: the Way of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation”


2020-12-26

How Collective Messianic Figures Mutated into Jesus — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

Nanine Charbonnel casts a net back to catch an interesting observation by the nineteenth-century French Jewish scholar Joseph Salvador who wrote that since early Christian writings were in the tradition of Jewish writings they had to be interpreted in the same way as Jewish writings. That sounds mundane enough, but he went on to point out that Jewish literary figures like Adam, Israel, Esau clearly were constructed as personifications of humanity (Adam) and the peoples of Israel and Edom. The same for Abraham, Ishmael, Judah, Joseph, and so forth. (Their very names advertised that they were representations of collectives of people.) In the same way, Jesus was delineated to represent all of humanity, both “Jews and gentiles”. Jewish literary tradition was partial to the idea of a people rising up in vindicated glory after having suffered unjustly and cruelly at the hands of others. Indeed, who would not find such a myth appealing? From this perspective Jesus was read as a figure whom all peoples, in particular anyone or any collective who deeply felt a sense of unjust victimhood, could aspire to relate. The Jesus figure was likewise created as a representative figure, one whom all peoples could relate to in some significant way.

Yet the literary artifice has led generations of readers to think of all of these characters as individual (and historical) persons. Such is the nature and power of their stories.

The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53

We see a very early debate over this same principle in Origen’s third-century writings against the Jewish critic of Christianity, Celsus. Celsus, Origen complains, does indeed claim just what Joseph Salvador wrote, that the Jewish writings cleverly wrote of whole nations through a literary individual. NC quotes the entire chapter 55 of Book 1 of Contra Celsum:

Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies; to which my Jewish opponent replied, that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations. And in this way he explained the words, Your form shall be of no reputation among men; and then, They to whom no message was sent respecting him shall see; and the expression, A man under suffering. Many arguments were employed on that occasion during the discussion to prove that these predictions regarding one particular person were not rightly applied by them to the whole nation. And I asked to what character the expression would be appropriate, This man bears our sins, and suffers pain on our behalf; and this, But He was wounded for our sins, and bruised for our iniquities; and to whom the expression properly belonged, By His stripes were we healed. For it is manifest that it is they who had been sinners, and had been healed by the Saviour’s sufferings (whether belonging to the Jewish nation or converts from the Gentiles), who use such language in the writings of the prophet who foresaw these events, and who, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, applied these words to a person. But we seemed to press them hardest with the expression, Because of the iniquities of My people was He led away unto death. For if the people, according to them, are the subject of the prophecy, how is the man said to be led away to death because of the iniquities of the people of God, unless he be a different person from that people of God? And who is this person save Jesus Christ, by whose stripes they who believe in Him are healed, when He had spoiled the principalities and powers (that were over us), and had made a show of them openly on His cross? At another time we may explain the several parts of the prophecy, leaving none of them unexamined. But these matters have been treated at greater length, necessarily as I think, on account of the language of the Jew, as quoted in the work of Celsus.

To which NC replies (translated):

Fascinating discussion, which only forgets that, if “there is no reason to apply to the whole people these prophecies which target a single individual”, it is because we ignore the full range of the text, of the speech, of the make-as-if rhetoric, not to mention the grammatical vagueness of the Hebrew language, which allows one to pass from the plural to the singular as it pleases as soon as one intends to refer to the collective. What may seem like a strong objection (how can the personification of the people be brought to death by the iniquities of the people?) is that the midrash mentality is not appreciated: without concern for contradiction, personifications can be those of different applications and aspects in the people.

We have an example in the Garden of Eden where God tells Adam (singular) that he can eat fruit from every tree in the garden but then switches to a plural form when issuing the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Daniel Boyarin

The flux between singular and collective and back again has been part of the interpretative apparatus of Jewish exegetes from the earliest days. With respect to the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 NC cites two scholars whose names are known to many of us, Daniel Boyarin and Charles Dodd.

Boyarin on Isaiah 53:

It has been generally assumed by modern folks that Jews have always given the passage a metaphorical reading, understanding the suffering servant to refer to the People of Israel, and that it was the Christians who changed and distorted its meaning to make it refer to Jesus. Quite to the contrary, we now know that many Jewish authorities, maybe even most, until nearly the modern period have read Isaiah 53 as being about the Messiah; until the last few centuries, the allegorical reading was a minority position. (152)

Dodd on the same and with an added note on the same singular-plural confusion with the Son of Man figure in Daniel:

Charles Harold Dodd

In the New Testament there is only one place where the Servant is unambiguously identified with Israel, Lk. i. 54. Elsewhere, even passages in which the original distinctly equates the Servant with Israel are directly applied to Christ (e.g. xlix. 3). Yet there are evidences that the corporate, or representative, character of the Servant-figure is not entirely out of view. Thus xliv. 1-2, which most emphatically declares Israel to be the Servant, is echoed in passages of the New Testament where his attributes, “the beloved,” “the chosen” are given to Christ; yet the promise of water to the thirsty (verse 3) is confirmed not to Christ but to His people, as the Spirit, even in the original, is promised to the “seed” of the Servant, and as in xliii. 1-5, xliv. 21-24 the assurances “I have redeemed thee,” and “I am with thee,” are made to Israel, the Servant, and fulfilled to the Church.

There is a certain parallelism here with the treatment of the “Son of Man” figure, which is in Daniel vii declared to be a personification of “the people of the saints of the Most High,” but in the New Testament is applied as a title of Christ, yet frequently in contexts where the collective or corporate aspects of the figure are clearly in view. We shall be confronted with similar phenomena in our next group of scriptures, taken from the Psalter. (96)

NC does not continue with Dodd’s discussion of this phenomenon in the Psalms (she is discussing the Isaiah 53 verse, after all) but I will quote two sentences. On Psalm 69, a psalm quoted by Paul and all four evangelists, Dodd writes, Continue reading “How Collective Messianic Figures Mutated into Jesus — continuing Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”


2020-12-25

Once more — Paul’s Letter a Rewritten Scripture?

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by Neil Godfrey

Modern epiphany procession: St Josephs, Singapore, Good Friday 2009

This one is my own “find” (if it is indeed a real find; that’s up to you to decide). I begin with Paul’s reference to the veil of Moses. That’s the easy part. What we are looking for, however, is not scattered references to “Old Testament” passages but indications of lengthy passages that have been rewritten for a “New Covenant” context.

So we begin with Moses veil and Paul’s comparison of that with the blindness of the unsaved as well as the complementary comparison of both Moses and Christians taking on the glory of God.

What precedes Paul’s points about being changed into a glorious image is

  • Paul’s refusal to visit the Corinthians and instead sending them a letter that made them grieve
  • An appeal for mercy to the wrongdoer
  • The image of the church as a procession of a divine epiphany that promised life and death [many translators have described a prisoner in a Roman triumphal procession but we will see that that image is incomplete and misleading]
  • Comparison of letter and spirit: letter kills.
God passes before Moses, Mount Sinai, circa Pentecost, 1400 BC

What precedes Moses having a shining face is

  • God’s refusal to go with his people and their remorse
  • Moses appeals to God for mercy for the wrongdoers
  • God showing himself to Moses and making promises of both mercy and death
  • The ten commandments repeated: the cause of the death of 3000

What follows Paul’s point about being transformed into God’s glory is a discussion of

  • our earthly tabernacle and how we long to have it changed into a heavenly tabernacle, with tabernacle being a metaphor for body, of course.

What follows the description of Moses face shining with divine glory is

  • the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness.

That is:

2 Corinthians 2-5 Exodus 32-40
Paul’s refusal to visit the Corinthians and instead sending them a letter that made them grieve God’s refusal to go with his people and their remorse
An appeal for mercy to the wrongdoer Moses appeals to God for mercy for the wrongdoers
The image of the church as a procession of a divine epiphany that promised life and death God showing himself to Moses and making promises of both mercy and death
Not administering the letter which kills, spirit gives life Ten commandments engraved in stone by Moses
Christians transformed into glorious image of Christ Moses face transformed by and into God’s glory
Our earthly tabernacle and how we long to have it changed into a heavenly tabernacle The construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness

.

The details where the devils are. . . Continue reading “Once more — Paul’s Letter a Rewritten Scripture?”


2020-12-23

Paul’s Letters as Re-written Scripture

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by Neil Godfrey

Recall that a case can be made that the epistle to the Galatians, for all of the “raw emotion” that we read there where Paul accuses his readers of stupidity and orders them to stop and think whether they received Christ by faith or by works of the law, was not at all written in white heat by an indignant apostle but by a calm and methodical author who was imitating a passage in the book of Jeremiah. See

Well, a funny thing happened to me the other day as I was strolling through Jstor articles made available through the State Library of Queensland: I found another article making the same point, only this time in relation to 1 Corinthians 5-6. The author is Sean M. McDonough, professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Massachusetts. The article is “Competent to Judge: The Old Testament Connection Between 1 Corinthians 5 and 6” and was published in The Journal of Theological Studies in 2005.

Before setting out McDonough’s main points I should protect his integrity and warn you that his conclusion is very different from mine. McDonough thinks Paul was so immersed in meditations on the Old Testament writings that he shaped his way of addressing a contingent administrative issue with the Corinthian church by mentally structuring his message as a mirror of a passage in Deuteronomy.

Here is what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5-6. I think you’ll agree that it certainly looks like a genuine instruction from an offended apostle addressed to a very specific church:

5.1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! 2 And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

6.1 Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

9 I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.

12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” [as per many Bible’s with marginal notes Paul is here quoting Deuteronomy 17:7]

Paul concludes by quoting the “cast out” passage (he uses a form of the same word found in the Septuagint) that we find in Deuteronomy’s instruction on how to respond to “abominations” in Israel’s midst — “which is clearly parallel to Paul’s discussion of removing from the church the man living with his mother-in-law.” The passage in Deuteronomy 17 has God telling his people how to respond to “abominations” in their midst.

McDonough acknowledges in an interesting footnote that the larger passage’s similarity to Deuteronomy 17 is not immediately noticeable:

The relevance of Deut. 17:1-6 is obscured in most treatments of I Corinthians 5, probably due to the fact that commentators feel its contents are adequately summarized in 17:7. My thanks to Professor Morna Hooker for emphasizing its significance here. Brian Rosner does note the significance of Deut. 17:2, 3 in his treatment of 1 Corinthians 5; see Rosner, Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), pp. 65, 69.

Sean McDonough was struck by something when he re-read Deuteronomy following the passage Paul cites (“cast out – exarate, ἐξάρατε -the evil person”), Deuteronomy 17:8 Continue reading “Paul’s Letters as Re-written Scripture”


2020-12-22

Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (2) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

One more instance of Jesus being a re-construction of the great heroes of the Old Testament that Nanine Charbonnel offers us an antitype of Joshua. There’s a catch this time, though. I think the attempt unnecessarily goes too far. At least there is no explanation to justify the claim that the narrative structure of the gospels follows that found in the Book of Joshua. Yes, Jesus begins his ministry like Joshua coming through the Jordan; yes, Jesus does offer a rest as Joshua brought Israel to the promised land; yes, a Lazarus does die in John’s gospel as Eleazar dies in the Book of Joshua. . . but these details do not make a narrative structure. To compare the delivering of the beatitudes (blessings and curses) in the Sermon on the Mount one must strain to match that up with Joshua’s pronouncements of blessings and curses on Mounts Ebal and Gerizim. And to call upon the possibility of a Hebrew text behind Mark’s account of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law to note a series of puns related to Joshua’s sun standing still won’t persuade many readers. I can understand why this possibility was mentioned, however, since a primary theme of her thesis is that the gospels were created as Jewish midrash.

If we are looking for a structure that is common to at least the three synoptic gospels we do much better to look at Thomas Brodie’s and Adam Winn’s discussions of the Elijah-Elisha cycle.

More to the point for a comparison with the good shepherd Jesus is NC’s notice of Joshua’s appointment as a shepherd of his people. Thus Numbers 27:15-18

15 Then Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: 16 “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, 17 who may go out before them and go in before them, who may lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep which have no shepherd.”

18 And the Lord said to Moses: “Take Joshua the son of Nun with you, a man in whom is the Spirit . . . 

In keeping with the midrashic composition theme NC draws attention to Joshua being one to “go out” (ἐξελεύσεται in the LXX) before his people and to Matthew’s taking up the same verb (ἐξελθὼν) in 13:1

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake

But here the force of NC’s argument is lost when she says that Matthew is symbolically speaking of the end of time when the message goes to the gentiles. The only way I can see that her argument here can be salvaged is is the sea is the signifier of far-off peoples, of gentiles, as it certainly appears to be in the Gospel of Mark (Kelber’s Mark’s Story of Jesu.- link is to online copy of the book.) NC further extends the “going out” or “exodus” motif to the Gospel of John where Jesus can be said to leave his heavenly body and home to go to his physical people in a physical body.

Another possible bond between Joshua and Jesus is that Jesus professes to keep the least “jot” (yod) of the law while Joshua was faithful in transmitting the law of Moses. (There is more to discuss about the name of the saviour that is promised in a future chapter.)

Other Old Testament types can be found where Jesus is seen to transform them into “fulfilments” of higher ideals as the written words of Yahweh were believed to create fulfilments. But the most explicit figure that Jesus is made to embrace is that of the Messiah.

We’ll try to cover how Jesus embodies the Messianic figure in the next post in this series.


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


 


2020-12-20

The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts

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

by Neil Godfrey

Here’s another contribution to our quest for the origins of John the Baptist as found in the synoptic gospels. Recent discussions have centred on the account found in Josephus — see

We have also seen Dennis MacDonald’s suggestion of a Homeric influence in the death of John the Baptist and in his wilderness setting.

So now it’s time to see how other texts, in particular the biblical narratives about Esther and Jezebel, shaped the Gospel accounts.

But first let me interrupt myself with this note: The idea of John the Baptist as an Elijah figure who has to come before the Messiah is not a staple of early Christian beliefs. The Gospels of Luke and John do not present John the Baptist as another Elijah. Rather, they both strongly indicate that they want readers to think of Jesus himself as the newly arrived Elijah. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist is made to explicitly declare he is not the Elijah to come. In that gospel Jesus himself has been interpreted as an Elijah figure, that is, both as the Elijah at his first coming and the conquering messiah when he comes in glory (even if that means from the time of his crucifixion and resurrection). I suspect that this Elijah motif being applied to Jesus in the fourth gospel is the reason the author moved the cleansing of the temple scene to the beginning of his ministry — to make more sense of the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would come suddenly to the temple. For a detailed discussion of the Gospel of Luke’s Jesus as Elijah see Jesus the New Elijah.

So the Gospels of Mark and Matthew stand alone in the canon with their interpretation of John the Baptist as Elijah.

Gustave Moreau, L’apparition 1876

The Influence of the Book of Esther

The daughter of Herodias pleased (ἤρεσεν) Herod and he said,

Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you, up to half of my kingdom! (Mk 6:23)

Here is a widely acknowledged loan from Esther where the Persian king Ahasuerus promises Esther three times. In Esther 2:9 (LXX) we read that “the young girl pleased (ἤρεσεν)” the king who responded:

Then said the king unto her, What wilt thou, queen Esther? and what is thy request? it shall be even given thee to the half of the kingdom. (Esther 5:3; 5:6; 7:2)

Even the head on a platter is found in later versions of Esther:

It is interesting, moreover, that the late Esther Rabbah, perhaps reflecting earlier traditions, describes the head of the former queen being brought in to the king on a platter (4.9, 11) and is thus parallel to the gory conclusion of our story.

From the sefaria.org site:

“If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you (Esther 1:19)”: He said to him: “My lord king, you bring forth the word from your mouth and I will gather her head on a plate“. . . .

“The proposal was approved by the king and the ministers (Esther 1:21)”: He decreed and he brought her head on a plate. (Esther Rabbah 4:9, 11)

At this point we should ask why the evangelist calls Herod Antipas a king even though historically he was not a king but a tetrarch, “a ruler of a fourth part” of the divided kingdom of Herod the Great.

The title “ king” is technically inaccurate …, but its repeated usage here is probably not just a Markan mistake. It is, rather, an example of the evangelist’s irony, for it is prominent in a passage in which Herod is outwitted and manipulated by two women and hamstrung by his own oath and his fear of losing face before his courtiers (cf. J. Anderson, “Dancing Daughter,” 127). Throughout the passage, moreover, we see that this supposed “king” is not even in control of himself, much less of his subjects; he is, rather, overmastered by his emotions, which swing wildly from superstitious dread (6:14, 16) to awe, fascination, and confusion (6:20), to a sexual arousal that seems to border on insanity (6:22-23), to extreme depression (6:26). In this context his pretensions to royal authority (6:16, 27) appear almost farcical; Herod is one who merely appears to rule (cf. 10:42), whereas actually his strings are pulled by others. This ironic portrait of “King” Herod is Mark’s version of a common antityrannical theme, the germ of which is present in the Old Testament (e.g. Pharaoh, Ahasuerus in Esther, the king in Daniel) but that is more explicitly developed in the Greco-Roman sphere from Plato to the Cynics and Stoics: the tyrant is not a true king but a slave to his own passions (Plato Republic 9.573b-580a, 587b-e), and his claim to sovereignty is belied by his inability ׳ to enforce his will and avoid what he hates (Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus 1.19.2-3; cf. 1.24.15-18 and Schlier, “Eleutheros,” 493). (Marcus, 398 f. My bolded highlighting in all quotations)

(Incidentally, I think the same argument applies to Pilate in the mock “trial of Jesus”. The author is not attempting to exonerate Rome at the expense of the Jews but is deploring the failures of both, making an utter mockery of Roman power. See also: Mark’s and Matthew’s Sub Rosa Message in the Scene of Pilate and the Crowd by Andrew Simmons; or at https://www.jstor.org/stable/23488265)

So Herod and Ahasuerus match each other.

Yet doubts must arise. How can a tale so totally unlike the one we read in the Gospel of Mark come to the author’s mind as source material? How can the virtuous Esther possibly be used for an account of the seductive dancer?

Maurice Mergui offers an answer to that question in Comprendre Les Origines Du Christianisme: De L’eschatologie Juive Au Midrash Chrétien.

A Jezebel-Esther syzygy Continue reading “The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts”