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.


The Crucifixion as a Victorious Elevation (Charbonnel continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

Crown of Thorns

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

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

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

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

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

The magnificent purple cloak

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

Behold the man

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

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

2. The Cross: between language and object

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


Personification, redemption and substitution (Charbonnel continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

John 11:47-52

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

continuing the series of

Eucharist: Body and Blood of the People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Variations on the Passover liturgy and meal

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

From Jewish Boston

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

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

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

Robert Eisler

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

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

David Daube

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

(pp 90-91)

Ah, the gentle ethereal world of scholarly exchanges.

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

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

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

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

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

Personification makes sense of it all

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


New Bruno Bauer Translation Page

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by Neil Godfrey

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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

2 Corinthians 11:

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

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

First, a brief word in defence of its authenticity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did they say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Climactic Advent of the Messiah (Charbonnel contd)

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by Neil Godfrey

Nanine Charbonnel’s next chapter addresses the Jewish origin of the Passion of Jesus, or the climax of the gospel narrative: “sacrifice and the glory of the cross”. Here much material I have covered in other posts is discussed so this will be a quicker write up for me than the previous three posts.

The coming of the messiah was understood to be the sign that evil had reached its climax and with the messiah’s arrival the world was to begin being turned back to righteousness.

End-time geography

NC speaks of the gospel setting of the “eschatological geography”: Bethlehem is necessary as the birthplace of the messiah according to the prophet, and it was from there that the first David was anointed, but Jerusalem, the “city of peace”, was the prophesied focus of the final battle. The reference to “beyond the Jordan” at the opening scene brings to mind the deliverer named Joshua/Jesus, the one to whom YHWH says, “Moses my servant is dead, it is up to you to cross the Jordan and bring the people into the Promised Land.” Twelve men were chosen to open the way and the moment was memorialized by twelve stones (Joshua 1:2; 3:12; 4:3)

Subsequently in the narrative we find Jesus crossing the lake or “sea” of Galilee which has been understood to represent Jesus taking his salvation to the gentiles and bringing Jew and gentile into a unity. (Cf an earlier post, The story of Jesus: History or Theology?). Galilee itself has significance as an end-time setting being the place of prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-2, as made explicit in Mathew 4:13-16.

End-time Elijah and miracles

Other signs of the end-time setting of the gospels: John the Baptist is depicted as the new Elijah prophesied to appear at the end times. The miracles of Jesus themselves are the signs of the new age e.g. Isaiah 35, in addition to repeating the miracles of Moses, Elijah, Elisha. Certainly it is evident to readers of Isaiah 35 that we are reading metaphors of spiritual revival but it is also not difficult to see many of the miracles in the gospels being symbolic of conversions of the gentiles, spiritual awakening and salvation, and so forth. Even more mundane events such as the controversy over the plucking of wheat on the sabbath cease to pose any historical problems when we read them as metaphors (e.g. the removal of legalistic boundaries to the partaking of the bread or law/word of God.) Several of the miracles point to the healing or salvation of gentiles (e.g. the leper, the child or servant, the centurion).

The Lord’s Prayer is another eschatological passage. The sanctification of the name of God is an end-time event (Isaiah 30:27; 59:19) and the request for daily bread speaks of the time when the new manna, the spiritual law of God, will be delivered daily. The Kingdom to come has begun to arrive already with the advent of Jesus.

End-time entry into Jerusalem

Continue reading “Climactic Advent of the Messiah (Charbonnel contd)”


Only One Explanation: Paul Believed in a Divine Christ “Before Jesus”

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by Neil Godfrey

There remains only one explanation: Paul believed in such a celestial being, in a divine Christ, before he believed in Jesus. Paul, by William Wrede

I found this little book of particular interest not because of the ideas themselves but because of who wrote them. William Wrede is best known for his study of the Gospel of Mark, The Messianic Secret. I was unaware until recently that he also wrote a book about Paul. It’s available on archive.org — http://archive.org/details/Paulpaulus The link is to the English language translation. (It’s not a long book: 180 somewhat small pages only a light population of words on each.)

Wrede cannot accept that Paul himself arrived at all of his concepts and theology relating to Christ simply from meditating on what he knew of the historical Jesus. Even the ethics that Paul teaches derive from Judaism and not from Jesus, he explains. From the reports of the life of a man who existed only a few years earlier it is inconceivable, Wrede argues, that Paul could have arrived at his vision of the celestial pre-existence of the risen Jesus or so magnified the stories of the mortal man that he imagined him as a “superhuman Son of God”.

There remains only one explanation: Paul believed in such a celestial being, in a divine Christ, before he believed in Jesus. Until he became a Christian it seemed to him sacrilege to call Jesus the Christ. This man did not answer at all to the divine figure of Christ which Paul bore within him. But in the moment of conversion, when Jesus appeared before him in the shining glory of his risen existence, Paul identified him with his own Christ, and straightway transferred to Jesus all the conceptions which he already had of the celestial being—for instance, that he had existed before the world and had taken part in its creation. The man Jesus was really, therefore, only the wearer of all those mighty predicates which had already been established; but the bliss of the apostle lay in this, that he could now regard what had hitherto been a mere hope, as a tangible reality which had comeinto the world. Here again we see the great importance ofthe fact that he had not known Jesus. Intimate disciples could not so readily believe that the man with whom they had sat at table in Capernaum, or sailed on the Lake of Galilee, was the creator of the world. But in Paul’s way there was no such obstacle.

If Paul was acquainted with this divine Christ before his conversion, there must have beencircles in Judaism which held the same belief. But can such a belief in this field be really authenticated? So much is certain, that Jewish apocalyptic books are really cognizant of a Messiah, who before his appearance lives in heaven, and is more exalted than the angels themselves. This is a datum of the highest importance. Whether, however, every feature in the Pauline Christ can be explained by means of the extant apocalyptic accounts of Messiah, is a question we shall not here attempt to decide. Investigation is only now beginning to master the problem aright. The immediate point of supreme importance is the perception of this fact: that the Pauline Christ cannot be understood unless we assume that Paul, while still a Pharisee, possessed a number of definite conceptions concerning a divine being, which were afterwards transferred to the historical Jesus?

So how did it all happen in Wrede’s view?

First comes the idea of Christ. On this the whole conception of the redemption rests. For the death and resurrection of Christ are not regarded as the experiences of a man, but as the experiences of an incarnate divine being. It is upon this that their universal, world-redeemed significance depends. The key to the problem, in itself so enigmatical, why the Son of God became a man, was found by Paul in this twofold event. The idea of the redemption itself was again determined by the conceptions which the apostle brought with him. He expected his Christ to vanquish the evil powers of the world, including the demons, and to inaugurate a new condition of things. The accomplishmentof this task was found, where but in the two events of salvation? How Paul came to find it there must remain an open question. Probably these thoughts had long been definitely formulated in his mind before he was led by polemical exigencies to mint the doctrine of justification.

Not that Wrede was allowed the last word. As we would expect, others disagreed. For a two-part critical engagement with Wrede’s ideas see

Morgan, W. “The Jesus Paul Controversy 1.” The Expository Times 20, no. 1 (October 1908): 9–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/001452460802000102.

———. “The Jesus Paul Controversy 2.” The Expository Times 20, no. 2 (November 1908): 55–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/001452460802000202.


The Incarnation of The Name – Continuing Nanine Charbonnel’s Sublime Paper Figure Jesus Christ

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts in this survey of Nanine Charbonnel’s book are archived at  Charbonnel: Jesus Christ sublime figure de papier.

Getting Real

The striking difference between pre-Christian Jewish concepts and those of Christianity is that the latter eschewed abstract notions of messiahs and divine messengers and fleshed them out with names and personalities. Where we read in the Qumran scrolls about a “Teacher of Righteousness”, Priests, Messiahs, Overseers, in the early Christian literature we meet personal names (Jesus, John) and titles (Christ, Baptist) and even signatures (Paul et al.) The new ideas were conveyed as stories, not merely abstract doctrines. Charbonnel cites André Paul, page 84, Qumrân et les Esséniens : l’éclatement d’un dogme:

We were no longer in the theoretical but in the real. We are talking about concrete people, who, moreover, have names. (Original: On n’était plus dans le théorique mais dans le réel. Il s’agit de personnes concrètes, qui de surcroît ont des noms.)

The question is: Were these the names of real people or were they the names of personifications of things to do with God and Israel and that pertain to salvation. Does the name of Jesus enter our history because it was the name of a historical figure or was it born as a personification of the Name of God? In the earlier posts, we saw how Jesus was made the personification of the People of God and of Yahweh on earth, and of the Temple and Glory of the Divine Presence (Shekinah).

Veneration of the Name

Within the heart of the Judaism of the Second Temple was the veneration of the name of God.

The name Jesus, as we know, derives from the Hebrew meaning “It is Yahweh who saves”.

The Jesus of the New Testament, Charbonnel posits, is developed in part from the two other greats named Jesus in the Old Testament.

Jesus I

First, we have Joshua (= Jesus) who led Israel into the Promised Land. Today few of us would connect God’s instruction to Moses about his messenger (commonly translated “angel”) bearing the divine name with Joshua, but we know from the second century Justin that early Christians did make that connection.

Exodus 23:20-21

See, I am sending an angel [= messenger] ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.

Here is Justin’s understanding taken from his Dialogue with Trypho, 75:

Moreover, in the book of Exodus we have also perceived that the name of God Himself which, He says, was not revealed to Abraham or to Jacob, was Jesus, and was declared mysteriously through Moses. Thus it is written:And the Lord spake to Moses, Say to this people, Behold, I send My angel before thy face, to keep thee in the way, to bring thee into the land which I have prepared for thee. Give heed to Him, and obey Him; do not disobey Him. For He will not draw back from you; for My name is in Him.Now understand that He who led your fathers into the land is called by this name Jesus, and first called Auses(Oshea). For if you shall understand this, you shall likewise perceive that the name of Him who said to Moses, ‘for My name is in Him,’ was Jesus. For, indeed, He was also called Israel, and Jacob’s name was changed to this also. 

Justin is writing in the second century but his explanation of the choice of the name Jesus does have a “midrashic” rationale.

Jesus II

Then there is another Jesus or Joshua, the high priest who, on his return with his people from the Babylonian exile led them in the reconstruction of the temple.

Zechariah 6:9-11

Zechariah 3:1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Take silver and gold from the exiles Heldai, Tobijah and Jedaiah, who have arrived from Babylon. Go the same day to the house of Josiah son of Zephaniah. Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Joshua son of Jozadak. Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two [roles – Priest and King].’”

Jesus III

The third Joshua/Jesus inherits the roles of the first two.

Acts 2:21

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Romans 10:13

For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Both are quoting Joel.

Joel 2:32

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

To paraphrase Charbonnel, the essence of Christianity is the affirmation that the Lord, the Name of the Lord, and Jesus Christ, are one. In Joel, the call was to invoke the name of the God of the Covenant. This invocation now passes to Jesus because Jesus himself is recognized as the one with the name of God.

The narrative of the Gospel of Luke begins with the name given to the messiah. He was (literally) “called the name” Jesus (Luke 2:21– interlinear). We find the same “called the name” formula for the Davidic Messiah in the Qumran scrolls:

4Q381, fr 15

And I, Your anointed one [=messiah], have come to understand . . . will tell others about You, for You have given me knowledge, and indeed You have endowed me with great insight . . . for I am called by Your name, my God, and for your deliverance . . . . [7-9. Wise, Abegg, Cook]

In 1 Enoch we read that the Name had a pre-existence:

1 Enoch 48:3, 6

Even before the sun and the constellations were created, before the stars of heaven were made, his name was named before the Lord of Spirits. . . . He was chosen and hidden before him before the world was created, and for ever [or, until the coming of the Age].

Paul writes from deep within this cult of the name. See 1 Corinthians 1:2 and in particular,

Philippians 2:9-11

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus, we recall, was also the personification of the Temple, and also identified with its cornerstone. We find the Name of God at the heart of the Temple and its cornerstone in a later Jewish text that is widely interpreted as an attack on Christianity, the Toledot Yeshu. I quote the relevant passage of the Toledot from Frank Zindler’s The Jesus the Jews Never Knew:

The Robbing of the Shem (the Shem = the Name, the ineffable name of God)

. . . And there was in the sanctuary a foundation-stone — and this is its interpretation: God founded it and this is the stone on which Jacob poured oil — and on it were written the letters of the Shem, and whosoever learned it, could do whatsoever he would. But as the wise feared that the disciples of lsrael might learn them and therewith destroy the world, they took measures that no one should do so.

Brazen dogs were bound to two iron pillars at the entrance of the place of burnt offerings, and whosoever entered in and learned these letters — as soon as he went forth again, the dogs bayed at him; if he then looked at them, the letters vanished from his memory.

The name of Jesus may have been changed to Jeschu to rob him of the letters that would identify the name with that of the Name of Yahweh.

This Jeschu [Jesus] came, learned them, wrote them on parchment, cut into his hip and laid the parchment with the letters therein — so that the cutting of his flesh did not hurt him — then he restored the skin to its place. When he went forth the brazen dogs bayed at him, and the letters vanished from his memory. He went home, cut open his flesh with his knife, took out the writing, learned the letters, went and gathered together three hundred and ten of the young men of Israel. (pp. 428ff)

Here, in an accusation against Christianity, we see Jesus literally “embodying” the perfect Name, although he does so illegitimately. Celsus records a Jew saying something similar — that the name of Jesus had magical power although it was at the behest of demons.

Origen, Contra Celsus, I.6

After this, through the influence of some motive which is unknown to me, Celsus asserts that it is by the names of certain demons, and by the use of incantations, that the Christians appear to be possessed of [miraculous] power; hinting, I suppose, at the practices of those who expel evil spirits by incantations. And here he manifestly appears to malign the gospel. For it is not by incantations that Christians seem to prevail [over evil spirits], but by the name of Jesus, accompanied by the announcement of the narratives which relate to Him ; for the repetition of these has frequently been the means of driving demons out of men, especially when those who repeated them did so in a sound and genuinely believing spirit. Such power, indeed, does the name of Jesus possess over evil spirits, that there have been instances where it was effectual, when it was pronounced even by bad men, which Jesus Himself taught [would be the case], when He said: “Many shall say to me in that day, In Thy name we have cast out devils, and done many wonderful works.”

Bernadino of Siena with the IHS Christogram

This veneration of the name of Jesus continued throughout the subsequent centuries as witnessed in the lives of saints and the Christian Kabbalists. (See also the history of the name YHSWH – making the divine name pronounceable as Jesus — and the Sator square). Much has been written about the mystic analyses and plays with the divine name YHWH in later times but the point here is that a few of these ideas can be traced back to late antiquity and it is not unreasonable to think that their origins began in at least the gnostic forms of earliest Christianity and early elements of the Jewish religion. I may post some more details about these arcane ideas in a later post or two.

Till then, it is worth noticing that Moses created the name “Joshua” by changing the name of Hoshea to Joshua by placing at its beginning the first letter of the Tetragrammaton, God’s name. (Recall that in the earlier posts of this series that early Jewish scribes (and not only Jewish ones) found mystical significance in letters, their numerical values, puns, and so forth.) It was with the placing of this part of God’s name to Hoshea that the name Joshua was created by Moses to name the man who was to be imbued with the power of God to lead Israel into the Promised Land.

Jesus means “Yahweh saves” but such a form is not unique: the first of the minor prophets, Hosea, means “Yah saves”; Isaiah means “God saves”. We can find other instances, including Jesse and Josiah. Even Judas, from the Judah who sold Joseph, is set against Jesus by the addition of a letter at the end of the letters making up the Tetragrammaton.

The Incarnation as the Descent of the Name of YHWH

To worship YHWH was to worship his Name. The Temple was the dwelling place of his Name – 1 Kings 8:16; Deuteronomy 12:11. YHWH is even called the Name. The leading Jewish prayer, the Kaddish, is a praise of the Name of God: “Hallowed be thy Name”. The name of Jesus is: It is YHWH who saves — the lead figure in the narrative is the one who saves.

The High Priest’s function is to manifest the Name that Saves

Hence Malachi 1:11

My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord Almighty.

On the Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur, the day of the Great Pardon, the high priest was said to pronounce the otherwise forbidden name of YHWH in order to remove all sins from Israel. Jesus himself is modelled on the high priest — as we also read in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Citing Christian Amphoux’s La Vie de Jesus, dialogue avec Renan, Charbonnel points out that it was through Joseph that Jesus was descended from David and thus a rightful king who had the potential to replace Herod’s dynasty, while through his mother Mary Jesus was related to John the Baptist, the son of a priest. Hence Jesus had the heritage to become both a political and religious leader. As a future king, he could be seen as a threat to Rome; but if he could also be a high priest then he posed a danger to Herod and his high priest. Machine-translating Amphoux,

James, leader of Jerusalem community: 40s – c 63
Simon, leader from 71 to c 110
Jude, driven from Jerusalem in 135

The dynastic lineage of John and Jesus was well constituted: the brothers of Jesus (Mt 13:55 / Mk 6:3) bear the names of the leaders of the Jerusalem community: James, from the 40s to his death, around 63; Simon, James’ cousin, from 71 to his death around 110; and Jude, driven out of Jerusalem in 135 with the other Jews. “‘

Continuing with Amphoux, at the baptism of Jesus the portrayal of the descent of the dove involves another wordplay if there is a Hebrew source behind it. Again a machine translation:

The image of ‘the descent of the dove’ is a play on the two proper nouns of the narrative: to descend is said in Hebrew y-r-d, and the name of the Jordan comes from this verb; and the dove is y-w-n-h, which gives the name of Jonah, which is an anagram in Greek of the name John (Iôna- / Iôan-). Thus, the two proper names in the story carry a message that is taken up in the image of the dove that descends. But what does this message say? John and Jonah refer to a third name, Onias, which designates the legitimate high priest, deposed in 175 B.C.; and the descent expresses the movement from heaven to earth, by which Jesus is invested with the function of which Onias was robbed. In other words, Jesus is invested as the new legitimate high priest, who is to restore to the Temple the priesthood that has been lost for some two hundred years.

Thus Charbonnel suggests the possibility midrashic elaborations on the Name contributed to the very belief in incarnation itself. We know gematria, finding significance in numerical values of the letters of a word, was a special interest among scribes. One scholar who has delved into possibilities here is Bernard Dubourg. In the first volume of L’invention de Jésus he notes that the Hebrew words for “son” and “messiah” have the same numerical value (52) as that of YHWH when the Tetragrammaton is read with the letters themselves spelled out with their names. The Hebrew form of the name “Jesus” likewise has the same value of 52 but only through “the descent of the vowels” (as the ancient scribes would say), or through the “voice” or “the spirit that gives life” to the consonants.

Another midrashic hypothesis relates to the titulus crucis.

John 19:19-20

Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek.

Charbonnel suggests that here we find another test of the midrashic hypothesis, given that the hypothesis leads us to expect to find clues in the text to alert readers to its midrashic interpretation. One intriguing possibility emerges when Luke’s version is translated into Hebrew:

Luke 23:38

There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

In Hebrew: zéh hou’ mélech hayehoudyim.

Now the expression ZéH Hou’ is unique in the whole of the First Testament and is found in 1 Samuel 16:12, when Samuel is to designate the king of Israel as the successor of Saul . . . : Jesse sent for him: he (David) was red-haired, with a beautiful look and a beautiful face. And the Lord said, “Go, anoint him: this is he/the one” . . .  For Luke, this sign declares to those who are willing to understand that Jesus is the king of the Jews designated by God, like David…

Or one can examine the possible Hebrew behind John’s description:

John 19:19


In_Hebrew: Yehôshoua’ Hanazir Wemelekh Hayehoudim



The name of Jesus is developed from YHWH, and perhaps even the sign on the cross identified YHWH.

The Name in Prophecy

Continue reading “The Incarnation of The Name – Continuing Nanine Charbonnel’s Sublime Paper Figure Jesus Christ”


Ancient Philosopher Traditions Pave the Way for Jesus and Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

Let this post complement the last.

Private teachings and efforts to avoid crowds


When Crates asked him whether the gods take delight in prayers and adorations, he is said to have replied, “Don’t put such a question in the street, simpleton, but when we are alone!” It is said that Bion, when he was asked the same question whether there are gods, replied: Will you not scatter the crowd from me, O much-enduring elder?


Plato has employed a variety of terms in order to make his system less intelligible to the ignorant


Again, when somebody who had a question to ask was steadily conversing with him in private, and then upon seeing a crowd approaching began to be more contentious


He would withdraw from the world and live in solitude,

he would leave his home and, telling no one, would go roaming about with whomsoever he chanced to meet.

Staff, cloak and wallet


Then he adopted the Cynic discipline, donning cloak and wallet


And he was the first, Diocles tells us, to double his cloak and be content with that one garment and to take up a staff and a wallet. Neanthes too asserts that he was the first to double his mantle. Sosicrates, however, in the third book of his Successions of Philosophers says this was first done by Diodorus of Aspendus, who also let his beard grow and used a staff and a wallet.

Diogenes (also one of several who “had nowhere to lay his head”)

He was the first, say some, to fold his cloak because he was obliged to sleep in it as well, and he carried a wallet to hold his victuals, and he used any place for any purpose, for breakfasting, sleeping, or conversing. And then he would say, pointing to the portico of Zeus and the Hall of Processions, that the Athenians had provided him with places to live in. He did not lean upon a staff until he grew infirm; but afterwards he would carry it everywhere, not indeed in the city, but when walking along the road with it and with his wallet; so say Olympiodorus,13 once a magistrate at Athens, Polyeuctus the orator, and Lysanias the son of Aeschrio. He

That famous one who carried a staff, doubled his cloak, and lived in the open air.


and he wore a very long beard and carried an ashen staff in his hand.

The Magi

Their dress is white, they make their bed on the ground, and their food is vegetables, cheese, and coarse bread; their staff is a reed

Many called but few chosen


And hence it came about that he is not credited with a single disciple, out of all the crowds who attended his lectures.


He was returning from Olympia, and when somebody inquired whether there was a great crowd, “Yes,” he said, “a great crowd, but few who could be called men.”



And he had about him certain ragged dirty fellows, as Timon says in these lines: The while he got together a crowd of ignorant serfs, who surpassed all men in beggary and were the emptiest of townsfolk.


Zeno of Citium in his Anecdotes relates that in a fit of heedlessness he sewed a sheepskin to his cloak. He was ugly to look at, and when performing his gymnastic exercises used to be laughed at. He was accustomed to say, raising his hands, “Take heart, Crates, for it is for the good of your eyes and of the rest of your body. You will see these men, who are laughing at you, tortured before long by disease, counting you happy, and reproaching themselves for their sluggishness.”

All things in common


He was extremely selfish and insisted strongly on the maxim that “friends share in common.”


The wise are friends of the gods, and friends hold things in common. Therefore all things belong to the wise.”

He maintained that all things are the property of the wise, and employed such arguments as those cited above. All things belong to the gods. The gods are friends to the wise, and friends share all property in common; therefore all things are the property of the wise


Friendship, they declare, exists only between the wise and good, by reason of their likeness to one another. And by friendship they mean a common use of all that has to do with life, wherein we treat our friends as we should ourselves.


According to Timaeus, he was the first to say, “Friends have all things in common” and “Friendship is equality”; indeed, his disciples did put all their possessions into one common stock.


He further says that Epicurus did not think it right that their property should be held in common, as required by the maxim of Pythagoras about the goods of friends; such a practice in his opinion implied mistrust, and without confidence there is no friendship.

Some went further and taught that wives and children should also be “in common”.

Criticizes a host at dinner


Not being able to curb the extravagance of someone who had invited him to dinner, he said nothing when he was invited, but rebuked his host tacitly by confining himself to olives.


With this Timaeus agrees, at the same time giving the reason why Empedocles favoured democracy, namely, that, having been invited to dine with one of the magistrates, when the dinner had gone on some time and no wine was put on the table, though the other guests kept quiet, he, becoming indignant, ordered wine to be brought.

Wrote Letters that were preserved by disciples 

Not all, but some “wrote a few letters”. Example: Continue reading “Ancient Philosopher Traditions Pave the Way for Jesus and Paul”


Jesus (and Paul) in the Ancient Philosopher Tradition

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by Neil Godfrey

Think of the world from which Christianity emerged and mystery religions easily come to mind. That may be a mistake. A more relevant context, influencers and rivals were the popular philosophers and their schools in the first and second centuries.

The Jew and the Christian offered religions as we understand religion; the others offered cults; but their contemporaries did not expect anything more than cults from them and looked to philosophy for guidance in conduct and for a scheme of the universe. (Nock, Conversion, 16)

Any philosophy of the time set up a standard of values different from those of the world outside and could serve as a stimulus to a stern life, and therefore to something like conversion when it came to a man living carelessly. (Nock, 173)

Further, this idea was not thought of as a matter of purely intellectual conviction. The philosopher commonly said not ‘Follow my arguments one by one: . . . but . . . Believe me, those who express the other view deceive you and argue you out of what is right.’ (Nock, 181)

A mystery evoked a strong emotional response and touched the soul deeply for a time, but [conversion to] philosophy was able both to turn men from evil and to hold before them a good, perhaps never to be attained, but presenting a permanent object of desire to which one seemed to draw gradually nearer. (Nock, 185)

As an introduction to the view that popular philosophers had a more profound role than mystery cults in shaping Christianity, I’ve distilled biographical details from one ancient biographer of those philosophers. Spot the similarities to what we read about Jesus and Paul.

Follow Me


Socrates met Xenophon in a narrow passage way and accosted him with questions. Xenophon was confused, so Socrates told him, “Follow me and learn”, and from that moment on Xenophon became his disciple.


Someone came to Diogenes and asked him to tell him how to live, what do do …. Diogenes told him to “follow him”. Unfortunately Diogenes also imposed a humbling condition on the would-be follower who was too embarrassed to comply.


Now the way he came across Crates was this. He was shipwrecked on a voyage from Phoenicia to Peiraeus with a cargo of purple. He went up into Athens and sat down in a bookseller’s shop, being then a man of thirty. As he went on reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, he was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, “Follow yonder man.” From that day he became Crates’s pupil.

Ethical Teachings and Example, a Physician of Souls


“I know how to submit to injustice and you do not.”

The tale is also told that he inquired of Aesop what Zeus was doing and received the answer: “He is humbling the proud and exalting the humble.”

Not to abuse our neighbours

Do not use threats to any one.

When strong, be merciful.

Let not your tongue outrun your thought. Control anger.


Mercy is better than vengeance

Speak no ill of a friend, nor even of an enemy


we should render a service to a friend to bind him closer to us, and to an enemy in order to make a friend of him.


He bore with Dionysius when he spat on him,

The sick need the physician, not the well


When Dionysius inquired what was the reason that philosophers go to rich men’s houses, while rich men no longer visit philosophers, his reply was that “the one know what they need while the other do not.”

In answer to one who remarked that he always saw philosophers at rich men’s doors, he said, “So, too, physicians are in attendance on those who are sick, but no one for that reason would prefer being sick to being a physician.”

Dionysius was offended and made him recline at the end of the table. And Aristippus said, “You must have wished to confer distinction on the last place.”


And conversing upon the duty of doing good to men he made such an impression on the king that he became eager to hear him.


If Phoebus did not cause Plato to be born in Greece, how came it that he healed the minds of men by letters? As the god’s son Asclepius is a healer of the body, so is Plato of the immortal soul.


He used repeatedly to say that to grant favours to another was preferable to enjoying the favours of others.

The road to Hades, he used to say, was easy to travel.


To the question how we should behave to friends, he answered, “As we should wish them to behave to us.”


“It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of.”

When a friend complained to him that he had lost his notes, “You should have inscribed them,” said he, “on your mind instead of on paper.” As iron is eaten away by rust, so, said he, the envious are consumed by their own passion. Those who would fain be immortal must, he declared, live piously and justly.

“Many men praise you,” said one. “Why, what wrong have I done?” was his rejoinder


The love of money he declared to be mother-city of all evils.

Good men he called images of the gods

all things are the property of the wise


A Rhodian, who was handsome and rich, but nothing more, insisted on joining his class. but so unwelcome was this pupil, that first of all Zeno made him sit on the benches that were dusty, that he might soil his cloak, and then he consigned him to the place where the beggars sat, that he might rub shoulders with their rags. So at last the young man went away.

This man adopts a new philosophy. He teaches to go hungry: yet he gets Disciples.


Afterwards when the poet apologized for the insult, he accepted the apology, saying that, when Dionysus and Heracles were ridiculed by the poets without getting angry, it would be absurd for him to be annoyed at casual abuse.


Pythagoras made many into good men and true


He carried deference to others to such excess that he did not even enter public life.

He showed dauntless courage in meeting troubles and death

He would punish neither slave nor free man in anger. Admonition he used to call “setting right.”

Not to call the gods to witness, man’s duty being rather to strive to make his own word carry conviction

God takes thought for man

In storm at sea


He was once on a voyage with some impious men; and, when a storm was encountered, even they began to call upon the gods for help. “Peace!” said he, “lest they hear and become aware that you are here in the ship.”


It happened once that he set sail for Corinth and, being overtaken by a storm, he was in great consternation. Some one said, “We plain men are not alarmed, and are you philosophers turned cowards?” To this he replied, “The lives at stake in the two cases are not comparable.”


When his fellow passengers on board a ship were all unnerved by a storm, he kept calm and confident, pointing to a little pig in the ship that went on eating, and telling them that such was the unperturbed state in which the wise man should keep himself.

Divinely called, taught God’s truths, believed to be Divine

Continue reading “Jesus (and Paul) in the Ancient Philosopher Tradition”


Celestial or Earthly Christ Event? Why So Much Confusion About Paul?

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by Neil Godfrey

Arthur Droge

Arthur Droge has made available on his academia.edu page an article in which he presents

  • a strong case for that “rulers of this age … crucified the Lord of Glory” passage in 1 Corinthians not being part of the original letter
  • reasons to think the passage was added to the letter around 140 CE
  • evidence for a wide variety of early Christian views about the crucifixion (some had it on earth, some in the firmament, with and without suffering…)
  • implications of the above that point to Paul’s letters evolving through various hands over time and no more being penned by “Paul” than any of the surviving letters, acts, gospels and apocalypses bearing the names of Peter, James, John, Thomas, Barnabas, Mark, Matthew, Luke, etc were genuinely penned by those figures.

The article is Whodunnit? Paul’s Peculiar Passion and Its Implications. The link is to the article on academia.edu.

I will certainly have to write out the key points of Droge’s article and add it to my archived series “Rulers of this Age” in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 but till then I leave the above link for interested readers to check out the full 22-page article for themselves.

Some interesting excerpts.

What is an Interpolation?

By interpolation I simply mean a retrospective change in an older text, usually introduced with the intention of “clarifying” or “improving” it, or bringing out what was thought to be its “real” meaning. The change may have taken place when a work was copied and perhaps re-edited at some point after its original composition. That is to say, interpolations are an all-too-common feature of texts that have come down through a succession of manuscripts or handwritten copies. While the identification of interpolations is unremarkable in other disciplines, whose canons likewise derive from manuscripts, it is looked down upon by New Testament scholars. (p. 6)

Indeed. See, for example, a list of 30 ancient texts cited to justify the term “a culture of interpolations” see A Case for Interpolation Does NOT Rely On Manuscript Evidence. See also my 2009 post Forgery in the Ancient World for another list of mostly classical texts. Recall, further, most recently Greg Doudna’s proposal that the John the Baptist passage in Josephus is a “misplaced” passage — another type of “interpolation”.

Droge offers two criteria for identifying interpolations:

  1. significant differences in language, style, and subject matter.
  2. the removal of the suspect passage has to make the resultant rejoining of the surrounding material more cogent, smoother….

On the basis of those criteria Droge demonstrates a very strong likelihood of the “rulers of this age” being an interpolation.

No consensus in early Christian texts about who crucified Jesus, or about when, where, how, or why

For even a casual sampling of texts from the Christian archive makes it patently clear that there was no consensus about who crucified Jesus, or about when, where, how, or why Jesus was crucified. Indeed, as we shall see, there was not even a consensus about whether Jesus was crucified. Each of these questions was a point of conflict and contestation for centuries before the Christians finally managed to get their story (more or less) straight. (p. 12)

Ante Pacem / Snyder

I confess I was somewhat thrilled to see Droge make the use of some of the same archaeological evidence that has influenced my own thinking: the crucifixion of Jesus was not the primary focus of early Christian belief if one turns to early sarcophagi and catacomb art. Jesus is more likely to be depicted as a youth, a good shepherd, a healer than crucified. Droge adds the significant point:

The silence of the archaeological record in this case is a stark warning about extrapolating from texts ideas widely shared by the rank and file, or by the socalled “communities” supposedly lurking behind the texts we read and to which they provide access. (p. 12)

Droge directs readers to Stowers and Rüpke. I’ll quote a little from each:

The pervasive assumption that all Christian literature and history in the first one hundred years or so sprang from and mirrored communities inhibits historical explanation by social and psychological theory that is normal for the rest of the academy. A community in this sense is a highly coherent social formation with commonality in thought and practice. The idea that the Christian movement began with these communities derives from Christianity’s own myth of origins, but has been taken as historical reality. The myth can be traced to Paul, Acts and Eusebius. (Stowers, 238)


If the authentic letters [of Paul] (which might themselves be the result of later redactional combinations) are seen as an example of the formation of a network among like-minded persons in Jewish diaspora communities in Asia Minor and the Greek mainland, we could expect hundreds of letters – and we cannot exclude that they were in existence. The published corpus, however, is characterised not by the documentation of a network, but by a pseudepigraphical supplementation, which partially even theologically reflected on pseudepigraphy.  The different agents of this continuation had heterogeneous interests. They were engaged in the prolongation of Paul and contested others’ interpretations; they venerated and instrumentalised Paul. These conflicting views were certainly connected to the interest in and critique of the specific Pauline practices and beliefs which we find even more prominently outside of the corpus, in Lukan Acts for instance. All this indicates that we are not dealing with archives of communities and local identities, but with professional exegesis and philosophical schools (and with Marcion, even historical research). (Rüpke, 180)

Now that makes a lot of sense when we recall Justin Martyr’s identification of himself as a philosopher and recall Abraham Malherbe’s demonstrations that the Pauline writings suggest we are closer to the mark when we compare early Christian thought and propagation with the philosophical schools of the day than with “mystery cults”.

Droge brings the Ascension of Isaiah into the discussion and reaffirms the view that the section on the birth, miracles and crucifixion of Jesus is a later addition and that the original text depicted a crucifixion in the Firmament. We recall Earl Doherty’s and Richard Carrier’s works. I have lately gone a bit back and forth on that question so I am willing to resume a back seat for a while and watch and learn with more reading and reflection. A significant difference, however, is that Doge insists on the Ascension of Isaiah being a post-Pauline second-century work whereas Doherty was prepared to lean towards those who dated it as early as the late first century. Droge’s point is that an Ascension of Isaiah scenario of Rulers of this Age crucifying Jesus points to the Pauline passage being added in the second century.

The idea that Jesus did not actually die on the cross is traced from a very literal reading of the Gospel of Mark (it was Simon of Cyrene who was crucified), the related view of Basilides in the second century, through the Second Treatise of the Great Seth and Apocalypse of Peter. Ignatius and Justin further indirectly hint at this rival belief. The spiritual dimension of the event is presumably a reaction to a narrative set in the mundane realm.

But if that’s the case, why? We don’t normally expect sectarian branches to rewrite a historical tradition as having happened in the heavens. But it does make sense if that mundane narrative involving Galilee, Pilate, a lynch mob of Jews, etc. was built from a “midrashic” reading of Hebrew Scriptures. If so, there was room for others to disagree and propose other interpretations of those scriptures. Hence I found most intriguing Droge’s pointing out the way gnostic myths were derived from particular readings of Psalms. Psalm 2 has God laughing at rulers thinking they can defy God and his anointed. Enter the gnostic accounts of Jesus laughing at those who are thinking they are crucifying him on the cross. Similarly for the myth of descent and ascent through the heavens: Psalm 24 speaks of the King of Glory which is close to the Ascension’s Lord of Glory, and it also speaks of him progressing through “gates”.

But why?

Why were those verses about spirit beings crucifying Christ added? Best for you to read Droge’s article. Meanwhile, no, Droge does not suggest they were polemical or deviously attempting to undermine the original views of Paul. He sees the addition of the passage more as a commentary.

The more interesting and important consequence is the recognition that our passage was a second-century gnostic attempt to ventriloquize Paul, to make him say what he should have said – indeed, must have said – and to do so in a fashion not dissimilar to the way in which the modern guild of scholars continues to carry on the time-honored task of Pauline commentary.

Claude Lévi-Strauss is worth recalling at this point:

[A] myth is made up of all its variants, [therefore] structural analysis should take all of them into account. . . . . There is no one true version of which all the others are but copies or distortions. Every version belongs to the myth. (pp 435f)

Commentaries as expansions and explanations become another version of the myth. Droge points the finger at the Valentinian scholars of the second century,

for whom Paul’s letters were a major focus of their commentarial endeavors, and who succeeded in creating a Paul in their own image, and then esteemed him as the chief architect of their mythmaking. Our passage is one, very small, but precious, piece of that enterprise, which has managed, purely by chance, to survive as a page in the archive or dossier that only later would be called “First Corinthians.”

How the sausage is made

So how did the letter-making sausage machine work, according to Droge?

By recognizing that our passage is an interpolation of the second century, we can see that individual letters were still under construction well into that century, and we can begin to discern some of the ways in which that building process worked. Already at a pre-collection stage, Paul’s “letters” were far from static or inert data, moving through time under the guardianship of vigilant Christian scribes. Rather, the materials out of which individual letters would be constituted were still in flux, and provided occasions for innovative and improvisational interventions from a variety of sources, with a variety of interests, and in a variety of forms (e.g., emendations, deletions, glosses, interpolations, commentary, short narratives, and so on). As I have tried to suggest, it would be better to think of “First Corinthians” at the pre-collection stage as an active site or open file, more along the lines of an archive or dossier, and certainly not a unified, much less actual, letter. So conceived, the process that yielded the letter known as “First Corinthinas,” as well as the collection known as the corpus paulinum, would be analogous to the process of the composition of the gospels. In other words, at some point in the second century materials of heterogeneous origin, date, and provenance began to be fashioned into a loose epistolary form and attributed to a figure from the first century. (21f)

Droge, Arthur. “‘Whodunnit? Paul’s Peculiar Passion and Its Implications.’” Accessed May 10, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/43327375/_Whodunnit_Paul_s_Peculiar_Passion_and_Its_Implications_.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore 68, no. 270 (1955): 428–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/536768.

Rüpke, Jörg. “The Role of Texts in Processes of Religious Grouping during the Principate.” Religion in the Roman Empire 2, no. 2 (2016): 170. https://doi.org/10.1628/219944616X14655421286059.

Stowers, Stanley. “The Concept of ‘Community’ and the History of Early Christianity.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 23, no. 3 (2011): 238–56. https://doi.org/10.1163/157006811X608377.