Category Archives: New Testament

Mostly straightforward but still some questions arise. Where does New Testament end and Church history and question of Christian origins, also certain roles of Marcion, begin? (Marcion’s argued influence on NT should be included here; also evidence of early readings found in Fathers like Tertullian.) Relevant manuscript discoveries and analysis belong here, including histories of their later copying.

Ascension of Isaiah: Other Questions

Continuing from Ascension of Isaiah: Questions. . . . 

. . . .

Why is this topic of particular interest? The AoI looks like it could have been known to, and even quoted by, Paul. The presence or otherwise of the pocket gospel then has several implications for Paul’s understanding of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Is the “pocket gospel” (an account Jesus’ earthly birth and crucifixion in 11:2-22 of the Ascension of Isaiah) an original part of the Ascension of Isaiah and not a later interpolation?

In the previous post we looked at one disputed reason to think so. Here we look at a couple more. (Like the first reason addressed these are taken from an early commentary on the AoI by R.H. Charles.)

In the pocket gospel we read that no-one on earth recognizes who Jesus is, neither when he is a newborn arrival into the world nor when they crucify him. A long-standing argument that this mini-gospel of Jesus’ birth and death is original is that this theme of ignorance fits in nicely with the rest of the AoI.

Before we come to the pocket gospel in chapter 11 we read in chapter 9:

14. And the god of that world will stretch forth his hand against the Son, and they will crucify Him on a tree, and will slay Him not knowing who He is.

Even more often stressed in the lead up to chapter 11 is that no-one, no angel, no demon, will recognize Jesus as he passes through the lower heavens. Jesus will look no different from any of the other inhabitants of those spirit worlds. Thus in chapter 10:

9. And thou [God speaking to his Beloved, Jesus] wilt become like unto the likeness of all who are in the five heavens.
10. And thou wilt be careful to become like the form of the angels of the firmament [and the angels also who are in Sheol].
11. And none of the angels of that world shall know that Thou art with Me of the seven heavens and of their angels.
12. And they shall not know that Thou art with Me, till with a loud voice I have called (to) the heavens . . . 

The disputed passage, the pocket gospel of 11:2-22, contains these matching statements:

12. And the story regarding the infant was noised abroad in Bethlehem.
13. Some said: “The Virgin Mary hath borne a child, before she was married two months.”
14. And many said: “She has not borne a child, nor has a midwife gone up (to her), nor have we heard the cries of (labour) pains.”
And they were all blinded respecting Him and they all knew regarding Him, though they knew not whence He was.

and

18. And when He had grown up he worked great signs and wonders in the land of Israel and of Jerusalem.
19. And after this the adversary envied Him and roused the children of Israel against Him, not knowing who He was, and they delivered Him to the king, and crucified Him, and He descended to the angel (of Sheol).

Now for the reason for thinking the latter passages are part of an interpolation:

If an editor wanted to continue to with the lack of recognition theme then it seems to be unlikely he would introduce details that seem to make that lack of recognition implausible. Why not simply continue the AoI theme of having the Beloved look no different from those around him? That’s enough elsewhere. Why then have the Beloved appear in vision performing remarkable miracles that surely must give his identity away? One could go further and note that Jesus’ birth in Jerusalem was certainly not kept secret from anyone.

If the only purpose of the Beloved not being recognized was to have him killed so he could enter Sheol and recapture the dead back to life, thus defeating the power of the Angel of Death, then what point could there be to introducing other details of Jesus’ earthly sojourn that had to have been kept hidden? In the undisputed sections of the AoI the Beloved’s identity is hidden by means of changing his appearance. In the disputed passage, however, we appear to see quite a leap: the Beloved does things that must surely reveal his identity but miraculously God somehow stops people from “knowing who he is”.

Another problematic detail is in 11:21

20. In Jerusalem indeed I was Him being crucified on a tree:
21. And likewise after the third day rise again and remain days.

If Jesus is shown to have “remained days” on earth after his resurrection then we have another contradiction with the stated theme of the larger AoI. The “Beloved” is said in the larger AoI to descend for the purpose of defeating the power of death. His death is his ticket of access to Hades. Once done, he is said to ascend back to the seventh heaven. Conclusion: there is no place for introducing a longer stay on earth after his resurrection. Such a detail must be an addition from later orthodoxy. It flies in the face of the otherwise stated point of the Beloved’s descent, death and return in the AoI.

Such are more reasons James Barlow advances in this instance for interpolation. If I have misrepresented the point I would appreciate a correction. Barlow suggests that Charles appeals to orthodox faith as the measure of authenticity: when Charles expresses dissatisfaction that the shorter version of AoI contains no details of the crucifixion, descent to Sheol and resurrection on the third day, he is arguing in a pious circle. That is, he cannot accept an original story that lacks what he thinks should be in it.

Further, we read in the last line of this disputed passage, v.22

and I saw when He sent out the Twelve Apostles and ascended.

James Barlow suggests that this detail is surely late. In our Gospel of Mark we read that Jesus sent out the Twelve very early in his career, in chapter 3, not after his death. In the book of Acts the Twelve are “sent out” by being commanded to remain in Jerusalem.

So there is clearly room for doubt about the authenticity of the pocket gospel’s authenticity.

Are there counter-reasons to think that the passage is original?

read more »

Ascension of Isaiah: Questions

Some Jesus mythicists, following Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier, have taken a special interest in the Ascension of Isaiah [AoI], an early Christian text that has been used to support (not establish, as some critics have asserted) the argument that Jesus was in an early stage of tradition believed to have been crucified by demons in the firmament above the earth. Fundamental to this interpretation of the AoI is the view proposed by some mainstream scholars that a passage describing Jesus being born on earth and finally crucified on earth in the text is a late insertion. Manuscript and some textual evidence are cited in support of this view. That passage is 11:2-22. It speaks of the virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, a mysterious birth of Jesus and Jesus suckling at Mary’s breast, a later time when Jesus performs miracles and so arouses the envy of ruling demons, and of those demons stirring up hatred against him to the point where people crucify him on a tree in Jerusalem. All the while Jesus’ true identity as the “Beloved” from God in the seventh heaven is hidden from the spirit and human realms.

I have long agreed with those who have shown why we should think that that passage, sometimes called “the pocket gospel”, was not an original part of the AoI. A number of manuscripts of the text do not have it. Has not the tendency of mythical development been to elaborate rather than excise earlier traditions? If so, surely the simplest explanation is that the passage was a later addition to the story.

This is a difficult document to analyze in any exact fashion, since the several surviving manuscripts differ considerably in wording, phrases and even whole sections. It has been subjected to much editing in a complicated and uncertain pattern of revision. Many of its elements are quite revealing, not the least for the picture they disclose of the evolution of thought about the descending Son and his role. That picture indicates that in its earlier strata, the Vision speaks of a divine Son who operates entirely in the supernatural realm. (Doherty, JNGNM, 119)

I have come to have doubts, however. I have long been in two minds over various hypotheses that Jesus was crucified by demons in the firmament (Couchoud, Doherty, Carrier). There are several reasons to think that the earliest Jesus myth is the most obvious orthodox one: that Jesus came from heaven, was crucified on earth, descended beneath the earth, then ascended back to heaven. I can address the reasons later.

In this post I want to begin tackling some of the trickier questions surrounding the Ascension of Isaiah. The person I have to thank for this review of my thinking is James Barlow who, I understand, has Masters and Doctoral degrees in Divinity and until his retirement belonged to the Anglican clergy. I have been perusing on and off for over a year a detailed commentary he prepared on the Vision chapters (6 to 11) of the AoI.

JB presents a very detailed case for the AoI being behind some of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians and for the pocket gospel being an interpolation into the original AoI.

1 Cor. 2:6-9

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—

1 Cor. 15:3-4

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

“As it is written” and “according to the Scriptures” should not be casually assumed to refer to the “Old Testament”. A very reasonable case can be made that Paul has less orthodox writings (viz the AoI) in mind. I won’t take up that question now, either.

But because I know the AoI has a particular interest for many readers of Vridar, I want to begin here to think through some of the reasons for concluding that the “pocket gospel” of 11:2-22 was not part of the original Ascension of Isaiah. I have begun to suspect it might be original after all. read more »

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #3

Here we look at

a. the visions and rejoicing surrounding the birth of Jesus

b. the shepherds, the magi

c. massacre of the innocents

d. flight to and return from Egypt

e. Jesus twelve years of age in the temple

Future posts will continue this series.

The table is primarily a translation and slight modification of pages 183-226 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper. All posts archived here.

read more »

Nazareth

I’ve updated our archives to include an annotated page of links to all Vridar posts on the Nazareth question. Most are about the archaeology of the early first century period, but some address other questions such as the historical likelihood of Jesus being identified as “from Nazareth” and the supposed embarrassment behind the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke creating different narratives to explain how Nazareth entered the life of Jesus.

Check the right-hand column here and look under ARCHIVES by TOPIC. Look fo Nazareth under that heading.

“Rulers of this Age” as part of an Interpolation into 1 Corinthians

This post questions the authenticity of the section in Paul’s writings where we read that “rulers of this age” crucified “the Lord of glory” followed by a passage said to be a citation of Scripture but that appears only elsewhere in the Ascension of Isaiah. The arguments for interpolation are derived from William O. Walker Jr’s chapter 6 of Interpolations in the Pauline Letters.

On the question of the identity of the “rulers of this age” — whether human, demonic, or both — see the posts addressing a range of scholarly interpretations in the archive for Rulers of this Age.

6 We speak wisdom among those who are perfect, although it is not a wisdom belonging to this world, nor to the governing powers [rulers] of this world [age], which are being brought to nothing,

7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God purposed before the worlds (or: ages), with a view to our glory.

8 This wisdom none of the governing powers [rulers] of this world (-age) has known. For if they had recognized it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

9 But as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard and that never entered into any man’s heart, all the things that God has prepared for those who love him.”

10 For to us God has revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit explores all things, including even the depths of God.

11 For who among men knows what a man is but the man’s own spirit within him? In the same way no one has recognized what God is but the Spirit of God.

12 We, however, have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that comes from God, so that we may know what has been bestowed upon us by God.

13 And it is also of this that we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught us by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things in spiritual terms.

14 The unspiritual (“psychical”) man, however, does not receive the things of God’s Spirit. For they are foolishness in his eyes and he cannot recognize them, because they are (or: must be) spiritually interpreted.

15 The spiritual man, however, judges all things, but is not himself subject to anyone’s judgment.

16 For “who has discerned the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct him?” We, however, have the Spirit of Christ.

(Based on Conzelmann’s translation)

William O. Walker, Jr. (Westar Institute; Trinity University)

For readers impatient to get the main overview, here is a crude list of reasons some scholars have suggested the passage was not originally composed by Paul:

    1. numerous linguistic peculiarities seriously call into question Pauline authorship;
    2. the passage contradicts what Paul says elsewhere;
    3. the consistent use of ‘we’ and other features distinguish 2.6-16 form-critically from its immediate context;
    4. the presence of the passage in 1 Corinthians can plausibly be explained as an attempt by Corinthian ‘pneumatics’ to correct what they saw as Paul’s distortion of their position.

(Walker’s summary of Widman’s discussion: Widmann, Martin, “I Kor 2 6-16: Ein Einspruch gegen Paulus”, ZNW 70 (1979), pp. 44-53.)

Conzelmann writes in his commentary (p. 57),

The section 2:6-16 stands out from its context both in style and in content. It presents a self-contained idea, a commonplace of “wisdom.” It is a contradiction of his previous statements when Paul now announces after all a positive, undialectical possibility of cultivating a wisdom of the “perfect.”

Walker summarizes (p. 128) E. Earle Ellis’s view of the evidence for a non-Pauline origin:

    1. the shift from the singular … to the plural with the “we”, i.e. the pneumatics as the subject …
    2. the unity of the section independent of its context, and
    3. the considerable number of phrases not found elsewhere in the Pauline literature’.

On the basis of such evidence, Ellis concludes that “on balance, 1 Cor. 2.6-16 is probably a pre-formed piece that Paul has employed and adapted to its present context”.

Walker thus points out three possibilities:

  1. it was composed by Paul, using ideas and terminology taken from his opponents,
  2. it was composed by someone other than Paul but was included in the Corinthian letter by Paul, or
  3. it was both written and added to the Corinthian letter by someone other than Paul (not necessarily the same person, however).

Walker argues for #3. In doing so he addresses the counter-claims of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor who concludes that the passage is indeed by Paul (Interpolations in 1 Corinthians – link is to JSTOR article).

No Manuscript Evidence for Interpolation?

Some biblical scholars insist that we cannot make a serious case for interpolations unless we have anomalous manuscript evidence that physically demonstrates variations in editing lines. This is essentially an ostrich argument. The earliest manuscripts we have are those produced by the winners of the theological wars. We know editors fought their battles by modifying source texts. This state of affairs is not unique to the biblical texts since it is well-known that in other ancient literature interpolations were very common, and a problem that even ancient custodians (as in the Alexandrian Library) confronted. (See the Interpolations posts for additional discussion.)

Contextual Evidence for Interpretation

There is an abrupt shift at verse 6 read more »

Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #2

Here we look at

a. the announcement to the parents of John the Baptist;

b. the heralding role of John the Baptist.

Future posts will continue this series.

read more »

Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #1

* The table is primarily a translation and slight modification of pages 183-226 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper. All posts archived here.

From time to time I will post a section of a multi-page table* suggesting “intertextual” (or “midrashic”) links between the canonical gospel narratives and the “Old Testament” or Jewish Scriptures. I use “suggesting” because the links have come from a variety of sources and not presented as certainties. Readers will no doubt be able to suggest others and may find some room to raise questions about what is listed here.

Future posts will continue this series. Here we look at

a. The Genealogies of Jesus, and

b. Luke’s scene of the Annunciation to Mary

Tables for the birth of John the Baptist and Matthew’s nativity narrative will follow. read more »

How Ignatius Cut Christianity Off From its Jewish Roots

(updated 2 hours after first posting)

This post is a distillation of the chapter “Why Ignatius Invented Judaism” by Daniel Boyarin in The Ways That Often Parted: Essays in Honor of Joel Marcus. It covers the same questions addressed by Roger Parvus (see sidebox) but with a different hypothesis.

Roger Parvus posted a series on Vridar arguing that the letters of Ignatius were in fact composed by a follower of a breakaway sect from Marcionism. Roger’s thesis builds upon ideas advanced by earlier scholars that the letters of Ignatius show signs of the teachings of someone closely related to Marcionism, such as Apelles, a former disciple of Marcion. Roger also revisits and develops an idea that first appeared a century ago in scholarly publications that the author of the original letters was in fact that colorful character Peregrinus, the subject of a satire by Lucian.

The essence of Boyarin’s view is that Ignatius

a. used the term that we translate as “Judaism” to refer to any attempt to link gospel details to the Old Testament; and that

b. the gospel of Jesus Christ stood as true without any reference to Old Testament prophecies or scriptures.

This idea throws an interesting perspective on thesis we have at times addressed on this blog that the canonical gospel characters, events and sayings were constructed out “midrashic” or intertextual interpretations of Old Testament books and that their symbolic meanings were subsequently lost by those Christians who became the foundation of the Church we know today. Can the epistles of Ignatius be viewed as an early stage of that misunderstanding and loss of the original meaning of our gospels? (These, of course, are my questions, not those directly raised by Boyarin.)

Boyarin begins by comparing Paul’s and Ignatius’s respective uses of the term “Judaism” (Ioudaismos). For Paul it meant performing certain practices, not an institution. Thus when Paul writes

and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions (Gal. 1:14 NASB)

Daniel Boyarin

he means the “practice of Jewish ways of loyalty to the traditional doings of Jews” that Josephus described as

the ancestral [traditions] of the Ioudaioi (τὰ πάτρια τῶν Ἰουδαίων – A.J. 20.41)

It does not mean an abstract category of “a religion”. It means performing practices, customs, rituals, etc. It is the counterpart of what Thucydides complained that Plataeans were doing when they were “Medizing” — that is, “forsaking their ancestral traditions” (παραβαίνοντες τὰ πάτρια, Thucydides, P.W. 3.61.2), copying the customs of the Medes. (I am only presenting the main idea: Boyarin’s justification for this interpretation is a lengthy discussion of Galatians passages than I have outlined above.)

For Paul, it was the Jewish law that stood against the gospel. For Ignatius, however, gospel stood in opposition to Jewish scriptures.

Old Fables/Myths

At one point Ignatius equates “heterodoxy and old myths” with this Judaizing of his heretics:

Be not deceived by heterodoxiai nor by old fables, which are useless. For if we continue to live until now according to Ioudaismos, we confess that we have not received grace” (Magn. 8.1).

Could such fables possibly be connected with Jewish Scriptures here? Ignatius links them with “Judaizing”. Ignatius continues from the above passage to speak positively of the prophets, but he used the fact that they were persecuted (Magn 8:2) as evidence that they were on his side (Barrett, 237). In the Pastoral epistles we likewise read of the association of Judaism with mythology — Titus 1:14; I Timothy 1:4; 4:7; II Timothy 4:4). Ignatius appears to criticize the “Judaizers” for “mythologizing” the Scriptures: i.e. either reading them literally (Barrett, 237) or midrashically (my suggestion).

Gospel versus Scriptures

The first Christian to make that declaration, as far as we know, was Marcion. (Boyarin doubts that Ignatius took the idea from Marcion but Parvus argues that that was exactly where the idea ultimately derived.) The key passage is in Ignatius’s letter to the Philadelphians: read more »

Damnation Upon That Christ Myth Theory!

Richard Carrier has posted his response to David Litwa’s chapter that professes to be addressing the Christ Myth theory:

I also posted on the same chapter by Litwa:

Carrier’s post comes with a much more lively and colourful style than mine.

 

Symbolic Characters #3: Mary, Personification of the Jewish People, “Re-Virgined”

Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .

–o–

After this post I will pause from addressing NC’s book for a little while because I want to get a firm grasp of the next section before posting, and I think it is a very critical section, one that addresses the formation of the figure of Jesus in the gospels.

Here we continue the theme of suggesting what collective groups different individual persons in the gospels represent. The key takeaway is that there are reasons to think that certain names stand for larger entities, e.g. John the Baptist represents the Prophets of the “Old Testament” pointing to Jesus, the twelve disciples represent the foundation of the “new Israel” or Church, and so forth. In this post we have a look at the virgin mother of Jesus.

On “Twelve disciples” as the foundation of a “new Israel”: I have tended to think that the idea of the Twelve Disciples as a foundation of the Church was a second-century attempt to rebut Marcionism (i.e., the belief that Paul alone was the one true apostolic founder of the church). If so, the Gospel of Mark which arguably depicts Peter and the Twelve as failures (see Ted Weeden), was in some sympathy with Marcionism, but the later gospels with their positive spin on the Twelve stand in opposition to Marcionism; if so, they would have been authored closer to the mid-second century. Perhaps even the Gospel of Mark was written as an attempt to denounce attempts to establish a certain “orthodoxy” on the myth of The Twelve as opposed to Paul.

–o–

Other Vridar posts on the Cana miracle are by Tim Widowfield:

Mary and the Cana Wedding

Again we notice evidence of symbolism in a gospel story. We have a wedding narrative consisting of inversions of passages in the Jewish Scriptures. Other figurative language in the gospels leads us to see this wedding as a representation of an end-time event, a successful marriage to supplant the failed marriage of “old Israel” with Yahweh.

The following table blends parts of what I read in both Charbonnel and Mergui‘s books:

Jn 2:1  On the third day, Hosea 6:2 “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. (i.e. a New Creation)
 a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee The Wedding = the covenant of Yahweh with his people Israel;

Galilee = the land of gentiles. (Isaiah 9:1)

Cana = from late Hebrew qanah meaning to acquire, to gain, to possess (c.f. Cain)

The scene represents the end time wedding of the enlarged Israel that includes gentiles.

 Jesus’ mother was there The mother is also the people, the bride (Isaiah 22)
2:2  and Jesus [= YHWH who Saves] and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. The messiah is the husband of his people (Jer. 31:3)
2:3  the wine was gone,

“They have no more wine.”

The wine is the Word or Law of Yahweh (Prov. 9:5; compare Ps. 73:10 where “waters” = word of Yahweh).

The old wine thus suggests the first (Mosaic) Law.

The words of the mother of Jesus, or the old Israel, contains a recollection of the rebellion of Israel with its complaining to God of what they lacked, or rebellion against the law. This may explain Jesus’ distant response.

2:4  “Woman” = Eve (Genesis 2:23)
2:5  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” = the text of Genesis 41:55 — “Go to Joseph and do what he tells you.” (Jesus is the new Joseph who has come to feed his people.)

Obedience leads to a new wine, one that is much better — the new Law that replaces the old.

2:6  Nearby stood six stone water jars Six is the number of incompleteness: we are on the cusp of the last days.

The purification jars are filled with water (for purification of the Jews) but wine replaces mere water of purification

2:8  Then he told them, “Now draw some out” The messiah brings new wine: Joel 3:18; Isaiah 25:6; Hosea 14:7

.

Virgin Mothers of Moses and Jesus

Jochebad was said to be 130 years old when she gave birth to Moses. (Pedro Américo: Misés e Jocabed, Wikimedia Commons)

Keep in mind that NC is not merely saying that gospel characters are symbolic. The point is much richer than that. The figures and actions are constructed in dialogue with (and with the use of) extracts from the Hebrew Bible. This is their midrashic nature.

NC shares an idea from  Armand Abécassis (who has set out his own case for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew being a form of Jewish midrash on the Old Testament) in which the gospels have engaged with a rabbinical view of their time that Moses was born of a virgin. Again, we find the clues in the later writings of the Talmud and suspect the claim that they represented very early traditions may have some factual basis.

Exodus 2:1-2 (NKJV)

And a man of the house of Levi went and took as wife a daughter of Levi. So the woman conceived and bore a son. And when she saw that he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months.

In the Babylonian Talmud’s Sotah 12a we read that Amram and Jochebad, the parents-to-be of Moses, divorced when learning of Pharaoh’s decree that all male children of Hebrew marriages would be killed. Their daughter Miriam, however, advised Amram that he had been wrong to put her away and to take her back and remarry her.

At this time Jochebad was 130 years old. In several ways Jochebad was seen to represent the entire body of Israel. Though conceived outside Egypt she was born to Levi in Egypt, so her life had spanned the entire time of Israel in Egypt, and her actions were reported to and followed by all of Israel. Just as Egypt, a representative of the pagan nations, carried within its own womb the hope of her salvation, that is Israel, so Jochebad, bore in her womb the future liberator of Israel. The fact that she was taken back by her husband who had decided not to have any more relations with her is interpreted by the Jewish tradition as the symbolization of the renewal of the community.

Now when Jochebad was restored to Amram God performed a remarkable miracle. He changed her back to a young maiden, a virgin even. read more »

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples

Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .

–o–

John the Baptist

Maybe I’m just naturally resistant to new ideas but I found myself having some difficulty with Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] opening stage of her discussion about John the Baptist. (Recall we have been looking at plausibility of gospel figures being personifications of certain groups, with Jesus himself symbolizing a new Israel.) NC begins with an extract from Maximus of Turin’s interpretation: by cross-referencing to Paul’s statements that the “head of a man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3) Maximus concluded that the decapitation of John the Baptist represented Christ being cut off from the adherents to the Law, the Jews. Without the head they were a lifeless corpse.

Further, if we accept the passage about Jesus in Josephus’s Antiquities as genuine, NC suggests that it is not impossible that Josephus was writing of what he had heard indirectly from messianic Jews in Rome who had spoken of a figurative or literary figure that was confused at some point with a historical one.

We may not like that interpretation but at least Maximus recognized something symbolic about John the Baptist. As NC reminds us, he was the one who greets the messiah from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41), the one who asks questions designed to recognize Jesus, the one who acts out Elijah’s confrontation with the lawless Jezebel and king Ahab. Even if we accept the entry about John the Baptist in Josephus as genuine and acknowledge that there was a historical “John the Baptist”, this person is depicted in symbolic roles in the gospels.

John the Baptist by Titian. Wikimedia Commons

NC has more to say but permit me to give my own view, or perhaps a mix of my own with NC’s. John the Baptist is presented initially in the physical image of the arch-prophet, Elijah, and is calling upon all Israel to repent and prepare for the messiah. They all come out into the wilderness to do so. In Luke’s gospel when different groups (soldiers, tax collectors and others) ask John what they should do John replies with the fundamental spiritual intent of the law in each case: be merciful. Surely this is all symbolic of the Law and Prophets being the articles of the covenant made between Israel and God in the wilderness, and just as the early Christians found Jesus predicted in the prophets so John, the final prophet, points them to Jesus the messiah. Later we find the same prophet asking Jesus if he is the one, with Jesus replying with signs as recorded in the Prophets to assure him. John, meanwhile (as NC herself notes as significant), is martyred just as many other prophets before him, and just as Jesus himself will be. The tale is surely told as symbolism and the character John as a literary personification. Jesus emerges from the Prophets. It is the Prophets who all point towards Jesus Christ.

So when John says he is not worthy to baptize Jesus, he is saying that Jesus is greater than the Law and Prophets. Jesus, however, replies that he has come to submit to the Law and Prophets. His baptism represents the emerging in his full spiritual reality the new Israel, the one prophesied in the prophets. This is not the baptism described in Josephus. It is a baptism of repentance, of preparation for the Christ.

The absence of biographical or other historical information is telling. We only have details that call out for symbolic interpretation. The reason each evangelist can modify the narrative is not because they were working with historical data but entirely in their own imaginative interpretation of the way the Prophets pointed readers to Christ.

“John” and Peter race to the tomb

I say “John” for convenience and according to tradition. The Gospel of John notably does not name the disciple, appearing to identify him with the “beloved” disciple

The famous Gregory who became the Pope in the sixth/seventh century identified a possible symbolic meaning of the Gospel of John’s account of John and Peter running to the empty tomb.  Quoted by NC, Gregory sought a meaning in John arriving first at the tomb but not entering, with Peter coming later yet being the first to enter. John was interpreted as the Synagogue, the Jews, who had “come first” to Christ, but failed to “enter”. Peter, representing the gentiles, arrived later but was the first to believe. [See Gregory the Great Homily 22 on the Gospels; see also comments below for further discussion]

The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed . . . (John 20:4-8)

Disciples Running to the Tomb / E. Burnand. Wikimedia Commons

Interesting possibility. But if the “beloved disciple” is rather meant to be an unfalsifiable witness (and he, not Peter, is said to be the one who believed), it is hard to identify the same with the “Jews of the synagogue”. On the other hand, given what we know of Peter as the apostle to the gentiles, the one who stands between Jews and gentiles (hence his “double-minded” reputation?) something along the lines of Gregory’s interpretation does have some appeal.

Other points to consider, as per NC: John (meaning God is gracious) does have a sound similarity to Jonah, another representative of Jews in the old story. (Then we also have Peter being identified in the Gospels of Matthew and John with the son of Jonah.) NC promises to return to Peter in the last chapter. I will be patient.

Again, we have details that are not typically found in biographies. Recall the same point (especially with respect to the Gospel of John) in How the Gospels Became History. Such details appear pointless in themselves; they scream out for symbolic interpretation — and many ministers and preachers have understood this point well enough to prepare many sermons drawing out various meanings for their congregations.

The Twelve Apostles: the twelve tribes of Israel

This one is easier. The twelve patriarchs in Genesis are treated as symbolic representatives of the tribes that bore their names. I think many of us have seen in the Twelve Disciples a new founding group of the “new Israel”.

NC sees three principles underlying any interpretation of the Twelve. read more »

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles

Continuing our series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .

–o–

Where did the gospel characters come from?

Nanine Charbonnel [NC] presents a case for the parabolic or symbolic character of the gospels. In the second chapter of the second part of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier, we see how narrative figures who appear as historical persons are best explained as symbols of collective groups. We have seen how in the Jewish Scriptures individuals in a story represent nations: e.g. In Hosea the person Israel stands for the whole of Israel; Abraham and Sarah being expelled from Egypt prefigure the Exodus, and many other cases can be cited.) Here are NC’s thoughts on some Gospel figures.

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Zechariah and Elizabeth

This couple represents the Jews of the Temple.

Zechariah (=YHWH remembers). In the Protoevangelium of James (or Infancy Gospel of James) Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is slain by Herod for refusing to reveal where his son John was hidden. In the Jewish Bible the same name is martyred by the king Joash. Joash had been hidden safe from the murderous Athaliah by the father of Zechariah, the priest Jehoiada, but forgot his kindness and had his son Zechariah stoned (2 Chronicles 24:17-22).

Elizabeth is said to be descended from Aaron in Luke 1:5.

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.

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Mary and Martha

Vincent Adriaenssen – Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (Wikimedia)

These sisters are drawn from Naomi and Ruth in the Book of Ruth. They represent the Jews and the gentile converts. The gentiles preceded the Jews.

Since the Middle Ages much there has been much discussion about how their roles act out the superiority of the contemplative over the active life. But that meaning was far from the mind their original creator, says NC.

Naomi is called Mara:

“Call me not Naomi [that is, Pleasant]. Call me Mara [that is, Bitter], for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. (Ruth 1:20)

She came from Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1-2).

The fourth evangelist changed Naomi-Mara of Bethlehem to Mary of Bethany (=house of affliction (or figs)).

Martha is Ruth of Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22) with the prefix mem (מ) (préfixe qui sert à faire des noms, = prefix used to make names, NC 228) added to RWTH (rūt – ר֖וּת) to make MaRWTH — which becomes Martha in Greek. So Ruth of Bethlehem becomes Martha of Bethany.

Jesus gently chides Martha for her busyness and commend Mary for having chosen the appropriate response to his presence. Martha is eclipsed by Mary just as the Mosaic covenant with its preoccupation with works of the law is eclipsed by the way of “a good heart and prayer”. This is how it was with Naomi and Ruth.

The two women divide their tasks. After years in Moab Naomi-Mara hears that there is bread to be found in Bethlehem (=house of bread) so she rises and returns. Once back home there, she sits in the house while Ruth gleans for bread. Finally, she sits Ruth down to find her a husband. The author of the Gospel of Luke has transferred these attitudes to “anyone who agrees to listen to the story of Israel”. Mary-Mara is sitting down because one day earlier she got up and one day again she will get up. Martha-Ruth is busy with food because one day (a different time) she sat down to listen to the Torah and another day she will be seated to listen to it again. Mary and Martha, like Naomi and Ruth, are living out the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, the gift of the Torah, the permanent gift of the Word . . . .

(More paraphrase than translation of Marie Vidal, Jesus and Virounèka, 2000, p. 168, quoted in NC 228f. The link is to an Amazon page with a description of the book. Use Google Translate to convert it to English.)

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The Hemorrhaging Woman and Daughter of Jairus

read more »

Gospel Parables and the “Birth” of the Messiah as a Personification of Israel

Continuing the series . . .

Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] last pages of her chapter on the meaning of “fulfilment” in the gospels dovetail with John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable and Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus (links are to Vridar posts discussing these works) – and with any other writing that has argued that the Gospels are parables.

We know that Jesus was famous for speaking in parables but NC (like “Jesus historicist” Crossan and “Jesus mythicist” Brodie) goes further and suggests that the gospel stories about Jesus and all that he did are written as parables.

In what follows I attempt to convey some rough sketch of NC’s thesis. We will see that she delves into deeper technical reasons for reading the gospels as “parables”.

That the character of Jesus himself is a parable is most clearly seen in the Gospel of John where we read, explicitly, that Jesus is “the word”, that his appearance in flesh is a visible form of “the word”. In this gospel it is accordingly easier to grasp that “biographical” episodes of Jesus, such as his encounter with the sisters Martha and Mary, are parables whose meaning is not hidden very far beneath their surfaces. The acts of Jesus are dramatizations of the word.

Explicit and hidden

There are places in the gospels where an implied narrator informs readers that a specific thing happened as a fulfilment of an “Old Testament” prophecy. Matthew 2 contains the most memorable instances:

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

. . . 

 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

NC writes that these explicit pointers are there to highlight for the reader the rule of the game. The fulfilment applies to the whole narrative. Parables in the mouth of Jesus ought not lead the reader to think that the gospel narrative itself is a parable. The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as told in Luke 4 announces the fulfilment of a text that served as a major inspiration for the author of the gospel’s larger narrative:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.

Crucifixion by Leon Bonnat (Wikimedia)

The immediate narrative meaning is that Jesus is announcing that his presence before the Nazareth congregation is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The reader knows, however, that what is being fulfilled is the entire life and death of Jesus as fleshed out through the entire gospel.

If in Luke we read Jesus’ opening words declaring that he is fulfilling the scriptures, in the Gospel of John chapter 19 we read Jesus’ last words declaring that he has fulfilled them all.

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, It is finished.”

The Greek words are different but the meaning is the same:

Luke 4:21 — πεπλήρωται / peplērōtai (is fulfilled)

John 19:30 — τετέλεσται / tetelestai (it is finished/accomplished)

The Gospels as fulfilment

To take a closer look at those two words: read more »

Further on a “Midrashic” View of the Gospels

Continuing from the previous post, discussing Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . .

I stopped short in my last blog post when I came to NC’s comparison of the gospels with the OT books of Esther and Ruth. I complete that little section here.

The gospels are about “the end times”, as we saw. But they obviously do not employ the “end times” style of apocalyptic literature. If they have any models they are more like Esther and Ruth — two books that NC associates with “midrash”, with the “perfect illusion of historicity”. The words of Maurice Mergui in Paul à Patras are quoted. To get some helpful context I translate/paraphrase somewhat more than NC uses:

We have been examining the hypothesis of midrash. According to this hypothesis, the Gospels (including the Johannine and Pauline corpora) are midrashic elaborations that yield no basis for any historical content. This hypothesis comes up against a frequent objection. Jewish midrash usually looks like a quotation of biblical text linked to commentary. The gospels obviously do not have this form. They are narratives that look very much like historical accounts. Paul’s letters certainly have no equivalent in Jewish midrash. Therefore, the objection goes, the midrashic theory for this NT literature should be rejected.

The first objection (that midrash is inconsistent with narrative forms) falls apart when we notice that midrash does indeed know how to create forms very like narratives while giving a perfect illusion of historicity. Two examples are the books of Ruth and Esther which are “real marvels” of this register. . . .

Look at what the redactor of Esther does. He goes through the eschatological cycle. He finds a new way of relating the coming of the messiah at the climax of a crisis. This story must be told over and over in different ways so as not to let the messianic idea be lost, become empty and disappear. The story of Esther confronts readers with their own reality of the absence of God and messiah (God does not even appear in the story), of a life of exile, suffering and violence, a the real possibility of losing all messianic hope. The same story idea — the rescue at the moment of peak threat — is told anew. The story speaks of exile, of conspiracy against the Jews, the impossibility of approaching the king, the pagan festival — the story is one of “ultimate test”. Similarly with Ruth, we read again: famine, exile, union with pagans, impossibility of having a son (a messiah) — but then miraculously at the end we find the appearance or light of the messiah. In these narratives we find the messiah making his rescue at the moment of extreme tribulation.

NC’s point in citing Mergui is to stress the capacity of midrash to create a narrative illusion of being fully immersed in real events.

I think that the messianic references seen in the OT stories are overstated. The theme of Esther is surely the victory of God in the last days as he rescues his people from the brink of extinction. Messiahs sometimes appear in such narratives, perhaps, especially in the extracanonical ones, but they are optional to the central theme. Sometimes the central figure is a “Servant”, or a “Son of Man”, and sometimes these figures will evolve into or be conflated with a messianic figure. Some of us might even wonder if there is room for a new term to describe the type of “midrash” Mergui and NC speak of. But these are peripheral issues to the central arguments.

Careful readers would have noticed Mergui’s reference to the letters of Paul in the same discussion. Thomas Brodie, I think, would be most interested in Mergui’s discussion of Paul. Brodie and Mergui deny the historicity of the “Paul” behind the letters. The Paul we implicit in the correspondence is a literary persona. Mergui compares him with Moses and sees several recurrent themes in the letters to support this “midrashic” interpretation. But again, that’s another story. I’ll try to keep working on NC’s book for now.


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

Mergui, Maurice. 2015. Paul à Patras: Une approche midrashique du paulinisme. Objectif Transmission. Kindle Edition.