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.

To Ask if Bible Events Actually Happened Guarantees the Bible Will Be Misunderstood

Continuing with my discussion of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . .

An earlier post in this series, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3b. Creative Intertextuality, briefly touched on the ways stories in the Pentateuch came to be rewritten so that one mirrored another: e.g. Abraham and Sarah’s experience in Egypt and being expelled under duress pairs with the subsequent Exodus narrative. Deuteronomy itself is a rewriting of the earlier books of the Pentateuch. We read stories as “fulfillments” of other stories; scenario types are written as a kind of commentary on other stories, or as indicative of a deeper meaning of other stories. We see narrative “typology” within the works of the Hebrew Bible so when we find the New Testament narratives similarly drawing events and persons of the Jewish Scriptures we must understand that we are witnessing a continuation of a literary practice that was centuries old. And just as Deuteronomy was a certain kind of rewriting of the previous books so the Acts of the Apostles may have a similar function with respect to the preceding canonical gospels.

But Charbonnel goes further yet. The Incarnation itself was a literary product of the way the Hebrew language conceptualizes temporality.

At this point, I have to confess I am still grappling to acquire a fluent understanding of Charbonnel’s discussion. It involves Hebrew grammar, changes in Hebrew grammar during the Roman era and its relationship with Greek. The best I can do for now is to give some idea of the conclusion and a few details of Charbonnel’s argument but only so readers can see it “through a glass darkly”.

When reading this section of Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier I was reminded of my first lecture in French 101 at university. “If there is one lesson I want you to take away from this course, it is to understand that other people think differently” — those were the first words of the professor in that classroom and I can hear his voice still. The same lesson certainly applies to biblical Hebrew and time.

The general idea being argued is that stories (a kind of midrash) were written as if taking place in the past yet in the minds of the original storytellers and audiences they were “outside time”, “ever-present” — both future and also past but always present. (Compare the brief discussion of Hebrew “tenses” in the previous post.)

In the OT Prophetic writings the expression for “in those days” was essentially a pointer to messianic time and not a literal historical (or specific future historical time) marker. When the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke begins “in those days” it is a signal that we are reading of the messianic time spoken of in the prophets. It is not, despite our natural English translation reading and context, primarily pointing to the historical time of Augustus and Herod. To help us see what is going on here, compare the Protoevangium of James. We read there an elaboration of the nativity scenes in Matthew and Luke. The elaboration of those canonical stories fills in gaps and ties up loose ends that are left with us from the bare canonical accounts. Those “fillers” are taken from other narratives in the Jewish Scriptures, especially 1 Samuel. We read about the birth of Mary in circumstances that recall the births of Samuel and Isaac. Then we read of the childhood of Mary and her giving birth to Jesus in scenes that involve midwives and Salome and a new setting, a cave. We are reading a retelling of the canonical narratives with ideas from both the Scriptures and other interpretations presumably discussed among the author’s contemporaries. The new story is not historical. It is an interpretation constructed from attempts to answer questions about the canonical stories by weaving in new ideas from Scriptures and elsewhere. The story is about “the coming of Christ”.

I am reminded of the argument of Thomas L. Thompson about the way the stories of the Hebrew Bible were written. He is discussing what we classify as the “historical” books of the Bible.

When we ask whether the events of biblical narrative have actually happened, we raise a question that can hardly be satisfactorily answered. The question itself guarantees that the Bible will be misunderstood. One of the central contrasts that divide the understanding of the past that we find implied in biblical texts from a modern understanding of history lies in the way we think about reality.

. . . 

Chronology in this kind of history is not used as a measure of change. It links events and persons, makes associations, establishes continuity. It expresses an unbroken chain from the past to the present. This is not a linear as much as it is a coherent sense of time. It functions so as to identify and legitimize what is otherwise ephemeral and transient. Time marks a reiteration of reality through its many forms. Nor is ancient chronology based on a sense of circular time, in the sense of a return to an original reality. The first instance of an event is there only to mark the pattern of reiteration. It is irrelevant whether a given event is earlier or later than another. Both exist as mirrored expressions of a transcendent reality. Closely linked with this ancient perception of time is the philosophical idea we find captured in the Book of Ecclesiastes (1: 9-11):

There is nothing new under the sun. If we can say of anything: that it is new, it has been seen already long since. This event of the past is not remembered. Nor will the future events, which will happen again be remembered by those who follow us.

When God created the world, he created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. All of history is already included in the creation. This is also what lies behind the idea of ‘fate’, which, as a classic premiss of Greek tragedy, reflects the human struggle against destiny. The only appropriate response is acceptance and understanding.

. . .  read more »

How the Gospels Became History

We discuss here the second of three parts of the chapter about "scriptural fulfillments" 
in Nanine Charbonnel's Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . 

. . .

The Jewish Scriptures spoke of times that were supposed to be fulfilled in coming days and in the text of the New Testament we read of those events having been fulfilled.

What is going on here? Nanine Charbonnel (NC) picks up from her earlier discussion of “midrash” and other specifically Hebrew techniques [the links below take you to posts where that earlier discussion was presented here] and begins to show how they apply to the creation of Jesus in the gospels.

 

The word of God has the power to create its own fulfilment

Readers of the Jewish Scriptures were confronted with passages such as Isaiah 55:11

. . . my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Healing at Pool of Bethesda. (From Picryl) But here’s the problem. This sort of detail is not what we find in other works that really are historical accounts in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

There is a point of Hebrew grammar here that needs some explanation because it is quite unlike anything in English.

Our verbs have tenses, most simply, past, present and future. Hebrew verbs don’t, well not quite. Instead, they express either completed and incomplete actions, perfect and imperfect. The perfect form or completed action can be translated as the past tense: e.g. I said, I have said, etc.; the imperfect or incomplete action can be translated as either the present or future tense: e.g. I shall say, I am saying, etc.

But there’s a catch. The little consonant, waw = ו (meaning “and”), just to make it interesting, can be added to either of these Hebrew “tenses” and reverse them! So a ו added to a perfect verb (I said) turns it into a present or future tense; and a ו added to an imperfect (future tense) turns it into a past or perfect tense.

Such is my no doubt very simplistic and overly simplistic explanation of the little I have read about Hebrew and what I gleaned from NC’s discussion of that particular point.

The point is that Hebrew expressions can be ambivalent about when, or the time, they are supposed to refer to. Many of us are aware, for example, of how a passage translated in the past tense in the Bible is understood by the reader to refer to a future event.

I better stop here before I get myself in over my head. It’s a long time since I’ve attempted to learn any basic Hebrew. But I am reasonably confident that the above is more or less how Hebrew works and what NC is addressing.

And Jeremiah 1:12

Then the Lord said to me, “You have seen well, for I am ready to perform My word.”

Then Jeremiah 33:

14 ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘that I will perform that good thing which I have promised to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah:

15 ‘In those days and at that time
I will cause to grow up to David
A Branch of righteousness;
He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.
16 In those days Judah will be saved,
And Jerusalem will dwell safely.
And this is the name by which she will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.’

That “I will perform” is an instance of that waw at work: וַהֲקִֽמֹתִי֙ — so the past or perfect tense (have performed) is transformed into a present or future tense (will perform).

The Church Fathers were aware of this linguistic aspect of the Hebrew. Irenaeus explains it in his Discourse in Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, para 67:

At this point let us speak of His healings. Isaiah says thus:

He took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses: (Isa. liii. 4)

that is to say, He shall take, and shall bear. For there are passages in which the Spirit of God through the prophets recounts things that are to be as having taken place. For that which with God is essayed and conceived of as determined to take place, is reckoned as having already taken place: and the Spirit, regarding and seeing the time in which the issues of the prophecy are fulfilled, utters the words (accordingly). 

Eschatological expectation

I am not so convinced that “messianic movements” were a feature of Second Temple Judaism as I have discussed in other posts. But I present NC’s thesis here as accurately as I can. On the other hand, I do find her point about prophets at the time very interesting.

NC stresses the importance of “the intensity of eschatological anticipation” in Israel from the time of their Babylonian exile and especially through to the time of Daniel and no doubt at the time of the Roman conquest and plundering of the Jerusalem temple in 63 BCE. The great sociologist Max Weber’s testimony is brought in to emphasize the point.

Peculiar for the Israelite expectation is the increasing intensity with which paradise, or the savior prince, were projected into the future: the first out of the past, the last out of the present. This did not happen in Israel alone, but this expectancy has never become central to religious faith with such obviously ever-increasing momentum. Yahwe’s old berith with Israel, his promise in conjunction with the criticism of the miserable present made this possible. But only the momentum of prophecy made Israel to this unique degree a people of “hope” and “tarrying” (Gen. 49: 18).

(Weber, 233)

This messianic hope in the life of Israel was “messianic”. An ideal figure, an “anointed” one, was “typically Jewish”, we might say. What made the Messiah or Christ figure of Christianity so different was that this figure was to be preached to the entire world, to all nations; he transcended “the Jewish people”. Jesus will be the “anointed” (=”messiah”, “christ”) for all of humanity, not just the Jews. This is the message of “Third Isaiah” — Isaiah 56-66.

For the sake of a refresher here are some passages from those chapters (though not quoted by NC here): read more »

The Christian Revolution: The Threefold Fulfillment of Scripture

Continuing with Nanine Charbonnel's Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . 

. . .

We are not talking about a violent revolution but a revolution in the way the Jewish Scriptures were read, the one that launched Christianity itself, or at least Christianity as we know it to be grounded in belief in the four gospels.

Nanie Charbonnel (NC) begins the nitty-gritty of her discussion with this question of hermeneutics. The Jewish Scriptures came to be read as foreshadowings of what was to be fulfilled as reality in Christianity. (This is to be distinguished from the sort of allegorical reading Philo practised. For Christians it was important to begin with the understanding that the OT spoke of historical reality that was rather like a shadow-acting out of what was to come.) There were three types of fulfilment all bound up together:

1. The promises, the prophets, the psalms, in the OT were read as having been fulfilled in the last days which were “here and now” — the “old” Israel was replaced by a “new” and “true” Israel;

2. History itself was at an end, being completed in the “here and now” of the days of the advent of God’s works through the introduction of “Christianity”;

3. The true moral meaning of the Scriptures was found in Christian interpretation: the “old” Jewish reading of the Scriptures was barren, literal, legalistic, dominated by a God of wrath; the “new” Christian reading was life, spiritual, faith, introducing a God of love.

And all of these fulfillments culminated in Jesus.

Our “Christian tradition” has misunderstood the original meaning of this fulfilment with respect to ethics. Often we have heard and read about how Christianity introduced a “spiritual” and higher ethic than was found in the OT, so different that the advent of Christianity can be seen as the marker of a new evolutionary phase for humanity. Notice, for example, the way the word “τέλειος” has been translated in Jesus’ instruction to the rich man who wanted eternal life.

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

But the word more strictly means “fulfilled”, “completed”, “accomplished”. The idea is not that Jesus was teaching a hitherto unknown level of perfection, but that he was teaching fulfilment of an ideal, a hope.

The Prophets longed for a time when God’s rule would bring about mercy, justice, healing. The Beatitudes we read from the mouth of Jesus were not a new teaching per se but rather a fulfilment of what was once expressed as a longed-for hope. Recall Isaiah 61:

Matthew 5:

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
3 To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness . . .

The “superior ethic” is in fact a proclamation of eschatology. The prophecy, the hope of the old, has been fulfilled.

We know of different ways Jews have sought to find meanings in the Scriptures by exploring and “discovering” various nuances of meaning, but when we come to early Christian interpretations of the Scriptures we have changed tracks and tended to assume that the first Christian exegetes were beginning with historical events and looking for explanations of those events in the Scriptures. The Jesuit priest Xavier Leon-Dufour, sums up this viewpoint:

Some points are accepted by all. Long before the early Christians, Scripture was referred to as the manifestation of the word of God; but we did it differently. [Other than the targumim,] sometimes we wanted to comment on the text of the Scripture to make it more alive and more assimilable: the inquiries of the rabbis ended in the midrashim. Still earlier it was declared that such a prophecy, for example that of Habakkuk, announced in its own way the events experienced by contemporaries: we know the Qumran pesher. In all these cases we therefore sought to actualize the divine Word. The first Christians did not do otherwise: for them too, the key to interpreting the events they had just experienced was found in the Holy Scriptures. . . .

Something, however, radically differentiates their practice from Jewish exegesis. What is first for Christians is not the scriptural text, but the event. If they use Scripture, it is not to comment on it according to their time; it is to better understand the events experienced by them.

(From Preface to C.H. Dodd’s French edition of According to the Scriptures, NC: 155)

The Christian approach has been to begin with the historical reality of events addressed in their gospels and to then turn to read the Jewish Scriptures as “proofs” of the divine will and acts behind those events. The irony, NC asserts, is that those events were originally created from texts that had been written (in Hebrew) as Jewish midrash or pesher.

The original church or Christians did not see themselves as some sort of substitute for Judaism; they saw themselves as a fulfilment of Israel according to God’s plan. That is how the assembly in Jerusalem at Pentecost in the opening of Acts is presented.

The New Testament is nothing more than an expression of the belief that the promises of the OT are fulfilled. The New Covenant is essentially the book of Deuteronomy, for instance, with the only difference being that what was promised in Deuteronomy is fulfilled in the NT. Jesus himself is the New Israel, the new people of God, fulfilling the law perfectly. Even his conquering of death is part of this fulfilment since this, too, was part of the hope of Israel.

The “good news” that Jesus preaches is that he himself is the “good news”. He is the kingdom brought near to all. Many readers today, including scholars, have drawn the same interpretation of Jesus’ message, but that’s where they have stopped. They have failed to go on to the next step that should follow from that point: that Jesus himself is a figure created to express that idea. The Jesus figure is created from the promises of the OT as a fulfilment of the OT. He is not a real figure to whom followers sought to attach descriptive scriptures.

What we need to examine are the hermeneutic practices in the Jewish Bible and how it came about that those techniques became confused with “prophecies” that found fulfilment in historical reality.


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


How Jewish Gospels Became Christian Gospels

This post follows on from A Midrashic Hypothesis for the Gospels . We are going through Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier by Nanine Charbonnel. All posts so far are archived at Charbonnel: Jesus Christ sublime figure de papier.

Nanine Charbonnel [NC] at this point begins to study how the fictive figure of Jesus in the gospels was created. A footnote refers any readers who trust “historical testimony” as establishing the historicity of Jesus to read either pages 37-55 of the third edition (1967) of Guy Fau’s La Fable de Jésus-Christ or Nicolas Bourgeois’ Une invention nommée Jésus (2008). Comparable works in English would be G. A. Wells’ Did Jesus Exist?, Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle or Jesus Neither God Nor Man and Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus for their discussions of Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius and others.

NC’s thesis is that the gospels are a type of literature quite unlike anything else most of us have experienced. Old Testament passages are recycled in a way that presents them as predictors of the person and life of Jesus. The proof of this creative process is that every act, attitude, sentiment attributed to Jesus is found in the Jewish Scriptures, that these Scriptures were the raw material from which the authors worked. NC includes forty-four pages of two columns listing Gospel references and their proposed OT sources.

Compare David Strauss’s account of how the evangelists stitched together the scene of Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wilderness. It is evident that the gospel scene is a reworking of Moses’ and Elijah’s forty-day fasts and Israel’s testing for 40 years in the wilderness. NC differs from Strauss’s analysis by suggesting that not only a few scenes but the entire contents of the gospels are shaped from the OT material.

Quant aux doctrines, il faut bien différencier, quand on parle du ‘’christianisme”, ce qui est lisible dans les textes du Nouveau Testament, de la construction théologique qui leur est peut-être concomitante, mais dont on n’a des échos qu’à partir de 150, avec Justin de Naplouse. Tout ce qui est affirmé dans les Évangiles est lié à des problématiques du judaïsme, que Ton connaît par des traditions mises par écrit également à partir du II siècle2; même si l’élaboration doctrinale chrétienne, elle, va se faire par définition dans ce que nous appelons un *Régime sémantique différent : la prise-au- propre de ce qui devait être pris comme invention textuelle.

2 Dans la *Mishna, partie du Talmud.   (p. 134)

As for the doctrines — I cannot be sure I fully grasp the complete sense of the paragraph in the side box. Perhaps a kind reader who has a better grasp of French than I do can help us out here.

As for the dates of the text — we cannot be sure. Many interpreters look for certain crises in the first century to see if they are referenced in the gospels. Example, Pierre Bonnard in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (13:21) believes that the persecutions “because of the word” that Jesus speaks of are in fact Domitian’s persecutions of Christians. However, the gospel could be just as easily have in mind the harsh treatment of the Jews by the Romans. The evangelists are writing about “end times” and the generalized language they use can be applied to many situations — and they have been applied to subsequent events for millennia. What we are reading is not a new message by a Christian Christ figure but rather we have a person named “Yahweh Who Saves” delivering the teaching of Yahweh. Rather than seeing debates that were part of the multi-faceted Judaism of the time, including attempts to make sense of the calamity of 70 CE.

The kind of “midrashic” writing being examined here has been long known among Christian commentators and scholars, in particular among Catholics and French research. But the conclusions drawn are usually limited to the notion that OT references are little more than colouring of historical events.

Très frappant est le fait que l’existence des midrashim est connue depuis quarante ans chez les commentateurs chrétiens (plus exactement : catholiques, car on est étonné de la qualité de l’équipement intellectuel des (quelques) spécialistes protestants, professeurs d’université allemands, dès la fin du xviiie siècle), mais qu’ils y voient une influence superficielle permettant de saisir de simples mises en forme de la réalité historique. Parfois cependant (nous écrivons ceci en 2016), c’est dans la recherche francophone, au sein même de milieux catholiques, que se lisent les recherches les plus fécondes. (p. 135. I would rather another offer a more exact translation this passage than I think I would be able to provide.)

NC speaks of a “glass ceiling” that seems to prevent scholars from seeing that a passage rich in OT intertextuality is actually created entirely from the author’s imagination working on those OT passages. (Again, she reminds readers that she is not attacking the church or Christianity, that she sees herself as culturally Christian, and is only interested in uncovering the truth of where the evidence leads.

The Midrashic Hypothesis of Bernard Dubourg and Maurice Mergui

NC has some caustic words about the Wikipedia article Thèse Mythiste: there the work of Dubourg is grossly misrepresented being related to occultism, solar mythology, etc. No contrary voices are raised — presumably the work of the anonymous guardians of the article.

Bernard Dubourg (1945-1992) paved the way with his pioneering work exploring the depth of the role of gematria in L’invention de Jésus, volume 1 titled L’Hébreu du Nouveau Testament, and volume 2, La fabrication du Nouveau Testament [Links are to the full text available at archive.org]. His work has been taken up and developed by the Hebrew scholar Maurice Mergui, though Mergui has apparently preferred to move away from placing so much emphasis on gematria. [Mergui’s webpage: Le Champ du Midrash]. Mergui’s ten principles for interpreting the New Testament (translation is Google’s with my refinements): read more »

“Who would dare to say that this passage had been composed in Greek by Matthew . . . ?”

Murder of Zechariah / William Hole: Wikipedia

Of course, the same passage can contain at the same time several Semitisms mixed together, the conclusive force of which becomes more pronounced. Let us take a single example:

Matthew 23:25 . . . and so you will draw down on yourselves the blood of every just man (= justs) that has been shed on earth from the blood of Abel the just to the blood of Zachariah, son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the Altar.

Luke 11:50-51 … in order that there be demanded the blood of all the prophets poured out since the creation of the world to this generation, since the blood of Abel up to the blood of Zachariah, who had been murdered between the Altar and the House.

This passage contains two Semitisms of vocabulary (both of them in Luke): to demand the blood of someone means to hold him responsible for a murder and House refers to Temple. This passage contains (also in Luke) a Semitism of transmission: NQY: innocent, just (or, in the plural, NQYYM, as in Jeremiah 19:4) has been confused in Luke with NBY ’ (prophet), which can be written NBY in the spelling of Qumran. This necessitated the altering of the sentence to obtain: the blood of all the prophets. But why compare, in this fashion, the murder of this Zachariah, committed around the year 790 before Jesus Christ, with the murder of Abel committed at the very beginning of the world? One is actually at the beginning of a series, the other is far from being at the end of a series! It is because the murder of this Zachariah in the precincts of the Temple is reported toward the end of the second book of Chronicles, which is the final book of the Hebrew Bible but which is not the last book in the Greek Bible of the Septuagint. In Hebrew this means from the first page of the Bible to the last, but in Greek this no longer signifies anything (and actually for a long time commentators had no understanding of it). Behold, moreover, a Semitism of composition, at one and the same time in Matthew and in Luke! Who would dare to say that this passage had been composed in Greek by Matthew, or Luke, or anyone?

Carmignac, Jean. 1987. The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels. Translated by Michael J. Wrenn. Chicago, Ill: Franciscan Pr. p. 39

Conclusion

For Jean Carmignac, the evidence that the original language of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and documents used by Luke was Hebrew makes his hypothesis secure.

In order to contradict this conclusion, it would be necessary to provide satisfactory explanations, valid in Greek, for all the cases that have been mentioned. (p. 40)

Arguing a fortiori Carmignac presented only the evidence relating to three of the nine types of Semitisms.

Only the Semitisms of the final three categories (composition, transmission, translation) have been retained in order that no objection could be made regarding either the mother tongue of the authors or their desire to imitate the Septuagint. But even in the first five categories (borrowing, imitation, thought, vocabulary, syntax) and especially in the sixth (style), the abundance of evidence presented goes far beyond any possibility that the author was influenced by his mother tongue or by the prestige of a venerable text. For the Greek of our Gospels testifies to a good knowledge of the language: nouns are correctly declined, the verbs accurately conjugated, and the vocabulary is relatively rich. Our Greek Gospels were not written by semiilliterates; they were written by people who possessed a good solid Greek culture, but who did not express themselves with the independence of a redactor, and who believed themselves obliged to render these precious documents in the most slavish fashion possible. Our Synoptic Gospels are not compositions which were realized in Greek; they are translations made upon the Hebrew (except for the Prologue and the introductions of Luke). And therefore the real authors of Mark and Matthew are their Hebrew redactors. For Luke, the situation is less clear, for we do not know if he himself was the translator or if he relied on the competence of some bilingual collaborator; we cannot be specific about which revisions he inserted into the documents which he found before him. But, in general, these reworkings must have been superficial, as the numerous Semitisms which still exist bear witness. (p. 40)

Carmignac acknowledges that his arguments as set out so briefly for a wide audience will not be enough to persuade specialist scholars. They will want more in-depth technical discussions. No doubt. But till then surely his work makes it difficult to ignore a real possibility of a Hebrew background to the gospels.

Hebrew Hypothesis for Synoptic Gospels Continued

The arguments are not widely known so I am setting them out in a series of posts so we can at least begin to ask questions and think about them and have some idea of what questions to raise with specialist scholars. (All posts in this series are archived under the Carmingnac: Birth of the Synoptic Gospels tag.)

As pointed out recently, Jean Carmignac observes nine different types of Semitisms. That same post looked at many of the Semitisms in the #7 type that he believed to be significant for his hypothesis.

  1. Semitisms of Borrowing
  2. Semitisms of Imitation
  3. Semitisms of Thought
  4. Semitisms of Vocabulary
  5. Semitisms of Syntax
  6. Semitisms of Style
  7. Semitisms of Composition
  8. Semitisms of Transmission
  9. Semitisms of Translation

Here is what Carmignac says of the others (with my bolded highlighting):

1. Of Borrowing

e.g. In the Greek gospels we find words like amen, abba, alleluia, and words that transcribe Semitic expressions like messiah, sabbath, pasch, etc.

In themselves, these borrowed words prove nothing, since anyone can quote a few words from a foreign language . . . (p. 21)

2. Of Imitation

Specifically, thinking here of the authors of the gospels imitating the Greek Septuagint even where it translates obvious Semitic turns of phrase:

Each time that a turn of phrase in the New Testament reproduces a turn of phrase from the Septuagint, we will consider it as a possible imitation and, therefore, we will no longer attach any conclusive value to it. (p. 22)

3. Of Thought

Instead of a simple he came, he spoke, he saw, a Semitic phrase would appear as he got up and he came, he opened his mouth and he spoke, he raised his eyes and he saw.

Quoting Joseph Viteau,

“One of the most characteristic marks of the language of the New Testament consists of a total inability to combine, synthesize, subordinate the various elements of thought, and, consequently, construct periodic sentences such as those which the literary language of classical authors presents. To this repugnance or to this inability corresponds a very noticeable tendency to dissociate the elements of thought in order to express them separately. . . . This characteristic of the Greek of the New Testament is to be found constantly in the general structure of the language. . . . Thus there has taken place what we refer to as the dissociation of the Greek language. For the Jew, it was an absence of association and of subordination, as in his own language. For the Greek it was a dissociation of his language as he wrote it himself.” 

Carmignac concludes:

[T]his particular type of Semitism might be able to serve to determine the original milieu of an author, but it would not serve to determine the original language of a work. (p. 23)

4. Of Vocabulary

e.g.

Instead of saying citizen of the kingdom, invited to the banquet, condemned to Hell, man of good will, slave of the world, servant of the good, candidate for the resurrection, agent of evil, opposed to the Faith, one will say son of the kingdom (Mt 8:12; 13:38); son of the banquet (Mt 9:15; Mk 2:19; Lk 5:34); son of Gehenna (Mt 23:15); son of peace (Lk 10:6); son of this world (Lk 16:8; 20, 34); son of light (Lk 16:8; Jn 12:36; 1 Thes 5:5); son of the resurrection (Lk 20:36); son of perdition (Jn 17:12; 2 Thes 2:3); son of disbelief (Eph 2:2; 5:6; Col 3:6) and the excessively bubbling zeal of James and of John earns for them the surname sons of thunder (Mk 3:17).

Carmignac concludes:

[T]hese Semitisms ought not to be taken into account for they are vestiges of the language which is most familiar to the author not the proof that he actually used this language in the redaction of the work in question. (pp. 23f)

5. Of Syntax

Since syntax is the customary rule which governs the relationships of words among themselves, it supposes a deep knowledge of each language. The correct use of verbs, of prepositions, of conjunctions, of various complements (objects of verbs) is so complicated that it calls for and needs a very long period of practice in order to avoid committing a particular mistake, especially when the languages reflect psychologies as different as the Semitic psychology and the Greek psychology. An example which is quite simple: to say at the house of the king, the Hebrew (and in certain cases the Aramaic) suppresses the article before the first noun and always says at house of the king. A Semite who speaks Greek will therefore have the tendency to omit the article in this case and to preserve his familiar turn of phrase as we certainly meet many times in the New Testament. Another similar simple example: the verbs to say or to speak take the preposition which corresponds quite well to the Greek form, while in Hebrew (but not in Aramaic) they also take the preposition toward: and it is for that reason that we so often find in the Gospels, especially in Luke: to say toward someone or to speak toward someone. (p. 24)

Carmignac concludes:

In theory, they prove nothing about the original language since we can always suppose that the redactors of the Gospels underwent the influence of their mother tongue. However, when these mistakes in syntax go beyond that which is probable—even in the case of a writer who is not well acquainted with a language—we are led to suppose that they derive from a translator who was too slavish in his task, desiring to carbon copy, to the least detail . . .  (p. 24)

6. Of Style

e.g.

Semitic prose is much more akin to the oral style than Greek prose, which is much more elaborate. It does not seek to construct sentences but more often is content with laying out several clauses joined together by a simple and. Monotony is no deterrent, whereas in Greek there is a tendency to seek variety. Moreover, it does not avoid the repetition of several words of the same root since these redundancies facilitate memory and provide more emphasis for the reciters of these accounts: the sower went out to sow his seed and while he was sowing . . . (Lk 8:5); I have desired with desire (Lk 22:15); they feared with a great fear (Mk 4:41; Lk 2:9); they rejoiced with a great joy (Mt 3:10).

Carmignac concludes:

But once again, no valid argument can be derived from these customary habits of style for a Semite could preserve them, even when he was expressing himself in Greek. . . . 

We enter different territory when it comes to poetry, however, and here Carmignac writes

If the poems of the Gospels had been composed in Greek, they would have had to depend upon the laws of Greek poetry; but this is clearly not the case. The Benedictus, the Magnificat, the Our Father, the Prologue of John, the Priestly Prayer of John 17 do not respect any of these laws of Greek poetry; rather they are constructed according to the rules of Hebrew poetry. (p. 25)

There is another point, however.

In Hebrew, there is great preference shown for beginning a work or introducing a new development by wayyeht (and it came about); then follows an indication of time, which is generally an infinitive introduced by the preposition in (= in the doing of it, that is to say, while he was doing)’, the sentence is then continued by another verb, usually preceded by and. This turn of phrase is found almost 300 times in the Old Testament. The Septuagint then translates literally kai egeneto en tô (= and it happened in the doing), then it usually expresses the indication of time by an infinitive followed by its subject and by its objects, then it continues the sentence by kai [and) followed by another verb in the indicative. The result is as bizarre in Greek as it is in English: and it happened in the doing of it (this or that) and (such a person) said. . . . This barbaric turn of phrase is never found in the works of the New Testament which have certainly been composed in Greek: the second part of Acts,18 the Epistles and even the Apocalypse, but it is found twice in Mark, six times in Matthew and thirty-two times in Luke. 

Carmignac concludes:

However, since this turn of phrase exists in the Septuagint, let us agree not to insist upon it and concede that it could have been inspired by a desire to imitate the Septuagint. (p. 26)

7. Of Composition

See A Semitic Original for the Gospels of Mark and Matthew?

8. Of Transmission

Mistakes are bound to happen when reading early Hebrew given that vowels are not represented in the text and several consonants are easily confused with one another.

Some indications of confusion concerning a Hebrew original:

In Mark 1:7 and Luke 3:16, John the Baptist says: I am not worthy to unfasten (lâshèlèt) the strap of his sandals, but according to Matthew 3:11 he says: I am not worthy to carry (lâs’ét) his sandals. . . .

Then there’s that grain of mustard seed:

Matthew 13:32 and Luke 13:19 say that the grain of mustard becomes a tree, which is a definite exaggeration, for this plant hardly exceeds a meter and a half or two meters. Mark 4:32, on the contrary, says that it has branches that are so great that birds nest there. All would be explained if Mark, who seems to be inspired by Ezekiel 17:23, had rendered ‘NP (pronounce ‘anâph) branch, as in Ezekiel, and if a copyist prior to Matthew and to Luke had read ‘S (pronounce ‘ès) tree, since in the style of calligraphy in Qumran, the letters N and P, if they come together and touch one another, resemble the letter Ṣ. (p. 31)

Does Jesus begin to teach or begin to show?

In Mark 8:31 Jesus begins to teach (LHWRWT = lehôrôt) and in Matthew 16:21 he begins to show (LHR’WT = lehar’ôt). The two words are very easily confused with each other since, according to the style of calligraphy, in Qumran, the first could lose a W and the second its ’ so that each one would end up looking like LHRWT. (p. 31)

Did Jesus pass through the villages or the region of Caesarea Philippi?

Mark 8:27 says that Jesus passed through the villages of Caesarea Philippi and Matthew 16:13 the regions of Caesarea Philippi. The general meaning is the same, but the passage from one word to the other could have been brought about by the resemblance between QRYWT = qiryôt: villages and QSWWT = qesawwôt: regions, since Y and W are written almost in the same way. (p. 32)

Go to hell or be thrown into hell? read more »

Hebrew Hypothesis for Gospels of Matthew and Mark continued

From Damien Mackey‘s academia.edu page, article: Fr Jean Carmignac dates Gospels early

Here is a little more background for anyone interested in Jean Carmignac’s hypothesis that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew were originally written in the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have excerpted sections from Carmignac’s preface and first chapter. The bolded highlighting is mine to enable a quick perusal of key points.

From the Preface:

. . . . May I be pardoned above all for having written this book. I decided upon it only after a good deal of soul searching. For my original plan was to pursue my research as far as possible, to present it in a number of large technical volumes and only then to offer my research to the public at large in a little volume which would be less forbidding. But several friends convinced me to begin with this little volume. They made the point that I ran the risk of being six feet under before finishing the larger works and that for several years my research has, in no way, altered my conclusions so that I can therefore honestly begin to share it with others. The future will show if I have been correct in paying attention to these friends.

In this work, I have endeavored to make sure that it contains no polemics. I name no one nor do I have anyone in mind. I know very well that the views set forth here are not in conformity with the current vogue in exegesis. I have not attempted to refute arguments which may support opinions different from my own. I am proposing the results of research pursued since April 1963, more than twenty years. My research has convinced me, and I would like to share my firm beliefs with others. I furnish proofs which have led me to one or another conclusion; I would have been able to give many others, but these would have gone beyond the general purpose of a book which was intended for the public at large. These I am reserving for more technical works. Thus readers will now be able to compare what I think with what they are hearing said all around them. It is up to them to weigh the arguments and to judge freely for themselves.

In order not to stifle these poor readers, I have decided not to give all the specific references to works which I have utilized, save in certain particularly important cases. Complete bibliographies will appear in the larger volumes which are presently in preparation.

In order to show clearly the subjective character of this work, which is merely the presentation of my personal research, I would have preferred to title it: “Twenty Years of Work on the Formation of the Synoptic Gospels.” An objection was raised that this title is too long and not particularly catching. But it is more exact.

I believe myself sincere in my quest for the truth. If I am presented with convincing proofs, I will always be ready to improve and even to modify my present conclusions.

From Chapter I: Elaboration of the Hypothesis read more »

Once More: The Fictions of the Beloved Disciple and Johannine Community

Free for all who are interested: Sage publishers have made one of their recently published articles open access:

Méndez, H. (2020). “Did the Johannine Community Exist?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 42(3), 350–374.

https://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X19890490

Speaking of devils, the same themes of false (literary) communities and false witnesses (Beloved Disciple) have been addressed very recently on this blog:

Only “yesterday” we spoke of Nanine Charbonnel’s and Philip Davies’ points about ideal “New Israel” types of communities:

Similarly with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many are written as pseudepigraphs, in the names of the patriarchs, or of the prophets. They appear to be a new type of literature at variance from what we are familiar with in the Old Testament collection. The scrolls indicate the presence of a particular community and a leader, the Teacher of Righteousness. Many assume both of these to be a literal group and a historical leader. Yet we have no way of proving either thought. As the “community” in the scrolls in fact an ideal community, a “new Israel”? (Charbonnel does not make the specific connection with Philip Davies but the same possibility can be seen underlying some of his discussion of the meaning of “Israel” — see What do we mean by Israel?) Are we reading a literary creation of a visionary utopia rather than a historical account of an actual group of persons?

A Midrashic Hypothesis for the Gospels

And last month we looked at David Litwa’s case for the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John being a literary fiction:

Litwa notes a huge problem facing the author of the fourth gospel. He was introducing radically new material into the life of Jesus. Believers were familiar with the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, so how to get away with changing the temple cleansing episode from the end to the beginning of the gospel, and how to introduce the raising of Lazarus, with any chance that they would be accepted?

The solution: Introduce a character who was more mature spiritually than any other disciple, the closest favourite of Jesus, one so beloved that his credibility could not be doubted.

Depicting the trustworthiness of this character is vital, for this disciple is also presented as a key source for the fourth gospel itself and therefore an authority for its distinctive presentation of Jesus’s identity”. . . .

We do not need to speculate about the identity of the Beloved Disciple to realize his function: to validate the fourth gospel’s vivid and alternative presentation of Jesus.

(Litwa, 197)

Review, part 15. Eyewitnesses and the Beloved Disciple (Litwa: How the Gospels Became History)

So it seems like the seasonal time to draw attention to Hugo Méndez’s article. Candida Moss has already brought it to the attention of a vastly wider audience through the Daily Beast with Everyone’s Favorite Gospel is a Forgery.

One point I found particularly interesting in the Méndez article was the discussion of criteria for identifying literary relationships. “If only”, I thought. If only we applied the same principles to the Testimonium Flavianum, that passage in Josephus that discusses Jesus. Yes, some words in that passage are “Josephan” but it does not follow that the passage itself or some part of it was originally by Josephus. But that’s another story.

If you are too pressed for time to read the entire article here are a few sections that I saw as highlights: read more »

A Semitic Original for the Gospels of Mark and Matthew?

Jean Carmignac

I don’t know if the Gospel of Mark did begin its life as a Hebrew text but in the light of the previous post it is necessary to share some of the reasons a few scholars (or at least Jean Carmignac : see also Wayback Machine) have thought it did.

Chapter three of The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels sets out the history of research into semitisms in the gospels and discusses in some detail nine types of them.

  1. Semitisms of Borrowing
  2. Semitisms of Imitation
  3. Semitisms of Thought
  4. Semitisms of Vocabulary
  5. Semitisms of Syntax
  6. Semitisms of Style
  7. Semitisms of Composition
  8. Semitisms of Transmission
  9. Semitisms of Translation

I’ll post here a few of the parts in #7, Semitisms of Composition. Carmignac suggests that there are numerous turns of phrase in our Greek gospels that would not exist in our Greek texts unless they had been translated from a Semitic or Hebrew language original.

Crying in the wilderness

After its title: Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God, the Gospel of Mark begins in the following fashion:

As it is written in the Prophet Isaiah “Behold I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

20. The word “and” is not found in all the manuscripts, and one has good reason for thinking that it does not any longer figure in the primitive Greek text.

There was John baptizing in the desert (and)20 preaching (Mark 1:1-4).

How did this citation from Isaiah (which combines Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1 in a form other than is found in the Septuagint, and Isaiah 40:3) come about? (p. 27)

Carmignac finds a simple answer to his question. Isaiah 40:3 begins with “voice crying in the wilderness”:

קול qôl voice
קורא qôré’ crying
במדבר bemidbâr in the wilderness
22. The initial syllable we corresponds to the conjunction “and ” present in certain Greek manuscripts but not in all.
23. The pesher consists in describing a present situation in the terms of a passage from the Old Testament.

. . . . and if Mark 1:4, is retranslated into Hebrew, we obtain the following: wayyehî Yôhânân matbtîl bemidbâr (we) qôré.22

The words bemidbâr (in the wilderness) and qôré’ (crying or preaching) are taken from Isaiah and applied to John the Baptist according to the process which is known as pesher, such as it was practiced at the time at Qumran (and elsewhere).23

The pesher only works in Hebrew, not with the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah. In the Greek text of Mark 1:4 a different word is used for John’s crying or preaching (κηρύσσων / kérussôn) whereas the Greek text of Isaiah 40:3 used “bôontos“. 

In order that the pesher be noticed in English, it would be necessary to use the verb proclaim twice: from Isaiah, the voice proclaiming in the desert and from Mark, in the desert proclaiming a baptism of conversion.) Thus the citation from Isaiah only agrees with the account of Mark in Hebrew, but not in Greek in which its meaning disappears. (p. 27)

Forgive us our debts

read more »

A Midrashic Hypothesis for the Gospels

Continuing my reading of part 2 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . .

. . . o . . .

At the heart of Nanine Charbonnel’s thesis lies the question of how much we read in the gospels was written in a figurative sense and how much literal. Arthur Schopenhauer famously declared that all religious truth is expressed allegorically or mythically. But then the question becomes how such a beast can be controlled and not leave us pondering all sorts of fancies. And what devils arise if we know we are reading allegory and conclude that it is therefore not true! To bypass such anarchy Charbonnel determines to explore the precise mechanisms that have gone into the production of the gospels.

We have referred earlier to the nineteenth critical author David Friedrich Strauss. Strauss declared many episodes in the gospels to be myths but what he meant by that was a narrative constructed around an Old Testament precedent. Strauss recognized the OT origins of the infant Jesus having to flee tyrants (Pharaoh and Moses), the star of Bethlehem (the star of Balaam’s prophecy), the magi visiting Jesus (the magi of Isaiah and gifts of  Psalm 72), Jesus’ multiplications of the loaves (the manna in the desert and Elisha’s 20 loaves), the water into wine (Moses converting the brackish water into pure), the transfiguration of Jesus (Moses and Elijah with YHWH on the mountain), and so forth.

Where Strauss most notably failed was in his belief that Judaism does not allow for any notion of a suffering Messiah. He failed, therefore, to see that the most central event of the gospels was likewise a “mythical” adaptation of the OT. The significance of this viewpoint is that Strauss recognized that the author of the Jesus story was not starting from a “historical event” but from a theme, an idea. He wrote, for example, how the idea of a literal Messianic “son of God” grew out of texts like Psalm 2:7 (“Thou are my son, this day have I begotten thee”) and the prophecy in Isaiah for a child to be born to a “virgin” (Life of Jesus Critically Examined, I. ch.3, §29).

A Different Type of Symbolic Writing

Central to Charbonnel’s thesis is an understanding of different types of symbolic writing. Ernest Renan captures the most common view of the gospels as being quite unlike any form of allegory or symbolism:

That our Gospel is dogmatic I recognise, but it is by no means allegorical. The really allegorical writings of the first centuries, the Apocalypse, the Pastor of Hermas, the Pista Sophia, possess quite a different charm. (Renan, Life of Jesus, Appendix)

For Charbonnel the symbolism of the gospels is also striking even though quite unlike that of texts we typically think of as symbolic. Rabbinic writings contain another form of figurative tales that are typically called midrashic. But for Charbonnel there is another type of midrashic literature not found in those later Jewish texts.

Look at the Shepherd of Hermas, for example. Much of the text is clearly symbolic with characters personifying the church, virtues, etc. However, at other times it relates scenes that could well pass as realistic story even though we know they should be interpreted allegorically. Charbonnel raises the suggestion that our canonical gospels and the canonical Book of Revelation might be two sides, an obverse and reverse, of a symbolic form of narrative.

Similarly with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many are written as pseudepigraphs, in the names of the patriarchs, or of the prophets. They appear to be a new type of literature at variance from what we are familiar with in the Old Testament collection. The scrolls indicate the presence of a particular community and a leader, the Teacher of Righteousness. Many assume both of these to be a literal group and a historical leader. Yet we have no way of proving either thought. As the “community” in the scrolls in fact an ideal community, a “new Israel”? (Charbonnel does not make the specific connection with Philip Davies but the same possibility can be seen underlying some of his discussion of the meaning of “Israel” — see What do we mean by Israel?) Are we reading a literary creation of a visionary utopia rather than a historical account of an actual group of persons?

Midrash

So far I have used the term “midrashic”. Charbonnel speaks of “midrash”. We have come across considerable controversy in some quarters of the meaning of this term so let’s settle what we mean, exactly, in this series, or in Nanine Charbonnel’s text. Charbonnel draws upon the definition set forth by the Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin. I quote from the relevant section of The Jewish Gospels:

Although a whole library could [and has been) written on midrash, for the present purposes it will be sufficient to define it as a mode of biblical reading that brings disparate passages and verses together in the elaboration of new narratives. It is something like the old game of anagrams in which the players look at words or texts and seek to form new words and texts out of the letters that are there. The rabbis who produced the midrashic way of reading considered the Bible one enormous signifying system, any part of which could be taken as commenting on or supplementing any other part. They were thus able to make new stories out of fragments of older ones [from the Bible itself), via a kind of anagrams writ large; the new stories, which build closely on the biblical narratives but expand and modify them as well, were considered the equals of the biblical stories themselves. (Boyarin, p. 76)

Such a definition is broad. The later rabbinic midrash can be made to fit a narrower definition. In this discussion, however, we are looking at a form of Jewish literature that preceded those rabbinic texts.

So in this context what can be said about the Gospels? read more »

Inadequacy of the Tools in the Search for the Historical Jesus

Continuing my reading of part 2 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . .

. . o . .

Legend? Tale? Novel? — If these labels can be applied to any of the Old Testament works they fail when we attempt to relate them to the New Testament narratives.

The impasse of the “legendary” additions to a “biography”

The eighteenth-century scholars of the Enlightenment sought to pull Jesus down from his divine status but to endorse him as a wise and exceptional teacher and human being. Lessing (Education of the Human Race, 1780) spoke of humanity going through various psychological stages and being ready for Jesus at the time he came to bring us out of childish legalism and into the light of the rational and spiritual appropriate for emerging adolescence.

A BETTER Inftructor muft come and tear the exhaufted Primer from the child’s hands. Christ came !

Lessing

That portion of the human race which God had willed to comprehend in one Educational plan, was ripe for the fecond ftep of Education. . . .

That is, this portion of the human race had advanced fo far in the exercife of its reafon, as to need, and to be able to make ufe of, nobler and worthier motives of moral action than temporal rewards and punifhments, which had hitherto been its guides. The child has become a youth. Sweetmeats and toys have given place to the budding defire to become as free, as honoured, and as happy as its elder brother. (Lessing, Education, sections 53-55)

Ernest Renan caused a storm when he published a study of Jesus (1863) that humanized him, psychologized him and stripped him of his divinity, in the process establishing his more “genuine” place in history.

Let us then place the person of Jesus on the highest summit of human grandeur. Let us not permit ourselves to be led astray by exaggerated distrust in regard to a legend which continually draws us’ into the supernatural world. The life of a Francis d’Assisi is also only a tissue of miracle. Still has anybody ever doubted the existence and the character of Francis d’Assisi ?  . . . .

Renan

The evangelists themselves, who have bequeathed to us the image of Jesus, are so far below him of whom they speak, that they constantly disfigure him because they cannot attain his hight. Their writings are full of mistakes and misconceptions. At every line we recognise discourse of a divine beauty reported by writers who do not understand it, and who substitute their own ideas for those which they but half comprehend. Upon the whole, the character of Jesus, far from having been embellished by his biographers, has been belittled by them. Criticism, to discover what he really was, must eliminate a series of mistakes, arising from the indifferent understanding of the disciples. They have painted him as they conceived him, and often, while thinking to make him greater, have in reality made him less. (Renan, Life of Jesus, 368-69)

According to Renan (and historical Jesus studies are in one sense still following in his train) everything in the Gospels can be explained in terms of mixing the historical with the legendary. Renan excels at it and that’s what caused a scandal in France at the time: the gospels are full of invention, alteration, metamorphosis, the illusions of followers, when it suits him, and authentic sayings whenever they correspond to the idea that he makes Jesus “the incomparable man”. Renan’s efforts are still being undertaken today though with ongoing efforts to hone sharper analytical tools.

Another false foundation has been the “logia”, the supposedly authentic words of Jesus that registered on the spot by original witnesses. Not mentioned by Charbonnel but Maurice Casey’s claim is one of the more extreme: he proposed that a disciple took down words and wrote on wax tablets the words of Jesus as he heard Jesus speak. Edgar Quinet from 1838 could joke about this research on the logia:

Quinet

Lessing held them to be free translations of a lost original which one imagined in turn to be Hebrew, Aramaic, Chaldaic or Syriac, even Greek, and which finally was supposed never to have been written; this is what was called an oral gospel.(Edgar Quinet, ”La vie de Jésus-Christ, du Docteur Strauss”, en ligne § 33)

We have theories woven around the purported words of Papias that an original Gospel of Mathew contained words of Jesus in Hebrew. We have Q, the source hypothesized to explain similarities between Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark, and that is thought to consist primarily of sayings material. But none of these hypotheses, even if there were such documents, can possibly be verified as originating with the words of Jesus and accordingly they can bring us no closer to a historical Jesus.

Treating the gospels as primarily “legendary” colouring of the life of Jesus does not help us get closer to a historical Jesus behind them. On the contrary, the concept contributes to obscuring the question of the nature of “biography”. Renan was forced to admit the vagueness of the notion:

Let the Gospels be in part legendary, that is evident since they are full of miracles and the supernatural; but there are different species of legends. Nobody doubts the principle traits of the life of Francis of Assisi, though in it the supernatural is met at every step. Nobody, on the contrary, gives credence to the “Life of Apollonius of Tyana”, because it was written long after the hero and in the conditions of a pure romance. (Renan, Life of Jesus, 17-18)

A more radical view of the gospels is that they consist largely of myth. But this view does not help bring us closer to a historical Jesus, either. read more »

Jesus Christ, Sublime Literary Creation of the Human Spirit

“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” said my friend.
“What nonsense you do talk!” replied the Prefect, laughing heartily.
“Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,” said Dupin.
“Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?”
“A little too self-evident.”
“Ha! ha! ha—ha! ha! ha!—ho! ho! ho!” roared our visiter, profoundly amused, “oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!”— Edgar Allen Poe, The Purloined Letter

Such is the epilogue introducing Nanine Charbonnel’s introduction to the second and major part of her book, Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier. What follows is my attempt to pass on the main sense of Charbonnel’s chapter. (See the Charbonnel archive for the previous posts.)

 . . . o . . .

No matter how much we have prepared for a calm discussion on the hypothesis of the non-existence of Jesus (see the previous posts in this series), a paper persona yet nonetheless a sublime creation of the human spirit, we are inevitably faced with a different reality:

  • mainstream media may pretend neutrality when publishing on the notion but is in fact quite ignorant of the issues;
    .
  • which opens the way to numerous charlatans of the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code variety, with suggestions of lost secrets, usually of a sexual nature, such as involving a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. These sorts of readings feed on a hatred of the institution of the Church and paradoxically only serve to strengthen the position of the Church as the only true rational voice;.
  • * The Russian novelist Mikhaïl Bulgakov in The Master of Margarita wrote of the president of one of the most significant literary associations of Moscow ordering a young poet to compose “a great anti-religious poem”. He is, however, dissatisfied with the result: “Berlioz therefore wanted to show the poet that the main thing was not to know how Jesus was – good or bad – but to understand that Jesus, as a person, never existed, and that everything we told about him was pure invention – a myth of the most ordinary kind.” (Le Maître et Marguerite, Lère Partie, ch. I, trad, du Russe by C. Ligny, Robert Laffont, 1968; pocket ed., 2009, p. 27).

    Charbonnel, on the contrary, affirms that it is by no means a “myth of the most ordinary kind”, and refuses in advance to be designated as “mythicist” — a term that is applied as a convenient way to disqualify her thesis.

    the historical baggage (at least in France) of the earlier mythicist views: Dupuis and Volney (18th century) reduced Christianity to either an astral mythology or an essentially pre-existing pagan religion without any regard for Judaism or key specifics of the texts. These theories became associated with Freemasons, “free-thinkers” and even state communism.*.

  • the naive pusillanimity of the “rationalists” (such is the literal translation and one I find it too delicious to alter.)
    .

    • We have seen in relation to the Old Testament how the Holbach-style Enlightenment inadvertently led us into the ruts of an “objectivist” hermeneutic. A fortiori, as for Jesus, the loss of religious belief, far from allowing a grasp of the admirable richness of the production of sublime texts, led to pseudo-evidence: the Gospels would become a testimony about a normal man so that everything supranormal in the gospels would be removed in some way.
      .
    • We have also seen how Spinoza unfortunately made “rationalization” coincide with psychological or naturalistic reductionism. As far as Jesus is concerned, Spinoza opens the impasse into which a pseudo-enlightened modernity will go astray: dividing up testimony between a real man and imaginary additions. Oldenburg asked Spinoza:

      “This story of passion, death, burial, the resurrection of Christ seems to be told in such vivid colors that I will not be afraid to appeal to your conscience: do you believe that this story should be taken for an allegory or literally […]?”

      Spinoza answers: “I understand the passion of Christ, his death and his burial, literally; his resurrection on the contrary, in an allegorical sense.”

    • And this is how we destroy this very thing that we seek to explain. We come to a situation where it is standard to believe in real, historical persons behind the narrative but that the stories themselves have been embellished. (Not that we should ridicule these efforts since they — names like Paulus and Renan — displayed great courage to promote such “critical” views in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as accounting for miracles by coincidences or psychological confusion, etc.)
      .
    • We arrive then at the supreme impasse which faces us today: belief in the distinct existence of a “historical Jesus and the Christ of faith”. The terms date from the great author David Friedrich Strauss in 1865, but have entered everyday thought, especially since the influence of the great theologian Bultmann (1930s to 1960s). We will see that these terms, this dichotomy (historical Jesus vs Christ of faith) constitute the most formidable barrier to any scientific advance. Let us first recall some other popular views . . .
      .
  • Reduction to the ethical message: The biblical text is treated as a repository of the highest of sacred ethical teachings emanating from the great teacher Jesus. Of course, such an approach must ignore the similar contemporary teachings of Judean rabbis, of cruel judgemental pronouncements, and so forth. read more »

Jesus Christ as a sublime paper persona

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

Last year I posted my understanding of Part 1 of the French publication, Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier. See for the ten posts covering that introductory section of Nanine Charbonnel’s book. Anyone who read through those posts would have realized that they were preparatory for what they expected to read about from the book’s title. They would also have begun to appreciate that there is much more to understand about the background to any “biblical” writing than a layperson’s or generalist’s knowledge will prepare them for. It may be some weeks (even months?, god forbid!) before I resume my chapter by chapter posts on the second half of Charbonnel’s work but in the meantime here is some background and overview of what is to come.

The author

http://charbonnel.populus.org/rub/2

A specialist in hermeneutics, Philosophy Professor Dr Nanine Charbonnel (University of Strasbourg, France) published various books among which …

    • Philosophie de Rousseau (Rousseau’s philosophy), 3 vols., Aréopage, 2006 ;
    • Comme un seul homme. Corps politique et Corps mystique (Together as one. Body Politic and Mystical Body), Aréopage, 2010 ;
    • Critique des métaphysiques du propre. La ressemblance et le Verbe (Critique of the literal sense in metaphysics. Similitude and Logos), Hildesheim / Zürich / New York: Olms Verlag, 2014;
    • Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier (Jesus Christ as a sublime paper persona), Paris : Berg International, 2017.

I. A few words by the French publisher

Nanine Charbonnel’s major points

Her book provides a deep insight into Jesus as a literary construct. In no way is it a diatribe against Christianity, nor the debunking of a hoax but an apt introduction to Jewish culture and the Hebrew bible which highlights the devices underlying the gospels as unparalleled written masterpieces. This book is based on an articulate academic research conducted by a philosopher well aware of the Christian tradition and culture and keen on what Christianity has brought to Western civilisation.

For quite a few centuries, critiques who, in their own right, are reluctant to believe in a God who was made Man, have fallen back on a seemingly simple distinction between the ”Jesus of History”, about whom nothing is known, and the ”Christ of faith” who would only depend on a confessional affirmation. This standpoint actually leads to a deadlock and we had better look for another kind of approach. It sounds more consistent to consider how the gospels fit in the Hebrew-Greek midrashic tradition. Everything takes place in the text and only in the text, in keeping with the Hebrew Holy Scriptures in which words and reality are the two sides of the same coin. Therefore nothing is to be put aside in what the Gospel characters are said to do, including the miracles they are supposed to operate since this is part and parcel of their identity. On the other hand, whatever they do is a form of accomplishment – within the text – of what is adumbrated in the Hebrew Bible. As far as the Jesus character is concerned, his name – Yeshua – stands for Salvation and embodies both the Jewish people and the presence of YHWH within his people.

In her book, Nanine Charbonnel shows that the evangelists wrote out … dramatized portraits with no consideration of their historical existence, which cannot be understood within the framework of legendary fiction or other traditional literary genres. The gospel narratives are thoroughly symbolic and composed within first century Judaism. The belief in a historical man called Jesus is mainly due to a hermeneutic confusion, i.e. what was actually figurative came to be read literally. The multiplicity of languages used in those days increased that misunderstanding. We are therefore invited to re-examine those unique masterpieces.

II.  A brief presentation of my research, THE GOSPELS AS MIDRASH

read more »

The Gospel of Mark as a Dramatic Performance

If we are serious about the idea of expanding our horizons with interdisciplinary studies, even those of ancient theatre, there is much that is thought-provoking here.

From time to time I encounter the idea that the Gospel of Mark was in some way related to dramatic performance or Greek tragedy. Mary Ann Beavis brings much of this literature together in her commentary on Mark (I have hyperlinked the bibliographical references):

A generic influence on Mark that may seem much more far-fetched to the modern reader is the suggestion that the Gospel resembles a Greek tragedy. Nonetheless, as noted above, many contemporary scholars see Mark as modeled on ancient drama (e.g., Bilezikian 1977; Standaert 1978; Stock 1982, 16–30; Beavis 1989, 31–35; S. Smith 1995; Lescow 2005 [link is to PDF]). Many others describe the Gospel more generally as having a dramatic quality (e.g., Perrin and Duling 1982, 237–39; Hengel 1985, 137; France 2002, 11–15; Burridge 2004, 239–40; Collins 2007, 91–93; for further references, see Beavis 1989, 192n134). Since Greek tragedy was very much a part of Greco-Roman education in the first century, it is plausible that Mark and the educated members of his audience would have had some familiarity with dramatic works, even if they had never attended a play, although attending theater was not confined to the upper classes in antiquity. Moreover, in Mark’s time the “closet drama,” a play written for private presentation rather than for public performance, was popular, at least among the social elite: all of the plays of Seneca belong to this genre. As Stephen H. Smith (1995, 229) remarks, “Mark’s Gospel was written with just this kind of situation in mind—to be read expressively by a lector before a closed circle of Christians in the setting of a private house” (cf. Beavis 1989, 33–35). As I have noted elsewhere,

If the author were a Jewish-Christian from Palestine, as the tradition asserts, there is no reason to rule out the influence of the theatre; Herod the Great built theatres in Jerusalem, Caesarea Maritima, Sepphoris, Damascus, and Sidon. There are records of Roman Jewish actors, and hellenistic Jews, like their Gentile neighbours, were avid theatre-goers. It has been argued that Job, Judith, 4 Maccabees, and the Apocalypse were modelled on Greek tragedy; the Alexandrian Jewish dramatist Ezekiel wrote a play based on the Exodus story. (Beavis 1989, 35)

In fact, Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagōgē, a drama about the Exodus written sometime between the second century BC and the first century AD by an Egyptian Jew, is the most complete surviving example of a Hellenistic tragedy (R. Robinson 1985, 805). Unlike the Exagōgē, Mark is not a play, but a Scripturelike narrative; however, as Collins (2007, 91) puts it, Mark is “written in the tragic mode,” and the Gospel’s plotting and structure show dramatic influence (see the section on structure below).

From that section below on structure . . .

. . . . Like an ancient drama, Mark begins and ends with a welldefined prologue (1:1–13) and epilogue (16:1–8). The first half of the narrative corresponds to the desis (“complication”) of a Greek tragedy, “the part from the beginning up to the point which immediately preceded the occurrence of a change from bad to good fortune or from good fortune to bad” (Aristotle, Poet. 18.2, trans. Halliwell 1927). In Mark, this corresponds with the Galilean mission (1:14–8:26), where Jesus teaches, preaches, and performs healings, miracles, and exorcisms with great success. This section of the Gospel is punctuated by choral outbursts from the crowds and the disciples, such as “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” (1:27; 2:12b; 4:41; 7:37). Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27–29) is a classic recognition scene (anagnōrisis), the discovery of an identity previously concealed—Jesus is the messiah (see Aristotle, Poet. 11, 16). This incident marks a “change of fortune” (“reversal,” peripeteia); immediately after Peter’s confession, for the first time, Jesus prophesies the suffering, death, and resurrection of the son of man (8:31–33). According to Aristotle, a recognition scene “is most effective when it coincides with reversals, . . .

As I have noted elsewhere, whether the author intended it or not, the physical layout of the Gospel “resembles that of a five-act Hellenistic play, with the place of the four choruses taken by teaching scenes” (Beavis 1989, 163). . . .

Beavis, Mary Ann. 2011. Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp. 16-17, 25-26.

The above summary by Beavis was indirectly cited by Danila Oder in her book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. Danila knows how theatre works. She has both studied playwriting and worked as an actor. In her book on the Gospel of Mark as performance and text Danila examines in painstaking detail how the Gospel of Mark might have been performed in an ancient Roman theatre. I found the insights of someone who has worked in theatre and clearly has an in-depth knowledge of ancient theatre a fascinating exploration of possibilities behind our gospel text. An entirely new world opened up to me through this book.

Note: Danila does not say that our current text of the gospel was written as a drama. Hence the title of her book, The Two Gospels of Mark. There is enough in the way our canonical text has been associated with ancient drama (see the links above) to lead one to seriously consider the possibility that what we are reading today is a summary or prose encapsulation of a play. Danila discusses what scenes in our received text are stageable and which ones are not, and why the unstageable ones have been added to the original work. Readers are given a clear picture of what the stage setting would have looked like, the role of the chorus and even the audience. I was keen to try to capture in my mind’s eye how it all would have appeared in performance so happily a proposed text for dramatic performance is included in an appendix. It’s a new world, a seriously fresh approach to the Gospel.

Much of what Danila Oder discusses must necessarily be hypothetical but it is nonetheless tightly argued and does oblige one to consider possibilities that are currently outside the standard view. If we are serious about the idea of expanding our horizons with interdisciplinary studies, even those of ancient theatre, there is much that is thought-provoking here.


Oder, Danila. 2019. The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. Los Angeles: Domus Press.