Category Archives: Old Testament

Should there be another child category to sit alongside NT and OT and cover Intertestamental period? Should that include Philo? What effect will that have on the child category Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha?

Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3e … A Different Kind of Literary Heritage

Nanine Charbonnel concludes her Prelude to her discussion of the gospels with a fascinating overview of literary technique that I think is not widely known outside the halls of academia. An author could compose a book in such a way that its thematic structure was a representation of . . . a topographical setting, or a building, or an animal — but not for any mundane reason. No, think of a place where God met and spoke with his people, or a sacred building like a tabernacle for the dwelling of God, or a sacrificial animal.

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) – Wikipedia

Once again NC turns to the anthropologist Mary Douglas and her book Leviticus as Literature. It is worth reading the book in its entirety in order to appreciate the anthropological foundations to her analysis. I had to pull myself away from revisiting milestone anthropological studies in order to complete this post. (There is even a book dedicated to responding to Douglas: Reading Leviticus: Responses to Mary Douglas, edited by John F. A. Sawyer. Some readers here will like to know that the last chapter in that volume is titled “Leviticus in Mark: Jesus’ Attitude to the Law”, by Alan Watson.)

Modern readers (at least most of us, I am sure) love to read from start to finish, usually as fast as comprehension will allow, with the assumption that the author has composed a linear narrative or exposition.

Now we know the Bible forbade the making of images but that did not stop authors from devising all sorts of word images. In our previous posts we have even seen how the Hebrew consonants forming words could be subject to interpretation based on their shapes and meanings (e.g. beth, meaning house). In one of our earlier posts some readers, including me, expressed some doubt that certain mystical interpretations raised by NC really did date back to the Second Temple era. We tend to think of them as kabbalistic and originating in the medieval era. NC disputed that assumption but I have not followed up her references (not wanting to take on another work of translating French at this stage). So I was intrigued to see Mary Douglas write the following:

The central idea of this book is that Leviticus exploits to the full an ancient tradition which makes a parallel between Mount Sinai and the tabernacle. Various antique transpositions between houses, bodies, and temples prepare us for believing that Ramban, the mystic philosopher and revered medieval interpreter, was drawing on very ancient traditions when he read Exodus so as to draw a parallel between the desert tabernacle and Mount Sinai. The tradition goes back to Exodus. . . . 

(Douglas, 59)

Then a few pages on,

It might well be objected that this is a medieval fantasy of no relevance for Leviticus. Ramban is the name of Rabbi Nachmanides (1194–c.1270) and his conjectures might have had nothing to do with Leviticus but come straight out of thirteenth-century mysticism. Milgrom, who is well aware of this question, considers that Ramban was drawing on an ancient tradition. He bases the interpretation on the text of Exodus itself, and particularly on the name of the tabernacle as the Tent of Meeting. After considering and dismissing several speculations on the origin of the term, he says:

‘Nevertheless, the immediate archetype for P’s Tent of Meeting is not some mythic Canaanite model or hypothetical Hittite example, but the ancient Israelite tradition of the theophany at Mount Sinai. P (Exod 24: 15b; 25: 1) concurs with and indeed incorporates the epic tradition (Exod 19. 20; 20: 1) that God descended upon Sinai . . . ’ [Milgrom 1991, 142].

This was where the initial meeting between God and Moses took place. At the end of Exodus, God transferred his earthly presence to the tabernacle in the form of fire and cloud. The tabernacle thereafter became the site of all subsequent meetings. God’s direct presence is too terrible to be endured, so it is veiled in cloud, and the holy of holies in smoke of incense. The cloud is the sign of God’s presence as he journeyed with his people in their wanderings. At Sinai when all the work of the tabernacle was finished, ‘Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’ (Exod 40: 35). In Genesis smoke of sacrifice attracted God’s attention after the flood. In Exodus the incense altar was used for the priest to send up clouds of fragrant smoke (Exod 30: 7–8, 34–8; 40: 26). Smoke impedes visibility, like a cloud.

Thus, Milgrom argues, the name ‘Tent of Meeting’ gives grounds for thinking that the correspondence between tabernacle and Sinai are at least as old as Exodus. The same argument is made by Alfred Marx when he shows that God’s presence at Sinai and his presence at the altar at the time of sacrifice are to be read as strictly parallel. The mountain and the altar are figures of one another. [Grappe and Marx 1998, 24]. It could even be older, derived from the ancient symbolism of the cosmic mountain used in Canaanite religions. The idea of a cosmic centre of the world, on a raised place, on which a shrine has been built, is common around the Mesopotamian region.

(Douglas, 62 f. My bolded highlighting)

In the diagram here I have copied Mary Douglas’s illustration of the tabernacle and placed it beside a representation of Mount Sinai.

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Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3d … Metaphors of Exodus and Lion Dens Become History

Continuing from Chap 3c . . . .

The Exodus: Metaphor Preceded “History”

Other examples of changing names and wordplay:

The narrative can even culminate in the bestowing of a new name, or make the point that the change of name is itself the central point, along with all that it signifies:
Isaiah 62:1-4

for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet,
. . . .
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.
. . . .
No longer will they call you Deserted,
or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah [=My Delight is in Her]
and your land Beulah [=Married]

As mentioned earlier, Philo found much of interest in the names assigned to biblical characters, especially when names were changed. Noteworthy was the pattern of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel), and the fact that the first and third had name-changes but that the middle one, Isaac, remained Isaac throughout. This was seen by Philo to point to Isaac being the central character to which we all must aspire. Abram to Abraham and Jacob to Israel — these figures were “becoming”, progressing; Isaac represented a timeless ideal for all.

Recall from earlier posts Charbonnel’s discussion of assonance as part of the word-play that moulded the meaning of the narrative. Further examples:

Jeremiah 1:11-12

11 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

“I see the branch of an almond tree [שָׁקֵ֖ד] =šā·qêḏ],” I replied.

12 The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching [שֹׁקֵ֥ד = šō·qêḏ] to see that my word is fulfilled.”

Amos 8:1-2

Thus hath the Lord God shown unto me: And behold, a basket of summer fruit [קָ֑יִץ = qā·yiṣ].

And He said, “Amos, what seest thou?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then said the Lord unto me: “The end [הַקֵּץ֙ = haq·qêṣ] is come upon My people of Israel; I will not again pass by them any more.

Another instance where narratives resonate through the level of text predominating over literal meaning is found in a comparison of Noah and Moses. Noah was saved in an ark, a very large boatתֵּבַ֣ת / tê·ḇaṯ; Moses was saved in a basket lowered into the Nile — תֵּבַ֣ת / tê·ḇaṯ. Comment by Marc-Alain Ouaknin in Mystères de la Bible,

Noah and Moses were not saved because they were protected by a boat, but because they entered into the universe of language, they were protected by the same word. (A wild and woolly paraphrase. I do not have access to Ouaknin’s book.)

Let’s look at another case. See here how the language of military conquest and release becomes the history of an Exodus from Egypt. NC cites passages from Mario Liverani’s Israel’s History and the History of Israel, though she does so from the French publication. I quote sections from the English-language text, pp. 277-279 in which he shows how an image of exodus from a foreign kingdom was a common metaphor before our well-known Pentateuchal story was composed. Liverani uses the traditional eighth-century dating of the early prophets.

The Exodus Motif

. . . The sagas of the ‘patriarchs’ offered an inadequate legitimation, because they were too remote and were localized only in a few symbolic places (tombs, sacred trees). A much more powerful prototype of the conquest of the land was created by the story of exodus (sē’t, and other forms of yāsā’ ‘go out’) from Egypt, under the guidance of Moses, and of military conquest, under the leadership of Joshua.

The main idea of the sequence ‘exit from Egypt –> conquest of Canaan’ is relatively old: already before the formulation of the Deuteronomistic paradigm, the idea that Yahweh had brought Israel out from Egypt is attested in prophetic texts of the eighth century (Hosea and Amos). In Amos the formulation has a clearly migratory sense:

Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9.7).

In Hosea, the exit from Egypt and return there are used instead as a metaphor (underlined by reiterated parallelism) for Assyria, in the sense of submission or liberation from imperial authority. Because of its political behaviour, and also for its cultic faults, Ephraim (= Israel, the Northern Kingdom, where Hosea issues his prophecies) risks going back to ‘Egypt’, which is now actualized as Assyria:

Ephraim has become like a dove
silly and without sense;
they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria (Hos. 7.11).

Though they offer choice sacrifices
though they eat flesh,
Yahweh does not accept them.

Now he will remember their iniquity,
and punish their sins;
they shall return to Egypt (Hos. 8.13; see 11.5).

They shall not remain in the land Yahweh;
but Ephraim shall return to Egypt,
and in Assyria they shall eat unclean food (Hos. 9.3).

Ephraim…they make a treaty with Assyria,
and oil is carried to Egypt (Hos. 12.2 [ET 1]).

In these eighth-century formulations, the motif of arrival from Egypt was therefore quite well known, but especially as a metaphor of liberation from a foreign power. The basic idea was that Yahweh had delivered Israel from Egyptian power and had given them control – with full autonomy – of the land where they already lived. There was an agreed ‘memory’ of the major political phenomenon that had marked the transition from submission to Egypt in the Late Bronze Age to autonomy in Iron Age I.

We should bear in mind that the terminology of ‘bringing out’ and ‘bringing back’, ‘sending out’ and ‘sending in’, the so-called ‘code of movement’, so evident in Hosea, had already been applied in the Late Bronze Age texts to indicate a shifting of sovereignty, without implying any physical displacement of the people concerned, but only a shift of the political border. Thus, to take one example, the Hittite king Shuppiluliuma describes his conquest of central Syria in the following way:

I also brought the city of Qatna, together with its belongings and possessions, to Hatti… I plundered all of these lands in one year and brought them [literally: ‘I made them enter’] to Hatti (HDT 39-40; cf. ANET, 318).

And here is another example, from an Amarna letter:

All the (rebellious) towns that I have mentioned to my Lord, my Lord knows if they went back! From the day of the departure of the troops of the king my Lord, they have all become hostile (EA 169, from Byblos).

Egyptian texts also describe territorial conquest in terms of the capture of its population, even if in fact the submitted people remain in their place. This is an idiomatic use of the code of movement (go in/go out) to describe a change in political dependence.

But when, towards the end of the eighth century, the Assyrian policy of deportation began (with the physical, migratory displacement of subdued peoples), then the (metaphorical) exodus from Egypt was read in parallel with the (real) movement from Israel of groups of refuges from the north to the kingdom of Judah (Hos. 11.11). The inevitable ambiguity of the metaphor of movement gave way to a ‘going out’ which was unambiguously migratory, though it maintained its moral-political sense of ‘liberation from oppression’. The first appearance of this motif occurs, significantly, in the Northern kingdom under Assyrian domination.

Thus in the seventh century the so-called exodus motif took shape in proto-Deuteronomistic historiography. The expression ‘I (= Yahweh) brought you out from Egypt to let you dwell in this land that I gave to you’ (and similar expressions) became frequent, as if alluding to a well known concept. Evidently this motif, influenced by the new climate of Assyrian cross-deportations, and the sight of whole populations moving from one territory to another, was now connected to the patriarchal stories of pastoral transhumance between Sinai and the Nile Delta, to stories of forced labour of groups of habiru (‘pr.w) in the building activities of the Ramessides, and to the more recent movements of refugees between Judah and Egypt: such movement was therefore no longer understood as a metaphor, but as an allusion to an actual ‘founding’ event: a real ‘exodus’, literally from Egypt.

Just as in Hosea the Exodus motif already provided a metaphor for the Assyrian threat, so in prophetic texts of the exilic age the exodus became (more consistently) a prefiguration of the return from the Diaspora – at first, fleetingly, from the Assyrian, to a (still independent) Jerusalem; then firmly, from the Babylonian disapora:

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As Yahweh lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As Yahweh lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ Then they shall live in their own land’ (Jer. 23.7- 8; 16.14-15).

(Liverani, 277 ff)

Law and History Made from Word Games

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Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3c. … Word Play Undermining Historicity

Nanine Charbonnel has written a Prelude of a hundred pages, three chapters, to her discussion of the historicity of Jesus, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Well aware of the vitriol that generally accompanies the question, she explains her hope that such an introduction will help smooth the way for a calm, considered discussion of the topic.

In this post begin to discuss the final section of that last chapter of her Prelude. I won’t complete it because there is too much of interest to try to cram it all into a single post. In this post we’ll look at an example of how wordplay in a biblical narrative speaks against the story having a historical basis.

The previous post introduced the impossibility of separating the individual from the collective meaning of biblical narratives, made even more difficult by the ready confusion of tenses — the future spoken of as past yet bearing on the present time for the reader.

Robert Lowth

NC reaches back to the eighteenth century’s Robert Lowth who made the same point in Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. Lowth distinguished normal allegory or parable from what he labelled a “mystical allegory” in biblical narratives. A normal allegory consists of a symbol or metaphor representing another figure. When a wild beast is used to represent a rampaging empire no-one thinks the story, at any level of comprehension, is about the wild beast. But as we have seen, we find something different in the patriarchal narratives, for instance. Abraham and Sarah’s adventures in Egypt are about both Abraham and Sarah and the Exodus story of their descendants.

Charbonnel quotes Robert Lowth who argues that “mystical allegory” sets the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures apart from other literature. The “mystical allegories” derive their imagery entirely from within Jewish religious thought.

This latter kind of allegory [= “mystical allegory”], on the contrary, can only be supplied with proper materials from the sacred rites of the Hebrews themselves ; nor can it be introduced, except in relation to such things as are directly connected with the Jewish religion, or their immediate opposites ; for to Israel, Sion, Jerusalem, in the allegorical as well as the literal sense, are opposed Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Idumea . . . (Lowth, 123. From the English translation of the Latin original; NC quotes French translation)

Not all critics agreed with Lowth on this point. Included in the English translation were notes by Professor Michaelis, who comments on Lowth’s idea of “mystical allegory”:

I admire the perspicacity of our Author in discovering this circumstance, and his candour in so freely disclosing his opinion. I am, however, much inclined to suspect those qualities which are supposed to be altogether peculiar to the sacred poetry of the Hebrews ; and there is, I confess, need of uncommon force of argument to convince me, that the sacred writings are to be interpreted by rules in every respect different from those by which other writings and other languages are interpreted ; but, in truth, this hypothesis of a double sense being applicable to the same words, is so far from resting on any solid ground of argument, that I find it is altogether founded on the practice of commentators, and their vague and tralatitious opinions.—M. (123 f)

Elaborating on his objection M subsequently insists that Psalm 110 is exclusively about the Messiah and has no other meaning, certainly not also applying to David; Psalm 18, on the other hand, cannot refer to the Messiah but can only refer to one person, David.

Then,

There is likewise this further distinction, that in those other forms of allegory [e.g. a lion representing a marauding kingdom] the exterior or ostensible imagery is fiction only ; the truth lies altogether in the interior or remote sense, which is veiled, as it were, under this thin and pellucid covering. But in the allegory of which we are now treating [Lowth’s “mystical allegory”], each idea is equally agreeable to truth. The exterior or ostensible image is not a shadowy colouring of the interior sense, but is in itself a reality; and although it sustain another character, it does not wholly lay aside its own. For instance, in the metaphor, or parable, the Lion, the Eagle, the Cedar, considered with respect to their identical existence, are altogether destitute of reality ; but what we read of David, Solomon, or Jerusalem, in this sublimer kind of allegory, may be either accepted in a literal sense, or may be mystically interpreted according to the religion of the Hebrews ; and in each view, whether considered conjunctly or apart, will be found equally agreeable to truth. (Lowth, 124)

For Lowth, this was the work of the Holy Spirit:

I had occasion before to remark the liberty which is allowed in the continued metaphor, of mingling the literal with the figurative meaning, that is, the obvious with the remote idea, which is a liberty altogether inconsistent with the nature of a parable. But to establish any certain rules with regard to this point in the conduct of the mystical allegory, would be a difficult and hazardous undertaking. For the Holy Spirit has evidently chosen different modes of revealing his sacred counsels according to the circumstances of persons and times, inciting and directing at pleasure the minds of his prophets . . . (124 f)

Names Make the Story Work

The composers of biblical stories assigned meaningful names to both persons and places. Sometimes the meaning is made explicit. Cain, Abel, Babel, Levi and Levites, . . . .

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) – Wikipedia

NC refers to a fascinating discussion by anthropologist Mary Douglas on the significance of names (and absence of name) in the story of the stoning of the blasphemer in Leviticus 24. I will quote the entire section from Douglas’s Leviticus as Literature, 205-208, with my own bolded highlighting:

The Curser Cursed

The second story bursts in to the calm sequence of laws . . . . Stoning is not an obvious tit-for-tat riposte for insult or blasphemy, but in the middle of the short story the law of talion is solemnly recited:

Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel; and the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel quarrelled in the camp, and the Israelite’s woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed.

And they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be declared to them.

And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Bring out of the camp him who cursed; and let all who heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And say to the people of Israel, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him: the sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. He who kills a man shall be put to death. He who kills a beast shall make it good, life for life. When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man he shall be disfigured. He who kills a beast shall make it good; and he who kills a man shall be put to death. You shall have one law for the sojourner and for the native; for I am the Lord your God.’ So Moses spoke to the people of Israel; and they brought him who had cursed out of the camp, and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses. (Lev 24: 10–23)

The strong retaliatory element does not appear obvious in the story although it is usually taken to illustrate the application of the law. There is nothing at first glance to connect cursing with stoning. ‘Sticks and stones do break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ but if it is shifted to the verbal level a linguistic parallel appears, with scope for possible word-play. Two words have been used. Verse 15 says: ‘Whoever curses his God.’ The word for the act of cursing [= q-l-l, dishonour, curse] means to trifle, despise, dishonour, make contemptible. But in verse 16 it says: ‘He who blasphemes the name of the Lord.’ This term is slightly different, it has the same stem as ‘to bore a hole’, or ‘to pierce’, and by extension, to specify, to pronounce explicitly, to identify, [= n-q-b, to pierce, bore through, perforate] and from here by extension presumably to name insultingly. Usually the two meanings are unconnected, but there is resonance between them. In the midst of a fight the man did two bad things, first he cursed, and second he spoke against or pierced with words the name of God. When consulted what to do (presumably by the priestly oracle) God commanded that he be put to death by stoning. The Hebrew stem of the verb which is translated as to stone [= r-g-m, to throw, hurl, pelt]  actually means to hurl or pelt. In English it could mean to pelt with anything, cabbages, bad tomatoes, or dung, but in Hebrew it is always used to pelt with stones. The oracle does not seem to have chosen a punishment that fits the crime, but if the word play be admitted, the retaliatory principle works in the literary mode: the blasphemer has hurled insults at the name of God, let him die by stones hurled at him. In English the nearest double meaning is the metaphor of mud-slinging. Then the oracle would run as follows: he has slung mud, let him die by mud slung at him.

The literary mode might be right. There are some curious names in this story, which need to be unravelled. We are told that the blasphemer’s mother’s name was ‘Shelomith’, which might suggest retribution, [Cf. shelummat] her father was Dibri, which suggests lawsuit [Cf. dibrah]; by his mother he was of the tribe of Dan, which suggests judgement [Cf. Genesis 49: 16: ‘Dan shall judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel.’]. By a strongly directed selection of the meanings of the names the story told to children could go like this:

‘Once there was a man (with no name), son of Shelomith-Retribution, grandson of Dibri-Lawsuit, from the house of Dan-Judgement, and he pelted insults at the Name . . . and the Lord said “He shall die, he pelted my Name, he shall be pelted to death.” ’

But could not the story be told that way because it is the way it happened in history? read more »

Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3b. Creative Intertextuality

Last time we looked at the oscillations between individual characters and collective identities. In this post we consider how stories are created out of the rewriting of older texts and foreshadowing future narratives.

The Word of God is creative; the texts fulfil its promises . . .

Recall from previous posts that the “Word of God” is said to have creative power. Word and action are one. The texts themselves accomplish its promises. Isaiah 55:11 (Young’s Literal translation):

So is My word that goeth out of My mouth, It turneth not back unto Me empty, But hath done that which I desired, And prosperously effected that [for] which I sent it.

Charbonnel informs us that there is no word in Hebrew corresponding to our word “promise”. There is no need for a separate act subsequent to the speech to make the words deliver. The evidence of the fulfilment is that the words have been spoken.

Compare Genesis 3:15 (again the literal translation):

and enmity I put between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he doth bruise thee — the head, and thou dost bruise him — the heel.’

Isaiah 11:6-9 and 65:17

And a wolf hath sojourned with a lamb, And a leopard with a kid doth lie down, And calf, and young lion, and fatling [are] together, And a little youth is leader over them.

And cow and bear do feed, Together lie down their young ones, And a lion as an ox eateth straw.

And played hath a suckling by the hole of an asp, And on the den of a cockatrice Hath the weaned one put his hand.

Evil they do not, nor destroy in all My holy mountain, For full hath been the earth with the knowledge of Jehovah, As the waters are covering the sea.

. . . .

17 For, lo, I am creating new heavens, and a new earth, And the former things are not remembered, Nor do they ascend on the heart.

All of the above passages are expressed in the present tense, or more exactly in the sense that they have been accomplished.

. . . in the day of the Lord

There is a story in the Talmud that goes like this:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah: When will the Messiah come?

Elijah said to him: Go ask him.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: And where is he sitting?

Elijah said to him: At the entrance of the city of Rome.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked him: And what is his identifying sign by means of which I can recognize him?

Elijah answered: He sits among the poor who suffer from illnesses. And all of them untie their bandages and tie them all at once, but the Messiah unties one bandage and ties one at a time. He says: Perhaps I will be needed to serve to bring about the redemption. Therefore, I will never tie more than one bandage, so that I will not be delayed.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to the Messiah. He said to the Messiah: Greetings to you, my rabbi and my teacher.

The Messiah said to him: Greetings to you, bar Leva’i.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: When will the Master come?

The Messiah said to him: Today.

Sometime later, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi came to Elijah.

Elijah said to him: What did the Messiah say to you?

He said to Elijah that the Messiah said: Greetings [shalom] to you, bar Leva’i.

Elijah said to him: He thereby guaranteed that you and your father will enter the World-to-Come, as he greeted you with shalom.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah: The Messiah lied to me, as he said to me: I am coming today, and he did not come.

Elijah said to him that this is what he said to you: He said that he will come “today, if you will listen to his voice” (Psalms 95:7).(Sanhedrin 98a)

To paraphrase Charbonnel:

So he will come, but he is there already. He is already there, but he affirms that he will come. He is going to come tomorrow, but perhaps today. The he will only come if we hear him. The temporality is not an eternal present; but it is of a forever possible present fulfillment of the past promise about the future. All times are bound up into one.

Jewish tradition repeats the maxim, “There is no before and there is no after in the Torah”. The way this rule is played out in the narratives is of particular interest. All events are linked, as per Elie Wiesel (quoted in French by Charbonnel):

Everything holds together in Jewish history — the legends as much as the facts. Composed during the centuries that followed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Midrash mirrors both the imagined and the lived reality of Israel, and it continues to influence our lives.

In Jewish history, all events are linked. (Wiesel, 11)

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Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3a. Representing a Collective in a Single Individual

Let’s begin the third and final chapter in part 1 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Part 2 of the book is titled The Gospels are Midrash. Some readers will be aware of my ambivalent feelings about calling the gospels midrash but let’s hear the meat of the argument, whatever labels are used. But if Charbonnel intends us to read Part 2 through Part 1, let’s complete that step. (To see all posts in this series go to the Charbonnel archive.)

Chapter 3’s thesis is the uniqueness of the Hebrew Bible, meaning its alien character by comparison with Greek and Latin literature. The chief idea Charbonnel wants to get across (and that the previous two chapters have been leading us towards) is that in the Hebrew scriptures form and content are interrelated.

Notre thèse est celle-ci : ce sont des écrits où forme et contenus sont réciproquement liés. (Charbonnel, 67)

This chapter examines firstly the nature of typology in the Hebrew Scriptures and secondly the impossibility of separating out literal from figurative meanings.

The Individual and the Collective

The Google translation works very well here:

All the great characters in the biblical text are what cold call “corporate personalities”. This notion was proposed in the inter-war period by the Anglican Henry Wheeler Robinson and the Danish theologian Pedersen, and was particularly developed in French in the work of the late J. De Fraine, Adam and His Lineage, published in 1959. Here is how he summarizes this notion . . .

Notice the fluidity in which the singular and plural function in Hosea 11:1-2

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.

Similarly for Rebeccah for whom any humane person would trust the promise given her was figurative, an individual representing a collective (Genesis 24:60):

60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,

“Our sister, may you increase
to thousands upon thousands;
may your offspring possess
the cities of their enemies.”

And Genesis 25:23

23 The Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
    and the older will serve the younger.”

We see the same in the Psalms, the Prophets (in particular the Servant of YHWH — which will come into the discussion in more depth in Part 2 of the book), . . . read more »

Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 2b. A God Bound to the Mechanics of Language

All posts in this series are archived here.

–o–

God is identical to the Word, the Voice, the Breath

The Hebrew God is a God who speaks. He created the world in “ten words”; the first time he addressed Adam and Eve was with a blessing; he gave the law to Moses in “ten words”. Everything he does is through speaking. By his voice, he raises up Abraham (telling him to leave), Moses (calling him from the burning bush), and his people Israel (calling on them to hear him). It is breath that makes speech and God’s breath, his spirit (ruach) possesses the prophets and judges, Gideon, Samson, Saul, David, Ezekiel. . . The spirit acts, comes, goes, at God’s whim. The spirit/breath/ (ruach) belongs to both man and God and give life (Psalm 104:29-30). God sends out his word and it falls upon mankind (Isa. 9:8). God breathes into the man to give him life. Ruach (the breath) and Dabar (the word) are intimately connected. It is the ruach that makes the dabar possible in speech. Speaking is the act of the breath. The text is written without vowels but it cannot be spoken without vowels, without the breath, the spirit. God gives meaning and life to the word in the scriptures. One could say that God is inseparable from the texts. It is his voice, breath, found in his human servants, that give them life, that reveals God himself and his ruach. Language is essentially a divinely sourced act.

Further, there is no punctuation in the Hebrew text. Pauses must be made at the correct place to give the correct meaning, or to change the meaning. The breath that utters the vowels and sounds of the words is essentially divine.

Divinity as Voice, a Twofold Unity

The power of God’s creative word functions in a series of doublets:

— God has two names, Elohim and his secret name, YYWH.

— God needs messengers: Moses, but also the Messenger who went before Israel as a cloud or fiery pillar. God’s name was in him, and his people were commanded to listen to him, to his voice; God would not pardon them if they refused, but would strike their enemies if they did hear and obey.

— Moses was also a dual act: Moses was given the word of God but he relayed it to his brother Aaron to announce it to the audience.

— the High Priest and the Prophet had complementary functions: the priests governed the Temple but the prophets reported the word of God; the two functions did not overlap.

— the prophet became the source of legitimacy as when he anointed a king, but he lacked the power of the king himself.

— the prophet made the word of God that called him comprehensible to all but that prophet had to hear “the corporeal voice of Yahwe, the invisible God” (Weber, 293, quoted by Charbonnel), to be assured he was God’s instrument.

Oral Torah Within the Written Torah; Text and Interpretation

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Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 2a. The Sacred and Creative Power of the Hebrew Text

Forgive the longer than desirable delay since my last post on Nanine Charbonnel’s book, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. (See the Charbonnel tag for all posts in this series.) The fault lies entirely with my failure to maintain my knowledge of basic French over the years so that it’s been a harder than usual struggle to be reasonably confident that I have grasped the details of the rather technical discussion in the second chapter.

The theme of this chapter is the remarkable range of meanings that can be teased out of the basic consonants of the early Hebrew biblical text. It is a mistake, Charbonnel points out, to think of the Hebrew text as being vowel-less. Yes, it is true that vowels were not written down as part of the original text, but without vowel sounds the consonants could not be pronounced at all. Seen from that perspective the vowel sounds can be considered the very soul, life, of the otherwise lifeless consonant text.

Further, the fundamental unit of the Hebrew language, consistent with other Semitic languages, was a (generally) three consonant root. To this three-letter foundation could be added suffixes and prefixes and, and by changing the internal vowel sounds one could produce a very wide array of nouns, adjectives and verbal forms. To paraphrase a quotation Charbonnel draws from a doctoral thesis by David Banon (University of Strasbourg),

it is as if the Semitic language had an unfinished character, a character that requires the reader to complete. In this respect the Hebrew text would look like the Creation that is not yet quite completed and that requires the man, the Adam, to perfect.

With such flexibility inherent in the text there is a possibility of endless play on interpretations and meanings.

Some other ways in which the Hebrew text acquires such plasticity:

Hebrew letters are also numbers. So words have numerical values. The sum of the value of each letter can be compared with the value of another word and inferences of interpretation can be thus drawn between the two words.

Each letter has a meaningful name. The letter for “b” (ב), for instance, is beth (or rather, BTH), and beth means house. So each consonant can be likened to a meaning or another word.

Some letters double as grammatical essentials. He (ה) is also the definite article, “the”; it is also a feminine ending; and also a word-ending signifying direction (towards); it can also indicate a question.

Certain letters can change the meaning or time or tense (whether an action has been completed or is on-going) associated with a word. To roughly paraphrase rather than exactly translate another passage,

When there is no yod (י) the verb’s meaning is assigned to the past, the action is accomplished. When there is a yod prefix, the verb is unfulfilled, or conditional, subjunctive. To assign the sense of future, simply add a yod before the verb. The yod is shaped like a hand with a pointing finger, indicating something to be arrived at or decided. So the future is open. And it is because of this openness that yod is the first letter of the name of the Lord, Yahweh. Whenever a yod will be written or read its will evoke the name of the Lord and His opening up of the future.

Encore plus étonnant, il suffit bien d’une autre lettre, un waw (jouant le rôle de préposition, donc avec une voyelle), pour ‘’convertir” (sémantiquement) la forme verbale de l’inaccompli en accompli (en gardant cette fois, pour le ‘’il”, le yod, qui marquait le futur), et inversement (la forme de l’accompli, avec son suffixe). C’est le fameux ‘’waw conversif” :

« Ce W- qui ajoute une nuance de succession est parfois appelé waw conversif, car il donne à chacune des formes la valeur temporelle ou aspectuelle qui est celle de l’autre forme quand cette dernière n’est pas précédée de waw. Les formes précédées de ce waw sont appelées formes converties. Ce trait syntaxique et stylistique, […] est caractéristique de la langue littéraire biblique. »

Le phénomène est énigmatique.

Peut-être son apparition est-elle liée à la narration, et elle s’expliquerait dans le cadre de l’évolution de celle-ci (il correspond à un passé simple, dans une suite narrative). Quoi qu’il en soit de son origine, il paraît cependant difficile de nier son existence sémantique, et la structure mentale qu’il peut forger. Qu’en est-il de l’influence de ce mécanisme sur la pensée biblique ? Faut-il dire que l’accompli obtenu ainsi, peut exprimer «le temps passé mais avec l’espoir de l’avenir» ? Il nous semble au moins qu’il accentue encore l’instabilité dans la temporalité, que nous allons approfondir plus loin.

Restons-en au poids des lettres. Insistons sur un degré de plus dans la possibilité de confusion. Pour cette transformation de la forme inaccomplie en un accompli, le waw dit conversif (ou inversif) se distingue du waw conjonctif (car le waw peut aussi être simplement la conjonction de coordination : le ‘’et” français), en ce qu’il est vocalisé ‘’a” et est suivi d’un redoublement de la consonne suivante. Mais quand il s’agit de transformer la forme accomplie (en inaccompli), le waw qui la précède est vocalisé ‘’shewa” (= é), ce qui ne permet pas, dans ce cas, de le distinguer d’un waw conjonctif…

Ainsi c’est le contexte seul, mais aussi parfois la pure décision du lecteur qui interprète le waw comme étant la conjonction ‘’et”, ou comme étant le signal de la forme inversée (qui par un accompli signifie alors un inaccompli…).

Charbonnel, 44-46

Charbonnel follows with a discussion about what I take to be the waw consecutive and that looks interesting but, alas, that I have given up attempting to translate even with the aid of Google. I quote the passage in the side-box for anyone with the competence to do the honours and be kind enough to produce a translation in the comments.

The final point enabling further multiplications of interpretations listed, surely especially significant at the time the New Testament works were being composed, was familiarity of many authors with Aramaic as well as Hebrew. The languages are very close but significantly some differences involve reversals of meaning.

Such details about the scripts and languages need to be kept in mind whenever we seek to make sense of the biblical writings, Charbonnel concludes.

Mystical Power of the Letters

— It is the written text that is sacred but what is read or seen on the page can be different from what is actually read aloud or spoken. The writing is sacred but the meaning is impossible to comprehend without an instructor.

— While the text itself is sacred, there can be some confusion in the meaning. Puns and word-play, moreover, can become an integral part of the meaning of the text and not mere incidental coincidences. Some letters are very similar and easily confused (e.g. resh ר and daleth ד) with potentially disastrous changes in meaning. Again to offer another crude paraphrase of my interpretation of a passage in Charbonnel’s text:

Letters serve not only as support for revelation but as an integral part of it. Since the world stands on the Torah, according to one tradition, any attack or breaking of the text puts creation in danger. . . . An 11th century saying: “If by accident you omit or add a single letter you destroy the whole world.”

It is forbidden to allow two letters to touch one another in order to preserve the distinctive sacredness of each, with all of its variable potentials of meaning. Quoting Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Mystères de la Bible,

The letters are all autonomous. Every letter is a world, every letter is a universe. The scribe therefore scrupulously writes each letter paying attention that there is no contact between two letters. In case that happens the book would be unfit for liturgical reading. (Machine translation, p. 48)

Letters, their forms, ranks, numbers, meanings, have something of a mystical power:

In Hebrew, father and mother begin with Aleph, son and daughter begin with Beth: Beth is thus the second generation, the one who has already received the teaching of her eldest, Aleph. (Charbonnel’s quotation, p.49, from LES SYMBOLES DANS LA BIBLE: LE SENS CACHÉ DES LETTRES HÉBRAÏQUES )

In the back of my mind as I read these pages I am wondering to what extent it all applies to the authors of Second Temple and early Christian texts. As if reading my mind Charbonnel states:

The belief that the letters of the alphabet are sacred powers is not only found in the esoteric doctrines of the Middle Ages (the Kabbalah) but certainly also in the period of the writing of the Old Testament texts (from the sixth to the first century before Christ.) (machine assisted translation, p. 49)

How the Bible Stories are Shaped by the Above Mechanisms

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Melchizedek, King of Sodom

This title caught my eye:

A quick bit of googling brought me up to speed on the general idea. From Melchizedek king of Sodom in Genesis 14? by Matt Colvin:

Now, I am not a higher critic, but I have read the collected works of David Daube, and I have learned that where there are difficulties and ugly seams in a narrative, it is worth digging to see if there is an elegant solution to the problems. I think the following facts require consideration:

1. “Melchizedek king of Salem” appears with no introduction. He is not mentioned anywhere earlier. He is not among the 4 kings on one side or the 5 kings on the other. The chapter is swarming with kings, but the king of Salem is not among them until he is suddenly introduced apropos of nothing.

2. The “king of Salem” is mentioned one verse after we are told that “The king of Sodom went out to meet Abraham after his return…” If the king of Salem is one person, and the king of Sodom is another, then verse 17 shows Abraham meeting the king of Sodom, when suddenly the king of Salem intrudes and gives Abram a blessing. Meanwhile, what is the king of Sodom doing? Just standing around watching this transaction?

3. Why would the king of Salem give Abraham a blessing? The king of Sodom, on the other hand, has just been defeated and plundered by Chedorlaomer and company, so he would naturally be thankful and full of good feelings for Abraham, who has just defeated Chedorlaomer et al. in turn.

4. Further, no sooner has Melchizedek blessed Abraham than the king of Sodom resumes conversation with Abraham as though they had never been interrupted! Such convolutions fly in the face of everything that Robert Alter has taught us about the economy of reported speech in The Art of Biblical Narrative.. And the king of Salem vanishes, never to be mentioned again until Psalm 110:4 (and again in Hebrews 6-7). Abraham and the king of Sodom act like the king of Salem had never been there. They act, that is, as if they are the only two parties present or active.

All these considerations are very old. They have exercised the Rabbis, who give creative solutions.

5. Verse 20 says that “he gave him a tithe of all.” The author of Hebrews of course takes this to mean that Abraham tithed to Melchizedek. But the verb would most naturally taken with the same subject as the previous verbs, which were “And he blessed him and he said…” Furthermore, why would Abraham give tithes to an unknown king?

Imagine… if the king of Salem is actually the king of Sodom, we would have…

1. No interruption of the narrated meeting, but rather, further information given about it: the single king (of Sodom/Salem) is given a name so that we can know who he is before he exchanges words (and would-be gifts) with Abraham.

2. No need for a sudden change of subject (#5 above), since unlike the king of Salem, the king of Sodom has a very good reason to give Abraham a tithe, for Abraham is the victorious conqueror of the conqueror of the king of Sodom.

3. A much better unity to the passage. The discussion of whether Abraham should take the goods and give the king of Sodom the persons follows very naturally on the information that the king gave him a tithe. Recognizing his indebtedness to Abraham, he attempts to pay him with a tenth of all he has, but requests the favor of keeping the persons. Abraham refuses to take anything, just as will also insist on paying for the cave of Machpelah instead of accepting it as a gift from Ephron the Hittite in Genesis 23. He will have no debt-friendships with peoples of the land at all.

4. The word Salem (שלם) is somewhat similar to Sodom (סדם), so that it is just possible that “Salem” is a corruption of “Sodom”. But it may be possible to come up with other explanations for the substitution of the city name Salem for Sodom in verse 18. For instance, Wikipedia notes that W. F. Albright reads “melek-shelomo” = ”a king of his peace”, sc. ”a king allied to him”. It adds, “if the Albright reading is accepted, this would then imply that the whole interchange was with the King of Sodom.” This seems to me a highly desirable conclusion from a narratological viewpoint. (The estimable Jesuit scholar of Aramaic, Joseph Fitzmyer, mentioned Albright’s suggestion here.)

I don’t know if Robert Cargill’s book contains a similar argument but would not be surprised at some overlap.

An Interesting Perspective

A short article in the online scholarly magazine Aeon:
“It draws an interesting link between the establishment of year dates by the Seleucids as a continuous series of advancing numbers and the phenomenon of apocalyptic thinking in and around the eastern Mediterranean.”

In My Cave

I’ve had a break from posting for a couple of days. The reason: I’ve been pulled in to reading the rest of Akenson’s book, Surpassing Wonder. Akenson is known primarily as a historian of Irish history but he has obviously kept abreast of the scholarship in biblical studies, too. What intrigued me most as I read was the striking way he presented certain views of “how the Bible came to be” that I have favoured — but his arguments were more direct and forceful than I have been prepared to acknowledge in posts.

He addresses problems with the “Documentary Hypothesis”, noting that it is not really a hypothesis but a model and should more correctly be called the Documentary Model: that is, the view that the Pentateuch and some other biblical texts are sourced from Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly sources. Now the final product may have been stitched together from such sources, but, Akenson notes, that is irrelevant to the study of the narrative and meaning of the final text as we have it. And what’s more, there was a single authorship of the nine books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. (I’ve posted about that view of the “Primary History” before.) I especially liked Akenson’s tracing of the main stages in biblical scholarship pertaining to the “DH” since it helped me place in context several of the big name scholars I have been studying up till now.

Yes, there are archaisms in the books, and there are repetitions and contradictions, but we have some of the same sort of things in Greek histories, too, and they serve a purpose, in particular the purpose of “authenticity” as a “historical record”. The difference is that the biblical history is anonymous. And that detail, too, has the effect of adding authority to the account. Many readers, especially believers, have liked to comment on the low-key matter-of-fact way many of the more dramatic and miraculous events are described in the bible. That style, believers say (as I have done myself), suggests authenticity, too. It works as narrative history.

Then carry over the style and techniques to the gospels and we have an ongoing account that sounds “genuine”. What is particularly striking in this context, furthermore, is the discussion of how Second Temple era literature managed to continue, build on, “biblical narratives” but at the same time dramatically re-write them, even introducing new characters, even spirit ones, to let God off from being blamed from some horrible decisions, and even claiming to be directly quoting God himself, without a mediator like Moses. It puts the gospels in an interesting context.

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been hiding these last couple of days. More later, I am sure.

The Great Divide in Biblical Studies

Leaving aside intellectually fraught efforts to argue that ancient Israel is an epic fiction manufactured in the Persian or Greek era — an effort that will forever stumble over the Merneptah stele— . . . . .

Jonathan Bernier, Re-Visioning Ancient Israel, 23rd March 2019

Such statements (this is but one example) mystify me. They are made by professional scholars yet they are tiresomely unscholarly, certainly unprofessional, on several levels.

To infer that the works of Thomas L. Thompson, Philip R. Davies and Niels Peter Lemche are “intellectually fraught efforts to argue” a thesis is not a scholarly statement but a condescending value judgement. It is a tactic to justify a choice to simply ignore the challenges to the foundational assumptions and methods underlying one’s own viewpoint or argument.

It would be more professional (demonstrating respect for one’s peers at the least) to say something like “Leaving aside the argument that Israel is an epic fiction…. — see challenges to this position at …..”.

The second point is even worse from a scholarly perspective. To declare that an entire thesis of a significant minority of one’s peers founders upon one solitary datum (as if that thesis fails to address that datum in a scholarly manner) is somewhat mischievous. In fact it is not the Merneptah stele that falsifies the thesis at all. The real point on which Bernier and those on his side claim that the view that “biblical Israel” is a fiction is the inference or assumption that the Merneptah stele confirms the essential reality of “biblical Israel” — an inference that is the conclusion of circular reasoning. Because the stele mentions Israel it is simply assumed that it must in some way be an indicator of “biblical Israel”, thus it is the assumption that biblical Israel was a historical entity that is used to conclude that the Merneptah stele refers to that “historical entity”.

It is misleading and the dogmatic apologetics to claim that the stele itself disproves the thesis that biblical Israel was a late fictional creation. It is Bernier’s assumptions and circular reasoning in relation to the stele that prevents him from referring to the hypothesis as if it is a genuinely scholarly enterprise. He writes as if any other interpretation of the stele is hopelessly (he says “forever”) invalid. That is not scholarship. That is dogmatics. It is not worthy of a serious scholar.

Here is an outline of the argument Bernier’s statement erases from any existence in his own intellectual world:

The earliest record of the name ’’Israel”

The name “Israel” first appears in a text at Ugarit (on the coast just south of modern Turkey, in modern Syria) and dates around 1500 bce. It is the name of a chariot warrior! Probably no connection with our ancient Israel!

 

The next find of “Israel” – but is it a People? a Place?…. ?

Merneptah Stele

The name “Israel” next appears around 1200 c.e. on an Egyptian stone monument (known as the Merneptah stele) commemorating victories of Egypt’s Pharaoh Merneptah in Palestine. However it is not clear from this monument whether Israel refers to a group of people who do not live in cities or to a city-less area in Palestine. The name may also refer to a people living in a highland area of Palestine but there is no way of knowing if they are named after the name of the place they inhabit. But we cannot simply assume that this will be our starting point for an extra-biblical history of Israel. We have no way of knowing whether these people called themselves “Israel” or if they were the ancestors of those who later formed the state of Israel.

If you think this is being picky, consider:

• Scotland takes its name from the ancient Scots who crossed the Irish Sea and settled m Ireland, leaving the Irish today being the descendants of the Scots.
• Britain today (and the British) take their name from a people (the Britons) who are now mostly limited to Wales and Cornwall after the Germanic tribes of Angles and Saxons settled there, and later the Danes and the Scandinavian-French Normans.
• Neither are the Dutch really Deutsch.

The same can be said of many other peoples. Populations in the Middle East, even today as in ancient times, also change a lot. Compare the peoples of Palestine and Israel today: The modern Israel occupies mostly the area once known as the land of the Philistines, while the centre of ancient Israel (the West Bank) is currently populated mostly by Arabs. It is most doubtful that any modern Israeli – actually ethnically descended from Asian and European races — can trace an ancestry back to the ancient land of Israel. So we need a bit more information than this ambiguous reference in an Egyptian monument before we can be confident we are looking at Israel in any sense that the Bible knows it.

From The Archaeological Evidence for Ancient Israel (notes on Philip R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel)

Now the above argument is a scholarly one, it is evidence based, it is careful to avoid gratuitous assumptions, yet anyone is free and even encouraged to disagree with it as long as they do so on valid scholarly principles. Bernier is quite free to disagree with Davies’ reasoning and conclusion. But a professional scholar ought to be able to do so without dismissing it as fundamentally intellectually invalid, or by simply asserting that there can be no valid disagreement with his (Bernier’s) own interpretation.

 

The Prologue of the Gospel of John as Jewish Midrash

While writing a post relating the Logos, Word, of the Gospel of John’s Prologue to hitherto longstanding Jewish ideas I came across the following explanation of “the formal characteristics of Midrash as a mode of reading Scripture” that requires a separate post or full quotation. It is a portion of an article by Daniel Boyarin that is based on an article by David Stern in The Jewish New Testament, “Midrash and Parables in the New Testament“.

One of the most characteristic forms of Midrash is a homily on a scriptural passage or extract from the Pentateuch that invokes, explicitly or implicitly, texts from either the Prophets or the Hagiographa (Gk “holy writings”: specifically, very frequently Psalms, Song of Songs, or Wisdom literature) as the framework of ideas and language that is used to interpret and expand the Pentateuchal text being preached. This interpretive practice is founded on a theological notion of the oneness of Scripture as a self-interpreting text, especially on the notion that the laer books are a form of interpretation of the Five Books of Moses. Gaps are not filled with philosophical ideas but with allusions to or citations of other texts.

The first five verses of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel fit this form nearly perfectly. The verses being preached are the opening verses of Genesis, and the text that lies in the background as interpretive framework is Proverbs 8.22–31. The primacy of Genesis as text being interpreted explains why we have here Logos and not “Wisdom.” In an intertextual interpretive practice such as a midrash, imagery and language may be drawn from a text other than the one under interpretation, but the controlling language of the discourse is naturally the text that is being interpreted and preached. The preacher of the Prologue to John had to speak of Logos here, because his homiletical effort is directed at the opening verses of Genesis, with their majestic: “And God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” It is the “saying” of God that produces the light, and indeed through this saying, every thing was made that was made.

Philo, like others, identifies Sophia and the Logos as a single entity. Consequently, nothing could be more natural than for a preacher, such as the composer of John 1, to draw from the book of Proverbs the figure, epithets, and qualities of the second God (second person), the companion of God and agent of God in creation; for the purposes of interpreting Genesis, however, the preacher would need to focus on the linguistic side of the coin, the Logos, which is alone mentioned explicitly in that text. In other words, the text being interpreted is Genesis, therefore the Word; the text from which the interpretive material is drawn is Proverbs, hence the characteristics of Wisdom:

1. In the beginning was the Word,
      And the Word was with God,
2. And the Word was God.
      He was in the beginning with God.
3. All things were made through him,
      and without him was not anything made that
        was made.
4. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
5. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness
      did not receive it.

The assertion that the Word was with God is easily related to Proverbs 8.30, “Then I [wisdom] was beside him,” and even to Wisdom of Solomon 9.9, “With thee is wisdom.” As is frequently the case in rabbinic midrash, the gloss on the verse being interpreted is dependent on a later biblical text that is alluded to but not explicitly cited. The Wisdom texts, especially Proverbs 8, had become commonplaces in the Jewish interpretive tradition of Genesis 1. Although, paradoxically, John 1.1–5 is our earliest example of this, the form is so abundant in late antique Jewish writing that it can best be read as the product of a common tradition shared by (some) messianic Jews and (some) non-messianic Jews. Thus the operation of John 1.1 can be compared with the Palestinian Targum to this very verse, which translates “In the beginning” by “With Wisdom God created,” clearly also alluding to the Proverbs passage. “Beginning” is read in the Targumim sometimes as Wisdom, and sometimes as the Logos, Memra: By a Beginning—Wisdom—God created.

In light of this evidence, the Fourth Gospel is not a new departure in the history of Judaism in its use of Logos theology, but only, if even this, in its incarnational Christology. John 1.1–5 is not a hymn, but a midrash, that is, it is not a poem but a homily on Genesis 1.1–5. The very phrase that opens the Gospel, “In the beginning,” shows that creation is the focus of the text. The rest of the Prologue shows that the midrash of the Logos is applied to the appearance of Jesus. Only from John 1.14, which announces that the “Word became flesh,” does the Christian narrative begins to diverge from synagogue teaching. Until v. 14, the Johannine prologue is a piece of perfectly unexceptional non-Christian Jewish thoughtthat has been seamlessly woven into the Christological narrative of the Johannine community.

I need to update my series on the meaning of midrash. There are major implications here for the gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark.


Boyarin, Daniel. 2011. “Logos, a Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash.” In The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, 546–49. New York: Oxford University Press.

https://www.academia.edu/36254597/Daniel_Boyarin_Logos_a_Jewish_Word_John_s_Prologue_as_Midrash_in_Amy-Jill_Levine_and_Marc_Zvi_Brettler_eds._The_Jewish_Annotated_New_Testament_New_York_Oxford_University_Press_2011_546_549.


The Gospel of John as a source for Jewish Messianism? (Part 1)

The tendency within New Testament studies is not to consider that the Johannine perspective might possibly reflect a Jewish sectarian perspective, but to see John and the Johannine Jesus, who is Messiah, as anti-Jewish.

A recent publication with a challenging title and edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds and Gabriele Boccaccini is Reading the Gospel of John’s Christology as Jewish Messianism: Royal, Prophetic, and Divine Messiahs. How could that be? The Gospel of John is widely considered the most Christian-theologically advanced of the gospels and even anti-Jewish.

. . . in the Gospel of John, Jesus has descended from heaven, has been sent by the Father, is one with the Father, and is the only begotten of the Father. This Johannine portrayal of Jesus as the divine Son of God is thought to have been possible only in later Christian thought. . . .

. . . scholars do not deem John’s Christology to reflect Jewish messianic expectation, at least directly. Rather, John’s Christology is understood to reflect a Johannine version of the Synoptic Jesus set in the context of late first-century intra-Jewish diaspora dialogue and conflict or less specifically a Christianized or theologized development of Jewish messianic expectation.

. . . For many, John’s high Christology indicates its derivation from the community, which in turn negates its historicity. How much more problematic then is it to read the Gospel of John’s Christology as a form of Jewish Messianism? (16f)

Yet the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has exposed certain similarities between the Gospel of John and some form of early Judaism in Palestine.

The challenge for Johannine scholarship has been where to go and what to do after noting John’s relationship with early Judaism. (18)

Benjamin Reynolds suggests the reason scholars stop short after doing little more than remarking upon certain points in common is that to go further

means traveling into uncharted waters, into places that Johannine scholarship does not go, such as reevaluating the possibility of historical evidence in John’s Gospel, the context in which the Gospel was written, and the height of its Christology.

Reynolds can say that “scholars almost without exception” address the Gospel of John as an instance of “early Christian (and thus not Jewish) belief in the Messiah.”

Attempts at Using John as Evidence for Jewish Messianism

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The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Heracles

We used to be taught that the first invasion of a Greek people into the Greek peninsula was the Dorian invasion. (Today that event appears to be generally regarded as mythical.) The Dorians of Greek myth were the Heracleidae, the descendants of Heracles, who undertook an “exodus” from the Peloponnesus and some generations later returned to reclaim and conquer their “promised land”. (Image from Wikimedia)

How reliable as historical records are the genealogies of patriarchs and the different tribes of Israel?

1977 saw the publication of Robert Wilson’s thesis, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, a work that set the main framework for further studies of biblical genealogies. Wilson used two different studies of genealogies as a basis for comparing and understanding what the biblical ones were all about:

  1. Anthropological studies of oral tribal cultures, African and pre-Islamic Arabian;
  2. Amorite dynastic lists of Babylon and Assyria.

The genealogies found among African and Arab oral cultures were considered relevant because the biblical genealogies were believed to have derived from oral traditions. Wilson concluded that such genealogies preserved historical memories:

Although we have seen no anthropological evidence indicating that genealogies are created for the purpose of making a historical record, genealogies may nevertheless be considered historically accurate in the sense that they frequently express actual domestic, political relationships.7

7 Genealogy, p. 189

The use of oral traditions among current and recent tribal societies as a doorway into the biblical genealogies was rejected by John Van Seters who set out his reasons in several works. In In Search of History, for example, he wrote in response to Wilson’s Genealogy

It is, to my mind, highly questionable whether functional explanations of variations in genealogies based on anthropological analysis of oral societies can also apply to literary variations. Wilson does not examine the many contemporary literary genealogies in the Greek world.

(p. 48n)

If you took no notice of the title of this post then the predicate in the last sentence just alerted you to where this post is headed, at least if you are already aware of this blog’s interest in the relationship between the “Old Testament” and Greek literary culture (e.g. posts on books by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum, Wesselius…). Expect in coming months another author to be added to those, Andrew Tobolowsky, author of The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles.

Andrew Tobolowsky

Tobolowsky points out that there is a significant structural difference between Babylonian and Assyrian royal genealogies on the one hand and those genealogies found in Genesis and the books of Chronicles on the other, is that the former are “linear”, that is, lists from father to son, while the latter are “segmented”, that is, following “multiple lines of descent, forming a kind of family tree.”

As Van Seters points out specifically about Wilson’s treatment:

On the one hand his Near Eastern linear genealogies, which derive from highly structured literate societies, bear very little resemblance to the segmented genealogies found in the book of Genesis. On the other hand, his discussion of the segmented genealogies and their comparison with Genesis is based upon anthropological studies of oral traditions in illiterate societies and this has created an artificial social and form-critical dichotomy.

Abraham Malamat, who generally embraces Wilson’s formulation, nevertheless adds:

Biblical genealogies represent a unique historical genre within the literature of the ancient Near East. I have here in mind not the so-called vertical lines of individuals such as the royal or priestly pedigree, which are common anywhere, but rather the ethnographical tables contained in the Book of Genesis… even more so… the ramified and wide-spread genealogies of the various Israelite tribes, assembled in the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles. All these have no equal anywhere else in the ancient Near East.

As a result, as Van Seters pointed out and others have since confirmed, the better comparison with biblical genealogical discourse, especially as it is found in the book of Genesis, is neither the traditions of preliterate cultures nor linear king lists but the complex, literary genealogies that were particularly popular in the world of Greek myth.

(p. 4 — my highlighting)

Tobolowsky dates the creation of these biblical genealogies to the late Persian period. I suspect Russell Gmirkin whose books we have discussed here would suggest a later time, that of the Hellenistic era.


Tobolowsky, Andrew. 2017. The Sons of Jacob and the Sons of Herakles: The History of the Tribal System and the Organization of Biblical Identity. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Van Seters, John. 1983. In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History. New Haven: Yale University Press.