When I offered to post a comprehensive review of Writing With Scripture by Nathanael Vette the publisher sent me a copy and now I hope this first in a series of reviews will begin to do justice to all concerned and interested. I write primarily as a layman for interested lay readers.
Who is Nathanael Vette?
Nathanael Vette [NV] appears on the University of Edinburgh’s site as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the School of Divinity.
In the book’s Acknowledgements NV thanks Helen Bond for supervising the research that led to this book. Other names many readers of this blog will recognize and who are singled out for gratitude are Mark Goodacre (one of NV’s doctoral examiners), James McGrath (for feedback) and Chris Keith (editor of the series accepting Writing With Scripture for publication). There are other names, of course, but I have listed for context those I think to be most widely known among lay readers. NV also gives a special appreciation to the Issachar Fund “for their generous sponsorship”.
My postdoctoral fellowship at the School of Divinity is sponsored by the Issachar Fund for researching the themes of gratitude and loyalty in Christianity and Islam. My primary research is on the Gospel of Mark and how compositional practices in Second Temple Judaism can help explain the emergence of the Gospel form. (From NV’s profile)
Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark is divided into four chapters:
The Introduction sets out the two different ways in which Jewish Scriptures are found in the Gospel of Mark: some are explicitly quoted and interpreted or merely alluded to in order “to support an argument or interpret an event”; others we sense are somehow “hidden” insofar as they are “woven seamlessly into the narrative” and we are left wondering why the author wrote that way. Was the author attempting to indicate to readers that Jesus fulfilled the “prophecies” of the Jewish Scriptures? Were events fabricated from those Scriptures or were historical events interpreted through them? Or were the Scriptures borrowed for some other reason? The Introduction will be the focus of this post.
The second chapter sets out a literary context for the Gospel of Mark by examining how Jewish Scriptures are used, both explicitly and implicitly, in Second Temple literature: episodes in Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (Book of Biblical Antiquities), the Genesis Apocryphon, 1 Maccabees, Judith and the Testament of Abraham. I found these to be some of the book’s most rewarding passages. Many readers have been made aware of scholarly studies comparing the Gospel of Mark with Greco-Roman literature (e.g. Homeric epics, Greek tragedy, Aesop, and others) so it is refreshing to be reminded of the Jewish literary context of the Gospel.
The third chapter zeroes in on several passages in the Gospel of Mark itself: those comparing Jesus with Elijah and then with Elisha, the resonances between the death of John the Baptist and the narrative of Esther, and of course the use of Scriptures throughout the Passion Narrative. How do the uses of the “Old Testament” compare in these passages with OT usages in the literature discussed in the preceding chapter? What can be reasonably concluded about the purpose of those usages as a result of the comparisons? NV argues that many of those Jewish scriptural allusions are found in the Gospel because they happened to be raw material the author found useful for fleshing out narrative scenes. In other words, we are in danger of reading too much into the Gospel if we seek to find a theological meaning behind many of the Scriptural allusions.
Finally, NV brings together the different ways in which we find Scripture used in the Gospel of Mark and what these can tell us about the influences and purposes of the narrative. The question that naturally arises is how much of what we read in the Gospel has been imaginatively invented by an author from OT passages and how much can qualify as historical reality? And how can we tell the difference? These questions are posed throughout the book in preparation for a final discussion and assessment at its end.
In the Lives of the Prophets, a Jewish work from as early as the first century that has been supplemented with Christian additions, we read of the death of Isaiah:
The image captured the imaginations of medieval manuscript decorators:
There remains the problem, of which the reader must by now be thoroughly aware, of how a saint and, for that matter, a Jewish prophet, came to be imagined as having died by the extraordinary process of being sawed in two. Even granted that the Middle Ages liked its tales of martyrdom gory and sensational, one cannot help but feel that to saw a man in two is not only cruel, but also unusual and impractical. Other motives besides a preference for the excessive seem required to explain the choice of an instrument of torture which is almost without parallel in the long catalogue of Christian and Jewish suffering. — Bernheimer, 21
Never let it be said I cannot be relied upon to keep my word, so here goes . . . .
* I use the term Judean for the same reason Steve Mason uses the term in A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74), p. 90. Mason explained that his reason was
“not because I have any quarrel with the use of Jews. . . . But our aim is to understand ancient ways of thinking, and in my view Judeans better represents what ancients heard in the ethnos-polis-cult paradigm. That is, just as Egypt (Greek Aegyptos) was understood to be the home of Egyptians (Aegyptioi), Syria of Syrians, and Idumaea of ldumaeans, so also Judaea (Ioudaia) was the home of Judeans (loudaioi) — the only place where their laws and customs were followed.“
(Mason, Steve. A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. p. 90)
The aim of this series is to explore the ideas “in the air” among Judeans* at the time Christianity was born. In other words, we are looking at the matrix from which Christianity emerged. The guiding text we are focussing on is The Messiah: A Comparative Study of the Enochic Son of Man and the Pauline Kyrios by James Waddell.
In what we generally hold to be the earliest texts addressing the nature of wisdom — Job and Proverbs — Wisdom is presented as a goddess or divine attribute. But those ideas were only part of the picture.
Sirach and Baruch
In the second century before the Christian era a work known as Sirach taught for the first time that Wisdom (unlike the goddess or divine attribute of earlier traditions) was a heavenly being who lived in heaven with the angels and who asked God for a place to live on earth. The real estate chosen for Wisdom was the Temple in Jerusalem; as an annexe Wisdom was also to be found abiding “in the Torah”. That is, Wisdom showed herself in the priestly cult and in the commandments of the Torah. (Not that Torah and Wisdom were identical, though. The two remain separate: the Torah does not become one with Wisdom as a pre-existent and heavenly being.) Similar ideas about Wisdom were repeated in the Book of Baruch soon afterwards.
Daniel and early Enoch
A quite different view of wisdom was portrayed in the Book of Daniel and early works of Enoch (before the Parables of Enoch). As if in direct rebuttal of Sirach and Baruch, Enoch declared that Wisdom will never depart from God or his throne in heaven.
Yes, Enoch and Daniel are wise men who teach wisdom, but their wisdom is a secret, something hidden, and only revealed to a small chosen elect group. Hence Daniel and Enoch are mediators of God’s wisdom but they do not make that wisdom available to everyone.
Wisdom in these texts is not for all of Judea and most certainly not for all of humanity. Rather, wisdom has existed from the beginning of time (Enoch was given to know it in the days before the Flood) and it will be revealed universally in the end time. Until that time of revelation (“apocalyptic” time) Wisdom remains secret except for the chosen few.
A wisdom-filled messiah is not found in these texts. The Son of Man of Daniel and the “snow-white cow” in the Dream Visions of Enoch may be understood as quasi-messianic figures at best but they are certainly not Davidic messiahs. Power and dominion belong to them but not “Wisdom”. Wisdom, as we have seen, is given to the mediators Daniel and Enoch who pass on the secret knowledge of the times to come.
Psalms of Solomon
In the first century B.C.E. the Psalms of Solomon mention a Davidic messiah to appear in the “last days”. The seventeenth psalm pictures this messiah Son of David wiping out sinners and ruling the survivors with “Wisdom and Righteousness” and “Wisdom and Happiness”.
Here, Wisdom resides neither in the Torah nor in the Law. Nor is it found in a mediator between God and humankind. The Psalms of Solomon drew upon the scriptural Isaiah 11:2
1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
The “shoot” from the stump of Jesse is, of course, David, but given that Isaiah is a prophecy we must read it as a Davidic figure destined to make an appearance in the future.
The relevant passages from the Psalms of Solomon 17 and 18:
According to PsSol 17, the Messiah will drive out the sinners “in wisdom and righteousness” (17:23), “will rule peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness” (17:29), and “will bless the Lord’s people with wisdom and happiness” (17:35). , , , “God made him … wise in the counsel of understanding with strength and righteousness” (17:37); “those born in these days… (will live) in wisdom of spirit and of righteousness and of strength” (18:7).
So the hope is in the advent of a Davidic Messiah to rule with wisdom. The point to take away from all of this is:
Both wisdom and power are given to the future Messiah, the Son of David.
The Wisdom of Solomon
But there were other viewpoints alongside the above among the Judeans in the years preceding the eruption of Christianity. The Wisdom of Solomon, like the Psalms of Solomon, was composed during the early Roman period but it contained a very different understanding of the place of wisdom. Here wisdom belonged to every righteous suffering person in this world. (And by definition, the righteous always suffer.) There was nothing “end-time” about it. It was not hidden in heaven. It was with every righteous person who asked God to grant it.
Unlike the Psalms of Solomon, the Davidic traditions are not associated with a future Messiah, the Son of David, but are used to describe “a typical figure who is persecuted and put to death by rich and powerful opponents but vindicated in the heavenly court”29 — a symbol in the chain of the children of Wisdom on earth. This is the way Wisdom reveals herself — not secretly, not indirectly, but acting in the first person, directly, in human history. There is not one particular mediator, not even Solomon, but a series of mediators. “In every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets” (7:27). Wisdom is not remote but easily accessible to humankind: “she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her” (6:12).
Contrast Sirach and Baruch above. In those texts Wisdom had an indirect salvific role, “realized through observance of the priestly law”. In the Wisdom of Solomon Wisdom has a direct salvific role.
Not so, according to the Parables of Enoch. For the Parables, Wisdom could not find any place to dwell on earth. She did go out looking for somewhere to live among the people of Israel but failed. Result: she was obliged to return to heaven.
There is no room in this world for the salvific role of Wisdom, both directly (as for the Wisdom of Solomon) or indirectly through the priestly Law (as in Sirach or Baruch). (Boccaccini, 276)
For the first time we find wisdom clearly and unambiguously associated with the Son of Man Messiah. (In the Parables of Enoch there is no doubt that the pre-existent Son of Man figure is also the Messiah.)
Part of this Messiah’s job description is to reveal wisdom to humanity. Here is the opening of the Parables:
The vision of wisdom that Enoch saw. . . . This is the beginning of the words of wisdom, which I took up to recount to those who dwell on the earth. . . . let us not withhold the beginning of wisdom. Until now there had not been given from the presence of the Lord of Spirits such wisdom as I have received according to my insight . . . . (1 Enoch 37:1-5)
The Son of Man figure in the Parables is a revealer of hidden treasures:
This is the son of man who has righteousness, and righteousness dwells with him. And all the treasuries of what is hidden he will reveal; for the Lord of Spirits has chosen him . . . . (1 Enoch 46:3)
The Son of Man is not only destined to reveal wisdom; he himself will be revealed by wisdom:
And in that hour that son of man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits, . . . And the wisdom of the Lord of Spirits has revealed him to the holy and the righteous; (1 Enoch 48:2, 7)
The Son of Man will have all the secrets of wisdom and will reveal wisdom to the truly devout:
For the Chosen One has taken his stand in the presence of the Lord of Spirits; and his glory is forever and ever, and his might, to all generations. 3 And in him dwell the spirit of wisdom and the spirit of insight, and the spirit of instruction (1 Enoch 49:2-3)
And the Chosen One, in those days, will sit upon my throne, and all the secrets of wisdom will go forth from the counsel of his mouth, for the Lord of Spirits has given (them) to him (1 Enoch 51:3)
The Parables of Enoch draws us in to witness a remarkable scene. Enoch is presented as its author. That is, Enoch is the one to whom angels are granting heavenly visions. But something mysterious happens as we read on: Enoch himself becomes gradually transformed into the pre-existent Son of Man figure that he sees in vision, and as the pre-existent Son of Man Enoch is at the same time the Messiah, too.
This is not an incarnation of the Son of Man and Messiah, however. As James Waddell notes pointedly: “This is the opposite of ‘incarnation.’” (p. 87) The earthly Enoch is changed into the spirit Messiah Son of Man figure.
And out of that house came Michael and Raphael and Gabriel and Phanuel and many holy angels without number. And with them was the Head of Days, and his head was white and pure as wool, and his apparel was indescribable. And I fell on my face, and all my flesh melted, and my spirit was transformed.
And that angel came to me and greeted me with his voice and said to me, “You are that son of man . . . .“ (1 Enoch 71:9-11, 14)
As the Messiah Son of Man, the heavenly Enoch becomes the destined revealer of divine wisdom.
. . .
Such were some of the ideas talked about in the world from which Christianity was born.
Next post (hopefully before nine years from now) we’ll look at pre-Christian Judean ideas about the Messiah’s relationship with Salvation.
Boccaccini, Gabriele, ed. Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man: Revisiting the Book of Parables. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2007.
Nickelsburg, George W. E. 1 Enoch: A New Translation; Based on the Hermeneia Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
Waddell, James A. The Messiah: A Comparative Study of the Enochic Son of Man and the Pauline Kyrios. London; New Delhi: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013.
Both Nero and Hadrian had a special devotion to enriching and reviving the culture of the Greek world
Nero pursued the cultic-religious worship of his own person, Hadrian that of Antinous (and more to be covered in upcoming posts)
The travel coins minted by Hadrian mirror the Corinthian local coinage reflecting Nero’s visit there.
The rule of Hadrian witnessed a flourishing of Jewish apocalyptic writings, including the identification of Hadrian with Nero redivivus.
The Nero redivivus myth is a standard interpretative feature in most commentaries on Revelation. Virtually every major commentary on Revelation mentions the myth . . . Kreitzer (1988)
But there is little agreement on exactly how Revelation fits with the history of the Roman empire. Kreitzer lists four scenarios to demonstrate those difficulties:
Rev 11:8 The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.
9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.
The five fallen emperors are Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian
The “one who is” (at time of writing), Titus
Domitian is the one “to appear” (foreseen by the author) as Nero redivivus.
Scenario two (omitting those who reigned for very short times):
The five fallen emperors are Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus.
The “one who is”, Domitian
The seventh and eighth are yet to come
The five fallen emperors are the Julio-Claudians (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero)
The “one who is” is then Galba
The one to come and to reign but a short time is then Otho — to be followed by Nero’s return
Scenario four is proposed by the same person who actually proposed scenario three above:
(The author) was writing in the early second century, a refugee, from a later wave of persecutions, and using the events of 64 to 69 in Rome as a cloak for his views of his own times. … To the author of Revelation the cheap and nasty legend of the risen Nero would seem the perfect legend for the anti-Christ, ever opposed to the truly and gloriously Risen Lord of his own faith. (John Bishop, Nero: The Man and Legend, p. 174)
The Nero myth was itself a variable quantity. It is as Kreitzer observes
The fact that ancient Jewish and Christian authors were able to find new and creative means of applying the Nero redivivus mythology to their own situations is particularly interesting. (1988, 95)
Indeed. And as we shall see, the emperor Hadrian who crushed the second Jewish rebellion led by Bar Kochba was also identified as the “Nero returned”.
Before we take on the details, let’s get some context.
Origin and Development of the Nero Redivivus Myth
We might say that there are three conditions necessary for a belief in someone’s return:
1.) A widespread popular affection for the figure by people who regarded the deceased as their benefactor or defender
2.) A general feeling that the figure concerned died leaving his work incomplete
3.) Mysterious or suspicious circumstances surrounding the figure’s death.
All three conditions apply to Nero. But as time went on and Nero didn’t return the hopes took a new twist: Nero was going to come back from the dead and return! As history and reality faded, myth took their place.
Non-Jews had hoped for Nero’s return. Jews, on the other hand, not so much. The idea of his return was good fodder for end-time prophecies such as those in the Sibylline Oracles, however. The Jewish oracles accordingly turned Nero into an end-time enemy of God.
How are these oracles dated? They refer to the destruction of the Jewish temple (70CE); they also refer to Hadrian in favourable terms so we presume that they were written before his war against Judea.
One set of these oracles (book 5) has been dated between 70 and 132 CE.
The oracles identify Nero by the following descriptions:
He initiated the war that led to the destruction of Jerusalem
He murdered his mother Agrippina
He claimed to be God
He loved the Greeks and those in the “east” (including Parthia) and they all loved him.
He cut through the isthmus of Corinth to create a canal joining two seas
Sibylline oracles identified Nero by means of known historical facts about him. And he was depicted there as an evil ruler. So where does Hadrian enter the story?
Hadrian as Nero redivivus
Curiously, Hadrian, though presented in a favourable light, is surrounded by descriptions of the unpleasant Nero. Not only is Hadrian nested within portrayals of Nero, but he also shares some of Nero’s historical identifiers. Given that the author here believes Hadrian is on the side of good and Nero on that of evil, we cannot imagine that Hadrian was understood to be Nero redivivus.
But the oracle was fearful. What of the future?
After all, Nero had brought savage punishment upon the Jews; so had the Flavians (Vespasian and Titus) who succeeded him. The oracle laments the existence of all these rulers. Then came the aged Nerva followed by Trajan. The oracle does not totally condemn those rulers: they had not caused trouble. And Hadrian, at least for now, seemed benign enough, but the past record of emperors still cast its shadow of traumatic memories. So the oracle wrote of Hadrian (5:46-50),
After him another will reign, a silver-headed man. He will have the name of a sea. He will also be a most excellent man and he will consider everything. And in your time, most excellent, outstanding, dark-haired one, and in the days of your descendants, all these days will come to pass.
Hadrian might be a fine man, but when he dies the end-of-time calamity will come — that was the message.
Still, why was Hadrian associated with Nero at all in these oracles?
Larry Kreitzer has an explanation:
It seems clear that Hadrian consciously adopted many of Nero’s benevolent policies toward the Eastern half of the Empire, deliberately modelling himself on his predecessor in this regard.
One of the important secondary sources of evidence for Hadrian’s preoccupation with the Emperor Nero is the numismatic evidence of the Imperial Roman mints. The fact that Hadrian borrowed some of Nero’s coin types for his official imperial mint issues, and used them as a means of popular propaganda, is indisputable. (1989, 69)
Hi. I’m back again, for better or for worse. Over the past few weeks I have immersed myself in reading but have finally come to a point where I need to pause and take stock. The book I have to blame for pulling me up and forcing me to stop and think afresh is König Herodes : der Mann und sein Werk by Abraham Schalit — published way back in 1969. (I don’t read German but thanks to new technologies I made short work of translating it.) Although Schalit does not address Christian origins his study of King Herod did open up for me a fresh historical perspective through which to re-interpret so much of the diverse material that makes up our earliest Christian sources.
I don’t read German, as I said, and I was of all possible ways alerted to König Herodes through my reading of an essay in another foreign language, modern Hebrew. This one was made available through an international library supply service supplemented by my text-reading and translation technologies: Levine, Israel L. “Magemoth Meshihioth Be-Sof Yemei Ha-Bayith Ha-Sheni (= Messianic Trends at the End of the Second Temple Period).” Messianism and Eschatology, edited by Zvi Baras, Zalman Shazar Centre for the Furtherance of the Study of Jewish History, 1983, pp. 135–52. Now that chapter is going to have to be converted into a new post here soon since I was slightly nonplussed to see it supporting another view I have expressed here, the view that there is little evidence to support the widespread “fact” that the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 CE against Rome was motivated by messianic hopes. That’s for another time.
The key idea in Schalit’s King Herod that has sent my mind into re-examining the question of Christian origins is the thesis that the Roman imperial idea, the ideology, if you will, propagated from the time of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, met with two responses among the Judeans:
Judeans who identified themselves as necessarily separate from gentiles (think of circumcision, sabbaths, marriage restrictions) had nothing in common with the idea of a world united by the values and laws of Rome;
Judeans who opposed the exclusivity of some of their brethren and were wide open to the idea of being a full part of a common humanity.
As for the first kind, the separatists, we see their views set out in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Recall those stories of “men of God” tearing out — not their own hair, but the hair of those Judeans who married gentiles. Those were the lucky ones: Phineas plunged a spear through one racially mixed couple. Daniel refused to pray even in secret when threatened with being thrown into the lion’s den. Sabbath-keepers chose to die rather than protect themselves from an enemy army on the sabbath day. Most of us are familiar enough with the relevant stories from the Old Testament and related books.
That familiarity can perhaps cloud the full significance of a quite different view of God and humanity that is expressed in other places in the same canon. Think of the original authors and readers of stories of Ruth, of Jonah, of Job. Ruth, a gentile, married an Israelite and became the great-grandmother of King David. Job is “from the land of Uz” and he speaks to a God who in the narrative appears to have no particular relation to Israel about a question of justice common to all humanity. Jonah has to learn a lesson about God’s acceptance of gentiles who repent and become righteous without any notion of the Mosaic laws. Several Psalms, Ecclesiastes supposedly by Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach further present a universalist view of God and the human experience.
Surely we have two opposing viewpoints among these Jewish authors. The second view could well find itself at home among Hellenistic writings of philosophers. The significance of that word “Hellenistic” deserves to be pondered at this point. It refers to the cultural world that belonged to the mixing of Greek and barbarian in the wake of Alexander’s conquests of the Persian empire. The Stoic philosophy that believed in the unity of humanity could trace its roots back to Alexander’s companion Aristotle. The ideas of some Jews or Judeans were evidently at home in such a world. Others were not.
What struck me so strongly about Schalit’s Herod was that those same two viewpoints among Judeans were very much alive and uncomfortable with each other in the time we associate with Christian origins. Herod (ca 37 to 4 or 1 BCE) was an Idumean who sought acceptance as a Jew. He was also a client king of Rome who owed his life and kingship to Augustus. Though King of Judea he embraced wholeheartedly the imperial program of Augustus. At this point, we need to backtrack just a little. . .
Augustus came to power as the final victor after a half-century of civil wars. His imperial propaganda machine went into overdrive. Augustus was the “saviour” and benefactor of “the inhabited earth”. Roman imperial rule was to become synonymous with “the good news” (it was a term of imperial propaganda) of peace, a restoration of “good old fashioned morality”, the spread of humanizing culture as expressed in the arts and literature and philosophy, and rule of law and justice for all. The Roman imperial idea took Alexander’s inheritance of uniting peoples under one divinely chosen ruler and magnified it beyond anything achieved by other successors. The Seleucid empire, for example, essentially took a “hands-off” approach towards subject peoples and let them do their own thing. Antiochus Epiphanes ran into trouble with religious zealots in Judea because he broke that tradition there.
You can probably see where I am headed with these ideas. Apologists have long posited that God prepared the world for Christianity in a way not very different from what I am proposing here — only without God and forethought.
Augustus could trust Herod to embody the full idea of the Roman civilizing mission and Herod did not fail him. Herod’s court attracted artists and intellectuals from other lands; his building program emulated the achievements in Rome itself; like Roman emperors he was the benefactor of the poor; he settled non-Jews in his Judean kingdom. But he could not have himself proclaimed as a god or even a demi-god as was the usual status of such leaders in his part of the world. He could, however, have his scribes fiddle with the genealogical records to show he was a descendant of David and hence — especially given his great accomplishments as king, expanding the borders and undertaking monumental building projects — potentially the promised Davidic Messiah. Unfortunately Herod had too many other faults to persuade enough others to that opinion. But even a powerful personality like Herod could not exist in an environment totally alien to everything he stood for.
The crucial point, it seems to me, is that Herod’s “Judaism” was in synch with that open or universalist idea we encounter in the books of Ruth, Jonah, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach etc. Herod failed to win the approval of the “legalists” and I cannot help but wonder if his failure was felt by others who were on his side with the more open kind of Second Temple religion.
There were evidently a significant number of Judeans who opposed their isolationist kin. And as evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls there were equally many Judeans who called down the judgment of God upon those of their kin who compromised with the Laws of Moses.
Now look again at our earliest Christian texts. Do not the gospels, certainly the Synoptic ones of Matthew, Mark and Luke, teach the highest values of the Greco-Roman culture? In case you’ve forgotten, have another quick look over
Recall the Gospel of Matthew opening up its account of Jesus by reminding readers of the sinners and gentiles — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba — in Jesus’s ancestry.
Even recall the Roman imperial motifs in the gospels: The Gospel of Mark beginning with a line from Augustus’s propaganda about the “good news”; the imitation of emperor Vespasian’s miracles of healing the blind and lame; the inversion of the Roman Triumphal procession as Jesus is led to his crucifixion:
Recall, also, some of the earliest archaeological evidence we have for Christianity and how serene and “at home” it looks as if its creators were well-integrated members of society.
I have some sympathy for those who have attempted to locate Christianity’s origins in a Roman imperial conspiracy. But there is no evidence for such a hypothesis. There is even precious little evidence for the proposed motive behind such a conspiracy: a desire to pacify an unusually rebellious people by seducing the Jews into a religion of submission to Roman authority. The Jews were not particularly rebellious in comparison with others who chaffed at Roman rule. No, surely the initiative for a religious idea that did away with the exclusivist identity of many Judeans would have arisen among other Judeans of a different persuasion, of those who felt some embarrassment with their ethnic relatives.
How much more impetus must there have been for Judeans of that universalist mindset to present an “ecumenical” front to their pagan neighbours in the wake of the calamitous results of the Jewish wars in 70 and 135 CE.
Then recall how Jesus himself in the gospels is delineated as a fulfillment of all that can be described as the epitome of “Judaism”. I posted not long ago a lengthy series on one particular study that delves into the details of how the gospel Jesus is created out of so many texts and motifs of the Jewish Scriptures and Messianic viewpoints: Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier / Nanine Charbonnel
If some Judeans of the day did indeed attempt to sideline their “legalistic” family members by producing texts that unambiguously set the universalism of Ruth, Jonah, Sirach, and the rest front and foremost, they could not have done better than make a new successor to Moses, another Joshua, their focus. One might almost say that if Jesus had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him.
There is much more to add. One must, of course, account for persecutions and sectarianism in early Christian history. But the above is for now enough to set down the basis of initial thoughts on what might have led to the creation of Christianity.
I quickly glossed over Nanine Charbonnel’s discussion of what the various sacrifices meant in the Temple cult of Israel in my previous post. I need to back up and cover the key points of those sacrifices before moving on but I’ll try to do so without getting into the details of certain Hebrew and Greek words and manuscript lines.
Key point #1: The temple cult was essential for communion between God and his people. Cain and Abel could offer sacrifices anywhere because God was still on earth with them. After God left the planet a mediator or mediation ceremony of some sort was necessary to enable some form of communion between God and his people.
Key point #2: The covenant between God and Israel made at Sinai was made between God and Israel in the presence of each other; the people (it can almost be said) effectively saw God, stood with him, certainly experienced a theophany.
Key point #3: The temple cult enabled in some sense a repeat of that theophany, or at least a restored communion with God through a mediator and a mediating cult.
Key point #4: The cult of mediation required several sacrifices.
One of these was the “asham” or guilt/sin/trespass offering that was made as reparation for damage done to the relationship and thus established the condition for the subsequent restoration of communion or a close relationship with God. This “asham” offering was a particular type of “sin offering” (“hattath” offering) . . .
The other sacrifice of note here (there are others but these two are most to the point of the broader discussion) followed the sin offering for reparation above and was the “hattath” or sin offering. “Sacrifices for sin are sometimes called sacrifices of atonement. In Hebrew, they are simply designated by the word hattath, sin, rendered according to the case by sacrifice for sin or the victim offered for sin. A part of it was burned on the altar, the major part was eaten by the priest who thus absorbed the sinner’s guilt in some way.” (From https://leschretiens.fr/lexique.php#S)
Key point #5: The sacrifices came to cover the sins of the entire community of Israel. (That is, the temple cult was concerned with more than individual sins.)
Key point #6: The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 offers his life as a sacrifice of atonement. He took on the sins of the multitude and had God lay all of Israel’s sins upon him.
Key point #7: In Hellenistic times (second century BCE) the temple cult of sacrifices was halted and a version of the Book of Daniel had the three Jewish martyrs praying from the fiery furnace that their sacrifice be a fulfilment of all that was necessary for atonement and restoration of the communion of Israel with God.
Key point #8: The same concept of sacrifice as accomplishing the goal of fellowship or communion with God is found in the Day of Atonement ritual. The High Priest undergoes various stages of purification to bring him ever closer to a place and condition where he can be in the presence of God who descends to grant his blessing on Israel. His ritual begins with an “asham” or “reparation for sin” sacrifice of a ram and culminates with a more elaborate sacrifice of a second ram, a sin offering that consecrates him and allows for a restored communion of God with his people.
Below I copy a translation of the key pages of Grappe and Marx from which Charbonnel extracts a quotation to explain these sacrifices and their significance for restoring Israel’s relationship with God.
We are now ready to move on to the next critical part of NC’s discussion.
We now arrive at Nanine Charbonnel’s discussion of the source of the Passion narrative in the gospels. Her approach is in three parts:
the failure of traditional approaches to bring us to a satisfactory answer and a recognition that the expectation of a suffering messiah who liberates his people was very much a part of Second Temple Judaism;
the relationship between the “killing of the messiah-body of the people of Israel”, the eucharist, the Passion, the Jewish Scriptures;
the central roles of personification, the substitution involving Barabbas and midrash.
The false leads of past enquiries
A man is put to death as atonement for the sins of others. The idea is found in other ancient religions, folklore and customs so it has seemed quite reasonable to look there to understand the origins of the gospel story.
Do mystery religions hold the key? No, they have not given a fully satisfactory explanation of what we read in the gospels. Other gods did not die as sacrifices to save their devotees. It cannot be said that Dionysus, Attis or Tammuz “died for our sins”. Gods in their wrath did require substitutes (an animal, even a child) as sacrifice at times but that’s not the same thing.
What of the Saturnalia? In 1898 Paul Wendland a specialist in Philo of Alexandria and future professor at Göttingen, in an article entitled “Jesus als Saturnalien-Koenig“, suggests that the mockery of Jesus by the Roman soldiers could be linked to the Saturnalia, an annual custom observed by Roman soldiers in which victim was crowned as a god-king (Kronos/Saturn) and mocked until finally executed quite some time later. But this was a December custom.
A better hypothesis, however, is one that caught my attention some years ago now, so it’s like catching up with an old friend. NC alerts us to Salomon Reinarch’s 1902 text online:
However, the resemblance of the Passion with the Sacaea is even more striking than that which it presents with the Saturnalia. Here is the text of Matthew (XXVIII, 26-31): “So Pilate released Barabbas to them; and after having whipped Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. And the soldiers brought Jesus to the Praetorium, and they gathered the whole company around him. And having stripped him, they put on him a scarlet robe. Then, having made a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed on his right hand; and kneeling before him, they laughed at him, saying: “Hail, King of the Jews!” And spitting at him, they took the reed and hit him on the head. After making fun of him,they took off the mantle and put his clothes back on him, and led him away to crucify him. “
Compare this passage with the treatment of the king of the Sacaea, as reported by Dion Chrysostom:
“They take one of the prisoners sentenced to death and have him sit on the royal throne; they dress him in royal clothes and let him drink, amuse himself and use the king’s concubines for several days. But then they strip him of his clothes, scourge him and cross him. “
Other suggestions have surfaced: that Jesus was filling the role of the villain Haman in the Esther story: Jews celebrated the occasion annually by destroying an effigy of Haman; and Philo’s account of Carabbas in Alexandria:
There was a certain madman named Carabbas, afflicted not with a wild, savage, and dangerous madness (for that comes on in fits without being expected either by the patient or by bystanders), but with an intermittent and more gentle kind; this man spent all this days and nights naked in the roads, minding neither cold nor heat, the sport of idle children and wanton youths; and they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a sceptre they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him; and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state. Then from the multitude of those who were standing around there arose a wonderful shout of men calling out Maris; and this is the name by which it is said that they call the kings among the Syrians; for they knew that Agrippa was by birth a Syrian, and also that he was possessed of a great district of Syria of which he was the sovereign . . .
René Girard refers (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 49ff) to a horrific episode in the life of Apollonius of Tyana when the prophet stopped a plague in Ephesus by inciting the crowd to stone a poor beggar to death in the belief that he was a demon. The citizens are cured of the plague. Everything is restored to rights. They acted as necessity required.
But how can one reconcile these scapegoat ideas with the sacrifice of the messiah? The scapegoat in non-Christian scenarios above is a fool, an innocent, an unworthy reject whose death draws away all the evil inflicting a community. That scenario clashes against the gospel Passion where the “scapegoat” is indeed the son of God and order is not restored merely as a result of his death alone. The crowd is acting correctly and necessarily, if mercilessly and cruelly, in the scapegoat traditions.
There are analogies in the mystery religions and other practices. There are the rites of death and rebirth as we see in the gospels, and the death of the god or scapegoat does have a benefit for many others. It is conceivable that such ideas in the Greco-Roman world made the spread of the Christian message somewhat recognizable or at least comprehensible and facilitated its spread. But those Greco-Roman analogies cannot explain the content of what we read of the death of Jesus in the gospels.
What we read in the gospels is almost entirely made up of a rewriting of Jewish Scriptures. Yes, the book of Esther with its violent fate of Haman is relevant, and so is the scapegoat theme as we find it in Leviticus 16. But these sources are some of the threads selected to weave a quite different story for a new situation.
NC finds an idea stressed by Girard of special interest. With the gospels we find a shift from the view that the persecuting mob are acting correctly against a necessary and demonic target:
myths are based on a unanimous persecution. Judaism and Christianity destroy this unanimity in order to defend the victims unjustly condemned and to condemn the executioners unjustly legitimated.
(Girard, I See Satan Fall, p. 172)
One must understand that we are not talking about a real divine man or man believed to be divine. The story is a historical fiction in which the people of God (who are the “son of God”) was sacrificed as an innocent victim, and therefore as an expiatory victim, a victim who gives new life to the people. This is a new story of a different type of death and resurrection.
The dramatic innovation that this gospel story introduces is identified by the French Dominican scholar Étienne Nodet. To begin with, one must recognize that John the Baptist had been preaching the imminence of the Final Judgment and the arrival of the Messiah and Kingdom of God with that Day of Judgment. On that Day of Judgment each person will be punished or rewarded according to their sins or to having their sins cleansed by the sacrifice of a victim in their stead.
The model for this [sacrificial exchange] is the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement, who is pure and who receives the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:20-22); it is he who bears the condemnation. It is a precept of the Law, but in another sense, it is like all sacrifices an injustice, if one equates the animal with a reasonable being. The persecuted righteous person, or more generally the martyr, represents a transfer of the same nature, where the injustice is clearer, especially if it is not obedience to a precept. Such is the case of John the Baptist or James. This is also the case with Jesus, but there is a major difference, which is underlined by Peter’s speech at Pentecost: he began by recalling the injustice of the crucifixion (Acts 2:23), and then he declares (vv. 32-33):
“God has raised this Jesus from the dead; we are all witnesses to this. And now, exalted at the right hand of God, he has received the Holy Spirit of promise from the Father and has poured him out.”
In other words, the final judgment is done, the injustice is redressed, and the Spirit is poured out.All these aspects are concentrated in the affirmation of the resurrection, which is a kind of thwarted sacrifice: the being on whom the faults are transferred is finally promoted, since he is resurrected, that is, justified. The Epistle to the Hebrews, by making Jesus both the high priest and the victim, develops at length this whole sacrificial dimension.
In preparing my next post on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier I remarked that I had posted a few times along the lines of a theme her work explores: the idea of a suffering and dying messiah among Jewish circles prior to the Christian era. I began to list those posts but found way too many to mention there so I’m posting the list separately here.
Posts addressing the question of the Jewishness of a suffering and dying messiah:
A Jewish scholar, Joshua Efron, believes that the entire “stoning of James” passage — yes, that James who is said to be “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ” — in Josephus is a Christian forgery.
Now Efron does get under the skin of a fewscholars when he argues with a sometimes abrasive style contrarian views relating to the Hasmonean period of Jewish history, Christian influence in the Pseudepigrapha and views on the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I have not read a rebuttal of his arguments about the existence, function and character of the Sanhedrin in the Second Temple period. I would be interested in doing so. Josephan scholar Louis Feldman acknowledges Efron’s “enormous learning”.
Of the New Testament references to the Jewish Sanhedrin Efron writes:
The New Testament Synedrion (Sanhedrin) was created in the bosom of Christian theology, nurtured by its characteristic tenets and trends in order to provide a concrete, albeit artificial representation of Jewish leadership that denies and contemns the wondrous heavenly savior. (337f)
Efron’s detailed survey of the evidence and all references to the word translated “sanhedrin” that the common image we have of a supreme ruling Sadducee body at the time of Second Temple Judaism is an anachronistic myth:
It is not purely terminological details but facts that prove the non-existence of the Great Sanhedrin at the end of the Second Temple period. Here Josephus appointed at his side in Galilee a high council of seventy in exercising his authority to judge criminal cases, and the zealots in Jerusalem set up a tribunal of seventy for capital cases. In these two salient cases there is no indication of any coordination or contact or of conflict with the sacred rights of the Great Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stones which alone was supposed to have seventy members. A Gerousia of the Jewish community of Alexandria, mentioned by both Philo and Josephus, had “seventy elders” in it according to the talmudic legend, with no reference at all to the supreme institution in Jerusalem. All these testimonies lead to the solid conclusion that from the time of the Return to Zion up to the destruction of the Second Temple there were representative, administrative, public bodies, intermittently appearing and disappearing as Gerousia, and Synedrion and Boule, but they were never identifiable with the talmudic Great Sanhedrin at the head of the judicial system that defines the law and disseminates the Torah among the people of Israel. (318)
With that background perspective, read again about the stoning of James in Josephus’s Antiquities. I have set Efron’s paraphrase alongside the Whiston translation. The sentences in italics are Efron’s introductory and concluding commentaries on the scene.
Josephus: Antiquities 20.9.1 (20:197-203)
Efron’s paraphrase of Josephus: Studies, p. 334
AND now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests.
The second passage pictures an evil, harsh Sanhedrin, very similar to the one in the New Testament.
But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges,
The younger Ananus (or Annas), the high priest, son of the elder Ananus, was extremely bold and brazen, belonged to the Sadducees, who were severe (“savage”) in trial more than any Jews, took advantage of Festus’ death and before the arrival of the new procurator Albinus, “seated a Synedriort (Sanhedrin) of judges,”
and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned:
brought to trial James the brother of Jesus, “called the Messiah (Christ),” and also “certain others,” accused them of violating the law “and delivered them to be stoned.”
but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified;
However, circles among the residents of the capital considered “the most fair-minded and most strictly law-abiding” did not wish to tolerate such an injustice and applied secretly to King Agrippa to obtain his order preventing such deeds, for Ananus did not act properly to begin with.
nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent.
Some of them set out to meet Albinus and explained that Ananus did not have the authority “to seat a Sanhedrin” without the procurator’s consent.
Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.
“Albinus was convinced” and angrily wrote an irate and threatening letter to Ananus. That is why Agrippa also took the high priestly crown away from him.
So ends the episode, which at first glance seems free of weaknesses and faults. And yet a careful examination collapses this naive testimony.
I conclude* continue here my posts presenting Rivka Nir’s case for the John the Baptist passage in the Antiquities of Josephus being a Christian interpolation. All of these posts are archived at Nir: First Christian Believer. (* I had expected to conclude the series with this post but as usual, checking sources and being sure I get the argument correct takes more time than I usually anticipate). All bolded highlighting in the quotations is my own; italics are original.
Jewish or Christian Baptism? — What did John’s Baptism Look Like?
Nir identifies five defining characteristics of the baptism of John that we read about in Antiquities.
Here is the relevant section from Antiquities 18.116-118 (18.5.2)
John who was called Baptist . . . who was a good man and one who commanded the Jews to practise virtue and act with justice (δικαιοσύνῃ) toward one another and with piety toward God, and [so] to gather together by baptism. For [John’s view was that] in this way baptism certainly would appear acceptable to him [i.e. God] if [they] used [it] not for seeking pardon of certain sins but for purification of the body, because the soul had already been cleansed before by righteousness (δικαιοσύνῃ). . . And . . . others gathered together [around John] (for they were also excited to the utmost by listening to [his] teachings) . . .
(Translation by Robert Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 32)
Character 1: Christian terminology
Nir submits that the terms used in the Josephan passage “derive from the lexicon of Christian theology.” That certainly appears to be true with respect to the epithet assigned to John, “the Baptist” (βαπτιστής). Though Josephus uses other forms of the word for immersion, dipping or washing elsewhere, “the Baptist” — βαπτιστής — is found nowhere else in Josephus and is specific to the New Testament as an epithet for John.
for someone who did not know Jewish tradition or Christian preaching, the rather deliberate statement that this was ‘the wetted’ or perhaps ‘the greased’ would sound most peculiar… Since Josephus is usually sensitive to his audience and pauses to explain unfamiliar terms or aspects of Jewish life, it is very strange that he would make the bald assertion, without explanation, that Jesus was ‘Christ’ (Ant. 20.200). That formulation, “the one called Christ,” makes much better sense because it sounds like a nick-name. . . . [I]t would make sense for Josephus to say, “This man had the nickname Christos,” and he could do so without further explanation.(Josephus and the New Testament, 166)
Nir further posits that we should expect Josephus to explain the meaning of the epithet if he did write it, just as, for example, Steve Mason argues that Josephus would be expected to explain the epithet “Christ” to non-Jewish audiences if he did use it of Jesus. Against this, in my view, and as Nir herself notes in a footnote, Mason further suggests that Josephus would not be expected to explain the meaning if the epithet was introduced as a nickname — e.g. Jesus who was called Christ, John who was called the Baptist.
The problem highlighted by Nir is as follows:
What would Greek and Roman readers unfamiliar with Christian sources understand by this term? They were familiar with the verb βάπτω, which means ‘to dip/be dipped’ or ‘to immerse/be submerged’, and with the verb βαπτίζω, which in classical sources denotes ‘to immerse/be submerged under water’.49 How would they understand a designation referring to someone who immerses others with this particular immersion? How could Josephus use this designation without defining it?50
49. Metaphorically: soaked in wine. See Oepke. ‘βάπτω’, TDNT, I. p. 535.
50. Rivka Nir cites Graetz, Abrahams, Mason and Webb. I have expanded on the difficulties Abrahams raises for Nir’s argument below.
Abrahams argues that the passage overall is genuine but acknowledges the possibility that the epithet “the Baptist” is interpolated:
The terminology of Josephus, I would urge, makes it quite unlikely that the passage is an interpolation. For, it will be noted (a) Josephus does not use βάπησμα which is the usual N.T. form; (6) he does use the form βάπτισις which is unknown to the N.T.; (c) he uses βαπτισμός in a way quite unlike the use of the word when it does occur in Mark (vii. 4) or even in Hebrews (ix. 10). It is in fact Josephus alone who applies the word βαπτισμός to John’s baptism. Except then that Josephus used the epithet βαπτιστής (which may be interpolated) his terminology is quite independent of N.T. usage. (Studies in Pharisaism, p. 33)
Others reply that Josephus does explain the term, if indirectly:
In his first editions Graetz accepted Josephus’ account of John as authentic. But in his later editions of the Geschichte der Juden he strongly contends that the passage is spurious. He urges that Josephus would not have described John as the “Baptist” (τοῦ ἐπικαλουμένου βαπτιστοῦ) without further explanation. Graetz does not see that it is possible to regard these three words as an interpolation in a passage otherwise authentic. But it is not necessary to make this supposition. For it is quite in Josephus’ manner to use designations for which he offers no explanation (cf. e.g. the term “Essene”). And the meaning of “Baptist” is fully explained in the following sentence, Josephus using the nouns βάπτισις and βαπτισμος to describe John’s activity.
(Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism, 33 — Rivka Nir cites Abrahams but the fuller quotations are mine.)
Abrahams (in both the paragraph above and in the side box) sounds more damning than his argument actually is. Yes, he is correct Josephus uses baptisis (βάπτισις) “which is unknown in the New Testament” and baptismos (βαπτισμός) “in a way quite unlike the use of the word when it does appear in Mark(vii. 4) or … Hebrews (ix. 10).” But what Nir points out is that those words are part of the “lexicon of Christian theology” as witnessed by Athanasius Alexandrinus, Origen and Chrysostom. They are not the words Josephus normally uses (λούεσθαι or άπολούεσθαι — louesthai or apolouesthai) when describing Jewish immersions. Those early fathers testify to the use of those terms in relation to John’s baptism as well as Christian baptism more generally.
Characteristic 2: a collective baptism into an elect group
This post is detailed. But it is getting down to the nitty gritty of a case for the midrashic creation of the Jesus figure in the gospels.
Performative utterance: In the philosophy of language and speech acts theory, performative utterances are sentences which are not only describing a given reality, but also changing the social reality they are describing.
Nanine Charbonnel cites four intriguing instances.
A. I Am/I Am He/I and He … and we are all together
Many of us are familiar with Jesus declaring “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι) which echoes Yahweh’s self-declaration in the Pentateuch; less familiar are the moments when Jesus says, “I am he” (ἐγώ εἰμι αὐτός – e.g. Luke 24:39), and that sentence echoes the second part of Isaiah (אֲנִי-הוּא = hū’ănî = I [am] he; LXX = ἐγώ εἰμι = I am) and liturgies of the Jewish people. (I’ll simplify the Hebrew transliteration in this post to “ani hu” (= I he).
These self-identifications bring us back to Exodus 3:14 where God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush: “I am he who is”, which in the Greek Septuagint is ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν.
But we need to look again at those words [hu ani] in Deutero-Isaiah:
We will see that this expression, “I he” is related to the festival of Tabernacles or Sukkoth.
But first, we note that during New Testament times at the Feast of Tabernacles or Tents worshippers walked around the altar each day singing “O Yahweh save us now, O Yahweh make us prosper now”, which is a line from Psalm 118:25
[we pray / beseech you]
[we pray / beseech you]
Now in rabbinic literature, in Mishnah Sukkah 4:5, we find another version of this liturgical sentence was said to be used during the temple ceremony.
Each day they would circle the altar one time and say: “Lord, please save us. Lord, please grant us success” (Psalms 118:25). Rabbi Yehuda says that they would say: Ani waho, please save us. And on that day, the seventh day of Sukkot, they would circle the altar seven times.
[taken to be a substitute for the divine name by some scholars – see Baumgarten below]
I (Hebrew); (confusingly, ana in Aramaic means “I”. By hearing the original Hebrew ana as the Aramaic ana, the transformation to Hebrew “I” follows.)
Both ani and waho may be considered “flexible” as I’ll try to explain.
ani in Hebrew means “I”
ana in Hebrew means something like “we pray” as above
Aramaic was the relevant common language in New Testament times, however, and it’s here where the fun starts.
ana in Aramaic means “I”
So we can see how the Hebrew “we pray” can become the Aramaic “I”.
If waho, והו, began as a substitute for the divine name it could when pronounced easily become והוא, wahoû, which is the Aramaic for “me”.
qui peut être une manière de dire ‘ani wahoû’, “moi et lui”.
Translated: which can be a way of saying …. “me and him”. (The “wa” = “and”.)
Not cited by NC but in support of NC here, Joseph Baumgarten in an article for The Jewish Quarterly Review writes,
Mishnah Sukkah 4.5 preserves a vivid description of the willow ceremonies in the Temple during the Sukkot festival. Branches of willows were placed around the altar, the shofar was sounded, and a festive circuit was made every day around the altar. The liturgical refrain accompanying the procession is variously described. One version has it as consisting of the prayer found in Ps 118:25, אנא ה׳ הושיעה נא, אנא ה׳ הצליחה נא , “We beseech you, O Lord, save us! We beseech you, O Lord, prosper us.” A tradition in the name of R. Judah, however, records the opening words as follows: אני והו הושיעה נא. The meaning of this enigmatic formula has occasioned much discussion among both ancient and modern commentators.
In the Palestinian Talmud the first two words in the formula were read אני והוא and were taken to suggest that the salvation of Israel was also the salvation of God.
(Baumgarten, Divine Name and M. Sukkah 4:5 p.1. My highlighting)
The same idea is brought out by NC in her quotation of Jean Massonnet. I translate the key point concerning the “I and he” or “me and him”
This may be a way of closely associating the people with their God on an occasion when the Israelites might surround the altar; it was a great moment of the feast […] In a veiled form, one audaciously asked for salvation for the good of the people and of God, as if God – so to speak – was in distress with his people.
(Massonnet, Aux sources du christianisme…., p. 269, cited by NC, p. 317. My highlighting.)
NC adds, again translating,
we are the emphasing the last sentence. He adds: “the idea that God accompanies his people in distress is […] ancient and widespread”, see Isaiah 63, 9: “in all their distress it is distress for him”. On personal pronouns see Pierre Bonnard, L’Évangile according to Saint Matthew, p. 64, note.
Finally, one point I failed to mention earlier, recall our earlier discussions of the importance of gematria. In that context it is not insignificant that “ana YHWH” has the same numerical value as “ani waho”.
This post continues an exploration into the origin of the gospel figure of Jesus, in particular the case made by Nanine Charbonnel [NC] in Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier.
[To readers not so interested in the depth of these posts I have added an apology at the end.]
Though Jesus and Christianity appear to most of us as being very different from what we think of as Judaism, NC is setting forth reasons to believe that Christian beliefs about Jesus (that he was God in the flesh) were in fact natural adaptations of certain Jewish beliefs in the Second Temple era and prior to what we now think of as orthodox rabbinic Judaism. The view that early Christian and Jewish beliefs were much closer to each other than we tend to imagine today is not new among scholars. NC, therefore, can quote a critical work of the life of Jesus from the early 1800s in partial support of her argument that the figure of Jesus we read about in the gospels was initially created as a personification of various attributes of God.
Personified attributes of God in certain Jewish traditions
Pre-Christian Jewish thought has long been known to have personified various attributes of God. In 1835 David Friedrich Strauss in his Life of Jesus Critically Examined wrote:
We find in the Proverbs, in Sirach, and the Book of Wisdom, the idea of a personified and even hypostasized Wisdom of God, and in the Psalms and Prophets, strongly marked personifications of the Divine word; and it is especially worthy of note, that the later Jews, in their horror of anthropomorphism in the idea of the Divine being, attributed his speech, appearance, and immediate agency, to the Word (מימרא) or the dwelling place (שכינתא) of Jehovah, as may be seen in the venerable Targum of Onkelos. These expressions, at first mere paraphrases of the name of God, soon received the mystical signification of a veritable hypostasis, of a being at once distinct from, and one with God. As most of the revelations and interpositions of God, whose organ this personified Word was considered to be, were designed in favour of the Israelitish people, it was natural for them to assign to the manifestation which was still awaited from Him, and which was to be the crowning benefit of Israel,—the manifestation, namely, of the Messiah,—a peculiar relation with the Word or Shechina. From this germ sprang the opinion that with the Messiah the Shechina would appear, and that what was ascribed to the Shechina pertained equally to the Messiah: an opinion not confined to the Rabbins, but sanctioned by the Apostle Paul.
(Strauss, Life, Pt II Ch IV §64. Bolding is NC’s re the French translation)
NC rightly remarks that many aspects of the texts of the New Testament would remain obscure without reference to the later Jewish writings. Talmudic writings, though late, certainly contain ideas, debates, sayings, that were known before the fall of the temple in 70 CE. NC goes further, however, and suggests that even the late Jewish mystical writings of the Kabbalah incorporate ideas much older than the Middle Ages. This is an area I have read too little about so all I can do at this point is repeat NC’s point and attach questions to them, especially when citing a Kabbalist.
In the nineteenth century, Joseph Salvador (in 1838), then especially the rabbi of Livorno Elijah Benamozegh (in a manuscript of 1863 which has remained unpublished, but written in French and having been sent to Paris, and which has just been published), La Kabbale et L’origine des Dogmes Chrétiens, have thrown very interesting light on these questions – if at least one accepts to name Kabbalah all that has not been accepted by rabbinical Judaism, and which must have had much more older than the Middle Ages alone. [machine translation of NC, p. 313. I have ordered a copy of La Kabbale but will have to wait a couple of weeks for it to arrive.]
NC further indicates that, according to Benamozegh, New Testament passages relating to the relationship between Father, Son, Holy Spirit under various metaphors and the incarnation of the Word of God are explained best by certain of those mystical notions, such as the Malkuth. The types of esoteric Jewish beliefs that entertained some of these ideas presumably from as early as the Second Temple era also would go a long way towards explaining the origins of various forms of Christianity (e.g. gnostic) that were delegated as heretical by what became orthodoxy. As mentioned, I know too little at this stage about Kabbalism to comment, although I have to add that the relevance of Kabbalist ideas to NC’s quest is underscored by Daniel Boyarin in Border Lines.
* e.g. Boyarin argues in The Jewish Gospels that the idea of a suffering messiah was a pre-Christian Jewish idea. Compare W. D. Davies in Paul and Rabbinic Judaism who also writes, How far are we justified in finding the same conception [suffering Messiah] among the Rabbis of the first century? Two factors ought to be borne in mind when we think of this question. First, that a methodical consideration is involved. We find an idea well attested in the early second century, and we have pointed out that the concept of the Servant of Yahweh of Deutero-Isaiah had become associated with that of the Messiah before the first century. We are led to the feeling that if the idea of the Suffering Messiah were not a burning issue in Christian theology the evidence before us would have led naturally to the assumption that it existed in the first century despite the absence of specific evidence. Moreover, in the second place, we must presuppose that behind the punning interpretation of והריחו in Isa. 11.3, as the burden imposed on the Messiah, and of חוליא (the sick) and חיורא (the leper) in Isa. 53. 4, there was probably a very long development. We are now in a position to state the result of our discussion. It has led us to the conclusion which, in view of those ideas of the value of suffering and particularly of the suffering of the righteous and of martyrs which we enumerated above, we should have expected, namely, that the assumption is at least possible that the conception of a Suffering Messiah was not unfamiliar to pre-Christian Judaism. (p. 283)
So returning to Boyarin (with NC), some of whose more fascinating ideas cohere with other works by his scholarly peers*, NC directs us to this section of Border Lines:
This leads me to infer that Christianity and Judaism distinguished themselves in antiquity not via the doctrine of God, and not even via the question of worshiping a second God (although the Jewish heresiologists would make it so, as we shall see in the next chapter), but only in the specifics of the doctrine of this incarnation.78 Not even the appearance of the Logos as human, I would suggest, but rather the ascription of actual physical death and resurrection to the Logos was the point at which non-Christian Jews would have begun to part company theologically with those Christians—not all, of course—who held such doctrines.
78. It is not beside the point to note that, in traditional Jewish prayer from the Byzantine period to now, prayer to the “attributes” of God is known as well as prayer to the Ministering Angels (Yehuda Liebes, “The Angels of the Shofar and the Yeshua Sar-Hapanim,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 6, no. 1-2 : 171-95, in Hebrew). These prayers were rectified by nineteenth-century Jewish authorities, who saw in them (suddenly?) a threat to monotheism.
[NC quoted the bolded part in the French translation. The passage above is from Boyarin, Border Lines, pp 125 and 294]
In the next section of this post, we will delve further into Boyarin’s discussion on the relationship between early Christianity and Judaism.
Innovative interpretations: theology of the Memra in the Targum
This post presents key ideas in the first part of chapter 3 of part 2 of Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier by Nanine Charbonnel. All posts are archived here.
So to say that Jesus became flesh the evangelist John can say Jesus “tabernacled” or “tented” among his people just as God once occupied the tabernacle in the wilderness — as we saw in a recent post. But what about the very idea of “The Word (Logos) became flesh” in that same verse, John 1:14?
And the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us
That is surely a more complicated concept. Where did that notion come from? It is surely not “Jewish”, is it, although “Judaic” sounds more correct than Jewish in this context. That was the view of Rudolf Bultmann: for him, the concept was “Hellenistic”, even “gnostic”, as distinct from Palestinian-Judaic. NC’s mention of Bultmann deflected me for a moment to his works from which I quote a couple of passages to underline the old view of a strict divide between Hellenism and Judaism:
It is the language of mythology that is here [The word became flesh – Jn 1:14] employed. Just as the ancient world and the Orient tell of gods and divine beings who appear in human form, so too the central theme of the gnostic Redeemer-myth is that a divine being, the Son of the Highest, assumed human form, put on human flesh and blood, in order to bring revelation and redemption. — Bultmann, John, p. 61
The Gospel of John cannot be taken into account at all as a source for the teaching of Jesus, and it is not referred to in this book. . . . [T]hese gospels were composed in Greek within the Hellenistic Christian community, while Jesus and the oldest Christian group lived in Palestine and spoke Aramaic. . . . [E]verything in the [gospels] which for reasons of language or content can have originated only in Hellenistic Christianity must be excluded . . .Bultmann, Jesus, pp. 12f
That was then.
The Word in John’s and Philo’s works — both Hellenistic AND Jewish?
NC argues that the question is not an either/or one. Either from Hellenism or Judaism. Keep in mind that the label “Hellenistic age” refers to a time of blending of eastern and Greek cultures; it was not a replacement of eastern ideas with Greek ones. NC cites Daniel Boyarin (though I quote him more extensively here) and Boyarin cites several other specialist scholars to affirm that we need to think of the Judaism of the time as a part of Hellenism.
Thus, to put one possible point on this, I and many if not most scholars of Judaism currently do not operate with an opposition between Judaism and Hellenism, seeing all of Jewish culture in the Hellenistic period (including the anti-Hellenists) as a Hellenistic culture.73 (Boyarin, Border Lines, p. 18)
73. “Hellenistic ways of life, thought and expression were integral to Jewish Palestinian culture from at least the mid third century [B.C.] on, and these tendencies affected Pharisaism and later Rabbinic writings. Hellenistic schools were especially influential on Jewish modes of organization and expression. The emergence of definable sects, Pharisees, Sadducees, etc. and more importantly the attention given to them fits most comfortably into the Greco-Roman world with its recognized philosophical schools, religious societies and craft assocations” (Anthony Saldarini, Scholastic Rabbinism: A Literary Study of the Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan [Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982], 19). My only emendation to this important statement would be to abandon language of “influence” and simply understand that “Judaism” is itself a species of Hellenism. See the formulation in Saldarini, Scholastic, 21, which comes closer, I think, to this perspective. Cf. most recently Lee 1. Levine, Judaism & Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence, The Samuel & Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998). In this vein, see Erich S. Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition, Hellenistic Culture and Society 30 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), esp. 292: “The [Palestinian] Jews were not so much permeated by the culture of the Greeks as they were a part of it.” Also most recently Schwartz, Jewish Society.
Granted that in some areas, Asia Minor almost certainly being among them, Gentile converts began to outnumber Christian Jews at a fairly early date, and that they brought with them, almost inevitably, “hellenophile” and then “antijudaistic” tendencies; however, the lion’s share of the Hellenic thinking of early Christianity — and most centrally, Logos theology — was an integral part of the first-century Jewish world, including Palestine. Jewish theology had for centuries been “open to the thinking of antiquity” — whether Persian or Graeco-Roman — and the binary opposition of Judaism and Hellenism (as well as the binary opposition between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism) requires major rethinking. As I have pointed out above, Judaism is from the very beginning a Hellenistic form of culture. As remarked by Rebecca Lyman: “Justin’s appeal to the ultimate authority of divine revelation in prophetic texts or to Jesus as the Logos, the original truth sought by human philosophers, is confrontational, but it is potentially powerful precisely because of its Hellenistic, i.e. Greek and Jewish, lineage in establishing truth through antiquity and transcendence.” (p. 92)
I skipped a detail in my previous post because at the time I could not verify certain information in Nanine Charbonnel’s chapter, but today I have a more complete picture. Recall NC was citing a Qumran scroll as an extra-biblical example of a community identifying themselves with God’s Temple. Here’s the interesting snippet I omitted at the time (my translation and highlighting):
Likewise the famous Damascus Document (probably from the 1st century BC) is the text of the new covenant in the land of Damascus2, which place (in Hebrew DaMaSQ) could well turn out3, quite simply, by commutation of the letters, the coded name of the Temple (MQDS). (NC, 292)
As for the Damascus Document [=CD] being the written new covenant of the land of Damascus I cannot say (NC attributes this view to André Dupont-Sommer, the translator of the document into French) but there is no question that the CD refers several times to “the new covenant in the land of Damascus”.
What interests me, though, is the possibility that Damascus could be a code name for the Temple — or more specifically, to the Sanctuary. The word represented in the quote by MQDS is miqdâsh, miqqedâsh / מִקְדָּשׁ — or MQDŠ. See Strong’s for its occurrences in the Bible. Rather than the Temple per se, the word is used to refer to the Sanctuary, the holy place — although by metonymy it might also indicate the Temple.
NC attributes the possibility that Damascus is code for the Sanctuary to Katell Berthelot, an idea that she explains was passed on to her in oral communication. Who is Katell Berthelot, I hear you wondering? To find out more I collected a few of her articles …
Berthelot, Katell. “A Classical Ethical Problem in Ancient Philosophy and Rabbinic Thought: The Case of the Shipwrecked.” The Harvard Theological Review 106, no. 2 (2013): 171–99. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43297528
———. “Hecataeus of Abdera and Jewish ‘Misanthropy.’” Bulletin Du Centre de Recherche Français à Jérusalem, no. 19 (November 30, 2008). https://bcrfj.revues.org/5968.
———. “Philo of Alexandria and the Conquest of Canaan.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 38, no. 1 (2007): 39–56. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24669821
———. “Philo’s Perception of the Roman Empire.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 42, no. 2 (2011): 166–87. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24670928 [This article knocks on the head the view of some that the authors of the gospels could not be critical of the Roman empire for fear of their lives.]
———. “Reclaiming the Land (1 Maccabees 15:28–36): Hasmonean Discourse between Biblical Tradition and Seleucid Rhetoric.” Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 3 (2014): 539–59. https://doi.org/10.15699/jbibllite.133.3.539.
———. “‘The Rabbis Write Back!’ L’enjeu de La « parenté » Entre Israël et Rome-Ésaü-Édom.” Revue de l’histoire Des Religions 233, no. 2 (2016): 165–92. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24776754
I should also add that in my serendipitous browsing around for further information I did come across an article by Daniel Schwartz that disagrees with those scholars who have interpreted the Temple as a metaphor for the community in the Damascus Document.
Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.