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Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 1a . . . — Something Untouchable about the Bible

After posting Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 1. Hermeneutical Impasse I regretted not addressing Nanine Charbonnel’s discussions of “modern” critics of the gospels such as David Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann and their significance for the standing of the gospels as historical documents today. One reason was that I found it difficult to be sure I was understanding correctly the precise nuances of her argument (my French is very rusty). But when I turned to the works she was citing I began to see what I believe is a consistent argument that fits the larger theme of her chapter one. What I present here is my own interpretation of the sources Charbonnel discusses and their relation to what I interpret to be her primary theme. If anyone with a better grasp of French and Charbonnel’s book has anything to add or correct they are most welcome to do so.

Something Untouchable about the Bible

What I take from Charbonnel’s first chapter is that scholars have either avoided the Bible in their discourses or have afforded it a special status of authority. Even the secular critics of the Bible who have mocked its supernatural elements in its narratives have imputed to it a worthy source of moral instruction and containing an unquestioned core of historical information.

Spinoza rejected the miraculous elements in the narratives and was convinced that these could be replaced by natural explanations, but he did not question the core of the events themselves. Kant believed that the Bible required interpretation in a manner (even if that interpretation resorted to metaphor) that made its narratives morally edifying according to rational moral sense (See the previous post).

Voltaire, Charbonnel adds, in all of his vicious attacks on Christianity, aimed his fire not at Jesus but at the Church, the priests.

We begin to see a pattern, it seems to me. Criticism avoids criticizing the Bible in a manner that would reduce its authoritative or at least honourable status.

Here we come to David Strauss and his Life of Jesus first published in the 1830s.

Strauss

David Friedrich Strauss narrated the way Greek philosophers found traditional myths unacceptable and looked for ways to rationalize them. Some interpreted them as allegories; others saw in the gods symbols of physical elements (wind, storms, earthquakes) of the natural world. Some of the myths were “demythologized” and believed to have originated as genuine historical events among humans on earth — humans who were later in retellings exalted to god-status.

At an early period the rigid philosophy of the Greeks, and under its influence even some of the Greek poets, recognized the impossibility of ascribing to Deity manifestations so grossly human, so immediate, and so barbarous, as those exhibited and represented as divine in the wild conflicts of Hesiod’s Theogony, and in the domestic occupations and trivial pursuits of the Homeric deities. Hence arose the quarrel of Plato, and prior to him of Pindar, with Homer ; hence the cause which induced Anaxagoras, to whom the invention of the allegorical mode of interpretation is ascribed, to apply the Homeric delineations to virtue and to justice ; hence it was that the Stoics understood the Theogony of Hesiod as relating to the action of the elements, which, according to their notions, constituted, in their highest union, the divine nature. Thus did these several thinkers, each according to his own peculiar mode of thought, succeed in discovering an absolute meaning in these representations : the one finding in them a physical, the other an ethical signification, whilst, at the same time, they gave up their external form, ceasing to regard them as strictly historical.

On the other hand, the more popular and sophistical culture of another class of thinkers led them to opposite conclusions. Though, in their estima­tion, every semblance of the divine had evaporated from these histories ; though they were convinced that the proceedings ascribed to the gods were not godlike, still they did not abandon the historical sense of these narratives. With Evemerus they transformed the subjects of these histories from gods to men, to heroes and sages of antiquity, kings and tyrants, who, through deeds of might and valour, had acquired divine honours. Some indeed went still further, and, with Polybius, considered the whole system of heathen theology as a fable, invented by the founders of states to awe the people into subjection.

(Strauss, 40f)

The same scholarly tradition directed the same types of criticisms at the Christian myths:

The other principal mode of interpretation, which, to a certain extent, acknowledges the course of events to have been historically true, but assigns it to a human and not a divine origin, was developed amongst the enemies of Christianity by a Celsus, a Porphyry, and a Julian. They indeed rejected much of the history as alto­gether fabulous ; but they admitted many of the incidents related of Moses, Jesus, and others, to be historical facts : these facts were however considered by them as originating from common motives ; and they attributed their apparently supernatural character either to gross fraud or impious sorcery.

(Strauss, 44)

Are not scholars today doing just the same thing? But I am getting ahead of myself (and Charbonnel). read more »

Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 1. Hermeneutical Impasse

Continuing from New French Mythicist Book . . . We see how the author, a philosopher, begins her journey with the philosophical tradition’s relationship with the Bible.

Recall that Nanine Charbonnel is a philosopher of hermeneutics. Her opening chapter offers us her distinctive contribution to the question implied by the title of the book. It is headed Philosophy and the Old Testament: The Hermeneutical Impasse.

Nanine Charbonnel begins by asking what relevance French philosophy has to the Bible. Her answer in brief: the Bible has been treated as holy writ or it is avoided entirely.

Qu’est-ce que la philosophie française d’aujourd’hui fait de la Bible ? C’est le règne du tout ou rien : elle est Écriture sainte, ou bien à éviter.

Some devout philosophers have applied their analytical skills to the Bible in the service of their faith. The Old Testament has been mined for gems that can be interpreted — that is, rationalized – as base-lines of our moral consciousness. Those verses declaring humanity’s creation in God’s image and God identifying himself as the essence of being (“I am that I am”) have been treated as promising starting points.

Prominent philosophers (Kierkegaard, Hegel . . .)  have regularly alluded to biblical heroes (Abraham, David, Job . . .) as various exemplars of morality.

Charbonnel addresses the contributions of key figures.

Kant

Kant

Kant, a philosophical pillar to whom modern thought is still indebted, humbly removed himself from any ability to subject Scripture to mere reason. It was, nonetheless, important for Kant to demonstrate that the Bible made sense in the world of what was accepted as truly moral and rational. To achieve this he reversed the traditional interpretative approach that began with the belief in the divine infallibility of the text and then following its dictates literally, and instead applied the following hermeneutic principle:

morality must not be interpreted according to the Bible, but the Bible according to morality. In the example of [Psalm 59, calling for vengeance], Kant proposes two solutions: either to find a figurative moral sense, or to find a specific political meaning, in this case the politics of God. (Charbonnel, p. 20, translation)

Rousseau

Rousseau

The French philosopher Rousseau turned his back on the Bible and promoted Nature itself as the divine scriptures that could teach us all that was good for us. The Bible, like any other book, was for Rousseau a corrupted human creation.

So I closed all the books. There is only one open to all eyes, it is that of nature. It is in this great and sublime book that I learn to serve and worship his divine author. No one is excusable for not reading, because he speaks to all men a language intelligible to all minds. (Translation of Charbonnel’s citation of Rousseau, Émile.)

Spinoza

Spinoza

Spinoza courageously accepted the view that Moses did not write the Pentateuch but that the laws had been composed specifically for a Persian era Judean state. Scripture’s value was to be found in its moral guidance only. Further, as a divine revelation from God insofar as it taught the highest godly morality, for Spinoza it was also evident that anything from God could not violate the basic laws of reason. Joshua’s long day, therefore, was not a literal miracle of the sun standing still, but an illusion caused by some atmospheric disturbance, ice suspensions, or such, causing an unusual refraction of light. (Spinoza was being especially clever in using this particular miracle to rationalize because only thirty years earlier Galileo had been condemned for contradicting the Bible by saying the sun did not move!) Spinoza’s rationalization is summarized in his words

We can therefore conclude that all that Scripture presents as having really happened has necessarily occurred according to the laws of nature, as everything that happens; and if there is any fact of which we can apodictically prove that it contradicts the laws of nature or has not been produced by them, we must fully believe that it is an addition made to sacred books by sacrilegious men. . . (Translation of Charbonnel’s citation of Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise.)

read more »

New French Mythicist Book

My routine was interrupted this week with the arrival of a new book in the mail, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier by Nanine Charbonnel. Nanine Charbonnel is an emeritus professor of philosophy who describes herself as a specialist in hermeneutics. The publisher of her new book has given prominence to the fact that it contains a preface by Thomas Römer.

I once posted on another French philosopher who contributed articles and books presenting a case that Jesus originated as a mythical figure, Paul Louis Couchoud, and would like to do the same for Nanine Charbonnel. Unfortunately, my high school and one year of undergraduate French is very rusty indeed and I rely heavily on machine translation as my first foray into what lies before me. Expect me to appeal to readers more fluent in French to help out from time to time.

I think I can post a machine translation (with minor corrections, added fluencies and clarifications from me) of Römer’s preface without infringing copyright. I have changed the formatting (paragraphing, highlighting) totally, though:

This book which will surprise and undoubtedly also disturb many readers could also have been entitled “The Invention of Jesus”. Its author, Nanine Charbonnel, professor of philosophy breaks a taboo that has existed for more than a century in academic research on Jesus of Nazareth, the origins of Christianity and the New Testament.

From the beginning of the so-called “historico-critical” exegesis arises the question of the “historical Jesus”. His virgin birth, his encounter with the devil at the beginning of his activity, his miracles, even his resurrection of the dead, are understood by the Rationalists as mythical reinterpretations of a human figure.

  • Thus, Ernest Renan, in his inaugural lecture at the College de France, spoke of “the man Jesus” who “reached the highest religious level that ever before man attained” was “deified” after his death (OEuvres Complètes, n, 329-330). In 1862 these words caused a scandal and provoked the temporary dismissal of Renan from his professorship at the College de France.
  • Renan’s statement is part of what is now called “the first quest” of the historical Jesus, which began in the eighteenth century with the posthumous publication of the texts of Hermann Samuel Reimarus by the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Reimarus highlighted the historical Jesus who never wanted to found a new religion, even the Church, but who was an eschatological preacher. His failure was transformed by his disciples who created the myth of his resurrection and ascension. A distinction was made between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith”, a distinction accepted until today by the totality of university researchers and historians.

At the beginning of the research on the historical Jesus, the question of the proofs of his existence (outside the New Testament texts) was nonetheless posed.

  • In the middle of the nineteenth century, Bruno Bauer argued that Christianity born in the second century was a sort of syncretism combining different religious ideas (Jewish, Greek, Roman). Jesus is not at the origin of this Christianity, but a literary fiction to give this “new religion” a founder.
  • At the beginning of the twentieth century the German philosopher Arthur Drews published a book The Christ Myth, in which he considered the figure of Jesus as the personification of an earlier Christic myth, showing that all the epithets of Jesus were borrowed from mythologies Jewish and Greek.

These theories remained marginal however and, despite the fact that in the 1st and 2nd centuries there are no texts outside the New Testament clearly attesting to the existence of a Jesus of Nazareth, the historicity of such a character is almost no longer questioned.

  • Thus Daniel Marguerat, eminent exegete of the New Testament, says: “the meaning of his deeds and actions, not his existence, is debated today” (p.13, in his Introduction to the edited volume Jesus de Nazareth. Nouvelles approches d’une énigme, Geneva, Labor and Fides, 1998).

According to Nanine Charbonnel, author of this book, this distinction between the historical Jesus and the reinterpretations of his life and death in the Gospels has been detrimental to research. Relying on a “rationalization” of evangelical texts, it has prevented the deep understanding of these texts by questioning them almost exclusively from this idea of ​​a historical core and thus seeking the historical basis of certain pericopes as well as indications of borrowing from Judaism or reinterpretations after the death of Jesus in others. Faced with the affirmation shared by believing scholars and agnostic intellectuals that Jesus is a historical figure of whom we know almost nothing historically, the author of this book proposes to read the New Testament texts from the idea that Jesus Christ would be a “paper figure”. The philosopher’s approach includes a severe critique of hermeneutics, and in particular the current called “hermeneutic phenomenology”.

This book proposes to read the Gospel tales as midrashim, reminding us rightly that it is impossible to read the New Testament texts without locating them in their relation to the Old Testament (in Hebrew and Greek). As a midrash, an exegesis and reinterpretation of earlier texts, evangelical tales set up a theology of fulfillment through narratives, drawing largely on the texts and themes of the Hebrew Bible. Nanine Charbonnel shows it in pedagogical tables indicating the different borrowing and rewriting that can be found behind the tales of the Gospels. She then details the function of the characters appearing in the Gospels, like the twelve apostles, representing the twelve tribes of the new Israel, and Mary, the Jewish people who begets the Messiah. Jesus is the new Adam, the new Moses, the new Elijah and the new Elishah, but also the new Joshua and the incarnation of the “suffering servant”, a messiah who brings together different messianic traits. The Gospels no longer appear as compilations but as creative works repeating and transforming statements in the Hebrew Bible.

To understand the figure of Jesus Christ as a sublime invention of the human mind is the main thesis of this book. It is possible that many readers are reluctant to follow the author in this way. Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny the midrashic character of many pericopes of the Gospels. Everyone will be free to draw conclusions from this midrashic reading which will have the great merit of going beyond the dichotomy between “myth” and “history”.

Charbonnel and Römer

Before I post an outline of Charbonnel’s discussion in her opening chapter I want to address the word “midrash” and how it has been related to the gospels. I don’t believe this will seriously detract from her presentation, or from the theses presented by others who have used the term in similar ways, but I think we should be aware of scholarly differences pertaining to the term whenever we see it.