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How the Gospels Became History

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

. . .

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jeremiah 1:12

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

Then Jeremiah 33:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological expectation

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

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

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

(Weber, 233)

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

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

The Christian Revolution: The Threefold Fulfillment of Scripture

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

And all of these fulfillments culminated in Jesus.

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

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

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

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

Matthew 5:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


How Jewish Gospels Became Christian Gospels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Midrashic Hypothesis of Bernard Dubourg and Maurice Mergui

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

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

A Midrashic Hypothesis for the Gospels

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

. . . o . . .

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

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

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

A Different Type of Symbolic Writing

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

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

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

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

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

Midrash

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

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

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

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

Inadequacy of the Tools in the Search for the Historical Jesus

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

. . o . .

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

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

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

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

Lessing

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

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

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

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

Renan

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

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

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

Quinet

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Christ, Sublime Literary Creation of the Human Spirit

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

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

 . . . o . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Christ as a sublime paper persona

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

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

The author

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

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

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

I. A few words by the French publisher

Nanine Charbonnel’s major points

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) – Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

(Douglas, 59)

Then a few pages on,

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

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

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

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

(Douglas, 62 f. My bolded highlighting)

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

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

Continuing from Chap 3c . . . .

The Exodus: Metaphor Preceded “History”

Other examples of changing names and wordplay:

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah 1:11-12

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

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

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

Amos 8:1-2

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

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

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

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

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

The Exodus Motif

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is another example, from an Amarna letter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Liverani, 277 ff)

Law and History Made from Word Games

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

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

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

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

Robert Lowth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then,

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

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

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

Names Make the Story Work

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

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) – Wikipedia

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

The Curser Cursed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 11:6-9 and 65:17

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

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

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

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

. . . .

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

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

. . . in the day of the Lord

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

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

Elijah said to him: Go ask him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Messiah said to him: Today.

Sometime later, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi came to Elijah.

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

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

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

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

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

To paraphrase Charbonnel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Individual and the Collective

The Google translation works very well here:

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

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

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

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

60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,

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

And Genesis 25:23

23 The Lord said to her,

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

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

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

All posts in this series are archived here.

–o–

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

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

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

Divinity as Voice, a Twofold Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oral Torah Within the Written Torah; Text and Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le phénomène est énigmatique.

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

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

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

Charbonnel, 44-46

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

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

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

Mystical Power of the Letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Bible Stories are Shaped by the Above Mechanisms

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