Nanine Charbonnel now asks how the understanding of how the gospels have been written should affect how we read them. Metaphors abound in her discussion of how to read metaphorical narratives. Think of Hebrews 10:20, where readers are directed to enter the divine presence through the veil of the inner sanctuary, a veil which itself represents the flesh of Jesus.
The book is there, then, but the work is still hidden. It is absent, perhaps radically so; in any case it is concealed, obfuscated by the evident presence of the book, behind which it awaits the liberating decision, the “Lazare, veni foras.”
To make this stone fall seems to be reading’s mission: to render it transparent, to dissolve it with the penetrating force of the gaze which unimpeded moves beyond. There is in reading, at least at reading’s point of departure, something vertiginous . . . But there is more; and what makes the “miracle” of reading still more singular . . . .To roll back the stone, to obliterate it, is certainly something marvelous, but it is something we achieve at every moment in everyday language. At every moment we converse with Lazarus, dead for three days — or dead, perhaps, since always. In his well-woven winding sheet, sustained by the most elegant conventions, he answers us and speaks to us within ourselves.
Following on from Maurice Blanchot who saw Lazarus in his burial cloths as the incarnation of a book and Jesus’ command for Lazarus to “Come forth!” as the act of reading, NC runs with an image of strips of cloth as the surface material for writing and the need for readers to find new ways to understand those words. (Did scribes also write on linen? I am not aware of the practice so I will only touch on a few passages in the closing pages: my grasp of French is too elementary to read with confidence the nuances and subtleties that are embedded in the metaphors in these closing pages.)
Peter ran to the tomb and, bending down, saw only the strips of cloth that had been used to bind the body of Jesus: Luke 24:12 (C’s text has a small error here with the Greek word used in our manuscripts). In John 20:5 another disciple sees the same bands of linen that had been used to wrap Jesus lying on the ground. In 2013 Father Antoine Adam delivered an Easter homily on radio France-Culture in which he said the cloth is rolled up, like the book that has to be unrolled, to see the impression of the face of Jesus left on it, like the body of Scripture, for Jewish Scriptures are a corpus.
The phylacteries or tefillin were known in early times (Matthew 23:5) and the leather strips contained writings. Leon of Modena described the way these strips would be bound so that they formed the letter yod on the left arm and were inscribed with the letter shin on the forehead, which, one might note, are the first two letters of Jeshua. One would like to propose the image of a comparison between the burial cloths and the tefillin strips, both are left lifeless on the floor after the resurrection of and transformation of the old body.
It is easy to over-reach in the world of metaphors. I think NCs suggestion of Maurice Mergui’s comment on the striking of Jesus with the reed (the same word is used to translate the writing instrument — Matthew 27:30) to signal Jesus being struck according to Scripture, that is, by midrash. When we read in the New Testament the phrase “in/by the spirit” (e.g. Acts 20:22-23) should we always think of the Holy Spirit or is there sometimes an allusion to “the spirit of the author” or midrashic interpretation?
NC finds an interesting explanation by Marc-Alain Ouaknin in La Tora expliquée aux enfants.
In the Torah, “creation of the world” does not mean “creation of the physical world”, the moment when matter came into being. No, it means the creation of the world in a story: it is the first time that a written text is considered a creation of the world. Not the first time that a written text tells of the creation of the world, but the first time that men consider that writing is a way of “creating: “I write, therefore I create!” Writing becomes a tool by which the world is created ‘in stories’.
Excerpt From: Marc-Alain Ouaknin. “The Torah Explained to Children.” Apple Books. (I have quoted a little more than NC quotes on p. 447. As per John 6:63, NC recalls, the words spoken are spirit and life. )
Pentecost, the anti-Tower of Babel
The punishment of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel is reversed in the midrash of Pentecost. Here an author has set down in a text a fortuitous miracle of comprehension without a mediator. But without a mediator has something else become hidden, lost? NC concludes this chapter with the words of Michel Serres:
The new meaning spread everywhere starting from wind and noise. Not a single language translated in several languages, but several spoken and several heard at the same time. . . . If the orator is heard as is, the network is decentered, even locally: there is no longer an intercepter, no longer a crossroads or intermediate; there is no longer a town; Hermes, the father of Pan, died on the Pentecost.
(The Parasite, from pages 41 and 43)
And that brings NC to the observation that it is the Paraclete that is introduced in the gospels as the new interpreter — a subject for a future study.
By the time I finished reading Nanine Charbonnel’s penultimate chapter of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier a queasy sense of déjà vu dragged my mind back decades to a time when I believed that the Bible was a coded book that needed “keys” to open up its true meaning to modern readers. Before Michael Drosnin‘s The Bible Code made its appearance I had memorized all “seven keys” that one particular cult said were required for “understanding the Bible” (according to that cult’s own doctrines, of course). So after I finished reading Nanine Charbonnel’s quite different approach to understanding the nature and origins of the gospels in which she does indeed raise the spectre of authors writing narratives whose meanings are hidden, I had to pause. Had I in one sense come full circle after all these years? What is the difference between Drosnin and Armstrong on the one hand and what Charbonnel [NC] was proposing on the other?Read on and see.
The Key of Creative Multilingualism
One man’s fish is another man’s poisson captures in a humorous way what much of midrash is about: word games, double entendres, mixtures of languages. (By the way, that link is to Mal Webb’s page of his recording of the song that I first heard him sing at a Woodford Folk Festival.) The wordplay in gospel midrash is more serious, of course, with its ambiguities in the names and events making up the gospel narratives and their doctrinal themes and innovations.
NC earlier pointed out the multiple layers meaning in the inscription on the cross written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. Similarly, the stories are told at multiple levels. (Another example: We read of Greeks making their appearance at the final feast of Jesus and are led to recall the prophecy that testifies of the hour the Son of Man is to be glorified — John 12:19-23.) To focus on one passage . . . .
Eli, eli . . .
We are familiar with the last words of Jesus on the cross where he quotes the first line of Psalm 22:
About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”
But scratch the surface and interesting questions appear . . . .
Two divergent religious traditions can be identified by the slight change of rhythm arising from where one places a single accent in one word translated from a Psalm spoken by Jesus on the cross: Depending on where one places the accent of lama (in lama lama sabachthani) we have either the Christian “Why [asking for God’s motivation] have you forsaken me?” spoken by Jesus on the cross or the Jewish “To what end [asking what will be the outcome] have you forsaken me (or exiled us)? The explanatory details of this difference are added at the end of this post.
2 “So what does the word sabachthani used in the Gospels mean? It means: You have praised me, You have glorified me! For it must be linked to the Hebrew and Aramaic root sabath, meaning: to praise, to glorify, and not to the Aramaic root sabaq, meaning to leave. Therefore, the Word spoken by Christ would not be: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? But: ‘My God, My God, why have You glorified me?’ or, better still: ‘My God, My God, how much You have glorified me'”. (various encyclopaedias). — NC, footnote p. 434
There is something more serious: the meaning of the verb. One might be surprised that the phrase transcribed in Matthew’s Greek is “lama sabachtani” and not the Hebrew of the psalm text, i.e. “lama azavtani“? This is because the psalm is in Hebrew, and Matthew’s phrase in Aramaic. But there would be an error of translation, already made by the Septuagint2.
One can think that in the original midrash there was a play on words on this root, allowing the word to be read as meaning either “abandoned” or “glorified”, and that the translator of the Gospel, inspired by the Septuagint, did not see the play on words, and took up the translation of the Septuagint, giving exclusively to “AZaVtaNi” the meaning of “abandoned”.
(Translated from page 434 of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier)
The authors of Matthew and Mark directly draw our attention to possible misunderstandings arising from similar-sounding words heard in the last words of Jesus on the cross. Jesus speaks the words of the “messiah David” but bystanders mishear him and think he is calling for the prophet Elijah. The author is drawing our attention to confusions arising from languages.
NC adds another pun that is indirect but perhaps meaningful: Is not Levi-Matthew the changer, the changer of language? If Matthew is the same as Levi in the Gospel of Mark we find there that he is identified as son of Alphaeus, a name meaning “change” — see one of the Vridar posts on puns in Mark. Here NC takes a glance (in a footnote) at another suggestion by Maurice Mergui:
Immediately after the healing of the paralytic, Jesus-Joshua called on Levi-Matthew.
Mk 2:14 – As he passed by, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs office, and said to him, “Follow me. And he got up and followed him.
Why is this Levi the son of Alphaeus (from the Hebrew root meaning to change, to switch, to convert money). Son of a money-changer, that should remind us of something. Money changers were among the merchants in the temple. Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple. He drives their sons, the Levi, out of the Temple. This is (again and again) the leitmotif of the eschatological reversal (The first shall be last) that hides under the guise of an innocuous verse.
As he passed by he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs office
“Passing by” here also means “forgiving” (Hebrew meaning of ‘avar). This is a repeat of the midrash quoted above: the proselytes will marry kohanim and be inside, while the Levites will be outside. At the end of time (but this clause is still absent and the verbs in the present tense) the election will be reversed. The Gentiles will “come in” and you Jews will be out.
Plays on the above multilingual ambiguities are readily grasped once we have our attention drawn to them. There are other forms of multiple meanings with special attention directed to the lack of comprehension of outsiders. We find this theme stressed most bluntly in the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John: staged misunderstandings
The evangelist relishes making the confusion public:
John 2:19-21 — Exchange with the Jews: Temple is the Body and Rebuilding is the Resurrection (though what happens in the mind of a reader who recalls the metaphor of the people of God being the Temple?)
John 3:3-4 — Exchange with Nicodemus: Born again is confused with Born from above
John 4:10 — Exchange with Samaritan woman: running water and living water
John 4:31 — Exchange with disciples: Food is Doing God’s will
John 8:33-35 — Exchange with accusers of the adulterous woman: Slavery is subjection to sin
John 11:11-13 — Exchange with friends of Lazarus: sleep is death
The Key of Narrative Interpretation
In contrast to the absence of subtlety in the Gospel of John, we find “consummate art” in the Synoptics. Notice Luke 4:21
Now he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your ears’
Here Jesus (whose name means “God saves”) is presented as reading the very prophet (Isaiah, the name likewise means “God is salvation”) who is the source of Luke’s less obvious agenda. That agenda is to proclaim that the time of the prophets and the accomplishment of the end-time on earth is being taught on this sabbath by the prophet Isaiah through Jesus, “Yahweh saves”. The passage being read is specifically addressing the place of gentiles among God’s people who have been suffering because of their sins, the time when all must be brought together under God. That being the beginning of Jesus’ preaching, the author of the Gospel of Luke draws it all to a fitting closure: Luke 24:27 Continue reading “Are There Really “Keys” to Understanding the New Testament? (Charbonnel continued)”
This post continues my series on Nanine Charbonenel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure De Papier but this time I will begin with a personal experience. I posted about it a couple of years ago under the title The Faith Trick. The experience was the realization that the power by which I was “transformed into a new person” (as per Ephesians and Colossians) was my faith, my conviction, that it was so: it was my own faith in “the faithfulness of God” to transform me that doing it: here lay the dark and fearful dawning on my consciousness — that it would make no difference if the object of my faith were Jesus or a magic crystal, were a sheltering mountain or a leprechaun, if I believed the same things of them as I did of Jesus the personal result, the change in my own life, would be the same. I had been believing in metaphors and similes, figurative images, as if they had been absolute reality and even more real than the reality of physics and chemistry.
There is something remarkably powerful about the images, the figurative images, that make up the gospel story that has infused it with a power to dominate the Western landscape for close to two millennia.
Let’s resume our discussion of NC’s study with this passage from the Book of Revelation ch 19:
11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword . . . .
Is that rider on the white horse who wages war, whose eyes are fire, who wears multiple crowns and who has a secret name, a literal person? Is the vision of John that we are reading here a vision of a literal, true, flesh and blood person? Of course not (though I suspect a good number of Christian readers of that text would be more likely to hesitate and say Yes, it is, only not “flesh and blood” in the earthly sense). How do we know? The obvious giveaway is the name: the author tells us that the vision is a metaphor of the “Word of God”. The Word of God is what will judge the world, according to this text. But even that turn of phrase is metaphorical – a personification. In reality, a word is merely a pattern of sound or shapes of lines that humans have encoded to register a certain meaning. It is hard to get beyond the metaphors, the personifications, when one thinks deeply about the teachings of Christianity.
* This is not the place to explore other arguments that identify different strands of Christian traditions in the various canonical texts.
** C’est bien l’équivalent apocalyptique de Jésus. Pourquoi alors reconnaître que «Le Verbe de Dieu est le nom propre du cavalier eschatologique. La parole est identifiée à une personne»[quoting Frédéric Manns], et ne pas saisir le même processus dans les Évangiles? (p 431)
The reader of the Christian canon recognizes the above figure as the apocalyptic equivalent of the Jesus encountered in the gospels.* NC asks** rhetorically, why, since we can recognize that the Word of God is being personified in the end-time horseman, do we fail to grasp the same personification at work in the gospels.
As we have seen NC demonstrate in the previous posts, literary figures of speech have taken on ontological realities and dimensions in their own right, existences beyond mere metaphors and similes. Reality is further confused with prolepsis (speaking of events that really belong to the future as if they were past history) and analepsis (the converse, removing past events to the present), so that prophecy is confused with history and history with prophetic sayings.
I am not fluent enough in French to grasp the full import of NC’s writings at this point so I will copy a passage in its original French and hope some readers can clarify the meaning for me. I think NC is saying in the following that the expression for “humbled oneself” is an extreme hyperbole (figure of speech) and never meant literally, but that it has been interpreted literally by the faithful readers. But I look forward to clarification on the third point listed here:
On pourrait montrer les rapports étroits des théologèmes chrétiens, avec ce que nous appelons des figures de rhétorique ontologisées, saisies dans un Régime sémantique qui n’est pas le bon. Ainsi il faudrait :
° non seulement rattacher Prolepse et prophétie,
° mais s’interroger sur l’étonnante proximité de grands dogmes avec des figures de rhétorique ontologisées : la Transfiguration, en grec Metamorphosè ; l’Ascension, en grec Analepsis, qui est aussi le nom de la figure de rhétorique qu’est non le retour en arrière, mais le saut (pseudo)-logique ; la Trinité et l’Hendyadin… ;
2On le trouve aussi en 2 Cor. 10, 1 (« humble parmi vous »), et Jacques 1, 9.
° et l’on pourrait rapprocher aussi la Kénose et la Tapinose. On sait que la kénose désigne, dans le célèbre passage de la Lettre aux Philippiens 2, 8, le ‘’vidage’’ que la divinité fait, et que juste après ce passage, apparaît le verbe tapeinoun (s’humilier volontairement). On le trouve aussi en Matthieu 18, 4 ; 23, 12 ; 11, 29 (l’adjectif tapeinos2 traduit dans ce dernier cas par « je suis doux et humble de coeur »). Or la Tapinôsis (en latin humiliatio, extenuatio) est en grec l’hyperbole négative, l’exagération voulue dans la dépréciation, la caractérisation apparemment dépréciative et à ne pas prendre en réalité comme telle.
The Christ story has long been acknowledged as containing a mystery at its core. NC cites from the fourth century the words of “Pseudo-Chrysostom”,
All that we know of Christ is not only a pure proclamation of the Word, but a mystery of piety. For the whole order of salvation of Christ is called a mystery because the mystery does not appear only in a pure letter, but is published in an act, in fact preached.”
And that, in a nutshell, is NC’s hypothesis. Christian teachings owe their success to the creative and superlative way they have combined realism and figurative techniques so that distinguishing reality from mere image, the physical from the moral, the natural from the artificial: these supposed opposites have become so intertwined that together they have emerged as new realities for believers.
We go back to the mid-nineteenth-century’s Ernest Renan, renowned as “the” pioneer of an attempt to recover “the historical Jesus” with his Life of Jesus, who arguably failed to grasp as fully as he might have the depth of the figurative character of his sources:
It is impossible to translate into our essentially hard and fast tongue, in which a rigorous distinction between the material and the metaphorical must always be observed, habits of style whose essential character is to attribute to metaphor, or rather to the idea it represents, a complete reality. — Renan, Life of Jesus
The figurative language of the gospels has always been an invitation to erroneous readings. As far back as Chrysostom, Ambroise and Cyrill we find that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was interpreted literally. Notice once more from Chateaubriand’s account of his travels to Jerusalem:
Here the path, which was heading east-west reached a bend and turned north, and I saw, on the right hand, the place where Lazarus the beggar lay, and opposite, on the other side of the street, the house of the rich sinner.
‘There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.’ (Luke 16:19-23)
Saint Chrysostom, Saint Ambrose and Saint Cyril believed that the story of Lazarus and the rich sinner was not simply a parable, but a true and established fact. The Jews themselves have preserved the name of the rich sinner, whom they call Nabal (see 1 Samuel:25).
Pope Gregory I of sixth-seventh century fame, known in history as “the Great”, came closer than he knew to identifying the game at play when he wrote in his 23rd Homily on the Gospels about the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus:
[Jesus] exchanged a few words with them, reproached them with their slowness in understanding, explained to them the mysteries of Holy Scripture concerning him, and yet, their hearts remaining foreign to him for lack of faith, he pretended to go further. Feindre [Fingere] can also mean [in Latin] modeling; that’s why we call potters’ clay modelers [Figuli]. Truth, which is simple, did not do anything with duplicity, but it simply manifested itself to the disciples in its body as it was in their minds.
It was necessary to test them to see if, not yet loving him as God, they were at least capable of loving him as a traveler.
The passage alluded to is Luke 24:28 where the word for “pretended” is a “once only” in the gospels, προσεποιήσατο (prosepoiēsato), to seem, to shape or form into another appearance. The exegesis of the believer is to recognize the pretence and the hidden meaning behind it but nonetheless to still believe the pretence itself is another level of reality. Close, but so far. The last word of that verse is a form of the same Greek word used to translate the Hebrew Halakhah, to take one’s journey, πορεύωμαι (poreuōmai), another intriguing irony in the context of all that NC has been addressing up to this point.
NC introduced this section of her discussion with a look at a significant idea we read in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I found the language barrier just a little too far beyond my reach to share her thoughts in the way they surely deserve so I quote the section in its original French here. The theme is the phrase “as if”: recall where Paul instructs his converts to live in the remaining time they now have left (between the death and resurrection of Jesus and his return and “end of this world”) “as if” this present situation no longer has any relevance. They are to make use of the world and their place in the world but not to think of themselves as belonging to the world. They are to live an “as if” existence.
. . . the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not;those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep;those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. — 1 Cor. 7:29-31
The Greek word translated as “form” is schema and means appearance or in some contexts, apparently, figurative language. I would be grateful to anyone who can help me with the key points NC makes of her discussion of another philosopher’s discussion of this passage. (I don’t mean to provide a mere literal translation, an easy enough task, but an explanation of the key ideas that I believe need to go beyond a merely literal translation.) Continue reading “The Secret of the Power Behind the Gospel Narrative (Charbonnel Continued)”
On October 10, early in the morning, I left Jerusalem through the Ephraim Gate, always accompanied by my trusted Ali, with the aim of examining the battlegrounds immortalized by the poet Tasso.
For twelve pages in the chapters devoted to the Holy Land, the story of the pilgrim stands out for its exceedingly natural and sincere enthusiasm. He forgets the Holy Sepulcher, the Via Dolorosa, the convents, and the monks. He simply tries to rediscover on the spot the framework, not of the last days of Jesus and of the Passion, but of the principal heroic and moving episodes from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, in a kind of romanesque topographical revery:
Proceeding to the north of the city, between the grotto of Jeremiah and the Sepulcher of the Kings, I opened Jerusalem Delivered and was immediately struck by the accuracy of the poet’s description. Solime (that is, Jerusalem), says Tasso, stands on two opposing hills …. Nature offers only an earth that is arid and naked; no springs, no streams refresh the barren grounds; one never sees flowers blooming; no stately trees spread their shelters against the sun’s rays. At a distance of more than six miles there emerges only a forest casting a baleful shade that inspires horror and sadness. Nothing can be more clear and precise. The forest situated six miles from the camp, in the direction of Arabia, is not an invention of the poet. William of Tyre speaks of the wood where Tasso makes so many marvels happen. Godfrey finds there the timber for the construction of his war machine’ … Aladin sits with Erminia on a tower built between two gates from where they can observe the fighting on the plain and the camp of the Christians. This tower is still standing, together with several others, between the Gate of Damas and the Gate of Ephraim.
In fact, the tower exists in the imagination of Chateaubriand, for he imagines the shadow of a tower and the phantom of a forest. He continues: . . .
. . . . It is not as easy to determine the place where the runaway Erminia meets with the shepherd on the edge of the river.
Note that we deal here with pure fiction (the episode of Erminia among the shepherds at the beginning of the seventh canto); yet Chateaubriand looks for its location with the same seriousness one would use in localizing a historical fact. . . .
This is an evocation, on site, of a romanesque tale-that of Chateaubriand’s detour to the Holy Sepulcher when he went to visit the holy places. It reminds us of the detour Renan made, during his mission to Phoenicia, to find the sites and the framework of that other fiction which would become the Gospels.
And still it is true that the events told by Tasso are not without verifiable historical reality, since they agree in many points with the history of the Crusades, on which we can rely. “We will see,” says Chateaubriand, “how much Tasso had studied the original documents when I translate the historians of the Crusades.” But for the story of the Gospels we have no text, no testimony concerning most of the events they recount, a century after they happened.
Nanine Charbonnel, whose book Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure De Papier we are continuing to discuss in this post, then drives home the key point for her thesis that Halbwachs dares to affirm about the gospels and that I quote from the English edition of On Collective Memory:
This is the source of the thesis that “the Gospels, which were an apocalyptic revelation in the first century, became a legendary form of narrative in the second.” Let us understand by this that a mystical belief, a vision that moved the mind into the religious and supernatural realm, was transformed into a series of events that developed on the human level, even though these also had a transcendental significance.
(Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, pp 205-209, formatting and bolding is mine in all quotations)
We are now entering NC’s final main chapter examining the “masterful creative syntheses” with which the gospel narratives have been written and that the previous posts have been covering.
The creative method of the evangelists has had a more enduring spell than we find in Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and was explained long ago, NC notes, by David Friedrich Strauss:
Further, the fishermen, at the call of Jesus, forsake their nets and follow him; so Elisha, when Elijah cast his mantle over him, left the oxen, and ran after Elijah. This is one apparent divergency, which is a yet more striking proof of the relation between the two narratives, than is their general similarity. The prophet’s disciple entreated that before he attached himself entirely to Elijah, he might be permitted to take leave of his father and mother; and the prophet does not hesitate to grant him this request, on the understood condition that Elisha should return to him. Similar petitions are offered to Jesus (Luke ix. 59 ff.; Matt. viii. 21 f.) by some whom he had called, or who had volunteered to follow him; but Jesus does not accede to these requests: on the contrary, he enjoins the one who wished previously to bury his father, to enter on his discipleship without delay; and the other, who had begged permission to bid farewell to his friends, he at once dismisses as unfit for the kingdom of God. In strong contrast with the divided spirit manifested by these feeble proselytes, it is said of the apostles, that they, without asking any delay, immediately forsook their occupation, and, in the case of James and John, their father. Could anything betray more clearly than this one feature, that the narrative is an embellished imitation of that in the Old Testament intended to show that Jesus, in his character of Messiah, exacted a more decided adhesion, accompanied with greater sacrifices, than Elijah, in his character of Prophet merely, required or was authorized to require?
(Strauss, Life of Jesus, Part II, chapter v § 70)
NC stresses that there is more here than imitation and amplification: it is the messianic situation of the End Times that demands the difference.
We need to understand and at some level to know that the gospels are not like other literature. They are not like the Iliad and Odyssey or Greek novels, nor are they like allegorical Greek myths, nor are they typical tales of the marvelous and fantastic.
Some ways they differ from other literature:
The gospels put into narratives the principles of Judaism. The miracles, for example, are not tales of the marvelous but are coded signs within the hermeneutics of the Hebrew Bible. It is impossible to genuinely understand anything in the New Testament if it is read apart from the context of the Hebrew Bible.
The principles of Greek literature (e.g. Greek tragedy) only function to give form to an entirely Judaic theme. (NC refers to Bruno Delorme and his Le Christ grec: De la tragédie aux évangiles but a similar discussion is found in Gilbert G. Bilezikian’s The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy.)
Above all, “perhaps the key to their genius”, is that the gospels transform into supposedly real characters and situations statements that are expressions of language or poetic formulations from OT texts.
Transforming persons and actions into meaningful words
Recall the discussions where we noted that not only were names of persons given for symbolic reasons but even characters themselves were created as symbols of entire communities: the Samaritan woman is the Samaritan people; Mary is the Jewish people and the other Marys are different facets of the Jewish people (e.g. Israel as a prostitute, etc).
Another example points to the complexity we sometimes find here. Manna, the word meaning “what is it?”, was given to the “bread” in the wilderness. Bread elsewhere becomes a symbol of the word of God. Prophets are made to eat scrolls full of written words. The question “what is it?” becomes the question one asks of the meaning of God’s word.
“Walking in the way” is a metaphor for righteous living according to the law. So in the gospels the healing of a paralytic, one who cannot walk, brings to mind the restoration of the gentiles who were hitherto without the law of God.
Continuing here Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. This post covers pages 398 to 411. I have questions and some doubts about certain connections that are being made in these pages and note NC’s occasional expressions of tentativeness. But I’ll try to present here the key points expressed and from time to time add what I think is an alternative (or additional) rationale for some of the points made. One question raised is whether some of the connections proposed are the results of reflection on the cross rather than inspirations for introducing the cross into theological imagery in the first place.
1. Two Sides of the Passion: Positive Outcome of an Ordeal
The message is that the people of Israel, though dead, will be victorious. Through death comes resurrection. Some specifics:
Crown of Thorns
NC suggests that this “apparent instrument of torture is in fact the emblem of divine kingship”. The possibility of its relationship with the Burning Bush in the Exodus is raised (think of the bush as the place where the divinity dwells), as also the possible allusion to the thorn bush that became king in Judges 9:7-15. Salomon Reinach states that the idea that the crown of thorns was intended to inflict suffering on Jesus was “very late” (“très postérieure”) — though the reasons for this claim are not given at Le Roi supplicié.
Marc-Alain Ouaknin, NC with some caution notes, points to kabbalistic associations, and others have remarked on the crown being a rabbinical metaphor for the Torah, but surely more significant than any of these suggestions is the eschatological significance, in this case, the link with the Feast of Tabernacles. To quote Jean Daniélou in Les Symboles chrétiens primitifs:
But we confine ourselves here to the use of crowns of foliage at the feast of Tabernacles. And it seems to us, from all the texts that have been brought together, that it is to this usage that the Jewish and Judeo-Christian symbolism of the crown to symbolize eschatological glory. This usage, like its symbolism, seems relatively recent in Judaism. Judaism. It is related to the development of the messianic of messianic expectation and, in literary terms, with apocalypticism. (Daniélou, p. 30)
Original:Et il nous paraît, d’après l’ensemble des textes rapprochés, que c’est à cet usage que se rattache le symbolisme juif et judéo-chrétien de la couronne pour symboliser la gloire eschatologique. Cet usage, comme son symbolisme, paraît relativement récent dans le judaïsme. Il se trouve en relation avec le développement de l’attente messianique et littérairement avec l’apocalyptique.
In my mind, however, a crown of plants suggesting a return to the original Garden of Eden situation does not seem compatible with a crown of thorns.
The magnificent purple cloak
The cloak draped upon Jesus was “lampran” (Luke 23:11) – glorious, magnificent; Mark 15:17 and John 19:2, 5 inform us it was purple. NC raises questions: is this the garment of the High Priest? or the robe of King Saul? Certainly, it is a royal garment, but it is a cloak and not a full dress. “Many midrashim” speak of God putting on a royal mantle as he prepares to act in bloody vengeance on the “last day” — e.g. Isaiah 63:2-4. Again there is reference to late Ashkenazi messianic imagery with the suggestion that certain ideas could be “much older”. All of these points briefly touched by NC may be suggestive but I can’t help thinking they are inconclusive. (One point: I am left wondering about the colour red in some of the references instead of purple.)
Behold the man
John 19:5 “Behold the man” — with these words Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd. This is the same phrase as the Septuagint (Greek version) uses to present the first king of Israel: ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος — “behold the man” in 1 Samuel 9:17 (Greek text). One may well see here a “subtle” announcement of Jesus as the “king of the Jews”, the words to be placed on the titulus above the cross.
Pilate washes his hands: Possible allusions — Deuteronomy 21:6-7 and Psalm 26:6. Is it a leap too far to think of the practice of Jews washing hands before writing the name of YHWH? (I think that last suggestion is too indirect to be sustained.)
47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.
The above passage follows on the heels of the death and raising of Lazarus. Lazarus (or Eleazar) was a well-known Jewish martyr (2 Maccabees 6:18-31). By placing the episode of Lazarus’s death and recovery at this point in the narrative the author was signaling a non-literal meaning. Lazarus is a personification of the Jewish people, one who had been bound and whom Jesus now ordered to be untied; one who had died but was not restored to life. That one man should stand for the entire nation was hardly a novel idea. It is found in Numbers 14:15 (kill this people as one man) and by gematria (a technique that we have seen can be argued to go back to that time) people and man are equivalent in the number 110.
The clearest indicator that Jesus’ death is a substitution is the Barabbas episode. The earliest manuscripts show that Barabbas from the outset was apparently named Jesus. Jesus, son of the father, substituted for another Jesus, son of the Father. (Compare the earlier discussion where NC addressed the derivation of this exchange from the Day of Atonement ritual.) Nothing about this scene was ever thought historical. There was no such custom of prisoner exchange.
NC here discusses the scholarly viewpoints on the meaning of “for” in the sentence “Jesus died for our sins”, with the differences between the Septuagint origin of the idea (Isaiah 53’s suffering servant) and the Hebrew text — the differences between expressing the redemptive reason for the death on the one hand and the beneficiary of the death on the other. This is followed by scholarly views that have been posited on the origin and significance of the Barabbas exchange. NC here also returns to a discussion of the Kapparah ritual (introduced and illustrated in Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures #7) that was practiced by Ashkenazi Jews on the eve of the Day of Atonement — Yom Kippur (cf Kapparah). NC quotes an interesting explanation of this ritual that is available in French at Barabbas vs Barrabas and where we read (thank the browser translator) that the event hangs on a wordplay: the sacrificed rooster in Talmudic Hebrew means man in Biblical Hebrew. Guyon drives home a direct comparison with the Pilate scene in the gospels:
After the slaughter, the priest pours a few drops of the blood of each animal on the forehead of each child. The mother keeps most of the sacrificed animals but also gives some for the poor of the synagogue. The priest, for each beast, therefore asks what to do with it …
Let us return to the Gospels and notice three fundamental points of the episode:
– Pilate proposes an exchange to the gathered crowd: a MAN for a MAN, one being sacrificed to atone for the sins of the other
– Pilate asks the crowd: What will I do with Jesus, who is called the Messiah? !
– The crowd answers him by shouting: let his blood fall on us …
How not to see in this episode a picture of that atonement . . . Jesus sacrificed as the animal ofKappara, “offering his life as an expiatory sacrifice” ( Isaiah 53,10) so that men may have Life.
The idea of substitution has a long history. The Talmud tells the story of a confusion between two rivals, one named Kamza and the other named Bar Kamza, that led to the war with Rome and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. See Gittin 56b-57a. The Gospel of Barnabas tells us of confusion between Judas and Jesus so that Judas, who was said to be very like Jesus, was crucified. Better known is the substitution of Simon of Cyrene (NC suggests he has been shaped from the Samson character, one who has the strength of God) for Jesus on the cross according to the second century “gnostic” Basilides. A Coptic manuscript from late antiquity describes a meal shared by Pilate and Jesus with Pilate offering to sacrifice his own son in place of Jesus.
The point here is that the idea of substitution lies at the heart of the making of midrash and the shaping of the narrative and figure of Jesus. The idea extends to what we read in the earliest extra-canonical Christian writings where it the “true Israel”, the church, is ordained to replace the “old Israel”, the Jewish people.
The whole narrative and the diverse personifications that we have seen all subtly ride on the themes of substitution and inversion. And it is in that context that the next section, the crucifixion itself, is explored.
We read about Jesus, on the eve of his death, as the eucharist or Last Supper meal, or as the ideal end-time sacrifice, that is, the sacrifice that effects not only forgiveness of sins but the communion of God and his people. The Passover feast has been reinterpreted but the changes have all come from other ideas found within the Jewish interpretations of Scriptures at the time.
In the view of Grappe and Marx (authors of Sacrifices scandaleux? quoted in the previous post) Jesus returns to the original (pre-Flood) ingredients of sacrifice, bread and wine, to function as both the sacrifice of reparation for sin and the sacrifice of the communion of God and his people (see the previous post for these two sacrifices explained). Further, these same ingredients represent the feast of the eschatological Kingdom of God. “Bread and cup become the place of the encounter with the one who gives his life” in the inauguration of God’s kingdom where both forgiveness and communion are freely offered.
In the old blood sacrifice, different parts of the animal were separated out and divided among the respective participants: offerer, priest, God. With the grain offering, on the other hand, God and priests share the same food that has been prepared the same way for both of them. So the ideal that was meant for the beginning of creation is projected to the end time. (Grappe and Marx, pp. 139-40)
We have seen this ideal from the beginning being re-instituted at the end-time in the Community Rule scroll from Qumran.
And when they shall gather for the common table, to eat and to drink new wine, when the common table shall be set for eating and the new wine poured for drinking, let no man extend his hand over the firstfruits of bread and wine before the Priest; for it is he who shall bless the firstfruits of bread and wine, and shall be the first to extend his hand over the bread. Thereafter, the Messiah of Israel shall extend his hand over the bread, and all the congregation of the Community shall utter a blessing, each man in the order of his dignity.
It is according to this statute that they shall proceed at every meal at which at least ten men are gathered together
(1QSa 2:11-22 — Vermes, Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English)
Variations on the Passover liturgy and meal
What we see in the gospels is not an interpretation of a historical Jesus, an interpretation that makes him a worthy sacrifice replacement for Passover. No, what we see is the reverse: the rituals and traditions relating to Passover have led to the creation of the figure of Jesus. The bread of the Passover meal and the sacrifice itself are together personified in the figure of Jesus. Here it is important to bring to our attention a custom associated with Passover that is not apparent from reading the gospels.
A Passover custom that appears to have had roots among some Jewish circles back into the Second Temple period and following is the breaking of a piece of bread and setting it aside, having wrapped it in white cloth to remain unseen, hidden, and to be eaten as the last thing of the meal. This piece of bread, the final item tasted, is called the aphikoman. This piece is said in rabbinic literature to represent Isaac, the son whom Abraham was willing to sacrifice. (For a description of this ceremony in French see the online article by R. Guyon beginning from Comment Jésus peut-il s’identifier à une matsah? – quoted by NC)
Now the word aphikoman/afikoman means “dessert”, or literally “he who is to come”, the dessert being delayed until the end of the meal. But of course “he who will come” has other connotations.
NC cites several scholarly works in this discussion and I have delayed posting this outline until I was able to track down some of them, in particular, essays by Eisler and Daube. Eisler’s article caused quite a storm when it appeared, as one can see from a section of Israel Jacob Yuval’s Two Nations in Your Womb:
In 1925—1926, Eisler published a rwo-part article named “Das letzte Abendmahl” in the journal Zeitschrift fur die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kundeder âlteren Kirche, in volumes 24—25, presenting an approach that comparcd the afikoman of the Jewish ceremony with the Host of the Christian one. Eisler was a great scholar of the New Testament, but he knew less about Judaism, and his article suffered from some errors. Yet this fact still does not confute his essential argument, and his article was an important contribution to uncovering the messianic significance of the afikoman and the potential for research latent in an understanding of the parallel developments of Passover and Easter.
This approach became a thorn in the flesh of both Jewish and Christian scholars. Immediately after the first part of Eisler’s paper was published, the journal’s editor, Hans Lietzmann, wanted to rescind his agreement to publish the second part. Eisler refused to give in and insisted that Lietzmann honor his commitment to publish the complete article. He even hired an attorney and threatened a lawsuit. Lietzmann was forced to come around, and Eisler’s attorney even forbade him to append an editor’s note stating that the article was published against his will and under legal duress. Instead, at the beginning of volume 25 (1926), Lietzmann published his own critique of Eisler’s theory, along with a sharp article by Marmorstein. Eisler demanded the right to reply in volume 26 (1927), but Lietzmann refused. Eisler then suggested that Lietzmann publish his reply in a journal outside Germany, on condition that Lietzmann report its contents in the “From Foreign Journals” section, but Lietzmann refused to do even that. Eisler remained isolated, attacked on all sides, and unable to reply to his critics.
Forty years later, in 1966, Daube delivered a lecture on the afikoman at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, vindicating Eisler’s interpretation of the afikoman, with certain necessary corrections and adding his own new findings. Daube told his audience of the bitter fate of his predecessor and expressed doubts whether the time had come for such comparative studies between Christianity and Judaism. To illustrate his concerns, he pointed out the fact that in the Goldschmidt edition of the Passover Haggadah there was no mention of the New Testament, even though it contains valuable information on the ancient version of Passover customs. Since Daube was not sure that the time was ripe, he refrained from disseminating his lecture widely and was satisfied with its publication in a pamphlet available only through personal request to the secretariat of the Committee for Christian-Jewish Understanding in London. Unlike Eisler, Daube was not muzzled, but his interpretation remained on the periphery of scholarship and has not yet been accorded the scholarly recognition it deserves.
Ah, the gentle ethereal world of scholarly exchanges.
Having read Yuval’s account I had to track down the articles by Eisler (both of them), Lietzmann, Marmorstein and Daube. You can access them through the links I supplied in the bibliography at the end of this post. In short, to quote the conclusion of Yuval,
If we trace the history of the afikoman and that of the Host in parallel, we discover a very ancient similarity. In I Corinthians 11:26, Paul addresses the following injunction to the disciples: ‘For as often as you eat this bread (…) you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. The consumption of the consecrated bread and wine during the Eucharistic meal is indeed an evocation of the crucifixion and the Parousia. This is also the precise meaning of the afikoman – a term that does not derive etymologically from the Greek epikomon but from aphikomenos, i.e. ”He who is to come”, as Robert Eisler (1925) and David Daube (1956) have glossed. Eating the afikoman therefore means anticipating the coming of the Messiah, according to the well-known rule: that “in Nissan comes deliverance and in Nissan comes salvation”.
(translated from p. 322 of the French edition of Yuval’s book in Hebrew, Deux peuples en ton sein, — quoted by NC, p. 380-381)
Contrary to Yuval’s conclusion elsewhere, Eisler and Daube insist that it is the gospel of Matthew that has been influenced by the Jewish custom.
There is an article in French by René Guyon describing the Passover customs and relating them to their reinterpretation in the gospels: http://www.garriguesetsentiers.org/article-12116051.html. Scroll down to the heading “Rite of Jesus”: a web translator is always an option, too. Included here are suggestions that Jesus is understood to have fulfilled the meanings of the several cups drunk at the Passover meal, with the fifth cup, normally not touched because it is poured out for Elijah, being drunk by Jesus. The suggestion is that by drinking the fifth cup at the end of the meal Jesus is declaring that he has fulfilled what Elijah came to proclaim: his own advent. (Perhaps, but I would have thought an evangelist would have dropped in a hint that it was explicitly the final or fifth cup that Jesus drank.)
I quickly glossed over Nanine Charbonnel’s discussion of what the various sacrifices meant in the Temple cult of Israel in my previous post. I need to back up and cover the key points of those sacrifices before moving on but I’ll try to do so without getting into the details of certain Hebrew and Greek words and manuscript lines.
Key point #1: The temple cult was essential for communion between God and his people. Cain and Abel could offer sacrifices anywhere because God was still on earth with them. After God left the planet a mediator or mediation ceremony of some sort was necessary to enable some form of communion between God and his people.
Key point #2: The covenant between God and Israel made at Sinai was made between God and Israel in the presence of each other; the people (it can almost be said) effectively saw God, stood with him, certainly experienced a theophany.
Key point #3: The temple cult enabled in some sense a repeat of that theophany, or at least a restored communion with God through a mediator and a mediating cult.
Key point #4: The cult of mediation required several sacrifices.
One of these was the “asham” or guilt/sin/trespass offering that was made as reparation for damage done to the relationship and thus established the condition for the subsequent restoration of communion or a close relationship with God. This “asham” offering was a particular type of “sin offering” (“hattath” offering) . . .
The other sacrifice of note here (there are others but these two are most to the point of the broader discussion) followed the sin offering for reparation above and was the “hattath” or sin offering. “Sacrifices for sin are sometimes called sacrifices of atonement. In Hebrew, they are simply designated by the word hattath, sin, rendered according to the case by sacrifice for sin or the victim offered for sin. A part of it was burned on the altar, the major part was eaten by the priest who thus absorbed the sinner’s guilt in some way.” (From https://leschretiens.fr/lexique.php#S)
Key point #5: The sacrifices came to cover the sins of the entire community of Israel. (That is, the temple cult was concerned with more than individual sins.)
Key point #6: The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 offers his life as a sacrifice of atonement. He took on the sins of the multitude and had God lay all of Israel’s sins upon him.
Key point #7: In Hellenistic times (second century BCE) the temple cult of sacrifices was halted and a version of the Book of Daniel had the three Jewish martyrs praying from the fiery furnace that their sacrifice be a fulfilment of all that was necessary for atonement and restoration of the communion of Israel with God.
Key point #8: The same concept of sacrifice as accomplishing the goal of fellowship or communion with God is found in the Day of Atonement ritual. The High Priest undergoes various stages of purification to bring him ever closer to a place and condition where he can be in the presence of God who descends to grant his blessing on Israel. His ritual begins with an “asham” or “reparation for sin” sacrifice of a ram and culminates with a more elaborate sacrifice of a second ram, a sin offering that consecrates him and allows for a restored communion of God with his people.
Below I copy a translation of the key pages of Grappe and Marx from which Charbonnel extracts a quotation to explain these sacrifices and their significance for restoring Israel’s relationship with God.
We are now ready to move on to the next critical part of NC’s discussion.
We now arrive at Nanine Charbonnel’s discussion of the source of the Passion narrative in the gospels. Her approach is in three parts:
the failure of traditional approaches to bring us to a satisfactory answer and a recognition that the expectation of a suffering messiah who liberates his people was very much a part of Second Temple Judaism;
the relationship between the “killing of the messiah-body of the people of Israel”, the eucharist, the Passion, the Jewish Scriptures;
the central roles of personification, the substitution involving Barabbas and midrash.
The false leads of past enquiries
A man is put to death as atonement for the sins of others. The idea is found in other ancient religions, folklore and customs so it has seemed quite reasonable to look there to understand the origins of the gospel story.
Do mystery religions hold the key? No, they have not given a fully satisfactory explanation of what we read in the gospels. Other gods did not die as sacrifices to save their devotees. It cannot be said that Dionysus, Attis or Tammuz “died for our sins”. Gods in their wrath did require substitutes (an animal, even a child) as sacrifice at times but that’s not the same thing.
What of the Saturnalia? In 1898 Paul Wendland a specialist in Philo of Alexandria and future professor at Göttingen, in an article entitled “Jesus als Saturnalien-Koenig“, suggests that the mockery of Jesus by the Roman soldiers could be linked to the Saturnalia, an annual custom observed by Roman soldiers in which victim was crowned as a god-king (Kronos/Saturn) and mocked until finally executed quite some time later. But this was a December custom.
A better hypothesis, however, is one that caught my attention some years ago now, so it’s like catching up with an old friend. NC alerts us to Salomon Reinarch’s 1902 text online:
However, the resemblance of the Passion with the Sacaea is even more striking than that which it presents with the Saturnalia. Here is the text of Matthew (XXVIII, 26-31): “So Pilate released Barabbas to them; and after having whipped Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. And the soldiers brought Jesus to the Praetorium, and they gathered the whole company around him. And having stripped him, they put on him a scarlet robe. Then, having made a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed on his right hand; and kneeling before him, they laughed at him, saying: “Hail, King of the Jews!” And spitting at him, they took the reed and hit him on the head. After making fun of him,they took off the mantle and put his clothes back on him, and led him away to crucify him. “
Compare this passage with the treatment of the king of the Sacaea, as reported by Dion Chrysostom:
“They take one of the prisoners sentenced to death and have him sit on the royal throne; they dress him in royal clothes and let him drink, amuse himself and use the king’s concubines for several days. But then they strip him of his clothes, scourge him and cross him. “
Other suggestions have surfaced: that Jesus was filling the role of the villain Haman in the Esther story: Jews celebrated the occasion annually by destroying an effigy of Haman; and Philo’s account of Carabbas in Alexandria:
There was a certain madman named Carabbas, afflicted not with a wild, savage, and dangerous madness (for that comes on in fits without being expected either by the patient or by bystanders), but with an intermittent and more gentle kind; this man spent all this days and nights naked in the roads, minding neither cold nor heat, the sport of idle children and wanton youths; and they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a sceptre they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him; and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state. Then from the multitude of those who were standing around there arose a wonderful shout of men calling out Maris; and this is the name by which it is said that they call the kings among the Syrians; for they knew that Agrippa was by birth a Syrian, and also that he was possessed of a great district of Syria of which he was the sovereign . . .
René Girard refers (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 49ff) to a horrific episode in the life of Apollonius of Tyana when the prophet stopped a plague in Ephesus by inciting the crowd to stone a poor beggar to death in the belief that he was a demon. The citizens are cured of the plague. Everything is restored to rights. They acted as necessity required.
But how can one reconcile these scapegoat ideas with the sacrifice of the messiah? The scapegoat in non-Christian scenarios above is a fool, an innocent, an unworthy reject whose death draws away all the evil inflicting a community. That scenario clashes against the gospel Passion where the “scapegoat” is indeed the son of God and order is not restored merely as a result of his death alone. The crowd is acting correctly and necessarily, if mercilessly and cruelly, in the scapegoat traditions.
There are analogies in the mystery religions and other practices. There are the rites of death and rebirth as we see in the gospels, and the death of the god or scapegoat does have a benefit for many others. It is conceivable that such ideas in the Greco-Roman world made the spread of the Christian message somewhat recognizable or at least comprehensible and facilitated its spread. But those Greco-Roman analogies cannot explain the content of what we read of the death of Jesus in the gospels.
What we read in the gospels is almost entirely made up of a rewriting of Jewish Scriptures. Yes, the book of Esther with its violent fate of Haman is relevant, and so is the scapegoat theme as we find it in Leviticus 16. But these sources are some of the threads selected to weave a quite different story for a new situation.
NC finds an idea stressed by Girard of special interest. With the gospels we find a shift from the view that the persecuting mob are acting correctly against a necessary and demonic target:
myths are based on a unanimous persecution. Judaism and Christianity destroy this unanimity in order to defend the victims unjustly condemned and to condemn the executioners unjustly legitimated.
(Girard, I See Satan Fall, p. 172)
One must understand that we are not talking about a real divine man or man believed to be divine. The story is a historical fiction in which the people of God (who are the “son of God”) was sacrificed as an innocent victim, and therefore as an expiatory victim, a victim who gives new life to the people. This is a new story of a different type of death and resurrection.
The dramatic innovation that this gospel story introduces is identified by the French Dominican scholar Étienne Nodet. To begin with, one must recognize that John the Baptist had been preaching the imminence of the Final Judgment and the arrival of the Messiah and Kingdom of God with that Day of Judgment. On that Day of Judgment each person will be punished or rewarded according to their sins or to having their sins cleansed by the sacrifice of a victim in their stead.
The model for this [sacrificial exchange] is the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement, who is pure and who receives the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:20-22); it is he who bears the condemnation. It is a precept of the Law, but in another sense, it is like all sacrifices an injustice, if one equates the animal with a reasonable being. The persecuted righteous person, or more generally the martyr, represents a transfer of the same nature, where the injustice is clearer, especially if it is not obedience to a precept. Such is the case of John the Baptist or James. This is also the case with Jesus, but there is a major difference, which is underlined by Peter’s speech at Pentecost: he began by recalling the injustice of the crucifixion (Acts 2:23), and then he declares (vv. 32-33):
“God has raised this Jesus from the dead; we are all witnesses to this. And now, exalted at the right hand of God, he has received the Holy Spirit of promise from the Father and has poured him out.”
In other words, the final judgment is done, the injustice is redressed, and the Spirit is poured out.All these aspects are concentrated in the affirmation of the resurrection, which is a kind of thwarted sacrifice: the being on whom the faults are transferred is finally promoted, since he is resurrected, that is, justified. The Epistle to the Hebrews, by making Jesus both the high priest and the victim, develops at length this whole sacrificial dimension.
Nanine Charbonnel’s next chapter addresses the Jewish origin of the Passion of Jesus, or the climax of the gospel narrative: “sacrifice and the glory of the cross”. Here much material I have covered in other posts is discussed so this will be a quicker write up for me than the previous three posts.
The coming of the messiah was understood to be the sign that evil had reached its climax and with the messiah’s arrival the world was to begin being turned back to righteousness.
NC speaks of the gospel setting of the “eschatological geography”: Bethlehem is necessary as the birthplace of the messiah according to the prophet, and it was from there that the first David was anointed, but Jerusalem, the “city of peace”, was the prophesied focus of the final battle. The reference to “beyond the Jordan” at the opening scene brings to mind the deliverer named Joshua/Jesus, the one to whom YHWH says, “Moses my servant is dead, it is up to you to cross the Jordan and bring the people into the Promised Land.” Twelve men were chosen to open the way and the moment was memorialized by twelve stones (Joshua 1:2; 3:12; 4:3)
Subsequently in the narrative we find Jesus crossing the lake or “sea” of Galilee which has been understood to represent Jesus taking his salvation to the gentiles and bringing Jew and gentile into a unity. (Cf an earlier post, The story of Jesus: History or Theology?). Galilee itself has significance as an end-time setting being the place of prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-2, as made explicit in Mathew 4:13-16.
End-time Elijah and miracles
Other signs of the end-time setting of the gospels: John the Baptist is depicted as the new Elijah prophesied to appear at the end times. The miracles of Jesus themselves are the signs of the new age e.g. Isaiah 35, in addition to repeating the miracles of Moses, Elijah, Elisha. Certainly it is evident to readers of Isaiah 35 that we are reading metaphors of spiritual revival but it is also not difficult to see many of the miracles in the gospels being symbolic of conversions of the gentiles, spiritual awakening and salvation, and so forth. Even more mundane events such as the controversy over the plucking of wheat on the sabbath cease to pose any historical problems when we read them as metaphors (e.g. the removal of legalistic boundaries to the partaking of the bread or law/word of God.) Several of the miracles point to the healing or salvation of gentiles (e.g. the leper, the child or servant, the centurion).
The Lord’s Prayer is another eschatological passage. The sanctification of the name of God is an end-time event (Isaiah 30:27; 59:19) and the request for daily bread speaks of the time when the new manna, the spiritual law of God, will be delivered daily. The Kingdom to come has begun to arrive already with the advent of Jesus.
3. The Incarnation of the two forms of the Torah, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah
Nanine Charbonnel stresses the Jewishness — the “Jewish rootedness” — of the interpretations that have been discussed in this series of posts. In the words (translated) of Jacqueline Genot-Bismuth,
The principle of the dissociation of the Message and the Messenger at work with Moses (Moses receives a text to be transcribed and transmitted: the “Law of Moses” is the Law or Torah written by the intermediary Moses) is substituted by a new logic of the combining of the Message and the Messenger: according to the teaching of Jesus written by John, God does not send a new revealed book, a new written text, but a revealed man-book, a revelation in act and not in writing, rather like having a materialization of that prophetic dream of Ezekiel [. . where the prophet ingests the megilah [scroll], thus making it his living substance, his … “flesh and blood”.
(Genot-Bismuth, Un homme nommé Salut, p. 222. My highlighting in all quotations)
Jesus is not the bearer of the new revelation; rather, he is himself, in person, the revelation. Jesus/Joshua means “Yahweh saves” and the Word of “Yahweh Saves” is the totality of the word of God in one’s being, life and acts.
We have seen that there is nothing novel about the idea of the incarnation, in some manner, of the Torah in Jewish thought. So what makes Christianity distinctive? The answer that NC offers is the incarnation of the two types of Torah, the written and the oral.
In Pharisaic Judaism great emphasis was placed on the inseparability of the Oral and Written Torah. For the Pharisees (we are going back into the BCE era) it was necessary for an Oral Torah to explain how to apply the Written code in concrete situations of everyday life. The Oral Torah was a way of maintaining the relevance of the Written Torah. The Oral Torah, it can be said, “manifests” or renders “visible” the Written law in daily life, making it a living code of conduct. In this way we find in rabbinic writings that every Jew was encouraged to become “a living Torah”. Indeed, when the Torah enters the flesh in Israel then the word of God finds its fulfilment. (Lorsque la Torah prend chair en Israël, elle accomplit le dynamisme de la Parole. — Massonnet, p. 286)
We have evidence that the relationship between Oral and Written Law was being debated in Palestine in the decades around the turn from BCE to CE. One example is a story of two sages from that era, Hillel and Shamai (only indirectly referenced by NC via Jean-Christophe Attias in Les Juifs et la Bible):
The Sages taught: There was an incident involving one gentile who came beforeShammai. The gentile said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. The same gentile came beforeHillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.
Among these Jews the Oral Law was deemed to be a divine revelation that Israel alone had the privilege of receiving; the Written Law was said to be a sealed book to anyone who does not read it by the lights of the Oral Law; and the Oral and Written Law are not two Laws but one and the same law of which only Israel holds the key. (Attias, p. 140)
The Qumran library yields further evidence of discussion of these concepts. In the Damascus Document we read of an eschatological figure who appears to have prophetic and messianic traits, one called Interpreter of the Law, who :
The books of the Torah are equivalent to the booth of the king as it says, And “I will raise up the fallen booth of David” (Amos 9:11). The king refers to the <prince> of the congregation and the Kiyyun of their images are the books of the prophets whose words Israel has despised. The star is the Interpreter of the Torah who is to come to Damascus, as it is written, “A star has stepped forth from Jacob and a scepter has arisen from Israel” (Num 24:17).
Some have interpreted this figure as one comparable to a new Moses who gives interpretations of Torah in his lifetime and again as an end-time Elijah who will return to teach righteousness.
[But the righteous shall live by his faith] (2:4b).
…. Interpreted, this concerns all those who observe the Law in the House of Judah, whom God will deliver from the House of judgement because of their suffering and because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousness. . . . (The words of the prophet are understood in terms of a qualified relationship to an exceptional person, the supreme guide of the “community” or Teacher of Righteousness (probably a fictitious figure).
(André Paul, Qumrân et les Esséniens, p. 102)
NC follows André Paul and others who view the Teacher of Righteousness as a personification of the pious study of Scriptures or Torah. The process followed is midrash, built upon new understandings emerging from interpretations of the Law. Such a process would make a strictly legalistic application of the Torah impossible, as we see in the example of Hillel who is reputed to have taught a merciful application of the Law.
Personification … of Exegesis Itself?
NC refers to the insights of the Jewish scholar Armand Abécassis who, while believing in a historical Jesus, ironically provides insights that offer every reason to understand Jesus was a midrashic fabrication. Abécassis explains that the Voice at the Revelation at Mount Sinai was needed to render God’s meaning in language in order to be understood. Moses was not the voice nor the language, otherwise he would be a prophet like any other. Instead, Moses is the mediator or link between the voice — he is neither the voice nor the message of the voice.
Contrast Jesus (continuing the exposition of Abécassis): As a divine figure he is necessarily beyond all human language and would himself be the voice itself. But he is also a human figure, and so he translates the divine voice into human language and meaning so that his message can be understood.
What would his listeners hear when they heard him speak?
Nanine Charbonnel’s thesis: Jesus of the gospels originated as a natural product of Jewish interpretation of their Scriptures and belief that the Divine Presence was to be found in the words of the Torah. The Oral Torah was understood to teach how to apply the Written Torah and Jesus was created as the personification of both. Jesus was also the personification of Israel, as earlier posts have demonstrated. Further, if the body of Israel itself was understood in certain quarters to have embodied the Torah (as there is some reason to believe) then the events of 70 CE have significant power to explain the death and resurrection narrative.
2. Personification of the Torah
Making the Voice Visible — and Personified
How can one “see” a voice? We know that at Sinai the Israelites were said to have “seen” the voice of God. Here is a later rabbinic account of what the Jewish exegetes made of this passage in Exodus:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah at Sinai, He showed wonders of wonders to Israel. How is it? The Holy One, blessed be He would speak and the voice would go out and travel the whole world: . . . . And it is stated, “And all the people saw the sounds (literally, voices — Exodus 20:18)” – it is not written, “[voice],” here, but rather, “[voices].” Rabbi Yochanan said, “The voice would go out and divide into seventy voices for the seventy languages, so that all the nations would hear. — Exodus Rabbah 5:9
We recall Pentecost in Acts 2. We also recall the play on hearing and seeing when Paul hears a voice but does not see and when the Emmaus disciples hear the voice of Jesus but only “see” him as he vanishes.
For Nanine Charbonnel and her sources, there is nothing remarkably strange about Jewish interpreters imagining an incarnated voice or inventing a character to represent the word (and law and wisdom) of God.
A passage in Numbers may at a glance seem straightforward to many of us but it evoked serious commentary among Jewish exegetes:
When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim — Numbers 7:89
The earliest Jewish commentary (Sifre) on this passage found much room for interpretation. God is obviously meant by “the voice” but the context of this verse is far removed from the mention of God. Azzan Yadin, cited by NC, explains:
Ha-katuv is essentially a rabbinic synonym for torah but with the difference that here it refers to Scripture as an agent that “acts” in a manner or “does” something in a way we imagine a person acting or doing — in this case “teaching” those it meets through reading and hearing.
The isolation of Numbers 7:89 from any context makes it impossible to link “with him” to God in a direct, grammatical sense, since God was last mentioned in Numbers 7:11, almost eighty verses earlier and is not the preceding noun. Since, grammatically speaking, neither the voice nor the pronominal “with him” necessarily refers to God, the assertion that the speaker in Numbers 7:89 is God is ultimately theological, not grammatical. The assertion is also common sense; after all, who but God would be speaking to Moses in the Tent of Meeting? But common sense is not always the best guide in these situations, so it is worth noting that from a strictly grammatical perspective, it is possible to read Numbers 7:89 as claiming that Moses entered the Tent of Meeting to speak with the same entity that spoke to him, namely “the voice,” understood as a divine intermediary.
Whether or not this is a plausible interpretation of Numbers 7:89 is not relevant to the present discussion. The argument is that (plausible or not) this is the interpretation found in the Sifre Numbers. Note how the biblical “voice” is picked up by the Sifre’s gloss:
“When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice …”
“HA-KATUV [see box insert above] states that Moses would enter into the Tent of Meeting and stand there, and the voice descended from highest heavens to between the cherubs, and he heard the voice speaking to him from within.”
The Sifre Numbers is alive to God’s absence from Numbers 7:89 and reproduces this absence in the gloss — Moses hears “the voice” speaking in the Tent. More importantly, the Sifre provides additional information on the voice, information unrelated to the contradictory verses: upon Moses’ entry into the Tent of Meeting, the voice “descended from the highest heavens” — where it presumably resides at other times. If the intention of the [passage] were merely to argue that Moses encounters God inside the Tent of Meeting, why use a prooftext that does not mention God but only a voice, and then — compounding what should be an unfortunate omission — make no reference to God in the [passage] but rather pick up on the voice leitmotiv? Because that is precisely the point of the [passage]: a voice, a divine voice that regularly resides in the highest heavens, descends to speak with Moses in the Tent of Meeting, serving as an intermediary and thus allowing God to remain divorced from human affairs.
Can we imagine a voice, a voice alone, descending and speaking as a mediator with Moses? That is what is understood here.
The Incarnation as the Personification of Scripture
Azzan Yadin is discussing the midrashic method of interpreting Scriptures that was practised by the rabbis from the late first to early second centuries CE, or from the era when the New Testament literature was in development. The name associated with this method was Rabbi Ishmael and Yadin’s discussion is found in Scripture as Logos: Rabbi Ishmael and the Origins of Midrash. I quote some interesting sections directly related to the personification of the Voice and Scripture.
The following section demonstrates how the rabbinic personification of the Law as a Teacher has remarkable affinities with the NT idea of Christ being the representative and teacher of the Law. What is most noteworthy here, for me, is the support for Nanine Charbonnel’s case that early Christian interpretations of Scripture grew out of Jewish interpretations that personified Scripture.
Thus Clement writes: “With the greatest clearness, accordingly, the Logos has spoken respecting Himself by Hosea: ‘I am your instructor’ (Hos 5:2).” Moreover, it is worth noting that Clement’s terminology is also similar to Rabbi Ishmael’s. For instance, Clement states that Christ’s coming could be known to the reader of the Hebrew Bible prior to the event since ή γραφή παιδαγωγήσει “the written [Scripture] will instruct [you].” The use of ήγραφή (the written) for Scripture is not common among early Christian writers. The singular η’ γραφή usually refers to a verse or phrase while the plural form at άι γραφαί (or άι’ιεραί γραφαί, the holy writings) refers to Scripture as a whole. Clement, however, regularly uses ή γραφή as Scripture. Coupled with the verbal predicate παιδαγωγήσει (will teach, or, will instruct), the result is strikingly similar to the “Ishmaelian” “ha-katuv [the written] teaches” ( הכתוב מלמד ).
The issue of Christ does, of course, represent a formidable theological boundary between Rabbi Ishmael and Clement, but should not obscure the very significant hermeneutical similarities. Clement’s full and consistent identification of the instructor with Christ marks him as the apogee of the Christos Didaskalos tradition; Rabbi Ishmael’s identification of the instructor with personified Scripture suggests a structurally similar Nomos [=Torah] Didaskalos tradition.
* * *
In his important article on Jewish binitarianism, Daniel Boyarin argues against the venerable idea that the Rabbis rejected divine intermediation in general and the Logos in particular. More accurately Boyarin shows that the eventual rejection is best understood against the backdrop of earlier shared theological traditions and language, largely excised from rabbinic literature, but still visible as a palimpsest beneath later editorial strata, or in rabbinically marginal works such as the Targumim. I would argue that the parallel between the understanding of Christ in the Christos Didaskalos tradition and Rabbi Ishmael’s representation of Scripture as personified teacher — Nomos Didaskalos — is part of such a shared reservoir of theological language and imagery.
Back to blogging. I have been working for some time on tracking down sources behind several publications, one of them Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. This post is the first of three that wrap up the third chapter of part 2; it is in this chapter that NC brings out the full meaning of the title of her book — figure de papier — the full meaning of which the English translation “paper figure” fails to impart.
1. Incarnation and Transforming Figures of Speech into “Real” Persons
Wisdom in Person
Most of us are well aware that in the Bible Wisdom is often portrayed figure crying out to a deaf humanity to rescue it from its folly. In the first nine chapters of Proverbs we read that Wisdom is begotten rather than created, just as another figure in the New Testament will be said to be begotten of God. More than that, Wisdom is portrayed existing alongside God before creation itself. She stamps her mark on all of creation.
For Nanine Charbonnel, passages like these about Wisdom very likely point us towards understanding the way gospel figures were invented and the way Christ is represented in the New Testament epistles and book of Revelation.
Compare Wisdom in Jewish Scriptures and related literature with the way Christ appears in the gospels.
The Gospel of John opens with Jesus “tabernacling” or “tenting” among his people, with the tent being a metaphor for flesh. Similarly in Sirach 24:8 we find that Wisdom comes to dwell in a tent in Israel:
Then the Creator of all things gave me [=Wisdom] a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’ — Sirach 24:8
Afterwards he was seen upon earth, and conversed with men. — Baruch 3:38
Compare John 1:14
And the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle [or dwell] among us . . .
The concept of pre-existing Wisdom, the chief of God’s beings, living or “tabernacling” among her people Israel, reminds us of Jesus Christ, of course. The motifs associated with personified Wisdom are carried through and applied to the figure of Jesus.
The striking difference between pre-Christian Jewish concepts and those of Christianity is that the latter eschewed abstract notions of messiahs and divine messengers and fleshed them out with names and personalities. Where we read in the Qumran scrolls about a “Teacher of Righteousness”, Priests, Messiahs, Overseers, in the early Christian literature we meet personal names (Jesus, John) and titles (Christ, Baptist) and even signatures (Paul et al.) The new ideas were conveyed as stories, not merely abstract doctrines. Charbonnel cites André Paul, page 84, Qumrân et les Esséniens : l’éclatement d’un dogme:
We were no longer in the theoretical but in the real. We are talking about concrete people, who, moreover, have names. (Original: On n’était plus dans le théorique mais dans le réel. Il s’agit de personnes concrètes, qui de surcroît ont des noms.)
The question is: Were these the names of real people or were they the names of personifications of things to do with God and Israel and that pertain to salvation. Does the name of Jesus enter our history because it was the name of a historical figure or was it born as a personification of the Name of God? In the earlier posts, we saw how Jesus was made the personification of the People of God and of Yahweh on earth, and of the Temple and Glory of the Divine Presence (Shekinah).
Veneration of the Name
Within the heart of the Judaism of the Second Temple was the veneration of the name of God.
The name Jesus, as we know, derives from the Hebrew meaning “It is Yahweh who saves”.
The Jesus of the New Testament, Charbonnel posits, is developed in part from the two other greats named Jesus in the Old Testament.
First, we have Joshua (= Jesus) who led Israel into the Promised Land. Today few of us would connect God’s instruction to Moses about his messenger (commonly translated “angel”) bearing the divine name with Joshua, but we know from the second century Justin that early Christians did make that connection.
See, I am sending an angel [= messenger] ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.
Here is Justin’s understanding taken from his Dialogue with Trypho, 75:
Moreover, in the book of Exodus we have also perceived that the name of God Himself which, He says, was not revealed to Abraham or to Jacob, was Jesus, and was declared mysteriously through Moses. Thus it is written: ‘And the Lord spake to Moses, Say to this people, Behold, I send My angel before thy face, to keep thee in the way, to bring thee into the land which I have prepared for thee. Give heed to Him, and obey Him; do not disobey Him. For He will not draw back from you; for My name is in Him.‘ Now understand that He who led your fathers into the land is called by this name Jesus, and first called Auses(Oshea). For if you shall understand this, you shall likewise perceive that the name of Him who said to Moses, ‘for My name is in Him,’ was Jesus. For, indeed, He was also called Israel, and Jacob’s name was changed to this also.
Justin is writing in the second century but his explanation of the choice of the name Jesus does have a “midrashic” rationale.
Then there is another Jesus or Joshua, the high priest who, on his return with his people from the Babylonian exile led them in the reconstruction of the temple.
Zechariah 3:1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.
The word of the Lord came to me: “Take silver and gold from the exiles Heldai, Tobijah and Jedaiah, who have arrived from Babylon. Go the same day to the house of Josiah son of Zephaniah. Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Joshua son of Jozadak. Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two [roles – Priest and King].’”
The third Joshua/Jesus inherits the roles of the first two.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Both are quoting Joel.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
To paraphrase Charbonnel, the essence of Christianity is the affirmation that the Lord, the Name of the Lord, and Jesus Christ, are one. In Joel, the call was to invoke the name of the God of the Covenant. This invocation now passes to Jesus because Jesus himself is recognized as the one with the name of God.
The narrative of the Gospel of Luke begins with the name given to the messiah. He was (literally) “called the name” Jesus (Luke 2:21– interlinear). We find the same “called the name” formula for the Davidic Messiah in the Qumran scrolls:
4Q381, fr 15
And I, Your anointed one [=messiah], have come to understand . . . will tell others about You, for You have given me knowledge, and indeed You have endowed me with great insight . . . for I am called by Your name, my God, and for your deliverance . . . . [7-9. Wise, Abegg, Cook]
In 1 Enoch we read that the Name had a pre-existence:
1 Enoch 48:3, 6
Even before the sun and the constellations were created, before the stars of heaven were made, his name was named before the Lord of Spirits. . . . He was chosen and hidden before him before the world was created, and for ever [or, until the coming of the Age].
Paul writes from deep within this cult of the name. See 1 Corinthians 1:2 and in particular,
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus, we recall, was also the personification of the Temple, and also identified with its cornerstone. We find the Name of God at the heart of the Temple and its cornerstone in a later Jewish text that is widely interpreted as an attack on Christianity, the Toledot Yeshu. I quote the relevant passage of the Toledot from Frank Zindler’s The Jesus the Jews Never Knew:
The Robbing of the Shem (the Shem = the Name, the ineffable name of God)
. . . And there was in the sanctuary a foundation-stone — and this is its interpretation: God founded it and this is the stone on which Jacob poured oil — and on it were written the letters of the Shem, and whosoever learned it, could do whatsoever he would. But as the wise feared that the disciples of lsrael might learn them and therewith destroy the world, they took measures that no one should do so.
Brazen dogs were bound to two iron pillars at the entrance of the place of burnt offerings, and whosoever entered in and learned these letters — as soon as he went forth again, the dogs bayed at him; if he then looked at them, the letters vanished from his memory.
The name of Jesus may have been changed to Jeschu to rob him of the letters that would identify the name with that of the Name of Yahweh.
This Jeschu [Jesus] came, learned them, wrote them on parchment, cut into his hip and laid the parchment with the letters therein — so that the cutting of his flesh did not hurt him — then he restored the skin to its place. When he went forth the brazen dogs bayed at him, and the letters vanished from his memory. He went home, cut open his flesh with his knife, took out the writing, learned the letters, went and gathered together three hundred and ten of the young men of Israel. (pp. 428ff)
Here, in an accusation against Christianity, we see Jesus literally “embodying” the perfect Name, although he does so illegitimately. Celsus records a Jew saying something similar — that the name of Jesus had magical power although it was at the behest of demons.
Origen, Contra Celsus, I.6
After this, through the influence of some motive which is unknown to me, Celsus asserts that it is by the names of certain demons, and by the use of incantations, that the Christians appear to be possessed of [miraculous] power; hinting, I suppose, at the practices of those who expel evil spirits by incantations. And here he manifestly appears to malign the gospel. For it is not by incantations that Christians seem to prevail [over evil spirits], but by the name of Jesus, accompanied by the announcement of the narratives which relate to Him ; for the repetition of these has frequently been the means of driving demons out of men, especially when those who repeated them did so in a sound and genuinely believing spirit. Such power, indeed, does the name of Jesus possess over evil spirits, that there have been instances where it was effectual, when it was pronounced even by bad men, which Jesus Himself taught [would be the case], when He said: “Many shall say to me in that day, In Thy name we have cast out devils, and done many wonderful works.”
This veneration of the name of Jesus continued throughout the subsequent centuries as witnessed in the lives of saints and the Christian Kabbalists. (See also the history of the name YHSWH – making the divine name pronounceable as Jesus — and the Sator square). Much has been written about the mystic analyses and plays with the divine name YHWH in later times but the point here is that a few of these ideas can be traced back to late antiquity and it is not unreasonable to think that their origins began in at least the gnostic forms of earliest Christianity and early elements of the Jewish religion. I may post some more details about these arcane ideas in a later post or two.
Till then, it is worth noticing that Moses created the name “Joshua” by changing the name of Hoshea to Joshua by placing at its beginning the first letter of the Tetragrammaton, God’s name. (Recall that in the earlier posts of this series that early Jewish scribes (and not only Jewish ones) found mystical significance in letters, their numerical values, puns, and so forth.) It was with the placing of this part of God’s name to Hoshea that the name Joshua was created by Moses to name the man who was to be imbued with the power of God to lead Israel into the Promised Land.
Jesus means “Yahweh saves” but such a form is not unique: the first of the minor prophets, Hosea, means “Yah saves”; Isaiah means “God saves”. We can find other instances, including Jesse and Josiah. Even Judas, from the Judah who sold Joseph, is set against Jesus by the addition of a letter at the end of the letters making up the Tetragrammaton.
The Incarnation as the Descent of the Name of YHWH
To worship YHWH was to worship his Name. The Temple was the dwelling place of his Name – 1 Kings 8:16; Deuteronomy 12:11. YHWH is even called the Name. The leading Jewish prayer, the Kaddish, is a praise of the Name of God: “Hallowed be thy Name”. The name of Jesus is: It is YHWH who saves — the lead figure in the narrative is the one who saves.
The High Priest’s function is to manifest the Name that Saves
Hence Malachi 1:11
My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord Almighty.
On the Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur, the day of the Great Pardon, the high priest was said to pronounce the otherwise forbidden name of YHWH in order to remove all sins from Israel. Jesus himself is modelled on the high priest — as we also read in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Citing Christian Amphoux’s La Vie de Jesus, dialogue avec Renan, Charbonnel points out that it was through Joseph that Jesus was descended from David and thus a rightful king who had the potential to replace Herod’s dynasty, while through his mother Mary Jesus was related to John the Baptist, the son of a priest. Hence Jesus had the heritage to become both a political and religious leader. As a future king, he could be seen as a threat to Rome; but if he could also be a high priest then he posed a danger to Herod and his high priest. Machine-translating Amphoux,
James, leader of Jerusalem community: 40s – c 63 Simon, leader from 71 to c 110 Jude, driven from Jerusalem in 135
The dynastic lineage of John and Jesus was well constituted: the brothers of Jesus (Mt 13:55 / Mk 6:3) bear the names of the leaders of the Jerusalem community: James, from the 40s to his death, around 63; Simon, James’ cousin, from 71 to his death around 110; and Jude, driven out of Jerusalem in 135 with the other Jews. “‘
Continuing with Amphoux, at the baptism of Jesus the portrayal of the descent of the dove involves another wordplay if there is a Hebrew source behind it. Again a machine translation:
The image of ‘the descent of the dove’ is a play on the two proper nouns of the narrative: to descend is said in Hebrew y-r-d, and the name of the Jordan comes from this verb; and the dove is y-w-n-h, which gives the name of Jonah, which is an anagram in Greek of the name John (Iôna- / Iôan-). Thus, the two proper names in the story carry a message that is taken up in the image of the dove that descends. But what does this message say? John and Jonah refer to a third name, Onias, which designates the legitimate high priest, deposed in 175 B.C.; and the descent expresses the movement from heaven to earth, by which Jesus is invested with the function of which Onias was robbed. In other words, Jesus is invested as the new legitimate high priest, who is to restore to the Temple the priesthood that has been lost for some two hundred years.
Thus Charbonnel suggests the possibility midrashic elaborations on the Name contributed to the very belief in incarnation itself. We know gematria, finding significance in numerical values of the letters of a word, was a special interest among scribes. One scholar who has delved into possibilities here is Bernard Dubourg. In the first volume of L’invention de Jésus he notes that the Hebrew words for “son” and “messiah” have the same numerical value (52) as that of YHWH when the Tetragrammaton is read with the letters themselves spelled out with their names. The Hebrew form of the name “Jesus” likewise has the same value of 52 but only through “the descent of the vowels” (as the ancient scribes would say), or through the “voice” or “the spirit that gives life” to the consonants.
Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek.
Charbonnel suggests that here we find another test of the midrashic hypothesis, given that the hypothesis leads us to expect to find clues in the text to alert readers to its midrashic interpretation. One intriguing possibility emerges when Luke’s version is translated into Hebrew:
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
In Hebrew: zéh hou’ mélech hayehoudyim.
Now the expression ZéH Hou’ is unique in the whole of the First Testament and is found in1 Samuel 16:12, when Samuel is to designate the king of Israel as the successor of Saul . . . : Jesse sent for him: he (David) was red-haired, with a beautiful look and a beautiful face. And the Lord said, “Go, anoint him: this is he/the one” . . . For Luke, this sign declares to those who are willing to understand that Jesus is the king of the Jews designated by God, like David…
Or one can examine the possible Hebrew behind John’s description:
. . . . It read: JESUSOF NAZARETH, THE KINGOF THE JEWS.
The name of Jesus is developed from YHWH, and perhaps even the sign on the cross identified YHWH.