Here we look at the sources in the Jewish Scriptures for:
a. John the Baptist
b. the Baptism of Jesus
c. the wedding at Cana
d. the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness
Here we look at the sources in the Jewish Scriptures for:
a. John the Baptist
b. the Baptism of Jesus
c. the wedding at Cana
d. the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness
Here we look at
a. the visions and rejoicing surrounding the birth of Jesus
b. the shepherds, the magi
c. massacre of the innocents
d. flight to and return from Egypt
e. Jesus twelve years of age in the temple
Future posts will continue this series.
The table is primarily a translation and slight modification of pages 183-226 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper. All posts archived here.
Here we look at
a. the announcement to the parents of John the Baptist;
b. the heralding role of John the Baptist.
Future posts will continue this series.
From time to time I will post a section of a multi-page table* suggesting “intertextual” (or “midrashic”) links between the canonical gospel narratives and the “Old Testament” or Jewish Scriptures. I use “suggesting” because the links have come from a variety of sources and not presented as certainties. Readers will no doubt be able to suggest others and may find some room to raise questions about what is listed here.
Future posts will continue this series. Here we look at
a. The Genealogies of Jesus, and
b. Luke’s scene of the Annunciation to Mary
Tables for the birth of John the Baptist and Matthew’s nativity narrative will follow. Continue reading “Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #1”
Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .
After this post I will pause from addressing NC’s book for a little while because I want to get a firm grasp of the next section before posting, and I think it is a very critical section, one that addresses the formation of the figure of Jesus in the gospels.
Here we continue the theme of suggesting what collective groups different individual persons in the gospels represent. The key takeaway is that there are reasons to think that certain names stand for larger entities, e.g. John the Baptist represents the Prophets of the “Old Testament” pointing to Jesus, the twelve disciples represent the foundation of the “new Israel” or Church, and so forth. In this post we have a look at the virgin mother of Jesus.
On “Twelve disciples” as the foundation of a “new Israel”: I have tended to think that the idea of the Twelve Disciples as a foundation of the Church was a second-century attempt to rebut Marcionism (i.e., the belief that Paul alone was the one true apostolic founder of the church). If so, the Gospel of Mark which arguably depicts Peter and the Twelve as failures (see Ted Weeden), was in some sympathy with Marcionism, but the later gospels with their positive spin on the Twelve stand in opposition to Marcionism; if so, they would have been authored closer to the mid-second century. Perhaps even the Gospel of Mark was written as an attempt to denounce attempts to establish a certain “orthodoxy” on the myth of The Twelve as opposed to Paul.
Other Vridar posts on the Cana miracle are by Tim Widowfield:
Again we notice evidence of symbolism in a gospel story. We have a wedding narrative consisting of inversions of passages in the Jewish Scriptures. Other figurative language in the gospels leads us to see this wedding as a representation of an end-time event, a successful marriage to supplant the failed marriage of “old Israel” with Yahweh.
The following table blends parts of what I read in both Charbonnel and Mergui‘s books:
|Jn 2:1||On the third day,||Hosea 6:2 “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. (i.e. a New Creation)|
|a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee||The Wedding = the covenant of Yahweh with his people Israel;
Galilee = the land of gentiles. (Isaiah 9:1)
Cana = from late Hebrew qanah meaning to acquire, to gain, to possess (c.f. Cain)
The scene represents the end time wedding of the enlarged Israel that includes gentiles.
|Jesus’ mother was there||The mother is also the people, the bride (Isaiah 22)|
|2:2||and Jesus [= YHWH who Saves] and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.||The messiah is the husband of his people (Jer. 31:3)|
|2:3|| the wine was gone,
“They have no more wine.”
|The wine is the Word or Law of Yahweh (Prov. 9:5; compare Ps. 73:10 where “waters” = word of Yahweh).
The old wine thus suggests the first (Mosaic) Law.
The words of the mother of Jesus, or the old Israel, contains a recollection of the rebellion of Israel with its complaining to God of what they lacked, or rebellion against the law. This may explain Jesus’ distant response.
|2:4||“Woman”||= Eve (Genesis 2:23)|
|2:5||His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”||= the text of Genesis 41:55 — “Go to Joseph and do what he tells you.” (Jesus is the new Joseph who has come to feed his people.)
Obedience leads to a new wine, one that is much better — the new Law that replaces the old.
|2:6||Nearby stood six stone water jars||Six is the number of incompleteness: we are on the cusp of the last days.
The purification jars are filled with water (for purification of the Jews) but wine replaces mere water of purification
|2:8||Then he told them, “Now draw some out”||The messiah brings new wine: Joel 3:18; Isaiah 25:6; Hosea 14:7|
Keep in mind that NC is not merely saying that gospel characters are symbolic. The point is much richer than that. The figures and actions are constructed in dialogue with (and with the use of) extracts from the Hebrew Bible. This is their midrashic nature.
NC shares an idea from his own case for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew being a form of Jewish midrash on the Old Testament) in which the gospels have engaged with a rabbinical view of their time that Moses was born of a virgin. Again, we find the clues in the later writings of the Talmud and suspect the claim that they represented very early traditions may have some factual basis.(who has set out
Exodus 2:1-2 (NKJV)
And a man of the house of Levi went and took as wife a daughter of Levi. So the woman conceived and bore a son. And when she saw that he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months.
In the Babylonian Talmud’s Sotah 12a we read that Amram and Jochebad, the parents-to-be of Moses, divorced when learning of Pharaoh’s decree that all male children of Hebrew marriages would be killed. Their daughter Miriam, however, advised Amram that he had been wrong to put her away and to take her back and remarry her.
At this time Jochebad was 130 years old. In several ways Jochebad was seen to represent the entire body of Israel. Though conceived outside Egypt she was born to Levi in Egypt, so her life had spanned the entire time of Israel in Egypt, and her actions were reported to and followed by all of Israel. Just as Egypt, a representative of the pagan nations, carried within its own womb the hope of her salvation, that is Israel, so Jochebad, bore in her womb the future liberator of Israel. The fact that she was taken back by her husband who had decided not to have any more relations with her is interpreted by the Jewish tradition as the symbolization of the renewal of the community.
Now when Jochebad was restored to Amram God performed a remarkable miracle. He changed her back to a young maiden, a virgin even. Continue reading “Symbolic Characters #3: Mary, Personification of the Jewish People, “Re-Virgined””
Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .
Maybe I’m just naturally resistant to new ideas but I found myself having some difficulty with Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] opening stage of her discussion about John the Baptist. (Recall we have been looking at plausibility of gospel figures being personifications of certain groups, with Jesus himself symbolizing a new Israel.) NC begins with an extract from Maximus of Turin’s interpretation: by cross-referencing to Paul’s statements that the “head of a man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3) Maximus concluded that the decapitation of John the Baptist represented Christ being cut off from the adherents to the Law, the Jews. Without the head they were a lifeless corpse.
We may not like that interpretation but at least Maximus recognized something symbolic about John the Baptist. As NC reminds us, he was the one who greets the messiah from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41), the one who asks questions designed to recognize Jesus, the one who acts out Elijah’s confrontation with the lawless Jezebel and king Ahab. Even if we accept the entry about John the Baptist in Josephus as genuine and acknowledge that there was a historical “John the Baptist”, this person is depicted in symbolic roles in the gospels.
NC has more to say but permit me to give my own view, or perhaps a mix of my own with NC’s. John the Baptist is presented initially in the physical image of the arch-prophet, Elijah, and is calling upon all Israel to repent and prepare for the messiah. They all come out into the wilderness to do so. In Luke’s gospel when different groups (soldiers, tax collectors and others) ask John what they should do John replies with the fundamental spiritual intent of the law in each case: be merciful. Surely this is all symbolic of the Law and Prophets being the articles of the covenant made between Israel and God in the wilderness, and just as the early Christians found Jesus predicted in the prophets so John, the final prophet, points them to Jesus the messiah. Later we find the same prophet asking Jesus if he is the one, with Jesus replying with signs as recorded in the Prophets to assure him. John, meanwhile (as NC herself notes as significant), is martyred just as many other prophets before him, and just as Jesus himself will be. The tale is surely told as symbolism and the character John as a literary personification. Jesus emerges from the Prophets. It is the Prophets who all point towards Jesus Christ.
So when John says he is not worthy to baptize Jesus, he is saying that Jesus is greater than the Law and Prophets. Jesus, however, replies that he has come to submit to the Law and Prophets. His baptism represents the emerging in his full spiritual reality the new Israel, the one prophesied in the prophets. This is not the baptism described in Josephus. It is a baptism of repentance, of preparation for the Christ.
The absence of biographical or other historical information is telling. We only have details that call out for symbolic interpretation. The reason each evangelist can modify the narrative is not because they were working with historical data but entirely in their own imaginative interpretation of the way the Prophets pointed readers to Christ.
The famous Gregory who became the Pope in the sixth/seventh century identified a possible symbolic meaning of the Gospel of John’s account of John and Peter running to the empty tomb. Quoted by NC, Gregory sought a meaning in John arriving first at the tomb but not entering, with Peter coming later yet being the first to enter. John was interpreted as the Synagogue, the Jews, who had “come first” to Christ, but failed to “enter”. Peter, representing the gentiles, arrived later but was the first to believe. [See Gregory the Great Homily 22 on the Gospels; see also comments below for further discussion]
The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed . . . (John 20:4-8)
Interesting possibility. But if the “beloved disciple” is rather meant to be an unfalsifiable witness (and he, not Peter, is said to be the one who believed), it is hard to identify the same with the “Jews of the synagogue”. On the other hand, given what we know of Peter as the apostle to the gentiles, the one who stands between Jews and gentiles (hence his “double-minded” reputation?) something along the lines of Gregory’s interpretation does have some appeal.
Other points to consider, as per NC: John (meaning God is gracious) does have a sound similarity to Jonah, another representative of Jews in the old story. (Then we also have Peter being identified in the Gospels of Matthew and John with the son of Jonah.) NC promises to return to Peter in the last chapter. I will be patient.
Again, we have details that are not typically found in biographies. Recall the same point (especially with respect to the Gospel of John) in How the Gospels Became History. Such details appear pointless in themselves; they scream out for symbolic interpretation — and many ministers and preachers have understood this point well enough to prepare many sermons drawing out various meanings for their congregations.
This one is easier. The twelve patriarchs in Genesis are treated as symbolic representatives of the tribes that bore their names. I think many of us have seen in the Twelve Disciples a new founding group of the “new Israel”.
NC sees three principles underlying any interpretation of the Twelve. Continue reading “The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples”
Where did the gospel characters come from?
Nanine Charbonnel [NC] presents a case for the parabolic or symbolic character of the gospels. In the second chapter of the second part of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier, we see how narrative figures who appear as historical persons are best explained as symbols of collective groups. We have seen how in the Jewish Scriptures individuals in a story represent nations: e.g. In Hosea the person Israel stands for the whole of Israel; Abraham and Sarah being expelled from Egypt prefigure the Exodus, and many other cases can be cited.) Here are NC’s thoughts on some Gospel figures.
This couple represents the Jews of the Temple.
Zechariah (=YHWH remembers). In the Protoevangelium of James (or Infancy Gospel of James) Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is slain by Herod for refusing to reveal where his son John was hidden. In the Jewish Bible the same name is martyred by the king Joash. Joash had been hidden safe from the murderous Athaliah by the father of Zechariah, the priest Jehoiada, but forgot his kindness and had his son Zechariah stoned (2 Chronicles 24:17-22).
Elizabeth is said to be descended from Aaron in Luke 1:5.
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.
These sisters are drawn from Naomi and Ruth in the Book of Ruth. They represent the Jews and the gentile converts. The gentiles preceded the Jews.
Since the Middle Ages much there has been much discussion about how their roles act out the superiority of the contemplative over the active life. But that meaning was far from the mind their original creator, says NC.
Naomi is called Mara:
“Call me not Naomi [that is, Pleasant]. Call me Mara [that is, Bitter], for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. (Ruth 1:20)
She came from Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1-2).
The fourth evangelist changed Naomi-Mara of Bethlehem to Mary of Bethany (=house of affliction (or figs)).
Martha is Ruth of Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22) with the prefix mem (מ) (préfixe qui sert à faire des noms, = prefix used to make names, NC 228) added to RWTH (rūt – ר֖וּת) to make MaRWTH — which becomes Martha in Greek. So Ruth of Bethlehem becomes Martha of Bethany.
Jesus gently chides Martha for her busyness and commend Mary for having chosen the appropriate response to his presence. Martha is eclipsed by Mary just as the Mosaic covenant with its preoccupation with works of the law is eclipsed by the way of “a good heart and prayer”. This is how it was with Naomi and Ruth.
The two women divide their tasks. After years in Moab Naomi-Mara hears that there is bread to be found in Bethlehem (=house of bread) so she rises and returns. Once back home there, she sits in the house while Ruth gleans for bread. Finally, she sits Ruth down to find her a husband. The author of the Gospel of Luke has transferred these attitudes to “anyone who agrees to listen to the story of Israel”. Mary-Mara is sitting down because one day earlier she got up and one day again she will get up. Martha-Ruth is busy with food because one day (a different time) she sat down to listen to the Torah and another day she will be seated to listen to it again. Mary and Martha, like Naomi and Ruth, are living out the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, the gift of the Torah, the permanent gift of the Word . . . .
(More paraphrase than translation of Marie Vidal, Jesus and Virounèka, 2000, p. 168, quoted in NC 228f. The link is to an Amazon page with a description of the book. Use Google Translate to convert it to English.)
Other Vridar posts discussing the gospels as parables:
And Tim Widowfield’s post on the same theme in the Gospel of John:
Continuing the series . . .
Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] last pages of her chapter on the meaning of “fulfilment” in the gospels dovetail with John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable and Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus (links are to Vridar posts discussing these works) – and with any other writing that has argued that the Gospels are parables.
We know that Jesus was famous for speaking in parables but NC (like “Jesus historicist” Crossan and “Jesus mythicist” Brodie) goes further and suggests that the gospel stories about Jesus and all that he did are written as parables.
In what follows I attempt to convey some rough sketch of NC’s thesis. We will see that she delves into deeper technical reasons for reading the gospels as “parables”.
That the character of Jesus himself is a parable is most clearly seen in the Gospel of John where we read, explicitly, that Jesus is “the word”, that his appearance in flesh is a visible form of “the word”. In this gospel it is accordingly easier to grasp that “biographical” episodes of Jesus, such as his encounter with the sisters Martha and Mary, are parables whose meaning is not hidden very far beneath their surfaces. The acts of Jesus are dramatizations of the word.
There are places in the gospels where an implied narrator informs readers that a specific thing happened as a fulfilment of an “Old Testament” prophecy. Matthew 2 contains the most memorable instances:
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
. . .
23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
NC writes that these explicit pointers are there to highlight for the reader the rule of the game. The fulfilment applies to the whole narrative. Parables in the mouth of Jesus ought not lead the reader to think that the gospel narrative itself is a parable. The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as told in Luke 4 announces the fulfilment of a text that served as a major inspiration for the author of the gospel’s larger narrative:
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The immediate narrative meaning is that Jesus is announcing that his presence before the Nazareth congregation is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The reader knows, however, that what is being fulfilled is the entire life and death of Jesus as fleshed out through the entire gospel.
If in Luke we read Jesus’ opening words declaring that he is fulfilling the scriptures, in the Gospel of John chapter 19 we read Jesus’ last words declaring that he has fulfilled them all.
28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.”
The Greek words are different but the meaning is the same:
Luke 4:21 — πεπλήρωται / peplērōtai (is fulfilled)
John 19:30 — τετέλεσται / tetelestai (it is finished/accomplished)
To take a closer look at those two words: Continue reading “Gospel Parables and the “Birth” of the Messiah as a Personification of Israel”
Continuing from the previous post, discussing Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . .
I stopped short in my last blog post when I came to NC’s comparison of the gospels with the OT books of Esther and Ruth. I complete that little section here.
The gospels are about “the end times”, as we saw. But they obviously do not employ the “end times” style of apocalyptic literature. If they have any models they are more like Esther and Ruth — two books that NC associates with “midrash”, with the “perfect illusion of historicity”. The words of Maurice Mergui in Paul à Patras are quoted. To get some helpful context I translate/paraphrase somewhat more than NC uses:
We have been examining the hypothesis of midrash. According to this hypothesis, the Gospels (including the Johannine and Pauline corpora) are midrashic elaborations that yield no basis for any historical content. This hypothesis comes up against a frequent objection. Jewish midrash usually looks like a quotation of biblical text linked to commentary. The gospels obviously do not have this form. They are narratives that look very much like historical accounts. Paul’s letters certainly have no equivalent in Jewish midrash. Therefore, the objection goes, the midrashic theory for this NT literature should be rejected.
The first objection (that midrash is inconsistent with narrative forms) falls apart when we notice that midrash does indeed know how to create forms very like narratives while giving a perfect illusion of historicity. Two examples are the books of Ruth and Esther which are “real marvels” of this register. . . .
Look at what the redactor of Esther does. He goes through the eschatological cycle. He finds a new way of relating the coming of the messiah at the climax of a crisis. This story must be told over and over in different ways so as not to let the messianic idea be lost, become empty and disappear. The story of Esther confronts readers with their own reality of the absence of God and messiah (God does not even appear in the story), of a life of exile, suffering and violence, a the real possibility of losing all messianic hope. The same story idea — the rescue at the moment of peak threat — is told anew. The story speaks of exile, of conspiracy against the Jews, the impossibility of approaching the king, the pagan festival — the story is one of “ultimate test”. Similarly with Ruth, we read again: famine, exile, union with pagans, impossibility of having a son (a messiah) — but then miraculously at the end we find the appearance or light of the messiah. In these narratives we find the messiah making his rescue at the moment of extreme tribulation.
NC’s point in citing Mergui is to stress the capacity of midrash to create a narrative illusion of being fully immersed in real events.
I think that the messianic references seen in the OT stories are overstated. The theme of Esther is surely the victory of God in the last days as he rescues his people from the brink of extinction. Messiahs sometimes appear in such narratives, perhaps, especially in the extracanonical ones, but they are optional to the central theme. Sometimes the central figure is a “Servant”, or a “Son of Man”, and sometimes these figures will evolve into or be conflated with a messianic figure. Some of us might even wonder if there is room for a new term to describe the type of “midrash” Mergui and NC speak of. But these are peripheral issues to the central arguments.
Careful readers would have noticed Mergui’s reference to the letters of Paul in the same discussion. Thomas Brodie, I think, would be most interested in Mergui’s discussion of Paul. Brodie and Mergui deny the historicity of the “Paul” behind the letters. The Paul we implicit in the correspondence is a literary persona. Mergui compares him with Moses and sees several recurrent themes in the letters to support this “midrashic” interpretation. But again, that’s another story. I’ll try to keep working on NC’s book for now.
Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs.
Mergui, Maurice. 2015. Paul à Patras: Une approche midrashique du paulinisme. Objectif Transmission. Kindle Edition.
An earlier post in this series, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3b. Creative Intertextuality, briefly touched on the ways stories in the Pentateuch came to be rewritten so that one mirrored another: e.g. Abraham and Sarah’s experience in Egypt and being expelled under duress pairs with the subsequent Exodus narrative. Deuteronomy itself is a rewriting of the earlier books of the Pentateuch. We read stories as “fulfillments” of other stories; scenario types are written as a kind of commentary on other stories, or as indicative of a deeper meaning of other stories. We see narrative “typology” within the works of the Hebrew Bible so when we find the New Testament narratives similarly drawing events and persons of the Jewish Scriptures we must understand that we are witnessing a continuation of a literary practice that was centuries old. And just as Deuteronomy was a certain kind of rewriting of the previous books so the Acts of the Apostles may have a similar function with respect to the preceding canonical gospels.
But Charbonnel goes further yet. The Incarnation itself was a literary product of the way the Hebrew language conceptualizes temporality.
When reading this section of Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier I was reminded of my first lecture in French 101 at university. “If there is one lesson I want you to take away from this course, it is to understand that other people think differently” — those were the first words of the professor in that classroom and I can hear his voice still. The same lesson certainly applies to biblical Hebrew and time.
The general idea being argued is that stories (a kind of midrash) were written as if taking place in the past yet in the minds of the original storytellers and audiences they were “outside time”, “ever-present” — both future and also past but always present. (Compare the brief discussion of Hebrew “tenses” in the previous post.)
In the OT Prophetic writings the expression for “in those days” was essentially a pointer to messianic time and not a literal historical (or specific future historical time) marker. When the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke begins “in those days” it is a signal that we are reading of the messianic time spoken of in the prophets. It is not, despite our natural English translation reading and context, primarily pointing to the historical time of Augustus and Herod. To help us see what is going on here, compare the Protoevangium of James. We read there an elaboration of the nativity scenes in Matthew and Luke. The elaboration of those canonical stories fills in gaps and ties up loose ends that are left with us from the bare canonical accounts. Those “fillers” are taken from other narratives in the Jewish Scriptures, especially 1 Samuel. We read about the birth of Mary in circumstances that recall the births of Samuel and Isaac. Then we read of the childhood of Mary and her giving birth to Jesus in scenes that involve midwives and Salome and a new setting, a cave. We are reading a retelling of the canonical narratives with ideas from both the Scriptures and other interpretations presumably discussed among the author’s contemporaries. The new story is not historical. It is an interpretation constructed from attempts to answer questions about the canonical stories by weaving in new ideas from Scriptures and elsewhere. The story is about “the coming of Christ”.
When we ask whether the events of biblical narrative have actually happened, we raise a question that can hardly be satisfactorily answered. The question itself guarantees that the Bible will be misunderstood. One of the central contrasts that divide the understanding of the past that we find implied in biblical texts from a modern understanding of history lies in the way we think about reality.
. . .
Chronology in this kind of history is not used as a measure of change. It links events and persons, makes associations, establishes continuity. It expresses an unbroken chain from the past to the present. This is not a linear as much as it is a coherent sense of time. It functions so as to identify and legitimize what is otherwise ephemeral and transient. Time marks a reiteration of reality through its many forms. Nor is ancient chronology based on a sense of circular time, in the sense of a return to an original reality. The first instance of an event is there only to mark the pattern of reiteration. It is irrelevant whether a given event is earlier or later than another. Both exist as mirrored expressions of a transcendent reality. Closely linked with this ancient perception of time is the philosophical idea we find captured in the Book of Ecclesiastes (1: 9-11):
There is nothing new under the sun. If we can say of anything: that it is new, it has been seen already long since. This event of the past is not remembered. Nor will the future events, which will happen again be remembered by those who follow us.
When God created the world, he created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. All of history is already included in the creation. This is also what lies behind the idea of ‘fate’, which, as a classic premiss of Greek tragedy, reflects the human struggle against destiny. The only appropriate response is acceptance and understanding.
We discuss here the second of three parts of the chapter about "scriptural fulfillments" in Nanine Charbonnel's Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . .
. . .
The Jewish Scriptures spoke of times that were supposed to be fulfilled in coming days and in the text of the New Testament we read of those events having been fulfilled.
What is going on here? Nanine Charbonnel (NC) picks up from her earlier discussion of “midrash” and other specifically Hebrew techniques [the links below take you to posts where that earlier discussion was presented here] and begins to show how they apply to the creation of Jesus in the gospels.
Readers of the Jewish Scriptures were confronted with passages such as Isaiah 55:11
. . . my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
There is a point of Hebrew grammar here that needs some explanation because it is quite unlike anything in English.
Our verbs have tenses, most simply, past, present and future. Hebrew verbs don’t, well not quite. Instead, they express either completed and incomplete actions, perfect and imperfect. The perfect form or completed action can be translated as the past tense: e.g. I said, I have said, etc.; the imperfect or incomplete action can be translated as either the present or future tense: e.g. I shall say, I am saying, etc.
But there’s a catch. The little consonant, waw = ו (meaning “and”), just to make it interesting, can be added to either of these Hebrew “tenses” and reverse them! So a ו added to a perfect verb (I said) turns it into a present or future tense; and a ו added to an imperfect (future tense) turns it into a past or perfect tense.
Such is my no doubt very simplistic and overly simplistic explanation of the little I have read about Hebrew and what I gleaned from NC’s discussion of that particular point.
The point is that Hebrew expressions can be ambivalent about when, or the time, they are supposed to refer to. Many of us are aware, for example, of how a passage translated in the past tense in the Bible is understood by the reader to refer to a future event.
I better stop here before I get myself in over my head. It’s a long time since I’ve attempted to learn any basic Hebrew. But I am reasonably confident that the above is more or less how Hebrew works and what NC is addressing.
And Jeremiah 1:12
Then the Lord said to me, “You have seen well, for I am ready to perform My word.”
Then Jeremiah 33:
14 ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘that I will perform that good thing which I have promised to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah:
15 ‘In those days and at that time
I will cause to grow up to David
A Branch of righteousness;
He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.
16 In those days Judah will be saved,
And Jerusalem will dwell safely.
And this is the name by which she will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.’
That “I will perform” is an instance of that waw at work: וַהֲקִֽמֹתִי֙ — so the past or perfect tense (have performed) is transformed into a present or future tense (will perform).
The Church Fathers were aware of this linguistic aspect of the Hebrew. Irenaeus explains it in his Discourse in Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, para 67:
At this point let us speak of His healings. Isaiah says thus:
He took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses: (Isa. liii. 4)
that is to say, He shall take, and shall bear. For there are passages in which the Spirit of God through the prophets recounts things that are to be as having taken place. For that which with God is essayed and conceived of as determined to take place, is reckoned as having already taken place: and the Spirit, regarding and seeing the time in which the issues of the prophecy are fulfilled, utters the words (accordingly).
NC stresses the importance of “the intensity of eschatological anticipation” in Israel from the time of their Babylonian exile and especially through to the time of Daniel and no doubt at the time of the Roman conquest and plundering of the Jerusalem temple in 63 BCE. The great sociologist Max Weber’s testimony is brought in to emphasize the point.
Peculiar for the Israelite expectation is the increasing intensity with which paradise, or the savior prince, were projected into the future: the first out of the past, the last out of the present. This did not happen in Israel alone, but this expectancy has never become central to religious faith with such obviously ever-increasing momentum. Yahwe’s old berith with Israel, his promise in conjunction with the criticism of the miserable present made this possible. But only the momentum of prophecy made Israel to this unique degree a people of “hope” and “tarrying” (Gen. 49: 18).
This messianic hope in the life of Israel was “messianic”. An ideal figure, an “anointed” one, was “typically Jewish”, we might say. What made the Messiah or Christ figure of Christianity so different was that this figure was to be preached to the entire world, to all nations; he transcended “the Jewish people”. Jesus will be the “anointed” (=”messiah”, “christ”) for all of humanity, not just the Jews. This is the message of “Third Isaiah” — Isaiah 56-66.
For the sake of a refresher here are some passages from those chapters (though not quoted by NC here): Continue reading “How the Gospels Became History”
Continuing with Nanine Charbonnel's Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . .
. . .
We are not talking about a violent revolution but a revolution in the way the Jewish Scriptures were read, the one that launched Christianity itself, or at least Christianity as we know it to be grounded in belief in the four gospels.
Nanie Charbonnel (NC) begins the nitty-gritty of her discussion with this question of hermeneutics. The Jewish Scriptures came to be read as foreshadowings of what was to be fulfilled as reality in Christianity. (This is to be distinguished from the sort of allegorical reading Philo practised. For Christians it was important to begin with the understanding that the OT spoke of historical reality that was rather like a shadow-acting out of what was to come.) There were three types of fulfilment all bound up together:
1. The promises, the prophets, the psalms, in the OT were read as having been fulfilled in the last days which were “here and now” — the “old” Israel was replaced by a “new” and “true” Israel;
2. History itself was at an end, being completed in the “here and now” of the days of the advent of God’s works through the introduction of “Christianity”;
3. The true moral meaning of the Scriptures was found in Christian interpretation: the “old” Jewish reading of the Scriptures was barren, literal, legalistic, dominated by a God of wrath; the “new” Christian reading was life, spiritual, faith, introducing a God of love.
And all of these fulfillments culminated in Jesus.
Our “Christian tradition” has misunderstood the original meaning of this fulfilment with respect to ethics. Often we have heard and read about how Christianity introduced a “spiritual” and higher ethic than was found in the OT, so different that the advent of Christianity can be seen as the marker of a new evolutionary phase for humanity. Notice, for example, the way the word “τέλειος” has been translated in Jesus’ instruction to the rich man who wanted eternal life.
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
But the word more strictly means “fulfilled”, “completed”, “accomplished”. The idea is not that Jesus was teaching a hitherto unknown level of perfection, but that he was teaching fulfilment of an ideal, a hope.
The Prophets longed for a time when God’s rule would bring about mercy, justice, healing. The Beatitudes we read from the mouth of Jesus were not a new teaching per se but rather a fulfilment of what was once expressed as a longed-for hope. Recall Isaiah 61:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
3 To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness . . .
The “superior ethic” is in fact a proclamation of eschatology. The prophecy, the hope of the old, has been fulfilled.
We know of different ways Jews have sought to find meanings in the Scriptures by exploring and “discovering” various nuances of meaning, but when we come to early Christian interpretations of the Scriptures we have changed tracks and tended to assume that the first Christian exegetes were beginning with historical events and looking for explanations of those events in the Scriptures. The Jesuit priest Xavier Leon-Dufour, sums up this viewpoint:
Some points are accepted by all. Long before the early Christians, Scripture was referred to as the manifestation of the word of God; but we did it differently. [Other than the targumim,] sometimes we wanted to comment on the text of the Scripture to make it more alive and more assimilable: the inquiries of the rabbis ended in the midrashim. Still earlier it was declared that such a prophecy, for example that of Habakkuk, announced in its own way the events experienced by contemporaries: we know the Qumran pesher. In all these cases we therefore sought to actualize the divine Word. The first Christians did not do otherwise: for them too, the key to interpreting the events they had just experienced was found in the Holy Scriptures. . . .
Something, however, radically differentiates their practice from Jewish exegesis. What is first for Christians is not the scriptural text, but the event. If they use Scripture, it is not to comment on it according to their time; it is to better understand the events experienced by them.
(From Preface to C.H. Dodd’s French edition of According to the Scriptures, NC: 155)
The Christian approach has been to begin with the historical reality of events addressed in their gospels and to then turn to read the Jewish Scriptures as “proofs” of the divine will and acts behind those events. The irony, NC asserts, is that those events were originally created from texts that had been written (in Hebrew) as Jewish midrash or pesher.
The original church or Christians did not see themselves as some sort of substitute for Judaism; they saw themselves as a fulfilment of Israel according to God’s plan. That is how the assembly in Jerusalem at Pentecost in the opening of Acts is presented.
The New Testament is nothing more than an expression of the belief that the promises of the OT are fulfilled. The New Covenant is essentially the book of Deuteronomy, for instance, with the only difference being that what was promised in Deuteronomy is fulfilled in the NT. Jesus himself is the New Israel, the new people of God, fulfilling the law perfectly. Even his conquering of death is part of this fulfilment since this, too, was part of the hope of Israel.
The “good news” that Jesus preaches is that he himself is the “good news”. He is the kingdom brought near to all. Many readers today, including scholars, have drawn the same interpretation of Jesus’ message, but that’s where they have stopped. They have failed to go on to the next step that should follow from that point: that Jesus himself is a figure created to express that idea. The Jesus figure is created from the promises of the OT as a fulfilment of the OT. He is not a real figure to whom followers sought to attach descriptive scriptures.
What we need to examine are the hermeneutic practices in the Jewish Bible and how it came about that those techniques became confused with “prophecies” that found fulfilment in historical reality.
Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International.
This post follows on from A Midrashic Hypothesis for the Gospels . We are going through Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier by Nanine Charbonnel. All posts so far are archived at Charbonnel: Jesus Christ sublime figure de papier.
Nanine Charbonnel [NC] at this point begins to study how the fictive figure of Jesus in the gospels was created. A footnote refers any readers who trust “historical testimony” as establishing the historicity of Jesus to read either pages 37-55 of the third edition (1967) of Guy Fau’s La Fable de Jésus-Christ or Nicolas Bourgeois’ Une invention nommée Jésus (2008). Comparable works in English would be G. A. Wells’ Did Jesus Exist?, Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle or Jesus Neither God Nor Man and Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus for their discussions of Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius and others.
NC’s thesis is that the gospels are a type of literature quite unlike anything else most of us have experienced. Old Testament passages are recycled in a way that presents them as predictors of the person and life of Jesus. The proof of this creative process is that every act, attitude, sentiment attributed to Jesus is found in the Jewish Scriptures, that these Scriptures were the raw material from which the authors worked. NC includes forty-four pages of two columns listing Gospel references and their proposed OT sources.
Compare David Strauss’s account of how the evangelists stitched together the scene of Jesus’ forty days of testing in the wilderness. It is evident that the gospel scene is a reworking of Moses’ and Elijah’s forty-day fasts and Israel’s testing for 40 years in the wilderness. NC differs from Strauss’s analysis by suggesting that not only a few scenes but the entire contents of the gospels are shaped from the OT material.
Quant aux doctrines, il faut bien différencier, quand on parle du ‘’christianisme”, ce qui est lisible dans les textes du Nouveau Testament, de la construction théologique qui leur est peut-être concomitante, mais dont on n’a des échos qu’à partir de 150, avec Justin de Naplouse. Tout ce qui est affirmé dans les Évangiles est lié à des problématiques du judaïsme, que l’on connaît par des traditions mises par écrit également à partir du II siècle2; même si l’élaboration doctrinale chrétienne, elle, va se faire par définition dans ce que nous appelons un *Régime sémantique différent : la prise-au- propre de ce qui devait être pris comme invention textuelle.
2 Dans la *Mishna, partie du Talmud. (p. 134)
As for the doctrines — I cannot be sure I fully grasp the complete sense of the paragraph in the side box. Perhaps a kind reader who has a better grasp of French than I do can help us out here.
As for the dates of the text — we cannot be sure. Many interpreters look for certain crises in the first century to see if they are referenced in the gospels. Example, Pierre Bonnard in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (13:21) believes that the persecutions “because of the word” that Jesus speaks of are in fact Domitian’s persecutions of Christians. However, the gospel could be just as easily have in mind the harsh treatment of the Jews by the Romans. The evangelists are writing about “end times” and the generalized language they use can be applied to many situations — and they have been applied to subsequent events for millennia. What we are reading is not a new message by a Christian Christ figure but rather we have a person named “Yahweh Who Saves” delivering the teaching of Yahweh. Rather than seeing debates that were part of the multi-faceted Judaism of the time, including attempts to make sense of the calamity of 70 CE.
The kind of “midrashic” writing being examined here has been long known among Christian commentators and scholars, in particular among Catholics and French research. But the conclusions drawn are usually limited to the notion that OT references are little more than colouring of historical events.
Très frappant est le fait que l’existence des midrashim est connue depuis quarante ans chez les commentateurs chrétiens (plus exactement : catholiques, car on est étonné de la qualité de l’équipement intellectuel des (quelques) spécialistes protestants, professeurs d’université allemands, dès la fin du xviiie siècle), mais qu’ils y voient une influence superficielle permettant de saisir de simples mises en forme de la réalité historique. Parfois cependant (nous écrivons ceci en 2016), c’est dans la recherche francophone, au sein même de milieux catholiques, que se lisent les recherches les plus fécondes. (p. 135. I would rather another offer a more exact translation this passage than I think I would be able to provide.)
NC speaks of a “glass ceiling” that seems to prevent scholars from seeing that a passage rich in OT intertextuality is actually created entirely from the author’s imagination working on those OT passages. (Again, she reminds readers that she is not attacking the church or Christianity, that she sees herself as culturally Christian, and is only interested in uncovering the truth of where the evidence leads.
Bernard Dubourg (1945-1992) paved the way with his pioneering work exploring the depth of the role of gematria in L’invention de Jésus, volume 1 titled L’Hébreu du Nouveau Testament, and volume 2, La fabrication du Nouveau Testament [Links are to the full text available at archive.org]. His work has been taken up and developed by the Hebrew scholar Maurice Mergui, though Mergui has apparently preferred to move away from placing so much emphasis on gematria. [Mergui’s webpage: Le Champ du Midrash]. Mergui’s ten principles for interpreting the New Testament (translation is Google’s with my refinements): Continue reading “How Jewish Gospels Became Christian Gospels”
. . . o . . .
At the heart of Nanine Charbonnel’s thesis lies the question of how much we read in the gospels was written in a figurative sense and how much literal. Arthur Schopenhauer famously declared that all religious truth is expressed allegorically or mythically. But then the question becomes how such a beast can be controlled and not leave us pondering all sorts of fancies. And what devils arise if we know we are reading allegory and conclude that it is therefore not true! To bypass such anarchy Charbonnel determines to explore the precise mechanisms that have gone into the production of the gospels.
We have referred earlier to the nineteenth critical author David Friedrich Strauss. Strauss declared many episodes in the gospels to be myths but what he meant by that was a narrative constructed around an Old Testament precedent. Strauss recognized the OT origins of the infant Jesus having to flee tyrants (Pharaoh and Moses), the star of Bethlehem (the star of Balaam’s prophecy), the magi visiting Jesus (the magi of Isaiah and gifts of Psalm 72), Jesus’ multiplications of the loaves (the manna in the desert and Elisha’s 20 loaves), the water into wine (Moses converting the brackish water into pure), the transfiguration of Jesus (Moses and Elijah with YHWH on the mountain), and so forth.
Where Strauss most notably failed was in his belief that Judaism does not allow for any notion of a suffering Messiah. He failed, therefore, to see that the most central event of the gospels was likewise a “mythical” adaptation of the OT. The significance of this viewpoint is that Strauss recognized that the author of the Jesus story was not starting from a “historical event” but from a theme, an idea. He wrote, for example, how the idea of a literal Messianic “son of God” grew out of texts like Psalm 2:7 (“Thou are my son, this day have I begotten thee”) and the prophecy in Isaiah for a child to be born to a “virgin” (Life of Jesus Critically Examined, I. ch.3, §29).
Central to Charbonnel’s thesis is an understanding of different types of symbolic writing. Ernest Renan captures the most common view of the gospels as being quite unlike any form of allegory or symbolism:
That our Gospel is dogmatic I recognise, but it is by no means allegorical. The really allegorical writings of the first centuries, the Apocalypse, the Pastor of Hermas, the Pista Sophia, possess quite a different charm. (Renan, Life of Jesus, Appendix)
For Charbonnel the symbolism of the gospels is also striking even though quite unlike that of texts we typically think of as symbolic. Rabbinic writings contain another form of figurative tales that are typically called midrashic. But for Charbonnel there is another type of midrashic literature not found in those later Jewish texts.
Look at the Shepherd of Hermas, for example. Much of the text is clearly symbolic with characters personifying the church, virtues, etc. However, at other times it relates scenes that could well pass as realistic story even though we know they should be interpreted allegorically. Charbonnel raises the suggestion that our canonical gospels and the canonical Book of Revelation might be two sides, an obverse and reverse, of a symbolic form of narrative.
Similarly with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many are written as pseudepigraphs, in the names of the patriarchs, or of the prophets. They appear to be a new type of literature at variance from what we are familiar with in the Old Testament collection. The scrolls indicate the presence of a particular community and a leader, the Teacher of Righteousness. Many assume both of these to be a literal group and a historical leader. Yet we have no way of proving either thought. As the “community” in the scrolls in fact an ideal community, a “new Israel”? (Charbonnel does not make the specific connection with Philip Davies but the same possibility can be seen underlying some of his discussion of the meaning of “Israel” — see What do we mean by Israel?) Are we reading a literary creation of a visionary utopia rather than a historical account of an actual group of persons?
So far I have used the term “midrashic”. Charbonnel speaks of “midrash”. We have come across considerable controversy in some quarters of the meaning of this term so let’s settle what we mean, exactly, in this series, or in Nanine Charbonnel’s text. Charbonnel draws upon the definition set forth by the Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin. I quote from the relevant section of The Jewish Gospels:
Although a whole library could [and has been) written on midrash, for the present purposes it will be sufficient to define it as a mode of biblical reading that brings disparate passages and verses together in the elaboration of new narratives. It is something like the old game of anagrams in which the players look at words or texts and seek to form new words and texts out of the letters that are there. The rabbis who produced the midrashic way of reading considered the Bible one enormous signifying system, any part of which could be taken as commenting on or supplementing any other part. They were thus able to make new stories out of fragments of older ones [from the Bible itself), via a kind of anagrams writ large; the new stories, which build closely on the biblical narratives but expand and modify them as well, were considered the equals of the biblical stories themselves. (Boyarin, p. 76)
Such a definition is broad. The later rabbinic midrash can be made to fit a narrower definition. In this discussion, however, we are looking at a form of Jewish literature that preceded those rabbinic texts.
So in this context what can be said about the Gospels? Continue reading “A Midrashic Hypothesis for the Gospels”