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)”
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.
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.
I cannot prove that the gospel narratives are deliberately set in the time of Pilate so that the death of Jesus occurs a generation of forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE but I do think there are several reasons for suspecting that this setting was a conscious decision for theological reasons.
The first question that arises is this: How can we think that the gospels set the time of Jesus’ crucifixion forty years before the destruction of the Temple given that there is no explicit claim in the gospels to lead us to this conclusion?
I’ll begin by noting the existence of two implied prophetic timetables that are easily overlooked because the texts do not explicitly draw our attention to them.
Adam / Year 1
. . . .
Exodus from Egypt / Year 2666 (= two thirds point)
. . . .
Rededication of temple / Year 4000 (164 b.c.e)
One: Nowhere in the Old Testament books do we read that the Temple was to be rededicated after the Maccabean revolt 4000 years after the creation of Adam. Yet scribes appear to have edited the chronologies of the books in order to make the beginning of the new Israel in 164 CE to occur a neat 4000 years after God began his project with the creation of Adam. For some reason those editors did not feel a need to explicitly advertise the presence of this remarkable chronology but there it is. (For an explanation of this chronology which is taken from Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past see The Bible’s 4000 years from Creation to the New Israel — or if you are pressed for time there is a shorter earlier version, The Meaning of Biblical Chronology).
Two: Josephus in Antiquities indicates that he believed that the 70 weeks of the prophecy in Daniel 9 ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. (Antiquities X, 11, 7 — Beckwith, 533 ff). However, when we read in his earlier work about the Jewish War about the death of a high priest being responsible for the fall of the city, we find no explicit direction to suspect that either of these events had any connection with Daniel’s prophecy. Josephus writes about the death of a high priest without an explicit link to Daniel, but once we know from the later work what he believed about Daniel’s prophecy, then we are compelled to read the death of the high priest as the fulfilment of the prophecy of the “anointed one” who was “cut off” and whose death led to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem as the culmination of Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy. Josephus doesn’t spell out the connection for readers. He is so quiet about it that one can say “only those in the know will know” the prophetic significance (the end of Daniel’s 70 weeks) of what he has described.
. . . an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. — Daniel 9:26
“I should not be wrong in saying that the capture of the city [= 70 CE] began with the death of Ananus [= 66 CE]; and that the overthrow of the walls and the downfall of the Jewish state dated from the day on which the Jews beheld their [anointed] high priest, the captain of their salvation, butchered in the heart of Jerusalem. . . . But it was, I suppose, because God had, for its pollutions, condemned the city to destruction and desired to purge the sanctuary by fire, that he thus cut off those who clung to them with such tender affection”(War IV, v, 2, 318. 323 — Beckwith, 535 f).
So there is no rule that requires that a fulfilled prophetic time can only be validly found in a text if an author spells it out directly. Do the gospels contain inferences that their setting in the time of Pilate has been fabricated to make the Jesus event happen forty years prior to the fall of Jerusalem?
The Book of Jubilees pre-dates the gospels. In the view of a good number of scholars (although challenged by Davies and Chilton) Jubilees 17:15-18:19 associates the (“would-be”) sacrifice of Isaac with the Passover. The Jubilees passage speaks of the twelfth day as the day on which the episode of testing Abraham’s loyalty to God begins, and “the third day” after that being the time of his offering of Isaac, that is, the 15th Nisan. The objection of Davies and Chilton appears to have been refuted on the evidence of Qumran texts according to Geza Vermes:
These views [associating the Binding of Isaac with Passover as early as the second century BCE] have found general favour among scholars during the last three decades, with the exception of Philip Davies and Bruce Chilton, who set out in an article published in 1978 to substitute for them ‘a revised tradition history’. I believe that in the light of the evidence from 4Q225 their counter-argument can be finally refuted. (Vermes, 144)
The Gospels do not always draw attention to their allusions to “Old Testament” themes and motifs and for most part rely on the knowledge of readers to make the connections. So the significance of Christ enduring 40 days in the wilderness is only recognized by a reader who is familiar with the story of the generation of Israel wandering 40 years in the wilderness.
The remainder of this post is based heavily on an article that I have had in my collection for quite some years now but unfortunately the name of the author is missing from my copy. The title is Sub Pontio Pilato: The Chronological Analogue of Supercessionism? The last words are only Trondheim, November 2008, M. W. N. If any reader knows who the author is and where the article was published please do get in touch. From the article (p.2):
And yet there are indications within the NT that the time of Jesus’ entrance into public activity may have been pinpointed only after the destruction of the Second Temple, so as to reaffirm the central doctrines of Christian beliefs. Forty is, after all, a symbolic number that appears several times in the HB and NT. One could hypothesize tentatively that the number forty had symbolic significance in the gospel chronology, too. But this is not what is meant here. In Mark 8.38 the following words are attributed to Jesus: ‘For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation [έν τη γενεά ταύτη τη μοιχαλίδι και άμαρτωλφ], of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’. The designation ‘this generation’ and related phrases allude to Deuteronomy, where Moses relates how God eventually swore that not a man of ‘this evil generation’ would look upon the Promised Land (Deut. 1.35; see also Deut. 32.5, 20; Num. 14.11, 27, 35; Ps. 95.10).6 This language, according to J. N. Rhodes, is ‘an important rhetorical vehicle for evoking the history of Israel as one of disobedience and failure’.7 Since God had condemned the wilderness generation to wander in the desert for forty years, the associations inherent to the phrases, as used in the Synoptics, are strengthened by the chronological claim that Jesus made his appearance forty years before the disastrous events of 70 CE. The underlying premise seems to be that, by rejecting Jesus, the inhabitants of Jerusalem provoked God’s anger in a similar way as the wilderness generation had done in ancient times.
6 See U. Mauser, Christ in the Wilderness: The Wilderness Theme in the Second Gospel and its Basis in the Biblical Tradition (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1963). 7 J. N. Rhodes, The Epistle of Barnabas and the Deuteronomic Tradition (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 162- 163, n. 86.
All of that may be suggestive but is there more? Our unknown author makes some interesting observations about Parable of the Wicked Tenants. I highlight what I take to be the key sentence:
In Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (123; 135), Christians are said to be ‘the true Israelite race [γένος]’. This commitment to Christian supercessionism is scarcely justified by the vague argument that, in the gospels, the authority of Jesus replaces the guidance of the, Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests (cf. Matthew 5-7). However, the idea that the Church supplants the Jews is expressed more explicitly in the gospels than might be supposed at first sight. This conclusion presupposes the position that Jesus’ harsh words on ‘this generation’ would not have been intelligible in a pre-destruction context.
The parable presupposes that the destruction of Jerusalem was the result of the killing of Jesus. As a direct consequence God slew that generation and replaced them with a new people, a new Israel.
If read allegorically, the parable presupposes that the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE came as a Divine reaction to the crucifixion of Jesus. The parable may therefore be taken as an indication that early Christians adopted and expanded on an already established idea, namely, that the fall of Jerusalem came as a Divine reaction to sin. This idea, variants of which can be found in several contexts outside the NT, has a scriptural foundation in Deuteronomy, which states that disobedience to the commandments will bring war, famine, pestilence, and exile (cf. Deut. 28.15-68). Josephus, for instance, held that the fall of Jerusalem started in 68 CE, when the high priest Ananus was killed by zealots (War 4.5.2).
A Messiah to combine the different messianic visions
Nanine Charbonnel [NC] has been exploring various ways the Jesus figure of the gospels was drawn to embody certain groups of people and now proceeds to discuss the way our evangelists (gospel authors) also found ways to encapsulate the different Jewish ideas about the Messiah into him as well. I have posted many times on Second Temple messianic ideas and questioned a common view that there was “a rash of messianic hopes” in first-century Palestine. I post links to some of these posts that illustrate or expand on NC’s points.
Vridar posts on Second Temple Messiahs
Here are some tags linking to the posts. (As you can see, there is some overlap here that needs to be tidied up but this is the state of play at the moment):
NC lists different views of the messiah as listed by Armand Abécassis (En vérité je vous le dis):
the messiah would be a priest (said to be “the Sadducee” view — though I cannot vouch for all of these associations)
the messiah would be a royal heir of David (said to be “the Pharisee” view)
the messiah would be a scribe descended from Aaron (said to be an Essene view)
the messiah was related to a kind of baptist or purification movement (said to be the Boethussian view)
Among the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are found at least three different types of messiah
1. the royal messiah, the branch or offspring of David, who is accompanied by a prophetic figure who is an interpreter of the law
2. the priestly messiah, an ideal priest from the line of Aaron
In some scrolls these two messiahs appear together. They are perhaps the idealistic corrective to historical kings and priests who were considered corrupt.
3. a “Son of God” figure, “probably a unique celestial figure”, appears to be divine, without a name assigned although in other manuscripts he is given the name Melchisedech, the agent of divine judgment against evil.
André Paul (whom NC is quoting) concludes that these three messianic figures were part of Jewish thinking in the century or century and a half preceding the time of Jesus of Nazareth.
Pre-Christian Jewish thought about these three different messiahs drew upon Scriptures to flesh out what they were to accomplish. The promise Nathan made to David in 2 Samuel 7 that his throne would endure “forever”, and the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1-5 that a “branch will arise from the stump of Jesse”, and that of Isaiah 61:1 that “he will heal the wounded and revive the dead and proclaim the good news and invite the hungry to feast”, and many others, were applied to their respective messiahs.
One striking example outside the biblical texts is found in the Messianic Apocalypse of the Dead Sea Scrolls. To translate Andre Paul’s observation (quoted by NC):
We are struck by the astonishing relationship between this description of future blessings linked to the coming of the Messiah and Jesus ‘answer to John the Baptist’s question in the Gospels:’ “The blind see, the lame walk ” (Matthew 11, 5 and Luke 7, 22). […] A tradition identifiable in other writings of ancient Judaism serves as their common basis.
The gospel authors were doing what Jewish writers before them had done. They were creating their messiah by pastiching different passages from the Scriptures. The gospels were even copying or incorporating the works of earlier exegetes as we see in the example of the Messianic Apocalypse.
It is these three types of messiah that “Christianity” will unite: Mashiach-Christos, High Priest (in particular in the Epistle to the Hebrews), and Son of Man. It has long been known that in the period of Christianity’s establishment there were struggles over the titles to be given to Jesus Christ. Can we not think that far from depending on different “legends”, the Gospels are midrashim voluntarily composed with a view to celebrating an existing messiah (existing in texts) to unite these divergent expectations? Those who call themselves the disciples of Jesus will make him at the same time the prophet, the priest and the king “thus cumulating all the functions of society and guaranteeing them” (Abécassis p. 290), aided in this by traditions already anchored in the Jewish society of the time.
(Charbonnel, 278, my translation with Google’s help)
We further have texts that have long been known to us, those we label pseudepigrapha. Among these are the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Some of these (the Testaments of Levi and Judah) speak of messianic variants: see TLevi ch2 and TJudah ch4.
NC next turns to biblical scholars questing for the historical Jesus and the significance they attach to the contexts of and emphases on different messianic allusions and sayings in the gospels — all in an effort to attempt to discern what Jesus may have thought about himself vis a vis what others (contemporaries, later generations) thought about him. But the whole exercise collapses when one approaches the gospel Jesus as a literary creation woven from the many messianic threads known to Second Temple Judaism.
Both the Messiah Son of David . . . .
The view that the messiah was to be a son of David is well understood: Isaiah 9:5-6; 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 30:9; etc …; Psalms of Solomon 17:21-43) — even if the details varied somewhat in the different writings. Matthew and Luke make Jesus a genealogical descendant of David; and whereas David was anointed with oil by Samuel Jesus was anointed directly by the Holy Spirit, and so forth.
NC takes us in for a closer look at what it means to be a “Davidic” figure.
First: the name David means Beloved. At Jesus’ baptism we are to hear a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be God’s Beloved son (Matthew 3:17). (The name given for the Jesus figure in the Ascension of Isaiah is Beloved; further, see the series on Jon Levenson’s book The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. There we learn that the “Beloved son” is virtually a technical term for an only or firstborn son who is destined for sacrifice. NC does not touch on this work, however.)
That Jesus was resurrected from the dead is another “Davidic” qualification given that a “Psalm of David” was interpreted by early Christians as a prophecy that “David” would not “be abandoned to Hades” — Acts 2:22-23.
(NC does not mention in this context other Davidic features of Jesus such as his ascent to the Mount of Olives in mourning for his life; his suffering of false and cruel persecutions by his former associates and family; his role as a meditative figure. See What might a Davidic Messiah have meant to early Christians?)
One more instance of Jesus being a re-construction of the great heroes of the Old Testament that Nanine Charbonnel offers us an antitype of Joshua. There’s a catch this time, though. I think the attempt unnecessarily goes too far. At least there is no explanation to justify the claim that the narrative structure of the gospels follows that found in the Book of Joshua. Yes, Jesus begins his ministry like Joshua coming through the Jordan; yes, Jesus does offer a rest as Joshua brought Israel to the promised land; yes, a Lazarus does die in John’s gospel as Eleazar dies in the Book of Joshua. . . but these details do not make a narrative structure. To compare the delivering of the beatitudes (blessings and curses) in the Sermon on the Mount one must strain to match that up with Joshua’s pronouncements of blessings and curses on Mounts Ebal and Gerizim. And to call upon the possibility of a Hebrew text behind Mark’s account of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law to note a series of puns related to Joshua’s sun standing still won’t persuade many readers. I can understand why this possibility was mentioned, however, since a primary theme of her thesis is that the gospels were created as Jewish midrash.
If we are looking for a structure that is common to at least the three synoptic gospels we do much better to look at Thomas Brodie’s and Adam Winn’s discussions of the Elijah-Elisha cycle.
More to the point for a comparison with the good shepherd Jesus is NC’s notice of Joshua’s appointment as a shepherd of his people. Thus Numbers 27:15-18
15 Then Moses spoke to the Lord, saying: 16 “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, 17 who may go out before them and go in before them, who may lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep which have no shepherd.”
18 And the Lord said to Moses: “Take Joshua the son of Nun with you, a man in whom is the Spirit . . .
In keeping with the midrashic composition theme NC draws attention to Joshua being one to “go out” (ἐξελεύσεται in the LXX) before his people and to Matthew’s taking up the same verb (ἐξελθὼν) in 13:1
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake
But here the force of NC’s argument is lost when she says that Matthew is symbolically speaking of the end of time when the message goes to the gentiles. The only way I can see that her argument here can be salvaged is is the sea is the signifier of far-off peoples, of gentiles, as it certainly appears to be in the Gospel of Mark (Kelber’s Mark’s Story of Jesu.- link is to online copy of the book.) NC further extends the “going out” or “exodus” motif to the Gospel of John where Jesus can be said to leave his heavenly body and home to go to his physical people in a physical body.
Another possible bond between Joshua and Jesus is that Jesus professes to keep the least “jot” (yod) of the law while Joshua was faithful in transmitting the law of Moses. (There is more to discuss about the name of the saviour that is promised in a future chapter.)
Other Old Testament types can be found where Jesus is seen to transform them into “fulfilments” of higher ideals as the written words of Yahweh were believed to create fulfilments. But the most explicit figure that Jesus is made to embrace is that of the Messiah.
We’ll try to cover how Jesus embodies the Messianic figure in the next post in this series.
Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.
The gospel figure of Jesus Christ was created as a “double personification”:
he was created as a personification of a people — both the Jewish people and ultimately as a “new people of God”. Nanine Charbonnel [NC] calls this “horizontal personification”. This is why we so readily see in the Jesus character aspects of the ideal King, the Prophet, the Priest, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man, the Messiah, who as a new Adam creates in himself one new people
at the same time,
he was created as a personification of the fundamentals of the Jewish religion and its spiritual and heavenly and eternal focus — he is the embodiment of God and God’s presence with his people. As such, he embodies the Temple, the Tabernacle, the Glory and Presence, Glory (Shekinah) of God, the Word of God, the Law, the Name of God through which he saves.
The authors of the gospels were familiar with the Jewish literary technique of creating individual characters to represent collective ethnic groups. Recall, for example, the creation of the Jacob-Esau story which begins with the explanation that the two boys represent “two nations” (Gen 25:23). Recentpostshave set out NC’s illustration of this technique with lesser characters. By creating the gospel Jesus figure they were seeking to create a new person who represented both a new people of God and the God who came to dwell with them. NC details the way Jesus was drawn to embody the divine persons and entities. She calls this “vertical personification”. This post and those immediately succeeding it look at how the authors have created a “horizontal” personification of a “new man”.
The New Adam
Before the gospels were penned Christians thought of Jesus as a “new Adam”. Thus Paul in 1 Cor 15:45-49
The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. . . .
This second Adam is created in the same way the first Adam was — as a symbol or representative of mankind. Adam is a literary figure, a single character, but one with whom all of humanity are meant to identify. NC quoted from Paul Ricoeur‘s discussion of the Adam myth:
In Adam we are one and all; the mythical figure of the first man provides a focal point at the beginning of history for man’s unity-in-multiplicity. (244)
Jewish elites have addressed the idea of Adam in Genesis. NC mentions Philo as an example. Philo determined that the Adam created in God’s image was the perfect, heavenly Adam; while the Adam of dust was the corruptible Adam who needed laws to control him from his base tendencies. We will see that the heavenly Adam is also the son of God.
It is “Yahweh who saves” (the Hebrew meaning of the name Jesus) who was imagined as the “new Adam”, the embodiment of (redeemed) humanity.
Another instance not mentioned by NC, but one addressed by many scholars commenting on the Gospel of Mark, is the apparent depiction of Jesus as the New Adam cum Messianic figure in the wilderness where he is “with the wild animals”.
and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (Mark 1:13)
The gospel begins with an echo of the beginning of Genesis (“the beginning of the gospel”) and after the parting of heavens (as per the parting of the waters “at the creation of the cosmos”– Allison, New Moses 200, Thompson, Mythic Past 18 ff, Spong, Liberating the Gospels, 33 ff) and leads to Jesus being tempted by Satan, with the animals and angels, as was Adam in Genesis and Jewish writings of the Second Temple era elaborating on the Adam story. Where Adam failed in his temptation, Jesus succeeded; where Adam once had but then lost his companionship and peace with wild animals Jesus restored harmony with them; where the angels refused to serve Adam they did serve Jesus. Jewish apocrypha also said angels fed Adam for a time. Other scholars prefer to interpret the passage as a proleptic fulfilment of harmony with animals by Isaiah’s messiah; some accept both interpretations together. I will post about this interpretation of Mark 1:13 with reference to Richard Bauckham, Ulrich Mell, Joel Marcus, C.S. Mann, Francis Maloney, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington in a future post.)
Since the twelve disciples are symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus is the new Moses. The famous transfiguration scene clearly indicates that Jesus is the embodiment of the law represented by Moses and the prophets represented by Elijah. Moses was made radiant as was Jesus; both were covered with the cloud of God’s glory; both were ordained by God to be the shepherds and teachers of the twelve tribes/disciples; both perform miraculous signs; and so forth and so forth. NC copies forty points that some Catholic exegetes have seen that demonstrate Jesus as the new Moses:
NC admits that not all of the 40 points listed there are unquestionable. One that springs to notice for me is the point that Jesus left a higher royal court to join his lowly people — as Moses left Pharaoh’s court to join his people — is taken from Philippians 2:5-7; yet this detail is not found in the context of a Moses comparison. There are, nonetheless, reputable scholarly works that make the case for the Gospel of Matthew in particular deliberately building up Jesus on the Moses template. One of the more notable works is The New Moses: A Matthean Typology by Dale C. Allison Jr. I looked at one of Allison’s discussions in the post Additional Sauces for the Feedings of 5000 and 4000. NC does not mention Allison’s book so this is my addition to her discussion and what I think is a more trenchantly argued replacement than the 40 point list. Allison states in his concluding chapter,S
The Moses typology, especially strong in the infancy narrative and the [Sermon on the Mount], definitely shapes all of Matthew 1-7. It is also definitely present in the great thanksgiving of 11:25-30, in the narrative of the transfiguration (17:1-9), and in the concluding verses, 28:16-20.1 am further inclined, but with less faith, to find the typology in the feeding stories (14:13-22; 15:29-39), the entry into Jerusalem (21:1-17), and the last supper (26:17-25). But proposals concerning the missionary discourse, the requests for a sign (12:38; 16:1), the woes of chapter 23, the eschatological discourse, and the crucifixion (27:45-53) are to be rejected or entertained as nothing more than possibilities.
An interesting observation emerges from the foregoing conclusions: the passages in which Moses’ tacit presence is the strongest display an order which mirrors the Pentateuch:
Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many . . . .
Exodus 12:37-38; 15:22-26 The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. . . . Then Moses led Israel . . . He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”
Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Exodus 19:1-2, 17
On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt . . . and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain. . . .
Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.
Exodus 24:1, 4, 8-10
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. . . .
He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. . . .
Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel.
Many more Moses imitations are cited throughout Isaiah’s New Exodus by Rikki E. Watts. One of many examples in which Watts is outlining the work of another scholar,
Although at first sight Mark appears to make little use of the OT, M. D. Hooker recognises that this is largely because of his distinctive approach. Not only is the opening quotation significant, ‘his story is good news precisely because it is the fulfilment of Scripture‘, but ‘Jesus’ words and activities constantly echo OT scenes and language, until what is “written” of the Son of Man (9:12; 10:21) is finally fulfilled’ (p. 220). . . .
In the conflict over the Pharisees’ and scribes’ traditions, Mark 7:1-23 shows that while Jesus upholds the Law (vv. 1-13; cf. Nu 30:2; Dt 23:21-23) his authority is even greater than that of the Law (vv. 14-23). The same is borne out in examinations of 12:18ff and 28-34 (p. 224), and several Pentateuchal allusions (2:1-10; 2:23 – 3:6; cf. 1:44). Three other allusions recalling incidents in Moses’ life serve likewise to demonstrate that Jesus is either Moses’ successor (6:34, cf. Nu 27:17) or his superior (9:2-13; cf. Ex 24:15f; Dt 18:15), while 9:38-40 (cf. Nu 11:26-29) shows Jesus acting as did Moses.
With this post I conclude setting out Nanine Charbonnel’s tables associating the gospels with Jewish Scriptures and other Jewish writings. With this section completed I am free to move on to discuss the remainder of her book, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier.
The value of tables like these comes more from preparing them — or returning to them from time to time to take them in point by point — than a quick glance at them. One is compelled to ask about the intellectual world of the evangelists. One is brought into the mysterious world of what the authors read and spoke about, how they thought about what they read, what flashes of insight were sparked by their conversations all before anything was put into writing. Then by what creative process did each evangelist weave anew another variant of a story about a figure who represented a new Israel.
In the table below I have once again made a few edits to Charbonnel’s original. For one thing, not a few of the biblical references in French do not match those in English. All of these have been revised to their English references. A few times I was not sure what a reference or source meant so I have added a question mark to each of those places. (Example, [RG] — is this a reference to Rene Girard? If so, what work of his?) In some cases I have left Charbonnel’s notes entirely and replaced them with translations from the French (or Italian) source that had been cited.
None of the illustrations is in Charbonnel’s original table.
Some interesting features this time:
The crown of thorns might reasonably be associated with the parable of the thornbush that in the OT parable “would be king”.
Pilate’s famous “Here is the man!” statement has several possible sources in the OT, all associated, ironically, with ascension to kingship.
Matthew’s mob crying out for Jesus’ blood to be “on their heads” has in modern discussion been said to be an anti-semitic trope but when one notices its possible sources in the Jewish scriptures one sees it as originally not necessarily bearing any particularly anti-semitic connotation.
I had always been suspicious of those comments linking the old Hebrew letter tau with the cross of Jesus, but I am willing now to concede that there just might be something to the link. (I’m not suggesting that the original idea of a cross came from the alphabet, not at all.)
Another interesting link was the Jewish Scripture associations of the “good” thief’s dispute with his “bad” companion.
We all surely know of the Amos association with the sun going down at noon, but I had overlooked till now that this same image in Amos is tied to mourning for an only son.
The titulus crucis carries more Jewish Scripture echoes than I had ever suspected.
Nor was I aware of the earthquake at the time of Joshua’s death — a sign divinely activated to draw the population’s attention to that grave moment.
Again, we have several links to intertestamental literature and later rabbinic writings. And again, it is very reasonable to accept that those rabbinical writings had their origins in the Second Temple era and were known to the evangelists.
One related detail is the teaching that when Moses struck the rock twice, the first time blood flowed out, the second time, water. What was on the evangelist’s mind when he wrote of the spear drawing both blood and water from Jesus?
Justin Martyr’s quotation of Jeremiah is of special interest.
So is a Codex Bezae version of the Gospel of Luke. Again, we meet another piece of evidence that the evangelists knew the writings of Josephus, especially Wars. The east gate that miraculously opened by itself as a warning of Jerusalem’s doom was said by Josephus to have been so large that it took twenty men to open. The same image is found in Codex Bezae’s Luke.
I had known of the “I am” statements in the Greek Gospel of John but for some reason till now had overlooked them in the Gospel of Luke.
Charbonnel speaks of OT passages where one is said to “pass through walls” by the power of God, but the Hebrew speaks of scaling over. (A French translation does say “pass through” as the resurrected Jesus did.)
I would like to track down the Exodus Rabbah statement (in English) that foreshadows the “Do you seek the living among the dead” saying.
Oh yes… one more of particular note (for me) — is the “beloved disciple” a figure of the church?
In the previous post focusing on Heracles (or Zeus-Heracles) as Logos I omitted a quotation that paired Heracles with Hermes (Roman name, Mercury) for the sake of trying to keep the focus on a single point. Here I am catching up: what the Stoic author Cornutus wrote about Hermes brings to mind several core motifs in the gospels, but in particular of the Gospel of Mark. (Don’t jump to wild conclusions, though. I am only exploring the religious/ideological contexts within which the gospels emerged.)
The Jewish philosopher Philo noted that Hermes was the prophet, the divine interpreter, but in particular, the messenger who brought to humanity “good news”:
ἄραοὐχὅτιπροσήκειτὸνἑρμηνέα [=interpreter] καὶπροφήτην [=prophet] τῶνθείων,ἀφ’οὗκαὶ Ἑρμῆςὠνόμασται,τὰἀγαθὰδιαγγέλλοντα [=messenger of good](Legatio Ad Gaium, 99)
— It’s worth trying to imagine living at the time the gospels were first heard. Jesus, the messenger who brought good news, surely evoked in the minds of some another deity with a comparable role.
Shortly after Philo (in the time of Nero) the Roman philosopher Cornutus wrote Epidrome (or Greek Theology) in which he described Hermes as reason (= logos) itself, “the preeminent possession of the gods” and the one they have sent to us from heaven so that we alone of earthly creatures are rational.
— As per the previous post focussing on Heracles, Jesus was not unique in being identified with the/a logos.
I copy the translation of the key section by Robert Hays from his 1983 thesis, Lucius Annaeus Cornutus’ “Epidrome”. Cornutus has just described in depth those daughters of Zeus known as the gift-giving Graces [Charites].
1. The tradition holds that Hermes is their [i.e. “the Graces”] master, thus signifying that the bestowing of kindness must be reasonable: not random, but to those who deserve it. For the person who has been ungratefully treated [ho…acharistētheis] becomes more reluctant to do good. Now Hermes is Reason [hologos]. which the gods sent to us from heaven, having made man alone of all the living creatures on earth reasonable [logikon], a gift which they themselves considered outstanding beyond all others. He has received his name from his taking counsel to speak [ereinmēsasthai], i.e., to engage in rational discourse [legein]. Or, perhaps because he is our bulwark [eryma] and, as it were, our fortress.
This post is a distillation of the chapter “Why Ignatius Invented Judaism” by Daniel Boyarin in The Ways That Often Parted: Essays in Honor of Joel Marcus. It covers the same questions addressed by Roger Parvus (see sidebox) but with a different hypothesis.
Roger Parvus posted a series on Vridar arguing that the letters of Ignatius were in fact composed by a follower of a breakaway sect from Marcionism. Roger’s thesis builds upon ideas advanced by earlier scholars that the letters of Ignatius show signs of the teachings of someone closely related to Marcionism, such as Apelles, a former disciple of Marcion. Roger also revisits and develops an idea that first appeared a century ago in scholarly publications that the author of the original letters was in fact that colorful character Peregrinus, the subject of a satire by Lucian.
The essence of Boyarin’s view is that Ignatius
a. used the term that we translate as “Judaism” to refer to any attempt to link gospel details to the Old Testament; and that
b. the gospel of Jesus Christ stood as true without any reference to Old Testament prophecies or scriptures.
This idea throws an interesting perspective on thesis we have at times addressed on this blog that the canonical gospel characters, events and sayings were constructed out “midrashic” or intertextual interpretations of Old Testament books and that their symbolic meanings were subsequently lost by those Christians who became the foundation of the Church we know today. Can the epistles of Ignatius be viewed as an early stage of that misunderstanding and loss of the original meaning of our gospels? (These, of course, are my questions, not those directly raised by Boyarin.)
Boyarin begins by comparing Paul’s and Ignatius’s respective uses of the term “Judaism” (Ioudaismos). For Paul it meant performing certain practices, not an institution. Thus when Paul writes
and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions (Gal. 1:14 NASB)
he means the “practice of Jewish ways of loyalty to the traditional doings of Jews” that Josephus described as
the ancestral [traditions] of the Ioudaioi(τὰ πάτρια τῶν Ἰουδαίων – A.J. 20.41)
It does not mean an abstract category of “a religion”. It means performing practices, customs, rituals, etc. It is the counterpart of what Thucydides complained that Plataeans were doing when they were “Medizing” — that is, “forsaking their ancestral traditions” (παραβαίνοντες τὰ πάτρια, Thucydides, P.W. 3.61.2), copying the customs of the Medes. (I am only presenting the main idea: Boyarin’s justification for this interpretation is a lengthy discussion of Galatians passages than I have outlined above.)
For Paul, it was the Jewish law that stood against the gospel. For Ignatius, however, gospel stood in opposition to Jewish scriptures.
At one point Ignatius equates “heterodoxy and old myths” with this Judaizing of his heretics:
Be not deceived by heterodoxiai nor by old fables, which are useless. For if we continue to live until now according to Ioudaismos, we confess that we have not received grace” (Magn. 8.1).
Could such fables possibly be connected with Jewish Scriptures here? Ignatius links them with “Judaizing”. Ignatius continues from the above passage to speak positively of the prophets, but he used the fact that they were persecuted (Magn 8:2) as evidence that they were on his side (Barrett, 237). In the Pastoral epistles we likewise read of the association of Judaism with mythology — Titus 1:14; I Timothy 1:4; 4:7; II Timothy 4:4). Ignatius appears to criticize the “Judaizers” for “mythologizing” the Scriptures: i.e. either reading them literally (Barrett, 237) or midrashically (my suggestion).
Continuing our series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .
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.
Zechariah and Elizabeth
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.
Mary and Martha
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 . . . .
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.
Explicit and hidden
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.17Then 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)