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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) – Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

(Douglas, 59)

Then a few pages on,

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

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

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

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

(Douglas, 62 f. My bolded highlighting)

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

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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Chap 3c . . . .

The Exodus: Metaphor Preceded “History”

Other examples of changing names and wordplay:

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah 1:11-12

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

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

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

Amos 8:1-2

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

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

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

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

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

The Exodus Motif

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is another example, from an Amarna letter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Liverani, 277 ff)

Law and History Made from Word Games

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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

Robert Lowth

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Names Make the Story Work

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

Mary Douglas (1921-2007) – Wikipedia

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

The Curser Cursed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But could not the story be told that way because it is the way it happened in history? Continue reading “Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Chap 3c. … Word Play Undermining Historicity”