2020-06-18

Where Did the Stories of Joseph and Mary Come From?

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by Neil Godfrey

From Wallpaper Flare

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain best-known birth narratives of Jesus but they have mystified many inquiring minds who wonder how they can be so totally different from each other. They are so different that many scholars cannot accept that Luke had ever read Matthew’s account: they had to be derived ultimately (and independently) from some remote common source.

Here’s what they do have in common (from a list by Raymond Brown in The Birth of the Messiah):

1. The parents are called Mary and Joseph, are engaged or married, but do not yet live together at the time of Jesus’ conception;
2. Joseph is a descendant of David;
3. an angel announces the future birth of Jesus, although this announcement is addressed to Joseph in Matthew, but to Mary in Luke;
4. Mary had the child without intercourse with Joseph;
5. conception takes place through the work of the Holy Spirit;
6. the angel prescribes that the child should be called Jesus;
7. an angel declares that Jesus will be the Saviour:
8. the child is born after the parents start living together;
9. the birth takes place in Bethlehem:
10. it is temporally connected to the realm of Herod the Great;
11. the child grows up in Nazareth.

Yet the two stories are quite simply incompatible. In Matthew the infant Jesus is taken to Egypt to escape the “massacre of the innocents” after Herod learned from the magi of the birth of a “future king”; in Luke there is no threat to Jesus’ life, shepherds worship the newborn, he is presented at the Temple, and so forth. (I happen to think it quite possible that Luke did know Matthew’s birth narrative but that is ultimately irrelevant to the main point of this post.)

Though these two canonical stories are the best known they are not the only early Christian narratives of Jesus’ birth. We also have the Infancy Gospel of James. Here we read that Mary gave birth in a cave and a midwife confirms Mary’s virginity immediately after the birth. Jesus’ step-brother James is presented as the narrator of that account. Then there’s the Ascension of Isaiah where we read that Jesus simply appears (without any angelic warnings to either parent) as if by magic in front of Mary who is in her house, and Mary’s belly is restored to normal and she appears to be left wondering “what happened?”

Further, there are other writings from as early as the second century that mention other details not found in any of our narratives that are believed to have been prophesied about the birth of Jesus. So in the Acts of Peter we read Peter declaring all sorts of proofs to Simon Magus that Jesus’ birth was surely prophesied in many ways in the Scriptures and other now-lost writings:

XXIV. But Peter said: Anathema upon thy words against (or in) Christ! Presumest thou to speak thus, whereas

the prophet saith of him: Who shall declare his generation? [or, His family, who will tell it?] — [Isa. 53:8]

And another prophet saith: And we saw him and he had no beauty nor comeliness. — [Isa. 53:2]

And: In the last times shall a child be born of the Holy Ghost: his mother knoweth not a man, neither doth any man say that he is his father. — [?]

And again he saith: She hath brought forth and not brought forth. — [From the apocryphal Ezekiel (lost)]

And again: Is it a small thing for you to weary men (lit. Is it a small thing that ye make a contest for men) — [?]

[And again:] Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb. — [Isa. 7:13f]

And another prophet saith, honouring the Father: Neither did we hear her voice, neither did a midwife come in. — [From the Ascension of Isaiah, xi. 14]

Another prophet saith: Born not of the womb of a woman, but from a heavenly place came he down. — [?]

And: A stone was cut out without hands, and smote all the kingdoms. — [Dan. 2:34]

And: The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner; and he calleth him a stone elect, precious. — [Ps. 118:22]

And again a prophet saith concerning him: And behold, I saw one like the Son of man coming upon a cloud. — [Dan. 7:13]

Similar details are found listed in Justin’s writings. In his Dialogue with Trypho Justin writes that Mary is from the house of David (76); he further declares that Jesus has “no human generation (Trypho 32; First Apology 51); that he is not descended from human seed (Trypho, 63, 68); that Jesus was born in a cave near the village of Bethlehem (Trypho 78); that Jesus’ birth fulfilled a prophecy to take the power of Damascus and spoils of Samaria (Trypho 78); and that Jesus escaped all notice of others until he was an adult (First Apology 35).

Such lists of “fulfilled prophecies” do not derive from narratives. They have all the appearance of being found independently, as some form of “testimonia”. Readers had been pondering scriptures and divining what they had to say about how the heavenly messiah was to make his appearance in the world of humankind. From this pool of testimonies, presumably crafted by prophets of some sort, different scribes took raw material to create their narratives. Each of these narratives had its own theological theme. Thus, the Infancy Gospel of James was focused on demonstrating that “history proved” the sacred and eternal virginity of Mary; the Ascension of Isaiah took those elements that it could use to demonstrate that Jesus was not contaminated by flesh even though coming as flesh or in the appearance of it; Matthew sought to represent Jesus as a second Moses who brought out of Egypt a “mixed multitude” of Israelites and gentiles; Luke, to show Jesus began his career with the Jews alone, “to the Jew first“.

Such is the viewpoint of Enrico Norelli. The above is his thesis on how we have come to have such widely diverging nativity stories of Jesus. Quite likely, but I also think that certain authors — especially “Luke” — were themselves creative enough to find scriptural “prophecies” as needed for their respective narratives.

Norelli asks about the names of Mary and Joseph after lengthy discussions about the apparent creation of the “testimonia” listed above. He can’t see those details being found in scriptural fulfilment so suspects they probably were historically grounded as the names of the real parents of Jesus.

I find that reasoning problematic: every detail is taken from “fulfilled prophecy” except the names of two parents? Other scholars have indeed found the names of Mary and Joseph in “prophecy”:

(The meaning of Mary’s name is further mentioned in The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles)


Many of Enrico Norelli’s journal articles and book chapters are available on academia.edu

 

Norelli, Enrico. 2012. “Wie Sind Die Erzählungen Über Maria Und Josef in Mt 1-2 Und Lk 1-2 Entstanden? M. Navarro Puerto; M. Perroni (Ed.), Evangelien. Erzählungen Und Geschichte. Deutsche Ausgabe Hrsg. von I. Fischer Und A. Taschl-Erber (Die Bibel Und Die Frauen. Eine Exegetisch-Kulturgeschichtliche Enzyklopädie. Neues Testament 2,1), Stuttgart, Kohlhammer. https://www.academia.edu/4092799/Wie_sind_die_Erz%C3%A4hlungen_%C3%BCber_Maria_und_Josef_in_Mt_1-2_und_Lk_1-2_entstanden.

———. 2010. “La Letteratura Apocrifa Sul Transito Di Maria E Il Problema Delle Sue Origini Accessed June 14, 2020a. https://www.academia.edu/5261203/La_letteratura_apocrifa_sul_transito_di_Maria_e_il_problema_delle_sue_origini.

———. 2011. “Les Plus Anciennes Traditions Sur La Naissance De Jésus Et Leur Rapport Avec Les Testimonia C. Clivaz [et alii] (ed.), Infancy Gospels. Stories and Identities (WUNT), Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck. Accessed June 14, 2020b. https://www.academia.edu/37751916/Les_plus_anciennes_traditions_sur_la_naissance_de_J%C3%A9sus_et_leur_rapport_avec_les_testimonia.


 


2020-06-12

How Paul Found Christ Crucified – “on a Tree” – In the Scriptures

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by Neil Godfrey

Toruń, church of St. Janów. Painting on the north wall of the presbytery (around 1380-90) – Crucifixion on Jesse’s Tree (Wikimedia)

Who bewitched you? Paul demanded to know of the Galatians. He continued:

Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was written beforehand [προεγράφη, cf Rom. 15:4] as crucified.

Max Wilcox suggested (with some diffidence) at least the possibility of such a translation back in 1977 in an article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. The remainder of this post draws a few key points from a mass of fascinating details in that article, “Upon the Tree”: Deut 21:22-23 in the New Testament”. It focuses on what Paul and other early “Christian” exegetes found written in the Scriptures through a midrashic type reading.

A few verses after that opening Paul “bizarrely” links Jesus Christ with the pronouncement of a curse on anyone “hanging on a tree” as per the law of Deuteronomy. Galatians 3:13:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”

quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

. . . anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse . . .

Look at that Deuteronomy 21 passage in full and despair at trying to find any way Paul could have associated it with the crucified Jesus:

If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance. (Deut 21:22-23)

Wilcox finds clues to the association in the verses leading up to Galatians 3:13. If we are aware of the Scriptures Paul has been alluding to in those preceding verses we can find the answer to why the Deuteronomic tree-hanging curse applied to Jesus.

Look at Galatians 3:8-9

Now Scripture, having seen beforehand that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, proclaimed the good news of this in advance to Abraham in the promise, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

So then, those who are ‘of faith’ are blessed with faithful/believing Abraham.

For Wilcox the above passage looks very much like a mixed quotation based on three passages in a Greek translation of Genesis(Notice that Peter is assigned a similar quotation in Acts: the major difference being that in Acts the stress is on “seed” while in Galatians it is on “you”, referring to Abraham.)

Wilcox comments that Paul (and the author of Acts) are using a hybrid quotation to associate the promise to Abraham with the “nations”, the Gentiles.

Not only Genesis but Deuteronomy informs Paul’s thought

In Galatians 3:10 we begin to read a longer section of the cursing and blessing dichotomy. This motif comes from many passages throughout Deuteronomy. Galatians 3:10 even directly quotes Deuteronomy:

Galatians 3:10 Deuteronomy 27:26
. . . for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them. . . .

But why does Paul veer towards the “cursed is everyone hanging on a tree” passage when that passage is surely meant to apply to blasphemers and other sinners of the worst kind? Continue reading “How Paul Found Christ Crucified – “on a Tree” – In the Scriptures”


2020-05-31

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #4

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at the sources in the Jewish Scriptures for:

a. John the Baptist

b. the Baptism of Jesus

c. the wedding at Cana

d. the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #4”


2020-05-23

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #3

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at

a. the visions and rejoicing surrounding the birth of Jesus

b. the shepherds, the magi

c. massacre of the innocents

d. flight to and return from Egypt

e. Jesus twelve years of age in the temple

Future posts will continue this series.

The table is primarily a translation and slight modification of pages 183-226 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper. All posts archived here.

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #3”


2020-05-16

Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #2

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we look at

a. the announcement to the parents of John the Baptist;

b. the heralding role of John the Baptist.

Future posts will continue this series.

Continue reading “Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #2”


2020-05-12

Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #1

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by Neil Godfrey

* The table is primarily a translation and slight modification of pages 183-226 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper. All posts archived here.

From time to time I will post a section of a multi-page table* suggesting “intertextual” (or “midrashic”) links between the canonical gospel narratives and the “Old Testament” or Jewish Scriptures. I use “suggesting” because the links have come from a variety of sources and not presented as certainties. Readers will no doubt be able to suggest others and may find some room to raise questions about what is listed here.

Future posts will continue this series. Here we look at

a. The Genealogies of Jesus, and

b. Luke’s scene of the Annunciation to Mary

Tables for the birth of John the Baptist and Matthew’s nativity narrative will follow. Continue reading “Gospels Cut From Jewish Scriptures, #1”


2020-05-09

How Ignatius Cut Christianity Off From its Jewish Roots

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by Neil Godfrey

(updated 2 hours after first posting)

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)

Daniel Boyarin

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.

Old Fables/Myths

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).

Gospel versus Scriptures

The first Christian to make that declaration, as far as we know, was Marcion. (Boyarin doubts that Ignatius took the idea from Marcion but Parvus argues that that was exactly where the idea ultimately derived.) The key passage is in Ignatius’s letter to the Philadelphians: Continue reading “How Ignatius Cut Christianity Off From its Jewish Roots”


2020-04-20

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .

–o–

John the Baptist

Maybe I’m just naturally resistant to new ideas but I found myself having some difficulty with Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] opening stage of her discussion about John the Baptist. (Recall we have been looking at plausibility of gospel figures being personifications of certain groups, with Jesus himself symbolizing a new Israel.) NC begins with an extract from Maximus of Turin’s interpretation: by cross-referencing to Paul’s statements that the “head of a man is Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3) Maximus concluded that the decapitation of John the Baptist represented Christ being cut off from the adherents to the Law, the Jews. Without the head they were a lifeless corpse.

Further, if we accept the passage about Jesus in Josephus’s Antiquities as genuine, NC suggests that it is not impossible that Josephus was writing of what he had heard indirectly from messianic Jews in Rome who had spoken of a figurative or literary figure that was confused at some point with a historical one.

We may not like that interpretation but at least Maximus recognized something symbolic about John the Baptist. As NC reminds us, he was the one who greets the messiah from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41), the one who asks questions designed to recognize Jesus, the one who acts out Elijah’s confrontation with the lawless Jezebel and king Ahab. Even if we accept the entry about John the Baptist in Josephus as genuine and acknowledge that there was a historical “John the Baptist”, this person is depicted in symbolic roles in the gospels.

John the Baptist by Titian. Wikimedia Commons

NC has more to say but permit me to give my own view, or perhaps a mix of my own with NC’s. John the Baptist is presented initially in the physical image of the arch-prophet, Elijah, and is calling upon all Israel to repent and prepare for the messiah. They all come out into the wilderness to do so. In Luke’s gospel when different groups (soldiers, tax collectors and others) ask John what they should do John replies with the fundamental spiritual intent of the law in each case: be merciful. Surely this is all symbolic of the Law and Prophets being the articles of the covenant made between Israel and God in the wilderness, and just as the early Christians found Jesus predicted in the prophets so John, the final prophet, points them to Jesus the messiah. Later we find the same prophet asking Jesus if he is the one, with Jesus replying with signs as recorded in the Prophets to assure him. John, meanwhile (as NC herself notes as significant), is martyred just as many other prophets before him, and just as Jesus himself will be. The tale is surely told as symbolism and the character John as a literary personification. Jesus emerges from the Prophets. It is the Prophets who all point towards Jesus Christ.

So when John says he is not worthy to baptize Jesus, he is saying that Jesus is greater than the Law and Prophets. Jesus, however, replies that he has come to submit to the Law and Prophets. His baptism represents the emerging in his full spiritual reality the new Israel, the one prophesied in the prophets. This is not the baptism described in Josephus. It is a baptism of repentance, of preparation for the Christ.

The absence of biographical or other historical information is telling. We only have details that call out for symbolic interpretation. The reason each evangelist can modify the narrative is not because they were working with historical data but entirely in their own imaginative interpretation of the way the Prophets pointed readers to Christ.

“John” and Peter race to the tomb

I say “John” for convenience and according to tradition. The Gospel of John notably does not name the disciple, appearing to identify him with the “beloved” disciple

The famous Gregory who became the Pope in the sixth/seventh century identified a possible symbolic meaning of the Gospel of John’s account of John and Peter running to the empty tomb.  Quoted by NC, Gregory sought a meaning in John arriving first at the tomb but not entering, with Peter coming later yet being the first to enter. John was interpreted as the Synagogue, the Jews, who had “come first” to Christ, but failed to “enter”. Peter, representing the gentiles, arrived later but was the first to believe. [See Gregory the Great Homily 22 on the Gospels; see also comments below for further discussion]

The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed . . . (John 20:4-8)

Disciples Running to the Tomb / E. Burnand. Wikimedia Commons

Interesting possibility. But if the “beloved disciple” is rather meant to be an unfalsifiable witness (and he, not Peter, is said to be the one who believed), it is hard to identify the same with the “Jews of the synagogue”. On the other hand, given what we know of Peter as the apostle to the gentiles, the one who stands between Jews and gentiles (hence his “double-minded” reputation?) something along the lines of Gregory’s interpretation does have some appeal.

Other points to consider, as per NC: John (meaning God is gracious) does have a sound similarity to Jonah, another representative of Jews in the old story. (Then we also have Peter being identified in the Gospels of Matthew and John with the son of Jonah.) NC promises to return to Peter in the last chapter. I will be patient.

Again, we have details that are not typically found in biographies. Recall the same point (especially with respect to the Gospel of John) in How the Gospels Became History. Such details appear pointless in themselves; they scream out for symbolic interpretation — and many ministers and preachers have understood this point well enough to prepare many sermons drawing out various meanings for their congregations.

The Twelve Apostles: the twelve tribes of Israel

This one is easier. The twelve patriarchs in Genesis are treated as symbolic representatives of the tribes that bore their names. I think many of us have seen in the Twelve Disciples a new founding group of the “new Israel”.

NC sees three principles underlying any interpretation of the Twelve. Continue reading “The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples”


2020-04-13

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing our series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .

–o–

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

Vincent Adriaenssen – Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (Wikimedia)

These sisters are drawn from Naomi and Ruth in the Book of Ruth. They represent the Jews and the gentile converts. The gentiles preceded the Jews.

Since the Middle Ages much there has been much discussion about how their roles act out the superiority of the contemplative over the active life. But that meaning was far from the mind their original creator, says NC.

Naomi is called Mara:

“Call me not Naomi [that is, Pleasant]. Call me Mara [that is, Bitter], for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. (Ruth 1:20)

She came from Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1-2).

The fourth evangelist changed Naomi-Mara of Bethlehem to Mary of Bethany (=house of affliction (or figs)).

Martha is Ruth of Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22) with the prefix mem (מ) (préfixe qui sert à faire des noms, = prefix used to make names, NC 228) added to RWTH (rūt – ר֖וּת) to make MaRWTH — which becomes Martha in Greek. So Ruth of Bethlehem becomes Martha of Bethany.

Jesus gently chides Martha for her busyness and commend Mary for having chosen the appropriate response to his presence. Martha is eclipsed by Mary just as the Mosaic covenant with its preoccupation with works of the law is eclipsed by the way of “a good heart and prayer”. This is how it was with Naomi and Ruth.

The two women divide their tasks. After years in Moab Naomi-Mara hears that there is bread to be found in Bethlehem (=house of bread) so she rises and returns. Once back home there, she sits in the house while Ruth gleans for bread. Finally, she sits Ruth down to find her a husband. The author of the Gospel of Luke has transferred these attitudes to “anyone who agrees to listen to the story of Israel”. Mary-Mara is sitting down because one day earlier she got up and one day again she will get up. Martha-Ruth is busy with food because one day (a different time) she sat down to listen to the Torah and another day she will be seated to listen to it again. Mary and Martha, like Naomi and Ruth, are living out the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, the gift of the Torah, the permanent gift of the Word . . . .

(More paraphrase than translation of Marie Vidal, Jesus and Virounèka, 2000, p. 168, quoted in NC 228f. The link is to an Amazon page with a description of the book. Use Google Translate to convert it to English.)

.

The Hemorrhaging Woman and Daughter of Jairus

Continue reading “The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles”


2020-04-11

Gospel Parables and the “Birth” of the Messiah as a Personification of Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series . . .

Nanine Charbonnel’s [NC] last pages of her chapter on the meaning of “fulfilment” in the gospels dovetail with John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable and Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus (links are to Vridar posts discussing these works) – and with any other writing that has argued that the Gospels are parables.

We know that Jesus was famous for speaking in parables but NC (like “Jesus historicist” Crossan and “Jesus mythicist” Brodie) goes further and suggests that the gospel stories about Jesus and all that he did are written as parables.

In what follows I attempt to convey some rough sketch of NC’s thesis. We will see that she delves into deeper technical reasons for reading the gospels as “parables”.

That the character of Jesus himself is a parable is most clearly seen in the Gospel of John where we read, explicitly, that Jesus is “the word”, that his appearance in flesh is a visible form of “the word”. In this gospel it is accordingly easier to grasp that “biographical” episodes of Jesus, such as his encounter with the sisters Martha and Mary, are parables whose meaning is not hidden very far beneath their surfaces. The acts of Jesus are dramatizations of the word.

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. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

. . . 

 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

NC writes that these explicit pointers are there to highlight for the reader the rule of the game. The fulfilment applies to the whole narrative. Parables in the mouth of Jesus ought not lead the reader to think that the gospel narrative itself is a parable. The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry as told in Luke 4 announces the fulfilment of a text that served as a major inspiration for the author of the gospel’s larger narrative:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.

Crucifixion by Leon Bonnat (Wikimedia)

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)

The Gospels as fulfilment

To take a closer look at those two words: Continue reading “Gospel Parables and the “Birth” of the Messiah as a Personification of Israel”


2020-04-08

Further on a “Midrashic” View of the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from the previous post, discussing Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier . . . .

I stopped short in my last blog post when I came to NC’s comparison of the gospels with the OT books of Esther and Ruth. I complete that little section here.

The gospels are about “the end times”, as we saw. But they obviously do not employ the “end times” style of apocalyptic literature. If they have any models they are more like Esther and Ruth — two books that NC associates with “midrash”, with the “perfect illusion of historicity”. The words of Maurice Mergui in Paul à Patras are quoted. To get some helpful context I translate/paraphrase somewhat more than NC uses:

We have been examining the hypothesis of midrash. According to this hypothesis, the Gospels (including the Johannine and Pauline corpora) are midrashic elaborations that yield no basis for any historical content. This hypothesis comes up against a frequent objection. Jewish midrash usually looks like a quotation of biblical text linked to commentary. The gospels obviously do not have this form. They are narratives that look very much like historical accounts. Paul’s letters certainly have no equivalent in Jewish midrash. Therefore, the objection goes, the midrashic theory for this NT literature should be rejected.

The first objection (that midrash is inconsistent with narrative forms) falls apart when we notice that midrash does indeed know how to create forms very like narratives while giving a perfect illusion of historicity. Two examples are the books of Ruth and Esther which are “real marvels” of this register. . . .

Look at what the redactor of Esther does. He goes through the eschatological cycle. He finds a new way of relating the coming of the messiah at the climax of a crisis. This story must be told over and over in different ways so as not to let the messianic idea be lost, become empty and disappear. The story of Esther confronts readers with their own reality of the absence of God and messiah (God does not even appear in the story), of a life of exile, suffering and violence, a the real possibility of losing all messianic hope. The same story idea — the rescue at the moment of peak threat — is told anew. The story speaks of exile, of conspiracy against the Jews, the impossibility of approaching the king, the pagan festival — the story is one of “ultimate test”. Similarly with Ruth, we read again: famine, exile, union with pagans, impossibility of having a son (a messiah) — but then miraculously at the end we find the appearance or light of the messiah. In these narratives we find the messiah making his rescue at the moment of extreme tribulation.

NC’s point in citing Mergui is to stress the capacity of midrash to create a narrative illusion of being fully immersed in real events.

I think that the messianic references seen in the OT stories are overstated. The theme of Esther is surely the victory of God in the last days as he rescues his people from the brink of extinction. Messiahs sometimes appear in such narratives, perhaps, especially in the extracanonical ones, but they are optional to the central theme. Sometimes the central figure is a “Servant”, or a “Son of Man”, and sometimes these figures will evolve into or be conflated with a messianic figure. Some of us might even wonder if there is room for a new term to describe the type of “midrash” Mergui and NC speak of. But these are peripheral issues to the central arguments.

Careful readers would have noticed Mergui’s reference to the letters of Paul in the same discussion. Thomas Brodie, I think, would be most interested in Mergui’s discussion of Paul. Brodie and Mergui deny the historicity of the “Paul” behind the letters. The Paul we implicit in the correspondence is a literary persona. Mergui compares him with Moses and sees several recurrent themes in the letters to support this “midrashic” interpretation. But again, that’s another story. I’ll try to keep working on NC’s book for now.


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

Mergui, Maurice. 2015. Paul à Patras: Une approche midrashique du paulinisme. Objectif Transmission. Kindle Edition.



2020-03-23

How the Gospels Became History

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by Neil Godfrey

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

. . .

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jeremiah 1:12

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

Then Jeremiah 33:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eschatological expectation

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

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

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

(Weber, 233)

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

For the sake of a refresher here are some passages from those chapters (though not quoted by NC here): Continue reading “How the Gospels Became History”


2019-08-21

A Story of a Mother-in-law, Stopping the Sun, and Rebuilding the Temple Wall

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by Neil Godfrey

I don’t know. If you thought Maurice Mergui’s ideas set out in my previous posts were over the top then you are going to totally freak out over this one. It comes from his book Un Étranger Sur Le Toit: Les Sources Misdrashiques Des Evangiles.

I was looking for a new interpretation of that little healing episode where Jesus goes to Peter’s house to heal his wife’s mother who has a fever. In Mark and Matthew Jesus touches her hand and the fever leaves her; she then gets up and serves everybody. (A woman’s work, etc …) In Luke we read that Jesus rebuked the fever before it left her.

Now I’ve always had a problem with this passage as it’s told in the Gospel of Mark. In just about every other healing event there is a clear symbolic factor at work. Symbolic names and actions abound. In that context there seems to be no point to the story of healing Peter’s mother-in-law. No name, no evident symbolism, no further detail or background appears in the narrative. It appears to lack the sorts of points we find in other healings.

So I had to find out if Maurice Mergui’s midrashic interpretations had anything to offer. And oh yes, his discussion goes way, way beyond anything I had expected. But that leaves me a bit wary. Has he gone way too far and in a perverse sort of way argued his point out of the realm of plausibility? I really don’t know. Which is where I came in.

So here goes.

The usual caveats apply: I was never a top-grade student in my French classes; I have not been able to track down all of his sources, in particular, an English translation of Exodus Rabbah 50; I have not read his complete chapter, let alone the entire book, so may well be missing some key details that would shift some of my understanding; and I am not even going to cover every detail within the section I have attempted to grasp (because some points still elude me); and I sometimes have suspicions that the Kindle version of the book fails to capture correctly the transliterations of the Hebrew that I would expect to see in the original. Anyone with a better grasp of French is very welcome to add to /correct whatever follows.

Here is the passage being addressed:

Matthew 8 (Mergui sees major significance in Matthew’s placing this healing immediately after the healing of the centurion’s son. I have not explored his discussion on that link, so forgive me for missing something he considers important here — at least for now.) . . .

14 When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick

Mark 1

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.

Luke 4

38 Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. 39 So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.

40 At sunset, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them. 

Mergui begins by pointing out that our little story is all very simple, straightforward, and poses no mysteries, etc. (Except that that’s what I think is so out of character for it for several reasons.) But let’s imagine a Hebrew original, Mergui proposes, and see what happens.

Key words in Hebrew all look and sound alike. Recall those posts on Charbonnel’s introductory chapters to her book on Jesus being a “midrashic” creation and especially her discussion of the importance of the sounds of Hebrew roots, usually three consonants, and the word-games that could be played with them. (Please allow me to use “midrashic” — in inverted commas — and set aside for now the questions of definition. Some prefer to add the term haggidah to it in this context but that is getting too much of a mouthful/keyboard exercise.)

So here are the key words addressed by Mergui:

mother in law: Hamot = חמות

fever: Hama (also means “sun”; though another word, shemesh, also means “sun”; and cf. Homa = “wall”): = חמה

rebuke: Heima = חמה

gets up/rises: …amod (also means “stand still”) = עמד

Okay. Now for the next bit. Some OT passages where some of those words are key:

Joshua 10

12 Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel:

Sun, stand still over Gibeon;
And Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”
13 So the sun stood still,
And the moon stopped,
Till the people had revenge
Upon their enemies.

Malachi 4

But to you who fear My name
The Sun of Righteousness shall arise
With healing in His wings;

There are other passages, too. But we start with those.

What Mergui appears to be proposing is that the Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law was inspired by the “revelation” of sounds of the words suggesting that

  • the messiah, represented by the sun in the Malachi passage, would heal at a time when the sun is risen (notice that the healing miracle of Jesus is set prior to sunset; notice also that “wings” can mean the fringe of a garment and that we know of another story where a woman was healed by touching the fringe of Jesus’ garment . . . but we wander)
  • Joshua, = Jesus, commanded the sun (and note that a synonym forms a word-play with mother-in-law)
  • to “stand still” (a word that can also mean “rise up”)
  • and the healed mother-in-law set to serving them all; the word for serve, in the Hebrew, apparently is similar to the other word for “sun”, shemesh, and besides, the sun, symbolic of the messiah in Malachi, and in other passages, serves.

But what about the word fever and its sound-alike meaning wall? And not forgetting the word-play that equates the same with mother-in-law.

That brings us to that other famous miracle of Joshua, the way he got the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. Now in the Bible we need to keep in mind that walls can be sick. Recall the laws on leprosy — “leprosy” can infect a wall (if you know your bible, since I won’t look it up just now.) Further, we read in Ezekiel 13:15 that it is quite reasonable to be angry at a wall. At this point Mergui turns to later rabbinical midrash but I am not clear on the details, not being able to find reasonably quickly an English translation of Exodus Rabbah 50. The interpretation has something to do with the need to return a cloak taken as surety for a loan to its poor owner by sunset. The rabbinic view is that this passage suggests the messiah will come “by/before sunset”. A garment is also a metonymy for the Temple: note the High Priest’s special garment. A rabbinic discussion raises the idea that the Temple walls were destroyed because of the sin of people not returning the garments held as pledges to their poor owners by sunset. So let’s come back to the wall. The rabbis, as I understand Mergui through a glass darkly, argue that repentance will lead God to restore/rebuild/get (back) up the wall that he had once rebuked. Joshua’s miracle reversed, unless you are overly picky about which walls are in question.

The punishment of the exile, it appears, will end with repentance and then the wall will be rebuilt, or “get up” again, by the command of the messiah, presumably.

So you can see why I am frustrated not having a perfectly clear understanding of Mergui’s discussion and not having access to the sources he is addressing. There is much that looks fascinating, perhaps too much so, but certainly enough to make one want to be clear about what is being argued and all its details. And to see what controls there are so we can remove questions over whether one might be able to find any interpretation we want behind a gospel passage.


2019-08-20

But WHY would Paul be made a “Midrashic” Creation?

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by Neil Godfrey

Maurice Mergui

I’ve been distracted from my scheduled reading and planned posts to go back and fill in some gaps to what I wrote yesterday about Paul being cut from the Saul of the OT.

This post outlines some of what I take to be the main ideas from the first part of Paul à Patras by Maurice Mergui.

Paul’s life reads like real history or real biography. Paul is a known character when we think of him alongside the persons in the gospels. The gospel figures read more like foils set up to fulfill prophecies, teach us lessons, and so forth. Even their names are often clearly symbolic and they act out the meanings of their names almost the way we expect parables or children’s stories to read. But Paul, he has a psychology — and one that we may not always like. He has a setting, a real place in history and we know the places he visits — Antioch, Athens, Rome. He has a real name, a Roman one. He has health problems. We are told of the exact street name he was to meet someone in Damascus. All this smacks of reality.

At the same time there are real quirks in the story of Acts. The account of Paul’s conversion is told to us three times; the story is told in the third person and then suddenly without explanation switches to the first. The main character is called Saul and then suddenly he is called Paul and stays with that name to the end; geographical errors appear as when Malta is set in the Adriatic; and there are contradictions to what he wrote in his letters. Paul is both diminished and exalted in our sources. But such anomalies and contradictions are considered generally at one level to be marks of authenticity.

The story of Acts itself bears reflection. From the first chapter we have the band of disciples gathered together, determined to maintain their number of 12, commissioned to preach the message of Jesus to the end of the world. They are given the miracle of tongues to make this possible. But then from chapter 9 everything focuses on just one man, a certain Paul, who persecutes the followers of Jesus, is himself converted, changes his name, and sets out to preach the gospel. And his story it is right through to the end of the book. And the turnover event was the road to Damascus experience, an event that is told to readers three times.

So what’s this all about? Why such a break or change in story half way through?

Why does Acts “lose the plot” half way through?

Maurice Mergui regrets the way many scholars have, he claims, misunderstood and misrepresented another scholar, Georges Perec. Mergui, appealing to Perec’s insights, asks us to imagine the following scenario.

Imagine that you want to produce a story that will draw simultaneously on three different themes.

  1. The grandeur and the fall of the Jewish people
  2. The reign of Death followed by the end of his power

  3. The triumph of paganism being succeeded by the universal conversion of pagans

But keep in mind: the rule is that each of these three themes must be addressed simultaneously, not one after the other, in the narrative. Mergui tells us that Perec believed that the Book of Acts achieved this three-fold aim. Continue reading “But WHY would Paul be made a “Midrashic” Creation?”