As a specialist in hermeneutics, Nanine Charbonnel published various books among which:
2017 Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier [Jesus Christ as a sublime paper persona], Paris, Berg International;
2014 Critique des métaphysiques du propre. La ressemblance et le Verbe [Critique of the literal sense in metaphysics. Similitude and Logos], Hildesheim /Zürich /New York : Olms Verlag;
2010 Comme un seul homme. Corps politique et Corps mystique [Together as one. Body Politic and Mystical Body], Aréopage ;
2006 Philosophie de Rousseau [Rousseau’s philosophy], 3 vols., Aréopage ;
1998 (coedited with Georges Kleiber) La Métaphore entre philosophie et rhétorique [The Metaphor between Philosophy and Rhetoric], Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 245 pages
1991 La Tâche aveugle [The Blind Task] I: Les Aventures de la Métaphore [The Adventures of the Metaphor] , Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 310 pages
1991 La Tâche aveugle, II : L’important, c’est d’être propre [The Main Thing is to be Oneself], Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 280 pages
1993 La Tâche aveugle, III : Philosophie du modèle [Philosophy of the model], Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 246 pages;
1988 Pour une Critique de la Raison éducative [For a Critique of Educational Reason], Berne: Peter Lang, 193 pages;
1987 L’impossible pensée de l’Éducation. Sur le "Wilhelm Meister" de Goethe [The Unfeasible Design of “l’Éducation”. Apropos of Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister”], Cousset (Fribourg, Suisse) : Delval, 260 pages
°See paper in Approches, Paris, décembre 2017
Traduction Jean Kalman
THE GOSPELS AS MIDRASH
on tab ''Jésus-Christ''
°By Jean KALMAN, 2018:
JESUS, A SUBLIME PAPER FIGURE
An essay by Dr Nanine Charbonnel, philosophy professor at the Université de Strasbourg
with a foreword by Thomas Römer, Professor at Collège de France (Paris, 2017)
« When Herod saw how the astrologers had tricked him he fell into a passion, and gave orders for the massacre of all children in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood, of the age of two years or less, corresponding with the time he had ascertained from the astrologers.”
This verse of Matthew’s gospel may remind the Old Testament reader of the first chapter of Exodus in which Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill all new-born males. The reason for this massacre is not the same as in the New Testament, though. The King of Egypt is said to be wary of the growing number of Israelites and, as the story goes, Moses is one of those male Hebrew babies that were due to be murdered.
In his guide to The Bible as it was, James L. Kugel provides us with a midrash from Pirqei de R.Eliezer : “The wizards said to Pharaoh, ‘A boy is destined to be born, and he will lead Israel out of Egypt.’ He [Pharaoh] considered the matter and said: ‘Cast all the male children into the Nile, and he [this future savior] will be cast in with them.’”
This scenario, unlike the biblical narrative, appears to be very close to the Massacre of the Holy Innocents in the first gospel. Is it a coincidence or are the two stories rooted in the same tradition?
OUT OF THE HISTORICAL JESUS QUAGMIRE
At the end of their book, The Historical Jesus, Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz say how difficult it is to outline a short life of Jesus, “We give this summary with great hesitation.” On the other hand they are adamant in their conclusion “…the self-understanding of Christianity must change on one point. Historically and theologically, Jesus belongs in Judaism.” The connection between Jesus and Judaism is pivotal in what has been termed the third quest of the historical Jesus.
At first, the exegetes who wanted to sketch out Jesus’ life story were convinced they could rely on some historical techniques but Albert Schweitzer shows “that the images in the lives of Jesus were projections (op. cit. p.5)” “The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb. (Albert Schweitzer, The quest of the historical Jesus, p. 396)”
The second quest, initiated by Ernst Käsemann, lays stress on dissimilarity to contemporary Jewish beliefs and to early church teaching. But this dissimilarity is not just an epistemological tool; it also triggers off an ideological approach of Christ. “Marcion was not completely wrong when he spoke of Christ’s ‘foreign God’, a God who is never separated from his creature and never lets anyone make him act against his creature. A God that forgives and sets men free so that they may become his sons […] Such attitude causes scandal, opposition and in the end deadly hatred among believers, for they find in Jesus’ freedom in which he accomplished his mission a break into God’s rights – a blasphemy. Therefore, as they see him as a rebel against Moses’ authority, they conclude he is possessed by the demon and finally report him to the Romans as a threat for civilian and religious order. (Jésus, l’accès à l’origine)
In the 3rd quest, emphasis is laid on the place of Jesus in Judaism and what is plausible in the Jewish context. Jesus is described as a 1st century Jew - a marginal Jew to quote the title of John P. Meyer’s magnum opus. “The parables are rooted in Jewish traditions and at the same time, as a total work of art, are irreplaceable expression of the message of Jesus (The Historical Jesus, p. 343)”
Biblical scholars who have taken advantage of narrative criticism and are familiar with rabbinic literature have been likely to read Jesus’ stories as Jewish midrashim, as exemplified in the case of the Innocents’ massacre. In an impressive book that she published in 2017, Professor Nanine Charbonnel provides a list of Old Testament and midrashim sources of the four gospels and analyses the theological message at stake in the New Testament. She shows that, even when we are to find contradictions, these contradictions can be construed as serving a purpose, the coming of a new era in which the times are accomplished, God has become flesh, a dead man has come to life again, Man has found his definitive salvation, the law of God has been made lighter and pagans are now more cherished than the Jews.
Charbonnel’s book might be a more convincing approach to the challenge faced by scholars who acknowledge that the New Testament is part and parcel of 1st century Jewish literature but is also fraught with anti-Judaism and has been considered foreign to Jewish thought until very recently.
The notion of ACCOMPLISHMENT
In the Bible accomplishment (Qiyyem : piyel of the verb Qum = to rise or stand up) is often referred to God’s alliance with his people. In rabbinic literature the same word is applied to the Scripture and is to be understood at three levels.
To accomplish the Scripture is first to infer a new rule or a new understanding through scrutinizing the Torah. It is also to act according to the interpretation of the Scripture. And the third level is only a consequence of the first two types of accomplishment, the fulfillment of the promises to be found in the Torah and the Prophets’ writings.
The New Testament uses the Greek verbs teleô (to achieve) and plèroô (to fulfill an expectation – it implies completely adequate fulfillment of a prediction or even a better event than what has been foretold). The emphasis is shifted to a new era as exemplified in the phrase ‘the times are accomplished’. The prophecies are also accomplished whether they were good predictions (salvation for all mankind) or bad predictions (as it is the case with the massacre of the Innocents). Only in a few instances do we find the notion of accomplishment as the fulfillment of God’s will through law-abiding behaviour.
After books on the role played by similes and comparisons in theories, and in Rousseau's works, Nanine Charbonnel moved to the religious field and delved into the issue of figurative language in religion. More precisely, she made a point in unmasking figurative speech that claims to be literal.
She shows that Christianity created stories and a new kind of hermeneutic. The Hebrew Bible was downgraded to materialistic phenomena and legal rules while the New Testament introduces its readers to highly spiritual events and to brotherly love. Those narratives can often be traced back to midrashim but whereas they can be read as literary devices within their Jewish context they are to be considered true facts in the Christian tradition. Not because they are historically proven but because they are the consequence of the accomplishment postulate.
Not only do events happen according to the Scripture but characters are also modeled after their Old Testament typos or figura . God’s plan was to anticipate Christianity through the History of the Hebrews, Israelites and Jews. But Vetus Israel has given way to Verus Israel. In a context where the times have come to their end, God reveals his final intention. New Testament characters can live a life of perfection (Jesus, Mary, John…). Not only do they act according to the role they are expected to play but they become the accomplishment itself, or a non-human creature, a philosophical concept (Logos or Sophia) made flesh.
Jesus can preach moral perfection as exemplified in the Beatitudes. But, paradoxically he also points at a period of time when the worst sinners can be saved. Both moral perfection and complete depravation are evidence of the eschatological era which we are in rather than a new form or wisdom or the preaching of self-indulgence and moral licensing.
INCARNATION - SALVATION
In common language the various aspects, changes or movements of inanimate objects are often described in anthropomorphic terms. The sun rises, a piece of furniture can get old, a colour can be cheerful. In the book of Ben Sirach wisdom is personified and made to speak to the reader. What is considered to be a literary device in sapiential literature tends to become a fact in Christian theology. The figure of Jesus actually personifies God’s wisdom, God’s word, God’s image and God himself. The connection between the infinite and the finite which is dealt with through a narrative approach in the Torah or the three synoptic gospels gives way to a theological concept or dogma which can be a good introduction to the tension between the absolute and the contingent. On the other hand it can be misleading if we are made to think that through the figure of Jesus we can overlook that tension.
If we go back to biblical literature, it is remarkable that later OT and NT characters are often reminiscent of older figures. For example in Luke’s gospel Zachariah, John the Baptist’s father, spends his time in the Temple as a priest. In II Chronicles 24,17-22 Zachariah is also a priest who addresses the people in the Temple because the Law has been neglected. He’s killed according to II Chronicles, which is also the case for John the Baptist’s father in the protoevangelium of James (Chapters 23 and 24). Zechariah is also the last prophet before Malachi and as such he is an apt anticipation of the father of John the Baptist if he is to be regarded as the last of the prophets.7
Nanine Charbonnel also scrutinizes the connection between Ruth and Noemi in the Old Testament and Martha and Mary in the New Testament. The character of John the Baptist is often compared with Elijah in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels whereas Elijah’s life has similarities with Jesus’ life in Luke’s and John’s gospels. Jesus is not unlike Joshua. Their mission starts by the Jordan River. Johua gives access to the promised whereas Jesus makes it possible for all the nations to get into God’s kingdom. In a 70-page essay Gérard Massonnat draws a parallel between Paul and king Shaul (Saul/Paul – Le nouveau destin du roi Saül – RB 2015).
It also dawns on the reader of the bible that there is no clear distinction between individuals and the group they belong to. Adam is a man as well as every man. Wheeler Robinson uses the expression ‘corporate personality’ and means by it, on the one hand, that the individual is identified with the group (family, tribe, or nation), and on the other hand, that the group including its past and future is interpreted as one personality (Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought compared with Greek , translated from the German, 1954, 1960, p.70. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel Mary personifies Israel (cf Sandrick Le Maguer’s book quoted by NC, Portrait d’Israël en jeune fille – Genèse de Marie [Portrait of Israel as a Young Girl – Genesis of Mary], Paris, 2008.
The notion of ‘corporate personality’ applies to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. The debate between Jewish and Christian hermeneutics on the identity of the Servant is pointless. The Servant is both an individual and a nation. If Jesus is considered to be the Suffering Servant it also implies that he personifies the Israeli nation. The converse is uncommon in the Jewish tradition but it is a leitmotiv in Chagall’s crucifixion paintings. When apologetic and polemic discourse is no longer on the agenda the two perspectives may no longer be out of scope.
Daniel’s vision of a Son of Man can also be considered both ways. NC quotes Daniel Boyarin’s book The Jewish Gospels – The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York, 2012, p.144). Those Jews who read the Son of Man […] as representing the People of Israel had to do some harmonizing work to explain away the clear divine implications of the vision in the first part, but those Jews, in turn, who gloried in the divinity of the Son of Man also had some hard harmonizing work to do to explain the end of the chapter in accordance with their reading of the first part, understanding the “People of the Most High” as that divine Messiah.
Even though one would hardly expect the same person to personify the Son of Man and the Suffering Servant, the figure of Christ does make sense if it is more of a fictitious character than that of a marginal Jew. He is both crucified and triumphant. He is to be given the throne of David and become king of the Jews. But he is also the Son of Joseph, a Messiah rejected by his own as well as the incarnation of the people of Israel defamed by the Nations and made to endure their jealousy. In him the Jews and the Gentiles are invited to a reconciliation that is both the consequence of Jesus dual profile and evidence of the relevance of his coming.
Inspired by Mary Douglas’s Leviticus as Literature, which lays emphasis on the temple pattern, on animals’ bodies and on biblical scriptures, NC accounts for the interpretation of Jesus as a substitute for the Temple, as a living Torah and for the essential part played by flesh and blood in the Eucharist.
In the field of biblical research in France, forty years after Robert Alter came to deplore ‘the woeful absence of literary understanding among professional scholars of the Bible’ (The Art of Biblical Narrative, Preface to the Revised Edition, p.x), almost 20 years after his first book was translated into French, the divide might no longer be between protestant and catholic scholars or even between Christian and Jewish scholars but between a factual and a narrative approach of OT and NT scriptures. Conservative Rabbi Yeshaya Dalsace who I introduced to NC said he fully agreed with Dr André Wénin, an OT scholar from the Université de Louvain-la-Neuve who constantly refers to Robert Alter as an enlightening author. And when I had a chance to invite André Wénin for 3 days he said he considered NC’s research to offer promising hypotheses. On the other hand, the only time André Wénin sounded embarrassed was when I introduced him to a lay Christian who supervised a workshop of biblical studies on historical Jesus.
The last issue of the Supplement to Cahiers Evangile was about Judas. Although it was edited by an alumnus of prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris it never refers to the chapter Judas Iscariot A Christian Invention in Liberating the Gospels by John Shelby Spong. Régis Burnet is more concerned about the reason why Judas betrayed Jesus and why Jesus chose Judas as a disciple and purse holder. He knows that the figure of Judas is a source of anti-judaism but refrains from regarding him as mainly a figment of the evangelists’ creative imagination. According to a common French joke everybody knows that Jesus was bound to be Jewish but, without any doubt, Anne, his grandmother, died in Brittany and became Mamm gozh ar Vretoned the Bretons’ grandmother. In a similar vein, although we could read in a recent collective book “it is through the experience of Jesus’ absence that a new kind of encounter with him is made possible” (Dettwiler Andreas in Jésus de Nazareth, Etudes contemporaines) secondary characters like that of Judas are still considered to be people we could have met had we lived in Judea 20 centuries ago…
by Nanine Charbonnel
Remerciements à la traductrice, Patricia Buccellato
A new reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s works
How can we rid ourselves of Rousseau’s legacy ? By reading him in a new light. The philosophical oeuvre that laid the foundations of modernity is composed of profoundly illogical schemata that are meant to be perfectly logical. For the better (the struggle against injustice, the glorification of the real individual, the powerful seduction of an author who assumes the role of protagonist) but also for the worse (pseudo-science, the first instance of a definition of mankind that claims that man is not endowed with a natural inclination to relate to his fellowman, the reification of national and sexual entities, the generalisation of naturalism), Rousseau creates the fountainhead which has served as a source of inspiration for the vanguard of antagonistic extremisms. These three ambitious tomes venture to understand his place not only in the history of literature but also of metaphysics and to recognize his role as founder of a new “religion” that resorts to the schemata of Christianity so as to supplant it all the more effectively.
Served by a vivid turn of phrase, Nanine Charbonnel’s works propose a new reading of Rousseau, but also of the history of metaphysics and daring theses on Christianity, on literature and politics.
An eloquent cover
A reproduction of Gauguin’s famous painting, l’Autoportrait au Christ jaune (Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ), dating from 1889 is depicted on the cover. It constitutes a topic of discussion from the very beginning, since it is somewhat emblematic of the type of modernity for which Rousseau paved the way :
the heyday of the self-portrait with the generalisation of the mise-en-abyme (in fact there are three self-portraits in this painting: besides Gauguin’s face which occupies the centre of the picture, there is Christ’s face which bears a strong resemblance to him and, to the right, a piece of work in the form of an earthenware pot that Gauguin had shaped in his own likeness as we learn from one of his letters).
the translation into a work of art as a means of salvation : Gauguin depicts himself in front of two of his works which frame his portrait, a picture he had already painted (after a Breton calvary) and a pot he had previously turned.
the relationship with Christ which oscillates between the traditional recourse to his patronage and to Rousseau’s attribution of a place to him, a kind of open relationship, which is one of the theses developed in the book.
Before disposing of Gauguin, it needs to be said that there is no doubt but what he is the only father ever to have given the same Christian name, Emile, to two of his sons, born of two different wives. The older of the two boys was twenty and still living when his namesake was born…This is an eloquent illustration of the new spiritual reference espoused by the artist of “primitive” life.
The reader encounters a treatment of these respective themes in the three volumes of the work, Philosophie de Rousseau.
The impossible distinction between literal and figurative,
between reality and literature, between literature and philosophy
The first volume, Comment on paie ses dettes quand on a du génie (How to pay your debts when you are a genius), explains the new relationship to language and to reality established by Rousseau. The title refers to a remark made by Baudelaire about Balzac. In an article written in 1846 and which was reprinted in L’Art romantique, Baudelaire refers to the way Balzac “pays his debts” : by getting others to write his articles and by pocketing the earnings. This comment certainly does not apply to Rousseau (even though plagiarism is a major concern for him). It is the end of Baudelaire’s article which is relevant : “I wanted to show that the grand author knew how to negotiate a bill of exchange as effectively as he unravelled the most mysterious and baffling novel.”
In any event, exchange is a key operational category in Rousseau’s work. Paul de Man, (Derrida was his disciple) was the only one to have declared with reason that it is impossible to make a distinction in Rousseau’s writings between the literary works and others of a philosophical, political or pedagogical nature. Even if the impression is justified, the line of reasoning adopted by de Man to uphold his viewpoint is spurious. Nanine Charbonnel proves this by making a detailed exploration into the meanings of the sign, of the figures of speech, of the genre and comes to the conclusion that de Man and Derrida can maintain that the distinction between literal and figurative is impossible because they take Rousseau’s assertions at face value.
Accordingly, the first volume makes us grasp the pre-eminence of Rousseau’s contribution to the elaboration of a new conception of the sign, of the text (which will be used by modernity for the best and for the worst —literary creativity and philosophical error) and also establishes for the first time the actual bases of the inability to distinguish between literature and thought, fiction and reality, truth and falsehood in Rousseau’s writings.
A new relationship to Christianity
The two opening chapters of the second volume entitled À sa place. Déposition du Christianisme (In his place. Deposition of Christianity) explore the purport of the cataclysmic upheaval brought about by Rousseau’s works. Through a detailed study of his writings, they establish the nature of the substance fashioned by Rousseau : be it in the “literature” of La Nouvelle Héloïse, or l’Émile (Chapter I) or in the “thought” of the Contrat social (Chapter II), the characters or the concepts are, in fact, essentially similar.
In this respect Nanine Charbonnel’s thesis is completely new : she demonstrates how it is a question of what she has already termed in her previous studies on the Metaphor “unwarranted literalism” : by this she means that the major devices, namely the Metaphor, the Oxymoron, the Synecdoche, Hyperbole, are employed in a way that disrupts their normal modus operandi, which no longer uses them in a rhetorical fashion (i.e., as a “do-as-if”), but in a pseudo-logical one. As a result, heterogeneous entities (Metaphor) or two contradictory terms (Oxymoron), or the token and the type (Synecdoche), or fact and its exaggeration (Hyperbole) are no longer treated simply as if they were the same; the upshot is that they are considered to be actually, literally, the same.
So we can understand how, by the very nature of this inbuilt about-face, modernity can accommodate anything: the best of new forms of creativity, the worst of new, pseudo-scientific religions which are rooted in these systemic errors of signification that confer their meaning to utterances.
But Nanine Charbonnel’s reflection by no means advocates a return to the past. Her theses culminate in Chapters II, IV and V of the second volume in which she presents all the facts of the case to enable the reader to realize this: it so happens that the aforementioned disruption of thought effected by Rousseau was at work already as the mechanism of elaboration of Christian theology.
So, at the same time we are presented with :
an in-depth understanding of the way in which Rousseau (the actor and the thinker, both of whom are inextricably linked) “takes the place” of Christ in all the senses of the term, inheritance and substitution, imitation and destruction, refusal and transfer;
and a theory of Christianity unequalled at the present time, which renews the philosophical approach to that religion entirely and represents a real deconstruction of the nature of its specificity amongst monotheistic religions.
An illogical logic
In the third volume entitled Logiques du naturel (Logics of naturalness), the illogical logic at work in Rousseau is made explicit.
The contention that there is an illogical logic in Rousseau is a leitmotiv which is introduced in the preamble and which runs through all three volumes: it concerns the way Rousseau wanted to be read, without consideration for contradictions, but without overlooking what is embarrassing or irritating. Therefore, the reader must devote himself to a genuine structural investigation, the results of which are rendered in the long first chapter of this final volume, a chapter entitled Onto-logique du Bien et du Mal (Onto-logic of Good and Evil). The chapter bears the epigraph “studia la matematica”…, the well-known phrase pronounced by the Venetian courtesan, Zulietta, in response to a very unseemly remark by Jean-Jacques concerning the dissimilarity between her two nipples.
The demonstration is made that Rousseauism is entirely governed by “one” and “two”, a fact not only of structural importance, but also endowed with an anthropological meaning : the question of the relationship to others dominates all of Rousseau’s work.
Now, he pictures this question as being the choice between the sui generis-the incorruptible-the “peculiar to oneself” (singular) on the one hand and the double-half-displaced-masked by the other on the other hand. The good one and the evil two, such is the alternative that structures through and through the queries submitted to Rousseau’s analysis. Accordingly, Rousseau’s various utterances need to be apprehended either as problems or as solutions, the latter encompassing all of the possible ways of recreating “One” out of “two”.
The two final chapters of the third volume present yet another provocative hypothesis: in Rousseau the notion of natural is formulated exclusively to serve as an antithesis to the relationship with the other party. For Rousseau, “natural” refers to what is “peculiar to oneself” (singular) and not to any essential relationship between individuals.
This is the most outstanding example of “secularisation” by transfer of the sacred to the temporal, the new definition of man thus supplanting “the only God of his kind” of Christianity. But what is more, the attributes that are to be found in Rousseau’s reflection on naturalness are undeniably the same as those that characterize the inseparable association of literal and figurative (attributes substantiated by a close reading of the history of theology). Hence the theses of “unwarranted literalism” and of “peculiar to oneself” (the singular) culminate at the same point.
Not only do these three volumes throw a new light on our understanding of Rousseau, they also represent a re-reading of modernity.
A substantial General Conclusion furnishes the reader with guidelines for this re-reading.
From 1981 to 1991, Nanine CHARBONNEL taught at the University of Geneva. In 1991, she was appointed to a position of Professor of Philosophy at Marc-Bloch University, Strasbourg II where she is still teaching. She passed the agrégation examination in philosophy and has a Doctorate of Literature (D.Litt.) degree.
Connections between the author’s past and present research
Nanine Charbonnel initiated a re-reading of modernity with her trilogy, La Tâche aveugle (The Blind Task). In it she attempted to replace the successive theories of the metaphor at the heart of the philosophical debate (Les Aventures de la Métaphore, The Adventures of the Metaphor) and to create new tools to make it possible to represent modernity as a tendency to disregard the praxeological dimension (i.e., its aspect as a guide for action) and to revert to a natural type of conception of the human model. (Philosophie du modèle, Philosophy of the Model).
Accordingly, she resorts to new means to revisit the question of modernity: by re-reading the history of metaphysics in the light of the work on imitation and resemblance and by relating this work to the “semantic frame of reference” of the figures of rhetoric. She proposes to call this field of study “Transcendental Rhetoric” in reference to its Kantian influence. It associates the dialectic of reason and the difficulties encountered in the treatment of “doing as if” in thought. The notion of proper is at the heart of her re-reading along with the development of the concept of “unwarranted literalism” (unwarranted or unjustified propriety).