Category Archives: Thompson: Mythic Past


2017-02-23

On Not Reading the Bible Too Seriously — As Its Authors Intended

by Neil Godfrey

My reflections on reading the story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac as a children’s story brought to mind a more mature understanding of the Bible’s narratives discussed by in The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel by Thomas L. Thompson. (The same book is published under the title The Bible in history : How Writers Create a Past, so don’t be fooled and buy both books like I did!)

Most Christians and Jews do read the story of the “Binding of Isaac” or Akedah as it’s more technically called correctly, though perhaps not always realising it. What I mean is that most readers do not really take it literally with all its psychological horror. Most readers, correctly at the story level and as the narrator evidently intended, admire Abraham for his faithfulness and obedience. The problem, the horror, descends only when we treat it as literal history and a genuine account of a real God, and give our minds over to that same God.

Here are some of Thomas L. Thompson’s more realistic explanation of the story. By realistic I mean reading it the way the narrator presented it and no more.

The first reference comes as a comparison with the story of Saul who fails God’s test by sparing the lives of the cattle after killing the enemy soldiers. read more »


2012-02-28

Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? — Part 2

by Neil Godfrey
Cover of "The Mythic Past: Biblical Archa...

Cover via Amazon

Over a week ago I posted Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1 — a discussion drawn principally from Thomas L. Thompson’s The Mythic Past: Biblical archaeology and the myth of Israel. That first post covered the evidence that “Jewishness” originated as a religious rather than an ethnic label:

  1. the origin myth of Israel being unlike any other national or ethnic origin myth in that it is an etiology of a religious cult
  2. the fact that there has been far more continuity of the population of Palestine than commonly understood
  3. the worship of Yahweh was not unique to any one people in the ancient Near East, nor was Yahweh the sort of god often depicted in the Bible
  4. Jewishness was not a concept that was limited to a particular ethnic group or even “the Jerusalem cult” exclusively, as witnessed by the surviving evidence from diaspora groups
  5. the concept of Israel in the Bible’s narrative is theological and not political or ethnic (prohibitions on mixed marriages were a safeguard for the preservation of the religious cult rather than an ethnic group)

Thompson argues that modern readers have tended to overlook the literary character of the biblical stories and traditions, and the fact that Israel in these stories is a theological (not historical) construct or metaphor. The same misreading applies to the New Testament, too.

This post addresses the second part of Thompson’s argument, the evidence from Josephus and to a lesser extent from Philo.

In book 12 of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus recounts an etiology of the Jews of Egypt from deportations under Ptolemy ‘from the mountains of Judea and from the places about Jerusalem, Samaria and near Mount Gerizim.‘ These he describes as ‘two groups’ — nevertheless Jews all — who dispute about whether they should send their tribute to Jerusalem of to Samaria (Ant. 12.1.1). (p. 259-60, The Mythic Past, my emphasis)

What is the significance of this? It shows that in Josephus’ mind it was quite acceptable to think of a single functioning Jewish community in the diaspora that was made up of Jews of disparate origins and loyalties. (Thompson, p. 260) read more »


2012-02-16

Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1

by Neil Godfrey
Kurdistan  .Yazidis  .Judaism . Christianity ....

Kurdistan .Yazidis .Judaism . Christianity .Islam (Photo credit: Kurdistan Photo كوردستان)

This post is based primarily on a few pages in The Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson. It is slightly supplemented by fewer notes from a different but complementary discussion on the biblical meanings of “the people of God” in The Israelites in History and Tradition by Niels Peter Lemche. (All bold fonts for emphasis or highlighting key points for ease of reading are mine.)

I conclude with my own thoughts on what all of this means for the first of our Gospels.

The biblical tradition informs us of the meaning and understanding that the biblical authors’ contemporaries attributed to the past. Archaeological evidence points to a different reality of the past.

The religious understanding of Israel’s origin myth

The primary biblical referent for Israel’s ethnic and family identification is found in the stories and metaphors of “exodus”, “wilderness”, “exile” and “return”. Even in the Books of Kings the narrative is couched in the suspense of threats and promises of exile from the land. These themes centre on the motif of the children of Israel as the “people of God”, as Jahweh’s “first-born” and God’s “inheritance”.

These stories all are solidly rooted in the self-defining, grand epochal line of a God without a home or a people [and who was] searching for a people without a home or a God. It is in this metaphor that we find the foundation and matrix for the ethnographic metaphor of all Israel. This metaphor gives voice to the ‘new Israel’ with its centre in Yahweh’s temple of the ‘new Jerusalem’. This is an identity that is formed from the perspective of the sectarian theology of the way. (pp. 255-56, Our Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson)

Compare Niels Peter Lemche’s observation of the nature of Israel’s origin myth: read more »


2012-02-13

Biblical Israel as Fiction

by Neil Godfrey
Cover of "The Mythic Past: Biblical Archa...

Cover via Amazon

Biblical Israel, as an element of tradition and story, such as the Israel of the murmuring stories in the wilderness, or the people of the stories of II Kings who are faithless as their kings are faithless, or the lost Israel, which is the object of prophetic diatribe in Isaiah and Amos, is a theological and literary creation. This Israel is what I have called ‘old Israel’. It is presented as the polar opposite of an equally theological and literary ‘new Israel’, which is the implicit voice, for example, of II Chronicles, the Book of Psalms, the Damascus Covenant and the gospels. (p. 78 of The Mythic Past, Thomas L. Thompson)

The Bible is a theological book with literary creations to illustrate its theological messages. It bears little resemblance to the material evidence of actual history. (The quotations and notes here — up until the last paragraph — are taken from Thomas L. Thompson’s The Mythic Past.)

Israel in the Bible . . . stands in sharp contrast to the Israel we know from ancient texts and from archaeological field work. (p. 78)

We first encounter the name in the Bible when it is bestowed on Jacob after he wrestled with God himself. He became the father of twelve sons who each became the father of one of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. This eponymous hero named Israel is character of fiction, based on an assumed existence of a later Israel comprising of twelve tribes.

Few biblical scholars would doubt this today. Such ‘eponymous’ figures of story have a life of their own, quite apart from any real or assumed past. Odysseus’ struggle with the Cyclops need not have anything to do with a known past and hardly gives us cause to believe in historical Cyclopses in the Aegean’s past. Similarly, Israel’s tribes need not have been either twelve or tribes in reality.

Names in both history and tradition tend to have very long lives. They change over time and can come to have a variety of references.

The Bible built its fiction of ‘old Israel’

out of traditions, stories and legendary lore from Palestine’s past. Some of the sources for such ‘knowledge’ are very old, and it is useful to take a look at how such knowledge changes over time.

The variable name ‘Israel’

The earliest known usage of the name “Israel” is in an Egyptian inscription from the thirteenth century bce, the Merenptah stele. Pharaoh Merenptah boasts that he has destroyed, in the land of Canaan, among other peoples, “Israel’s seed” and that “Israel is no more”. read more »


2012-01-27

Confusing stories with historical evidence

by Neil Godfrey
Cover of "The Mythic Past: Biblical Archa...

Cover via Amazon

It’s worth quoting a few passages from Thomas L. Thompson‘s The Mythic Past (aka The Bible in History). I believe they have a relevance that extends beyond the Old Testament.

Naively realistic questions about historicity have always been most out of place when it has come to Israel’s origins — if only for the fact that the genre of origin stories that fills so much of the Bible relates hardly at all to historical events, to anything that might have happened. It rather reflects constitutional questions of identity. (pp. 34-35, my emphasis)

The genre of origin stories hardly relates at all to historical events? Now one sees the pressing need for Historical Jesus scholars to bypass standard scientific methods of dating documents in order to date the Gospels as close as they reasonably can to the presumed events contained in their narratives. How can an origin story not relate to history if the story is composed within living memory of the events? The circularity of this is never addressed as far as I am aware.

We know the events really happened. No-one would have made them up. How do we know?

Because the narrative is a historical record, more or less.

How do we know the narrative is a historical record?

Because it is about events we know really happened — no-one would have made them up.

And all the subsequent scholarly apparatus thought to bring us closer to the historical Jesus is built upon this logic.

read more »


2011-08-01

Gospel Prophecy (and History) through Ancient Jewish Eyes: The Massacre of the Innocents

by Neil Godfrey
10th century

Image via Wikipedia

I used to be always a little troubled or at least mystified by the way the author of the Gospel of Matthew found “a prophecy” for Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” (all the infants two years old and under) in Bethlehem in hopes of killing off the one born to replace him as king of the Jews. The prophecy of this event was found in this verse in Jeremiah 31:15, but that passage is not a prediction of anything. Was Matthew twisting scriptures or what?

Matthew 2:16-18

16Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth and slew all the children who were in Bethlehem and in all the region thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

17Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,

18“In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation and weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted, because they are no more.”

To get some idea of why this particular prophecy is at the least a little mystifying, here is the verse in Jeremiah’s context: read more »


2010-04-08

The Bible’s 4000 years from Creation to the New Israel

by Neil Godfrey

A 4000 year year span which terminates at the re-dedication of the Temple in 164 bce has been worked into the chronology of Old Testament literature. 4000 years had significance beyond the biblical texts, too. I will give the ancient sources for that at the end. This data has significance for when the Bible’s books were still subject to editing, or even creation, before settling into the canonical versions we use today.

Event

Year (from creation)

Historical year

Span

Adam 1
Birth of Abraham 1946 1945
Call of Abraham 2021 75
Entrance into Egypt 2236 215
Exodus from Egypt 2666  (two thirds of total span)
430
Solomon’s Temple 3146 480
Jerusalem besieged / Exile to Babylon 3576 588 bce 430
Edict of Cyrus 3626 538 bce 50
Rededication of Temple 4000 164 bce 374

This covers a neat 10 generations from Adam to the Flood

  1. Adam
  2. Seth
  3. Enosh
  4. Kenan
  5. Mahalalel
  6. Jared
  7. Enoch
  8. Methuselah
  9. Lamech
  10. Noah

and another 10 generations from the Flood to the father of Abraham

  1. Shem
  2. Arpachshad
  3. Kenan
  4. Shelah
  5. Eber
  6. Peleg
  7. Reu
  8. Serug
  9. Nahor
  10. Terah

Abraham was called by God when he was 75 years old (Genesis 12:4)

Call of Abraham to the entry of Israel into Egypt was 215 years

From Abraham’s call to the birth of Isaac was 25 years, Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born, and Jacob 130 years old when he entered Egypt (25 + 60 + 130 = 215 years)

Entry into Egypt to the Exodus and birth of Israel was 430 years

(Exodus 12:40).

Exodus to the beginning of the building of Solomon’s temple was 480 years

(1 Kings 6:1).

Abraham’s birth to the foundation of the Temple was 1200 years

Or 12 generations of the round 100 years each. (There are several remnants throughout the Bible of the idea of a post-Flood generation being a round 100 years, such as Genesis 15:13-16 where 4 generations are given 400 years.)

Foundation of the Temple to the destruction of Jerusalem was 430 years

(Ezekiel 4:5-6)

Destruction of the Temple to the (legendary) edict of Cyrus to return of Israel was 50 years.

(Jeremiah speaks of a 70 year captivity, but the chronology was constructed at a time when there was no canonical bible and Jeremiah’s book did not figure in the calculation.)

Return of Israel to the rededication of the Temple was 374 years

The odd-number out to complete the “Great Year” of 4000 years.

And the point of all this is?

read more »


2007-10-19

The Meaning of Biblical Chronology

by Neil Godfrey

From Genesis through to 2 Kings and the prophet Ezekiel are many nice round numbers tying together the world’s and Israel’s major events. And when they are added up they point to the rededication of the Temple under Judas Maccabeus.

They therefore imply a prophecy that this event, from which the Jewish nation could be said to be reborn, was ordained from the beginning of time. Creation itself could be inferred to have had its fulfilment in this rebirth of Israel.

The figures also mean that the editing (if not composition) of some of the biblical books happened as late as 164 b.c.e. read more »


2007-03-25

The Tree of Wisdom in the Garden of Eden

by Neil Godfrey

The best explanation I have read for the meaning of the story of the 2 trees in the Garden of Eden came from Thompson’s The Mythic Past.

The Genesis story warns that wisdom will make Adam and Eve like gods and then they will die.

They eat of wisdom, and the wisdom they learn is that they are naked. That is what their wisdom is: knowledge of their nakedness. Sounds pretty dumb. How can that be called being made “wise”?

But the story continues. Adam and Eve have become as gods (elohim) or God — God himself said this, Gen.3:22 — and then are sentenced to death.

All their wisdom does for them is to cause them to see they are naked, and then die.

The story does not quite flow. This has opened it up for later generations imputing their own pet speculations of what exactly is the meaning of the fruit, etc. read more »


2006-12-14

New Testament Gospels’ “Mythic Past”?

by Neil Godfrey

Is there any such beast as a scholarly discussion of the ‘New Testament’ gospels and epistles as possible direct continuations of the ‘Old Testament’s’ intellectual world?

I’m thinking of Thomas L. Thompson’s Mythic Past: “Both theologically and referentially, most of the texts that were to become the Christian Bible’s Old Testament belong to an intellectual world that holds the New Testament in common….. Most of the works that belong to these ‘testaments’ reflect a single biblical tradition that has its roots in what is widely understood as early Jewish intellectual history. They relate to each other as older and younger contemporaries within a common discourse. The discussions about tradition that we find in the New Testament are not reinterpretations of a closed past. They are part of an ongoing transmission common to the whole of biblical tradition.” (p.289)

If the literature of ‘the old testament’ is essentially a metaphor (mythic creation?) of ‘a new and true remnant ‘Israel’ replacing an old and failed and vanished ‘Israel’ as part of an identification ‘program’ for an uprooted people settled beside ‘strangers’ who are sometimes godfearing and often antagonistic, then is it unreasonable to explore the possibility that the gospels are essentially an extension of this identification ‘program’ for a post 70 ce generation? And if valid, does such a perspective change or add to any ‘mythic’ portrayal of Jesus as hitherto understood?

Neil