Methodology: Comparing New Testament & Old Testament origins

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by Neil Godfrey

How justifiable is it to compare the arguments of the “Copenhagen School” that suggests the evidence favours, say, David being a theological and literary creation with certain arguments of the “Jesus mythicists”?

I’m thinking of Thompson’s “It is a fundamental error of method to ask first after an historical David or Solomon, as biblical archaeologists and historians have done. We need first to attend to the David and Solomon we know: the protagonists of Bible story and legend. The Bible does not hesitate to tell these stories as tall tales.” (The Mythic Past, p.45)

Compare Davies’ “So far, historical research by biblical scholars has taken a … circular route …. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself. Historical criticism (so-called) of the inferred sources and traditions seeks to locate these in that literary-cum-historical construct.” (In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’, pp.35-37)

If we accept the nature of the old testament biblical literature as suggested by Thompson, Davies, Lemche et al (i.e. that it was composed largely as a literary founding myth which bears little if any relationship to real history — check out my above link to In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ for links to details), is it not a small step to seeing the first gospel as equally creative in its foundation myths for the ‘new and true people of God’? Are not the studies of the Gospel of Mark that offer the greater explanatory power for its various parts and characters those that analyze its literary context and nature (e.g. Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel) in ways that leave much of the older discussions about traditions underlying various bits and pieces somewhat irrelevant?

Should not the real question ask for the origins and context of such a literary work, leaving it open as to whether the most satisfactory answer is to be found with a heroic founder or with something more complex, as some argue was the case with the literature about David?

One initial objection might be that the multiplicity of varying gospels argues against such a possibility but again we may well be reading the same phenomonon of rival scribal schools in dialog with one another as we appear to find among the OT prophetic and historical writings.


(I originally asked this question back in 2000 in JesusMysteries — my thoughts have only strengthened in this direction since.)

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Neil Godfrey

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