“Minimalist” Thomas Thompson’s take on The Messiah Myth

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by Neil Godfrey

Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth can be a somewhat mystifying read for anyone looking for an engagement with conventional historical Jesus studies. It can leave a reader who is looking for a repeat of this scholar’s demolition of the historicity of the biblical Patriarchs and Kingdom of Israel even more flummoxed. In his first chapter he explains:

The purpose of this book is not historical reconstruction. Nor is it centered in the problems of the historical Jesus. (p.16)


It is about the influence of the ancient Near Eastern figure of the king in biblical literature, and this has much to do with how figures such as Jesus are created.

So Thompson is addressing Jesus as he has been created out of this Near Eastern literary figure, and not a historical figure behind the gospels.

Thompson sees no evidence for a historical figure. He critiques historical Jesus studies since the days of Schweitzer for “lack of clarity” in the method by which scholars have approached the gospels and attempted to find in them historical information.

On the one hand [Schweitzer] assumed that Jesus existed apart from the gospels and on the other that the gospels were about this historical person and reflected his beliefs. This lack of clarity in method supported the radical separation of a Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. (p.8)

Thompson sees an even more profound error in what he believes is a prevalent misreading of the apocalyptic images in the Gospels. This is something I am still thinking through. I am waiting to read Amos and the Cosmic Imagination by James Linville (to get a different but presumably related perspective from Thomspon’s — meet Dr Jim [Link //drjimsthinkingshop.com/about/ and blog is no longer active… Neil, 23rd Sept, 2015]) as part of my attempt to grasp the rationale for understanding apocalyptic language as something other than an expression of literal beliefs in apocalyptic scenarios. Will return to this question at the end of the post.

A difficult assumption

That the stories of the gospels are about a historical person is a difficult assumption. To what extent does the figure of Jesus — like the figures of Abraham, Moses and Job — fulfill a function in a narrative discourse about something else? Is Jesus rather — like so many other great figures on ancient literature — the bearer of a writer’s parable? The question does not refer to our knowledge of a historical person. It asks about the meaning and function of biblical texts. (p.9)

This question — what is the meaning and function of the gospels — is one Thompson addresses in The Messiah Myth in a way that few other scholars have done. Certainly historical Jesus scholars acknowledge the Gospels are theology and faith-messages. But they also assume they are records of oral traditions traced back to a historical event, and in so doing they violate the very basics of scholarly historical enquiry by reconstructing Jesus and early Christianity upon an untested and unquestioned assumption. Thompson argues that Gospels are born not from a set of unique oral traditions, but from a well established literary matrix traceable back through centuries and millennia.

Literary creations replace their authors

Anonymous authors created the figures of Moses and David, and such figures have so dominated our imaginations that it is difficult to stop and think about their original creators and explore why and how those authors created them in the first place. What were the authors seeking to achieve through these literary creations? Thompson comments that it is the same with Socrates. Socrates so dominates the Dialogues of Plato, readers have to stop and pinch themselves to keep in mind that it is not Socrates they are reading about at all, but Plato himself, and his ideas.

Such dominant characters can displace from the readers’ minds the author and the author’s intentions in creating these figures:

Even as with the biblical figures of a Moses or a David, with their authors stridently competing with each other for their heroes, such figures of literature are capable of challenging and displacing their often anonymous creators. (p.9)

Thompson’s book is an attempt to take the reader into the literary heritage of the Gospel authors and to explore the raw materials and certain literary functions that went into the making up of the Jesus character.

The problem with using the gospels as historical sources

To quote Thompson in reiteration my point of previous posts,

Before we can speak of a historical Jesus we need a source that is independent of Matthew, Mark and Luke and refers to the figure of the early first century. Such an ideal source, of course, is hardly to be hoped for in the ancient world apart from monumental inscriptions and gravestones, . . . .

To “solve” this problem, enter oral tradition:

The problem with using the far from ideal gospels as sources for history has attracted great attention to oral tradition. (p.9)

The problem with oral tradition, Q and Thomas

Q and the fourth-century Coptic text of Thomas have been invoked as evidence of early efforts to document oral traditions. Thompson overviews the use of Q and the Gospel of Thomas as attempts to fill the textual gap between historical events and canonical gospels, noting the paucity of evidence involved and the circularities of argument.

The tendency to evoke oral tradition to transmit the sayings from event to the writing of the gospels is required only by the assumption that the text is about a historical Jesus. The projected function of the sayings in Q and Thomas as oral sayings is to link the gospels with their text’s heroic teacher. This, of course, confuses categories. (p.11)

Thompson’s intention in The Messiah Myth is to demonstrate that the “most central” “sayings of Jesus” were in fact “spoken by many figures of ancient literature.”

That they are “sayings of Jesus” is to be credited to the author who put them in his mouth. Many sayings the [Jesus seminar] identifies as “certainly authentic” are well-known and can be dated centuries earlier than the New Testament. (p.11)

Would any historian treat sayings of Solomon, David, Moses the same way?

If, instead of Q and the collection of sayings in Thomas, we were to consider actually existing Jewish collections of sayings, such as the proverbs of Solomon, the songs of David or the laws of Moses, would we also conclude that such sayings originated with the figure to which the Bible attributes them? Solomon as a writer of Proverbs (Prv 1:1), David as the singer of Psalms (Ps 3:1, 7:1, 18:1) or Moses as the writer of law (Ex 32:32, 34:27; Jub 1:4-6) belong to the literature collecting the traditions that the proverbs, songs and laws might be transmitted, interpreted and debated. Such collections tell us nothing about a historical Solomon, David or Moses — not even whether they existed. Rather, such figures — writer, singer and lawgiver — have few historical ties apart from the collections and texts that transmit them. At the same time, these proverbs, songs and laws have oral and written forms apart from their heroes and are frequently transmitted by other heroes. (pp. 11-12)

Circularity of the historical reconstructions

Thompson critiques the way historical Jesus scholars, such as Marcus Borg, select sayings of Jesus and attempt to remove them from their narrative contexts and reuse them to create a historical figure supposedly responsible for the sayings. Borg, for example, selects sayings that suggest Jesus was a “charismatic and subversive sage”. But since the Gospels already present Jesus as a sage, Thompson argues that the sayings from which Borg has selected have already been selected to fit a certain narrative. They cannot, therefore, be used as evidence of some other historical figure external to the narrative. A similar circular process of other historians such as Horsley and Crossan is further addressed.

A sketch of a historical Jesus, drawn by harmonizing his sayings with what we know of the cynic movement, the period and its texts, is often attractive because the harmony supports a circular argument. The efforts to write a biography of Jesus as a peasant nonconformist resisting Roman exploitation, a cynic philosopher walking the hills of Galilee or a charismatic preacher — all descriptions of persons who could have existed in first-century Palestine — are more reassuring than convincing. They are more attractive to conservative theology than Schweitzer’s mistaken prophet. (p.13)

Thompson later adds more directly:

The attempt to isolate sayings of Jesus from their contexts in the gospels is arbitrary and mistaken. (p. 19)

Popular literature of the day

The Hellenistic period saw an explosion of popular literature about great figures of traditions: kings and writers and speakers like Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, Alexander, Homer, Socrates, Demosthenes, Cicero were all celebrated. We have Plutarch’s Lives and Diogenes Laertes’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers. This literature was not really about the historical recovery and transmission of these people, as Thompson points out, but about the ethics, the sayings, the laws, the traditions that these individuals were created to personify.

Not Moses’ life but the Torah is the narrative’s goal. . . Whether there ever was a historical Moses, the Moses we know from the Hebrew Bible is necessarily an invention — for the Torah depends on that figure.

A great figure — bearing and illustrating a tradition — is stock-in-trade of ancient literature. (p. 14)

The sayings of the Egyptian teacher Amenemopet

Give your ears, hear what is said; give your heart to understand them. To put them in your heart is worthwhile, but it is damaging to him who neglects them. Let them rest in the casket of your belly, that they may be a key in your heart.

are found again in the words attributed to King Solomon.

Incline your ear and hear the words of the wise,
And apply your mind to my knowledge;
For it will be pleasant if you keep them within you,
That they may be ready on your lips.
So that your trust may be in the LORD,
I have taught you today, even you.
Have I not written to you excellent things
Of counsels and knowledge,
To make you know the certainty of the words of truth
That you may correctly answer him who sent you?
(Proverbs 22:17-21)

The Egyptian text of Amenemopet above is followed by 30 proverbs, the second one reading:

Guard against robbing the oppressed and against overbearing the disabled . . .

The Hebrew text of Solomon also follows the same literary tradition with 30 proverbs, and includes (among ten matching ones):

Do not rob the poor, because he is poor or crush the afflicted at the gate.

Thompson repeats his theme:

Such ancient words of wisdom are transmitted across languages, cultures and centuries. As with Moses and the Torah, the association of a saying with a specific teacher or a specific audience allows the saying to serve a specific function or support a specific plot. However, such plot and function tie the tradition with the figure only secondarily. In dealing with this genre of literature, one doesn’t have to invent hypothetical texts like Q; one should rather think of the literature used in the schools of the scribes. Ancient literature swarms in such sayings and stories to give them context. (pp. 15-16)

Apocalyptic sayings — what do they really mean?

Thompson does not read the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus or Paul as uniquely addressing a particular historical scenario. Such apocalyptic sayings, he says, “are commonplace in early Jewish literature.” We can see that Paul demonstrates his knowledge of this literary tradition when we compare 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 with Ezekiel 7:10-13.

the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let even those who have wives be as if they had none, and those who weep and mourn as though they were not weeping and mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they did not possess anything and those who deal with this world as though they had no dealings with it. For the outward form of this world is passing away. (Paul)

Behold, the day! Behold, it has come! Your doom has gone forth, the rod has blossomed, pride has budded. . . . The time has come, the day draws near. Let not the buyer rejoice nor the seller mourn, for wrath is upon all their multitude. For the seller shall not return to that which is sold, even were they yet alive. For wrath is upon all their multitude; it shall not turn back, and because of his iniquity, none can maintain his life. (Ezekiel)

Apocalyptic sayings like these can present motifs capable of different meanings according to their contexts. For Thompson, it is a mistake to assume that they reflect literal fundamentalist expectations of the author’s immediate future.

The same is found in 1 Peter4:7 “The end of all things is at hand. Therefore, keep sane and sober for your prayers.”

[L]ike all the prophets from Amos to Malachi to 1 Enoch, 2 Macabbees and Ben Sira, he projects the realization of divine justice with his idealistic metaphor.

Crossan defines apocalyptic in terms of historical expectations concerning the end of the world, rather than as a literary or mythic trope projecting utopian ideals. (p.18)

Historical Jesus scholars, such as Crossan and Mack, who separate wisdom-sayings of Jesus from apocalyptic ones, declaring the former authentic and the latter as subsequent additions by the church, are mistaken. According to Thompson they misunderstand the literary tradition of the apocalyptic. Some of the sayings these (and this is “unfortunately commonplace among New Testament scholars”) scholars separate out as sapiential do, indeed, “bear typical characteristics of the divine judgment scene. . . . They are as ‘apocalyptic’ as any other aspect of the Elijah tradition.” (p.19)

We shall see that early Jewish texts like Job, the Psalter and Isaiah are soaked with such apocalyptic metaphors. Yet they do not reflect either the writer’s or his audience’s view of what will happen in the world outside their literary project. (pp. 19-20)

The idea that apocalyptic sayings are not necessarily dramatic warnings to inform readers about what to expect to happen in their political, social and economic surroundings, but metaphors of the divine judgment and the ideals for here and now, is something I have not yet managed to fully grasp. But this understanding of the apocalyptic in both the gospels and New Testament epistles would “evaporate” most current reconstructions of the early Church and Jesus.

Apocalypse Collage — Image by adriansalamandre via Flickr
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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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