Thomas L. Thompson responds to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s good to see Professor Thomas L. Thompson come out and respond to Bart Ehrman’s crude dismissal of his scholarly contribution to the origin of the Christ myth.

Here is what Ehrman had written of Thomas L. Thompson’s work:

A different sort of support for a mythicist position comes in the work of Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots o f Jesus and David, Thompson is trained in biblical studies, but he does not have degrees in New Testament or early Christianity. He is, instead, a Hebrew Bible scholar who teaches at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. In his own field of expertise he is convinced that figures from the Hebrew Bible such as Abraham, Moses, and David never existed. He transfers these views to the New Testament and argues that Jesus too did not exist but was invented by Christians who wanted to create a savior figure out of stories found in the Jewish scriptures.

and again

In The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots o f Jesus and David, Thompson argues that just as Old Testament notables such as Abraham, Moses, and David were legendary, not historical figures, so too with Jesus, whose stories in the Gospels are not the result of oral traditions dating back to near his own time but are literary fictions invented by the Gospel writers and their predecessors.

Thompson is a trained scholar of the Hebrew Bible and is well known in those circles for being what is called a minimalist, meaning that he thinks there is a very small amount of historical information in the Hebrew Bible. . . . He argues that the Gospels try to formulate their stories about Jesus in light of traditions found in the Old Testament. . . . They are not, therefore, based on oral traditions that go back to near the time of Jesus himself. This is especially the case because in his view Jesus did not exist but was a literary invention of the early Christians.

. . . . To understand these [Gospel] stories, the interpreter has to understand where the stories came from. From this assertion Thompson leaps to the conclusion that since the Jesus traditions are textual and literary, they are therefore not rooted in oral traditions and have no basis in actual history. To read the stories as historical narratives, in his opinion, is therefore to misread them. . . .

So what is TLT’s problem with any of that? Anyone who has read TLT’s book knows immediately what is wrong with Ehrman’s account. But Thompson has responded personally at A Response to Bart Ehrman on the BibleInterp website.

Some excerpts:

Bart Ehrman has recently dismissed what he calls mythicist scholarship, my Messiah Myth from 2005 among them, as anti-religious motivated denials of a historical Jesus and has attributed to my book arguments and principles which I had never presented, certainly not that Jesus had never existed. Rather than dealing with the historicity of the figure of Jesus, my book had argued a considerably different issue, which, however, might well raise problems for many American New Testament scholars who historicize what was better understood as allegorical. Rather than a book on historicity, my The Messiah Myth offered an analysis of the thematic elements and motifs of a particular myth, which had a history of at least 2000 years.


Apparently to him, the more than 40 years I have devoted to research in my study of the primary fields of Old Testament exegesis, ancient Near Eastern literature and ancient history—not least in regards to questions of historicity—leaves me unqualified and lacking the essential competence to address such questions because they also come to include a comparison of such an analysis with these same stereotypical literary tropes as they occur in the Gospels. . . . .

It is puzzling, however, that he seems sincerely unaware of the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern thematic elements which are comparable to those of the Gospels. . . .

. . . Such narratively embraced themes can hardly be understood as providing historical evidence for any figure of the ancient world; this has always been the stuff other than the historical. Why has he written such a diatribe as Did Jesus Exist? And having decided to write it: why didn’t he take his title seriously and attempt to give a reasonable argument concerning his conviction that he did?


[Ehrman’s] crude dismissal of the relevance of inter-disciplinary perspectives undermines my confidence that he understands the problems related to the historicity of a literary figure, except from a historicist—even fundamentalist—perspective. 

And finally

Ehrman has asserted that the present state of New Testament scholarship is such that an established scholar should present his Life of Jesus, without considering whether this figure, in fact, lived as a historical person. The assumptions implied reflect a serious problem regarding the historical quality of scholarship in biblical studies—not least that which presents itself as self-evidently historical-critical. . . .

And that final remark points to why I have referred to Thompson’s book a number of times — as well as others. He has addressed methodology in other publications, too. I have attempted to point out repeatedly that though the arguments I present seriously undermine the notion that Jesus was a historical figure, they are essentially about valid methodology in historical studies generally. The methods are not biased towards mythicism. Otherwise they would not be any more valid than if they were biased towards Jesus being historical. The methods I have addressed are nothing other than those many historians take for granted. It is only in biblical studies that we encounter special rules and criteria in order to find some basic “facts” buried beneath the textual evidence.

All Thompson has done is demonstrate known literary sources (direct or indirect) for the gospels. Arguments for historicity of any of the narrative, on the other hand, are wrapped in many hypotheses but no real evidence as far as I am aware. And the literary evidence of the gospels further speaks against a narrative that is designed to report historical events, too — as has often been pointed out in many posts on genre and method here. Remove the literary imitations and one should find some core of historicity if the literary wrapping is not all there is.

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28 thoughts on “Thomas L. Thompson responds to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?”

    1. McGrath: “. . . Thompson seems to be trying to both defend mythicism and distance himself from it.”

      Has anyone else noticed a recurring pattern here? McG skims Doherty, misunderstands what he reads, and then writes: “Doherty seems to be saying [insert something wrong here].”

      It’s really pretty simple. Thompson’s complaint is that Ehrman misrepresented what he wrote in The Messiah Myth. While zealously trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of myth are stored, Bart mis-stomped.

      We’ve learned recently that it’s bad form to accuse a respected scholar of not reading his sources, because that implies dishonesty. Hence, when Ehrman misrepresents Doherty, Price, and Thompson, the proper response is to presume incompetence.

      In a similar situation, Al Franken says that the original title of his book was Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Liar. However, his publishers balked. Calling somebody a liar leaves you open to libel charges. They suggested “idiot” instead. He agreed, but was somewhat bemused.

      So it is in academia. These are honorable men (and women). But they might not be the sharpest knives in the drawer.

      1. I doubt McGrath has ever read “The Messiah Myth” because it sounds like he is entering into something he knows nothing about. But he does see it has something to do with mythicism so that’s enough for him repeat his usual substitutes for any argument.

        Another sure giveway of McGrath’s to advertize his ignorance of what another person argues is the tactic used in this line: Thompson mentions things like Philo’s love of allegory and Qoheleth’s assertion of our lack of novelty, as though these somehow will allow one to open the door to any and all interpretations of texts

        In other words, McGrath has no idea how Thompson in fact does address Philo or Solomon etc in his book. He has no idea of his argument. It is enough that TLT opens the door to mythicism, even if that is only a by-product of his real argument. So McG lazily and mischievously drops a few keywords into his usual saying: “So-and-so mentions things like X and Y as though these will somehow allow one ot open the door to any and all interpretations/support of mythicism, etc.”

        It’s a trademark line of his, and a sure advertisement that he could not be bothered actually reading and coming to understand what “So-and-so” really does argue (but McGrath will never concede there is a genuine or valid argument invovled — hence to him So-and-so will always be simply “mentioning” some words, or such) about X and Y.

  1. I have two questions:

    The first is how you see Thompson as reflecting principles most historians take for granted. This is emphatically not the case, as near as I can see. Perhaps the most important issues Thompson raises are that 1) Plausibility is not a valid historiographic criteria and 2) Literary criticism is at best a severely limited tool, and more likely not a valid tool at all, if we are trying to ascertain cumulative knowledge about the past.

    I am sympathetic to Thompson on both points, and think he offers something that is far more defensible on a methodological level than history as it is generally done. But this is most definitely not something most historians take for granted. Most historians implicitly or explicitly reject him on both points. That isn’t most “Biblical” historians, that is most historians, period.

    The second question is how you would see such a methodology supporting mythicism? The rejection of literary criticism means that everyone–mythicist and historicist–is wasting their time if they want a cumulative understanding of the past. Thompson demands agnosticism, not mythicism.

    1. Rick: “Most historians implicitly or explicitly reject him on both points.”

      I’m not sure about that, especially on the matter of plausibility as a useful criterion. Do you have some examples you could cite for us?

      Quoting Thompson from The Mythic Past:

      Judgements that events are plausible, likely or even probable are hardly ever very good tools for an historian. History doesn’t require the plausible. It requires evidence. What should happen rarely does. The most implausible of events, however, do happen — often! It is far more frequently good fiction that requires plausibility. For most of what we think of as history in the Bible, we have no evidence. (p. 229)

      Of course, recently in NT Studies, Gerd Theissen has championed a more structured Criterion of Historical Plausibility, but many have responded with healthy skepticism. Gerd Ludeman sums up one of its core problems quite nicely:

      When is all is said and done, for some one thing is plausible, and for others something else. In other words, the criterion of plausibility is too wooly, and leaves more questions than answers.

      (See — http://ordinand.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/chapter-6-historical-plausibility1.pdf)

      I would submit that plausibility at best is a criterion for exclusion. That is, we tend to discount implausible events in the absence of firm evidence. On the other hand, as Ludeman pointed out, you can’t really get around the problem of subjective bias in judging what is plausible and what is not.

      1. I’m aware of what Thompson says, and I agree with him. But Thompson calls for fairly dramatic changes to how ancient history is done generally.

        So there are two points I listed: The validity of literary criticism, and the validity of plausibility. Since you say nothing about the former, I’m led to believe that I don’t need to convince you that most historians disagree with Thompson, at least implicitly–that is; they think literary criticism is a valid route to historical knowledge of a degree and certainty that Thompson rejects?

        The second point you ask for some quotes for, so sure. Here we have Beck (The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire, p 23)

        “However, this clear zone of agreement soon gives place to thickets where the intent of the iconography is by no means self-evident and the inferences which are hazarded can at best be no more than plausible.”

        But the real gem comes with the associate note (number 19)

        “Which is not a reason for not making them. In this field grounded speculation is not a vice, but a necessity.”

        Beck in fact exemplifies the general approach to ancient history. As we see again here (this time an implicit rejection, as opposed to Beck’s explicit rejection).

        “It is in the third quarter of the sixth century that Dionysiac iconography marks the most dramatic changes, plausibly related to innovations in Athenian cult practice.”

        (Giovanni Casadio, Mystic Cults in Magna Graecia)

        These are the first two pdfs I opened. I just did a search for the word “plausible.” It is so rampant that I could pick pretty well any books I wanted, do the same thing, and get exactly the same result. I think Thompson is right about how history *should* be done, but Neil is wrong to describe that as the way that history *is* done.

        1. I see what you mean.

          My chief objection is the way scholars in NT studies frequently behave as though plausibility proves historicity. “Could happen” becomes “probably happened,” which eventually becomes “must have happened.”

          1. We see this all over the place too, but I would agree that it occurs with distressing frequency in the study NT. In the preface it’s “Bob has argued,” in the introduction it’s “Bob has shown it is at least reasonable,” and once we get to the meat it’s “As Bob has conclusively demonstrated,” despite the fact that all three mentions of Bob are pointing to the same citation.

    2. Secondary evidence is validly interpreted through primary evidence. That’s pretty much standard procedure as far as I am aware. That’s not the way NT scholars generally handle things. (e.g. synagogues — or absence thereof — in early first century Galilee.) Literary evidence needs to be first analysed to determine its value as a historical source. That is only half-done with the Gospels. That the gospel narratives are at some level testimony to historical persons and events is never questioned.

      I said “take for granted” because I am not always sure to what extent these fundamental principles are consciously addressed as absolute foundational starting points in any study. I get the impression that they are approaches to areas of history that are often inherited. But most areas of history, as far as I am aware, have more valid foundations than anything we read from theological mouthpieces of ideology.

      As I said in the post, I don’t think methodology supports mythicism or historicism. It is the evidence that supports (or otherwise) either. Methodology is hopefully simply a valid way of handling the evidence.

      1. You misunderstanding me with regards to methodology. Thompson’s methodology in particular demands that we reject certainty on either mythicism or historicism. The application of the historiography he describes elsewhere *demands* agnosticism. There is no alternative employing his method. You cannot be using it and espouse a positive conclusion for mythicism, because his method makes very specific claims about what constitutes evidence, and what we can do with what we have.

        On the question of interpreting evidence: Is the problem of only having secondary material unique to the New Testament? If not, what do they do elsewhere when they only have secondary sources? Do you have specific examples? Because I can give you bunches of examples of literary criticism being used–on its own, independent of any other evidence–being used to reconstruct history. Sometimes we have good reason (Polybius, for example, is a good enough source that we can generally trust him). Sometimes we seem to just follow where our whims take us.

        1. We agree about agnositicism being the valid conclusion. And agnosticism as a conclusion does have serious consequences for most HJ scholars who cannot entertain such a position concerning the historicity of Jesus per se. I lean to mythicism because that is where the evidence points and there is no evidence I know of to the contrary. To be strict I should say that therefore we cannot know if there was a historical Jesus behind it all, or if there was, whether he was particularly relevant to what actually followed. And I do say that from time to time. My position is a bit like that of Dawkins re God. Strictly speaking he can’t prove God doesn’t exist so he is really an agnostic in that sense.

          That is what TLT himself says, as far as I understand. He is not discussing “the question of the historical Jesus” at all but what he does address certainly raises questions about the historicity of Jesus.

          I think you are reading too much into what I have said about secondary evidence. What biblical scholars do with their introduction of their own niche criteria and methods is unique with respect to HJ studies. I have discussed the texts of historians about methodology and shown that they flatly contradict what theologians claim and think other historians say when they claim to be doing history.

          Secondary evidence obviously has a key place in ancient history. I’ve addressed that repeatedly. There are many reasons for treating the narratives in Polybius differently as a source from the way the narratives in the Gospels should be handled as sources.

  2. Well, it seems we’re in agreement about what Thompson’s methodology demands, so I’ll move on to the second point, which I think you’re misunderstanding me on.

    I agree that there are many reasons to treat Polybius differently. And of course, each source brings its own issues. Josephus can’t be treated like Polybius, Tacitus like Herodotus, etc.. Each textual source employs its own specific and cultural historiography, which we need to analyze.

    But the specific charge I took issue with was that Thompson was employing a methodology that is taken for granted outside of the Biblical historian. Thompson belongs to a sort of post-post-structuralist school of historiography (for wont of a better term for it), and while I think he is emphatically correct, he isn’t the consensus. He is directly opposed to convention.

    1. What I’m referring to is the place of secondary literature in relation to the primary evidence or other valid external controls. External controls can include within their mix a checking of literary motifs, genres, interests, structures against those of other literatures. With modern history this is probably done mostly at the subconscious level given our familiarity with the sources and their nature. Thus Hobsbawm treats Chinese novels about bandits as evidence for myths and social ideas and does not assume that beneath their narratives lie historical kernels. There’s a lot more about Thompson’s method that is conventional when one looks from a broader perspective. The unconventionality is in applying all of this to a field that is the West’s ideological fountain, or at least one of our major fountains.

      Sure there are all sorts of fallacies and oddities and quirks across the board in historical writings generally. But the difference is that generally these are open to serious debate and challenges — the normal long-term processes of corrections through exchanges among interested parties. In biblical studies we have some of these fallacies raised to the status of “methods”. Polybius’s narratives come with the support of assurance from primary sources where he can be tested and checked, from external witnesses to his provenance, — while the Gospels and Acts are dated by theologians according to ideological preferences and their narratives at no point enjoy valid or reliable controls for the historicity of their content — nor even for their supposed (assumed) function to speak of something historical (even if in a mythical manner).

      1. We actually have very little primary evidence relating to Polybius. We trust him primarily because of literary criticism, and because we trust his own description of his method. I didn’t pick him at random.

        We can put aside the NT, for the moment, because it isn’t relevant. What matters is how Thompson correlates with the majority of ancient historians, particularly on the issue of secondary evidence.

        I can think of two striking events that left no primary evidence: the gallic sack, and Cannae. Perhaps you could opine on what conclusions Thompson’s method would produce, and how this compares to conventional histories?

        1. I have never suggested that we need to have primary evidence to support every detail or every event within secondary narrative, and I have never read TLT as saying that. Perhaps I’m overlooking something? The question is how to understand the nature of our secondary literary sources. How and where do they fit within what we know “for a fact” and the wider literary cultures? What are they really about? It is then a question of interpreting them accordingly.

          1. While Thompson critiques the work of Van Seters the two have much in common with their approach. For example, when Van Seters evaluates and analyses the narratives of David through the window of the world external to the texts, as in The Biblical Saga of King David he is doing real history. He is not beginning with an assumption that the narrative is about history. The narrative must first be understood for what it really is and used as evidence accordingly.

    2. Rick: “Well, it seems we’re in agreement about what Thompson’s methodology demands,”

      Neil: Yes, this is why I wrote that anyone who has read TLT’s “Messiah Myth” recognizes what is wrong with Ehrman’s criticism. TLT is simply not addressing the historicity of Jesus at all. That only is given a sideways glance by way of implication to the real focus of his book. It appears McGrath has never read TLT’s book either, hence his usual irrelevancies.

      I was a little surprised when people started describing this blog as “a mythicist blog” because my discussions of mythicism were not usually the focus of my posts, but rather the application of justifiable methods and analysis towards the evidence. If that meant the results did not buttress historicity and left the gate to mythicism wide open, then so be it. But their attacks on the methods were nearly always a matter of falling back on assumptions and circular reasoning and question begging and appeals to authority. Or if they couldn’t be bothered with that, then a simple “that’s bloody weird” would do.

  3. It’s not just from ancient writers like Philo. There is a newly-strengthened perception among many current scholars that the variable, “literary,” metaphorical openness of the New Testament is not incidental, but is essential to its nature. That the Bible itself was clearly intended to be a far less dogmatic, a far more open and polysemic work, than most corner pastors believe.

    There are many that now defend the idea that Christianity itself is not supposed to be so dogmatic; but is supposed to be far more open to literary complexity and multiple meanings, than your average fundamentalist sermon would admit.

    For one famous example among rather recent scholars? Look at say, Richard Bauckham (in “Peter,” Oxford Comp. to the Bible, 1993 Ox. U. Press; p. 587).

    1. The domatism clearly comes from Paul moreso than the gospels. Undoubtedly prior to Agustine (the first moron to take Paul seriously) Christianity was less dogmatic.

    2. In his systematic and ground-breaking examination of “The Witness to the Historicity of Jesus” (1912) Arthur Drews says:

      Augustine is nearer the truth when he confesses: “Were it not for the authority of the Church, I should put no faith in the gospels.”

      [The Witness of the Gospels – 6. The Methods of the Christ Myth (a) The Literary Character of the Gospels]

      As an exception to his rigorous habit of showing sources of his quotes, Drews does not indicate the origin of this citation. Perhaps Neil Godfrey could find it for us.

  4. I think McGrath’s attack on Dr. Thompson is unprofessional, and exactly the opposite of the truth. For two reasons. First 1) Thompson is not just engaging in a spontaneous and inexplicable “diatribe,” but is defending himself from one. Dr. Thompson had just been attacked by Ehrmann for his c. 2005 book on The Messiah Myth. Thompson was therefore defending himself from the original “diatribe” … by Ehrmann. And now, McGrath.

    2) Then too, if Thompson does not add much that is completely new to the current debate, he does successfully remind us of some important elements to mythicism.

    Here by the way, I would not try to defend Thompson or mythicism either, by denying that Thompson had anything to do with real Mythicism, just because his main approach seems to be in part that the Bible is essentially, Literary. Since there IS a fundamental relation between this Literary approach, and Mythicism. That is, if we regard the Bible as literature – or as say, fiction? This a) not only opens up the Bible to many different readings, the way we professors read English Lit. By b) opening up the possiblity of many different readings, the same as fiction, this helps create a liberal scholarship; and c) and more liberal, open minded Christianity. And finally, the Literary approach d) also does support the Mythicist thesis. In that the Bible is no longer regarded as rooted in history, but in fictional stories, or myths.

    Thanks to many “Bible as Literature” classes and articles, scholars today feel freer to look for many different, polysemic meanings within biblical texts. And to look for sources for Biblical text furthermore not in factual history … but also in fiction. In stories. In myths.

    So rather than attacking Dr. Thompson here, or throwing him to the wolves, I would defend his Literary/Mythical approach, as greatly complimenting Mythicism.

  5. As far as 1) Thompson being a Poststructuralist, or attacking any stable message to history and/or secondary sources at all? Probably in fact that is particularly appropriate with regard to the Bible. Which I see as deliberately and appropriately open, polysemic, metaphorical. In order to try to avoid simple dogmatism, and to remain open to an infinite – or perhaps even unknowably complex – God. As suggested in fact, by Agnosticism.

    2) However? I wouldn’t say from the excerpts I’ve read, that Thompson in this Myth book – or his recent statement – really gets entirely agnostic or poststructuralist to a nihilistic degree. Since he seems to be suggesting that many New Testament ideas about kingdoms, reliably relate to discrete, stable ANE myths. So we are not in chaos, here. But are structurally relating one text, the NT, to other texts, in ANE myths. And asserting that this relation is reasonably stable, and describable, in simple, linear language.

    So I see Thompson doing some rather solid Historical work. Though if he finally wants now and then to ALSO alude to some kind of ultimate futility or vanity to it all? To the vanity of attempting to discretely describe an infinite God, or Historial Reality, in finite words? That seems like a nice, traditional Poststructuralist, or “Ecclesiastes,” or agnostic-type allusion. To the futility and vanity of all merely human attempts to characterize the Infinite. Something acknowledged even in the Bible itself; as when “John” for example admits that Jesus said and did many things too numerous, to be narrated in any book or text; even it seems, in the Bible itself.

    1. As far as the problem of lack of primary or scientific evidence? Looks like we’re just stuck with some of that for a while, until archeology gets a whole lot better. Which means to be sure, that the “findings” in this field of study are just going to be based often on just secondary sources, and literature; and are just not going to be as firm as the Sciences. Still, to some extent we can work within this limitation, with the lack of absolutely firm evidence. Though biblical scholarship has perhaps been all-too-comfortable making huge assertions based on no objective evidence, there are some things that we can bring in to help this apparently hopeless subjectivity. The first being say 1) evidence from Science, that accounts of miracles are unreliable; 2) archeological evidence that other things narrated in the Bible, as in Genesis, are true or not. And to this objective evidence, can be added, correlated, 3) at least the more reliable methods of formal literary analysis. Like say, structuralism. Particularly from the at-least semi-empirical field of Anthropology, including Structural Anthropology and Mythography. And the more empirical kinds of History. But in any case, if all our attempts at objectivity fail? I’d assert that the field of Religion at its best, has always simply acknowledged its limitations: it has told us over and over that utlimate reality and certainty about God, ultimate truth, is just at present, simply beyond us. And it has left its main documents therefore, I suggest, appropriately open-ended, and polysemic.

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