Why a volume of essays in honour of Thomas L. Thompson? The opening paragraph of the Introduction explains (with my highlighting):
Thomas L. Thompson has been, for the past five decades, behind some of the – if not all – major changes in Old Testament historiography, if we consider that his criticism of the patriarchal narratives, the exodus and settlement and the United Monarchy were each at their own time forerunners of what later on would become accepted in the field (Thompson 1974, 1987, 1992, 1999).
See below for those four titles. The first, 1974, was met at the time with such opposition that it left him “unemployed and unemployable for ten years”. The 1992 work precipitated his expulsion from Marquette University.
His work from the 1970s through the 1990s was certainly decisive in crafting a critical understanding of that now infamous creature ‘ancient Israel’ – a task he, along with Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche and Keith W. Whitelam, deconstructed in different ways within the field of Old Testament studies.
All four names have been the subjects of multiple posts on Vridar.
The grouping of these four scholars is not innocent, of course, as already during the 1990s they were thrown together under the tag of ‘biblical minimalists’ by scholarly adversaries (the so-called, by opposition, ‘maximalists’). As has been noted elsewhere (Whitelam 2002), understanding these four scholars under this epithet is not only misinformed but eventually wrong, since they did not agree on every point nor were they addressing the same issues from the same perspective. However, on many issues they agreed, if not on the results, certainly on the methodology and the ways in which to conduct historical research in Old Testament studies. And the arrival at such a situation in the 1990s has a lot to do with Thomas’s career.
They certainly do differ in their conclusions and overall approaches to historical inquiry. But the fundamental point they have in common is their reliance upon the “hard evidence” of archaeology as the starting point of their interpretations and applications of the Hebrew scriptural texts as source documents for historical reconstruction. That is, the first question to ask is, What do we know from the archaeological remains and how does this archaeological information compare with the biblical texts?; the second arises from a failure to find material support for the historical narratives in the Bible: How can we best understand the circumstances that led to the creation of those unhistorical theological narratives? But back to TLT in particular.
Earlier this year I posted an interview with Thomas Thompson that had been conducted by the Greek Mythicists site. The only contact I had personally with TLT prior to this blog was an email I sent asking him if he knew where I might obtain a reasonably priced copy of Early History of the Israelite People and his reply expressing outrage at the publisher’s asking price. So it is reassuring to read in the same Introduction to Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity testimonies to his more general character of sympathy and support for those who face hurdles in academia with having their views acknowledged and respected. He sounds like a good friend to have. How I do wish more scholars who have expressed outrage at some of the views expressed on this blog would show some sign that they could be more like the TLT described here:
Thomas is also an engaging person, a protective friend and a true believer in peaceful resolutions. Even during the harshest moments of the debate between the so-called biblical maximalists and minimalists, Thomas served as an emissary of dialogue. While some of his colleagues were irritated by absurd and sometimes painful accusations, Thomas was able to sit over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee with the adversaries and talk. Thomas always separates – something not common enough – scholarly polemics from personal relationships. (p. xxi)
Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity is divided into three parts: 1. Method; 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology; 3. Biblical Narratives. Each section is a container for mostly bite-size essays which makes for easy reading for someone like me who enjoys breaks from the more lengthy tomes and articles.
Part 1. Method
The first essay (by Margreet L. Steiner) highlights the chaotic state of the archaeological landscape of Jerusalem. The second (by Raz Kletter) presents another chaos, one of an ongoing explosion of scholarly publications about that archaeology and related ancient Near Eastern studies and with which it is impossible for any one person to keep up.
Several posts on Vridar have presented Niels Peter Lemche’s criticism of the “conservative scholarship – critical scholarship” divide found in biblical (notably Old Testament) studies. Lemche’s sober essay here extends these thoughts to a more general tendency of scholars to lead general readers into what are effectively myths, whether national or religious myths.
It was Lemche, it should be noted, who assisted Thompson after his rejection from Marquette University in gaining a chair in Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen.
Emanuel Pfoh (another scholar with a presence in Vridar archives) in his essay offers a way forward for making biblical scholarship “more honest”. His in-depth discussion of specifics concludes,
My point therefore is that the context for the production of knowledge should at least be considered by everybody as a necessary moment of any research, a moment of reflexivity in which we think about our own categories and models and our own social locations to understand and explain our production of knowledge. To gain consciousness of such an epistemological situation would unquestionably make our research processes not only more explicit and scientific but also more honest. (p. 43)
That pulled me up somewhat. Perhaps such awareness comes more easily in one’s early years of exploration. Over time one can fall into a routine that takes one further away from the initial reasons for one’s interests and fresh awareness of the different actors one meets. But the routine should also mean one is in a better position to have a deeper awareness of where hypotheses, agreements and disagreements are ultimately coming from.
Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology
Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò’s essay builds on TLT’s 1974 dissertation on the patriarchal narratives. He begins with the significance of that work:
One of the most important achievements of Thomas L. Thompson was the falsification of the hypothesis of the historical validity of the context of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis. His seminal book (Thompson 1974), next to the work of John Van Seters (1975), changed the scholarly paradigm for good. After publication of these two studies, it was practically impossible to claim – in line with the scholarly consensus – that narratives about the Patriarchs in Genesis contain any traces of the historical memory originating in the Bronze Age.
One might say that Thompson’s ground-breaking study is dominated by pars destruens, it being argumentation against the former scholarly paradigm. (p. 49)
Niesiolowski-Spanò searches for the historical setting that best accounts for the changing narratives of the Esau-Jacob stories and finds the Maccabean period the best fit for the Genesis stories. (TLT had demonstrated why they certainly could not have originated as Bronze Age historical memories.)
Hamdan Taha and Gerrit van der Kooij write an instructive essay about the archaeology of Shechem. They address the roles of the various stakeholders (not only the archaeologists but also the local community and interested visitors and tourists), the historical role not only religious bias has played but also political bias. The archaeological work is thrown into relief against the backdrop of awareness of historical narratives as functioning to provide self-identities rather than genuine and disinterested documentation of the real past.
[A]rchaeology became a discipline that tries to produce a defensible (and non-refutable) view of a historical reality, independent from textual information, especially if the texts are difficult to read as historical sources.
Enter all of the stakeholders, not only one of them:
. . . which stakeholder’s value takes preference . . . ? The answer is to be found in the local community that has been disconnected from archaeological work on the site, and in the missing stakeholder, namely, the ancient societies represented in the site. They left behind this heritage, and it is the archaeologist who has the task of retrieving and interpreting the remains in such a way that he or she comes closest to what that society was and did, and defend that, in the same way that a solicitor would. (p. 73)
That’s doing serious archaeology, not “biblical archaeology”.
The third essay in this section is by another scholar whose work we have posted about in some depth, Russell Gmirkin. In his contribution to the new volume Gmirkin suggests that the inspiration for some of the biblical story about Solomon was a near-namesake, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. I know, most readers are probably thinking the idea is preposterous. But when you first heard the hypothesis that much of the Biblical literature, in particular the Pentateuch, owes a significant debt to Plato you most likely had the same reaction until you read the copious detail on which the hypothesis is based. I expect to be posting about this essay separately some time.
Étienne Nodet contributes a discussion I find of special interest:
The starting point of this paper is a question about the pre-exilic period: After the fall of the Northern Kingdom, why did the new settlers ask for an Israelite priest from the exiles, rather than a sage from Jerusalem? A related question is: Why was that kingdom called Israel, since the true Israel, under the legitimate Davidic dynasty, should have been in Judah (and Benjamin)? (p. 91)
Nodet takes us through the variations in the different accounts of Assyria’s resettlement of Samaria: the Masoretic text that we are familiar with is only one version; the Septuagint is another; Josephus tells us something else again; and then there is the challenge of attempting to reconcile what we learn in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. I recall the “chaotic challenges” themes of the first two essays in Part 1. How does one explain the origin of the Samaritans? Who, exactly, were the people of the ancient northern kingdom of Israel and who were the “returnees”? Can we justify comparisons with what we learn of the “returnees” in Ezra and Nehemiah under the aegis of Persia? Is it really possible that — as Nodet leads us to ask — “the Egyptian Jews, somehow connected with the Onias temple [so much for Jerusalem bearing the ‘one and only’ temple of the Jews], and the Samaritans were more faithful to the laws of Moses” than those of the later Jehud/Judean province?
. . .
That’s an overview of Part 1 and half of the essays in Part 2. Will continue in a future post.
Niesiolowski-Spanò, Lukasz, and Emanuel Pfoh, eds. 2020. Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark.
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