Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

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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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”

  1. Hi Neil,
    thanks much for this book review. I think it expands, and contributes to, the effort in honouring Thomas that we with Lukasz originally had in mind with this volume.

  2. I wonder what Thompson would think of this compilation being marked down from US$120 to US$95 and change on Amazon.com? Another interesting book I will not be reading.

  3. Me too, I’m grateful for your efforts to promote and discuss Thompson’s amazing work Neil. It may seem a side issue to some, but much of the trouble in the Middle East is related to people who feel that they have a God-given right to certain land. Well that’s probably based on the same myth that Thompson has uncovered.

    1. The implications of the cultural status of the biblical narrative in the West on biblical scholarship and archaeology is explored in depth in Keith Whitelam’s The Invention of Ancient Israel. Whitelam, of course, was one the four horsemen of the “minimalist invaders”.

  4. A thought:

    You say “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 have to say that, when I did read the copious detail on which the hypothesis is based (both extensively tabulated on this site and from as much of the book as I was able to see online), I remained unconvinced. I think that, if one goes into even more detail and look into the texts of both Plato and the Pentateuch, and looks at the context of the laws, the tenuousness of Russell G’s theory (and what is, for me, a less than cast-iron methodology,) become apparent.

    I haven’t expressed those thoughts on these pages because (a) at that time I didn’t have the time and (b) it wouldn’t really be appropriate to put forward my point of view without having read the book from cover to cover (a hard copy being too expensive) in case I overlooked something.

    In an earlier post you mentioned Thomas Thompson’s comments regarding the necessity for us to try and falsify a theory and I wonder how often we do this with theories that attract us. Have you have ever seriously tried to play Devil’s advocate with regard to Russell Gmirkin’s theory? I’m pretty sure that, a few years ago, you alluded to the attractiveness of his proposals (perhaps you said it of the Berossus book – sorry, I can’t find the quotation and I can’t remember the exact words) and I wonder whether, as a result of that, you have given Russell’s Hellenistic proposals rather less sceptical analysis, less rigorous case-testing, less methodological scrutiny (in other words, you’ve given it a far easier ride) than you do more traditional/conservative arguments. I think it’s a question we all need to ask ourselves. After all, it’s pretty easy to try and falsify someone else’s proposition – especially when we have a disposition to reject them – but not so easy to critique one’s own or one’s favourite theories.

    And a propos of Thompson’s same comment (I should have written this in respect of your earlier post), the sort of consensus that Thompson is wary of may not always mean that noone has attempted to falsify a theory, but because people really have tried to falsify it, but their attempts have not been deemed successful.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thought. Yes, I am conscious of the need to test hypotheses and to try to see how they can be broken, and yes, especially so when it comes to ideas I do find most interesting. I refer back to my little bio narrative in other posts that I am constantly aware of how easy it is to be very wrong and not know it. And that is why I try to present hypotheses that I find of particular interest in as fair a way as possible on this blog. I try to make the grounds for an author’s case clear. And I hope I do so in a way that allows readers to get a fair insight into the argument and to make up their own minds on where to go after reading them.

      I do my best to keep my own views out of it. Sometimes I will add what I think is further supporting evidence, but that is not presented as some sort of “clincher” to prove a point definitively. I will also sometimes interject with what I see as a problem with a particular point of argument.

      I can’t say that I “believe” in Gmirkin’s hypothesis. I am not presenting it as something I believe but as something that I find very interesting and here’s why Gmirkin concludes this or that. There are other theories, too, that deserve consideration. (I have posted on views incompatible with Gmirkin’s thesis, too.) Before I could say I believe a theory I would have to do a very serious study of it and balance it against all contrary arguments etc etc etc, and I suspect by the time I do all of that I will really be in a place of “agnostic to probable” rather than “belief in a certainty” — and I will keep on reading new ideas and criticisms that will surely lead to refinements and perhaps quite different directions.

      What I think would be helpful is if you give some of your reasons for your misgivings with a point of view in a post. I may find I have overstated some point or misstated it; or I may find I need to cite something else by the author to make that author’s point clearer. Or I may respond with what I think is a problematic point in your misgivings, and then you can defend your case more solidly. But I may see more room for caution in the process.

      Before I posted on Russell Gmirkin’s views I posted at length on Philip Davies’ perspective. The two are very different: Is it the Persian or the Hellenistic era that we turn to for the production of much of the biblical literature? I like both theories. They both have good arguments. I tend to lean slightly more towards the Hellenistic interpretation at the moment because it aligns with so many suspicions and questions that I had when a student of classical Greek and Latin literature in years when I was also a devout Bible believer. My classical texts are marked throughout with notes cross-referencing to something or to pervasive motifs in the Bible.

      Sometimes people ask me what my view is on a particular question and I usually bend over backwards to avoid giving them an answer they are looking for. I usually tell them, Why ask me? My views have changed in many respects over the years and what I think now on this matter may not be what I think in a year or so: but here are what some others have said and what their evidence is — and they disagree, so…. that’s where we’re at.

      I don’t stand solidly cemented into any particular view. I am learning all the time. If Gmirkin’s thesis has holes in it that I have not seen then maybe I will be striking my head one day for not seeing them earlier.

      The same applies with Christian origins. I don’t even have a firm idea whether the gospels were written in the first century or up to seventy years later into the second. I don’t even know if there was a real apostle named Paul behind the letters with his name. Or even what sort of literature the gospels are – not with any certainty or unsullied clarity. If you see me posting at length a series of arguments that point in direction of the other it will be because they interest me but in the back of my mind I’ll still be wondering how much more it will take before the discussion can come to an end.

      I can argue with more certainty that the gospels do not need a historical Jesus to explain their narratives — but my argument is based on the fundamentals of historical methods. I have no interest in the question of “the historical Jesus” for that reason. My interest is in understanding the evidence we have for Christian origins.

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