The first part of this review is at https://vridar.org/2020/08/25/biblical-narratives-archaeology-historicity-essays-in-honour-of-thomas-l-thompson/
. . .
Continuing the section Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology . . .
Jesper Høgenhaven’s chapter explores evidence in the Qumran texts for how Second Temple Judeans thought about the Biblical writings. We can be puzzled by the way biblical passages were joined to one another to create new texts (Thomas Thompson, Høgenhaven informs us, spoke of a ‘Copenhagen Lego hypothesis’ with regard to 4Q175). An early quotation in the essay jumped out at me since it addresses the basic method of gospel interpretation by Maurice Mergui and Nanine Charbonnel whose books I have been discussing on this blog. (I will be returning to them both in coming months.)
The late Philip R. Davies made the following pointed remark on scholars striving to collect the elements necessary for writing a ‘sectarian history’ based on Qumran scriptural commentaries (pesharim):
The first direction in exegesis of the pesharim must always be towards their midrashic function, for until we understand how these commentaries work – and that means as midrashim – we have no warrant to plunder them for historical data, especially given that (a) no continuous tradition can be established as lying behind them and (b) where they do contain – as we know that they do (I think in particular of 4QpNah) – some historical information, any kind of plausible analogy we could invoke would warn us that it will be mixed up with invention, will be distorted, garbled and anachronistic. (Davies 1989: 27-8)
(pp. 101f. The Davies 1989 link is to the Open Access book at Project Muse)
Amen. I recall Liverani’s observation about lazy historians running with a narrative that looks like history without too much second thought. Investigating the genre of a source ought to be the first priority of any historical inquiry.
So Høgenhaven surveys the way Israel’s past is utilized in various Qumran texts. He concludes that there is little conceptual difference between myths of ancient times and recent historical experiences. Metaphor and history are blurred in a way that it is not always obvious to modern readers which is which. Stories are rewritten, reinterpreted, rationalized, expanded, and commented upon as their functions vary over time. History is salvation history (“or ‘perdition history’), and along with its dualistic motifs, discerning what texts meant to readers at any particular time can be a challenge. Høgenhaven’s concluding reference to “renewed and repentant ‘Israel’ or the faithful and obedient remnant of Israel” as a stock identifying motif for the creators of the texts and their audiences links up with a dominant theme in Thompson’s The Mythic Past.
Next essay is by Gregory L. Doudna, another scholar some of whose work (especially on Qumran and the DSS) has been addressed here. This time Doudna takes on the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. After having read a variety of cases for the passage being an interpolation by a Mandean or Christian hand and other suggestions that the passage is definitely Josephan but straining at ways to reconcile Josephus’s chronology with Jesus, I learn now that there is yet another possible explanation for the various curiosities raised by the account. I admit I approached this chapter with some scepticism but by the time I had finished had to concede that I think Doudna makes a very good case that Josephus’s John the Baptist report is “a chronologically dislocated story of the death of Hyrcanus II”:
In the same way [as another apparently dislocated account], Josephus’s John the Baptist story reads as a doublet or different version of Hyrcanus II chronologically dislocated to the time of the wrong Herod. In this case Josephus did not place the two versions of the death of Hyrcanus II close together in the same time setting as in some of the other cases of doublets. If Josephus had done that, the doublet in this case would have been recognized before now. Instead, Josephus mistakenly attached one of the traditions of the death of Hyrcanus II to the wrong Herod, just as he separately mistakenly attached documents to the wrong Hyrcanus. (p. 132)
I hope to discuss Doudna’s chapter in more detail in a future post.
The next chapter by Jim West is a “re-evaluation” of
the book by Thomas Thompson titled The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David and discusses the appropriateness of his methodology, the correctness of his interpretation, and the continuing importance of his contribution on the topic of the historical Jesus. (p. 138)
West laments the lack of more general scholarly interest in The Messiah Myth given that it has, he claims, been taken up by
an army of ‘Jesus Mythicists’ who latched onto Thompson’s work as support for their view that Jesus actually never existed and who were bolstered by Thompson’s book. (p. 139)
West does not cite any members of that “army” who “latched onto” the work, nor does he demonstrate his assertion that
they misunderstood both Thompson and his work.
I have linked to Vridar posts on the work beneath the cover image here; the only author I am aware of who has demonstrably misunderstood the book is Bart Ehrman (see links to Thompson’s – and my own – corrections of Ehrman’s distortions.) Perhaps it might even be said that Jim West himself, despite his best intentions, has read more into The Mythic Past than is warranted. West does his utmost to try to persuade readers that readers of The Mythic Past should see a real historical Jesus beneath the texts of the gospels, drawing so abundantly as they do from mythic tropes.
Thompson’s Jesus is a real man who really existed but he is a man about whom we know nothing at all aside from the understanding foisted upon him by the theologians of the early Church who wrote his story: the Gospels.
The book, for those who have not yet read it . . . invite[s] the reader to consider the ancient Near Eastern background (or better, underpinning) of the messianic concept. How are we to understand, historically, the person of Jesus? . . . .
It simply recognizes the fact that the historical bones of great persons have been covered with muscle and flesh and decorations drawn from the stories of other great heroes from other times and places. . . .
The various tropes, in other words, are illustrations. In the same way that preachers illustrate their sermons with stories that are sometimes a mixture of historical fact and metahistorical fiction, so too the biblical authors. . . . .
Fortunately, though, the Old Testament and the New are not mere historical tales telling the bare facts of historical events. The Old Testament and the New are theological works, which happily and unselfconsciously mix historical remembrance with illustrative materials without any concern that postmodern readers take them as something other than sermons.
If we take the text of the Bible seriously and on its own terms than we will find Thompson’s disentangling of the disparate threads which make it up both engaging and enthralling. [But compare an earlier paragraph where West acknowledges that “we simply do not have any way of disentangling the threads and the Gospel authors would not wish us to do so.“]
West, pp. 139, 140, 141, 143, 144,
Such phrases (my highlighting) look to me to be assertions that the mythic tropes in the gospels identified by Thompson must necessarily be understood as being applied to historical memories of a historical figure. Yet that is the very point Thompson goes to some length to disavow. For Thompson, if I understand him correctly, there are no discernable historical and mythical threads to disentangle. Thompson neither denies nor endorses the historicity of Jesus in The Mythic Past. As far as I am aware Thompson is a Catholic so I presume he does believe in a historical Jesus but that is beside the point.
Schweitzer so understood Mark’s gospel as a text interpreting the life of Jesus that he assumed the existence of his historical Jesus from the start. The historical presence Jesus gained in Schweitzer’s reading, the gospel’s author never had. The question was not whether Mark presented the figure of an apocalyptic prophet, but whether he was describing a historical figure.
Twentieth-century scholarship, with its faith in history, assumed a historical Jesus as its starting point. . . . [T]hey always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe.
The assumptions that (1) the gospels are about a Jesus of history and (2) expectations that have a role within a story’s plot were also expectations of a historical Jesus and early Judaism, as we will see, are not justified. Even though a historical Jesus might be essential to the origins of Christianity, such a need is not obviously shared by the gospels.
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 . . .
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 problem of the quest for the historical Jesus is . . . that the gospels are not about such a person. They deal with something else.
The purpose of this book 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.
(The Mythic Past pp. 7, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16)
If the gospel literature can be explained without recourse to memories and oral traditions of a historical Jesus then so be it: it does not follow that there was no historical Jesus. The scholarly exercise and a starting point of historical inquiry are to understand the gospels per se.
For scholars like Jim West, Thompson leaves room to apply the gospels to an assumed historical figure. That’s fine and a nice starting point for theological reflections on Jesus. If Catholic mythicists like Thomas Brodie find no need for assuming an oral tradition behind the gospels then that’s fine, too. West expresses his hope that his essay will encourage his scholarly peers to make more of an effort to “latch onto” the significance of Thompson’s The Mythic Past for a study of how the historical Jesus was understood by the evangelists.
The final essay in this second section is “The Qur’an as Biblical Rewriting” by Mogens Müller. How times are changing that now we see that third “people of the book” entering biblical studies. We see a “rewritten Bible” in various Samaritan, Old Testament pseudepigraphic and Qumran texts as well as the New Testament, so we may be able to learn more about this activity by expanding our horizon to that other rewriting of biblical narratives, the Qur’an. It is a mistake, we learn in this essay, to assume that the Qur’an has relied solely on a rewriting of the canonical Jewish scriptures because some of its portrayals of biblical characters (e.g. Abraham) appear to rely more heavily on other texts such as Jubilees. Similarly, some of the Qur’ans sources for Jesus have been taken from apocryphal gospels such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The Qur’an has drawn upon a wide heritage of Judea-Christian literature. The question that arises for all texts engaging in this “rewriting” activity is not “which version is closest to the historical facts” but how those rewritings functioned to create new religious consciousnesses and hierarchies.
This change of focus away from the question of eventual [historical] referentiality to that of biblical authors and their intentions in producing their writings, brought attention to the particular phenomenon of rewriting in the Bible and a vast Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphic literature. Hitherto, variations had mainly raised the question of which version could claim to be the original or, at least, the most original among many variants. Now, such variations acquired independent interests for reissuing a message in new situations and changed circumstances. (p. 146)
In this connection the employment of the genre or interpretation strategy known as ‘rewritten Bible’, especially in the version of ‘biblical rewriting’, intending to produce new authoritative religious texts, is helpful, not only in perceiving what is going on in the New Testament, but also in the Qur’an. In both cases, existing religious or theological universes are transformed in several respects, the most important being that a new character of fundamental significance is introduced with the effect of changing the existing hierarchy. From the perspective of the understanding formed in the tradition of historical criticism and its repeated question about the referentiality of what is narrated, this transforming change in our perspective is a challenge, not to say a problem. However, when scholarship takes into consideration that religious truth never converges with historical truth but always arises out of an interpretation of certain events, and that this interpretation can take place in the shape of story-telling, many things become more understandable. It is extremely important not to mistake story for history. (pp. 154f)
Part 3 consists of eight essays on “Biblical Narratives”. To be continued….
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.
Thompson, Thomas L. 2005. The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. New York: Basic Books.
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