Tag Archives: Thomas L. Thompson

Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #2

Thomas L. Thompson

The interview with Thomas L. Thompson on the Greek Mythicists site is not as long as I anticipated when I posted #1. (A weird technical issue made it look to me three times longer than it in fact was!) Here is the last question and answer. Thanks again to Minas Papageorgiou of Greek Mythicists for alerting me to this interview they (he?) conducted and for forwarding me an English text.

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8) What is the future of mythicism views inside the academic community, considering the publication of many related books and papers in previous times? Would you agree that mythicists could follow the steps of biblical minimalists?  

Minimalism is a movement in biblical studies which brings the study of biblical narrative closer to what is normal for historians. As far as I am aware, most mythicists also understand this, though I think they may be too quick to judge the single issue of whether he existed. The proper question is rather a largely literary question than an historical one. Until we have texts, which bear evidence of his historicity, we can not do much more with that issue. We can and must, however, ask what the texts mean—as well as ask what they mean if they are not historical (a minimalist question). My professor Kurt Galling from Tübingen was once asked how one could tell whether an Old Testament text was historical or literary. He answered: If Iron floats on water it isn’t! The reference is found in the Elijah Elisha stories, whose reiteration has dominated the gospels. One might also use the story of the bear who kills the 42 children and certainly Elijah’s flight out into outer space.

Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #1

The Greek Mythicists website has posted a (Greek language) interview with Thomas L. Thompson. The interview page is Συνέντευξη με τον Thomas L. Thompson: Ο Βιβλικός Μινιμαλισμός και ο ιστορικός Ιησούς. The person responsible for the site, Minas Papageorgiou, has kindly sent me an English translation. It is very lengthy so I will only post one part of it for now. More to follow. Thanks to Minas Papageorgiou/Μηνάς Παπαγεωργίου. 

(For background: The Vridar blog is not a “Jesus mythicist” blog even though it is open to a critical discussion of the question of Jesus’ historicity. I do not see secure grounds for believing in the historicity of Jesus but it does not follow that I reject Jesus’ historicity. Clearly, the Jesus of the Gospels and Paul’s letters is a literary and theological construct but it does not follow that there was no “historical Jesus”. Nor do I endorse all views that I have seen associated with Greek Mythicists, though I have been included in one of their publications: see Jesus Mythicism: An Introduction by Minas Papageorgiou and To the Greeks, Vridar in a Greek publication)

 

Thomas L. Thompson

Who is Thomas L. Thompson? If you only have the vaguest idea or none at all see my notes at the end of this post. His works have certainly influenced me greatly.

The English language version of the interview, part 1 . . . .

1) Υοu spent a big part of your life in Tübingen, Germany. Would you agree that you were touched by Bruno Bauer‘s aura?  

Bauer was much more influential in Berlin and Bonn than Tübingen, where in New Testament studies, Ernst Käsemann drew far more in the direction of establishing and defending an historical Jesus, much in the spirit of the “Jesus Seminar” in the States. In Old Testament studies and Palestinian archaeology, which were my primary interests, the tradition rather lay in comparative literature and comparative religions. Kurt Galling, editor of the great 5 volume, German encyclopedia of religion (Religion in History and the Present 1935) was my professor. He was a student of Hugo Gressmann and Hermann Gunkel and held history and archaeology separate from literature and theology and the study of the Bible was, first of all, a literary work rather than history!

2) In Greece, it is rather impossible to see an academic theologian holding a critical stance towards the Bible. Are things different in the rest of the world?

Greek orthodoxy sees the role of theology as explanatory and Greek theology—much like Roman Catholicism is often very defensive of traditional teaching, except that Greek theology tries to idealize the theology of the early church fathers, while Catholicism looks to the theology of Aquinas and the European Middle Ages as the ideal. But they are both rapidly changing today and one finds a few sound, critical scholars in Greece today and an even greater number of them among Roman Catholic scholars. I think the most influential of conservative scholars are the fundamentalists in the US, where the Bible seems to be read as a description of actual events in which God was the primary active figure. Critical scholarship, which starts from the observation that biblical narrative is first of all literature and needs to be treated as such. It is strongest in Europe, where a strong commitment to critical humanism is the norm for most universities: especially in Germany and Denmark. Perhaps it is best to think of individual scholars and universities rather than countries. The university of Rome, Göttingen, Tübingen, Sheffield and Copenhagen insist that biblical studies be critical rather than traditional.

3) Explain to us in a few words what biblical minimalism is, who the scholars that comprised the core of its existence were and what was your part in this.

It is important to point out that “minimalism” is a term which was used by opponents of critical biblical scholarship. It was not a self-description.

Biblical minimalism grows out of the failure of biblical archaeology’s efforts to provide a critical history of Israel. It is important to point out that “minimalism” is a term which was used by opponents of critical biblical scholarship. It was not a self-description. The development in critical biblical studies, which came to reject the use of the Biblical narrative as a historical description of past events was called “minimalism” because these scholars did not share the assumption of, for example, biblical archaeologists, that history could be written by bringing together evidence from biblical narrative and our knowledge of ancient history. Minimalists saw the Bible as allegorical literature and consequently separated their use of archaeology from the Bible to write their history of Palestine. Indeed, understanding history of the South Levant as a regional history of Palestine, rather than as an ethnocentric history of the people of Israel allowed us to understand the Bible’s literary narrative of Israel as a fictional and theological product: what I came to refer to as a “mythic past.” In contrast, our history (of Palestine) is evidence-based in archaeology and contemporary inscriptions rather than biblical narrative, as in biblical archaeology. read more »

Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies

The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.

–Harry S. Truman

You have to start somewhere. That’s a distinct problem. How do we go about learning a subject as vast as biblical studies or biblical history? We could dive right in with some of the classics of text and form criticism, but we probably won’t fully understand them, because we don’t have the proper foundations.

Some of you may have taken survey courses at university in world history or American (or whatever your native country might happen to be) history. These courses tend to serve two purposes. First, they provide a means for students majoring in other studies to have some sort of foundation in “how we got here.” Second, they serve as a jumping-off point for those of us who continue on to our degrees in history.

Learning and unlearning

Every historian (amateur and professional) in America knows or at least should know our dirty little secret: that freshman history students face a serious disadvantage, because they must unlearn most of what they learned in high school. They must clear away the happy, feel-good history in which we are always the good guys and everything turns out well in the end. Imagine, for a moment, that you had learned medieval alchemy in high school only to discover in Chemistry 101 at your university that you don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

Survey courses in biblical studies or NT studies in some universities purport to do the same sort of thing. That is, they expose students to another way of thinking about the Bible other than what they learned in Sunday School. I took such a class in 1978 at Ohio University, and in many ways, I would consider it a positive experience. However, I would later discover that much of what I had accepted as bedrock could not stand up to stronger scrutiny.

I admit that my work in history in the mid-1980s at the University of Maryland should have alerted me to the obvious problems with biblical studies. However, it took the work of the so-called minimalists to push me in the right direction. I stumbled onto Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past completely by accident while wandering around a Barnes and Noble somewhere in Atlanta. (My job took me on frequent road trips back in the ’90s and the aughts.) The book (in hardback) apparently had not sold well, and they marked it down significantly. Lucky me.

Reading and rereading

Philip Davies (1945-2018)

Thompson asked questions I had never considered. It soon became clear that I had never asked these sorts of questions, because I had been properly trained not to. Beyond that, American education generally favors the notion of “moderation” as a virtue in and of itself. Surely only an extremist would question the historicity of Moses or Solomon. And extremism in the pursuit of anything is a vice. Surely.

Despite my proper training, one simple question — “How do we know?” — began to gnaw at me, the way a steady drip wears away stone. For me, Thompson more than anyone else gave me permission (so to speak) to ask even more dangerous questions. However, it took me longer to get up to speed with Philip R. Davies. (See Neil’s tribute to the late, great scholar here.)

For example, I had started In Search of Ancient Israel but never finished it until this past summer. Longtime Vridar readers will recall that Davies, and especially this book had a huge impact on Neil. You can find much more detail about this work over at the vridar.info site. For more related posts here on vridar.org, follow the tags above. (Below, I’ll be referring to the second edition of this work.) read more »

Maurice Casey’s Mind “Boggles” Reading Thomas L. Thompson’s Messiah Myth

Cover via Amazon

Maurice Casey (Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths?) critiques Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth without giving his readers any idea of its stated purpose or overall argument. I suspect Casey himself did not know what it was about and could not explain its argument if he tried since he had made up his mind before reading it that it was an attempt to prove there was no historical Jesus.

Casey is already on record as being quite perplexed when he encounters new perspectives on old problems and he remains true to form when confronted with Thomas L. Thompson’s work.

I will explain what Thompson’s was attempting to achieve with the book in a moment but notice that Casey from the start faults it for not being about what he thought it should be about:

A supposedly scholarly attempt to cast doubt on the historicity of the teaching of Jesus is an extraordinary book by the Old Testament ‘scholar’ Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth, published in 2005. It demonstrates lack of knowledge of first-century Judaism and of New Testament scholarship, and has remarkably little to say about Jesus. (Jesus: Evidence and Argument, p. 221)

Casey cannot even bring himself to fully acknowledge Thompson’s credentials as an Old Testament scholar of high international standing. What Casey means by The Messiah Myth‘s “demonstration of lack of knowledge of first-century Judaism and NT scholarship” and its paucity of information about Jesus is that the book is not about Casey’s assumptions of what first-century Judaism looked like, nor is it about NT scholarship or Jesus as these are traditionally addressed in studies on the historical Jesus. Casey might as well have added that the work “demonstrates a lack of knowledge of” knitting and abseiling.

Thompson’s book is about the messiah myth as it is found throughout ancient Middle Eastern literature. It is an attempt to offer a new perspective for how scholars might approach the Bible as historians. Too rarely biblical scholars have stopped to ask if the authors of the historical books of the Bible had the same sense of past history as we do. The first task of historians should be to fully grasp the literary and theological nature of the works they are studying. Full justice to that enquiry can only be accomplished if the historian first and foremost has a thorough grasp of comparable literary and theological sources throughout that region’s cultural history. Before we assume that the narratives in the biblical works are windows to historical events it is better first to acquaint oneself with other literature of that cultural region and what it often meant to convey when speaking of the past.

The assumption that the narratives of the Bible are accounts of the past asserts a function for our texts that needs to be demonstrated as it competes with other more apparent functions.

. . . . Are archaeologists and historians dealing with the same kind of past as the Bible does? This, I think, is the central question of the current debate about history and the Bible, rather than the questions that have dominated. Can biblical stories be used to write a modern history of the ancient past — whether of the individuals or of the events in which they participate? . . . The Bible uses . . . historical information for other purposes, in the way that literature has always used what was known of the past. (The Messiah Myth, p. x)

At this point I think I can justly point to some recent posts I have written about the nature of ancient historiography. Ancient historians were quite capable of fabricating stories about the past when it suited their ideological or pedagogical purposes. Those fabrications could well be considered “true” if they were written “true to life”, that is, realistically. read more »

“Maurice Casey, Meet Thomas L. Thompson”

thompson
Thomas L. Thompson

I am sure Maurice Casey will appreciate notification of a few oversights in his most recent book, Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths. This post will alert him to a couple of minor errors in his treatment of Thomas L. Thompson’s background and scholarly standing. A future post will look at Casey’s criticisms of some of Thompson’s publications, although we have already seen how Casey wrongly classified Thompson’s recent publications as attempts to argue that there was no historical Jesus.

Thomas L. Thompson first came to notoriety with The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives arguing that the biblical patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) were not historical persons. This was first published by de Gruyter in Berlin in 1974. It was written in Tuebingen where Thompson was a student of Herbert Haag (Catholic) and Kurt Galling (Protestant). Controversial at the time this view is now probably mainstream. Even more controversial was his 1992 publication, The Early History of the Israelite People, which found no room for the united monarchy nor even Kings David and Solomon. The main work by Thompson that Casey addresses is The Messiah Myth, a work that Casey misinterprets as an attempt to argue there was no historical Jesus.

This post shows where Maurice Casey is seriously misguided in what he writes about Thompson the person.

Casey introduces Professor Thomas L. Thompson as one who “claims to be a ‘scholar'” but whose competence and qualifications Casey considers “questionable” (p. 10).

Yes, Casey puts the word scholar in scare quotes. Further, Casey will grant nothing more than that Thompson “claims” to be a ‘scholar’. In fact Thompson is a scholar of international repute who has made groundbreaking contributions to the study of the Old Testament as indicated above. His qualifications and professional associations can be found on his Wikipedia article.

An American or European scholar?

Here is the biographical description Casey offers:

Thomas L. Thompson was an American Catholic born in 1939 in Detroit. He was awarded a B.A. at Duquesne University, a Catholic university in Pittsburgh, USA, in 1962, and a Ph.D. at Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1976. After several appointments, mostly in the USA, including the post of associate professor at Marquette University, a Jesuit, Roman Catholic university in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1989-93), he was Professor of Theology at the University of Copenhagen from 1993-2009.

Casey focuses his readers’ attention on Thompson’s Roman Catholic, Jesuit and American associations. There is only one hint of Thompson’s status as a European scholar — a significant oversight given Casey’s patent loathing for most things American. Casey quotes his PhD student Stephanie Fisher’s comparison of “decent European scholars” with “second-rate semi-learned American ‘scholars’ (sic)” with approval – p.43.

The fact that Thompson is also a Dane and has lived and worked in Denmark since 1993 where as Professor of Old Testament he was the only Catholic in the Theology faculty is overlooked entirely. Thompson in fact spent eight months at Temple University in Philadelphia and has done his graduate studies in Europe: in Oxford and Tuebingen from 1962-1971 and as a research scholar in Tuebingen from 1969-1977.

Tuebingen University
Tuebingen University

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Ongoing Disregard for Facts and Denials of Old Criticisms (yes, McGrath again, sorry)

Dr McGrath, after I demonstrated that he once again claimed a mythicist wrote the opposite of what he really did write, has quaintly responded with a post titled Why Do Mythicists Care So Little About Facts and Details? in which he writes a revisionist account of his original post.

With a beautiful irony McGrath opens with an astonishingly cavalier disregard for the facts and details that both Richard Carrier and I have ever written about scholars such as Thompson and Noll with respect to mythicism:

[Neil Godfrey] repeats Richard Carrier’s claim that mythicism is embraced by individuals like Thomas Thompson (who has distanced himself from mythicism) and Kurt Noll (whose contribution to Is This Not the Carpenter? is rather wonderful and does much to undermine mythicism).

Here was my quote from Richard Carrier:

Combine this with Brodie’s defection to mythicism, alongside Thompson’s, and (like Thompson’s) the publicly professed “historicity agnosticism” of Arthur Droge, professor of early Christianity at UCSD, and Kurt Noll, associate professor of religion at Brandon University, and Ehrman’s argument that only amateurs and outsiders take the Jesus Myth theory seriously is now in the dust. There is still, certainly, a litany of crank and amateur mythicist nonsense. But there is also a serious case to be made, by serious and well-qualified scholars. And they need to be paid attention to, not dismissed and mistreated, their arguments straw manned or ignored.

So McGrath is once again careless with the facts and details. That is not a claim that Thompson and Noll “embrace mythicism”. They do not. Carrier clearly states Droge and Noll are “historicity agnostics”! The point is just as damaging to McGrath’s case, however. They are not viscerally hostile towards the Christ Myth possibility as is McGrath. They acknowledge its plausibility. McGrath can never accept even that much. Never.

I don’t know if Carrier has ever said Thompson “embraces” mythicism. I certainly have never said any such thing. I have always been quite clear about Thompson’s own case. Thompson addresses the nature of the evidence that we rely upon for Jesus and argues for its stereotypical nature. The same type of literature is found elsewhere applied to both historical and mythical figures. Thompson is, as he writes in the very article McGrath hand-waves readers to study (does McGrath ever stop to take note of the detailed contents in any of the citations he hand-waves people to look at?), pointing out that the prevailing assumption of the historicity of Jesus is problematic given the nature of the evidence we have:

I wrote my monograph of 2005 in an effort to explore the continuity of a limited number of themes which were rooted in ancient Near Eastern royal ideology—an issue which is not only marginally related to questions of historicity, but one which also has much to say about the perception of history and historical method among modern scholars. . . . It is a small book, and its ambitions are few: hardly more than to point out that our warrant for assuming the existence of a historical Jesus has important limits.

Yes, his argument has the potential to open up the question of mythicism. But Thompson himself is not addressing mythicism per se. I know his argument reasonably well, I hope, because I believe my own arguments are very strongly influenced by Thompson’s. That’s why I have generally avoided the label “mythicist” for myself.

McGrath’s hyper-sensitivity in this area does not seem to benefit him with any capability of understanding such subtleties.

Er, no, I meant he tried to publish with the wrong companies

In my initial response to James McGrath’s review of Thomas L. Brodie’s Memoir, I zeroed in on a single remark by McGrath that grotesquely misrepresented what Brodie himself explicitly wrote. I explained why I was not writing a comprehensive response at that time and why I chose to single out that one point for attention.

300px-Caprichos_Nr_23,_Dieser_Staub
Never learned how to do scholarship

McGrath was trying to establish a point that the reason Brodie’s thesis was not published had to do with unscholarly methods and not its conclusion that Jesus was not an historical person. He needs this to be true to argue a case that the only reason mythicism is rejected is that it is not based on sound scholarship. Hence he stressed:

Brodie indicates that he had this conviction even before he had learned to do scholarship, and that his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes . . . (see the complete sentence below)

But although his idea was concocted prior to his learning how to do scholarship . . .

I recommend that this book be widely read. It illustrates the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism, and the fact that it has the potential to ruin careers, not because there is ingrained antipathy to it in the academy, but because the case for it is based on thoroughly unpersuasive arguments, and the complete disregard for other possibilities, . . .

The book can serve as a warning to young scholars to be open to criticism and feedback (and to more established scholars to provide honest and clear feedback, since I found myself wondering whether anyone actually told Brodie that he was using dubious methods and criteria to produce dubious results).

Specifically, the words of McGrath I was exposing as a blatantly false portrayal of what Brodie himself explained about the reason his manuscript was not published were these:

Brodie indicates that . . . his inability to find a publisher very early on was a result of things like poor grammar, lack of footnotes, refusal to accept criticisms of and feedback on his claims and interpretations, and attempting to find a Christian publisher for what he wrote on the subject (pp.32,35,40,42).

All of a sudden, in his second defence of his initial review, McGrath is now telling us that the last line of the above was his main point! Brodie’s real problem was that he was going to the wrong sort of publisher! We will soon see how questionable this take is. read more »

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ reviews continued. Chapter 10

Gospel of Mark’s Use of Literary Tropes and Myths to Create Tales of Jesus

Continuing my series of posts on ‘Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus I look here at Thomas L. Thompson‘s chapter ten, ” “Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King”.

Thompson (TLT) is asking readers to become more savvy to the literary tropes of the ancient world and to understand the biblical literature, including the Gospel narratives of Jesus, within these literary conventions. One might compare the way the unflattering realities of America’s Wild West have been romanticized through the literary visions of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. The white knight, or cowboy in the white hat, is a literary construct that exists as a tool that authors apply either to characters entirely of their own imagination or to historical persons which they recreate as myths.

The point is that once we recognize these literary tools for what they are, we will not read the ancient literature — gospels included — naively. We will learn to recognize the cultural myths or ideologies underlying the words we are reading. read more »

Why Historical Knowledge of Jesus Is Impossible: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 5

Emanuel Pfoh‘s chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ raises the questions that I think get to the very heart of what the “historicist-mythicist” divide over Christian origins is really all about. It’s a favourite of mine, and once again like another favourite that I’ll mention again in this post, comes from an anthropological perspective. The title of his chapter is “Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem”.

His chapter concludes the first of the three divisions into which the book is divided:

1. These first five chapters — by Jim West, Roland Boer, Lester L. Grabbe, Niels Peter Lemche and Emmanuel Pfoh — tackle “some problems and issues of past scholarship regarding the historical Jesus”.

2. The next section of three chapters (Robert M. Price, Morgens Müller, Thomas S. Verenna) raises “fresh perspectives regarding the figure of Paul and his epistles as our ‘earliest testimony’ of the figure of Jesus”. (I finally have come to appreciate the reference to “the figure of” Jesus as opposed to (simply) “Jesus”: the “figure of Jesus” is an umbrella term that can cover imaginary, mythical, historical-conceptual, or literal-physical-DNA Jesuses.)

3. The final section of the book consists of four chapters (James G. Crossley, Thomas L. Thompson, Ingrid Hjelm, Joshua Sabith) on the “intertextual literary reading and the significance of the function of a rewritten Bible for literary composition”, and a fifth and final chapter by K. L. Noll as a theoretical discussion of “the history of Christian origins without a historical Jesus.”

In this chapter Pfoh examines the current research into the historical Jesus in the context of the “historical milieu of previous scholarship”. He draws lessons from the past — how social, political, ideological and intellectual contexts of past studies have influenced the results produced by that scholarship — and makes some incisive observations about the real nature of current historical Jesus studies as a result.

“But he’s not a New Testament scholar”

Emanuel Pfoh begins by clarifying his “outsider” status to the field of New Testament studies. His special interest is in historical anthropology of Syria-Palestine/the Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages. That would seem to immediately disqualify him from any contribution to the discussion of Jesus according to Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey and James McGrath. (These have each rejected statements by Thomas L. Thompson on those grounds.)

What his chapter is about

Pfoh explains that he offers

only general statements and thoughts . . . regarding epistemological and methodological issues for the history-writing of the Near Eastern world, in which the figure of Jesus together with the whole of biblical traditions should be understood.

My main aim is to reflect, from strictly historical knowledge and what is to be deemed myth or mythic creation by ancient writers. (my emphases and formatting throughout)

That is, his chapter can be seen as

reflections of the methodological problems of the search for a historical Jesus in New Testament studies that should be acknowledged, addressed and responded to by scholars, but also as a plea for a critical understanding of the nature of ancient literature and the intellectual worlds supporting such.

What I believe Pfoh’s discussion does — though this is not something he directly addresses — is undermine the validity of the application of “historical criteria” to uncover a “historical Jesus” beneath the Gospels. Quite apart from the logical validity of the criteria themselves (criteria of embarrassment, double dissimilarity, coherence, multiple attestation, etc) Pfoh’s reflections argue that it is no more reasonable to think they can uncover a “historical core” beneath the Gospels than they might uncover an historical Achilles or Odysseus if applied to Homer.

Some will immediately fault such an approach as “sceptical” as if scepticism is a bad word in academia. Pfoh will later point out

All this is not a matter of scepticism, but of an awareness of the conditions of our knowledge and of an attempt to treat the extant and available data critically. (p. 85, my emphasis — ironic that a scholar appears to sense a need to defend against a potential charge of scepticism)

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The Figure of Jesus and the Mythic Mind

The main reason for holding to the historicity of the figure of Jesus . . . resides not primarily in historical evidence but derives instead from a modern theological necessity.

Pfoh writes that “the presence of the mythic mind in the intellectual world of antiquity” is not always taken seriously by “biblical scholars”.

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Did Jesus exist for minimalist and Jesus Process member Philip Davies?

Philip Davies

Emeritus Professor Philip Davies has not been able to “resist making a contribution to the recent spate of exchanges between scholars about the existence of Jesus” in an opinion piece titled Did Jesus Exist? on The Bible and Interpretation website. It is a question that he says “has always been lurking within New Testament scholarship generally”, though the occasion of his essay appears to be the recent set of exchanges over the views of Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey and Thomas L. Thompson on that website along with some thoughts on the recently released ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’.

(Since Davies was also announced as a member of The Jesus Process (c) (TJP), it is encouraging to see someone from that august body addressing the tactic of the gutter rhetoric that we have endured recently from other TJP members Joseph Hoffmann, Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher. It would be nice to hope that Davies’ article can mark a turn for the better from that quarter at least.)

Philip Davies is (in)famous for his 1992 publication In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ (partly outlined on vridar.info) that is reputed to have brought “minimalist” arguments on the Old Testament to a wider scholarly (and public) awareness. In Did Jesus Exist? Davies says he has “often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’”, and infers that the collection of articles in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ is an appropriate way to open the question.

(I don’t think it is all that difficult to apply a “minimalist” approach to the New Testament: it’s a simple matter of approaching the data with the same logical validity and consistency — the avoidance of circularity [and circularity of method is confessed by several historical Jesus/NT scholars] in particular. The hard part is in acknowledging the circularity given our cultural conditioning.)

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NT studies “not a normal case”, ad hominem rhetoric, and hope

He points out that what is uncontroversial in any other field of ancient history runs into trouble when suggested in the field of New Testament studies (my emphasis): read more »

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ — Introduction

What is the significance of the title of this book edited by Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna. The subtitle is “The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus” — “of the Figure of”, not “of Jesus”. Perhaps that helps guard the book from being seen as too bluntly opening up the Christ Myth question. The main title comes from Mark 6:1-6 —

And he went out from thence; and he cometh into his own country; and his disciples follow him.

2 And when the sabbath was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, Whence hath this man these things? and, What is the wisdom that is given unto this man, and what mean such mighty works wrought by his hands?

3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended in him.

4 And Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.

5 And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.

6 And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages teaching.  (ASV)

Now the themes latent in this passage and that are drawn out in this introduction are the same ones that led me to launch one of my very first diffident attempts to explore questions of historicity in an academic forum in 1998: Re: Jesus the Carpenter? in Crosstalk. Fourteen years later I am reading the same question, with the same implications for the historicity of the exchange between Jesus and his neighbours, being raised not by an amateur outsider in an open scholarly forum but by scholars in a book so prohibitively expensive that it is beyond the reach of the general reader — and with a clear warning that I am not to reproduce any of it for wider sharing, without even the usual allowance of short passages for reviews.

Nonetheless, this Introduction chapter has been available online since 2010 at The Bible and Interpretation — even complete with its annoying “itinerate” typo.  (And given that it is already online I trust I have a right to quote passages from it here.) So you can go there and read what Thompson and Verenna write for themselves or stay here and read what I say they write, with some of my own commentary. 😉 read more »

A model history lesson (or, Why Does Rabbi Akiba Proclaim Bar Kokhba the Messiah?)

Akiva
Rabbi Akiba (illustration from the 1568 Mantua Haggadah)

My recent encounter with Matthew Novenson’s Christ among the Messiahs has led me to a few other publications of his and one of them I found particularly surprising and interesting: Why Does R. Akiba Acclaim Bar Kokhba as Messiah? that appeared in a 2009 Journal for the Study of Judaism (40). (Bar Kokhba was the leader of the second Jewish rebellion against Rome in the 130s CE. The Jewish Talmudic record preserves a tradition that the leading Rabbi of the time, Akiba, declared Bar Kokhba to be the Messiah. Unfortunately for Akiba’s hopes Bar Kokhba’s rebellion failed.)

What grabbed my attention was the way Novenson analysed the documentary evidence to understand its nature before accepting its narrative content at face value — something that should strike as such an obvious thing to do but also something that very few historical Jesus scholars seem to follow through seriously. Note the present tense in the title of Novenson’s article: “Why does R. Akikba . . .” — that is significant in that it tells us Novenson will be addressing the literary Akiba in the narrative. A rationale for this might be that the literary Akiba is all we have today to analyse. Or as Thomas L. Thompson might say, we need first to deal with the Akiba we do have (the figure in literary texts) before we can move on to knowing how we might understand a historical Akiba behind the texts.)

A significant feature of Novenson’s method of argumentation is that it touches on a few criteria and methods frequently used in historical Jesus studies. We will see that he applies them not as rhetorical questions with “obvious” answers but as real questions requiring genuine investigation:

  • Why would any Jew make up a story embarrassing to a great rabbi of history?
  • Why would anyone make any of it up at all?
  • The characters are historical, the setting is historical, and the narrative is plausible and coherent. Why should we not believe the narrative is historical?

Now in historical Jesus studies these sorts of questions are raised less as gateways to inquiry than as rhetorical affirmations. There seems to be something about Jesus as a subject of historical inquiry that shuts down imaginations and brings out The Fossil’s Creed in NT scholars. “Why of course this or that story must be based on a true event! Why would anyone make it up? Why would anyone make up a story embarrassing to a respected rabbi? Of course it cannot be made up! It has to be true!”

Scholars generally seem to be at their best when they are not taking on Jesus. read more »

A Profession of Faith — The Historical Jesus Creed

Dr. Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

Presumably as a lead-up to the publishing of Is This Not the Carpenter? Thomas L. Thompson (as we mentioned earlier on Vridar) has published a rebuttal to Ehrman’s misleading statements in Did Jesus Exist? You’ve probably already read Thompson’s piece, “Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son? — A Response to Bart Ehrman,” but you may have missed the hilarious follow-up dialog that appeared later on.

A challenger appears

Our favorite anti-mythicist crusader, the Battling Bantam from Butler, James F. McGrath writes:

In referring to the existence of a historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth as an “assumption” rather than a historical conclusion, Thompson is either siding with the mythicists, or trying to have his cake and eat it too, or ignoring what Ehrman wrote, or some combination of the above

Thompson, says McGrath, can’t have it both ways. He’s either fer us or he’s agin’ us.

N.B.: Any discussion of the historical Jesus must be presented as a historical conclusion. You have been warned.

McGrath continues:

In writing about this topic, Thompson had a wonderful opportunity to clarify his own position and distance himself from those internet crackpots sometimes referred to as “mythicist” [sic] who comment on matters of history about which they are inadequately informed, engage in extremes of parallelomania which seem like a parody of the worst examples of scholarship from a bygone era, and in other ways do something that would be helpful in relation to this subject. That opportunity seems to me to have been squandered.

For Dr. Jimmy the thought of missing the chance to slam mythicists is a tragedy, a waste, a squandered opportunity.

Thompson replies:

read more »

The crazy attacks on Vridar

Updated and slightly revised about 3 hours after original posting.

This is crazy. A couple of blokes, laymen, have a hobby. They love to engage with biblical scholarly literature and to learn and understand all they can about a book that is important to Western culture. They enjoy sharing what they read with others who have similar interests. I always understood scholars were too busy to be bothered with whatever lay people did with any of their ideas. Who cares what every Trish, Dot and Hanna think and say?

So why do a few scholars sometimes go out of their way to publicly attack this blog? Why the insults and even the curses wishing our children dead (which even their students learn to repeat*)?

Why should anyone care if we — or anyone else — think Jesus was probably not historical or if we say we can’t decide one way or the other on the question? How can we explain scholars resorting to insult because we are less certain and more questioning about some details?

I have said repeatedly that my interest is not in mythicism per se but in exploring Christian origins and understanding the nature and origins of the biblical literature. I cannot prove Jesus did not exist and have no interest in bothering to try.

I am as much, and no more, a mythicist as is Professor Thomas L. Thompson. Thompson does not argue for or against the historicity of Jesus but he does argue a case for understanding the biblical literature and the ideas within it in a certain way, and he does from time to time point to the potential implications this understanding has for the question of the historicity of Jesus.

My arguments about methodology are for most part an application of Thompson’s and other minimalist scholars logic to the New Testament.

Accordingly I have questioned the fundamental assumptions of NT scholarship that addresses the historical Jesus and Christian origins. I have also pointed out the logical fallacies riddling many of those scholarly studies.

But I have also shared much of what I have found most interesting in those learned works.

I — and even moreso Tim — have spent a good amount of time learning the fundamentals of the biblical languages, using the standard scholarly references, and attempting to keep up with current ideas as well as digging into those of the past. It’s a hobby. But we are serious about it and love to share what we learn or wonder about.

We stand outside the guild. We have not been trained in the “correct answers” and “the right questions” to ask or the “correct way” to frame the discussions.

One sometimes wonders if it’s because we have done a little homework and have a fair idea of what we are talking about when we apply critical analysis to certain modern scholarly ideas that some scholars find our views threatening. We stand outside the guild. We have not been trained in the “correct thoughts” and “the right questions to ask”. It has not escaped our notice the way some scholars seem incapable of breaking away from stock phrases and concepts in their arguments and appear to be most uncomfortable with criticisms that undermine those taken-for-granted ways of expressing the arguments and framing the debates.

Enter mythicism

If we question the foundational assumptions and standard “logic” of some NT scholarship, what is left? What would replace it? read more »

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

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 read more »