2020-08-30

conclusion … 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.

The previous posts in this series:

This post concludes my overview of the festschrift to Thomas L. Thompson on his 80th birthday. I hope to post soon a link to a single PDF file of all of these posts. Over the coming months, from time to time, I would further like to cover some of the essays in more detail. The book is expensive and I do appreciate all involved in enabling me to receive a review copy. Hopefully, a less expensive paperback or e-version will be available before long, but till then and for those who are not as financial as they would like to be don’t forget your state and local libraries since most of them will be able to assist you with an interlibrary loan service. So with thanks to those who put this volume together and contributed to it, and to Thomas L. Thompson whose scholarship has been so influential in biblical studies (and of course on me among so many others), here is the final post in my overview discussion of Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.

. . .

Lisbeth Fried’s essay, “Can the Book of Nehemiah Be Used as an Historical Source, and If So, of What?“, builds on Thomas Thompson’s emphasis on “the importance of looking beyond the situation in which the biblical story is set to the situation in which the book may have been written” (p. 210).

Following in that path, we recognize that while the biblical book Ezra-Nehemiah is set in the Persian period, it was written over a long period of time. Much of it is definitely Hellenistic (Fried 2015a: 4-5; Finkelstein 2018); some of it may be Persian, however, and may be used as an historical source if used cautiously and if confirmed by corroborating documents. I test this hypothesis by examining the portrayal of Nehemiah as the Persian governor of Judea during the reign of Artaxerxes I. Is Nehemiah’s portrayal historical, i.e., does his portrayal match what we know in general about provincial governors under Achaemenid rule? (p. 210)

Fried leads readers through a step by step comparison of Nehemiah’s actions with those that Persian inscriptions inform us were typical of the actions and responsibilities of Persian governors: jurisdiction over the temple and its operations, control of temple funds (temples functioned as collection centres for the Persian empire), religious practices of the priests and people, and control over marriages in order to safeguard against the emergence of alliances that might threaten the security of those appointed to administer state power. So though a late composition the book of Nehemiah appears to be consistent practices of Persian governors from Egypt to Asia Minor.

In Ehud Ben Zvi’s “Chronicles’ Reshaping of Memories of Ancestors Populating Genesis” we encounter many instances where the books of Chronicles rewrite events found in Genesis and how we might expect the literati of the day to have been influenced in their perceptions of those events in the more culturally significant book of Genesis.

Reading Chronicles and identifying with the message conveyed by the Chronicler2 led, inter alia, to processes of drawing attention to or away from some events, characters or some of their features, and led to a reshaping and re-signifying of implicit or explicit mnemonic narratives. (p. 225)

Details that on the surface look rather pointless to the lay reader take on fascinating meaning as Zvi takes us through several of those “little details”: Why does Genesis generally speak of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” while Chronicles of “Abraham, Isaac and Israel”? Why in Genesis do we follow the adventures of Esau and Jacob while in Chronicles it is Esau and Israel? Do we detect here a subtle attempt to snatch from the Samaritans in the north the identity of Israel for the Judeans in the south? Compare also Abraham’s wife Keturah in Genesis; why in Chronicles is she called a concubine-wife? and why in Genesis do we read that she bore “to Abraham” children but in Chronicles she simply “bore children”? Why are the Genesis and Chronicles narratives about Er so different? Is there significance in the different ways “Adam” is introduced at the beginning of each book? Why does Chronicles find it necessary to merely set out a list of unadorned patriarchal names whereas Genesis introduced some anecdote on the significance of some of those names? Why does the Chronicler think it appropriate to make no mention at all of the Garden of Eden or Flood stories while rewriting other episodes in Genesis? And so on and so on. I found it a most interesting journey of discovery.

The penultimate chapter is by another scholar who has appeared before on Vridar, Philippe Wajdenbaum. Some readers of Vridar will be reminded of Russell Gmirkin’s thesis that Greek authors inspired the books of the Bible when they read Wajdenbaum’s “The Book of Proverbs and Hesiod’s Works and Days“. Debt to Thompson is once again acknowledged in this context:

T. L. Thompson (1992, 1999, 2001) and N. P. Lemche (2001 [1993]) have raised the possibility that the Hebrew Bible was produced in the Hellenistic era. There is no physical evidence for the Hebrew Bible before the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the spread of Hellenism in the Levant after Alexander’s conquest provides the best context for its creation. Thompson’s vision has elicited a paradigm shift in biblical studies, inspiring several scholars to posit a direct influence upon the redaction of several Hebrew Bible books of such Greek classical authors as Homer (Brodie 2001: 447-94; Louden 2011: 324; Kupitz 2014), Herodotus (Nielsen 1997; Wesselius 2002) and Plato (Wajdenbaum 2011; Gmirkin 2017). (p. 248)

Some Hesiod passages:

    • He does mischief to himself who does mischief to another, and evil planned harms the plotter most.
    • The idle man who waits on empty hope, lacking a livelihood, lays to heart mischief-making.
    • For a man wins nothing better than a good wife, and, again, nothing worse than a bad one.

There are “similarities of vocabulary between Hesiod and the Septuagint text of Proverbs . . . even though the latter greatly differs from the original Hebrew” so one might well suspect that the translators had been familiar with Hesiod’s Greek poem. Yet Wajdenbaum goes further and argues that “the original Hebrew text itself may have been influenced by Hesiod.” Wajdenbaum lists very many possibilities and acknowledges similar observations other scholars have made concerning Proverbs and Greek moralistic works (including Aesop and Aristotle).

Not only Proverbs but the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are also brought into the discussion as well as other Greek poets such as Theognis.

The final essay is “The Villain ‘Samaritan’: The Sāmirī as the Other Moses in Qur’anic Exegesis” by Joshua Sabi — the second chapter taking a look at the Qur’an. Sabi’s discussion is probably the most technical of all in this volume and not the easiest of reads for those not yet initiated into the highly abstract conceptual terminology. It is worth engaging with, however, in order to see a control instance of how a religious text both challenged and rewrote earlier scriptures. Such a case study potentially deepens any discussion of the changes in Jewish-Christian scriptures that most of us are more familiar with. How does one understand the literary creation of a new figure (in this case the Sāmirī) as a rival counterpart to Moses (at the time of the golden calf apostasy) and ancestor of the Samaritans?

Muslim exegetes have been – and still are – obsessed with the historicity of the figure of the Sāmirī. . . .

The novelty in Islamic Qur’anic exegesis is not how these biographical accounts came about, but how the identities are constructed and construed literarily. In the minds of the exegete the ambiguity of theSāmirī figure’s Qur’anic identity left him with no option but to venture into the realm of mythologized understanding of history according to which the Qur’an is both the eternal word of God and his message of salvation to mankind. The invention of such a figure with all the theological elements of iconoclastic theology‘ and literary anatomy of mythology was construed as history. Exegetes had to invent another Moses whose biography is a mimicry of the biblical and Qur’anic Moses. In their trying to solve the ambiguity of the Sāmirī’s story and his culpability, exegetes failed to see the Qur’an’s restorative approach to Scriptures as well as to humans’ fragile relations to God.(pp. 271-72)


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.



2020-08-28

part 3 … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

Earlier posts in this series: 25th August 2020 and 27th August 2020.

Thomas Thompson . . . is a pioneer in questioning more or less weak historical reconstructions done by Old Testament scholars, reconstructions that were mainly based on biblical texts and only sometimes supported by a few arbitrarily selected extra-biblical data. I still remember how his Tübinger Dissertation on the historicity of the patriarchal narratives struck like a bomb in Heidelberg during the preparation stage of the second volume of Westermann’s commentary on Genesis. 

Then,

Later on Thompson extended and radicalized his historical scepticism concerning the Hebrew Bible. According to him, all the texts from Genesis to 2 Kings constitute a ‘mythic past’ composed by redactors of the Persian and Hellenistic periods from many traditions. They show no historiographical interest but are intended to construct a Judean or Samarian identity and to enfold a theological and philosophical worldview. — Rainer Albertz

. . .

We come now to the third section of Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity and the one that is of special interest to me . . . .

Part 3. Biblical Narratives

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.

The opening essay is by another scholar also of the University of Copenhagen whose work has been discussed before on Vridar, Ingrid Hjelm: “The Food of Life and the Food of Death in Texts from the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East“. Hjelm interprets Genesis 1-3 intertextually with the Mesopotamian myth of Adapa, the book of Proverb’s discourse on Wisdom and Folly, and 1 Samuel’s narrative of Nabal and Abigail, finally extending even to thoughts on the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament.

I have a special interest in the Adapa myth as is surely evident from having posted fifteen times on it so far. It is about a pre-Flood mortal, Adapa, who is given perfect wisdom by the god Ea but not eternal life. Adapa offends the gods and is called to give account. The god Ea, who gave him wisdom, deceives him so that he unwittingly rejects the gift of eternal life offered by a higher deity, Anu. The details are quite different but the motifs are the same as we read in Genesis: a mortal being deceived by a divine agent, becoming wise but losing eternal life, the “sin” and a curse. There is surely some connection but exactly what that is is not immediately clear. Hjelm explores the questions common to both myths. The temple of the gods in the Adapa myth is replaced by the divinity’s garden in Genesis. Hjelm points out that Thompson himself has noted that the woman already “knows the good” before she eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that insight changes the way we read the story. Yet God has already planted the tree of life in the same garden, so why is it that God appeared from the outset (before “the fall”) to turn the attention of Adam and Eve from that tree? Asking such questions brings us even closer to the character of the interplay between the gods and Adapa in the Mesopotamian myth.

The second part of the essay is another fascinating examination of Wisdom and Folly in Proverbs vis à vis Abigail and Nabal (meaning “Folly”) in 1 Samuel 25, with once more the motif of eating specially prepared food. A snippet of the discussion:

In a comparative analysis of the goddesses Athirat, Qudshu, Tannit, Anat and Astarte in texts from the ancient Near East, inscriptions mentioning Asherah (and Yahweh) from Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud and Old Testament texts, Broberg finds so much similarity in the symbol of Ashera’s linking of trees, snakes, fertility and woman that it is plausible that McKinlay’s ‘agents of God’ hide an Ashera goddess (Broberg 2014: 50-64).19 The use of the plural forms in Gen. l:26’s and 3:22’s ‘let us’ and ‘like us’ functions as an inclusio around this hidden goddess (Broberg 2014: 64), who is present at the creation as god’s wife, but in the course of the narrative is transformed to become Adam’s wife as the ‘mother of all living’ (Gen. 3:20; Broberg 2014: 59; cf. also Wallace 1985: 158). A similar transformation takes place when Abigail as David’s wife ‘is moved into the ranks of the many wives’ (McKinlay 2014 [sic – 1999?]: 82).

If, as argued by Broberg (2014: 61), Genesis 2-4’s woman/Eve narratives contain a conscious dethronement of Asherah similar to the anti-Asherah bashing the in the books of Kings (e.g. 1 Kgs 18:19; 2 Kgs 21:7; 23:4-7), it is likely that Proverbs 1-9 and 1 Samuel 25 are written as contrasting narratives, aiming at transferring Asherah’s positive traits as mother of all living onto the female figure. As heir of the life-sustaining qualifications of the fertility goddess, the wise woman secures the good life and holds death in check. (pp. 171f. Broberg 2014 = a Masters thesis at University of Copenhagen. My highlighting in all quotations.)

Where does the Lord’s Supper enter this picture?

The study of ancient myths may also add to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a radical transformation of drinking from the ṣarṣaru cup of Isthar in Near Eastern covenant ideologies’ confirmation and remembrance of the covenant. (p. 173)

The artist’s imagination has reduced the gates to a far more manageable size than in the original narrative unless we are to imagine Samson here, as later rabbis did, as a monstrously large giant. Wikimedia Commons

But let’s move on. The next chapter pulls out for attention one of those very odd passages in Biblical narratives that seem to have no real connection with the surrounding text and seem to add nothing at all to the plot and appears to be nothing more than an outlandishly tall tale. It’s one of those “why did the author write that?” scenarios: “A Gate in Gaza: An Essay on the Reception of Tall Tales” by Jack M. Sasson.

Judges 16: 1 One day Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her. 2 The people of Gaza were told, “Samson is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.” 3 But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night. Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.

Sasson asks how such a story was understood by its ancient audience. We have no motif for Samson’s visit to Gaza; the feat defies credibility even for a strong-man (given the size of city gates later rabbis deduced Samson’s shoulders spanned dozens of cubits; add to the weight and size we have a steep climb and journey of tens of kilometres). Why do Bible authors sometimes resort to what surely must have been acknowledged to be obvious fictions?

. . . the exaggerations are themselves the focus of the story, giving them a ‘fictionality’ that encourages transposal into other forms of comprehension, such as a parable or a paradigm. In such accounts, narrators tend to sharpen implausibility by multiplying clues, their main intent being to promote the didactic via the entertaining. In antiquity, any Samson reader acquainted with fortified cities would know that city gates, not least because of their size, bulk and weight, were not transportable on the back of any one individual, however mighty. . . .

Elsewhere in Scripture, narrators also use diverse tactics to alert perceptive readers or audiences on the fictionality of what lies before them by assigning moralistic or whimsical names to characters that no parents would wish on their children. Such a tactic is obvious in Genesis 14 with its series of the named kings of Sodom (Bera, ‘In Evil’), Gomorrah (Birsha,‘In Wickedness’) and one of their allies (Bela, ‘Swallower’, likely king of Zoar). (pp. 184f)

Continue reading “part 3 … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


2020-08-27

continuing … 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.

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.

2 heads: John Hyrcanus II and John the Baptist

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)

Continue reading “continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


2020-08-25

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

Continue reading “Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


2020-08-11

“When everyone is agreed on something, it is probably wrong” — Thompson’s Rule

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by Neil Godfrey

Another Thompson aphorism: ‘When everyone is agreed on something, it is probably wrong’. In other words, as Thompson has also put it, ‘in our fields, if all are in agreement, it signifies that no one is trying to falsify the theory: an essential step in any scientific argument’. — Doudna 2020

That’s not being perverse. It’s about pausing when “things seem too good to be true” and taking time out to ask if “there has probably been a mistake”. (Gunn, @ 2 mins)

[U]ntil the Romans ultimately removed the right of the Sanhedrin to confer death sentences, a defendant unanimously condemned by the judges would be acquitted [14, Sanhedrin 17a], the Talmud stating ‘If the Sanhedrin unanimously find guilty, he is acquitted. Why? — Because we have learned by tradition that sentence must be postponed till the morrow in hope of finding new points in favour of the defence’.

That practice could be interpreted as the Jewish judges being intuitively aware that suspicions about the process should be raised if the final result appears too perfect . . .

[I]f too many judges agree, the system has failed and should not be considered reliable. (Gunn et al 2016)

Or even more simply,

They intuitively reasoned that when something seems too good to be true, most likely a mistake was made. (Zyga, 2016)

Sanhedrin deciding the death penalty . . . but . . . https://arthive.com/vasilypolenov/works/493225~Guilty_of_death
See Interview 1 and Interview 2 with Thomas L. Thompson. All Vridar blog posts on Thompson’s work are archived here. I expect to begin posting my thoughts on Biblical Narratives, Archaeology & Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson fairly soon.

The opening quotation above is from a footnote to a chapter by Gregory Doudna in a newly published volume in honour of Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology & Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Doudna’s footnote continues:

I thought of what I have come to call Thompson’s Rule when I encountered this scientific study showing that, as counterintuitive as it sounds, unanimous agreement actually does reduce confidence of correctness in conclusions in a wide variety of disciplines (Gunn et al. 2016).

The paper by Gunn and others is Too good to be true: when overwhelming evidence fails to convince. The argument of the paper (with my bolding in all quotations):

Is it possible for a large sequence of measurements or observations, which support a hypothesis, to counterintuitively decrease our confidence? Can unanimous support be too good to be true? The assumption of independence is often made in good faith; however, rarely is consideration given to whether a systemic failure has occurred. Taking this into account can cause certainty in a hypothesis to decrease as the evidence for it becomes apparently stronger. We perform a probabilistic Bayesian analysis of this effect with examples based on (i) archaeological evidence, (ii) weighing of legal evidence and (iii) cryptographic primality testing. In this paper, we investigate the effects of small error rates in a set of measurements or observations. We find that even with very low systemic failure rates, high confidence is surprisingly difficult to achieve . . . . 

Sometimes as we find more and more agreement we can begin to lose confidence in those results. Gunn begins with a simple example in a presentation he gave in 2016 (link is to youtube video). Here is the key slide:

With a noisy voltmeter attempting to measure a very small voltage (nanovoltage) one would expect some variation in each attempted measurement. Without the variation, we can conclude something is wrong rather than that we have a precise measurement.

Another example:

The recent Volkswagen scandal is a good example. The company fraudulently programmed a computer chip to run the engine in a mode that minimized diesel fuel emissions during emission tests. But in reality, the emissions did not meet standards when the cars were running on the road. The low emissions were too consistent and ‘too good to be true.’ The emissions team that outed Volkswagen initially got suspicious when they found that emissions were almost at the same level whether a car was new or five years old! The consistency betrayed the systemic bias introduced by the nefarious computer chip. (Zyga 2016)

From https://www.cagle.com/arend-van-dam/2015/09/smart-vw-cars

Then there was the Phantom of Heilbronn or the serial killer “Woman Without a Face“. Police spent eight to fifteen years searching for a woman whom DNA connected to 40 crime scenes (murders to burglaries) in France, Germany and Austria. Her DNA was identified at six murder scenes. A three million euro reward was offered. It turned out that the swabs used to collect the DNA from the crime scenes had been inadvertently contaminated at their production point by the same woman.

Consider, also, election results. What do we normally suspect when we hear of a dictator receiving over 90% of the vote?

We have all encountered someone who has argued that “all the evidence” supports their new pet hypothesis to explain, say, Christianity’s origins. I have never been able to persuade them, as far as I know, that reading “all the evidence” with a bias they either cannot see or think is entirely valid.

Ironically, scholars like Bart Ehrman who attempt to deny a historical and even slightly significant “Jesus myth” view among scholars are doing their case a disservice. By insisting that there is and that there has been no valid or reasonable contrary view ever raised, such scholars are undermining confidence in the case for the historicity of Jesus. If they could accept the challenges from serious thinkers over the past near two centuries, and acknowledge the ideological pressure inherent in “biblical studies” for academics to conform within certain parameters of orthodox faith, then they could begin to not look quite so like those politicians who claim 90% of the vote, or like those police chasing a phantom woman serial killer for eight years across Europe, of the dishonest VW executives . . . . Continue reading ““When everyone is agreed on something, it is probably wrong” — Thompson’s Rule”


2020-02-09

Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #2

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

 – – o – –

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.


2020-02-08

Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #1

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by Neil Godfrey

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. Continue reading “Interview with Thomas L. Thompson #1”


2019-12-11

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

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by Tim Widowfield

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.) Continue reading “Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies”


2014-03-24

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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


2014-03-23

“Maurice Casey, Meet Thomas L. Thompson”

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Continue reading ““Maurice Casey, Meet Thomas L. Thompson””


2013-07-07

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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


2012-11-04

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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. Continue reading “‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ reviews continued. Chapter 10”


2012-09-02

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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)

.

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”.

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


2012-08-30

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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.)

.

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): Continue reading “Did Jesus exist for minimalist and Jesus Process member Philip Davies?”