Tag Archives: Thompson: The Messiah Myth

On Not Reading the Bible Too Seriously — As Its Authors Intended

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My reflections on reading the story of Abraham setting out to sacrifice Isaac as a children’s story brought to mind a more mature understanding of the Bible’s narratives discussed by in The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel by Thomas L. Thompson. (The same book is published under the title The Bible in history : How Writers Create a Past, so don’t be fooled and buy both books like I did!)

Most Christians and Jews do read the story of the “Binding of Isaac” or Akedah as it’s more technically called correctly, though perhaps not always realising it. What I mean is that most readers do not really take it literally with all its psychological horror. Most readers, correctly at the story level and as the narrator evidently intended, admire Abraham for his faithfulness and obedience. The problem, the horror, descends only when we treat it as literal history and a genuine account of a real God, and give our minds over to that same God.

Here are some of Thomas L. Thompson’s more realistic explanation of the story. By realistic I mean reading it the way the narrator presented it and no more.

The first reference comes as a comparison with the story of Saul who fails God’s test by sparing the lives of the cattle after killing the enemy soldiers. read more »

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

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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 »

Jesus: a Saviour Just Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon

The Good Shepherd, mosaic in Mausoleum of Gall...
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Thomas L. Thompson wrote The Messiah Myth to demonstrate that the sayings and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels (and David in the OT) are the product of a literary tradition about Saviour figures — both kings and deities — throughout the Middle East. The subtitle of the book is “the Near Eastern roots of Jesus and David”.

A number of New Testament scholars have expressed concern that contemporary classical literature is not widely read and studied by their peers. One’s understanding of the Gospels and Acts — and even the New Testament letters — is enriched when one can recognize links between them and other literature of their day. Thompson goes a bit further than this, and appeals for a greater awareness of the longstanding tradition of literary themes and images that were the matrix of both Old and New Testament narratives.

Some scholars see in Jesus’ sayings certain gems that are unique or holy or brilliantly enlightened and worthy of the deepest respect. They see in his deeds of healing and concern for the poor and weak a noble character worthy of devotion.

Some see the themes of concern for the poor and condemnation of the rich and powerful as evidence that Jesus was tapping in to popular revolutionary or resistance sentiments among peasants and displaced persons in early first century Galilee.

Other scholars see in the saying evidence of economic exploitation such that a sense of resentment could easily morph into a Jesus movement.

All of the above interpretations are thrown into question when one notices their echoes in the OT – and especially throughout the wider world of the OT. The wordings vary, but they are all clear reiterations of the same motifs.

But after one becomes more familiar with the literary heritage of the ancient “Near East”, one must legitimately ask if all those sayings and deeds of Jesus are nothing more than stereotypical tropes that authors wanting to describe any God in the flesh or Saviour King would inevitably use. What is said of Jesus was said countless times of your average typical Saviour Pharaoh or Mesopotamian monarch or deity.

Naturally we expect the Gospel authors to be more influenced by the Jewish texts than Egyptian or Mesopotamian ones, but Thompson shows that the this is all part of the same package. What we read in the Old Testament is much the same as we read among Egyptian, Syrian and Babylonian literature. It’s all part and parcel of the same thought world.

Thompson asks readers to re-read the Gospel narratives about Jesus in the context of the literary heritage of the Jewish scriptures — and to understand that heritage as itself part of a wider literary and ethical outlook throughout the Middle East. Don’t forget that Jews were not confined to Palestine but were well established in communities from Babylonia to Egypt, too.

The following extracts are from Thompson’s discussion of The Song for a Poor Man. It is only one of the several facets of this heritage that Thompson addresses. One sees that the ancient world was full of Saviours like Jesus. It must a have been a happy time and place (tongue in cheek). read more »

“Minimalist” Thomas Thompson’s take on The Messiah Myth

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Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth can be a somewhat mystifying read for anyone looking for an engagement with conventional historical Jesus studies. It can leave a reader who is looking for a repeat of this scholar’s demolition of the historicity of the biblical Patriarchs and Kingdom of Israel even more flummoxed. In his first chapter he explains:

The purpose of this book is not historical reconstruction. Nor is it centered in the problems of the historical Jesus. (p.16)

Rather,

It is about the influence of the ancient Near Eastern figure of the king in biblical literature, and this has much to do with how figures such as Jesus are created.

So Thompson is addressing Jesus as he has been created out of this Near Eastern literary figure, and not a historical figure behind the gospels.

Thompson sees no evidence for a historical figure. He critiques historical Jesus studies since the days of Schweitzer for “lack of clarity” in the method by which scholars have approached the gospels and attempted to find in them historical information.

On the one hand [Schweitzer] assumed that Jesus existed apart from the gospels and on the other that the gospels were about this historical person and reflected his beliefs. This lack of clarity in method supported the radical separation of a Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. (p.8)

Thompson sees an even more profound error in what he believes is a prevalent misreading of the apocalyptic images in the Gospels. This is something I am still thinking through. I am waiting to read Amos and the Cosmic Imagination by James Linville (to get a different but presumably related perspective from Thomspon’s — meet Dr Jim [Link //drjimsthinkingshop.com/about/ and blog is no longer active… Neil, 23rd Sept, 2015]) as part of my attempt to grasp the rationale for understanding apocalyptic language as something other than an expression of literal beliefs in apocalyptic scenarios. Will return to this question at end of the post.

A difficult assumption

That the stories of the gospels are about a historical person is a difficult assumption. To what extent does the figure of Jesus — like the figures of Abraham, Moses and Job — fulfill a function in a narrative discourse about something else? Is Jesus rather — like so many other great figures on ancient literature — the bearer of a writer’s parable? The question does not refer to our knowledge of a historical person. It asks about the meaning and function of biblical texts. (p.9)

This question — what is the meaning and function of the gospels — is one Thompson addresses in The Messiah Myth in a way that few other scholars have done. Certainly historical Jesus scholars acknowledge the Gospels are theology and faith-messages. But they also assume they are records of oral traditions traced back to a historical event, and in so doing they violate the very basics of scholarly historical enquiry by reconstructing Jesus and early Christianity upon an untested and unquestioned assumption. Thompson argues that Gospels are born not from a set of unique oral traditions, but from a well established literary matrix traceable back through centuries and millennia.

Literary creations replace their authors read more »

The origin of the ‘Oral Tradition’ hypothesis

Thomas L. Thompson has hit the nail on the head when he explains why “historians” of the Bible place so much emphasis on oral tradition. Oral tradition, of course, is not a fact. That it existed cannot be verified. It is nothing more than a hypothesis, or really more an assumption of necessity than a hypothesis. And the necessity is the trap that scholars have built for themselves by assuming — the great unquestionable assumption — that the gospels ultimately get their stories from some historical events and persons.

Before we can speak of a historical Jesus, we need a source that is independent of Matthew, Mark and Luke and refers to the figure of the early first century. Such an ideal source, of course, is hardly to be hoped for . . . . The problem with using the far from ideal gospels as sources for history has attracted great attention to oral tradition.

And the necessity for these oral traditions?

They could help, however, in bridging the considerable gap between the time in which the gospels were written and that earlier time in which they set Jesus.

Enter the Gospel of the Gaps

Before the Gospel of Thomas was discovered, this oral source for the sayings common to Matthew and Luke (Q) was defined by the striking similarity of Jesus’ sayings in a fourth-century translation reawakened these old speculations about Q. . . . [This Gospel of Thomas was] corroborating evidence for an oral tradition of sayings [that] supported the hope that a comparison of Q with Thomas could help in distinguishing earlier from later sayings. If the sayings in Thomas are earlier than the gospels, scholars would be closer to identifying the earliest of them as Jesus’ own.

Meaning?

Necessity, once more, was the mother of invention. Even though the Greek original of the Gospel of Thomas could hardly have been earlier than the second century, the similarities of the sayings in Thomas to Q have seduced many. Thomas can fill the gap separating a historical Jesus from the earliest of the gospels and therefore it does.

Leaving Thompson aside for a moment, Nicholas Perrin’s book (sorry April DeConick), Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron (link is to Google books) points to many word plays and various Syrian literary linking details that set the work apart as a literary, hardly an oral, creation.

The unlikely assumption (again)

This accepts the unlikely assumption that the sayings from Thomas were based on an oral tradition, rather than on the known gospels or on a tradition harmonizing them.

Thompson then alludes to Crossan’s and others’ efforts to distinguish the wisdom sayings from the apocalyptic ones. The idea of this distinction has been to identify the sayings of a wisdom ‘historical’ teacher from a later layer of apocalyptic sayings introduced subsequently by followers. Thompson rejects this distinction and argues (from a range of Jewish scriptures and other Middle Eastern sayings) that the apocalyptic and wisdom motifs as a rule went hand in hand throughout the centuries.

So why the conjuring up of oral tradition?

The tendency to evoke oral tradition to transmit the sayings from event to the writing of the gospels is required only by the assumption that the text is about a historical Jesus. The projected function of the sayings of Q and Thomas as oral sayings is to link the gospels with their text’s heroic teacher.

What’s wrong with what we’ve already got?

If, instead of Q and the collections of sayings in Thomas, we were to consider actually existing Jewish collections and sayings, such as the proverbs of Solomon, the songs of David or the laws of Moses, would we also conclude that such sayings originated with the figure to which the Bible attributes them? . . . . Such collections tell us nothing about a historical Solomon, David or Moses — not even whether they existed.

There is much more, of course. I’ve just hit a few salient points for a quick read on a blog.

Thompson’s book does not attempt to cover all that needs to be covered. He makes it clear that his goal is to demonstrate, in response to the historical Jesus research of Schweitzer and Crossan, that the sayings of Jesus can potentially derive from a far deeper pool of known literature than “fictive texts like Q”.

Unfortunately his work lacks the detail required to settle the question. But it is a provocative starter. Hopefully he will publish more to begin to flesh out some of the possibilities in detail.

The above quotations are from chapter one of Thompson’s The Messiah Myth.