Thomas L. Thompson on Biblical history

Jerry Russell

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Staff member
Thomas L. Thompson is famous for the long period of time he spent working as a janitor and house painter after his PhD was first denied by Ratzinger at Tubingen in 1971, and then awarded by Temple University in 1976. His dissertation was "The Quest for the Historical Abraham". He finally got a tenure-track position at University of Copenhagen in 1993.

His work has remained controversial throughout his career. In 1999 there was a flap in which he was accused of anti-Semitism, to which he replied here, making a number of points which I think are pretty important to keep in mind; including:

1) "The three disciplines of Palestinian archaeology, history and biblical exegesis are independent disciplines which should not be harmonized. Each of these disciplines have their own methods and integrity. Our discourse needs to be subject to all three."
Thompson's magnum opus in the Old Testament field is "The Mythic Past:Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel" (1999). He has also written about New Testament in "The Messiah Myth".
 
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Richard Stanley

Administrator
Minimally, why would one desire to keep the disciplines of history and archaeology from being harmonized? With the OT, at least, it seems like much of this can be resolved if it can be recast as propagandic distortions of history. And the fantastical being recast being symbolic metaphors for geo-political events that the 'lifetime directors' didn't want revealed in a literal fashion.
 

Jerry Russell

Administrator
Staff member
One might argue that before any harmonization is possible, the independent disciplines need to be nurtured to the point where each speaks in its own voice.

I've started reading the book, and find that he feels that the ancients had a sense of timelessness. While events might occur, there was no sense of progress or change, just a procession of examples of eternal principles. Various stories form echoing clusters, with repeated themes.

Perhaps this is taking a mythical / ahistorical perspective to an unnecessary extreme.
 

Richard Stanley

Administrator
Our previous articles discussed that the Jewish narratives differ in that they convey a sense of linear time flow, whereas the Classical Greek cultural tableau indeed conveys a timeless sense. Such that a Greek tragedy could be placed in any period, floating from any past or future. I think it was Cyrus Gordon that made this point, or perhaps Moses Hadas?

One might argue that before any harmonization is possible, the independent disciplines need to be nurtured to the point where each speaks in its own voice.
But what if a specific piece of archaeological evidence can indeed speak to an element of history, or to a religious narrative?
 

Jerry Russell

Administrator
Staff member
Our previous articles discussed that the Jewish narratives differ in that they convey a sense of linear time flow, whereas the Classical Greek cultural tableau indeed conveys a timeless sense.
I believe it was Hadas that made this point. And I tend to agree with Hadas, and disagree with Thompson for the most part.

But what if a specific piece of archaeological evidence can indeed speak to an element of history, or to a religious narrative?
Just in the first few pages, Thompson has already mentioned the cases of Omri, Ahab and Jesu, whose names are confirmed in inscriptions and Assyrian records. Even in these cases, he denies any specific historicity, claiming that these are references to already-ancient, generic heroes or family dynastic lines. Comparing this to the general trend of scholarly opinion, I'm beginning to see why Thompson had to spend so much time doing house painting.
 
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