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Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. NY: Basic Books, 2005.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

One naturally approaches this weighty tome with excited expectation that the king of Old Testament minimalism is going to give his customary treatment, this time, to the New Testament. Surely, one thinks, Thompson will dive into the debate over whether there is any evidence of synagogues in first-century Galilee, for example. One hopes for some substantial contribution to the Christ-myth debate. But one is disappointed. There is much to learn from Thomas’s graceful and symphonic treatment of ancient Middle Eastern Sacred King protocols and related mythic-literary themes, and especially of the tragedy of the Israelite/Jewish monarchy recounted in the Deuteronomic history (with its anticipations in the Pentateuch and echoes in many other quarters of scripture), but finally there is as little anti-history in the book as there is history in the Bible.

In several previous, brilliant studies, Thompson has demonstrated, especially through archaeology, that the Old Testament is as devoid of any historical basis as the Book of Mormon is. That leaves him with a big and variegated book, or collection of books, that must have a rather different purpose and character than we had thought. Even Von Rad, with his “theology of recital,” presupposed a historical Israel and Judah whose national life and history provided at least some sort of building blocks for the fanciful epic of salvation history. The biblical bards were commemorating, celebrating, reliving events based, however loosely, on what their ancestors had undergone. We figured it was something like Homer’s Iliad, based on a real Trojan War to some unknowable degree. But, failing even that amount of historical grounding, we are left to ask just what sort of literature is the Old Testament? Is it all really a parable about human potential and failure? Is its apocalyptic language really intended as timeless utopianism? Are its sacred kings and heroes really set forth as nothing more than character types to emulate or to eschew?

I suppose I am not ready to give up form-criticism and its attendant urge to reconstruct some Sitz-im-Leben for this psalm, that oracle, this etiology, etc. And that implies that much of the Bible can function as a core sample revealing at least hints of what was going on historically. I guess I had rather do something like posit a Maccabean setting for the Psalms than to make them simply abstract religious poems.

And then there is the uneasy implication of Thompson’s work that tends not only to dehistoricize the Old Testament but to de-Judaize it as well, as if the second-remove abstract, figurative reading to which Gentile God-fearers and Christians perforce resorted were really the ancient authors’ intention all along.

Thompson simply dismisses the notion that the messianic motifs in which the gospels are steeped reflect the apocalyptic expectations either of early Christians or of contemporary Jews. No, they all “understood” the various prophecies and miracle stories of both Testaments as utopian fictions and allegories of piety. Thompson fairly sneers at the imagined bumbling of Albert Schweitzer, foolish enough to try to discern the outlines of an eschatologically deluded Jesus from Matthew and Mark. How could anyone, before modern numbskulls, have so grossly misread the biblical, messianic tradition as to imagine that the Kingdom of God might actually dawn in fury and blessing? No, surely they knew better than literalist moderns. And then along comes Simon bar-Kochba! He seems to have taken it all too literally! But why should we assume the train jumped the track with the Son of the Star? Rabbi Akiba certainly shared his perspective, and presumably he was a fairly sharp-eyed student of scripture—as traditionally read. And if Bar-Kochba believed in a literal messianism, starring himself, why cannot a historical Jesus have seen himself in the same light a century before? Not that he did, but it is not clear why we ought to rule out the possibility.

The special pleading argument of the book is akin to that found in James D.G. Dunn’s writings on New Testament Christology. Having surveyed the thinking of Philo of Alexandria, concerning a hypostatic Logos, Son of God, Heaven High Priest, and Primal Adam, Dunn is curiously reticent to admit that Philo had created New Testament Christology in advance, with John and Paul simply scribbling the name “Jesus of Nazareth” in the blank. No, Dunn argues, Philo was not talking metaphysics but metaphor. It was the New Testament Christians who first envisioned a real heavenly Priest, Adam, etc. Dunn is trying to protect his inherited theology, a Christology of the genuine incarnation of a metaphysical being unknown till the Incarnation. Thompson, on the other hand, is just covering his hermeneutical hind end.

I have referred to Thompson’s expert tracing of themes through this and that passage of disparate scripture texts. We are to join him in seeing a verse in Job shedding light on another in Kings, etc., on the basis of a theme or even a single word used in common. Pardon me, but when I get to this point in an exegetical argument, I start wondering just what sort of cleverness the scholar is demonstrating. Is he discerning the Ariadne thread sewn so carefully and so long ago for future readers? That is, is our scholar thinking the ancient writer’s thoughts after him? Or is it rather that the scholar is manifesting the creative and synthetic skill of the midrashist, even the kabbalist, in atomistically splicing together texts hitherto unaware of one another? Has Thompson unlocked the meaning of the text? Or has he used its straw to weave together the gold of yet another “biblical theology”?

And this observation leads to an irony. Thompson chides John Dominic Crossan and many other scholars for their supposed pretense of being able to tell that Matthew and Luke utilized Mark and Q. There is no need for such hypotheses, Thompson informs us, because the ocean of common motifs is much too wide and deep for us to spot a similarity between text A and text B and then to conclude that one got it from the other. He is accusing all adherents of the any of the Synoptic hypotheses of the sin of “parallelomania.” What strikes me as odd is that it seems to take much less proof than Crossan can point to in behalf of Synoptic dependence theories for Thompson to be sure that this obscure Psalm line is the basis for that story in 1 Samuel, or that Nehemiah has a particular passage of Genesis in mind!

In the end, I gather Thompson is saying, a la Bruno Bauer, that someone in the Hellenistic period saw the need for a fictive ego-ideal/personal savior and invented Jesus to play that role. Nor does such a theory seem unlikely to me. But I could wish for a good bit more than hints from Thompson, who has forgotten much more of the relevant data than I will ever learn. For instance, I need Thompson, if I am to understand his work, to explain how the propaganda mythemes of ancient sacred kings became isolated from any actual king or would-be king and became the basis of a complete fiction, whether David or Jesus.

Sometimes Thompson provides clues he does not linger to put together, and I for one find myself left to my own devices, wondering if I am “getting it.” For instance, it appears that the notion of Satan testing and trying the (ostensibly) righteous is one of these sacred king motifs, something that becomes evident once one discerns, with Thompson, that Job is pictured either as a pagan king or in kingly terms. Satan goes to work in order to determine whether King Job deserves the mandate of heaven. Well, that makes one think of Satan testing King David, whispering the suggestion that he might want to conduct a conscription census. Is he a good and godly king who will trust in the name of Yahve rather than in horses and chariots? Then, come to think of it, Satan challenges the status of Joshua the high priest, the post-exilic replacement for the king, whose costume the priests had even appropriated. So far, so good. Jumping over to the New Testament, Jesus being tested in the wilderness by Satan makes new sense as part of the image of Jesus as a sacred king, not merely a saint. What about when, in Luke 22:31, Jesus tells Peter that Satan has demanded his prerogative to sift the twelve like wheat? Does that break the pattern? No, because Jesus has just bequeathed a kingdom to his disciples (22:28-29), so they must attract Satan’s attention, to see if they are worthy of sitting the promised thrones! Fascinating! But maybe I am only doing what I half-accuse Thompson of doing: connecting far-flung dots.

There is, I say, much to be learned from this book, and yet in the end it mainly whets my appetite for an extended work of New Testament minimalism by this great scholar.


Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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