An Odd Diatribe from Thomas L. Thompson

An Odd Diatribe from Thomas L. Thompson July 6, 2012

In the latest issue of The Bible and Interpretation, Thomas L. Thompson offers a very odd rebuke to Bart Ehrman. Thompson mentions things like Philo's love of allegory and Qoheleth's assertion of our lack of novelty, as though these somehow will allow one to open the door to any and all interpretations of texts, including those proposed by mythicists, although Thompson seems to be trying to both defend mythicism and distance himself from it.

He points out, as he does in his book, that Jesus in the Gospels is depicted using motifs and echoes from literature about earlier royal figures. It is hard to imagine that anyone could make a claim to kingship in a Jewish context without doing so. And so it is not clear why anyone thinks that the points in Thompson's book have any bearing on the historicity of Jesus.

I will be very surprised if anyone who is not already a mythicist finds the piece to offer any sort of positive contribution to scholarly discussion. Read it and judge for yourself.

Also relevant to mythicism, the members of the newly founded “Jesus Process” have been announced.




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  • I’m sorry, but you do not yet have 40 years of teaching or blogging, so your point is pointless.

    • Tom Verenna

      Joel, the same applies to you. Thompson is disputing Ehrman’s passive dismissal of his credentials because he isn’t a New Testament scholar. It had nothing to do with invalidating perspectives due to seniority.

      • Tom, you are a bit sensitive in this area, as demonstrated by the comment left on my blog. I’d suggest your read Jonathan B.’s comment a few times.

        • Jonathan Burke

          On his blog, Tom says this:

          * “Thompson is explaining, quite directly, that his book The Messiah Myth had nothing to do with the question of historicity.”

          Even though Thompson himself also says the book 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 could be MARGINALLY related to questions of historicity, or it
          could have NOTHING to do with the question of historicity, but it can’t
          be both. Tom needs to pick one story and stick with it. The fact is we have two incompatible stories here; Tom’s, and Thompson’s (please resist the Thompson & Thompson jokes).

      • William J E Dempsey

        There is a funny sort of problem with the frequent assertion that only qualified Religious, or even just New Testament Scholars are qualified to verify or refute, the existence of an Historical Jesus, say.
        Illustrating the problem with an analogy: what if there was a field of study, called “Unicorn Studies”; a group of people who insist that there are real, historical unicorns. And this group of Unicorn Studiers insist that skeptical amateurs and those outside the field, of course, just don’t know enough about the “serious positive literature” concerning unicorns, to have a say regarding their existence or nonexistence.
        But is that right? Should only Unicorn specialists be allowed to comment on unicorns? Is no one else is qualified to rebut, because they just haven’t read enough serious literature on it?
        The frequent assertion that only qualified Religious Studies or NT scholars are qualified to refute or rebut Historical Jesus claims, is the same kind of absurd trick. It is as if those outside the field, could not see something that those inside cannot. As those inside, have closed ranks, with a kind of selfprotective narrowness. A kind of autism, (or in Biblical language, Vanity). A kind of narrow and exclusive self-satisfaction that only acknowledges itself,and its own standards, and prejudices.
        But any field that acknowledges only its own standards, note, cannot ever escape from the immensely destructive effects of provincialism, vanity, and a kind of solipcism.

        • Historicists deny the existence of unicorns. But then along come mythicists and claim that, since some people suggest that belief in unicorns may have arisen from misperceived ibexes or other such more mundane animals, ibexes cannot really exist either.

          • Tim Widowfield

            Historicists point to stories about a very special unicorn who rose from the dead. They say, “That was really just a misidentified horse. And later, the unicorn followers came to believe (somehow) that this horse really was a unicorn who rose from the dead.”

            Mythicists counter with: “You know that story about the unicorn who rose from the dead? Maybe it’s just a story. Maybe the whole thing is a myth.”

            This radical idea, of course, conclusively proves that the unicorn mythicists are conspiracy theorists who hate unicorns. Stupid mythicists.

          • William J E Dempsey

            Or? “Evil Unicorn Deniers” are found to include an alien and irrelevant outside discipline or tribe, called “Biologists.” It is this evil, irrelevant foreign “interdisciplinary” group, that unjustly claims that there are no unicorns per se, but only antelopes and so forth.
            Since these Evil Biological Unicorn Deniers are not True Unicorn Believers, and since they are from an evil, foreign academic tribe, True Unicorn Historicists firmly assert that they themselves can safely ignore Biological assertions. And so they ignore the whole silly, uninformed idea that talking unicorns per se, do not exist.
            Now Unicorn Believer PhD’s confidently and comfortably go back to their serious magical unicorn literature, confident that Unicorn Mythicists, like the evil rival “Biology,” have all been definitely banished from the kingdom, thanks to solid unicorn scholarship and solidarity. And by their firm rejection of input from any other silly tribe outside their own.

        • Jonathan Burke

          “The frequent assertion that only qualified Religious Studies or NT
          scholars are qualified to refute or rebut Historical Jesus claims,”

          Frequent assertion? Asserted by who?

          • Michael Wilson

            sorry Burke, i didn’t see that you asked the same question.

          • William J E Dempsey

            My understanding of McGrath is that 1) HE frequently says this, among others. Part of his argument against Mythicists seems to be that they just don’t know enough historical background to religion; therefore their arguments against an Historical Jesus fail, due to their getting many historical facts wrong. Then too? Part of 2) Ehrmann’s argument against Thompson, as quoted above, seems to be that Thompson is an Old Testament scholar, not a New one. Follow the above- link to Thompson’s own article.
            Or here? Read it and judge for yourself.

        • Michael Wilson

          “There is a funny sort of problem with the frequent assertion that only qualified Religious, or even just New Testament Scholars are qualified to verify or refute, the existence of an Historical Jesus”
          Who says this?

        • Matthew Jenkins

          Jesus Mythicists are just as wrong as young-earthers

  • Tom Verenna
    • Tom Verenna
    • Jonathan Burke

      You have not read McGrath properly. He says ‘And so it is not clear why anyone thinks that the points in Thompson’s book have any bearing on the historicity of Jesus’.

      McGrath did NOT say ‘And so it is not clear why THOMPSON thinks that the points in THOMPSON’S book have any bearing on the historicity of Jesus’.

      McGrath certainly did NOT say that Thompson’s book was addressing the historicity of Jesus.

      But clearly Thompson is someone who believes the points in Thompson’s book have a bearing on the historicity of Jesus, because he says so:

      * ‘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.’

      * ‘Such narratively embraced themes CAN HARDLY BE UNDERSTOOD AS PROVIDING HISTORICAL EVIDENCE FOR ANY FIGURE OF THE ANCIENT WORLD; this has always been the stuff other than the historical’

  • Jonathan Burke

    Neil Widowfield (intentional), is someone who thinks the points in Thompson’s book have a bearing on the historicity of Jesus. He writes thus:

    * “All Thompson has done is DEMONSTRATE KNOWN LITERARY SOURCES (direct
    or indirect) for the gospels. Arguments for historicity of any of the
    narrative, on the other hand, are wrapped in many hypotheses but no real
    evidence as far as I am aware. AND THE LITERARY EVIDENCE OF THE GOSPELS FURTHER SPEAKS AGAINST A NARRATIVE THAT IS DESIGNED TO REPORT HISTORICAL EVENTS, too — as has often been pointed out in many posts on
    genre and method here.”

    • Tim Widowfield

      Have you tried spraying just a tiny drop of WD-40 on your Caps Lock key?

  • Jim Harrison

    There’s a certain symmetry between the Mythicists and their Christian opponents since accounts of both a historical and an imaginary Jesus proliferate without limit. There’s no more agreement on the one side as to the precise cultic source of the Christ myth than there is on the other about a real-world Jesus who has been described as everything from a political activist to a wandering Cynic philosopher. To a bemused onlooker, the obvious conclusion is that evidence that supports an infinity of theories actually supports none. The result of this interminable theological Battle of Verdun is simply the exhaustion of the combatants. The bad news is that unless some spectacular new piece of evidence surfaces we’ll never know anything reliable or significant about the purported founding figure of Christianity. The good news is that it doesn’t really matter since this ignorance doesn’t prevent the luxuriant growth of new forms of Christianity and skepticism now anymore than it has for the last two thousand years. The historical Jesus is perfectly irrelevant.

    A parable: You can make an electromagnet by wrapping wire around an iron core; but it turns out that if there is no core, the coil of wire still acts like a magnet.

  • Michael Wilson

    lots of unicorn talk, has someone been droping XTC?

  • Suppose that a student were assigned to write an essay about a memorable character and he chose to write about his uncle’s experiences as a missionary in Africa. If we found that every incident in the story had very close parallels in stories that could be found on the internet, there might be several possible explanations: (1) the student’s uncle had experiences that were common to missionaries in Africa; (2) the student’s uncle claimed the experiences of others as his own; (3) the student attributed to his uncle the experiences of others; or (4) the student invented the missionary uncle for purposes of the essay. Now it may be perfectly true that the parallels do not prove that the student did not have an uncle who was a missionary. Nevertheless, the parallels decreases the weight that we can give to the essay in determining the question and therefore the parallels are relevant to the question of historicity. They have a bearing even if they are not dispositive.

    Throughout Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman made arguments like “Even if Nazareth didn’t exist, Jesus could have come from somewhere else. Therefore, the existence of Nazareth is irrelevant to the existence of Jesus.” This strikes me as absurd. The less confidence we can have in the stories about Jesus, the less confidence we can have in the existence of Jesus. The existence of Nazareth is not dispositive of Jesus’ existence, and the other evidence might be so overwhelming that its non-existence would only have a trivial impact on the overall case for historicity, but that doesn’t make it irrelevant.

    • William J E Dempsey

      I would add this poststructural reading of even the most seemingy historical possibility, in your #1: even IF it turns out that the student’s uncle was real, and just had many experiences quite like many other missionaries? Then still, I would note that likely his “real life” was still determined by a common cultural script; a myth.
      A hypothetical example: suppose one school of missionaries believed that,as according to the method and culture of their founder, the best way to teach tales of Jesus to locals, was to first hit them on the head with sticks, to get their attention and respect. But typically, this belief might often have a similar result; locals, when hit over the head, would strike and attack many missionaries. So that? The 1) missionary cultural belief, would be constant in many missionary narrtives. And 2) the many common real, historical ending of the naratives, would be constant and real too. But even these “real historical events,” will have been determined in part by missionaries following… a cultural/mythic script.
      So that? Even if the missionary and his experience were “historically real,” they were also determined by myth. (Cf.the “self-fullfilling prophesy”; and the poststructural concept of us being “written beings”; living embodiments of cultural texts or stories).
      Even “real historical events” often have a strong mythic element motivating and causing them.

      • The question of what bearing the parallels have I leave to those with more expertise than myself. I simply wished to address Dr. McGrath’s confusion regarding why someone might think they had any bearing.

        • William J E Dempsey

          Thanks. I agree that they do.

  • Michael Wilson

    I read Thomas Thompsons article and he seems to be overreacting
    to Ehrman’s section on him. Given the audience that Ehrman is looking at and
    the sort of book he is writing, a full argument by argument treatment of
    Thompson can’t be done here (though Doherty is conversely in the middle of a response
    to Ehrman’s section on him that is apparently longer than Ehrman’s book, what
    is he on part 28?) Essentially Ehrman is putting forward his own opinion as a recognized
    expert that Thompson is overreaching with his conclusions and reminding the
    reader that Thompson is not regarded by any one as an expert in the New
    Testament. It is a valid point. If I were choosing between people to make my
    house, I would naturally prefer the guy with certified building credentials
    rather than a guy who just claims to be able to build houses. Mythicist may
    claim that Ehrman’s whole field is a fraud, but they have to prove that case
    and it would be nice if they could find some historians who agree otherwise
    they are just criticizing the field of history, and well, that is another
    argument. This doesn’t mean Ehrman thinks that Thompson cannot make a good case
    without being a certified expert in the New Testament, but only that he doesn’t
    think he has made a compelling case himself and that we should not be
    surprised. If Ehrman said that Thompson was the world’s foremost expert in the
    New Testament and he disagreed, I would expect a fuller explanation than what
    is offered.

    On Ehrman calling a Thompson a mythicist, some of the
    reviews I read of Thompsons Messiah Myth say that Thompson seem to skirt the
    issue and doesn’t really say he thinks Jesus is Myth. However, when I asked Tom
    Verena if he thought mythicist unfairly called Thompson one of their own he
    said he did think Thompson was a mythicist, so even Thompson’s fans are
    confused. If Thompson feels offended that some think he subscribes to mythicism,
    he should be, it makes him look unintellectual. In fact his high regard for Tom,
    who very uncritical when it comes to Christ myth stuff from hacks like Carrier,
    makes me doubt his critical skills when it comes to his controversial Old
    Testament ideas.

    Ultimately, though, Ehrman is right that these theories of New Testament gospel
    allegories don’t touch on the issue of whether Jesus existed as much as the
    issue of what do we suspect Jesus did. The gospels could be as fanciful as Abraham
    Lincoln vampire hunter and still be about a real person, and there a number of traditions
    beyond the gospels, that Jesus existed.

  • William J E Dempsey

    Dr. McGrath has corresponded with Thompson; and seems to have raised the usual Criterion of Embarrassment defense of historicism with him. Which, note, Thompson seems to reject.
    THere McGrath seems to admit that most scholars say that there are MANY OT motiffs in the NT, that seem to have been used to mold the material there. But McGrath asserting that there were many OTHER events narrated in the NT, that in effect, no one who wanted to follow the OT, would want to make up. Or that it would be “hard to imagine” making up. Suggesting – McGrath apparently alluding to the Criterion of Embarrassment – that these events must have been based on real events, that simply could not be left out; even if they were not entirely consistent with the OT.
    Here though in his own invocation of Embarrasment, McGrath specifically says that he “could not imagine” someone making up such embarrassing things. While Thompson’s response in effect seems to be this: that here (and in the Criterion?) in effect, we are just making lack of imagination, or lack of an explanation, the inability to explain something, into proof that it must be real. (As I noted in my own critique of the Criterion of Embarrassment on this blog, earlier). Which of course is immensely silly.
    In my own similar criticism to Thompson, I suggest the Criterion of Embarrassment in effect merely deifies ignorance. It says that if we can’t explain something, if it doesn’t match expectations – here, if it doesn’t fit expected OT models – then it must be real. But this would logically lead to saying that all absurd things are real.
    While deifying mere lack of explanation. If you can’t explain it, the Criterion of Embarrassement says, it must be real.
    Adding yet another instance, to Mark Goodacre and others’ increasing criticisms, of some fatal flaws in the Criterion. (As noted in Goodacre’s i-lectures on this subject.).
    Thompson and McGraths’ brief exchange, again, can be seen here: