Sunday, April 24, 2005

Book Review: Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David

I zoomed up to Taipei this weekend to pick up some books that a friend had procured for me overseas. In between trips to the Shanghai Hsiaoguan for Twice-Cooked Pork and hiking on the east coast:

Taiwan's east coast offers spectacular sea cliffs and beautiful views.

I managed to find the time to swallow a half-dozen books, including Thompson's The Messiah Myth. Here's a first pass at a review.
The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David

Thomas L. Thompson
Basic Books, 2005. 414 pages.

The Historical Jesus Quest is really composed of two quests. One involves sifting through the texts and developing methodologies for dealing with the data. The other involves situating the figure of Jesus in the proper historical context.

The battle over the proper context for Jesus has been one of least-recognized but most profound of the various struggles among New Testament exegetes. After WWII exegetes began to strongly emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus. Laudably, this was partly in response to the "Aryan Jesus" of 19th century scholarship, that eventually found its apotheosis in Nazi doctrines. However, it was also in response to the arguments of scholars from the schools of myth and comparative religions, who had argued in the period prior to the Second World War that Jesus resembled similar figures of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. By reinforcing the Jewishness of Jesus and delinking him from the surrounding cultures, New Testament scholars sought to protect him from the assaults of the comparative religions school.

At first glance it is easy to mistake Thomas L. Thompson's The Messiah Myth for a revival of this school. Don't. The Messiah Myth does not attempt, as the comparative religions school did, to seek out parallels to Jesus and then link Jesus to them. Rather, Thompson attempts to recover the Greater Context: an enormous toolkit of ideas, themes, and observations that dominate the literature of the Near East, and find expression in all of its major texts, including the Bible, and in all of its major heroes, including Jesus and David.

Despite the subtitle The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David, Thompson's book does not focus strongly on Jesus. The vast majority of the work consists of exploring the Old Testament and other Near Eastern texts to show that they all make use of the same complex of tropes in composing their various stories. This complex of tropes includes reversals (of rich and poor, the powerful and the peasantry, the weak and the strong), descent-ascent motifs, messiah as priest, king, and warrior motifs, and similar structures and idea familiar to readers of the Tanakh and the Christian writings. Thompson thus does not seek to show that Jesus is a myth by close analysis of the stories about him, like G.A Wells and other mythicists have done. Instead, he offers a rich new context against which the figure of Jesus can be evaluated.

Thompson opens the book with a chapter entitled "Historicizing the figure of Jesus" that is apparently intended as a critique of the various Historical Jesus figures that New Testament scholarship has produced. He observes:
  • "A wary reader does well to recognize the wish fulfillment of Schweitzer's figure of Jesus. His mistaken prophet is historical primarily because he does not mirror the Christianity of Schweitzer's time. But the assumption that this mistaken prophet of the apocalypse is a figure appropriate to first century Judaism is itself without evidence. The prophetic figure Mark presented, and the assumed expectations associated with his coming, belong to the surface of Mark's text. Schweitzer did not consider why Mark presented such a figure or such expectations. Nor did he consider whether the life of such a person and the expectations of his coming in fact belonged to the historical reality of first century Jews in Palestine, or whether both expectations and figure were literary tropes. Then the figure of the messiah might express Judaism's highest values within Mark's story does not imply that either the figure or expectations about him were to be found in early first-century historical Palestine."(p6-7)

The opening chapter serves notice: the historical Jesus is an assumption, rather than a discovery, of scholarship. "Dating sayings common to Q and Thomas as an "earliest level" of sayings and suggesting a time between 30 and 60 CE for their origin is a conclusion drawn from the assumption that there was an oral tradition derived from a historical Jesus' teaching."(p11) From whence, then, stems this figure
  • "As we will see in the following chapters, the most central sayings in the gospels were spoken by many figures of ancient literature. That they are "sayings of Jesus" is to be credited to the author who put them in his mouth. Many sayings the [Jesus] seminar identifies as "certainly authentic" are well-known and can be dated centuries earlier than the New Testament. The very project of the Jesus Seminar is anchored in wishful thinking. Evidence for the prehistory of these sayings is so abundant and well attested that we can trace a continuous literary tradition over millennia."(p11)

Having sounded the eschatological alarm, Thompson slowly bids the Gospels goodbye, and enters the world of the Old Testament. In the second chapter, "The Figure of the Prophet", there is much back-and-forth between the Gospel stories and the Old Testament, but by the time we get to chapter four, "The Song for a Poor Man", the Gospels have been left behind, and we plunge into a world of international texts from antiquity, each full of themes the echo, extend, comment on, and interact with, the recurring tropes that make up the Tanakh.

Thompson builds his reading of the texts by searching out themes common throughout the Near East, drawing on a wide variety of texts. Writing on the Good King, he says:
  • "Some of our stories serve as memorials to the king, while others are dedications of a cult place. Thirteen of the twenty-one inscriptions are presented in autobiographical form, where the king plays the role of author as well as subject. Eight present the story of the king in the third person. The Idrimi stele (no. 13), which is engraved on a statue of the king, presents its first-person form by locating the closing lines in a cartoon balloon coming out of the king's mouth. In spite of the autobiographical form, some of these inscriptions are likely posthumous."(p157)
Analysis of these texts yields common themes that function as tropes, recurring themes that appear in texts all over the Near East.

For example, in the Near East there is a common trope: a "utopian, comprehensive, and transcendent" peace that is the goal of every king's rule. Thompson identifies this peace in many different texts (including in an appendix), including tales about Idrimi, Nabonidus, and Esarhaddon, as well as David.

At his best when building his collection of tropes, The Messiah Myth falters whenever it comes near the Gospels, giving the impression that Thompson is wielding a hammer in whose presence everything attempts to turn into nails. After establishing the existence of a trope referring to the children and the kingdom, Thompson then turns to the Gospel versions:
  • "Of the six occurrences of the trope Crossan calls "kingdom and children" sayings, four are classified as independent and two dependent. Only the authority of scholarly tradition of the primacy of Mark supports the judgment that the very close variations of the saying "Let the children come to me and do not hinder them; for to such belong the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 19:14) and "Let the children come to me and do not hinder them; for to such belong the kingdom of God" (Lk 18:16) are dependent on the similar saying in Mark: "Let the little children come to me; do not prevent them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God" (Mk 10:14). This saying, nearly identical in all three gospels, clearly offers a common trope, but the primacy of Mark's version, including the phrase "kingdom of God" he shares with Luke, does not stand on its own merits. The assumption that Mark is the source for the versions of Matthew and Luke is unprovable. Similarly, that the saying in Mark is the most likely original can be shown to be without merit."(p76)
While it is quite true that any sayings tradition is ultimately an assumption of scholars, that is not the case with the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels, where scholars possess all three of the relevant texts. Thompson either does not understand, or does not care to understand, the complexities of the Synoptic problem and the way that it has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of most scholars that the first gospel written was Mark. Right or wrong, the priority of Mark is a conclusion, not an assumption.

This dismissal of modern scholarly understandings means that The Messiah Myth interacts largely with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, when the most historically important Gospel is that of Mark. Thompson apparently regards these writings as largely independent, and locates their similarities in the use of common tropes rather than literary dependence. This position is indefensible, and does nothing for the book's credibility. A further problem is that Thompson does not mention the letters of Paul.

Nevertheless, for those of us interested in the New Testament and in the Bible in general, there are innumerable insights and understandings. Thompson writes with an assurance and erudition that commands our attention, and manages to suppress any pesky doubts that might arise when we observe his cavalier attitude toward New Testament scholarship. Using the insights he develops from the tropes he collects, Thompson is often able to correct scholarly misapprehensions:
  • "Like the 'kingdom of God,' the metaphor of my father's kingdom is not apocalyptic in the sense that it implies expectations of the end of the world as Schweitzer thought. It is rather a utopian and idealistic metaphor for a world of justice. In ancient Near Eastern and biblical literature, it is related to the figure of the savior-king who, by reestablishing divine rule, returns creation to the original order."(p198)

Because Thompson functions at the level of tropes, larger themes that govern the structure of texts, there is actually little here that is useful against the figure of Jesus as a historical figure. Despite his complaints about New Testament scholarship Thompson himself provides no answers to the questions he raises. Showing that tropes are part and parcel of ancient texts simply undermines Thompson's own implicit argument against a historical Jesus, for many of the texts that Thompson uses to support his case are either about, or from, historical figures. Hence it is easy to argue that the Gospel writers simply cast their historical figure in the standard Near Eastern format, and dismiss Thompson with a wave of the broader theme. Mythicism will never advance until it begins to churn out detailed, verse-by-verse readings of the relevant texts that show precisely how they are built out of literary convention, pre-existent sayings, Old Testament passages, themes, and concepts, and literary tropes and broader mythic themes. For that purpose Thompson will provide useful insight, but no decisive view.

Despite the title, those who come to this book seeking arguments against Jesus historicism will be disappointed. But readers who pick this volume in search of new understandings of old texts will not leave the table hungry. There Thompson pours out a cornucopia which this reviewer's New Testament-oriented interests cannot hope to adequately capture. I highly recommend The Messiah Myth to anyone with a general interest in ancient Near Eastern mythology and story, including the Bible texts. For them, The Messiah Myth will be bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and a ferryboat to the boatless.


Sean said...

An excellent review of a very interesting book. Not quite sure that Thompson doesn't leave room for the logic of a historical Jesus behind Christianity - even if he feels his history can't be gleaned from the gospels.

José Solano said...

"Right or wrong the priority of Mark is a conclusion, not an assumption."

"Right or wrong"? Well, maybe it's wrong. Are you familiar with The Present State Of The Synoptic Problem?


Michael Turton said...

Yes. The priority of Mark is correct. In my analysis of Mark I have recovered its original structure, and it is very easy to see that Matt has tampered with it, not that Mark has condensed it out of Matt.


Sean said...

Nevertheless, Mr Thompson has some very interesting things to say about reiterative tropes in the gospels. Paricularly the Temple scene.

Sean said...

Mr Thompson would, I suspect, dismiss the idea that Mark's gospel was "historically the most important" on the grounds that that is a 'historisation' of the gospel and the figure of Jesus contained herein. Mr Thompson's hypothosis attempts to move focus away from unprovable 'actions' into intellectual worlds epitomised by texts. How these texts relate to non-literary worlds is perhaps the pertinant question.

Victor said...

Excellent review. Thompson's book caught my eye, but now I'm sold. It looks like it might have gone out of print, so I'll have to snoop around for a used one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Thomas for your honest view of this exposed past history. I have no problem with this at all.

I'm still left with the existential wonderful mystery of being.How wonderfully thoughtful and amazing.

Its liberating and understood. It was much like Waiting for Godot. Now its revealed and acknowledged. Again, thank you for your honesty.