Thomas L. Thompson and the Purpose Behind ‘The Messiah Myth’

Right from the book:

Throughout the preface and first chapter he makes his goal clear, laying out the function and purpose of his book.  It is not to discuss the problems of the historical Jesus–his book doesn’t address such a figure and pays it little or no attention.  Rather what is clear is that Thompson is concerned primarily with the Gospels and their portrayal of the figure of Jesus.  Some may quibble over his interpretation, or his methods–and those who do will need to address them though, and not attack a strawman.

If Thompson’s claim that the function of the Gospels are something other than historical significance, which is not new or fringe–quite the contrary–such a claim has no bearing on a historical figure.  It may have implications as to what we might know about such a figure, what we might use as a source of evidence and how we use these sources for that figure. But even if every word of the Gospel is just ancient imitatio, it wouldn’t therefore follow that such a figure never existed; even fiction can be written about a historical persons or events.    That is what separates his claims from mythicists.

Again, critics should read what they are criticizing; otherwise they just end up with a foot in their mouth.

Bart Ehrman Discusses Future Book Projects

Bart Ehrman was generous enough to tell his readers about some future book projects he is working on.  On his blog, he writes:

So, my next book, starting tomorrow, is my Bible textbook. I have two weeks, and I won’t have it all written by then, as it will be much longer than one of my tradebooks. My goal is to have the entire Old Testament section written before I go to England…. That means I will have the house to myself, with almost no distractions, and I can work like a wild man.

Which I plan to do. My goal is to have all eight of the chapters on the Old Testament written before I fly the friendly skies. If I don’t meet the goal – it’s highly ambitious – that will be OK. In London I’ll have a month … and will be able to work every day there. It won’t be as intense, as it won’t be my home study. But it’ll be enough to finish the OT section of the book and to make serious inroads into the NT.

My goal is to have the entire thing finished by the end of September. I want to get onto the next project, doing my research for How Jesus Became God. More than anything else this is what drives me to write fast – wanting to get to the next project, which always sounds even more interesting than the current one!

via My Next Book « Christianity in Antiquity (CIA): The Bart Ehrman Blog.

The latter book doesn’t interest me as much as his current project however.  I would much rather like to read about ‘How Jesus Became Man’ (but I suppose James Crossley has already written that book, and I’m reading it now with interest!  Also K.L. Noll’s chapter in Thompson’s and my forthcoming collection of essays).  But while I was reading this blog post from Ehrman, some of the content troubled me a bit.

Back in March 2011, the inter-highway was abuzz with news of an ebook on the way by Bart Ehrman which supposedly would challenge mythicism.  In January, it became clear that the book would be published in hardback as well, which raised some questions: at what point did the ebook become a hardback?  And when was the manuscript handed into the publisher?  I ask these questions because according to Ehrman:

Normally I will write (that is, type out the words/pages/chapters) for six or seven intense hours a day, starting in the early morning until I finish.   For my trade books (and a bit less so for my college textbooks; this doesn’t apply to my scholarship which is much harder to put into writing) I can normally write 14,000 to 16,000 words a day, with this kind of schedule.  It is exhilarating.  I don’t answer my phone, I shut the door to my study, I put on my headphones, and I write intensely, pounding away at the key board as fast as my fingers will fly, for hours.  I will usually take a 20 minute lunch break, and then get back to it, and keep going either until I finish the chapter I’m working on, or until I’m brain dead and can’t do it anymore.

Then I go to my basement exercise room, work out for a couple of hours, take a steam bath (I had an old, small bathroom in my basement converted into a steam room!), eat a nice dinner, have some nice wine, vegetate in the evening, and get a solid night’s sleep, and the next day, do it again.

With this kind of system, I can normally write a trade book in two weeks.   I then need to edit it, polish it, mop up loose ends, and so forth.  But the writing is the hard part, and I do it with bursts of intensity.

Now, I would say that Did Jesus Exist is a tradebook–clearly it was not written with the intent of becoming an academic book.  But here is what is so troubling about it: while I cannot deny that Ehrman does produce some very solid work (especially when writing about manuscripts and interpolations–anything within his specialty), there are faults–debilitating faults–with pumping out books this fast.   Not the least of which is that things get missed.

Granted, things can get missed in anyone’s book–whether it took them months (or years) to publish or a matter of weeks.  But with added time, mistakes are caught that with limited time have a greater risk of being missed.  And I have to wonder if this is not what happened with Ehrman’s book on the historicity of Jesus.

With my chapter in my forthcoming ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’, it took me a solid 5 months of writing, cutting, rewriting, editing, researching, more editing, and finally submission (followed by more editing and cutting) to get the 20 or so pages on Paul that is in the final version of the manuscript.  Five months.  For 20 pages.  And I was no slouch when it came to my background knowledge of the source material or of academic works on Paul. And I’m sure I still made a few mistakes that someone will undoubtedly point out at some time or another.

Now for a good portion of those five months I had a similar schedule to Ehrman.  So what is the difference here?  How did Ehrman, with well over several months to prepare his book, end up with so many disappointing mistakes?  Well, I can’t speak for him, but I did my best to fact-check everything.  I’m sure I missed something, because everyone does.  But if something was missed, then not only did I miss it on my various readings, but so did all those I sent the final draft to for vetting, the language editor, the copy-editor, and Thomas Thompson–so if there are mistakes, then they were well disguised as nonerrors.  And in the event someone corrected me, I took their objections seriously and made an effort to change what I wrote or, in the event I disagreed, made a footnote discussing why I disagreed to some detail.

But I am not so sure Ehrman did the same.  Mark Goodacre, who vetted the book (he is mentioned in the acknowledgements), would have probably objected to the dismissively short endnote of which all but ignored his extremely compelling case against Q.  So why didn’t Ehrman do the right thing and at least give some additional supporting information for why he felt Goodacre’s case wasn’t convincing?  And really?  Nobody caught the many, many mistakes in his section on Tacitus?

Some may be wondering why I’m going on about these trade books.  ‘They aren’t for scholars’ some may say.  And those arguments would be valid.  Which is what concerns me.  When reading a book, scholars have the added benefit of reading other scholars sympathetically.  Laypeople do not have this benefit.  Since most will undoubtedly be unfamiliar with the primary and secondary literature, they will not read Ehrman sympathetically, but literally.  The difference is a subtle, but vital one.  A scholar will know that Tacitus is not that good of a historian–better than some, certainly, but he wasn’t great.  Likewise, they will know the correct format for citing Tacitus, even if Ehrman does get it wrong.  But a layperson probably won’t know this information, or won’t have the time to fact-check (or even the grounding to recognize an error to fact-check).  That should bother everyone. So I don’t know if two-weeks is really appropriate for a book on the past.  It seems like too much could be missed, too much ignored–especially implications of the research, which are sometimes not fully realized until later.

Anyway, ranted long enough.  Still look forward to these books–especially his textbook.

Joel on McGrath and Mythicism

Joel writes the following:

Tom didn’t like that. He suggests that because McGrath doesn’t believe Thompson and then sees that Thompson is indeed a mythicist that somehow McGrath has failed to read his book.

Here is my problem, however.  The question is about respect for ones own words. If you aren’t reading the arguments in the book, and you fabricate a strawman to attack instead of the actual arguments, you fail as a researcher, as a scholar. I’m not saying James is not competent or that he is in someway a bad scholar (quite the opposite is true), but when you make a claim like ‘what does this point have to do with historicity?’ when clearly Thompson is asking THAT SAME QUESTION about Ehrman’s misreading of his work, then there is a problem there.  Joel continues:

I’m trying not to comment too much on Thompson’s article, finding some personal flaws in it, but it is rather clear that Thompson is a mythicist.

Whether or not Thompson considers himself a mythicist is irrelevant to what McGrath is doing or what I am arguing.  If Thompson writes a book against Q, is his book then a ‘mythicist book’? Or is it a book against the case for Q?  That is the point here. James seems to want to create this false umbrella over Thompson’s The Messiah Myth and label it mythicism. THAT is wrong. That is an example of someone not being true to the sources, not being accurate in their presentation of the data. And if someone just parrots the same mistake, they’re guilty of it too. It has nothing to do about disagreements; it is about being competent as a scholar. Let’s just be clear on that.

Finally, Joel makes this statement:

That’s the problem, ain’t it. Mythicism is being redefined merely as a healthy dose of doubt. I would say that if we are redefining the word, then we should see that it is a healthy dose of the loss of reality…

But this isn’t the case.  I’m not sure Thompson has ever really defined himself as a mythicist.  If anything, it may be that others have hoisted that label upon him, much in the way that others hoisted the label ‘minimalist’ on him decades ago, and he just sort of adopted it.  And that is fine.  All derogatory phrases are, at some point or another, redefined because there is the err of stereotyping and labeling people, while simultaneously fabricating a mythos about them.  And that seems to be what is happening here.

Thompson is no fringe scholar, but it pains me to see James McGrath treating him as if he were, while at the same time ignoring the rather glaring and irresponsible problems with Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist.  In my opinion, Thompson’s work has been far superior to anything that Ehrman has written.  Some may disagree, but frankly, I just don’t care enough to debate it.

People are so quick to jump on the ‘mythicist’ bandwagon anymore, and that is problematic both because it perpetuates stereotypes and stalls any sort of real conversation about the issues–and I’m not talking about historicity, here.  I’m talking about the issues.  Like the value of literary criticism over historical criticism, or the value of the arguments against Q, or arguments over genre criticism, or the function of syncretism, because people are so quick to lump them into categories like ‘parallelomania’ or ‘mythicism’.

And that is what is happening here.  Thompson is explaining, quite directly, that his book The Messiah Myth had nothing to do with the question of historicity.  Even his chapter in our collection of essays doesn’t address the question–it doesn’t bother with it.  Because Thompson finds no use for it.  And neither do I.  And whenever someone talks about it as if it were a book on mythicism, or about historicity, it only proves to me, above all else, that they haven’t read it.  It is as simple as that.

Another Example of Misreading: James McGrath on Thomas Thompson

James McGrath writes:

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.

via An Odd Diatribe from Thomas L. Thompson.

But James, you need to read it all.  Because Thomas’ book has no bearing on historicity.  And he even makes that abundantly clear:

Bart Ehrman has recently dismissed what he calls mythicist scholarship, my Messiah Myth from 2005 among them, as anti-religious motivated denials of a historical Jesus and has attributed to my book arguments and principles which I had never presented, certainly not that Jesus had never existed. Rather than dealing with the historicity of the figure of Jesus, my book had argued a considerably different issue, which, however, might well raise problems for many American New Testament scholars who historicize what was better understood as allegorical. Rather than a book on historicity, my The Messiah Myth offered an analysis of the thematic elements and motifs of a particular myth, which had a history of at least 2000 years.

That is the point; evidence that Ehrman, and apparently now James McGrath, have not read Thompson’s The Messiah Myth.  Had they read it, they would know that his book does not address such a question.  So again, we have scholars who would rather spend time attacking strawmen than the actual issues.

Thomas L. Thompson: Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son? A Reply to Bart Ehrman

Thomas Thompson has written a response to Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? over at Bible and Interpretation.  Below I have included three snippets:

Bart Ehrman has recently dismissed what he calls mythicist scholarship, my Messiah Myth from 2005 among them, as anti-religious motivated denials of a historical Jesus and has attributed to my book arguments and principles which I had never presented, certainly not that Jesus had never existed…. Rather than dealing with the historicity of the figure of Jesus, my book had argued a considerably different issue, which, however, might well raise problems for many American New Testament scholars who historicize what was better understood as allegorical.


Ehrman pompously ignores my considerable analytical discussion, which was rooted in a wide-ranging, comparative literary classification and analysis of the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern inscriptions. Apparently to him, the more than 40 years I have devoted to research in my study of the primary fields of Old Testament exegesis, ancient Near Eastern literature and ancient history—not least in regards to questions of historicity—leaves me unqualified and lacking the essential competence to address such questions because they also come to include a comparison of such an analysis with these same stereotypical literary tropes as they occur in the Gospels.


Ehrman has asserted that the present state of New Testament scholarship is such that an established scholar should present his Life of Jesus, without considering whether this figure, in fact, lived as a historical person. The assumptions implied reflect a serious problem regarding the historical quality of scholarship in biblical studies—not least that which presents itself as self-evidently historical-critical. 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. I am, accordingly, very pleased that Thomas Verenna and I can offer this response to Ehrman’s unconscionable attack on critical scholarship in so timely a manner. It is a small book, and its ambitions are few: hardly more than to point out that our warrant for assuming the existence of a historical Jesus has important limits. In the course of that statement, I hope that readers will find some very interesting, new avenues of research being explored.

(via)  You’ll want to read the whole thing.  For my more detailed refutation, see my article, published there as well, entitled ‘Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship‘.

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