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.

13 Responses

  1. If he means precisely what he wrote, that this earlier mythology explains “how figures such as Jesus are created” then his protestations are disingenuous. If not, then he expressed himself unhelpfully unclearly. Either way, clarification from him would be welcome and the recent B&I piece seems to merely continue the ambiguity.

  2. Anything that hints of mythicism must be hammered into submission.

  3. In Who Killed Jesus? (p. 5), J.D. Crossan wrote: “Jesus’ death by execution under Pontius Pilate is a sure as anything historical can ever be.”

    This example of a prefatory confession is instructive. It permits Crossan free rein in speculation without risking the charge of heresy against New Orthodoxy. He’s allowed to posit that the gospel writers constructed their Passion narratives from whole cloth, because he first confessed to certain core truths cannot be doubted.

    Thompson’s thought crime is to suggest that the theory of the historical Jesus is yet to be demonstrated — that the “rich, oral tradition” is a presumption. It’s no wonder HJ defenders of the faith are scandalized. I mean, there are rules!

  4. Is not the figure of Jesus of Nazareth as he appears in Mark created by that text? Regardless of whether some actual person was the impetus or inspiration?

    “Figure” need not be taken as synonymous with “person” in the context of literary studies. As usual McGrath demonstrates a sort of stolidity in his approach to the question, a stubbornness against appearing to cede any ground, even when the exact formulation Thompson uses would be uncontroversial in the mouth of anyone who had made a disavowal of apostasy such as Crossan’s that Tim refers to.

    -C.J. O’Brien

  5. I get the sense that McGrath’s main concern is knowing whether he can categorize Thompson as a “mythicist” and thus vilify him as a “Holocaust denier”, or whether he can count him as a “historicist” and thus reinforce his own claim that no credible scholar is sympathetic to mythicist arguments.

  6. Tom, was it you whome I asked if it was unfair for mythicist to claim Thompson supported their possition and you told me he did? Being a mythicist is a pretty harsh charge to make of scholar in a biblical field and I don’t think it should be thrown around. For instance I know a lot of mythacist like Dennis MacDonalds theory but it would be slander to say MacDonald is a mythicist. One does get the impression he is trying to have it both ways, to make critcal scholars happy and the fans of Carrier and Vridar.

  7. Mike, not sure of your point since that is precisely what I am saying.

  8. 1. I wondered if you had ever thought Thompson favored some mythic theory, i was under the impression you did, but I haven’t bothered to go looking for old quotes, so maybe I was mistaken in that.

    2. I think one should be especialy careful of ascribing the view to a scholar.

    I thought Thompson might be sending mixed signals an his possition.

    which were you saying? I presume 2.

  9. This is much more clear than your previous post, thank you Mike. I just wrote a response to this but then lost it all so I’m not really in the mood to retype it all again. I’ll have to respond later when I have regained the patience I need and I’m not as irritated with my internet. Thanks for understanding.

  10. If I may break this down–also keep a lookout for a future post on this subject. Thanks for your patience.

    1. I wondered if you had ever thought Thompson favored some mythic theory, i was under the impression you did, but I haven’t bothered to go looking for old quotes, so maybe I was mistaken in that.

    I think we have to be careful with these umbrella-labels we create (like minimalism, mythicism, liberal, conservative, etc…) and who we decide to put under these umbrellas. I don’t agree with the dogmatic position of stereotyping certain people who hold certain conclusions about historicity under the banner ‘mythicism’–that is nothing but a form of McCarthyism and I’m not going to have any part of it. Scholars who are agnostic or indifferent to historicity have a right to have their say without being thrown into some pejorative. Some scholars out there would prefer to just throw people under these labels as a way to avoid dealing with their arguments–they use broad claims like ‘mythicists can’t be trusted’ or ‘mythicists are all such and such’ and they don’t both footnoting, don’t bother engaging, don’t bother to question whether or not such a person is even a mythicist. It is incautious to ignore how we use terms, not to mention irresponsible, and that was Thompson’s problem with Ehrman (and consequently James McGrath). Different social groups use terms differently; Thompson is a European and he may use ‘mythic theory’ in a way which is quite acceptable. But he certainly hasn’t addressed the issue of historicity. He doesn’t even address it in our book–he just doesn’t find it all that useful a question. If I have ever suggested Thompson was a mythicist, it is in the function of the value of the mythic function of the texts, in the ancient mythic mindset that Emanuel Pfoh spends so much time explaining in his chapter in our book.

    2. I think one should be especialy careful of ascribing the view to a scholar.

    I think that we should be careful in how he use the term in general. It has become a slanderous term, which is unfortunate. Again, certain scholars have no trouble using the term as a blanket to throw over whomever they wish. And that is really the unfortunate thing. Personally, I think the term should be reserved for special cases where its corners are clearly defined, where people who wish to be associated with such a label can do so.

    I thought Thompson might be sending mixed signals an his possition.

    I think Thompson says what he means and there is no need to exegete his words for a deeper hidden meaning.

  11. Thanks Tom for the clarification. My first inkling that Thompson might support the position that Jesus was not a person was from Vridar but I wasn’t able to substantiate that myself. Most of the critics that reviewed “Messiah Myth” (I haven’t read it myself) also thought Thompson never committed to any Jesus myth idea and so couldn’t be said to be an advocate for that. Frankly I haven’t read enough of Thompsons work to know his full opinions, though I thought he made some good points on a recent article in the Bible and Interpretation site advocating the position that many of Europe’s Jews are European converts to Judaism and he has discussed a theory that some of the chronological material from the Old Testament was modified during the Hellenistic period that I was interested in. Apparently he has some ideas that a lot of the material in the Hebrew Bible might be older than traditionally thought that I would like to review for myself too.

    On Ehrman’s treatment of Thompson, having not read Thompson’s book, I personally can comment on Ehrman’s opinion of it and whether Thompson goes too far, based on others reviews ( , that Ehrman thought Thompson thought Jesus was fictional like David might be forgivable, though the scholarly reviews I found, while no more favorable than Ehrman, did not think he was advocating mythicism, only that he wasn’t concerned about the issue because off a lack of reliable material. In general, I think Ehrman’s book was unsatisfying, But I think it was aimed at the casual layman and not careful student. This is understandable, because as Ehrnman notes, people educated in the subject are mostly uninterested in the controversy since there is no good reason to doubt Jesus existed. Ehrman rightly concludes too that the thesis of Thompson’s book “the Gospel stories have literary functions that depend heavily on intertextual influences” pertains more to the question of how much we can say about the guy and not whether he existed. Ehrman doesn’t detail much on why he didn’t care for it since he didn’t think it germane to his question and so he is basically just giving his opinion as an expert to a lay audience. I’m not sure why Thompson goes so far to complain that Ehrman doesn’t agree with his findings since Ehramn doesn’t himself say why, I’m not sure what Thompson is responding to. His take that Ehrmans book is a diatribe and he doesn’t give a reasonable argument that Jesus exist seems to spring from his personal animus rather than a fair review of the book.

    On your point about “I think that we should be careful in how he use the term in general. It has become a slanderous term, which is unfortunate.” I don’t think really a lot of scholars are even talking about the subject so I’m not sure how poisonous it is to be called a mythicist outside our little blog circles. I don’t agree that it is unfortunate that the word has become slanderous. Given the sort of people that promote it, it is kind of inevitable that the idea would get a bad rap. It’s like complaining that “perpetual motion machine’ has been unfairly categorized as a term for fantasy fairy tale inventions.

    Regarding “I think Thompson says what he means and there is no need to exegete his words for a deeper hidden meaning” his line from the Bible and Interpretation article, “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.” And that this constitutes a “serious problem” may warrant a bit more sympathy for Jesus myth ideas than is warranted, though as Ehrman mentioned, Thompson is not a scholar of early Christianity or the First century generally so his ignorance on this question is understandable. I questioned whether there was a historical person, so I suppose until one has read the arguments one doesn’t know what might be said.

  12. To clarify some more, Mike, I have known Thomas for some time and I think I can comment on his perspectives better than Ehrman can, since I actually know him–Ehrman does not. Of course, all of this is sort of irrelevant since Thomas is still quite alive and able to speak for himself (so I really encourage people to talk to him directly about his viewpoints and again not exegete him as if he died years ago and we have no way to clarify). That is my meaning on that. Ehrman gets it wrong, as do McGrath and some others, and it would have only taken an email to clarify. Which is my problem with all of this. Some scholars would rather create this umbrella term and throw people under it as a way not to deal with the issues. I don’t agree with that method.

    Also, I disagree with you and Ehrman that there are no good reasons to doubt historicity. There are some good reasons to doubt historicity. That is why I’m agnostic on the question–and why other scholars are agnostic on the question. They aren’t mythicists, and neither am I, but we recognize that the reasons are there. And Thompson is more than capable of recognizing these reasons–whether he works in NT or not. That, in my opinion, is a cop-out from Ehrman as a way to ignore dealing with his arguments. And I find that very unethical.

  13. […] Thomas L. Thompson and the Purpose Behind ‘The Messiah Myth’ […]

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