Thomas Thompson Clarifies his Position on the Figure of Jesus

In a followup to his article, he writes:

In an article (‘The Historiography of the Pentateuch: 25 Years after Historicity’ Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 13, 1999, 258-283) I have discussed why I think it is very difficult to establish the historicity of figures in biblical narrative, as the issue rather relates to the quality of texts one is dealing with. I work further on this issue in my Messiah Myth of 2005. Here I argue that the synoptic gospels can hardly be used to establish the historicity of the figure of Jesus; for both the episodes and sayings with which the figure of Jesus is presented are stereotypical and have a history that reaches centuries earlier. I have hardly shown that Jesus did not exist and did not claim to. Rather, I compared our knowledge about Jesus to our knowledge of figures like Homer. As soon as we try to identify such an historical figure, we find ourselves talking about the thematic elements of stories.

I do not distance myself from ‘mythicists’ as I do not see this term as referring to any scholars I know.

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

And he followed up criticisms with the following:

I do not deal with it–and am neither negative nor positive about it. Normally, I work with what is going in biblical scholarship and generally do not have any opinion about bloggers–whether or not you disagree with them.

You are quite right that I do not recall our previous discussion, but I am aware of the difference of such a question in regard to the New Testament and it is therefore that I have been involved in publishing the book with Thomas Verenna, Is This Not the Carpenter?, which takes up the issues you refer to.
In choosing elements which might deal well with questions of whether the narratives reflect historical realities, I purposely chose elements which New Testament scholars saw as unequivocally historical–taking up the Jesus seminar’s certain ipsissima verba of Jesus. I think I have shown that they are obviously not what these scholars have claimed.

I think he is quite clear and this directly supports what I have said elsewhere.  We have to be careful with the labels we use; using labels in a manner that is akin to McCarthyism.  But what cannot be ignored here is Thompson’s underlying position that our sources have serious limitations.  In that I believe he is absolutely correct.


3 Responses

  1. McCarthyism seems a bit strong here. The only people I had seen before Ehrman claim that Thompson was a mythicist were others who advocated that opinion, and McCarthyism was hardly communist claiming other people were communist. Ehrman seems to have made a mistake when identifing his position, but you made the same mistake and you know him better than Ehrman, so I’m not sure how big a slight this really is.

    “You should know I’m not a mythicist. So it would be rather silly of me to argue that these individuals are mythicists. I don’t know their positions on the historicity of the figure of Jesus; well, all except one. Thomas L. Thompson is a good friend and colleague. I know he does consider himself a mythicist, though he probably falls more in line with my views, as an agnostic on the question”

  2. Mike,

    Let me say I do admire your ability to play Devil’s Advocate. It keeps things honest and I generally find your criticisms useful. In this instance, I’m not sure we’re on the same page enough for these criticisms to fit in with my point. Here is why…

    First, my point on defining terms is an important one. A mythicist in America seems to have a very specific meaning for scholars here. This is not so in parts of Europe where ‘myth’ holds a more specific meaning. Thompson is a ‘mythicist’ in the sense that he sees the Gospels as reiterated myths and thus finds no use for them as historical documents–even stating (which I agree) that they contain no historical details whatsoever, and even if they did we’d never be able to find them. This is mu understanding of how Thompson defines his position, which is precisely what I said. Thompson may have used the term, but in a different manner than the one employed by critics. And this is extremely important.

    I don’t believe that McCarthyism is too strong a word. According to the definition, it is:

    a mid-20th century political attitude characterized chiefly by opposition to elements held to be subversive and by the use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges; broadly : defamation of character or reputation through such tactics

    And this is precisely what is happening with the term ‘mythicist’. It is like someone calling Obama a ‘socialist’ today; these words carry connotations differently across socio-political borders, as I’m sure you’d agree. The same is true for any label; ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’, ‘historicist’ and ‘mythicist’, ‘theist and ‘atheist’, and so on. Thompson is a product of his environment just as we all are.

    This is also what I tried to explain to Loftus around the same time I wrote that comment, last year (from an email):

    John, I wouldn’t be so hasty to put Thompson in that [mythicist-ed] category. His views are very similar to mine and he might not label himself that.

    At the time, I was hesitant to really say what he labeled himself. But I was always quick to clarify his position so as to be sure others would know he does not fall into that ‘evil mythicist’ stereotype.

    See my post here:

  3. If Price, carrier, and Doherty feel mythicist is a derogatory term to describe them, i would challenge them to find a word to define their theories that would not come to imply a theory like the ones they support. I don’t think Earman meant to tar Thompson with a lable just to tarnish his reputation, but honestly mistook him for supporting it. You may disagree, but I don’t see evidence of malice, only slight incompetence.

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