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The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David export ed Edition
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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.Read more ›
It is at this interface between OT material and the prior mythic traditions and literature of the Near East where Thompson is at his weakest. Considering his academic specialty, this is no surprise. However, his sub-title, "The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David," does not read Old Testament roots. Therefore, his project is a questionable success at best for the open minded. To his credit, he never actually indicates that it his intention to disprove a historical grounding of the figures of David and Jesus. This book should be read as massive cautionary to reading too much history into the Bible.
Other than general cranky dismissals of academics that do not agree with him, Thompson launches forth assuming that you, the reader, agree with his methodology and are up to assessing the validity of his exegisis. To fully assess and appreciate this work, the reader must be nearly as accomplished in OT exegetics as Thompson. That is a tall order. No alternative readings are supplied. Moments of crystal clarity are rare. Expect to put in a great deal of work for what you get. And what you get out of this book is directly dependent on the level of knowledge you bring to the task.Read more ›
Thompson underpins this critique by highlighting the dependence of texts on each other for tropes and metaphors; his treatment of the temple cleansing is very enlightening, how his saying conflates Isaiah and Jeremiah to contrast and show who the true pure of Israel are. He also demonstrates that the use of 'OT' texts by the gospel writers are not just for prophetic proofs of Jesus' messiahship, but to construct a theology consistent with both Judaism and other Near Eastern thought.
Very insightful, and a useful book to reference whether for or against Thompson's argument.
As for the writing: apart from the usual dreary academic prose, Thompson at no time bothers to formulate what his thesis is, or tell you how what he's analyzing supports it. Instead, one example after another from the New or Old Testament is selected, apparently at random, discussed a bit, and then dropped. So I am not at all sure if I have succeeded in "getting" his point, and so other reviewers may take me to task for "missing it." Tough; life is short, and I can't waste all my time on this book.
As far as I can tell, the thesis is that the writings of the OT and NT are literature, and need to be analyzed as such, not used as clues to determine the existence and nature of some historical figure. Thus (with my attempts to straighten out the syntax in brackets):
"It is especially difficult to determine whether we are in fact dealing with the story of a particular man's life, [in other words] a biography illustrating values we hold because of him. We may [instead] be dealing with a narrative figure, whose function is to illustrate universal or eternal values." [p. 136]
Thus while Schweitzer found a "historical Jesus" who was a failed apocalyptic prophet, the scholars of the Jesus Seminar (Crossan, Borg, etc.Read more ›