The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (review)
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The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David, by Thomas L. Thompson. New York: Basic Books, 2005/London: Jonathan Cape, 2006. 414 pp. $35.00.

Thomas L. Thompson's Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David, is an openly revisionist effort to re-think the biblical narratives as metaphoric or parabolic intellectual exercises, which reflect on virtue, personal piety, and the individual's relationship to the divine by means of decidedly [End Page 176] non-historical presentations of characters such as the Patriarchs, David, Job, or Jesus. Of particular note is the royal imagery that permeates these presentations, and that serves as the guiding framework within which a whole host of individual motifs (piety, humility, the orderliness of creation, the gulf between the human and transcendent, war as holy war, and so on) find their place. When we look at biblical texts, therefore, in terms of atomized source analysis, or to provide information about history or historical figures, we are misreading them. They represent, rather, a conversation—scribal and deeply intellectual—among themselves, with the core images and ideals of Ancient Near Eastern piety and its royal ideologies. The biblical texts, including the gospels, are, in short, fundamentally exegetical rather than historical.

This basic argument is applied throughout the book to a host of biblical themes, which are explored in sometimes-extravagant detail in terms of their place within the larger complex of Ancient Near Eastern royal ideologies (and the theological corollaries thereof ). Among such themes are humility, poverty, holy war, destruction and re-creation, cosmic order, resurrection, and the Messiah. In each case, Thompson explores these themes intertextually within the bible, and in terms of comparison with analogous or identical themes elsewhere in Ancient Near Eastern literature, and argues that such motifs have been misunderstood in mainstream biblical scholarship, misinterpreted too literally or historically, rather than as the intertextual and exegetical metaphors they really are. An excellent example of this treatment is Thompson's impressive handling of apocalypticism in the New Testament. Rather than viewing apocalyptic motifs in the New Testament gospels as oral testimonies to the actual teaching of the historical Jesus, or, conversely, as secondary accretions added because of later anticipations of Jesus' return, Thompson sees apocalyptic motifs as intrinsic and inseparable aspects of a much larger complex of motifs, a complex both older and broader than the New Testament (or the Hebrew Bible, for that matter) and its specific context. The actual point of reference of, e.g., Jesus' proclamation of the coming Son of Man is not popular expectation of a literal apocalypse. Rather, the whole presentation is part of a larger literary tradition of the contrast between human and divine realities, with specific reference to the interpretation of this motif as it appears in Isaiah. The apocalypse is an intertextual image of human and worldly distance from the divine, not an actual popular expectation.

The book, and the argument it proposes, have some significant weaknesses. Like many scholarly mavericks, Thompson overstates his case and underestimates the scholarship he criticizes. Particularly the opening sections of the book are filled with gross misrepresentations of gospel scholarship. Thompson criticizes source analysis of the synoptic gospels, and in particular [End Page 177] the Q hypothesis, on the grounds that it atomizes texts in terms of thematic differences; in fact, the basis for synoptic source criticism is literary patterns of detailed agreement and disagreement in sequence and wording, and so Thompson's criticism is directed at a straw man. He is clearly unfamiliar with, or has badly misunderstood, the work he targets here. This is particularly unfortunate in light of the ammunition such scholarship could provide him. Recent scholarship on Q, for example, has stressed its scribal character, its nature as a school product, its intellectual and textual-exegetical orientation, and its point of reference to a literary rather than actual world—all points that would mesh nicely with Thompson's basic argument and approach. Thompson also entirely neglects the work of Jonathan Z. Smith, a profoundly unfortunate omission in light of Smith's important work on the motifs of cosmic order, purity, and kingship in Ancient Near Eastern...