Another volley in the historical Jesus game.
In The Mythic Past (1999), Thompson (Biblical Studies/Univ. of Copenhagen) argued that the Bible is not a historical account, but a collection of riveting myths and “philosophical metaphor[s].” Here, he sharpens the point, bringing his literary lens to bear on the person of Jesus. Unlike many in the historical Jesus debate, Thompson is not interested in disputing Jesus’ existence per se. Nor does he attempt to determine which statements, attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, are authentic. Rather, he aims to show how Near Eastern understandings of kingship shaped the literary figure of Jesus, and, accordingly, he sketches three ancient concepts of kingship—the good king, the protector/savior/warrior king, and the dying and rising god king. Thompson’s situating of the Gospels’ messiah alongside Egyptian and Babylonian understandings of kingship sheds light on the biblical texts, and his literary readings of the synoptic Gospels are likewise interesting. For example, his analysis of the birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke, which Thompson says is a “tour de force” (emphasis in original), repays close attention, as does his examination of the “narrative association of food to life’s victory over death.” Still, the book is too technical to appeal to most general readers, since Thompson presupposes a comfortable familiarity with Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament that most nonspecialists lack. Even the sections where he explicitly engages the academic landscape can be puzzling: in his historiographic overview, he curiously fails to discuss the work of N.T. Wright, arguably today’s most influential historian of the New Testament and a scholar whose careful historical readings of the New Testament seem an obvious point of engagement for Thompson. Finally, the production team gets demerits for the impossibly tiny print.
At turns tendentious and stuffy. The Messiah Myth reads like nothing more and nothing less than a promising doctoral dissertation.