Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Thomas L. Thompson and the Myths of History

I've been reading Thomas L. Thompson's 1999 book "The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel" (also published as "Bible in History: How writers create a past"). It looks like a fairly slim book in the edition I'm reading, but it has small text, narrow margins and thin pages, so has taken me a long time to read it. There's a lot in there.

Thompson is an "Old Testament Minimalist" and makes his case in this book that you can't really use the OT stories to construct a history of Israel as they weren't actually written to narrate that history. In other words, he ends up concluding that we actually don't know very much for sure about the history of Israel, the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Furthermore he, basically, claims that we have been reading the entire bible wrong for thousands of years, and have therefore completely misunderstood it. It was intended as literature, not history, and to read it as history loses all sorts of important stuff.

I don't really intend to do a review of the book here, but here are a few of my thoughts about the book, and some of the things said in it, in no particular order:

No References!
I'll start with my biggest complaint agains this book. There are no references. None! He cites nobody. He doesn't even give a bibliography or name other authors along the way. As far as the reader can tell, this entire book could have been fabricated by the author. There is some irony here given that this is essentially what Thompson is claiming about the Bible... If any of this is true, or at least plausibly true, the reader needs some more info than this book provides to be convinced. Thompson mentions various archaeological and historical findings along the way, but without any citations the (amateur) reader does not know and cannot judge whether or not his claims about the meaning of certain historical 'facts' are based on sound reasoning or wild speculation.

So while this book is very interesting and seriously challenges many preconceptions about the biblical canon, without supporting documentation or information it must be taken entirely with a pinch of salt.

Anyway, on with the things that actually are in the book...

The purpose of the OT writings
Why are the stories in the OT actually there? Because they suited the purpose and agenda of whoever compiled and edited the 'canon' of the OT. If that editor had access to stories that didn't fit with this agenda, they would not have kept them in the collection. The stories we have mostly show theological points through apparently historical events. Not everything that ever happened in Israel had theological meaning. So the stories of mundane and not apparently divinely guided events would not have been retained by the collection editors. What fraction of actual historical events clearly show the Hand of God at work? Probably only a small minority, so the vast part of real history will not have been retained for inclusion in the Biblical canon. What we are left with is, at best, a fragmented history. Perhaps some of the key historical events are simply not there at all.

And what happened if the editor of the collection had a story that nearly, but not quite, made the theological point he wanted to make? He could either discard it or modify it to fit his purposes. How can we tell the difference between a real story with theological overtones and a modified story with theological overtones?

The Bible is a theological work and if we understand it as such, we have to realise that not much actual history will have survived the editing and compiling process intact.

The timing of the compilation
When was the OT compiled? (And by who?) Most scholars seem to agree that the compilation and editing of most of the books of the OT that we have was done after the exile in Babylon. That is to say, the OT was compiled to make sense in the time following the exile to the people who returned from exile (or possibly a few generations later). Thus the purpose of the compilation exercise was to answer questions like "who are we?", "who is our God?" and "why did God send us into exile?" and so on.

Once again, if the editor had an agenda, then any stories that did not fit the agenda would be omitted or modified to fit.

In a couple of places in this book, the claim is made that the bible chronology has been rewritten in the time of the rededication of the temple in 164BC. It is claimed that the chronology was designed to make the time from creation to that date equal 4000 years. The claimed reason for this is so that the bible narrative would essentially demonstrate that this rededication of the temple was a pivotal moment in history, indeed, it was the culmination of the entire history of Israel before it.

The claim is nothing less than that people rewrote history to suit the purposes of their own time. The agenda of the compilation and editing of the Bible was not to preserve history, but actually to change it!

If this claim is true, then -essentially- the entire bible is false history!

As with other claims in this book, this is an extraordinary claim, and thus (as is now widely quoted) extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. Sadly, this book doesn't provide the evidence, extraordinary or otherwise.

An invented religion?
On page 169 Thompson makes a staggering claim. He says that the Assyrians (the people who appear to have taken the Israelites into exile, and resettled some of them back in Israel and Judah some years later) had a practice of moving peoples about in the empire as a means of maintaining control of the migrating people. But one of the things he says they did was to tell the people they were moving that really they were returning them to the land of their ancestors, when in reality they were not. Furthermore, he claims that the Assyrians would "invent" gods and tell the people they were resettling that these gods were the gods worshiped by their ancestors.
"The invention of new ancestor gods was an Assyrian imperial policy that helped create religious ties between societies around regional and local deities. Its counterpart was to develop legends about the 'return' of 'old' long-neglected and forgotten gods."
What he is essentially claiming is that the 'exiles' who 'returned' to Jerusalem had probably originated elsewhere in the empire and were not in any way descended from the Israelites who had been taken into captivity some decades earlier. Those exiles were presumably resettled somewhere else.

Furthermore, he is claiming that the Jewish religion was an invention, given to the 'returning' people as part of the resettling process.

In other words, he is claiming that both the Jewish people and the Jewish religion were fabricated by the Assyrians. There was no continuity between pre-exilic and post-exilic peoples and no continuity between pre-exilic and post-exilic worship. This is such a staggeringly big claim that I can hardly believe it comes hidden in the middle of a chapter on something else! If this is true then all of Judaism and all of Christianity is based on a lie!

And here, again, we get to the problem. As I said above, extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. But we are given hardly any evidence here at all. Nothing more than an anecdote really. He alludes to another instance where we 'know' that this sort of thing happened in Ur, where the neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus established (or re-established?) the worship of the god "Sin" (nothing to do with the Christian concept of the same name) by building (or re-building) a temple there in about 550BC. But the book doesn't discuss the evidence. It isn't even presented properly, just mentioned in passing as if the reader should be fully aware of these events. Its not proven that this invention of a god happened in Ur, so its even less clear that it could have happened in Jerusalem.

I really want to read and know more about this, but Thompson doesn't give enough detail, or references for further reading. Doing a quick Google search suggests that the consensus opinion among scholars regarding Nabonidus and the temple was that Nabonidus was a follower of Sin before he became king, and that he was simply using his status in society to promote the worship of his preferred deity. In other words, the consensus view knows nothing of the creation or promotion of false gods, only the resurgence of belief in an already worshipped god.

If that is what actually happened in Ur, then we have no evidence for the promotion or creation of false gods in Jerusalem. In order for Thompson's case to be convincing it needs to actually present the case! As it stands, it appears that this is mere speculation, and wild speculation at that.

The wrong people?
Thompson goes on at length to make the claim that there never was a group or nation who would have self-identified as "Israelites" until after the 'return' from exile. All stories told about the pre-exilic nation of Israel should be understood as fiction:
"In writing about the historical developments of palestine between 1250 and 586, all of the traditional answers given for the origins and development of 'Israel' have to be discarded. The patriarchs of Genesis were not historical. The assertion that 'Israel' was already a people before entering Palestine whether in these stories or in those of Joshua has no historical foundation. No massive military campaign of invading nomadic 'Israelites' ever conquered Palestine. There never was an ethnically distinct 'Canaanite' population whom 'Israelites' displaced. There was no 'period of the Judges' in history. No empire ever ruled a 'united monarchy' from Jerusalem. No ethnically coherent 'Israelite' nation ever existed at all. No political, ethnic or historical bond existed between the state that was called Israel or 'the house of Omri' and the town of Jerusalem and the state of Judah. In history, neither Jerusalem nor Judah ever shared an identity with Israel before the rule of the Hasmoneans in the Hellenistic Period."
He then goes on to claim that the only people who should really be described as 'Israelites' are those 'enemies of Benjamin and Judah' who turn up in Ezra chapter 4 and are rejected by the 'Jews' because they were "Samaritans".

Once again, a staggering claim which, if true, would basically render the entire Old Testament untrue. The claim, once again, is that the Bible stories were written and compiled well after the exile, and that the stories were intended to create a history for a people who didn't really ever have one.

There's loads more in this book along the same lines. Thompson wants to destroy the idea of the bible as history. The problem is he doesn't present enough data to support his conclusions. He might be right, but I have no way of judging that, and Thompson doesn't give me any way of judging it.

So in the end, while this is a mostly fascinating book, I have to take it all with a very large pinch of salt, and look for answers to these questions elsewhere.