The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past
by Thomas L Thompson, Jonathan Cape, 412pp, 25 pounds in the UK., reviewed by Don Cupitt.
This review first appeared in the Guardian Weekly on March 7, 1999. Permission was granted by the Guardian Weekly to reprint this review in our Newsletter number 31. Copyright remains with The Guardian Weekly.
Thomas L. Thompson has had a tough career. In his doctoral dissertation in the late sixties, he came to the conclusion that the established ways of trying to prove that Abraham and the other biblical patriarchs had been historical figures were worthless. The archaeological evidence was being misinterpreted, and anyway the Bible isn't that kind of book. The academic world was not pleased.
Finally, in 1993, Thompson was appointed to a chair at Copenhagen; and now his hour has come. The balance of opinion has gradually tilted towards him, and this book may be remembered as a landmark. It marks the end of "biblical archeology" that tries to confirm biblical history. Suppose we let the evidence speak for itself: what does it say? The Israelis have had the very strongest motives for putting on show any materials that confirm the belief in a long Jewish occupation of ancient Palestine. And they have indeed found a great deal of material from Hellenistic and Roman times. But of the main "Old Testament" period there is startlingly little.
What all the world came to think of as "the Jewish people", their religion and their epic history, now seems to have come into being as a result of the 5th century Persian policy of building temples to the local gods around their empire. So, in biblical terms, history starts not with Abraham, but with Ezra and Nehemiah [6th century BCE]. Over a period of two or three centuries, the Temple and the Torah were established, and the welding of various local peoples into a New Israel was achieved. The biblicalwriters collected local traditions and worked them up into the Bible's great story of an Old Israel that had been chosen by God, but had repeatedly been unfaithful and finally was destroyed. One consequence of this revisionist history is that the new chronology allows Greek philosophy to have had a much bigger influence on the biblical idea of God than used to be thought.
Thompson's transformation of the way we see the Bible draws the line between the Old and the New Israel in a new place. The Old Israel is now the fictioned [sic] Israel of pre-exilic times, and the New Israel is the Judaism of the Temple, the Torah and the synagogues that developed in Hellenistic and Roman times. Thompson does not care for the contrast between Old and New "Testaments", and regards the Church's self-description as the "New Israel" as implicitly anti-Semitic.
Best of all is Thompson's attack on the "naive realism" of dogmatic theology. In his brilliant discussions of individual stories, he shows that when religion is seen as human it becomes much more complicated and interesting.
This shift in the way we see the Bible has been coming for decades, but it is still radical. Western Christianity has always narrated a great epic history of salvation based on the Bible: Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Exodus, the Conquest, the Kings and the Prophets, and the promised Messiah. We are now invited to see the whole story as back-projected and mythical.
Thompson's theories are bound to be highly offensive to conservatives, both in Israel and in the Church. But the gap between the study and the pew grows steadily wider, and most people are not greatly concerned.