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The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David
     

The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David

by Thomas L. Thompson
 
From a prominent scholar, a provocative argument that the Biblical characters of Jesus and David should be viewed not as historical figures, but as embodiments of Babylonian, Egyptian, and Near Eastern traditions. Since the eighteenth century, scholars and historians studying the texts of the Bible have attempted to distill historical facts and biography from the

Overview

From a prominent scholar, a provocative argument that the Biblical characters of Jesus and David should be viewed not as historical figures, but as embodiments of Babylonian, Egyptian, and Near Eastern traditions. Since the eighteenth century, scholars and historians studying the texts of the Bible have attempted to distill historical facts and biography from the mythology and miracles described there. That trend continues into the present day, as scholars such as those of the "Jesus Seminar" dissect the Gospels and other early Christian writings to separate the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith." But with The Messiah Myth, noted Biblical scholar Thomas L. Thompson argues that the quest for the historical Jesus is beside the point, since the Jesus of the Gospels never existed. Like King David before him, says Thompson, the Jesus of the Bible is an amalgamation of themes from Near Eastern mythology and traditions of kingship and divinity. The theme of a messiah-a divinely appointed king who restores the world to perfection-is typical of Egyptian and Babylonian royal ideology dating back to the Bronze Age. In Thompson's view, the contemporary audience for whom the Old and New Testament were written would naturally have interpreted David and Jesus not as historical figures, but as metaphors embodying long-established messianic traditions. Challenging widely held assumptions about the sources of the Bible and the quest for the historical Jesus, The Messiah Myth is sure to spark interest and heated debate.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Were David and Jesus fictional or historical figures? Do their stories actually report history, or are they simply tales that use familiar mythic elements about heroic figures to turn David and Jesus into heroes for a new generation? Thompson, who challenged conventional understandings of the history of Israel in The Mythic Past, answers these and other questions in this provocative but often pedantic study. Drawing on the wealth of tales of kings and saviors in Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman literature, he demonstrates that the biblical stories of David's military successes and Jesus' moral teaching are simply fictions weaving these earlier traditions into new hero stories. In addition, he reveals that the story of Jesus' resurrection was fashioned almost exclusively from the story of the dying and rising god, Dionysus. For Thompson, Jesus and David emerge merely as characters in stories that reveal the value of the good king. Although Thompson provides a valuable service by situating the Jesus and David tales in the context of other ancient Near Eastern literature, his argument that the biblical writers used such literature to write their fictions of David and Jesus is neither new nor startling. In addition, the lack of a coherent structure and a definitive conclusion lessens the effectiveness of Thompson's book. (Apr. 12) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 scholarwhose 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465085774
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
04/11/2005
Pages:
414
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.37(d)

Meet the Author

Thomas L. Thompson is one of the leading biblical archaeologists in the world. He was awarded a National Endowment fellowship, has taught at Lawrence and Marquette Universities in Wisconsin, and currently teaches at the University of Copenhagen, which has one of the most prestigious Biblical Studies programs in the world. His book, The Early History of the Israelite People, a famously controversial book at the time, is now a standard text in the field. He lives in Denmark.

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