Thomas L. Thompson

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For the U.S. Representative and others of the same name, see Thomas Larkin Thompson and Thomas Thompson (disambiguation).

Thomas L. Thompson (born January 7, 1939 in Detroit, Michigan) is a biblical scholar and theologian. He was professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen from 1993 to 2009, lives in Denmark and is now a Danish citizen.

Thompson is closely associated with the minimalist movement known as The Copenhagen School (other major figures include Niels Peter Lemche, Keith Whitelam, and Philip R. Davies), a loosely knit group of scholars who hold that the Bible cannot be used as a source to determine the history of ancient Israel, and that "Israel" itself is a problematic concept.[1]


Thompson was raised as a Catholic and obtained a B.A. from Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, in 1962. After a year in Oxford, he moved to Tübingen, where he studied for 12 years with Kurt Galling and Herbert Haag.[2] In the meantime he was instructor in theology at Dayton University (1964–65) and Assistant Professor in Old Testament studies at the University of Detroit (1967–69). He then studied Catholic Theology under the Catholic faculty at the University of Tübingen, completing his Ph.D. dissertation, "The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham", in 1971. He also worked as a research fellow on the Tübingen Atlas of the Near East. According to Thompson, the dissertation was rejected because his examiner (Joseph Ratzinger, then Tübingen's Professor of Systematic Theology and later Pope Benedict XVI) did not find it fitting for a Catholic theologian. Thompson then considered submitting his dissertation to the Protestant faculty at Tübingen, but left Tübingen in 1975 without a degree. His dissertation study was rejected by Catholic university presses, but was published in 1974 by De Gruyter Press as The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives.[3] It provoked controversy, and Thompson states that this was what prevented him from obtaining a position in any North American university.[4] The work, together with John Van Seters' Abraham in History and Tradition, is said to have buried the historicity of the patriarchal narratives.[2]

While teaching part-time at the University of North Carolina he was invited to finish his studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, receiving his Ph.D. in Old Testament Studies summa cum laude in 1976.[5][6]

Unable to find work in U.S. academia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he continued as a private scholar while working as a high school teacher, janitor and house painter until in 1984 he was awarded the guest professorship at the École Biblique in Jerusalem. Thompson states that the École was heavily criticized for hiring him by certain Israeli circles who, according to him, objected to his earlier study casting doubt on the historicity of the Jewish origin narratives. He then worked on Palestinian place names under UNESCO, but the project was closed amidst accusations of antisemitism because of Thompson's critique of Israeli practices of de-Arabicizing Palestinian place names.[5]

He taught at Lawrence University (visiting associate professor, 1988–89) and at Marquette University (associate professor 1989–1993), but was denied tenure, something Thompson blames on conservative Catholics in the faculty under the influence of Ratzinger. In 1990, he met Danish theologian Niels Peter Lemche at a conference and in 1993 joined the faculty of the department of Theology at the University of Copenhagen as Professor in Old Testament exegesis. He retired and was granted emeritus status in 2009.

Thompson was named a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in 1988. He is general editor for the series Copenhagen International Seminar and associate editor of the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Holy Land Studies and Dansk Teologisk Tidsskrift.[7]

Old Testament writings[edit]

The focus of Thompson's writing has been the interface between the Bible (specifically the Old Testament) and archaeology. His The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974), was a critique of the then-dominant view that biblical archaeology had demonstrated the historicity of figures such as Abraham and other Biblical patriarchs.[8] His The Early History of the Israelite People From the Written and Archaeological Sources (1993) set out his argument that the biblical history was not reliable, and concludes: "The linguistic and literary reality of the biblical tradition is folkloristic in essence. The concept of a benei Israel ... is a reflection of no sociopolitical entity of the historical state of Israel of the Assyrian period...."[8] In The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past (U.S. title: The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel), he argued that the Old Testament was entirely, or almost entirely, a product of the period between the fifth and second centuries B.C.[9]

Thompson's arguments were highly controversial and were criticized by many Biblical scholars, prominent among them William G. Dever in his book What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, which has been described as "a very polemic and partly vehement attack not least against Professor Thomas L. Thompson".[10] Thompson himself reviewed Dever's book and provided his own responses to Dever's critiques. The fact that Thompson, as a target of many of the critiques advanced in the book would have chosen to review it, was criticized by H. Hagelia.[10]

New Testament writings[edit]

Thompson presented a criticism of the historicity of the New Testament in his 2005 book, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David,[11][12] He argues that the biblical accounts of both King David and Jesus of Nazareth are mythical in nature and based on Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek and Roman literature. For example, he argues that the resurrection of Jesus is taken directly from the story of the dying and rising god, Dionysus. Thompson however, does not draw a final conclusion on the historicity or ahistoricity of Jesus. He was a fellow of the short-lived Jesus Project from 2008 to 2009 which was disbanded after the cancellation of funding in relation to issues about the ahistoricity of Jesus.[13]

The Messiah Myth was strongly criticized by New Testament scholars such as Bart Ehrman, who in 2012 published a criticism of Jesus ahistoricity theory proponents,[14] Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth,[15] in which he pointed out a number of errors in Thompson's arguments, and considered that Thompson, as an Old Testament scholar, lacked the sufficient background in New Testament studies to provide a useful analysis of the text.[16] In the 2012 online article by Thompson, Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son? A Response to Bart Ehrman, in reference to Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?, he forcefully rejects Ehrman's mischaracterization of his views and the label "mythicist".[17]

Thompson and Thomas Verenna coedited the contributions from a diverse range of scholars[18] in the 2012 book Is This Not the Carpenter?: The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus.[19] The introduction says, "The essays collected in this volume have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of an historical Jesus nor possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods."[20]


  • Thompson, Thomas L. (1974). Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft. Walter de Gruyter. Retrieved 25 March 2013. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (1 November 2002). The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1-56338-389-2.  (Originally de Gruyter: Berlin, 1974)
  • Thompson, Thomas L.; Maniragaba Balibutsa; Margaret M. Clarkson (1975). The Settlement of Sinai and the Negev in the Bronze Age. Reichert. ISBN 978-3-920153-44-5. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (1979). The settlement of Palestine in the Bronze Age. Reichert. ISBN 978-3-88226-069-4. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (1987). The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel. JSOT Press. ISBN 978-1-85075-083-3. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L.; Francolino J. Gonçalves; Jean-Marie van Cangh (1988). Toponymie palestinienne: plaine de St Jean d'Acre et corridor de Jérusalem. Université catholique de Louvain, Institut orientaliste. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (1992). Early History of the Israelite People: From the Written and Archeological Sources. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-09483-3. 
  • Hyldahl, Niels; Thomas L. Thompson. Dødehavsteksterne og Bibelen. Museum Tusculanum Press. ISBN 978-87-7289-390-7. Retrieved 25 March 2013. 
  • Cryser, Frederick H.; Thomas L. Thompson, eds. (1998). Qumran Between the Old and New Testament. Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-567-18135-0. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (1999). The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past. Cape. ISBN 978-0-224-03977-2. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (1999). The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology And The Myth Of Israel. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-01052-3. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L., ed. (2003). Jerusalem in ancient history and tradition. T & T Clark International. ISBN 978-0-8264-6664-8. 
  • (With Z. Mouna et alii), What is New in Biblical Archaeology (in Arabic: Cadmus: Damascus, 2004)
  • Tronier, Henrik; Thomas L. Thompson, eds. (2004). Frelsens biografisering. Museum Tusculanum Press. ISBN 978-87-635-0214-6. 
  • Mogens, Müller; Thomas L. Thompson, eds. (2005). Historie og konstruktion: festskrift til Nils Peter Lemche i anledning af 60 års fødselsdagen den 6. september 2005. Museum Tusculanum Press. ISBN 978-87-635-0377-8. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (2007). The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-7867-3911-0. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L.; Thomas S. Verenna, eds. (25 September 2012). 'Is This Not the Carpenter?': The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus. Isd. ISBN 978-1-84553-986-3. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (28 February 2013). Biblical Narrative and Palestine's History: Changing Perspectives 2. Equinox Publishing Limited. ISBN 978-1-908049-95-7. 


  1. ^ Maurice Casey Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? T&T Clark 2014 THOMAS L. THOMPSON p.24
  2. ^ a b Philip R Davies,'Introduction' to Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narrative and Palestine's History: Changing Perspectives 2, Routledge 2014 p.1.
  3. ^ P.R.F. Moorey, "A Century of Biblical Archaeology", p.114.
  4. ^ Thompson, Thomas The Mythic Past (Basic Books: New York, 1999) pg. xiii
  5. ^ a b Thompson, Thomas L. 2011. On the Problem of Critical Scholarship: A Memoire [1]
  6. ^ "Thompson, Thomas L. 1939– - Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series |". Retrieved 2016-08-04. 
  7. ^ "Curricumul vitae for T. L. Thompson". Journal of Biblical Studies. Archived from the original on November 1, 2010. 
  8. ^ a b Brettler, Marc, The Copenhagen School: The Historiographical Issues The Copenhagen School: The Historiographical Issues , AJS Review, Vol. 27, No. 1 (April 2003), pp. 1-21
  9. ^ A book review by Danny Yee
  10. ^ a b Hagelia, H. (2002). Review or response? A critical evaluation of Thomas L. Thompson's review of William G. Dever. Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, 16(2), 314-318.
  11. ^ Thompson, Thomas L. (20 April 2009). "Historicizing the Figure of Jesus, the Messiah". The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. Basic Books. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-7867-3911-0. The assumptions that (1) the gospels are about a Jesus of history and (2) expectations that have a role within a story’s plot were also expectations of a historical Jesus and early Judaism, as we will see, are not justified. 
  12. ^ [], Random House Books Australia. "The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David by Thomas L Thompson - Books - Random House Books Australia". Random House Australia. Retrieved 2016-08-04. 
  13. ^ "Some Thoughts on the Demise of The Jesus Project". The Jesus Puzzle. Earl Doherty. Retrieved 29 March 2016. I am not party to all of the factors that contributed to its [Jesus Project] collapse, but it seems to me that one of the principal difficulties it faced was in regard to the question of the historical existence of Jesus. 
  14. ^ Lataster, Raphael (2015). "Questioning the Plausibility of Jesus Ahistoricity Theories — A Brief Pseudo-Bayesian Metacritique of the Sources". The Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies. 6:1: 63. 
  15. ^ Ehrman, Bart D. (2013-03-20). "Did Jesus Exist?". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2014-04-08. 
  16. ^ * Ehrman, Bart. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperOne, 2012.
  17. ^ Thompson, Thomas L. (July 2012). "Is This Not the Carpenter's Son? A Response to Bart Ehrman". The Bible and Interpretation. Mark Elliott, Patricia Landy. Retrieved 1 April 2016. Ehrman pompously ignores my considerable analytical discussion, which was rooted in a wide-ranging, comparative literary classification and analysis of the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern inscriptions. Apparently to him, the more than 40 years I have devoted to research in my study of the primary fields of Old Testament exegesis, ancient Near Eastern literature and ancient history—not least in regards to questions of historicity−leaves me unqualified. 
  18. ^ Table of Contents
  19. ^ Thompson, Thomas L.; Verenna, Thomas S. (2012). "Is this Not the Carpenter?": The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus. Equinox. ISBN 978-1-84553-986-3. 
  20. ^ Thomas L. Thompson; Thomas S. Verenna. "'Is This Not the Carpenter?' — Introduction". The Bible and Interpretation. Retrieved 29 March 2016. 

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