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Thomas L. Thompson: The Bible in History:
how writers create a past
(Pimlico: 2000)


“Today we no longer have a history of [ancient] Israel. Not only have Adam and Eve and the flood story passed over to mythology, but we can no longer talk about a time of the patriarchs. There never was a ‘United Monarchy’ in history and it is meaningless to speak of pre-exilic prophets and their writings. The history of Iron Age Palestine today knows of Israel only as a small highland patronate lying north of Jerusalem and south of the Jezreel Valley. Nor has Yahweh, the deity dominant in the cult of that Israel’s people, much to do with the Bible’s understanding of God.... It is only a Hellenistic Bible we know, [and]...the quest for origins is not a historical quest but a theological and literary question, a question about meaning.... Not only is the Bible’s ‘Israel’ a literary fiction, but the Bible begins as a tradition already established: a stream of stories, song and philosophical reflection: collected, discussed and debated. Our sources do not begin. They lie already in media res.”
(Thompson, p.xv)

Now...this is truly fraught - yet essential - territory. Because, any account of human nature and its key histories definitely needs to account for the shift from polytheism - always only a step away from the animistic imminence of the ground roots of religious experience - to the clearly transcendental monotheism which has been so influential over the last two millennia.

And, of all such monotheisms, the seminal one was that of the Hebrews - albeit its historical genesis is hardly as the Bible depicts it...which is why this book, which properly addresses what the historical record actually suggests, is so confronting to fundamentalists, who would see truth only in the narrowest of literal readings - and almost completely ignore the actual questions that the Bible was built-up to address:


“The difficulties of these texts do not lie in our understanding of them. The texts are abundantly clear about what they are doing: they are clearly built from shattered shards of stories, and are largely uninterested in events. The episodes have been collected, organized, and ordered specifically as broken and lost tradition.... They are traditions collected to give echo to and to call up a past forgotten or lost. Before we try to make history of them, we must ask ourselves whether there are any grounds at all for assuming that the actual texts we have ever possessed concrete political, historical referents.”
(Thompson, p. 52)

Interestingly enough, though, the actual genesis of monotheism is a far more intriguing story than that usually told...interwoven throughout with imperial propaganda, mass deportations, the decline of traditional beliefs in the face of emerging mass society, the folkloric reconstructions of scholars,  and the rivalry between Alexander’s heirs which - when mapped onto the border region of Palestine - turned incipient Judaism into a nationalist and fiercely monotheistic creed as Egyptian propaganda fed an alienation from the Hellenistic world that was scarce present a hundred years earlier...

And, this story’s modern feel is not an anachronism, but merely the (long-overdue) acknowledgement of just how “modern” the policies of the Assyrians & their successors were - and how these produced the first truly cosmopolitan mass societies in world history...and many of the political/cultural trends one should expect given that outcome. Still, the parallels are far from exact, which is what makes them - to my mind, at least - all the more fascinating. And the deepest divide, undoubtedly - far more consequential than that of modern technology as such - is in the fundamental world-view on offer...a perspective that many/most people today have little grasp of:


“One of the central contrasts that divide the understanding of the past that we find implied in biblical texts from a modern understanding of history lies in the way we think about reality. This difference is so fundamental to our understanding of ancient texts that we need to address it directly.... Ancient philosophical thought, no more systematic than it is abstract, is held together...by recurrent ad hoc references to experience: either the author’s own or his audience’s collective experience. The way things are is always the proving ground of truth in argument. Nevertheless, the abstraction from particular experiences to a larger sense of the real and the unreal follows a different logical path in the Bible than does our own.... The particulars of everyday experience are perceived as transient, changeable expressions of what is more stable, lasting and real.... Logically, the very reality of such change is to be denied. The truly real, the eternal, unchanging spirit, is also the unknown.... This inescapable pessimism and frustration, which was seen as fundamental to being human, undermined any sense of history as we think of it: an account of the changes and development of a society over time. Events, far from being real or important for themselves, were...[only] important for the hints they give of unchanging, transcendent and eternal reality to those who reflect on the past with understanding.... Chronology in this kind of history is not used as a measure of change. It links events and persons, makes associations, establishes continuity. It expresses an unbroken chain from the past to the present. This is not a linear so much as it is a coherent sense of time. It functions so as to identify and legitimise what is otherwise ephemeral and transient.... Nor is [this] ancient chronology based on a sense of circular time, in the sense of a return to an original reality. The first instance of an event is there only to mark the pattern of reiteration. It is irrelevant whether a given event is earlier or later than another.”
(Thompson, pp.15-17)

That this argument dovetails closely with that of Ernest Gellner - one of the most insightful theorists of the pre-modern/modern divide - adds support to what is already (on textual evidence alone) an overwhelmingly powerful argument. Add to that the archaeology, and any disinterested reader would have to admit that Thompson’s fundamental points are largely proven...not that many readers are “disinterested” in this area, sad to say. So, some plain speaking is undoubtedly required, in this time...and place:


“Multiple revelations of the torah, whether by Ezra or Moses, and whether at the mountain of God, at Horeb and Sinai, at Kadesh or in a chance discovery in the temple, all reflect the many ways that God is with us. We have variant tales and motifs - common enough to folk-tale scholarship, but intolerable to historical reconstruction. We have three stories of Jerusalem’s conquest, only the best of them being that David’s leadership. We have two giant-killers responsible for Goliath’s death. Even worse for historicism, we have different Sauls and different Davids and different Solomons. However, such variations enrich the tradition rather than embarrass it.... [Because,] it is only as history that the Bible does not make sense. Although many traditions appear incompatible or unacceptable when these ancient narratives are mistaken for history, when they are understood as the stories they are, they awake echoes of each other. They create a thematic whole.”
(Thompson, p.210)

“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 around the ‘return’ of ‘old’ long-neglected and forgotten gods.... [Moreover,] what we did know about Palestine’s religion during the Iron Age has long seemed an embarrassment to conservative scholarship...[whilst] even the cult of Yahweh proved to be more typical of the ancient Near Eastern religious world than of biblical tradition.”
(Thompson, p.169)

“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 had 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 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 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. In short, the only historical Israel to speak of is the people of the small highland state which, having lost its political autonomy in the last quarter of the eighth century, has been consistently ignored by historians and Bible scholars alike.”
(Thompson, p.190)

“In the traditional histories about the period following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the empire, one is used to seeing  Judaism described as an already mature religion, based on a centuries-long tradition of monotheism that reached back to the time of ancient Israel.... Such Judaism is also typically portrayed as ethnocentric, provincial and reactionary. it is seen as a cult-centred society that had fanatically resisted the universalism and humanism of the Greek out of a narrow xenophobia... The Judaism of history, however, was something other than that portrayed by such implicit anti-Semitism.... The town culture of Palestine was thoroughly Hellenized. Jews, rather than resisting the Greek world and its philosophy, were amongst the leaders in the intellectual life of Alexandria, Antioch and Babylon as well as Palestine.”
(Thompson, pp.196-7)

The fact that few outside professional scholars in the area are familiar with these well-supported arguments (and facts), marks our “understanding” of the Bible as history an embarrassing lacunae in our self-knowledge...particularly given the crucial role that that book has played in the cultural and intellectual history of the West. Thompson’s work is the perfect antidote to such ignorance, however, readers should also be warned that he plays no favourites, here...and is unafraid of clearly stating some very uncomfortable truths:


“In this world of biblical narrative, God is a God of mercy and wrath, not a God of justice. Yahweh determines destinies; he causes hearts to harden and he causes repentance: as in Jonah’s Ninevah and in Moses’ Egypt. People are not ‘free’ nor is this world ‘democratic’. It is a world of mishpahot and beytim: that is, a world of ‘families’ and ‘houses’, a world of belonging and loyalty. To be a Jew is to be, as one of the benei Yisrael, bound by an oath of allegiance to Yahweh as to one’s patron. Such ‘righteousness’ is not justice, but understanding: philosophy.... An ethics of justice implies not only responsibility, but an assertion of an ability to determine one’s own future. It implies a rule by law, not the personal subservience and obedience that is ever implicit in biblical tradition.”
(Thompson, p.311)

“Imagining that the theology of biblical traditions is somehow a history of salvation is an exercise that is as perverse as it is futile, however much we try ‘to see things through God’s eyes’. This foundation explicitly ignores a failed and betrayed covenant, a God of wrath and rejection, a glorious history past and shattered, promises broken, repeated condemnation and bloody reprisal.... [This is] hardly a saving history!”
(Thompson, p.396)

What it is, rather, is an exploration of fallible humanity’s misunderstandings of the ineffable...patched together from folk tales, historical fragments, theological speculations, and fierce debates about just how ignorant and deluded we are. Read as a whole, rather than cherry-picked for some specific purpose, there seems little doubt of this...or of the fundamentally ethical/philosophical import of the work:


“The unbridgeable difference between what God sees and what humans see as good is present already at the creation. The whole of biblical history is sketched in terms of human fate implicit in the way we are. There is nothing new under the sun, and the long narrative which sets out from Genesis is but an ever-expanding illustration of this eternal  conflict.”
(Thompson, p.18)

“One might argue that Israel is presented as a nation that has lost its inheritance. One might, however, better say - more in line with the tradition - that it is neither the land nor the kingdom, neither Samaria nor Jerusalem, but God’s torah which is the true inheritance.... The bearers of this tradition are not the Israel whom Yahweh had set out to create in Genesis with his promises to Abraham. Nor are they the Israel who were people chosen to be Yahweh’s first-born in Exodus, the Israel who had received the torah, obedience to which would make them an eternal people of God. That Israel never came to be.”
(Thompson, pp.29-30)

“Ironic understanding of prophesy is central to the tradition’s view of prophesy. Rather than playing the role of messengers of God’s word in Israel, prophets have functioned as catalysts for old Israel’s faithlessness and betrayal. Prophets harden hearts. They provoke stories of Israel’s disobedience. They create rejection of the way of God’s torah. As Isaiah has already stressed, the prophets present the proof that Israel neither knows nor understands anything.”
(Thompson, p.57)

But, to really understand these lessons, we need to realise how they came to be. In short, we need real historical understanding...and that particular endeavour proves full of surprises:


“Palestine’s economy was anything but a subsistence economy founded upon small independent units of the population. It was rather an interactive population, centred on a co-operative network of trade.... The interdependence of all aspects of the greater economy, compelled by the lack of a basic subsistence economy and coupled with the extensive geographical fragmentation of the South Levant generally, prevented the consolidation of political or economic power.... This unique form of agriculture, the Mediterranean economy, was to determine the basic structure of Palestine’s economy and much of its history for more than 5,000 years. Palestinian agriculture pioneered the development of a type of farming that has become the hallmark of the Mediterranean world. Its centre is trade.... [And,] since no part of the economy could survive without the other, communication and tolerance became dominant currencies.”
(Thompson, pp.118-19)

So, yet again, we find a geographical core determining the basic shapes of societies. And, interestingly enough, the economy which (in an even-more developed form) was to prove the base of ancient Greek achievement was pioneered by that other key ideological source for the West, ancient Palestine. But it is the next phase of history which is the most crucial, albeit its substance is essentially absent from the Bible itself...that is, exile itself.


“The problem is not whether there was ever an historical exile; nor has it ever been that the Bible’s stories about exile are not believable. There was exile...often. The historical problems arise with the question of continuity: the continuity of people, their culture and traditions. When we read the Bible’s narratives, are we looking at the means by which a culture and a tradition created continuity and coherence because of and out of the discontinuities of the people’s experiences? Are the emotions of exile evoked in the implied feelings of those who were uprooted and deported different or comparable to those implied perceptions of people of another generation, or even centuries later, who heard the messages of a saving Nabonidus and Cyrus? When Shalmaneser took Samaria, were the people he deported from Samaria to live in Halah in northern Mesopotamia ‘returning’ home? Or did they too live in exile, perhaps to ‘return’ to Jerusalem under Artaxerxes? Or did the people Shalmaneser brought to Samaria from the Syrian town of Hamath think of themselves as being forced to live in exile, while yet others ‘returned’? And, how did the people of Samaria see themselves three hundred years later? And Judah’s exiles under Sennacherib, did they return? Or did anyone return?”
(Thompson, pp.217-18)

These are very real - and necessary - questions, not mere nit-picking, and their absence from conservative scholarship on the Bible and history is a damning indictment of the integrity of that particular body of work, and a clear indication of just how many important questions it tends to rule out-of-bounds. But, placed in their proper historical context - the well-documented history of imperial mass deportations and their propagandistic accompaniments - we can see such exiles in a new (and much more informative) light:


“The success of the costly and complex political policy of population resettlement depended on the imperial administration’s ability to develop and transform what had originally begun as a military strategy of regional pacification through social dislocation.... Taking rulers and upper classes captive and deporting them to regions in the heart of the empire was useful. It punished rebels and got rid of potential troublemakers. It enabled the governors of new territories to create terror through hostage-taking. It complicated any local successor’s claim to legitimacy. At the same time, it put the administration of regions into the hands of local interests who were dependent upon the empire for their survival and acceptance.... [In addition, the policy] was backed by extensive political propaganda. The conquerors of new territories couch surrender in terms of ‘liberation’, and ‘salvation’ from former oppressive rulers. Deportation is described as a ‘reward’ for populations who rebelled against their leaders (so the general’s speech in the tale in II Kings 18-19). The people are always ‘restored to their homelands’. Such returns involve the ‘restoration’ of ‘lost’ and ‘forgotten’ gods, following long periods of exile.”
(Thompson, p.191)

“Except in cases of concerted and prolonged rebellion, mass-executions were abhorrent to the self-understanding of the imperial ruler. He was the ‘shepherd and guardian of justice’ for all of his imperial subjects. Large-scale deportation was far preferable, because...as refugees, uprooted from any source of wealth or power except their own individual skills and abilities, they became wholly dependent on the good will and largesse of the empire...[and] served as a countervalent force against any local opposition...who naturally viewed them as intruders and usurpers.”
(Thompson, pp.191-2)

“Under the Assyrians, writing became increasingly common and involved a larger portion of the population. The Assyrian efforts to establish schools across their empire, and the use of Aramaic as a common language , helped to integrate a society that had been fragmented into many different cultural and language groups. With these changes, an international context and world-view was introduced into a region that had ever been provincial and village-oriented. As local traditions and folklore were brought into a literate context, collected and interpreted, they were redefined by the much more complex, learned stream of tradition they came to share.... [And, ] when the Persians, in an attempt to win over the provinces to their administration, introduced forms of ‘home rule’, they further encouraged the collection and codification of local customs and law. Schools and scribes became the centre of this development. Philosophy, law, narrative and song informed the region’s culture. They also created a context for the development of a trans-regional and, especially during the Hellenistic period, international culture. Much of this work of collecting was both creative and original. It was in the effort to formulate the contemporary beliefs and understandings that were expressive of Palestine’s traditions, that many of the earliest coherent texts of the Bible began to develop.... [And,] the interest in national roots and regional ethnicity was not unique or peculiar to Palestine, but was part of a widespread and extremely varied movement that stretched from the Aegean to Babylon and beyond.”
(Thompson, pp.267-8)

“The ‘exile’ - that event of the past in which Israel was carried off from its homeland first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians - plays a central role in the formation of the Bible’s tradition. However, the importance of the exile in the Bible is hardly that of the historical events that overwhelmed the populations of ancient Samaria or Jerusalem during the iron Age. Rather, it is a metaphor for the psychological events from which new beginnings are launched. ‘Exile’ is the means by which those who identify themselves with the tradition can understand themselves as saved.... [And,] this torah of instruction, was centred on the belief in a universal and transcendent God. This belief was more philosophical than religious; in fact, it was a way of understanding traditional religions that had ceased to be entirely acceptable within the Persian and Hellenistic periods. As the ancient world had become increasingly integrated by the political and economic controls of empire - already at work in the Assyrian period - ideas about the gods began to change accordingly. Polytheism, which had its roots in the complexity of life as well as in the many different groups interacting within any single society, began to give way to an increasingly integrated sense of divine power that was transcendent, beyond human understanding, and apart from people as well as peoples.”
(Thompson, pp.31-2)

And, if this account now suggests a process usually delayed til the rise of Christianity, and a philosophy more easily linked to Plato, say, than Yahweh, it does - I feel - much better accord with the cross-cultural evidence from Karl Jaspers’ “Axial Age”, as well as the disturbing echoes of modernity - mass deportations & all - we increasingly find as we look harder at the Assyrians and their legacy...


“From at least the twilight of the Assyrian empire in the seventh century BCE, the ancient world’s intellectual perception of reality was forced into a defining crisis. Such change found  expression in a growing awareness of the patent irrelevance of tradition past...[What became the] ‘twilight of the gods’ in Greek intellectual life played out in different ways in the growth of classical literary traditions across Asia. All find their point of departure in such critical thought about the gods of tradition. These traditions come to us in the collected scriptures of Zoroastrianism, of Buddhism and of the Bible.... Each also took its written form some time between the third and first centuries BCE.”
(Thompson, p.298)

“In the Semitic world, the crisis that begun in an intellectual tradition that was no longer believable was resolved by contrasting the the perceived and the contingent as limited human perceptions of reality, with an unperceived understanding of all that was beyond such limited possibilities of thought. Spirit was ineffable. Divine reality was not the gods that men created; it was beyond conception. Traditional understanding was not so much false, as human.... The stories of tradition were not rejected, they were pitied.... [However,] somewhat in contrast to the Greek historians, philosophers and playwrights, the intellectuals of Asia chose to affirm the traditions of the past. They accepted them as expressions of true reality, perceived in limited human terms. This defining concept of inclusive monotheism finds its home in ongoing efforts to interpret polytheistic conceptions in universal and transcendent terms.”
(Thompson, p.299-300)

Thomas L. Thompson’s The Bible in History should be essential reading for anyone concerned with properly historicising human nature...and, in fully exploring all the crucial dimensions of our cultural/intellectual past. Sadly, though, few scholars take the trouble to properly investigate such questions without bias and, of those who do, their fate is - like Thompson - to be abused for simply applying general scholarly standards to such a “special” area...or to be ignored like Margaret Donaldson’s insightful work on spiritual experiences...

This, to put it bluntly, is simply not good enough. Any account of ourselves lacking a proper account of this dimension of human experience - like that of the behaviourists, say - is simply an ideological farce, which can never even approximate wisdom about our condition. In direct contrast, Thompson’s travails have seemingly taught him much about what we want in this world, and his book is a richly rewarding study of how our monotheisms came to be, and why they took the forms that they did. Reading it is a revelation...


“Biblical texts are important because they have formed our consciousness and our language. They are the foundational remnants of an intellectual tradition common to the Western world. This language has provided us with a tradition of integrity, of criticism and of reform. Historically, the Bible has provided us with metaphors of the divine, of people and of the world. These metaphors, in later periods and different contexts, provided a central impetus to the intellectual and political movements we now know as Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
(Thompson, p.388)



John Henry Calvinist