Is David a Copycat?

I’m reading Thomas Thompson’s The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (Cambridge: Basic Books, 2005) . Thompson is a minimalist, which means he doesn’t believe most of the Bible is historical. Well, one of his arguments in The Messiah Myth is that the ancient Near East has longstanding traditions of a king who goes into exile, returns to challenge the oppressive reigning king, and sets up a paradise that lifts up the poor. When I read I-II Samuel for my quiet time at Harvard, I wondered if the ancient Near East had stories of a king who went through trials before he ascended the throne, the sort of thing we find with David. Now that I see parallels, I wonder why such stories exist. I mean, I have my own theological/religious answer: God puts people in trials to teach them character and prepare them for their divinely-appointed task. Did others (non-Israelites) in the ancient Near East believe this?

Many believers may have a problem with what Thompson says because it presents the Hebrew Bible as a copycat book. But, personally, my access to such motifs comes through my contact with the Hebrew Bible, which God has seen fit to preserve. So the David story is still special to me, even if other cultures have a similar story. I mean, why should I care what a Moabite king went through? But David started off the dynasty that led to Jesus Christ, and that does matter to me.

Thompson’s big point is that the David story (and, going further, the Jesus one) is not historical because it appears so story-like. I think that a minimalist sentiment is that real life is not like a story or a movie, since it is not quite so neat. Actually, that may be a scholarly sentiment in general, not just a minimalist one. But who’s to say that stories can’t be real, in some way, shape, or form? Real life has good people and bad people, and there are times when the good triumph, as occurs in many stories.

I had another question when I did my I Samuel quiet time years ago: Did the ancient Near East offer negative images of good kings? With David, we see a picture that is not always rosy. I know how some scholars try to explain that: The David court is trying to defend David against detractors and thus acknowledges some of their claims, yet puts a spin on them (Baruch Halpern). Or the criticisms of David are from a post-exilic, anti-Messianic strain of thought (John van Seters). And Christians who read the text devotionally say it shows that the Bible is hard on its heroes, demonstrating that even the best of us sin and fall short of God’s glory. But I wonder if other cultures were hard on their heroes, and, if so, why?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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15 Responses to Is David a Copycat?

  1. Bryan L says:

    Good questions. You know sometimes I think good practical questions are the most damaging to certain theories. We sometimes don’t even need to go into deep technical stuff; just ask some common sense questions.



  2. TBrookins says:

    Hey, this discussion seems to be germane to some of the things Peter Enns discusses in his recent (and controversial) book Inspiration and Incarnation. As one coming from both a critical and conservative perspective, I found the book in general to be helpful.


  3. James Pate says:

    Hi Bryan! I agree with you. Have you seen other incidents in which that is true–in which good practical questions can damage certain theories?

    Hi TBrookins! I actually read Enns book about a year ago. It didn’t exactly sweep me off my feet, since I felt that he didn’t exactly pick the best examples of true biblical diversity. But I don’t think he deserves excommunication.


  4. Anonymous says:

    This topos stretches way back. My first example that I can think of is from the Curse of Agade. And on through history. I don’t know if I’d say Near Eastern as much as pan-historical.

    I, too, found Enns book a little “too” conservative. I could tell that he was clearly aware of the problems that the historical method posed, but that he didn’t raise those questions, except obliquely. I guess that’s his pastoral heart.

    The relationship between history and confession is indeed a Gordian knot. I guess the best approach is to not eschew history and to not just give up on faith. Simple, huh? 🙂



  5. James Pate says:

    Hey, Jake!

    Yeah, that’s more or less my approach. It’s not all that neat, and I have a lot of unanswered questions, but it’s where I am.

    I’ll take a look at the Curse of Agade. Someone wrote to me and mentioned Gilgamesh as a flawed hero, which makes some sense.

    On Enns, I’m amazed at how all this hoopla has just now arisen, considering the book has been out for so long (a little over a year). I thought that his examples of biblical contradictions were not too good because they could be easily reconciled. And I remember his chapter on rewritten Bible, but he didn’t adequately answer the question of why we can’t treat the Bible as the apostles did. I know he addressed it, but his answer didn’t leave a great (or lasting) impression.


  6. TBrookins says:

    Jake and James,

    I agree that historical study and faith are both important in approaching the Scriptures, but I have a hard time contenting myself with the cognitive dissonance–and it is dissonance–of failing to reconcile the two. If we’re talking about a “ditch” between so-called “faith” and “reason,” then I disagree with the approach, not least because such a dichotomy is based on a definition of “faith” that Scripture does not know. There are some pretty good attempts out there to delineate a “Scriptural principle” that fairly integrates history in the picture and concedes legitimate discrepancies in Scripture while also retaining a view of inspiration that entails the trustworthiness of all of Scripture.


  7. James Pate says:

    Yeah, TBrookins, you may be right. But I still have swimming in my mind the attitude that if any of the Bible is wrong, we can’t trust any of it. That’s where the ditch enters the picture.


  8. TBrookins says:

    It depends on what you mean by “wrong,” as strange as that sounds. If what you mean is that, for example, the book of Job is not actual history, then what you say misses the point. The Bible purports to have the “practical” purpose of bringing people to know God through the salvation that he offers in Jesus Christ. Its ability to fulfill that practical purpose is not undermined by looking at certain portions of the Bible as unhistorical by modern terms of historiography. On the other hand I think we can retain relative certainty about historical events that are still crucial for the faith (such as God’s creation of the world, the resurrection, etc.) by looking at ancient standards of historiography; and I would argue that just because standards were not as stringent then does not mean that we can say that nothing that is said is at all historical.


  9. James Pate says:

    That may work with some things, Tbrookins, but I’m not satisfied with it on certain things. For example, I have problems with people who say, “It doesn’t matter whether the Exodus happened or not. It’s a story that expresses the Israelites’ values.” Yeah, and one of those values is that God was powerful enough to deliver them from slavery. If that did not actually happen, then that value is compromised.


  10. TBrookins says:

    Absolutely. That’s something I’m thinking through right now. I’m in no way for “demythologizing.” The fact, which you recognize, is that theological assertions have existential meaning for us only if (or precisely because) they’re true–such as God being powerful enough to bring about the exodus. Another difficulty in determining what “really happened” is literary genre, because we don’t always know at what point Scripture is presenting itself as history, saga, parable, etc. However I suppose, if you believe in inspiration (in a stricter sense than a Neo-orthodoxist), we must understand the Scripture to be saying that God is powerful enough to bring about the exodus, and, judging from evidence in the exodus text, we are probably dealing with the genre of history (but “history” in their terms, not ours–though again, Hebrew history still purports to present “fact”). If we assume inspiration (which I do), we must take as true what Scripture is teaching as true (including theological assertions), but in accordance with literary genre.


  11. Bryan L says:

    That’s a good point James. As one who is willing to see myth in certain parts of the OT there are other parts like the Exodus where turning it into myth really doesn’t do it for me. If God really is not that powerful to deliver the Israelites then what good is making it into myth going to do for me. I could care less about what some real purpose of the story is if it isn’t rooted in anything in that actually happened.



  12. TBrookins says:

    Bryan, actually I mostly agree with you, but I want to qualify something you said. You said that you were willing to accept some parts of the OT as myth, but then you go on to say that you “could care less about what some real purpose of the story is if it isn’t rooted in anything in that actually happened.” Certainly you care about the purpose of those sections you accept as mythical even though they did not “actually happen” as presented. Perhaps what you mean is that you take those mythical sections as enshrining some pith of historical truth, such as Gen. 1-3 teaching that God is the one who created the world, and that he created it “good,” etc. In that case, I agree with you as well.


  13. James Pate says:

    Yeah, demythologizing doesn’t do much for me, but rejecting it leaves me where I started: wondering what to do with faith and science/archaeology/other challenges to the Bible’s historicity. So I guess my faith life is rather agnostic–not in the sense of “not knowing” if God exists, but on how to reconcile a lot of this stuff.


  14. TBrookins says:

    I can see this issue is too big for us to solve in the “Comments” section of a blog post. Ha! Thanks for your honesty in your struggle. I’ll certainly be praying for wisdom for the both of us, as I don’t have it all figured out either. But I am optimistic about reconciling things–as I said, I assume inspiration and the Bible’s practical efficacy. As far as determining what is “history”–we take that on a case by case basis. And, as Clark Pinnock says, “What could truly falsify the Bible would have to be something that could falsify the gospel and Christianity as well,” which in my mind would take a lot!


  15. Bryan L says:

    Yeah TC I think you’ve accurately described what I’m saying. There’s even some historical narrative details that I don’t really care all that much whether they’re true. But in something foundational to ISrael’s story and future like the Exodus I really feel I’m missing out on something if it is a myth.



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