Thompson’s Three Categories of Biblical Tradition

I finished Thomas Thompson’s Mythic Past.  In this post, I’ll be looking at points that Thompson makes on pages 295-301, which was from my reading for yesterday, and I’ll be tying them to points that I read in Thompson’s book today.

Thompson says that the “earliest sources of the Bible [reflect] one of three categories”:

1.  The first category is “surviving fragments of the past”.  Although Thompson interprets much of the Hebrew Bible in light of a Hellenistic context and does not believe that it reflects Israel’s pre-exilic period, he does think that there are pre-exilic traditions in the Hebrew Bible.  He says: “Some of these—such as a small number of sayings or prayers that have been collected in Leviticus, the Shem and Ham genealogies we find in Genesis, as well as the genealogy of Ishmael, the story in Numbers about the prophet Bileam, the dynastic list of Israel from Omri on, perhaps the dynastic name of a ‘House of David’ in Jerusalem, as well as aspects of the destruction account of Samaria—have known roots even as early as the Assyrian period.”  There are parallels between the Psalms and “poetry found on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Ugarit of Late Bronze Syria.”  Thompson also acknowledges that “Not only the flood story, but both the garden story and the creation account of Genesis 1 offer variants of motifs, themes and episodes closely tied to Late Babylonian traditions or to the Gilgamesh and Adapa stories of yet earlier times.”

This is from page 295, which was part of my reading for yesterday.  In my reading today, on page 335, Thompson says that the Book of Genesis and the Book of Jubilees did not invent the Cain tradition themselves, but rather they “take part in a common discussion about the Cain story”, which, in some form, must have already existed.  Genesis 4 makes the Cain story an “etiology of a divine protection”, whereas Jubilees uses it to support capital punishment.  So, for Thompson, the author (or authors) of Genesis did not invent everything in the book, but drew from older traditions.

What confuses me, however, is that, in Thompson’s chronological chart at the end of the book, Thompson locates the Persian Period as the time of the “Early beginnings of biblical traditions.”  But didn’t Thompson say on page 295 that there are biblical traditions that go back at least to the Assyrian period?  Or is Thompson saying in his chart that the Persian Period was when traditions began to be collected (and, in some cases, invented) and consolidated into what would later become a national history for Israel?

2.  The second category of traditions is the “world-view of exclusive monotheism”.  These traditions reject syncretism, are intolerant of “alternative religious expression”, and favor an “exclusive monotheism.”  For adherents to this view, “Yahweh represented the sole signification of the heavenly spirit”, meaning that they did not accept the notion that a god could have many manifestations, of which Yahweh was one.  Thompson sees possible roots for this view in Persia’s exclusion of certain “religious associations” in its attempt to “centralize the government’s control over religious ideology”; in a Greek idea that gods were distinct individuals (rather than many manifestations of a common reality), which bred competition among the adherents to various gods; and in Yehud’s intolerance, which “might be inferred from parts of Ezra.”  (On a side note: while maximalists have asked why minimalists are skeptical about parts of the Hebrew Bible that claim to narrate the events of Israel’s pre-exilic history, even as the minimalists accept Ezra and Nehemiah as historical, I saw a few cases in which Thompson treated Ezra and Nehemiah as fictional as well!)

But, ultimately, Thompson appears to view the second century B.C.E. as the primary time of impetus for exclusive monotheism—or at least the aggressive promotion of it.  At that time, the Seleucids were “indifferent to local Palestinian traditions of expression”, and “language, tradition and God were seen to be at risk” by “traditionalists and nationalists” in Israel.  This led to the Maccabean revolution and the independence of Palestine.  John Hyrcanus converted certain areas forcibly, in an expression of exclusive monotheism.

This is from pages 295-297.  I’ll tie that with today’s reading in my discussion of the third category.

3.  The third category is the “world-view of inclusive monotheism”.  Thompson defines this as follows:

“In contrast to exclusive forms, this monotheism included many polytheistic traditions and metaphors for understanding the divine.  Such traditions self-consciously understand themselves as limited human expressions of what ultimately reflects a transcendent divine.  The traditions, once collected, contributed to the development of a pluralistic world-view.”

Thompson includes in this category such writings as Ecclesiastes, Job, and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55).  But doesn’t Second Isaiah lambaste idolatry?  That doesn’t sound too pluralistic, does it?  Thompson’s characterization of the “inclusive monotheism” category is more than a belief that the gods are different names for a common reality, for it also includes a recognition that various religious expressions of that reality are inadequate—that gods have “clay feet”, if you will.  For Thompson (if I’m understand him correctly), Ecclesiastes, Job, and Second Isaiah are all attacks on religion, and (in their own way) they draw our attention to the reality that religion is inadequate to describe.  According to Thompson, “the twilight of the Assyrian empire in the seventh century BCE” marked a crisis, as people tried to deal with gods that had feet of clay.  Sixth century Neo-Babylonian and Persian texts treat the king as the savior of the gods, rather than regarding the gods as heroes.  The Aegean intelligentsia rejected mythology about the gods.  Regarding the Hebrew Bible, Thompson states, “The God of the Old Testament is the unknown God, the silent voice of Elijah, the God that Job knew only by hearsay.”  And this understanding of God replaced the “old storm deity of Palestine”, whom the biblical authors associated with old Israel.

This is from pages 297-301, which was in my reading for yesterday.  In my reading for today, the contrast between the god of “old Israel” and the god of “New Israel” continues to be made.  Regarding the akedah in Genesis 22 (and other stories in Genesis), Thompson states (on page 303):

“Don’t think for a moment that the narrator of Genesis or his audience ever believed in or prayed to that kind of God.  This is the world that the teller has created for his representation of old Israel, where sometimes iron does float on water, and where sometimes God is awful.”  For Thompson, the Hebrew Bible is promoting the birth of a new Israel, whose character has been purged by the wilderness of exile.  Apparently, that entails a new relationship between Israel and God, in the eyes of biblical narrators!

And yet, in Thompson’s scenario, the biblical narrators thought that even the old Israel got a preview of the new understanding of God.  On page 395, Thompson says that Elijah desired the “old-fashioned God”, the one who could “fracture even mountains”.  But the God Elijah got was the God with the “silent voice,” the God of inclusive monotheism.

What’s interesting is that Thompson often portrays the piety of the Hebrew Bible as a sort of unquestioning fundamentalism, whereas inclusive monotheism appears to be about challenging religious paradigms.  Thompson interprets Genesis 3 as a story about how piety is better than the search for wisdom—as Qoheleth also discovered.  Saul’s problem was that he followed what he saw to be right, rather than God’s instructions.  And, as Thompson characterizes the ideology of Genesis 1 on page 360, “What is good is good as God sees it.”

I want to turn now to the element of inclusive monotheism that views the gods as different manifestations of one reality.  On pages 381-385, Thompson tries to support the existence of such an idea.  He says that “From at least early in the Assyrian period of the empire, in what are often thought of as the polytheistic worlds of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, reflective people had well understood a clear difference between the gods themselves and the statues and images that were used to represent them.”  Thompson notes that the Babylonian god Marduk had fifty names, and one of them was the “name of the god Sin, the patron deity of the Assyrian city of Harran”.  Thompson states, “Just as all the powers of the kings of the imperial world reflected but one king’s power, the power of the other gods reflected of but one deity.”  Syrian and Phoenician traders “readily identified specific gods of one region with the gods of similar function of another region.”

“By the Persian period,” Thompson contends, “the norm for Syria and Palestine” was the view that “god had many faces and many names”, and yet it was recognized that these were mere “human expressions about the divine”, which was “spiritual, and unknown.”  We see this idea in the ancient world: Plato speaks about the “One, True, Good and Beautiful”; Babylon spoke of the god Sin in some texts “in the same way as Ba’al Shamem is in Syria”; and Persia regarded Ahura Mazda as a high god—and gods of other nations as expressions of him.

Thompson believes that such an idea is in Exodus 3 and 6, in which (according to Thompson) Yahweh is presented as “a representation and expression of the truly divine” (page 321), even as “the gods of the patriarchal stories and the gods of Israel’s ancestors” are legitimized as “truly expressive of the transcendent divine” (page 320).  Thompson apparently believes that the patriarchs are viewed as polytheists in Exodus 3, perhaps because God refers to himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” implying three gods (for Thompson, perhaps).

I don’t entirely dismiss Thompson’s argument about inclusive monotheism, for the Israelites did call their god “El,” which was also the Ugaritic high god.  But I believe that exclusive monotheism is far more prominent in the Hebrew Bible than Thompson may acknowledge.  Thompson notes on page 320, after all, that, in Exodus 23, there is a contrast between the gods of “the legendary enemies of Israel” and Israel’s God.

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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