Thompson on Patriarchal Names and Alleged Migrations

I started Thomas Thompson’s The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives.  In this 1974 work, Thompson argues against the scholarly view that the patriarchal narratives are historically-accurate, or at least have an “essential historicity,” which means that there is a historical event behind them, notwithstanding the traditions’ “inaccuracies, discrepancies…anachronisms” and inconsistencies with each other (page 53).  In my reading today, Thompson tackles two scholarly arguments for the patriarchal narratives’ historicity: that the names of certain patriarchs appear in the second millennium B.C.E., the alleged time of the patriarchs, and that Amorites (or people-groups like the Amorites) migrated from Mesopotamia to Palestine during that time, as Abraham does in the patriarchal narrative.

1.  Regarding the “names” argument, Thompson argues that the names “Abram” and “Jacob” appear after the second millennium B.C.E., not just during the second millennium.  This means that the patriarchal narratives could reflect a first millennium context.  That is not to say that the patriarchs lived in the first millennium B.C.E., but rather that the narratives could have been composed at that time, meaning that the narratives reflect the time of the authors, not the patriarchs.  Maximalists have tried to demonstrate that the patriarchal narratives authentically reflect the second millennium B.C.E., since, in the biblical stories, that is the time that the patriarchs lived.  By showing that the patriarchal narratives can easily reflect later times, Thompson is undercutting their historicity, or at least showing that there are legitimate alternatives to treating them as historical.  Similarly, Thompson cites a scholar who says that Haran is attested in the second millennium B.C.E., which is the time that the Bible assigns to the patriarchs.  But, as Thompson points out, “there was hardly a period in which Harran did not exist” (page 18).

Moreover, in a poignant footnote on page 36, Thompson essentially says that the existence of the patriarchs’ names does not prove the existence of the patriarchs: “To show that the name David is a personal name in nineteenth century England does not really support the historicity of David Copperfield; it only shows us, whatever it is worth, that Dicken’s hero bore a name which Dickens and his readers considered to be a real name.”

On a related note, in reading this book, I’m confronted with the same question that was in my mind as I read Thompson’s Mythic Past: Does Thompson believe that the authors of the patriarchal narratives thought that they were writing history—events that happened in the past?  The answer that I got from today’s reading of The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives is in the negative: the patriarchal narratives don’t claim to be history (pages 4, 8-9).  And, as in Mythic Past, Thompson may maintain even in this book that the biblical narratives reflect a Hellenistic context, for he makes the same point that he makes in Mythic Past about biblical chronology: that it points to the four-thousandth year after creation, which is the year 164 B.C.E., the time that the temple was rededicated (page 15).

2.  Regarding the “migrations” argument, Thompson’s conclusion on page 96 is as follows:

“The written materials do not witness to a major West Semitic migration into Palestine in the early Second Millennium, and argue against any such migration from North Mesopotamia.  The Early West Semitic names from Mari are close to but not identical to the early Second Millennium names from Palestine.  This in itself precludes Northwest-Mesopotamia as the direct source of the Palestinian peoples.”

So Thompson does not believe that the evidence points to any second millennium West Semitic migration from Mesopotamia to Palestine.  Actually, Thompson thinks that any migration that did occur is not the sort that we find in the Bible.  On page 87, Thompson states:

“[I]f movements and migrations can be seen, it is from the peripheral regions into the settled areas.  No movement whatever is discernible which resembles a movement from Ur towards the northwest to [Ch]arran.  If a trend is to be noticed, it is in the opposite direction!  Ur, rather than being the source of these migrations, is among the prizes sought.  For [Ch]arran, there is indeed evidence of a migration, but it comes from the South, from the banks of the Euphrates and ultimately from the South Arabian desert, and moves northwards to [Ch]arran.  In no way does this resemble the traditions about the patriarchs in Genesis.”

There is one occasion in which Thompson uses the Bible against a maximalist scholarly argument.  A name similar to “Benjamin” appears in second millennium Mari, and so there were scholars who argued that Benjamin came to Palestine from Mesopotamia.  One argument that Thompson uses against this is that the biblical tradition “sees Benjamin as the southern group of the Ephraim tribe and in the Stammessage sees Benjamin as the one son of Jacob who was born in Palestine” (pages 59-60).

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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