Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Is Not This an Incompetent New Testament Scholar? A Response to Thomas L. Thompson

See Also: Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son?

By Professor P. M. Casey
Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies
University of Nottingham
August 2012

In a recent article in this journal, Thomas Thompson wrote what he described as ‘A Response to Bart Ehrman,’ though the connection is not always obvious. The purpose of this response is not generally to defend Ehrman, but to point out that Thompson is completely wrong from beginning to end. Ehrman got one main point right, and it should be at the centre of the discussion. He commented, ‘Thompson is trained in biblical studies, but he does not have degrees in New Testament or early Christianity. He is, instead, a Hebrew Bible scholar….’ Thompson’s lack of expertise regarding New Testament Studies and Early Christianity is palpable throughout his essay.

For example, he comments on the American Jesus seminar, ‘Biblical Scholars outside the United States find the seminar’s conclusions consistently conservative.’1 For this extremely general statement, he offers not one jot of evidence! The mind boggles to imagine what he has read, and who he has been talking to. His comments bear no reasonable relationship to anything I have read, or to the comments of New Testament scholars to whom I have spoken. From the perspective of most New Testament scholars, that seminar’s conclusions are radical to the extent of bordering on lunacy. Among many direct criticisms of the American Jesus Seminar for its arbitrary and radical, not conservative, work, examples include Dunn in 2003, so a work which might have been available to Thompson, and the contents of which were abundantly discussed at the SNTS Jesus seminar and informally at SNTS, both before and after it was published. Dunn also notes the earlier criticism of Tuckett in 1999, which was more obviously available to Thompson.2 Thompson, however, omits all such work. Why did Thompson never come to discuss such work with some 50 or so New Testament scholars at that seminar, and some 300 or so at the conference when there were abundant opportunities for informal discussion?

Again, Thompson presupposes the priority of Matthew, a traditional Catholic doctrine which is wholly at odds with critical scholarship. For example, his discussion of the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ depends on Mt. 21.10-17, so that the story ‘closes on a cryptic scene of healing the lame and the blind [who] have come to Jesus (Mt 21:14) in obvious imitation of Isaiah’s foreigner and eunuch.’3 He does not explain why Mark delayed the cleansing of the Temple until the day after Jesus arrived there, a necessary consequence of imagining the priority of the Matthean account, or why Mark should have inserted the fact that Jesus ‘did not allow anyone to carry a vessel through the Temple’ (Mk. 11.16). Both features of Mark’s account make perfect historical sense in their own right, as has often been pointed out in scholarship which Thompson omits.4 Such points are part of the argument for the priority of Mark.

Similarly, Thompson presupposes the priority of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ final Passover with his disciples (Matt. 26.17-30// Mk 14.12-26). Here too, it should be obvious to anyone with any knowledge of critical scholarship that the Markan account has priority, because it fits properly into first century Judaism, including lots of Aramaisms. For example, I pointed out already in 1998 that Mark’s account is based on an old Aramaic source which made Jewish assumptions.5 It begins ‘on the first day of unleavened bread, when they were sacrificing the Passover’ (Mk 14.12). This puts them in the Temple for the sacrifice of their lamb or goat. He sent two of (ek, quite unnecessary in Greek, reflecting the Aramaic min) his disciples with instructions to find the room which he had arranged for without being detected, saying that the man whom they meet will show them a large upper room laid out ready, as would be necessary for a normally large Passover group of Jesus with his disciples, not for just him and the Twelve.

During the meal, Jesus predicted his betrayal by ‘one of the Twelve,’ which was shocking but would not make sense if only the Twelve were there. At the end of the meal, he said ‘we will not add to drink of the fruit of the vine,’ an Aramaic idiom for ‘we will not drink again.’ Thompson did the same with all this as he did with all decent New Testament scholarship: he left it out.

Thompson declares, ‘Ehrman pompously ignores my considerable analytical discussion…’ I cannot find anything in Thompson’s book which deserves to be called ‘considerable analytical discussion.’ In its place we find Thompson’s convictions. Two are especially important. One is his continued attachment to the priority of Matthew, a Catholic dogma in which he was brought up, and of which I have given two examples. The other major example is what he calls ‘tropes.’ Much of this has nothing to do with Jesus at all, let alone the historical Jesus. For example ch 5, ‘The Myth of the Good King,’ ch 6 ‘The Myth of the Conquering Holy Warrior,’ ch 8 ‘Holy War,’ ch 9 ‘Good King, Bad King’ and ch 10, ‘The Figure of David in Story and Song’ hardly mention Jesus at all. This is hardly surprising at one level since Jesus was not really a king, good or bad, or a conquering holy warrior, did not take part in a holy war, and he did not have much to do with David either.

Some of Thompson’s book is also very badly presented. He omits every indication that Jesus expected the coming of the kingdom soon. For example, he does not discuss Jesus’ plea to the inner group of three in Gethsemane ‘that you may not enter into trial’ (Mk 14.38//Mt 26.41). Instead, he declares that Matthew ‘reiterates the songs of Thutmosis III and Ramses IV.’6 He does not however explain how Matthew might have known the ‘songs of Thutmosis III and Ramses IV,’ nor does he quote any of them, to the point where it is not clear what Matthew is supposed to have drawn from them. Yet Thompson must be aware that most of his readers would not be familiar with ‘the songs of Thutmosis III and Ramses IV.’ He therefore ought to have quoted them: he should have given full and clear references to complete texts and translations of them (it is not enough to put general collections of Egyptian material in the middle of everything else in the bibliography). He should have provided evidence that they might reasonably be supposed to have been available to Matthew: and here again it matters that he presupposes the Catholic dogma of the priority of Matthew.

Thompson also has the common mythicist fault of setting things from the life of Jesus in a mythical context, when there is good evidence that they were at home in the historical context presented by Mark. For example, quoting Matt. 26.26-9, he declares that the ‘metaphor of “new wine” draws on the biblical tradition of royal ideology...’7 But new wine was a real substance which real people drank when they could afford it, and everyone who could drank new wine at Passover. As Mark put it, in dependence on an old Aramaic source, as we have seen, ‘And he took a cup and said a blessing and gave (it) to them, and all of them drank in it. And he said to them, ‘This (is/was) my blood, it (is) of the covenant, shed for many. Amen I say to you that we will not add to drink from the fruit of the vine until that day on which I drink it and it (will be) new in the kingdom of God.’8 Here Jesus’ interpretation of the wine as ‘my blood, it (is) of the covenant, shed for many’ is metaphorical, but the wine itself and the whole company drinking from a common cup is not metaphorical at all, it is part of a basic historical account of a Passover meal.

Finally, Thompson declares, ‘Apparently to him (sc. Ehrman), 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 and lacking the essential competence to address such questions because they also come to include a comparison of such an analysis with these same stereotypical literary tropes as they occur in the Gospels.’

This has another major mistake. Pursuing his convictions in fields such as Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature does not make Thompson a competent New Testament scholar. Doing this, without proper qualifications, in an incompetent manner, for 40 years, makes him worse, not better.

I therefore conclude that Thompson’s work is wrong from beginning to end. This is partly because he has not become competent in New Testament Studies, and partly because he has ideological convictions which he inserts at all points where he should have offered serious intellectual analysis.


1 Thompson, Messiah Myth, pp. 10-11.

2 Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pp. 58-65, citing inter alia C. M. Tuckett, ‘The Historical Jesus, Crossan and Methodology,’ in S. Maser and E. Schlarb (eds.), Text und Geschichte. Facetten theologischen Arbeitens aus dem Freundes- und Schülerkreis: Dieter Lührmann zum 60. Geburtstag (Marburger theologische Studien 50. Marburg: Elwert, 1999), pp. 257-79.

3 Thompson, Messiah Myth, p. 80.

4 Cf. e.g. P. M. Casey, ‘Culture and Historicity: The Cleansing of the Temple,’ CBQ 59 (1997), pp. 306–32, which was available to Thompson. For a summary in English for the general reader, see now Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 411-5.

5 P. M. Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel (SNTSMS 102. Cambridge: CUP, 1998), ch 6. For a summary in English for the general reader, see now Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 429-37.

6 Thompson, Messiah Myth, p. 199.

7 Thompson, Messiah Myth, p. 199.

8 Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel, pp. 220-1. For a summary in English for the general reader, Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 433-5.