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Monday, October 20, 2008

More on the Messiah Myth

Last night I finished the second chapter, "The Figure of the Prophet," of The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David by Thomas Thompson. I posted my thoughts on the first chapter earlier.

I was surprised at how useful this book is for teaching and preaching. I didn't expect that. Most of the books that are marketed for teaching and preaching I have found rather shallow. This book, even though not marketed as such, is a far better resource. If you are preaching or teaching on the gospels or are interested in a deeper understanding of them, add this book to your shelf.

In this second chapter, Thompson makes connections between the Elijah and Elisha narratives in particular and Jesus and John the Baptist. The connections are not as simple as literary borrowing. It isn't that Jesus is the new Moses or Elijah. Nor is it that the gospel authors woodenly chose passages from the Hebrew scriptures to show that events in the life of Jesus were predicted. The authors of the gospels are part of a continuing tradition that utilize the common stories and tropes of the Ancient Near East in telling their stories. These stories (the gospels) are part of a continuing story. Jesus and the other characters function as figures.

The Jesus story of Luke, like the Job or Moses story, speaks to us more about justice, humanity and life than they tell us about any of this tale type's often interchangeable protagonists. p. 59
For instance, when Matthew uses quotes from Isaiah in regards to Jesus's birth and how he will be called Jesus, "God saves" and Immanuel, "God with us" he is evoking Isaiah's message of God's judgment and presence. The young woman (virgin) who will give birth is not about virgins giving birth. It isn't about the virgin but is part of the larger story of the hero (Samson, Samuel, Isaac, etc.) whose births were a sign of God's hope:
Matthew is not collecting Old Testament prophecies that fit Jesus' life; nor is he finding easy proof texts to confirm the historical truth of his story. His story is an illustration of what he understands Isaiah's song to be about: a "new judgment," carried out with the spirit of wisdom, understanding and knowledge. It sings of an ideal king who judges the poor and the meek with righteousness and strikes down the violent and the unrighteous. p. 64.
There is no need to single out the "historical" Jesus from the gospels any more than there would be a need to single out the "historical" Elijah from Kings. Jesus is of the same cloth. He is a figure of the authors to carry a larger narrative that began before the gospel writers, and perhaps, if we have ears to hear, is part of our narrative today as we struggle with what it means to be human.

I found Thompson's interpretation of the narratives in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the gospels to be sympathetic and respectful of the authors and the worlds they create. You get a sense that he likes them and admires their artistry. I am looking forward to chapter three, "The Children and the Kingdom." I will post on it in due time.
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