On Myths and Their Contexts: An Issue of Contemporary Theology?

See Also: On the Problem of Critical Scholarship: A Memoire

By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus
University of Copenhagen
January 2017

Sic et Non:

This essay is written in direct response to Jeffrey Morrow’s article and should be read with Morrow’s paper in hand. The first section of my response, in its attempt to deal with such ringing echoes of Peter Abelard’s sic et Non is such that the charge of prejudicial bias fundamental to the methods and principles of biblical criticism has brought back memories of my early student examinations at Blackfriars! I hope the reader will have patience and forgive the logical stiltedness of my prose in this opening section.

In his recent contribution to this forum, entitled “On Biblical Scholarship and Bias,” Morrow begins his discussion with reference to a lecture of Joseph Ratzinger from 1988, dealing with the contemporary crisis he understood modern biblical scholarship to be facing at the time. Specifically, Ratzinger’s interest was in “unconscious philosophical presuppositions”, which, in a papal address of 2010, he described more simply as a “bias” of current biblical scholarship. Such philosophical presuppositions, however, Morrow describes as inevitable starting assumptions and the ordinary “bias” scholars bring to their work. The problem of inevitable “bias” in presuppositions, which are at the same time both “unconscious” and “philosophical,” is I suggest awkwardly defined. The weight of this critique of criticism is, unfortunately, somewhat lessened by Morrow’s suggestion that such “bias” is due merely to an ordinary carelessness. This apparent solipsism may rather be an attempt to take seriously Ratzinger’s “unconscious” bias. The existence of either Morrow’s or Ratzinger’s crisis of criticism might well be doubted, though there have been other crises.

My resistance to this critique of criticism expands in the section of Morrow’s essay addressing “Specific Biases,” in which a theoretically “unbiased” scholarship is claimed to be impossible! Bias becomes almost a physical handicap. Nevertheless, he continues the discussion now declared hopeless! Unrecognized or “under-recognized” biases of early historical critical scholarship become the focus, rather than any alleged biases of current biblical scholarship, which had been the problem and target of Ratzinger’s 1988 and 2010 papers! Morrow does not address the same crisis of biblical scholarship that Ratzinger had addressed as, certainly, Jesus von Nazareth, published by Ratzinger, in 2007—with its own, rather moderate form of historical criticism—must fall under this critique of alleged bias due to the methods and principles of these three founders of historical criticism![1] Unlike Ratzinger, who, in his critique of criticism, addresses the critique of biblical archaeology and biblical historicism, Morrow addresses the 17th century methodology of Peyrere, Hobbes and Spinoza, a more detailed study of which forms the central interest of his 2016 book: Three Skeptics and the Bible. This shift of focus is somewhat explained in his section on “specific biases”, which he takes up in the second section of his paper. He argues that the methodological assumptions of historical criticism’s founding fathers, which have been inherited by contemporary scholarship as “fundamental guiding assumptions” are inherent in the very methods and scholarly hypotheses of historical criticism. They are, however, neither shared by scholars today; nor is their influence realized. This is an extraordinary claim for a tradition so rooted in the history of scholarship, evolution and methods as historical criticism has been for some three centuries!

For his examples, Morrow turns to Troeltsch, Schweitzer and Bultmann. To Troeltsch—a well-known radical critic—he attributes an anti-theological bias. Troeltsch rejected the dogmatism of theological methods and insisted rather on the use of historical methods in biblical studies. Even more importantly, Troeltsch viewed the Bible as reflective of contemporary historical religious understanding. His criticism separated biblical studies from the other disciplines of theology: a development, which has been pivotal in the development of the field of religion as an academic discipline.

As his second example, Morrow takes up Bultmann and the historical problems, which the recognition of biblical myth or kerygma formed for biblical theology. Bultmann’s insistence that historically based theology needed to be “demythologized” if it is to be understood in the modern world. Morrow sees what he understands as Bultmann’s bias against the biblical world-view, in its unacceptability to modern understanding, inevitably led Bultmann to challenge the historicity of such central New Testament myths as the resurrection.

Schweitzer, like Bultmann, also similarly distinguished between a Jesus of history and a Jesus of faith, insisting on the priority of scientific and historical methods. Morrow uses a quotation from Troeltsch to argue further that this development of historical-critical scholarship was a uniquely Protestant critique, in contrast to the earlier, authority-oriented, traditional and Catholic theology. For Morrow this betrayed an obvious Catholic bias. Why he sees it as a bias rather than Troeltsch’s insistence on the priority of scientific methods was not rather a conclusion of his research is somewhat unclear. At this point in his argument, Morrow turns again to Ratzinger’s article on contemporary “biblical interpretation in crisis” in order to cite Ratzinger’s questioning of the objectivity of the methods of historical criticism in contrast with the methods used in the natural sciences. In his qualification, Ratzinger stresses the change and relativity of scientific questions and observations over time, raising an issue, which is already, clearly central to the arguments of especially Troeltsch and Bultmann in regard to their understanding of modernism’s transformation of traditional Catholic theology with the help of historical criticism.

In presenting concrete examples of what he judges to be unacknowledged biases, Morrow refers to the “assumptions” of Julius Wellhausen’s 1885 arguments in his Prolegomena for a relatively late dating of a hypothetical “priestly” source, which had reflected Jewish cultic interests. The autobiographical quotation cited by Morrow to illustrate Wellhausen’s reflections as a young student on his readiness to accept Graf’s dating of the law later than the prophets is tendentious. Morrow does not actually offer an argument that Wellhausen’s conclusions regarding the dating of “P” are biased. I do not sincerely believe that Wellhausen’s thesis, as argued, will stand, not least because of the chronological priority of a Samaritan Pentateuch, a temple on Gerizim and, especially, the known history of a non-Jewish Israel.[2] However, such arguments within today’s scholarship do not imply in the least that the failure of Wellhausen’s thesis on the dating of “P” had been due to bias. Inadequate historical arguments, whether related to the documentary hypothesis, the two-source theory or the existence of “Q” are inadequate as historical arguments. These theories can be falsified and they are largely based on evidence! It is hardly difficult, Morrow claims, let alone impossible, to question the documentary hypothesis today! However, many scholars have, especially over the last half-century.[3]

Morrow is quite on the mark in arguing against overly simplified dismissals of “traditional” theological readings of the Bible. However, this does not give us reason to accept such readings as either valid or critical in comparison with modern scholarship. Traditional theological misreadings are often due far more to carelessness and lack of attention to the text in question than to any implicit bias in the historical methods claimed, as his delightful quotation from C. S. Lewis itself points out.

In the final concluding paragraph of his article, Morrow does three things: a) He makes the claim in the title of his paragraph that “theological exegesis is not more biased than allegedly secular exegesis”. b) He orients this within a reference to the personal challenges and difficulties frequently involved for critical scholars who have raised objections to traditional and, particularly, more theologically oriented scholarship. In this, he also refers to the brief memoire, “On the Problem of Critical Scholarship”, which I published in this forum in April, 2011. c) Finally, he closes his paper on a plea for tolerance and understanding in a debate, which has been deeply contentious and, at times, intellectually unacceptable. I have the sense that the implicit interrelationship of these three elements may offer us an explanatory key to the rhetoric driving Jeffrey Morrow’s essay.

Bias in Catholic Theology compared to that in “Secular Exegesis”

As I have already pointed out, bias in today’s secular exegesis is not the same as a careless or inadequate use of historical method. It is rather a prejudicial distortion of sound methods, which prevents a conclusion based on an adequate judgment of evidence supporting that conclusion. Modern biblical scholarship is rooted in a discourse of evidence-based arguments. I do not think that Morrow has made a case that the methodology and principles of critical exegesis is biased in its origins, methods and principles; nor that it prejudicially favors a historicizing of the Bible or any other particular historical interpretation or ideology. I also do not think he has demonstrated a bias against theology. My objection to such assertions is supported by any considerable literature since the 1970s. In 2008, Niels Peter Lemche, for example, published a 476 page essay, on the basis of his well-known historical work, arguing against historicizing biblical narrative in support of the long standing project of historical criticism in relationship to a “History of Israel.” Lemche rather argued his case in support of a thorough going theologically oriented interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.[4] Similarly, my own popular book of 1999, The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past,[5] presented an argument both that the ancient history of Palestine must be based on sources apart from the Bible as well as that the function of biblical literature is not centered in a historical discourse, but is rather appropriately understand as theological. Morrow’s assertion that critical biblical scholarship, in its principles and methods, is rooted in an anti-theological bias is simply not true.

The quarrels that Troeltsch, Schweitzer and Bultmann had engaged in with much conservative theology are, to some extent, also frequently echoed in today’s scholarship, but such quarrels are not so much rooted in any prejudicial bias related to historical criticism’s traditions, methods or principles. Neither do I see that the most significant differences in the conclusions of historical criticism and traditional theological or Catholic readings of the Bible are, in fact, to be explained as the result of bias, as Morrow claims. An asserted bias of traditional theological or Catholic biblical studies is not to be rhetorically equated or balanced with a comparable bias claimed in regard to historical criticism! This is especially true in reference to the crisis of modernism in Catholic biblical scholarship, in reaction to such scholars as Alfred Loisy in his critique of the dogmatism of the church. Central to Loisy’s theology had been his objection that the biblical traditions, most notably, the Pentateuch, were not to be interpreted literally or as an account of events. As with Bultmann’s understanding of central myths of the New Testament, Loisy’s critique was not rooted in historicist “bias”. He rather argued on the basis of an astute and critical reading of the Pentateuch that its narratives were rooted in myth and legend. There are not many Catholic scholars today who would see any reason to argue with Loisy. Historicist bias has little to do with the conflicts that have arisen over time between critical and church related Catholic scholarship. In the conflicts he refers to in my memoire, the issues were similarly rooted in my insistence as a Catholic scholar on the theological and non-historical character of the narratives of Genesis against a traditionalist insistence that the texts be read naively and within the modern context of theological consensus: as accounts of past events. Bias played little role in this conflict. The disagreement was real. A critical reading of texts within a mutually contemporary context was in conflict with a dogmatic historicizing of what was, after all, mythic allegory. Today, few Catholic scholars would disagree with me.

I doubt that we can any longer claim that what Ratzinger and Morrow have seen as a crisis in biblical scholarship reflects a conflict between the critical methods of theology and history. The conflict is, I suspect, rather rooted in a failure to understand biblical literature, which is after all based in the context of a very ancient and distant past. Neither the Bible nor the historical origins of Samaritanism, Judaism and Christianity are historically transcendent. Nor is their theology to be understood apart from our fragile understanding of the ideologies from which they were originally formed.

The entrenched confusion of Morrow’s essay could perhaps be linked to the excessive ease with which he transcends the contexts of the critical scholarship he wishes to critique. Although the research, methods and principles of the philosophy of Hobbes, Peyrere, Spinoza, Troeltsch, Wellhausen, Schweitzer and Bultmann all might well be presented as central in understanding the methods and assumptions of the critical methods and principles of today’s biblical scholarship, our ability to understand differs considerably in regard to each of them. This is due, not least, to their very different contexts, both historical and theological, spread as they are over three centuries, from the early 17th to the mid-20th centuries! Whether the intellectual ideology, which had influenced the critical methods and principles of Isaac Peyrere and Baruch Spinoza’s biblical criticism, might be profitably understood as reflecting Thomas Hobbes’s philosophical reflections, which at times dominated 17th century intellectual life, is an historical question that needs to be addressed to our knowledge of Peyrere and Spinoza’s contemporary theology and intellectual life. Nevertheless, a study of the radically different theology, contemporary to the work of two, much later, German theologians, Julius Wellhausen and Rudolph Bultmann would produce entirely other expectations.

I raise this issue of historical context in regards to the role of intellectual history, specifically as related to their “contemporary theology”, because it has a direct bearing on the dichotomies Morrow, in his critique of biblical criticism, asserts to exist between critical and Protestant biblical scholarship on the one hand and theological and Catholic biblical scholarship on the other. The problem of uncritical thought, however, is poorly identified with either Catholic or theologically oriented scholarship. Spinoza was indeed Jewish, and both he and Peyrere were rather more influenced by the agnostic Thomas Hobbes than by Protestant thought! Morrow’s identification of critical thinking with “Protestantism” is deeply inattentive to the historical context of such biblical criticism.

Questions related to context are also important in regard to the methods and principles of biblical criticism. One possible reason that the history of religion is viewed as problematic to Jeffrey Morrow is that, over the past fifty years, the Iron Age religions of Palestine, such as those associated with such small patronage kingdoms as ancient Edom, Judah, Israel, Moab, Tyre or Gaza, appear deeply interrelated to each other, in both theology and praxis. At the same time, these ancient Iron Age religious traditions differ radically from the theology and praxis we find implicit in biblical traditions. There is a world of difference between the intellectual history of the Iron Age and that of the Late Persian-Early Hellenistic periods in Palestine.

Contemporary Theology:

Recognizing the radically changing historical religions of Palestine’s past has brought us to recognize differences in the contemporary theologies of the Bible. The differences between such theology of the past and the many intellectual and theological transitions implied in the even greater distances that exist between the intellectual worlds of that ancient past and any understanding of such religions as they exists today. The Bible’s “symbol system” is hardly our own and its mythic understanding cannot be adequately demythologized, whatever Bultmann may have wished. Its essence is mythic and allegoric. Without myth, it is empty of substance. Some of its codes, however, can be recognized and its allegories can be understood. Our current understanding of the theology of the past is rapidly growing, though born within a context, so distant that it remains uncertain. Our understanding is at best partial and fragmented. The Bible, after all, was written within a still largely unknown past. The contemporary theology of biblical texts remain foreign to us, but they lie within the context of a symbol system and world of beliefs, which we have only recently begun to interpret and understand.[6] The crisis of critical biblical scholarship, which not only Ratzinger, but many had discussed in the 1980s and 1990s, is a crisis of the past—at least as it relates to the transformation of a considerable number of fundamental concepts, central to our discipline. This is widely recognized in theological scholarship, not only as it involves the critical reading of the Old and New Testaments, but also in the critical understanding of Dogmatics.

For the sake of brevity, I refer in closing to three contributions to our discussion, all written in the past decade by scholars who either are today or have been in the past members of the theological faculty in Copenhagen. 1) In the Autumn of 2011, Gerd Theissen presented his contribution first in the form of a visiting lecture to the theological faculty in Copenhagen. It was appropriately entitled: “On Understanding the Bible in the Modern World”.[7] Theissen’s understanding of the New Testament is unequivocally rooted in critical scholarship. His scholarship ever proceeds from an effort to place and interpret New Testament texts within the context in which they had been first been written. The methods and principles, which he has developed in this effort, have roots that are far earlier than Troeltsch’s or Schweitzer’s discussion, a century ago, concerning the historical and unhistorical narratives about the life of the central New Testament figure of Jesus. In an effort to answer Bultmann’s question of a modern understanding of an ancient mythology, Theissen oriented his argument in an effort to define the contemporary theology of our biblical texts within the Christian symbol system, which had dominated these texts in antiquity. He then linked them with the religious experience, which the New Testament’s construction of the axioms of monotheism and Christology initiated. Through that linkage, he introduces a bridge between the contemporary theology of the ancient past and that of the present. Theissen’s effort to support the modern understanding by reunite the theology of New Testament texts with religious experience or praxis, substantially echoed Niels Henrik Gregersen’s 2008 article, with which he defines the field of “Christian Dogmatics” as the descriptive and normative study of contemporary Christian thought and practice. Gregersen proposes to set his focus in the description, analysis and re-articulation of contemporary expressions of Christian faith, while analyzing the potential of what he calls “Christian semantics” for critical communication, pursued in the interests of the society at large.

The following January, on the occasion of my retirement from the faculty in Copenhagen, I dedicated my departure lecture to the critical exegesis of Gerd Lüdemann, who had been forced to leave his chair in New Testament studies in the theological faculty in Göttingen. I used this occasion to return to some questions of critical interpretation, which I felt were central to the Pentateuch’s symbol system. The occasion also seemed an appropriate one for me to draw on Gregersen’s genial concept of “contemporary theology” to help me understand the exegetically problematic and ever-so-irascible figure of the biblical Yahweh, who, again and again, wishes to destroy what he has created.[8] I had last addressed this unpleasant character fault of the God of the Pentateuch’s story in my inaugural lecture in Copenhagen some 16 years earlier.[9] In addressing the fictive figure of an historical deity of Iron Age Palestine, one needs not only to address the “contemporary theology” of the story’s writer; namely, the intellectual world of the Late Persian and early Hellenistic periods, one needs also to address the “contemporary theology” of the Pentateuch’s story world! The theology expressed by this biblical figure of Yahweh on his long journey with roots in a pre-history as the ancient Near Eastern patronage deity, Yahu, in various regions of Greater Palestine is deeply supportive of critical scholarship. The biblical Yahweh, who, had chosen Abraham “to teach his children and household to do righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:19) is a deity in deep crisis. He finds himself in the highly ambivalent role of being instructed by his servant Abraham on the justice expected of a God who presented himself as Judge the whole world (Gen 18-22-26)! This allegorical struggle, creating Yahweh as the god of justice in the Pentateuch, continues on through the Books of Kings, where he is finally able to use the story of Israel and Judah’s rise and fall from grace to reiterate the garden story and discover Forgiveness (cf. Gen 2-3; Isaiah 5:1-7). All of Abraham’s children, through their destruction, teach Yahweh the compassion of the transcendent, one, true God in the contemporary theology of biblical texts. Just such a “contemporary theology”, might find understanding in a modern world of critical theology.


[1] J. Ratzinger Benedikt XVI, Jesus von Nazareth (Vaticanum: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2007).

[2] E. Nodet, In Search of the Origins of Judaism: From Joshua to the Mishnah (Sheffield: SAP, 1987); I. Hjelm, The Samaritans and Early Judaism: A Literary Analysis, Copenhagen International Seminar 7 (Sheffield: SAP, 2000), 273-285; idem, “Lost and Found? A Non-Jewish Israel from the Merneptah Stele to the Byzantine Period,” in I. Hjelm and T. L. Thompson (eds.), History, Archaeology and the Bible: Forty Years after “Historicity”: Changing Perspectives 6 (London: Routledge, 2016), 112-129; G. N. Knoppers, Jews and Samaritans: The Origins and History of their Early Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[3] For some recent, limited surveys of such criticism, see the recent discussions and bibliographies in M. Sæbø (ed.), Hebrew Bible Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation (Göttingen: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 2015), esp. the articles by J. Barton, “The Legacy of the Literary Critical School and the Growing Opposition to Historico-Critical Biblical Studies,” 96-124; A. Laato, “Biblical Scholarship in Northern Europe,” 336-390; J. L. Ska, “Questions of the “History of Israel” in Recent Research,” 391-432; W. Dietrich, “Historiography in the Old Testament,” i467-499 and J. Schaper, “Problems and Prospects of a History of a Religion of Israel”, in Sæbø, Hebrew Bible, 622-641.

[4] N. P. Lemche, The Old Testament Between Theology and History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

[5] London: Jonathan Cape, 1999; also published under the title: The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

[6] For a discussion of the symbol system implicit to the Pentateuch and, in particular, the use of the desert and desert metaphors in discussions of creation and judgment, see T. L. Thompson, “Historiography in the Pentateuch: Twenty-Five Years after Historicity, 1999” in idem, Biblical Narrative and Palestine’s History: Changing Perspectives 2 (London: Routledge, 2013), 163-181.

[7] G. Theissen, Om at forstå Bibelen in den moderne verden,” Dansk Teologisk Tidsskrift 74 (2011), 258-275. See, also, idem, Die Religion der ersten Christen. Eine Theorie des Urchristentums (Gütersloh: Güteslohers Verlagshaus, 2000).

[8] T. L. Thompson, ”Imago Dei: A Problem in Pentateuchal Discourse 2009,” in idem, Biblical Narrative, 291-304.

[9] T. L. Thompson, ”How Yahweh became God: Exodus 3 and 6 and the Heart of the Pentateuch, 1995 ” in idem, Biblical Narrative, 119-132.

Comments (5)

Bias is a tendency to one side or an inclination of the mind to accept a certain proposition whatever the weight of reason and evidence. What is organised thought, including organised religion, but an attempt to incline those committed to the organisation to think in a certain
way? What else could it be?
Perhaps the spiritual comfort and mutual love produced by organised religion may make it of overriding value (I think so, for what that's worth), but that is another matter. Perhaps the indoctrination is intended to reverse itself and become informed and personal critique later on - 'over yourself I mitre and crown you' - ho hum. This has been part of the mission of Protestantism, but it hasn't been that easy.
To attempt to free one's thought from the inclination to believe associated with one particular organised form of thought is not the same thing as imposing on oneself the inclination, prior to reasoning, to think contrary to that form or in accordance with some other or rival, pre-existing or self-invented, form. Removal of bias is not just a new bias. Wratzinger is Wrong, rather outwrageously.
Professor Thompson, if I understand him, is telling us that critical students of the Bible may still consider themselves to be exponents of, and may indeed be valuable contributors to, Christian dogmatics. I'm sure this is true - true even of Hobbes to a degree. But this point does not entirely defeat the accusation of bias. Bias is not disproved by having a positive attitude to the subject matter or by getting some things right, but by being free of too much determination to think in set ways. It's possible (for example; I don't say it happened) that the general commitment of critical Bible scholars to social progress might have made them too ready to interpret the text in ways that influenced Christian dogmatics in a
progressive direction.
Some critical thinkers may be absolutely hostile to religion. If they are members of the Scorners League they may have been as much indoctrinated as if they had been in the church choir and may be biassed in the same process, though in opposite direction. Or they may have imposed a bias on themselves. But it is not fair to assume or insist that their negative attitudes could only have come from bias. Particularly not fair for those who stand firmly within systems of thought that are highly organised.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 01/31/2017 - 17:22

Dear Martin,
Your consistent use of the subjunctive is quite important and, given such mays and mights, I find I largely agree with you. Critical thinking is--in its critical character--involved in an effort to challenge biases. Critical dogmatics--as an academic discipline--does not imply personal belief in traditions and past ideologies today, but rather a commitment to understanding ideologies in their own context of the past.

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

#2 - Thomas L. Thompson - 02/02/2017 - 10:15

The biggest problem in biblical scholarship today is the blatant anti-supernatural bias of most of its practitioners. The facts of early Christianity - including the fact that there actually was such a thing - can be very easily explained once we remove our naturalist blinkers. The so-called Enlightenment was actually the time when the lights went out as far as the study of early Christianity is concerned. Ever since then so-called scholars have been groping around in the dark, trying to explain what happened in the first century while assuming that miracles don't happen.

We can now survey the results of this enterprise. If there was any chance of providing a purely naturalistic explanation for the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, we would surely have it by now. The failure of all attempts at providing such an explanation should be painfully obvious to any honest inquirer.

It's time to turn the lights back on.

#3 - David Madison - 02/26/2017 - 13:22

I consider myself as good a Christian as many others and I regularly recite the Creeds about birth from the Virgin Mary and rising again on the third day. On the other hand I think it the duty of any faithful person to examine faith critically, so as to be able to say that one is not flying in the face of reason. I think that all scripture is written for our learning but we cannot learn without questioning, as is true of most processes to which the term 'learning' applies. We cannot limit ourselves to questions that are comfortable, because that is really refusing to question. Institutional discouragement of questioning is therefore questionable, even suspect. So I am unhappy with institutions that label personal opinion, resulting from personal questioning, by the opprobrious name of heresy. I'vd been denying - what was the original point of the discussion - that questioning institutional pressure to believe is simply setting up a rival pressure of the same kind.
I think that it's possible for miracle stories to become strongly believed without being true: for this and for resulting damage there is surely much evidence from the generality of religions. I can't rule that possibility out from the beginning of the discussion when it comes to the Resurrection, though I do have a personal belief in it.

#4 - Martin Hughes - 03/01/2017 - 09:34

Reopening, if I may, to refer to Misskon Humerio, Journak of Renaissance Studies vol. 12, on the legend of the Phoenix. This was appropriated by the First Epistle of Clement for Christian use and is an illustration of the fact that early Christians could be a little too uncritical. The article points out that rejection of this legend was a starting point in a more rational approach to ancient religion. We should surely not regard that point as one where the lights were switched off.

#5 - Martin Hughes - 03/01/2017 - 09:42

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