Creating Biblical Figures

I reconsider the theme of life's victory over death through the perspective of the related themes of "new wine" and "blood of the covenant," as each is intimately connected to the fertility myth of the dying and rising god, from Tammuz and Ba'al to Dionysus.

By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor of Old Testament
University of Copenhagen
May 2005

Job, in his utopian, king-like role in Job 29, provides me with a useful paradigm for the biblical figure of the messiah (Th.L. Thompson and H.Tronier, Frelsens Biografisering, Museum Tusculanum: Copenhagne, 2004, 115-134) and an internal coherence to my new book, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (Basic Books: New York, 2005), which provides the theme of a seminar this coming semester. The Messiah Myth takes up issues often ignored or lost sight of when biblical narrative is overshadowed by modern questions about the historical origins of Judaism and Christianity. It addresses what origin stories tell us through their stories of beginnings and who the figures of David and Jesus are if they are not to express the founding of Israel's kingship and Christianity's origins?

To use an example as paradigm: Mark 4 presents a chain narrative in which Jesus tells parables to illustrate Isaiah's discourse on the clean and unclean. Everything is in parable. Through this and the miracle stories that follow, the disciples are astounded; they do not understand; their hearts were hardened. The implicit references do not merely create a revision of the story of Moses' miracles and Pharaoh's hardened heart (cf. Mk 6: 52; Ex 6: 30-7:3), they reiterate a dominant trope from Isaiah, living in a generation with unclean lips, heavy ears, and closed eyes so that they will not understand what the prophet tells them (Isa 6: 5.9-10). Mark's narrative about Jesus' parables becomes itself a living parable, reiterating Isaiah's parable of Yahweh's beloved vineyard, which is followed with Yahweh's interpretation, condemning "Israel's house" and "Judah's men," who had not understood (Isa 5). Mark's purpose in reiterating the stories of Moses and Isaiah is not to cast Jesus as a new Moses or a new prophet, bringing enlightenment. It is the disciples who bear the onus of the parable, evoking the Bible's never-ending story of ignorance in the face of enlightenment. Understanding is reserved to the readers. Mark's dominating plea to understand his story as parable draws on a well-established rhetoric of biblical narrative, involving a debate within Judaism that seeks to critically define its piety, its ethics, and its values. The debate in Mark is not about Jesus nor about his disciples, but about who is clean and who is unclean. It is the blind and the deaf, the sick and those possessed of unclean spirits, who-their destiny changed by the kingdom of God's salvation-defining reversal-are those who see and hear and understand.

Mark's use of the living parable has its biblical roots both in the parallel motifs and themes of Exodus and Isaiah and in the form and function of such narrative. Like Mark and Isaiah, where parable is followed by interpretation, Samuel and Kings offer a cluster of parables-living and formal-on a common theme. When the adulterous David has his lover's husband and his own faithful servant killed, the prophet Nathan comes to him and tells him a parable about a rich man and a poor man (2 Sam 12: 1-15). When David's unknowing interpretation of the parable condemns himself as the rich man, the David story as a whole is cast as paradigmatic within a dominant discourse on pride and humility. The rhetoric of retributive justice governs. Having presented himself as a "son of death" because of his crime, David-reiterating the story of She'ol's Saul before him-is rejected by Yahweh. The sword with which he has killed Uriah now hangs over his house forever. Yet, within the complex ethic of biblical narrative, a curse is as conditional as is blessing and promise. David repents in humility and Yahweh relents. His wrath is delayed that the tragic stories of David and his house-in which the avenging sword is ever present-might be told. Within this living parable, David's role is taken up once more so that another rich man might face his poverty (1 K 21). Like Uriah's roof, Naboth's vineyard lies beside the palace of the king. The rich man, Ahab, wants to take poor Naboth's only possession to plant his kitchen garden. Paralleling Uriah's piety, Naboth will not sell the inheritance of his fathers (Lev 25: 23-24). As the parable closes on Naboth's death, stoned for cursing God and the king, the prophet Elijah curses Ahab with a comparable fate: where the dogs have lapped up Nathan's blood, there they will lick up Ahab's. Just as in David's story, the story's interest does not lie in Ahab's person, but in the reiteration of parable and in the confirmation of its principles. Ahab too repents and humbles himself, and he too is forgiven so that his punishment might be passed to the sons of his house and the greater story told. Through such parallel reiteration of parable, the tradition marks the behavior of kings for imitation, a function which dominates themes of the messiah.

As Mark's parables continue a theology developed by early Samaritans and Jews, the Bible plants its roots deep in the royal ideology of the ancient Near East. The first section of my book takes up Isaiah's theme of the "Kingdom of God" as it is played out in the Gospels through the paired figures of John and Jesus, re-enacting through their stories of prophet and wonder worker the double role of Elijah and Elisha: miracle working itinerant prophets in 1-2 Kings, who announce divine judgment against Israel's house. Judgment, however, ever offers an eternal choice between curse and blessing and the prophetic pair also celebrates life's victory over death and Yahweh's mercy over the wrath of God. Their miracles illustrate the Janus-faced nature of human encounter with the divine. With Jerusalem in destruction and the son of David in humiliation, the story of Kings closes unfinished. Elijah, whose role as prophet of doom had given way to that of Elisha, Samaria's prophet of peace, has ascended into heaven, offering an implicit promise of return. The closure of the Book of Malachi takes up this challenge of 1 Kings' projection. Elijah's return, inaugurating the kingdom, is to reconcile the generations of Israel-fathers with their children; Samaritans with Jews-that the final "Day of Yahweh" might be averted (Mal 3: 23-24).

With the thematic parameters of the prophetic roles of John and Jesus set by the Elijah-Elisha tradition, two central themes, defining the figure of Jesus, are taken up within a critique of the Jesus seminar's third quest for the historical Jesus. The theme of pride versus humility and its illustration in many sayings of Jesus related to the figure of the child as heir to the kingdom has its roots in the ancient Near Eastern presentation of a child-like humility as the similarly defining virtue of a king's right to rule his kingdom. Humility's epitome in the child and its tears not only plays a central role in the Psalter-in stories like David's and Hezekiah's, and in the songs of Isaiah's suffering servant-it also plays a central role in defining the heart of the Torah. This discussion is followed by the related theme of the reversal of the fate of the poor; the "good news" inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth; a kingdom of the blind and deaf, of the lame and the poor and the fatherless and the widow. Such reversals are celebrated in the Gospels as signs of the kingdom, as by Matthew and Luke's beatitudes. The preference for the poor and the rejected is an ideal that the Bible captures as an epitome to illustrate the command to love one's neighbor, the stranger, and the enemy. Rather than in any oral tradition of a projected Jesus movement, this theme has its roots in a stereotypical trope I call "the song for a poor man," with hundreds of examples in the literature of the Hebrew Bible and of the ancient Near East from as early as the Egyptian 6th dynasty in the middle of the third millennium.

While this first part of my book sets the question of Jesus as a figure of parable, part two takes up the function of royal ideology in ancient literature and its impact on the development of the biblical figure of the messiah that transforms this ideology to serve a function of piety. Three distinct roles are analyzed. Royal biographies in the ancient Near East begin with short propagandistic narratives, carved as monumental displays to celebrate the king's rule. I present the results of an analysis of twenty such examples of the story of the good king. They all reflect a highly stereotypical pattern in 12 themes and functions, which, in turn, are reiterated in equally stereotyped "biographies" of biblical heroes: from Noah and Abraham to David and Josiah. In these biographies, the function of parable dominates. I then examine the universal nature of empire in the ancient Near East, which encouraged the presentation of the great king with his role of maintaining the world God had created, and of subjecting all nations under divine patronage and establishing through holy war a universal peace: a kingdom of God. It is such an imperial understanding that royal epithets such as "chosen one," "son of god," "shepherd of the people," and the like have their origins. In the biblical use of this tradition, metaphorical continuity with ancient Near Eastern texts is so marked that one can well identify Thutmosis III as a clear predecessor of the saving messianic role of the Bible's holy war narratives. The adoption of these themes supports the Bible's universal understanding of divinity. In the closing chapter of this section, I reconsider the theme of life's victory over death through the perspective of the related themes of "new wine" and "blood of the covenant," as each is intimately connected to the fertility myth of the dying and rising god, from Tammuz and Ba'al to Dionysus..

The final section of my work integrates these themes with considerations about the historicity and composition of biblical narrative and its superseding development of the metaphor of "the anointed one" through priest, prophet, and king. Concentrating first of all with Genesis' figure of "Adam" as representative of humanity in rebellion, I take up the theme of covenant and circumcision as related to the symbols of holy war from Genesis to Ezrah and Nehemiah. These stories project a divine strategy to reverse the curse of the flood and to create the eternal peace of the kingdom and eradicate the terror of men at war, blood-guilt, and revenge. After examining the figures of prophets and kings in the long narrative about David and his sons as part of a never-ending story of failure, I briefly sketch the integration of the David story with the figure of the messiah in the Psalter. I close with a discussion of the relationship between a theology, understanding humanity as created in the image of God, and the role of the messiah as the epitome of that humanity within a parable's function of imitatio Christi. Now the rest of the acts of the messiah and all he did, the heroic deeds he accomplished, can be read in the book itself.

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