On Those We Influence

By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor Emeritus
University of Copenhagen
July 2009

I have just returned from a two-week lecture tour in the Middle East, which included talks in Damascus, Amman, and East Jerusalem. Revisiting old friends after an absence of some four years, I find myself still much preoccupied with the discussions and conversations I took part in while I was there. Among some of the questions on my mind is the one raised by Professor Eric Meyer in his essay to Bible and Interpretation about the influence I have had on the historical self-understanding of Palestinians. A similar critique had long ago been raised by William Dever after I had given a lecture in Amman in 1996. This event Dever linked with my many years residency in Germany to suggest an anti-Jewish bias of my research. Similar suggestions of guilt by association are also raised in Professor Meyer's article with comparable nuances: 1) Such influence among my Arab audience may suggest animosity to Judaism (whether such influence implies anti-Semitism has been left to this audience to judge); 2) My influence may be politically motivated and undermine the integrity of my historical and archaeological work; 3) It may reflect a scholarship that is derisible and lacking in seriousness (or at least, so I interpret the rather perverse suggestion that I am responsible for an unclearly specified but supposedly widespread Palestinian belief in their descent from "Canaanites.")

I have lectured on and have recently published an article on the politics of biblical studies in modern Israel (Holy Land Studies, 2008) and I have written extensively over the past thirty-five years on both ethnicity and ethnic continuity in Palestine, not least in my Early History of the Israelite People of 1992; yet, I believe I have been ever consistent in presenting my conviction that the word Canaanite is a geographical term and that neither "Canaanites" (like the "Amorites") nor "Israelites" ever existed as opposing peoples, but are fictive figures of the Bible, within a narrative allegory. If any particular group is to be given responsibility for an alleged Palestinian identification with "Canaanites," surely it is the settler-colonialist group of Gush Emunim rabbis, who, identifying the indigenous Palestinian population with "Canaanites and Amalekites," have argued for their expulsion and extermination. I have argued, rather, that Palestinians are descendents of the indigenous population of the region, as I also believe the ancient Israelites and Judeans were. However, this issue of continuities and discontinuities in Palestine's population I must leave to my next contribution.

Regarding the influence of the work I am actually responsible for and, in particular, its possible antagonism to Judaism or its political and unscholarly motivation, much needs to be said. For example, the two principles, which my Arab-speaking colleagues, often pointed out as most consistent and characteristic of my work is my insistence, on the one hand, on separating the Bible from archaeology and my efforts to write history on the basis of archaeology, particularly my studies on the Bronze Age settlement of Palestine, the Negev, and Sinai for the Tuebinger Atlas des vorderen Orients, were frequently referred to. These have been used, for example, as the basis for an anthropological study on transhumance nomadism in the Hejaz region in a reconstruction of early agricultural patterns in Palestine, Jordan, and the Jaulan, as well as in several surveys undertaken in Iraq and Syria which sought to establish patterns of sub-regional settlement histories. My 1974 work on the historicity of the patriarchs has had its influence on the study of Akkadian, Sumerian, and West Semitic names on ancient Sumerian ethnography, but it has also been useful in raising theological questions in cuneiform literature!

Closer to the political concerns Professor Meyer has expressed interest in and which are often reflected in the criticisms of many Israelis, biblical archaeologists and Bible scholars in regard to critical scholarship might be my pilot project on the modern changes in the toponymy of Palestine, which has frequently been used in support of critical alternatives to a more typically Israeli, biblio-centric view of ancient toponomy. Best known among the Palestinians who have used my work is, of course, Professor Kamal Salibi's well-known effort to transfer the reading of pre-exilic Palestinian geography to Arabia. While his use of my work must be acknowledged, I have also frequently discussed and sharply debated his position (See Ingrid Hjelm, SJOT 23/1, 2009). Also my understanding of the Bible as an early Jewish theological work, belonging to Palestine's intellectual history, rather than as a viable historiographic work about Palestine's past, has clearly changed many Palestinians' views about Judaism. It has particularly encouraged them to distinguish sharply between Jewish religious values and the distortions that have been introduced by Israeli political use of the biblical tradition. Finally, I have been particularly surprised at the attention my exegetical work has been given by my Arab readers, whether it has dealt with the Pentateuch, biblical narratives generally, or the messiah traditions in particular. I view this influence particularly constructive in favoring a more secular, literary appreciation of biblical writings and opposing more fundamentalist or historicist readings.

Of course, the principles and issues I have listed here have hardly been solely my own. Most of modern scholarship also shares them. Few today have escaped their influence. Apart from a question concerning the direct influence my ideas and writing may have had with my audiences in the Middle East, I have always considered it important that there be a clearly articulated and independent Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Palestinian voice in the research and publications of the history and archaeology of this region. While, nowadays, Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian scholarship has much to offer all of us, Palestinian scholarship is still seriously undermined by the political conditions of the military occupation.

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