Thomas L. Thompson wrote The Messiah Myth to demonstrate that the sayings and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels (and David in the OT) are the product of a literary tradition about Saviour figures — both kings and deities — throughout the Middle East. The subtitle of the book is “the Near Eastern roots of Jesus and David”.
A number of New Testament scholars have expressed concern that contemporary classical literature is not widely read and studied by their peers. One’s understanding of the Gospels and Acts — and even the New Testament letters — is enriched when one can recognize links between them and other literature of their day. Thompson goes a bit further than this, and appeals for a greater awareness of the longstanding tradition of literary themes and images that were the matrix of both Old and New Testament narratives.
Some scholars see in Jesus’ sayings certain gems that are unique or holy or brilliantly enlightened and worthy of the deepest respect. They see in his deeds of healing and concern for the poor and weak a noble character worthy of devotion.
Some see the themes of concern for the poor and condemnation of the rich and powerful as evidence that Jesus was tapping in to popular revolutionary or resistance sentiments among peasants and displaced persons in early first century Galilee.
Other scholars see in the saying evidence of economic exploitation such that a sense of resentment could easily morph into a Jesus movement.
All of the above interpretations are thrown into question when one notices their echoes in the OT – and especially throughout the wider world of the OT. The wordings vary, but they are all clear reiterations of the same motifs.
But after one becomes more familiar with the literary heritage of the ancient “Near East”, one must legitimately ask if all those sayings and deeds of Jesus are nothing more than stereotypical tropes that authors wanting to describe any God in the flesh or Saviour King would inevitably use. What is said of Jesus was said countless times of your average typical Saviour Pharaoh or Mesopotamian monarch or deity.
Naturally we expect the Gospel authors to be more influenced by the Jewish texts than Egyptian or Mesopotamian ones, but Thompson shows that the this is all part of the same package. What we read in the Old Testament is much the same as we read among Egyptian, Syrian and Babylonian literature. It’s all part and parcel of the same thought world.
Thompson asks readers to re-read the Gospel narratives about Jesus in the context of the literary heritage of the Jewish scriptures — and to understand that heritage as itself part of a wider literary and ethical outlook throughout the Middle East. Don’t forget that Jews were not confined to Palestine but were well established in communities from Babylonia to Egypt, too.
The following extracts are from Thompson’s discussion of The Song for a Poor Man. It is only one of the several facets of this heritage that Thompson addresses. One sees that the ancient world was full of Saviours like Jesus. It must a have been a happy time and place (tongue in cheek).
Celebrating the accession of Ramses IV to the throne in 1166 bce. Compare Beatitudes and in Luke Jesus announcing his mission in the synagogue . . .
Oh Happy Day! Heaven and earth are in joy. They who had fled have returned to their homes; they who were hidden live openly; they who were hungry are filled and happy; they who were thirsty are drunken; they who were naked are clothed in fine linen; they who were dirty are dressed in white; they who were in prison are set free; they who were chained rejoice; the troubled of the land have found peace. . . .
The homes of the widows are open (again), so that they may let wanderers come in. Womenfolk rejoice and repeat their songs of jubilation . . . saying, “Male children are born (again) for good times, for he brings into being generation upon generation. You ruler, life, prosperity, health! You are for eternity!
Inscription of a good sixth century Pharaoh . . .
I rescued the weak from the stronger . . . I gave bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked . . .
Lots of Christians around in those days — from an autobiography from 6th Dynasty Egypt . . .
I gave bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked . . .
Middle Kingdom stele of Inteft . . .
I am a friend of the poor, one well-disposed to the have-not. I am one who feeds the hungry in need, who is open-handed to the pauper.
Middle Kingdom Coffin Text . . .
I made . . . that the poor man might have rights like the great man. . . . I made every man like his fellow
Instruction to a Middle Kingdom Pharaoh . . .
I gave to the beggar; I raised the orphan; I gave success to the poor as to the wealthy.
Middle Kingdom story of Sinuhe . . .
I let everyone stay with me. I gave water to the thirsty; I showed the way to him who strayed. I rescued him who had been robbed . . . . I gave bread to my neighbour.
Hymn to the Sun God Re . . .
Hail to you, O Re, lord of truth, whose shrine is hidden, the Lord of the Gods. . . . who hears the prayer of him who is in captivity . . . . saving the fearful from the terrible of heart, judging the weak and injured. . . . When he comes, the people live.
Middle Kingdom litany (like the Beatitudes) . . .
How happy are the gods, for . . .
How happy are your children, for. . . .
How happy are your fathers, for . . .
How happy are the Egyptians, for . . .
How happy is mankind . . .
How happy are the two banks, . . .
How happy are your young men, for . . .
How happy are the old . . .
How happy are the two lands, …
Prophecy of Neferti . . .
I show you the lowly as superior . . . The poor man will make wealth; the great one will pray to live. The beggar will eat bread; the slaves will be exalted.
New Kingdom Egypt . . .
Do justice, then you endure on earth. Calm the weeper; do not oppress the widow . . . .
And many more with striking similarities to the ethical instructions in the Bible, including those of Jesus.
The following are from Mesopotamian and Syrian texts:
Hymn to Marduk . . .
You release the captive; you take by the hand and raise the injured from his bed. You make the captive in darkness and prison, the hostage, see light.
Hymn to the goddess Ishtar (healing the lame and blind) . . .
The sick man who sees your face revives; his bondage is released; he gets up instantly. At your command, O Ishtar, the blind man sees the light, the unhealthy one who sees your face becomes healthy.
To the god Nabu of Assyria . . .
Let the dead man revive by your breeze; let his squandered life become gain.
Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, otherwise known for relief sculptures depicting his darker side . . .
Their plundered possessions I restored. The naked I clothed . . .
Prayer to goddess Ishtar (it was a god’s job description to raise the dead and heal the sick) . . .
O deity of men . . . where you look one who is dead lives; one who is sick rises up
Kilamuwa inscription . . .
But I was to some a father, and to some a mother, and to some I was a brother.
Compare passages from the Hebrew Bible — you’re expected to know these so no quotes — just the cites:
First three books are Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy . . .
And what does any of this have to do with Jesus?
If you’re still not sure have a look at:
Matthew 5:3-12, 43-45; 11:4-6; 13:14-17; 18:1-5; 20:25-28, 33-34; 23:8-12; 25:31-46
Mark 2:10-12; 4:2-9; 7:32-37; 8:22-26; 10:21-27
Luke 1:46-55; 3:5-6; 4:18-19; 6:20-27; 7:21-23; 10:29-37; 14:7-14; 17:11-18; 18:2-8; 19:5-10
John 7:37; 8:12; 9:39