Thomas L. Thompson (born January 7, 1939 in Detroit, Michigan) is a biblical scholar and theologian. He was professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen from 1993 to 2009, lives in Denmark, and is now a Danish citizen.
Thompson is closely associated with the minimalist movement known as the Copenhagen School (other figures include Niels Peter Lemche, Keith Whitelam, and Philip R. Davies), a loosely knit group of scholars who hold that the Bible cannot be used as a source to determine the history of ancient Israel, and that "Israel" itself is a problematic concept.
Thompson was raised as a Catholic and obtained a bachelor of arts from Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, in 1962. After a year in Oxford, he moved to Tübingen, where he studied for 12 years with Kurt Galling and Herbert Haag. In the meantime, he was instructor in theology at Dayton University (1964-65) and assistant professor in Old Testament studies at the University of Detroit (1967-69). He then studied Catholic theology at the University of Tübingen; his dissertation, "The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham", was completed in 1971, but rejected by the Catholic faculty (one of his examiners was Joseph Ratzinger, then Tübingen's Professor of Systematic Theology and later Pope Benedict XVI). Thompson then considered submitting his dissertation to the Protestant faculty, but left Tübingen in 1975 without a degree. The rejected dissertation was published in 1974 by De Gruyter Press. The work, together with John Van Seters' Abraham in History and Tradition, became one of the pioneer works of biblical minimalism.
While teaching part-time at the University of North Carolina, he was invited to finish his studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, receiving his Ph.D. in Old Testament studies summa cum laude in 1976.
The controversy around his dissertation prevented him from obtaining a position at a North American university. He continued as a private scholar while working as a high-school teacher, janitor, and house painter until he was awarded a guest professorship at the École Biblique in Jerusalem in 1984. This appointment proved controversial among Israelis, who, according to Thompson, objected to his earlier study casting doubt on the historicity of the Jewish origin narratives. He then worked on a project on Palestinian place names for UNESCO, criticizing Israeli authorities for de-Arabicizing Palestinian place names. Accusations of antisemitism led to the project being closed.
Thompson was named a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow in 1988. He taught as visiting associate professor at Lawrence University (1988-89) and as associate professor at Marquette University (1989-1993), but did not receive tenure. In 1990, he met Danish theologian Niels Peter Lemche at a conference, and in 1993, joined the faculty of the department of theology at the University of Copenhagen as professor in Old Testament exegesis. He retired and was granted emeritus status in 2009.
Thompson is general editor for the series Copenhagen International Seminar, associate editor of the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Holy Land Studies and Dansk Teologisk Tidsskrift.
The focus of Thompson's writing has been the interface between the Bible (specifically the Old Testament) and archaeology. His The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974) was a critique of the then-dominant view that biblical archaeology had demonstrated the historicity of figures such as Abraham and other Biblical patriarchs. His The Early History of the Israelite People From the Written and Archaeological Sources (1993) set out his argument that the biblical history was not reliable, and concludes: "The linguistic and literary reality of the biblical tradition is folkloristic in essence. The concept of a benei Israel ... is a reflection of no sociopolitical entity of the historical state of Israel of the Assyrian period...." In The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past (U.S. title: The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel), he argued that the Old Testament was entirely, or almost entirely, a product of the period between the fifth and second centuries BC.
Thompson's arguments were criticized by many biblical scholars, prominent among them William G. Dever in his book What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, which has been described as "a very polemic and partly vehement attack not least against Professor Thomas L. Thompson". Thompson himself reviewed Dever's book and provided his own responses to Dever's critiques. The fact that Thompson, as a target of many of the critiques advanced in the book would have chosen to review it, was criticized by H. Hagelia.
Thompson presented a criticism of the historicity of the New Testament in his 2005 book, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David, He argues that the biblical accounts of both King David and Jesus of Nazareth are mythical in nature and based on Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek and Roman literature. For example, he argues that the resurrection of Jesus is taken directly from the myths about Dionysus, which he described as a "dying and rising god". Thompson did not draw a final conclusion on the historicity or ahistoricity of Jesus. He was a fellow of the short-lived Jesus Project from 2008 to 2009, which was disbanded after funding was cancelled.
The Messiah Myth was criticized by New Testament scholars such as Bart Ehrman, who in 2012 published a criticism of Jesus ahistoricity theory proponents,Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, in which he stated that "A different sort of support for a mythicist position comes in the work of Thomas L. Thompson," and critiqued Thompson's arguments and criticized Thompson, as an Old Testament scholar, for lacking the sufficient background in New Testament studies to provide a useful analysis of the text. In the 2012 Thompson responded with the online article, Is This Not the Carpenter's Son? A Response to Bart Ehrman, in which he rejects Ehrman's characterization of his views, stating that Erhman "has attributed to my book arguments and principles which I had never presented, certainly not that Jesus had never existed."
Thompson and Thomas Verenna coedited the 2012 book Is This Not the Carpenter?: The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus. The introduction defined the purpose of the collected essays: "Neither establishing the historicity of an historical Jesus nor possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods."