The Copenhagen School: The Historiographical Issues 1
A bit more than a quarter of a century has passed since the publication of Thomas Thompson's landmark The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, inaugurating what has been called the Copenhagen School, typified by the works of Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche, who now both teach at the University of Copenhagen. Few works have changed the face of biblical scholarship so completely. In conjunction with John Van Seters' Abraham in History and Tradition, Thompson's book sounded the death knell for those who insisted on the historicity of the patriarchal period, a relatively common position up to that point, especially in America. By illustrating that details of the Genesis narratives reflect first rather than second millennium institutions, contrary to the claims of Albright, Gordon, Speiser, and others, Thompson began a revolution in biblical scholarship.
1 This is a revised version of a paper delivered at a conference on the Copenhagen School at Northwestern University in October 1999. I have not attempted to update this paper; see esp. the recent critiques of the school, including the extensive criticisms found in William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2001), and Lee Levine and Amihai Mazar, eds., The Controversy over the Historicity of the Bible (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi and the Dinur Center, 2001; Hebrew). I would like to thank my students Alan Lenzi and Sarah Shectman for helping with various drafts of this paper, and Professor Gregory Nagy of Harvard University, who discussed many aspects of this paper with me. Abbreviations follow Patrick H. Alexander et al., eds., The SBL Handbook of Style for Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Early Christian Studies (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999).