Continuing Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery
This post follows on from my earlier one on Chapter 8 where Brodie is beginning to appreciate the nature of the literary artistry of the biblical books.
The Third Revolution Deepens: 1992-1995
If a Jesus narrative were based on the Elijah-Elisha story (see “That Is An Important Thesis“) one had to ask why. Would not the story of Moses or David have been more appropriate as a model? This question perplexed Brodie until his further studies on Genesis opened up a new awareness of the nature of the biblical literature. But let’s digress a moment to consider an objection that has on some theologian’s blogsites recently been flung at Brodie’s arguments since he has claimed they lead to a “mythicist” conclusion.
Parallelomania: the facts
“Parallelomania” has once again been flung as a dismissive epithet by a number of theologians and religion scholars at Christ myth arguments in general and Thomas Brodie’s arguments in particular, so it is worth taking a moment to revisit the article that introduced the notorious notion of “Parallelomania”. It can be read on this Vridar.org page; I have taken excerpts from it in the following discussion.
I don’t think James McGrath has ever had the time to read that article that he invites others to read. If he had, he would know that its author (Samuel Sandmel) points out that by “parallelomania” he means plucking passages from the vast array of, say, rabbinical literature or from a work of Philo’s out of their broader contexts and using them (thus decontextualized) to claim they have some direct relevance to similar-sounding passages in the New Testament. That is not what Brodie is doing. Sandmel even explains that the sort of detailed analysis done by Brodie to explore questions of literary indebtedness is indeed justified and is not to be confused with something else that he is addressing.
The key word in my essay is extravagance. I am not denying that literary parallels and literary influence, in the form of source and derivation, exist. I am not seeking to discourage the study of these parallels, but, especially in the case of the Qumran documents, to encourage them. . . . .
An important consideration is the difference between an abstract position on the one hand and the specific application on the other. . . . . it is in the detailed study rather than in the abstract statement that there can emerge persuasive bases for judgment. . . . . The issue for the student is not the abstraction but the specific. Detailed study is the criterion, and the detailed study ought to respect the context and not be limited to juxtaposing mere excerpts. Two passages may sound the same in splendid isolation from their context, but when seen in context reflect difference rather than similarity.
Note the problem with taking excerpts from a corpus of literature and using them as parallels with something else. This results in
confusing a scrutiny of excerpts with a genuine comprehension of the tone, texture, and import of a literature.
In Brodie’s analyses, on the other hand, it is as much the tone, texture, and import of the respective documents that are being analysed as the individual words and phrases.
One of the greatest sins of “parallelomania” is
the excessive piling up of . . . passages. Nowhere else in scholarly literature is quantity so confused for quality . . . . The mere abundance of so-called parallels is its own distortion . . . .
I recently posted chapter 7 of Brodie’s book to demonstrate that Brodie does not make his case by a mere piling up of matching words or ideas. The structure, the theme, the context, the motivation — these are all part of Brodie’s argument.
Finally, the crowning sin of parallelomania is one that I not too long ago identified in the work of historian Michael Grant about Jesus. I’ll first quote Sandmel:
On the one hand, they quote the rabbinic literature endlessly to clarify the NT. Yet even where Jesus and the rabbis seem to say identically the same thing, Strack-Billerbeck manage to demonstrate that what Jesus said was finer and better. . . . . Why, I must ask, pile up the alleged parallels, if the end result is to show a forced, artificial, and untenable distinction even within the admitted parallels?
Grant followed many theologians who insist that though the golden rule was known in some form among the rabbis (and in other civilizations), Jesus expressed it better than anyone else.
Sandmel’s article on “parallelomania” is actually an endorsement of the sort of work being done by scholars who work seriously on literary analysis of texts and a warning against the sins found too often among the mainstream scholars. Unfortunately some theologians, McGrath included in his Burial of Jesus, are on record as saying that literary analysis has no place in the work of historical inquiry. On the contrary, without literary analysis the historian has no way of knowing how to interpret literary documents.
It is that very detailed study that Sandmel said is necessary, and the study of the context, both immediate context and the wider cultural context of literary practices of the day, that Brodie is undertaking. He is not plucking passages out of context from disparate sources and making an abstract claim that they can be read as a “parallel” to, and by implication source of, what we read in the gospels. (Such “extravagance” is the characteristic fault of “astrotheology”, but not of the scholarly work of Brodie and MacDonald.)
This is not the same as saying that MacDonald’s and Brodie’s arguments are necessarily correct. They still need to be studied and engaged with. There may be alternative explanations for some of the data they have addressed and believe points to literary borrowing. But it is not particularly scholarly to simply reject an argument one does not like by dismissing it with a pejorative label.
Now back to Beyond the Quest
Thomas Brodie explains that he had a special interest in the final form of the book of Genesis, and in particular its meaning as a finished work of literature. Since 1753 when Astruc conjectured the possibility that various features of Genesis could be explained best if it had been put together like a patchwork quilt from various sources, scholars had focused most of their efforts on uncovering those sources. And if that hypothesis was correct (a hypothesis that culminated in today’s Documentary Hypothesis) then it was unlikely Genesis could ever be understood as a finished work of literary artistry.
Brodie’s problem with this approach to Genesis was twofold:
There were two main problems with these hypotheses. First, they did not work; in fact, they led to endless confusion about lost documents and traditions, and sometimes generated proposals that were incoherent. Second, they distracted attention from the one thing that was certain — the present form of the book of Genesis, essentially the only Genesis document that has ever been verified. (p. 90)
In an earlier post we touched on Brodie’s contact with Brevard Childs. That contact came about through Childs’ willingness to assess an article by Brodie arguing for strong similarities between the Genesis account of Jacob’s return from Syria (Genesis 31-33) and Jeremiah’s account of the return of the exiles (Jeremiah 30-31). If McGrath is correct about Brodie’s arguments then we would expect Childs to have ridiculed Brodie’s effort as “parallelomaniacal” but instead we read that Childs “appreciated the similarities”. The problem for Brodie was that Childs asked how he knew it was the author of Genesis who used Jeremiah and not the other way around. The question led Brodie into a deeper study of Genesis and the prophets.
In exploring the unity and artistry of Genesis one detail one feature (sometimes prompted by the observations of a number of other researchers) began to impress itself upon Brodie:
the book was carefully organized into a series of paired texts — beginning most obviously with a pair of creation stories (Gen. 1-2), a pair of sin stories (Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel), and two complementary genealogies (4.17-26; and ch. 5). . . . (p. 91)
However, it looked at first as if that DNA double helix broke when one reached Genesis 11, the story of Babel.
Babel was unique in the Bible, the one and only tower reaching for the sky. There seemed to be nothing paired with it, in fact nothing in the nearby text that was remotely like it. Babel stood out in the imagination like the ultimate unforgettable skyscraper, but the second part of Genesis 11 was just a boring genealogy.
Brodie looked more closely.
Oddly, the ending after the genealogy — the end of Genesis 11 — had some of the same phrasing as the beginning of the Babel story. And the numbers in the genealogy were curious: overall they kept getting smaller. In fact, looking at it more closely, it was clear that while the genealogy had started as something very imposing, it ended as a fragile family going nowhere. And so the balance between the two parts of Genesis 11 eventually emerged: there were two collapses, one of the great city of Babel, the other of the imposing family; one of the outside world; the other closer to home.
The effect of the two evocations of collapse was to heighten the sense of the fragility of life, to show human striving as ending in a place that is desperately bleak. . . . But the deadly pairing has a purpose. It is the background to the story of the faith of Abraham.
Eventually it became clear that the pairing filled all of Genesis, one of several patterns that, despite the great diversity, formed the book into a profound unity. . . . .
Not that the reasons for the pairing were clear to Brodie, but he was convinced of this structure. The two opening creation stories, for example, are connected by such joins as:
Genesis 1 . . . Genesis 2 . . .
In the beginning . . . In the day . . .
God . . . Yahweh God . . . (the latter name associated with God’s earthly compassion-Ex.3:15)
Created . . . made . . . (made, a more mundane word than created)
The heavens and earth . . . earth and the heavens . . . (priority is changed to earth)
Brodie also came to sense that Genesis was very tightly united to the rest of the narrative that followed, right through to the fall of Jerusalem in 2 Kings. Interestingly, a growing number of scholars (I think more from Europe than America) have in recent years begun to argue that the Primary History, Genesis to 2 Kings, was composed by a single author as a single work. (These are my own comments, not Brodie’s.) At least one has suggested that the different books approximate something of the structure of the Histories of Herodotus. All of these studies are yet in their infancy, I think.
What surprised me was the degree of that unity. By taking a number of soundings, it began to become clear, as others had suggested, that Genesis was tied soul and sinew to the entire epic, right to the fall of Jerusalem.
It was also tied to the Elijah-Elisha narrative. (p. 92)
Why choose the Elijah-Elisha narrative for Jesus?
Brodie’s understanding of the relationship of the Elijah-Elisha narrative in 1 and 2 Kings to the remainder of the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) is so unexpected and different from any other analysis that, to be appreciated, requires “patience”. Revisit the subsection It needed patience, patience, patience in an earlier post in this series to see the significance of that. (I’m not saying that one must agree with Brodie’s argument or be accused of impatience. Appreciation of an argument does not imply acquiescence to it. Engagement, however, does require appreciation or understanding.)
Brodie saw the narrative of Elijah and Elisha being constructed and adapted out of key episodes between Genesis and Kings (e.g. Noah’s Flood, the Sinai revelation after the Exodus . . .).
The result: the Elijah-Elisha narrative is a ready-made synthesis of the Old Testament’s foundational epic (Genesis-Kings), of its narrative and theology. If you were writing a narrative about Jesus, and wanted to ground that narrative in the older scriptures, you could scarcely find a more suitable foundation than the ready-made synthesis, the Elijah-Elisha narrative. (p. 93)
The significance of this for Jesus?
It showed Jesus not just as an individual belonging to one generation, but as containing in himself the stories of all humans, right back to the beginning, and even as containing or evoking the Genesis story of creation. (p. 93)
Brodie’s observations were published as The Crucial Bridge: The Elijah-Elisha Narrative as an Interpretive Synthesis of Genesis-Kings and a Literary Model for the Gospels.
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