Parallels or Parallelomania: How to Tell the Difference

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by Neil Godfrey

Samuel Sandmel
Samuel Sandmel

Some scholars, notably Dennis MacDonald, have argued that the Gospels of Mark and Luke as well as Acts contain passages that have “parallels” in the Homeric epics. The presence of these parallels is said to be evidence that the Christian authors were deliberately imitating and even attempting to outdo certain well-known features of the iconic Greek literature.

Some critics say MacDonald is just a parallelomaniac and his parallels are “not real”.

Thomas Brodie has argued that all Gospels and some of Paul’s letters have been deliberately based on various books in the Jewish Scriptures. Michael Goulder and his student John Shelby Spong have argued that the Gospels were written to parallel the sequences of liturgical readings of the Jewish Scriptures throughout the year.

Since Brodie has “come out” as a mythicist some scholars have scoffed that he is also a parallelomaniac.

D.M. Murdock (Acharya S) and a good number of earlier Christ Myth theorists right back to Dupuis in the eighteenth century have argued that the Gospel narrative is based on an ancient understanding of the astrological/astronomical phenomena.

A common criticism is that Murdock’s work is meaningless parallelomania.

Dale Allison has argued that many passages in the Gospel of Matthew are parallel to the career of Moses; John Dominic Crossan has found Gospel parallels in Joshua, the poet Virgil and the funeral monument of Augustus; Rikki Watts has found detailed parallels between the Gospel of Mark and the second half of the Book of Isaiah.

These scholars are well embedded within the conventional wisdom of scholarly views. Their parallels are more likely to be taken seriously, at least considered valid topics for serious discussion.

And on it goes. Probably everyone agrees that there are real parallels between the Passion scene of Christ and the Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel, Amos, Zechariah and others.

So what is the difference between legitimate parallels and parallelomania?

The word comes to us via Samuel Sandmel in an address he gave in 1961 and that was subsequently published as an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1962. Sandmel himself encountered the word in an 1830 French book critical of someone’s hypothesis that Paul copied large portions from the Book of Wisdom as he wrote his Epistle to the Romans. The French author

  • denied the passages were true parallels
  • denied there was a direct literary connection between Romans and Wisdom
  • denied Paul copied directly from Wisdom


These conclusions were all “parallelomania”, he said. From this introduction Sandmel defines parallelomania:

[Parallelomania is] that extravagance among scholars which first overdoes the supposed similarity in passages and then proceeds to describe source and derivation as if implying literary connection flowing in an inevitable and predetermined direction.

Notice that. It’s not simply about “parallels” per se but about how these are interpreted, the meanings we draw from them, that is at the heart of Sandmel’s concern over “parallelomania”. The “supposed similarities” themselves are only one part of the question.

The keyword is ‘extravagance’

Sandmel then stresses that his keyword here is “extravagance”. Note that. I have met with a few critics who seem ready to pull out the “parallelomania” card at almost any and every suggestion of a literary parallel between the Gospels or Epistles and some other literature. So it is worth taking note of what Sandmel says immediately after his definition:

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. . . . However, I am speaking words of caution about exaggeration about the parallels and about source and derivation.

So what does it mean in practice?

Caution about source and derivation

It means that for any discussion of parallels between texts to have any value it must be accompanied by, or certainly within the context of, clearly understood means by which the author of a text had the ability and means and opportunity (and possibly even motivation) to copy from the presumed source. MacDonald and Brodie do devote a lot of pages to a discussion of this side of the question: MacDonald looks particularly at educational methods (what texts were well known to anyone acquiring literary skills in Greek); Brodie examines the widespread practice of imitation and transvaluation among authors of the Hellenistic and Roman eras. That’s a start. It also means developing a clear idea of how an author may well have come to have known and to have had a copy of the source text and why he might have wanted to use it as a source. If we know it was a favourite text used widely by many authors then our task is much easier.

Sandmel illustrates the point with respect to questions often raised about Philo or the Qumran literature:

I am not prepared to suppose that Philo of Alexandria had to go to his mailbox at regular intervals, learn by letter what the rabbis in Palestine were saying, and then be in a position to transmute the newly received data into philosophical ideas.

Again, I am not prepared to believe that there was a bridge for one-way traffic that stretched directly from the caves on the west bank of the Dead Sea to Galilee, or even further into Tarsus, Ephesus, Galatia, and Mars Hill. While I am prepared to join in speculations that John the Baptist had some connection with Qumran, I will not accept it as proved without seeing some evidence for it . . . . (p. 5)

Let’s look at some specific problems with parallels themselves as raised by Sandmel.

Detailed study is the criterion

Detailed study is the criterion, and the detailed study ought to respect the context and not be limited to juxtaposing mere excerpts. (p. 2, Sandmel)

There must be a detailed study of the supposed parallels. The more general the idea of borrowing the less useful it is. Parallels need to be established at the level of a detailed comparison of the words, the structures of sentences and thought flows. But more than that, the detailed studies need to respect the contexts of the two passages. If one is arguing that the details of specific semantics are parallel then one also would normally need to be able to justify that comparison by reference to the contexts of those details.

So when we read of Jesus on the cross crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, most of us through habit assume that the author is borrowing from Psalm 22. But why? Is there not a possibility that our author coincidentally arrived at the same words? After all, they sound like the appropriate thing to say when hanging from a cross. Of is it possible that the author may have had a distant memory of that Psalm and found the words a useful addition, but otherwise had no real intention to draw any special attention to that Psalm? What gives the game away for us in this case is that the Psalm’s words are also found in a context that in many other details matches the situation or theme of the fate of Jesus. Further, we know the Psalms were well known to the author, and so forth.

Even true parallels may be of no great significance

It is the distinctive which is significant for identifying the particular, and not the broad areas in common with other Judaisms. (p. 3)

Sandmel’s point here is that all the rabbinic literature, the gospels, the epistles, the pseudepigrapha, the Qumran writings, Philo and Josephus can be described as “post-Tanach Judaism”. That is, they can all be expected to contain expressions derived from the Hebrew Bible. They all come from the same culture. Therefore we would expect many overlapping thoughts and expressions among them.

What would be surprising if some of it lacked any similarity to such Judaistic thoughts and works. So when we find similarities between later rabbinic literature and Paul’s epistles we need to use caution before quickly assuming any significantly distinctive relationship.

That Scripture is as a source common to Philo and the rabbis is quite as reasonable a conclusion as that Philo drew the item from the rabbis, or the rabbis from Philo. These varieties of Judaism, then, are bound to harbor true parallels which are of no consequence. The connections between two or more of these Judaisms is not determine by inconsequential parallels. (pp. 3-4)

Sandmel illustrates the importance of the distinctiveness of parallels. If, for argument’s sake, he finds the theology of Christianity paralleled in both the Dead Sea Scrolls and also in the later rabbinic literature, then he must conclude that there was nothing distinctive about Christian theology and he would be at a loss to explain why such a theology took a different direction from Judaism.

In another illustration Sandmel posits another scenario. Let’s suppose there are 259 specific parallels between Paul’s and rabbinic writings. Would this pile of data indicate that Paul and the rabbis are in close agreement? Of course not. It is quite conceivable that many of those parallels are actually expressions of diametrically opposing interpretations and thought.

Where the literature present us with acknowledged parallels, I am often more inclined to ascribe these to the common Jewish content of all these Jewish movements than to believe in advance that some item common to the scrolls and the gospels or to Paul implies that the gospels or Paul got that item from the scrolls. (pp. 5-6)

The danger of excerpts

The danger of studying parallels only in excerpts [becomes] clearer. (p. 7)

Sandmel tells us about the Jewish historian Graetz who once identified Jesus as an Essene. Graetz had taken his information about Essenes from Philo’s That Every Good Man is Free. Unfortunately Graetz had a limited knowledge of Philo’s writings overall. Had he been more familiar with a many more of Philo’s works he would have begun to appreciate that Philo frequently writes allegorically. Like a good Platonist he is quite adept at creating allegorical myths to teach his ideals. (Compare Plato’s myths of the Cave and of Atlantis.) For Philo, biblical figures can become abstract allegories and real communities can be created to represent abstract ideals.

For Philo, Abraham’s father, Terah, was Socrates; Hagar and Sarah were not historical persons but allegories; Abraham represented “contemplation” as the way to God, and so on. Another community some scholars (e.g. Engberg-Pedersen) have argued is an allegorical fiction is the Therapeutae in Philo’s On the Contemplative Life.

Hence, I find myself somewhat disinclined to take Philo’s historical statements too seriously. (p. 8)

Lesson: beware taking isolated passages from a text and drawing conclusions from their apparent parallels in another. We don’t want to think we’re comparing Jesus to a real historical sect when the evidence, understood in context, does nothing more than demonstrate Jesus was depicted as living out what some perceived as an ideal life.

If Wolfson, who wrote a magnificent two-volume work on Philo, could be mistaken so often about parallels, it is not prudent for the mere amateur to rush into excerpts from Philo. (p. 8)

One more

Sandmel concludes with four major errors that spoil a prominent work by Strack and Billerbeck.

  1. Rabbinic parallels to Luke’s additions to Mark create the impression that Luke owed some debt to rabbinic literature — even though some of this literature is from fifth century Babylonia. (Remember the fallacy of the excluded middle.)
  2. The listing of many Talmudic excerpts (decontextualized) of parallel passages to the gospels misleads those not expert in rabbinic literature that its “tone, texture and import” are comparable to the gospels. Mastery of Talmudic literature (and given our recent interest in Maurice Casey one may even add here the mastery of Aramaic) does not automatically give one a mastery of the nature of the gospels as literature.
  3. Quantity is confused with quality. The piling up of parallel after parallel can create the impression that one is dealing with material carefully sifted to ensure a proper contextual match. That is not necessarily the case.
  4. The Jesus bias leads to a tendentious seeking and manipulation of parallels. Few scholars are genuinely impartial when writing about Jesus. So parallels to the sayings of Jesus are piled up from the rabbinical literature only to demonstrate that however strong those parallels, Jesus can be construed to have said the same rabbinical idea in a much finer and better way. Jesus is quoted as instructing his followers not to hate their enemies as they had been taught by others. So parallels are sought to show that Judaism teaches hatred of enemies. Meanwhile Jesus’ own words of hatred in Mathew 23 are conveniently overlooked. This fault is probably less prevalent among critical scholars today, but it nonetheless still persists among the more conservative of apologist scholars.

Now we know!

Now we know — or at least I hope to have encouraged a few to read Sandmel’s article for themselves so they really can understand what “parallelomania” is really all about.

So next time we read a McGrath or a Hurtado or an Ehrman or a Casey or whoever dismissing an argument as facile parallelomania we can properly assess if they really do know what they are talking about — whether they really do know what is meant by parallelomania or if they really have taken care to understand the argument they criticize.

I don’t think many of them do. I think “parallelomania” has too often become a cheap throwaway epithet meant to belittle an argument they find threatening to traditional understanding.


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Neil Godfrey

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20 thoughts on “Parallels or Parallelomania: How to Tell the Difference”

  1. My book, Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark, provides a detailed analysis of the earliest Gospel as an allegory of the history of Israel from the Essenic point of view written in response to the fall of Jerusalem. Systematic parallels are drawn reaching from the baptism as the Exodus to the crucifixion as the triumphal procession in Rome celebrating the fall of Jerusalem. In Chapter 3, parallels are drawn between Jesus founding the church to the Teacher of Righteousness founding the Qumran community. It is for the reader to judge whether this is an exercise in parallelomania or legitimate scholarship.


  2. Neil, you piqued my curiosity over at McGrath’s blog when you commented in his post about Carrier’s recent Acts talk. You wrote:

    I am currently reading a book that has almost persuaded me that there might have been a real historical Jesus.

    I wrote a comment asking if you could identify this work, but I’m guessing you either haven’t returned to the McGrath post, or you’re deliberately frustrating the incurably inquisitive! 🙂 Have you come across some interesting material in the Harnhart book, or are you referring to some other source?

    My own working hypothesis right now is that that an originating figure is justified by the logic of the “Temple theology” elements in early Christianity as argued by Margaret Barker. A colleague and I have been working through this as a possible third way between mythicism and traditional historicity, such that the Gospels can be almost or entirely legendary, Paul can focus on the exalted Christ, and yet a man stands at the fount. His earthly life would not have mattered so much as his mystical ascent, and thus the Gospels filled in the gap with whatever they deemed suitable.

    At least, that’s what I’m entertaining right now…

    1. Chris, you are right — I have not returned to the McGrath post. I will have to catch up with that. (There are also a couple of emails I have not responded to yet.)

      Karel Hanhart’s book “The Open Tomb” has at times had me wondering if there may indeed have been an earlier version of Mark, one that was written prior to the War and that was more optimistic with anticipations of a return of Jesus to rule from Jerusalem as the prophets foretold. I have found myself slipping into imagining the real possibility that the original story was meant to be understood as a more literal biography while the version we have now was heavily re-written after 70 to introduce midrash haggadah elements explaining the failure of their hopes.

      It’s speculative, but Hanhart raises many interesting questions that for a time led me to contemplate such an original real biographical narrative that was restructured and supplemented beyond recognition in the wake of the events of 70. I began to think to myself, “Hey, I really am postulating here a genuine account about a real person Jesus — if only people could read my mind they would see for themselves that I really have been open to this possibility all along!” 🙂

      1. Interesting, Neil – possibilities re some historical context to that gospel JC story…..I remember saying way back when……Doherty only has half the story. Doherty has the heavenly, spiritual, timeless, crucifixion story. The other NT crucifixion story relates to a historical context i.e. a time conditioned context.

        And no, such a position requires no historical gospel related, somehow, JC. What it does require is a close consideration of the historical context. Not, of course, to identify a gospel type JC, but to construct the platform from which the gospel writers drew their inspiration for their story.

        As to the ‘return of Jesus to rule from Jerusalem’ – an idea, albeit a wish or hope, already in Slavonic Josephus and Luke 24:13-21 – perhaps one might consider the Josephan story about Agrippa I. A story filled with prophetic/messianic imagery. Agrippa I, indeed, re the Josephan writer, ruling Judea for what looks to be somewhere between 3 or 4 years. (a half a week of one of Daniel’s weeks). Agrippa I was not executed by contrivance with Rome but his Hasmonean ancestor, Antigonus, was so executed. Combine that history, mix it up with prophetic interpretations – and what comes out is that gospel JC story…….And where does this take one in the search for early Christian origins? Straight into the historical minefield that is Josephus.

        There you go Neil…..Slavonic Josephus as an earlier version of the Jesus story found in gMark. Which simply means, with the gospel JC story, we are dealing with a story that developed over time.


      2. I think you’ll have a hard time arguing there was an earlier version of Mark. Jesus’ triumphant return to Jerusalem in Mark is an example of Mark’s use of irony, put there to be contrasted with Jesus’ humiliating and tragic exit to the place of the cross. There was no earlier biography.

        1. While the idea that there was an earlier version of Mark is only a possibility in my mind I am afraid I don’t quite see how this would falsify that possibility.

  3. I guess Acharya S does not appreciate being called “Dorothy” since she has never used that name:

    “Dear friends: If ever you see someone pretending to know my “real name,” please feel free to ignore that person. I have never revealed my first name publicly, and anyone pretending to know my real name is doing so fallaciously. In most cases, what people believe is my real name is being used in order to abuse, terrorize and bully me into submission. I don’t appreciate the contemptuous familiarity AT ALL. To those who think they know my real name, no, you don’t. You have heard an internet rumor but nothing from me. Those who are using what they think is my real name in internet writings are doing so unethically and with hostility against my person. That sort of poor character should not be given any credence or credibility.”

    “I have been advised by LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES not to disclose ANY personal information, because I was the victim of VIOLENT CRIME that included the felonious abduction of my small child. So, any and all attempts at publicizing what is believed to be my real name will be construed as a form of TERRORISM and BULLYING. ”

    – Acharya S


    1. Oh my God. Well where did Dorothy come from? I guess I had seen it so often around the place I just assumed that it was her name. To suggest I was “pretending” to know her real name, and even of deliberately using Dorothy to “abuse, terrorize and bully her into submission”. . . ! Hoo boy! Touchy touchy. A simple correction would never do, would it. (To avoid any suspicion that my post might be an attempt to terrorize and bully whoever she is into submission I have corrected the post to D.M.

  4. Neil,

    You are so good at making the fine distinctions that others, including many scholars, treat very clumsily. Thanks for your insights.

    A parallel that has intrigued me, and one that I am sure you are aware of, is the resemblance of the Jesus ben Ananias story found in Josephus’ Wars 6.5.3 (sorry for the old citation convention) and the passion. You know the details. Wheeden identified some 20 or more parallels. When looking at the Greek of the two versions (I can barely read it), it doesn’t appear to use the same vocabulary. Yet the details are so clearly similar it is hard to dismiss the gut instinct that there is some kind of relationship. Have your studies lead you to lean in a particular way on this?

    Thanks for your work. I don’t know how you find the time.

    1. Yes, I’ve posted Weeden’s comparison between the two at http://vridar.info/xorigins/josephus/2jesus.htm

      I really don’t know what to make of these parallels. Much depends on how we date the Gospel of Mark. Should those parallels be factored into our grounds for dating Mark after Josephus? Was the ben Ananias story well known independently of Josephus? How can we tell? I can imagine someone reading Josephus (or hearing it read) and over a little time dwelling on that episode and kind of half-deliberately weaving its concepts into his own story of another Jesus.

      On the other hand Josephus is said to have composed his Jewish War very soon in its wake in Aramaic. I suppose we can bring Mark closer to the end of that War (a date I am currently exploring through two other books at the moment — Hanhart’s and Owens’) if Mark had access to the original Aramaic edition.

      On the other hand, we need to consider the persecution theme in Mark. The earliest evidence for Jewish persecutions of Christians is not till much later. Or maybe Mark was projecting from the environment of very hostile debates between the earliest Christians and rabbinic Judaism.

      And then I am worried as I think like this that I am treating Christianity as a monolithic entity. Was Paul’s (whoever he was) Christianity all there was at the beginning?

      You’ve caught me in a very uncertain moment. Let me just conclude with “I don’t know” at this point. 🙂

      But if the criterion of density has any meaning then there does appear to be some relationship there that begs for explanation — whatever that explanation turns out to be.

  5. ” …. a 1930 French book critical of someone’s hypothesis that Paul copied large portions from the Book of Wisdom as he wrote his Epistle to the Romans. The French author…”

    Actually 1830. Sandmel went deep into the archives to revive this non-sense word.

    The irony here of course is that it isn’t controversial to posit that the author of Romans knew and used the Wisdom of Solomon. So there actually was no reason for the dumb word to exist in the first place.

  6. That Axial Age. It was all parallels back then. Perhaps this would be closer to your interests: 1987, Zoroastrianism: A Shadowy but Powerful Presence in the Judaeo-Christian World

    https://iranicaonline.org/articles/boyce-mary “The turning point in her life was a 12-month study-leave in the Zoroastrian villages around Yazd, notably in Šarifābād in 1963-64. This came soon after her appointment in 1963 as Professor of Iranian Studies at SOAS, succeeding Henning who had moved to Berkeley in California. The overland journey and residence in these remote villages must have been arduous for her since she had recently suffered a painful injury to her back which troubled her for the rest of her life. Till her demise, it compelled her to work while lying on her back and writing everything by hand.”

    The results of her research there were formative to her understanding of Zoroastrianism and she discovered that much of the previously established scholarship on the ancient faith was terribly misguided. As one of the first monotheistic religions Boyce believed Zoroastrianism greatly influenced modern Abrahamic religions with such conceptions as the devil and Heaven/Hell.


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