James McGrath the Parallelomaniac

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor James McGrath is a parallelomaniac. Every time he sees an argument for a parallel that he does not like or from which the author draws an uncomfortable conclusion he claims that the parallel is actually a parallel to Samuel Sandmel’s notion of “parallelomania”.

Samuel Sandmel introduced the term “parallelomania” into English-speaking New Testament studies and explained it as that “extravagance” where one took excerpts out of context from some source and applied them willy-nilly to a text under study. It could also include one making much ado about real parallels if they were also quite meaningless (e.g. We would not be surprised if two different Jewish texts spoke about God and Moses, so we cannot assume one is copying from the other in such a case.)

I spelled all this out in my recent post explaining the difference between legitimate parallels and parallelomania. The same post links to the original 1962 article by Samuel Sandmel.

How do we know a parallel is potentially legitimate and not “parallelomania”? Sandmel was very clear. Detailed study is the most essential criterion of a genuinely plausible parallel; the actual words used, the syntactical structures, the contexts, the larger argument structure, the literary culture in which the act of copying is alleged to have occurred, etc. Sandmel even wrote that he encouraged such studies that helped us identify genuine cases of literary borrowing.

What he warned against was taking excerpts (words and phrases) out of their contexts and fortuitously applying them to the target text. I have been showing (in some comments here but especially in discussions on the EarlyWritings forum) that this is the flawed methodology that in many cases makes D.M. Murdock’s (astrotheology’s) arguments invalid.

Here is a classic example of how parallelomania works. It comes from James McGrath:

If we take the opening sentence of chapter 7 of Brodie’s book, we find that the phrases he uses occur in close proximity to one another in earlier texts. On p.271 of Alarm Management for Process Control by Douglas H. Rothenberg, the words “dear reader” and “long chapter” occur in the same sentence! And on p.108 of Parasites of the Colder Climates edited by Hannah Akuffo, Inger Ljungström, Ewert Linder, and Mats Wahlgren, we find that “microscope” and “second revolution” occur within the same paragraph. Then, on p.72 of the book Academic Callings by Janice Newson and Claire Polster, in close proximity to a reference to “messianic power,” the author uses almost the same phrase Brodie does, “at least one small part of it.” Surely this indicates that Brodie was masterfully illustrating the method he attributes to the Gospel authors by doing the same himself, does it not?

I likewise showed how the same random method of taking excerpts out of context can be applied to make a parallel with anything. I was addressing some advocates of astrotheology so I applied ancient astrological terms to the opening sentence of Maurice Casey’s latest book:

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 7.23.44 pm

McGrath talks a lot about “honesty” and “dishonesty” when engaging with mythicism, generally implying mythicists are less than fully honest. (Like Maurice Casey he often suggests mythicists are mythicists because of some moral or psychological defect.) So it is curious that McGrath has used the opening sentence of chapter 7 of Brodie’s book to lampoon Brodie’s argument with his own clear illustration of genuine parallelomania.

Chapter 7 of Brodie’s book is in fact twenty-four pages of detailed argument about specific words, syntactical structures, thematic contexts, larger literary structures and repeated patterns, plot similarities and identical use of metaphors, to argue that six verses in Luke (Luke 9:57-62) were inspired by the author’s knowledge of 1 Kings 19.

For McGrath to reduce all of that minutely detailed and intricate argument to an analogy with his silly comparison of taking a few phrases from various books and relating them to Brodie’s first sentence leaves one wondering if he really bothered to read that chapter beyond the first sentence or if he lacked the willingness or ability to comprehend what he read if he did read the entire chapter.

What McGrath is doing is resorting to puerile parallelomania himself by refusing to address the detail of the arguments and blithely sweeping all he does not like into another so-called parallel with Sandmel’s “parallelomania”. To my mind, that makes McGrath a parallelomaniac whenever he sees any argument at all by a mythicist for literary borrowing.

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “James McGrath the Parallelomaniac”

  1. Is there really any value in attempting to take people like McGrath and Casey to task? The fact is that their paradigm of biblical history is incommensurable with a paradigm of biblical history that embraces Popper’s conception of falsifiability as the demarcation between what is history and what is not. It is impossible to even have a debate because the meaning of the word “history” itself is at stake. That is why the McGrath’s and Casey’s of the world resort to name calling and dismissive rhetoric. They cannot engage on the merits of mythicism because to do so would require accepting the historical method of the mythicists, which would mean admitting defeat before any debate could start.

  2. I agree. I admire much of what James McGrath does — I love his impact on Christianity, I love his humor, his link-o-mania is fun at times too. I am not a fan of his sci-fi stuff but it is cool to see his hobbies and his passions. But when he gets stuffy and argumentative with mythicists, he seems to fall apart — which I find very disappointing.

    That said, I also find myself disappointing at times. 🙂

    Well written, Neil.

  3. Neil (or Tim), sorry if I repeat myself, but I saw no check box for “follow replies by email”. How do I follow comments by e-mail? Do I just have to remember to come back here again and again to check for replies?

  4. “What he warned against was taking excerpts (words and phrases) out of their contexts and fortuitously applying them to the target text. I have been showing (in some comments here but especially in discussions on the EarlyWritings forum) that this is the flawed methodology that in many cases makes D.M. Murdock’s (astrotheology’s) arguments invalid.”

    Just another smear. Neil, you have obviously never actually read her work. This is a poor excuse to deny all parallels, which is precisely what Samuel Sandmel warned against! Your use of it at this blog in relation of Acharya is an abuse and misuse of what Samuel Sandmel was talking about.

    What the pseudo-skeptic critics appear to be completely unaware of are all the primary sources and scholar commentary on them, as well as timelines, trends and the milieu as well as the ancient literary oeuvre all disproving the pseudo-skeptic claims of “parallelomania” from those who tend to be largely ignorant of these facts. It’s easy for the armchair quarterback to claim “parallelomania” without having any idea what they’re talking about since they’re oblivious to the credible evidence substantiating the parallels, often referred to by scholars as “syncretism.”

    1. You have obviously not read my posts on parallelomania, especially those with specific explanation of the difference between genuine parallels and extravagant application of excerpts. I invite you to consider my most recent one @ http://vridar.org/2014/03/20/parallels-or-parallelomania-how-to-tell-the-difference/

      I also invite you to consider how one can use the same method to apply the same astrotheological explanation to Casey’s book as I demonstrate here.

      For a long time I never discussed Murdock’s work because I had not read most of it and the little I had was a long time ago. It was only after pressure from Murdock’s supporters that I began to post on The Christ Conspiracy here. I began to go through it carefully page by page. So I am damned if I don’t read it and don’t comment; and damned if I do and comment in depth.

  5. In his latest book, How Jesus became God, Ehrman draws parallels between the story of Jesus and elements of the stories of Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Appolonius, Peregrinus, Augustus Caesar,Nephilim, the Watchers, the son of man in Daniel, etc

    Drawing parallels is what historians have to do.

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