Parallels — How to tell if they are “Real”

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Parallelomania — the term has been too often misunderstood and misapplied to serious work that deserves attention. On the other hand, there are a lot of proposed parallels that are, let’s say, eccentric. How to tell the difference?

Michael Goulder

I’ll use Michael Goulder’s explanation of what makes a meaningful parallel and in subsequent posts address how to identify a misleading parallel. (Some of us will be thinking of Samuel Sandmel’s famous article, Parallelomania. I made a link to that article available here because very often I have found people, including some professional scholars, misunderstanding what he wrote. Or perhaps they never read it carefully to begin with. In this post, however, we give Goulder a turn to speak.)

In Type and History in Acts Goulder is discussing typology which is a particular type of parallel. The key question of interest is,

What is in question is whether it is possible to assert that a type [or parallel] is understood by a New Testament author when the details of the story do not make it quite so obvious, and the type-antitype connection is much less real, or to modem eyes not real at all. (p. 2)

Nonsense, replies the critic

For Goulder, the answer is relatively simple.

Much criticism could be dispelled if it were realized that almost all typology is cumulative. The typologist may assert, for example, that the sermon on the mount is the antitype of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. Nonsense, replies the critic, there is no evidence of this: there are plenty of mountains in Galilee, and Jesus climbed one to instruct his disciples — that is all. (p. 2)

Here’s how Goulder justifies the view that the evangelist deliberately created a parallel between the Sermon on the Mount and the giving of the law to Israel on Mount Sinai. . .

It’s Cumulative all the way down

Okay, we read Jesus went up on a mountainside to give his sermon. Nothing to see here, the “parallel” critic says. And the critic is right. So far.

But then we must recall that a very few chapters earlier we read the story of a Herod massacring all the infant boys in Bethlehem and few of us could deny that that little episode did bring to mind the Exodus account of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s edict to massacre newborn Israelite boys. Obviously there are many differences between the two tales but we cannot deny that there are core similarities.

Differences Similarities
Jesus is not saved by being put in an ark fear inspires the tyrant
then floated on the river Jordan future saviour of Israel is delivered
and finally adopted by Herod’s daughter

If I can interrupt to add to Goulder’s discussion here: I suspect that if one had the two texts side by side one could itemize a list of differences that would be much longer than a list of similarities. Some critics reject proposed parallels on the basis that they can count more details of difference than they can of similarity. But what is surely important is the predominant theme or ideas in the stories and the idea of a miraculous saving of an infant saviour from a tyrant attempting to kill all and sundry in hopes of getting his babe must outweigh dozens or even scores of background, decorative, setting and scenery details. (Further, some critics dismiss parallels solely in the basis of a single obvious difference (many reject the Heracles-Jesus parallels solely on the basis that Jesus was not a “strong man” hero despite the many and often explicit similarities ancient authors made between Heracles and other Jesus-comparable figures like Socrates), but the “difference” game can logically come to a point where we say that nothing can be derivative of another unless it is the same in all points. But then, of course, we have the same thing again and not an analogue at all.) Back to Goulder…

Might we not simply say that the massacre stories are alike by coincidence? Yes, indeed. That is possible. An author may be aware of only a limited number of that type of legendary narrative and his imagination might not grant him access to many new ideas.

After all there may be a limited stock for the plots oflegendary stories, and we expect some coincidence. Peter’s discovery of the stater in the fish’s mouth is like the story of Polycrates’ ring, but this does not lead us to speak of types and antitypes. (p. 2)

But while reading Matthew we find that just before Herod’s murderous rampage gets underway Jesus is taken down to Egypt by his parents, Joseph and Mary. Are we allowed to let our minds wander and recall that preceding Pharaoh’s massacre of the infants in the book of Exodus Joseph took his family down to Egypt — in the final chapters of Genesis.

Again there is plenty of difference between the two tales. Joseph in Genesis invited his family as honoured guests, Joseph in the Gospel went as a refugee. But the fact remains that in each case the man responsible is called Joseph, and in each case he brings his family from Palestine to Egypt. And St Matthew tells us himself that these families were the old and the new Israel, for he quotes Hosea for their return journey: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (p. 3)

What we have then is a short series of coincidences. Goulder sets them out in table form:

Old Testament Matthew
Genesis 45-50 Joseph brings old Israel down to Egypt 2:13-15 Joseph brings new Israel down to Egypt
Exodus 1 Pharaoh massacres boys 2:16 Herod massacres children

Goulder is a hard man to please:

Two such coincidences, striking as they are, are not proof of anything: they are merely the suggestion that we should look further. (p. 3)

But the quotation of Hosea proves that the author had the exodus in mind. But there is more yet. When in Matthew we read about the angel saying to Joseph, “They are dead who sought your child’s life” then we must in fairness recall that God said essentially the same to Moses, “All the men are dead who sought your life.”

Old Testament Matthew
Genesis 45-50 Joseph brings old Israel down to Egypt 2:13-15 Joseph brings new Israel down to Egypt
Exodus 1 Pharaoh massacres boys 2:16 Herod massacres children
Exodus 4:9 “All the men are dead . . .” 2:20 “They are dead . . .”
Exodus 12ff From Egypt to Israel 2:21ff From Egypt to Israel

Some satisfaction at last:

Our speculating has become a hypothesis: that St Matthew has deliberately modelled part of his Gospel upon part of the Torah. (p. 4)

We are now in the realm of making judgements about what is likely or not likely to be coincidence. But in this case Goulder would have us reflect further on Matthew and what appears to be his text of inspiration. Before the birth of Jesus and massacre of the infants we have been reading about Joseph’s perplexities. What happens if we look back into Genesis prior to Joseph going down into Egypt?

Joseph in Genesis Joseph in Matthew
Is a dreamer of dreams Joseph is a dreamer
In one of his dreams he is represented by a star and sees the other stars and moon and sun bow down to him a star leads to the child of Joseph who is to be worshipped
In Egypt Pharaoh’s dreams lead to his rise – he excels the wise men of Egypt the wise men come and worship Joseph’s son
star dream is fulfilled with bowing of his family the family of Joseph reject Joseph’s son
Genesis is a book of genealogies Matthew’s gospel begins, “the genesis of Jesus Christ”…. followed by genealogy


Our hypothesis, then, begins to become clearer, and is now supported by a formidable volume of evidence. St Matthew began his Gospel from the beginning of the Torah, composed a genealogy or inserted one from tradition taking Jesus back to the founder of Israel in Genesis, and then, skipping on to Gen. 37 where the name Joseph gives him an opening, modelled his story on the sacred history of Genesis-Exodus. We can now follow our scent on forwards from Matt. 3 and Ex. I 3, and see what further confirmation we find. (p. 4)

The next event in the Gospel of Matthew is the preaching of John the Baptist and baptism of Jesus. John recalls Elijah, of course, but is there also a hint of Moses as the prototype of the desert prophets? Baptism as a symbol of the exodus through the Red Sea is in no doubt, though, since Paul’s writings tell us that the early church made that exact connection (1 Corinthians 10:1f). So when the new Israel (the earlier quotation of Hosea tells us that the author understood Jesus to be the new Israel) emerges from the water and enters the wilderness to be tempted for forty days then we are surely compelled to think of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness where they faced repeated temptations.

First temptation: Exodus 16 “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” First temptation: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone…”
Second temptation: Massah “You shall not tempt the Lord your God as you tempted him in Massah” (Ex 17, Deuteronomy 6:16) Second temptation: Satan takes Jesus to a pinnacle in the temple and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down….” Jesus answered, “It is also written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test”
Third temptation: Golden calf at Mount Sinai (Exodus 32) “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God and serve him …. you shall not go after other gods” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

(Though this episode falls out of order if we are looking for the same sequence as in Matthew.)

Third temptation: Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and offers them to Jesus in return for worship. Jesus, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only”

Moses took seventy helpers (Exodus 18); Jesus took four disciples (Matthew 4:17ff).

Next episode … God delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Jesus goes up to the mountainside and begins to preach the “fulfilment of the law”.

This illustration has, we hope, shown two things. One is that typological argument is. cumulative. Any one of the above correspondences might have been a coincidence and no more. But when they are placed in a catena following a definite order, accident is out of the question. A succession of this dimension has been purposefully arranged, and by St Matthew .himself and no other. Within this succession there will be room for argument on particular alleged typologies. John and Moses in the desert is one which we have noted: it is the strength of the typological context which makes this more probable as intended than not. The golden calf is again open to some doubt, because it is the only type which falls out of exact order. Another candidate for the type of the third temptation is the holding up of Moses’ hands on the top of the hill in Ex. 17 which occurs at exactly the right place. But this seems very feeble as a type of worshipping the devil, and would provoke some just scepticism and suspicion, for all that it occurs on the top of a mountain. The golden calf must be right. We shall return to the wise men shortly. But the accumulation of other unexceptionable typologies is such that the critic must bow before the overwhelming weight of evidence.

Matthew’s correspondences are exceptional.

In general it will be found that three or four points of correspondence suffice to form a convincing catena. One or two obvious points may carry some less certain ones. An indefinite number of uncertain ones · establish nothing. Much more clear evidence will be necessary for typologies of contrast than for typologies of similarity.

The case is strengthened or even established when we find verbal correspondences and a motive to explain the author’s interest in making the typology. See other posts on criteria for intertextuality where such points are addressed.

I would like to examine certain objections to this sort of analysis in future posts.

Goulder, M. D. Type and History in Acts. London: SPCK, 1964.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “Parallels — How to tell if they are “Real””

  1. “a very few chapters earlier we read the story of a Herod massacring all the infant boys in Bethlehem and few of us could deny that that little episode did bring to mind the Exodus account of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s edict to massacre newborn Israelite boys.”

    Saw some clickbait for a fringe book a few years back about Jesus most definitely being Herod’s grandson. ‘Herodian Messiah’ I think it was by some dude in Quebec.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading