* The table is primarily a translation and slight modification of pages 183-226 of Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper. All posts archived here.
From time to time I will post a section of a multi-page table* suggesting “intertextual” (or “midrashic”) links between the canonical gospel narratives and the “Old Testament” or Jewish Scriptures. I use “suggesting” because the links have come from a variety of sources and not presented as certainties. Readers will no doubt be able to suggest others and may find some room to raise questions about what is listed here.
Future posts will continue this series. Here we look at
It is all too easy to overlook differences, agreed. I seem to recall drawing questionable conclusions about the world’s religions from reading, many years ago, certain works by James George Frazer and Joseph Campbell. On the other hand, much of my reading in more recent years has been of scholarly discussions that give renewed insights into the significance and meaning of the differences between the compared works. Indeed, Smith is quoted elsewhere in that same book (A Magic Still Dwells) making that same positive point:
“. . . . The issue of difference has been all but forgotten.” Smith attempts to counter this trend by emphasizing that questions of difference are constitutive of the very process of comparison. “[C]omparison is, at base, never identity. Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the ‘gap’ in the service of some useful end.” See Smith, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells,” pp. 21, 35; 25-26, 40. Smith reiterates this point in his critique of Eliade in chapter 1 of To Take Place, pp. 13-14.”
(Holdrege, 89. Bolded highlighting in all quotations is mine.)
Unfortunately, Litwa continues to operate with the assumption that “comparativists” who have not embraced his methods of comparison have continued to “forget” the importance of differences. As we saw in my previous post, I think Litwa is mistaken here, and that the mythicist he sought with the most detail to expose as flawed did not at all fall into the “forget the differences trap”. Litwa made assertions without providing evidence, and the evidence that I cited, I believe, demonstrated that Litwa’s criticism was misguided in this particular area. I cover this ground again because Litwa recapitulates it in the opening of his second chapter:
To understand how mythic historiographies work, they must be compared in a way that is both thoughtful and sound. In chapter 1, I presented some instances of unsound comparison in my discussion of Jesus Myth Theory. In short, mythicists tend to genetically connect words and motifs for religious (or antireligious) ends. Often their zeal induces them to ignore or paste over differences in cultural setting and storyline.
No evidence (or cherry-picked evidence that went contrary to the main arguments) was offered to support that claim.
. . . . Similarities that are isolated and superficial often conceal greater differences. What is worse, superficial similarities are sometimes employed to prove historical causation. Yet individual words, phrases, and ideas that are similar (in some respect) are not necessarily genetically related. Similarities, no matter how precise, never amount to causation. (p. 46)
At this point, I am inclined to direct the reader to the words of Holdrege (citing Smith) above. Most of us are well aware of the dangers of confusing correlation with causation. When we have sound theories or explanations for particular types of similarities (e.g. comparing DNA samples) then comparisons can indeed be strong supports for appropriate arguments ranging from causation to coincidence.
Despite early slight missteps, Litwa does make an important point:
All similarities, furthermore, must be contextualized. If a posited similarity is between mythoi in two different texts, then one must situate the texts in their sociocultural settings. When were the texts written? Where were they written? Who wrote them? For what purposes? Do they belong to the same culture or sphere of cultural codes? And so forth.
Only after this contextual work has been done can one even think about positing a relation between stories. The relation, moreover, is not always that the author of text B knew and copied text A. Sometimes the authors of texts A and B depended on another text, C, or perhaps they saw the same event X or heard a similar oral report Y or belonged to common culture Z. (p. 47)
Precisely. The only flaw I see in Litwa’s discussion is his inconsistency is acknowledging that even Jesus myth theorists, and another “comparativist” he discusses in-depth in this second chapter, do contextualize their comparisons as per above. And sometimes such contextualizing questions do lead to a strong case that the author of text B knew and copied text A. We know Virgil did copy Homer and that the authors of the gospels did indeed know and copy and adapt the Jewish scriptures.
The reason Litwa is attempting to cordon off arguments confusing correlation with causation and to demean suggestions that “genetic relationships” explain similarities is to establish the thesis of his book, “dynamic cultural interaction”:
We need to think of the relations between the gospels and Greek lore more as dynamic cultural interaction: the complex, random, conscious and unconscious events of learning that occur when people interact and engage in practices of socialization. (p. 47)
I don’t know of any Jesus mythicist — and I’m thinking of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie, Carrier — who would disagree. Nor does Dennis R. MacDonald disagree with the reality of such a process leading to similar literary motifs appearing in diverse literature. In this second chapter, it happens to be Dennis MacDonald’s turn to come under Litwa’s critical eye.
Overlooking MacDonald’s agreement with the principle of “dynamic cultural interaction”, Litwa misguidedly objects to MacDonald’s argument for “genetic” connections between the Gospel of Mark and Homeric epics and wants to posit, instead, a more “complex, random, conscious and unconscious” series of interactions as an explanation for apparent similarities (or to deny even the reality of many of the similarities on the grounds that differences outnumber points in common). I don’t see the point of this argument. Does this sound like déjà vu back to my discussion of Litwa’s chapter on the Jesus myth theory? There is surely no problem with accepting Litwa’s overall explanation for similar motifs appearing in the gospels and classical literature but that explanation for some similarities does not mean another explanation for a more limited number of similarities must be ruled out. I know MacDonald’s Homeric thesis is of interest to many readers so I’ll take time to address Litwa’s criticism of it in detail.
The criteria MacDonald uses to judge probability of a text’s dependence on other works:
MacDonald developed a 7th criterion since publishing Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark:
7. Often Greek readers prior to 1000 C.E. seem to have been aware of affinities between New Testament narratives and their putative classical Greek models. Such ancient and Byzantine recognitions often suggest imitations in the original composition of the Gospels and Acts. (MacDonald, Gospels and Homer, 6 f)
Here is what MacDonald wrote about Litwa’s case for a more general cultural influence:
Response to objection 1: Because the Homeric epics were foundational to ancient Greek culture, any similarities between Mark and Homer are more likely to reflect general cultural influence than literary mimesis.To some extent I would agree, but one must not exclude imitation prima facie. Certainly some similarities between Mark and Homer may be due to general cultural influence, but it also is true that many ancient authors consciously imitated the epics; after all, they learned to do so in school. Furthermore, ancient narrative is rife with examples of obvious and subtle imitations of the epics as texts.
The challenge, then, is to test if similarities between two works issue from cultural osmosis or rhetorical mimesis. The last four of my six criteria attempt to do this very thing: (3) density (the number or volume of parallels between the two texts), (4) order (recognizable affinities in the sequence of the parallels), (5) distinctive traits (characteristics found in these two texts and not found widely elsewhere), and (6) interpretability (why the author imitated the target, which may include emulation or transvaluation). To my knowledge, no critic of my work has proposed alternative criteria for establishing literary connections. Although some parallels satisfy these criteria weakly, others do so magnificently and are sufficient to establish mimesis as a dominating strategy in Mark, not merely general cultural affinities.
It is not an either/or argument.
Dennis R. MacDonald and Mimesis Criticism
Mimesis refers to an author’s conscious imitation of another text. The imitation can have a range of functions: the author shows off a certain intellectual sophistication; the author is striving to write a work comparable to the artistry of the “masters”; the author is using the contrast for humorous effect; the author creates a character or event that both recalls and surpasses its traditional counterpart, and probably more.
One rarely encounters objections to the notion that gospel authors (evangelists) copied or played with Jewish scriptures. Litwa implies that the reason for acceptance in this case is that
[t]he evanglists advertised their connection to previous Jewish texts. (p. 47)
But that is not entirely so. Yes, on occasion the evangelists did so advertise:
Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. — Matthew 26:31
Sometimes they advertised their debt to Jewish scriptures less explicitly but nonetheless quite obviously. We all know that John the Baptist is modelled on the prophet Elijah when he is introduced as follows and subsequently called “Elijah” by Jesus (Mark 9):
. . . in the wilderness . . . John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey. — Mark 1:3-4, 6
But there are many times when there is no advertising at all. 160 scriptural quotations and allusions have been identified in just five chapters of the Gospel of Mark. How many do you think were “advertised” as such? See 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16.
Recognize that the evangelists were quite capable of “mimesis” on Jewish scriptures without advertising and it follows that we have a right to ask if they similarly work with other literature that we have good reason to believe they knew about.
Litwa’s criticisms of MacDonald’s method
Litwa points readers to earlier more detailed criticisms of MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Margaret Mitchell and Karl Olav Sandnes (links are to their articles on Jstor) and acknowledges MacDonald’s response to those articles, but adds,
In my judgment, MacDonald’s response does not adequately address the concerns raised by Mitchell and Sandnes. (p. 235)
The problem of the reconstruction of the course of life, deeds, and words of Jesus Christ is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating issues in modem biblical scholarship. In order to cope with this issue, scholars devised various reconstructive methods and procedures, which are usually presented today under the labels of several ‘quests for the historical Jesus’. In this way, notwithstanding all the differences between various scholarly proposals, a more or less coherent image of the historical Jesus as a particular Jewish religious and social ‘activist’, who lived in first-century Galilee, emerged and became more or less widely accepted in mainstream scholarship.
However, all reconstructions of the deeds and words of the historical Jesus, which were presented at various stages of the ‘historical Jesus research’, were formulated on one fundamental assumption, namely that the Gospels more or less directly refer to the life of the historical Jesus. Even if numerous modem scholars regarded various parts of the Gospel material as most probably unhistorical, this basic assumption concerning the referential character of the Gospels was in fact never challenged. Consequently, scholars still generally believe that the Gospels in an at least fundamental way reflect the features of the life and person of the historical Jesus: his early activity in Galilee, his challenging interpretation of the Jewish law, his clashes with the Pharisees, his travel to Jerusalem, his conflict with the chief priests in the Holy City, etc.
The most recent research on the hypertextual features of the Gospels has revealed that this basic scholarly assumption is not necessarily true. In general, it can be argued that the Gospels were not written with the aim of recording the course of life, deeds, and words of the historical, ‘fleshly’ Jesus. The Gospels are results of hypertextual reworking of the letters of Paul the Apostle and of other early Christian writings, which were regarded by the evangelists as the sources for the knowledge of the real, ‘spiritual’ Jesus Christ, who came to be known to the world in the course of life, in the person, and in the writings of his particularly chosen Apostle, and who still lives in his Church. The research on the historical Jesus ought to take this basic feature of the Gospels into serious consideration.
Consequently, in order to deal with the issue of reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus in a truly scholarly way, the hypertextual features of the Gospels should be properly investigated.
(Adamczewski 2013, 11 f.)
What Bartosz Adamczewski says there is all very fine as far as it goes but there is something vital missing. And it is that missing element that has opened up opportunities for some rather savage reviews of his work.
Yes, it is fine to present the “case for” a proposition. But unless one addresses systematically the flaws in the existing or alternative viewpoint, especially if that alternative is the prevailing conventional wisdom, one is not likely to persuade anyone to jump ship, at least not with justifiable reason. Simply declaring the alternative to be resting ultimately upon unfounded assumptions won’t work any magic unless one accompanies that claim with clear demonstrations.
That won’t persuade most to change their minds overnight; it will probably engender unscholarly responses. But it will at least leave material for other, most likely new, scholars to notice and work with into the future.
Adamczewski, Bartosz. 2013. Hypertextuality and Historicity in the Gospels. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften.
R.G. Price has posted an article expanding on his argument he made in Deciphering the Gospels that the “cleansing the Temple” scene is derived from an imaginative interpretation of a passage in Hosea and has no basis in any sort of historical memory of anything Jesus ever did. Price goes beyond the argument itself, however, and believes it is strong enough to serve as a lever against the standards of mainstream studies of the historical Jesus. He concludes:
The relationship between the temple cleansing scene and Hosea 9 is real and it needs to be addressed by mainstream biblical scholars. It requires revising the models of mainstream scholarship and seriously reevaluating mainstream positions. The implications are vast and profound. The idea that it’s, “certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple,” is no longer tenable. Anyone continuing to claim it is in light of this evidence should no longer be considered credible. Anyone who addresses the temple cleansing scene without addressing this literary dependency is either unaware of the most recent scholarship or intentionally ignoring it because they are unable to address it. From this point forward, addressing the temple cleansing without addressing its relationship to Hosea 9 is untenable.
That’s not how “mainstream biblical scholars” are going to respond, of course. Once they start with the “secure fact” that Jesus was crucified they need to find some grounds for that crucifixion that will not undermine whatever attributes he had that enabled his former followers to believe he was the messiah who had been raised to heaven. A misunderstood event in the temple serves that function. I think many of those scholars are well aware that the evangelists have culled words from the canonical Hebrew texts to colour the episode, but none of that seems to lead many to doubt the historicity of the event. The literary borrowings are said to reflect the deep meaning that the authors gave to the historical event that they are nonetheless sure must have happened.
The idea of seeing fruit on a fig tree (Jesus approaches the fig tree looking for fruit)
Driving sinners out of the temple (Jesus drives out the money-changers)
The withering of the fig tree (the fig tree is found to be withered)
I think the case can be made even stronger by adding the other passages that our evangelist author has drawn upon. In addition to Hosea 9 we have Isaiah and Jeremiah:
Mark 11:15-17 (New King James Version)
15 So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 16 And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. 17Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?[a]But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”[b]
In an earlier post I did point to the same passage in Hosea (along with other passages expressing the fig tree metaphor) but without Price’s elaboration of how it fits the structure of the episode in Mark:
The same theme of being planted to bear good fruit and being cursed and uprooted for bearing bad, and the lesson to be godly at all times, is repeated in Jeremiah 8.13; 32:36-41; Hosea 9:10-14.
Michael Turton also referenced the Hosea 9:10 passage in his commentary on Mark.
It is that last passage, Hosea 9:10-14 that Price teases apart and highlighting the chiastic structure of Hosea’s matching the chiastic structure of Mark’s “fig tree – temple – fig tree” unit.
We can go farther, yet. So far we can claim that each scene and each sentence in the narrative of the cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the temple can be sourced to Scriptural sources. That’s fine, but there is also the literary function of the double episode itself in the framework of the gospel’s plot. (Again, refer to that “earlier post” above for details.)
Everything about the episode has been constructed from well-known canonical passages and constructed for narrative plot. The author of the Gospel of John presented a Jesus quite different from the one found in the Synoptic gospels and replaced the temple cleansing scene with the raising of Lazarus. It was the raising of Lazarus that prompted the Jewish authorities to do away with Jesus. The fourth evangelist treated the temple action as a theological or symbolic action that he was free to move to the beginning of the gospel. Tim has shown the reason for this move in one of his posts: it served as a replacement for the synoptic Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.
It is as clear that the story is a composite literary artifice. The only grounds for concluding that it does have some historical core are a belief that Jesus was crucified even though he was a righteous and good man consumed with zeal for God and purity of worship. That the theme of the righteous man being unjustly executed by authorities and becoming an atonement for others is another literary-cum-theological trope in literature (Jewish and Greek) is something to be discussed another day.
Maybe it’s just me and the particular apologists I have encountered over the years, but I seem to have run into a claim that the authors of the canonical gospels found themselves moved to write about Jesus in a completely new literary genre that we call “the gospels”. The four gospels certainly are unlike other types of ancient historical and biographical writings from the Greco-Roman world, and many of us are well aware that a number of scholars have attempted to demonstrate that they nonetheless do conform to an ancient type of writing that approximates our understanding of biography, that is, a Life, or bios. We have argued here that such efforts are problematic and pointed out that not all scholars specializing in the genre of the gospels agree.
So I found myself taking special interest when last week I came across classicist scholars pointing out that the creation of new genres, generally by mixing together into one composition the features of a range of pre-existing literary genres, was not at all so unusual in the literary world of the Greco-Roman culture throughout the second century b.c.e. through to the second century c.e.
Further, on the question of intertextuality and “mimesis” or imitation and creatively re-writing lines and episodes from earlier well-known works may be thought of as the one constant, an essential skill for any Greco-Roman author, as we shall see.
Here are some extracts from the works I came across discussing the history of literature throughout this period:
First, some from Elaine Fantham and her highly regarded work, Roman Literary Culture: From Cicero to Apuleius.
In her introduction Fantham explains that she intends to discuss
where appropriate, to explain the rise and fall of different genres by social and political change. (p. xiv
Soon we come to the subheading:
New Genres of Literature, from Lucilius to Apuleius (p.12)
The Romans, she tell us, claimed to have invented the genre of satire (p.13), of the personal elegy (p.33) and of protest literature (p.117). On the works of Apuleius she writes:
But there was another layer of literary performance, which straddles the thin line between actuality and fiction. . . . But this single work is a world in itself. This sophisticated and sensational narrative achieved for its age an escape from the limitations of genre, locality, class, or age group that had last been reached by Ovid’s epic of transformation; but the changes from verse to prose, from myth to contemporary fantasy, reflect the new diffusion of Latin literature into a reader’s world as diverse and far flung as the empire itself. — p. 17
Further on we read,
Later generations continued the transfusion of genres (p. 94).
This post selects a few of the highlights from Mogens Müller’s chapter in Luke’s Literary Creativity (2016) in which he presents a case for Acts being a “biblical rewriting of the gospels and the letters of Paul”. I omit several important questions that his thesis raises and that he addresses in the same chapter, attempting to focus here exclusively on some of the indicators that Acts could be such a rewriting.
Müller accepts the possibility that Luke-Acts was written well into the second century, possibly even as late as the 140s, as a revised foundational story for the church. Such a late date should not be a problem, Müller suggests, if we no longer accept that the author did not use Q as one of his sources but knew of and included both Matthew and even possibly John as among the previous lives of Jesus that he was critical of in his introduction. (For other arguments that Luke and Acts in their current canonical form were a mid second century product see the archive on Tyson‘s book and links within those posts to related archives.) Müller even points to recent scholarship that allows for the work of Papias as a possible source for the author of Luke-Acts.
Inclusion of the Non-Jewish World
If Paul’s letters are our oldest surviving Christian documents and the authors of our first gospels, Mark and Matthew, needed to find a way to explain how gentiles came to be incorporated into a church supposedly founded by a Jewish teacher in Galilee, we know they found the solution by creating “proleptic episodes and teaching” in their stories of Jesus. Continue reading “Acts as a Rewriting of Gospels and Paul’s Letters, part 1”
How Is Harry Potter Different Than the Bible? — that’s a recent post by Christian-believing scholar James McGrath, and as one might expect from the title by such faithful convert the post is in effect an exhortation for people to read the Bible more seriously and diligently than they do their Harry Potter novels.
The majority of Harry Potter fans actually READ Harry Potter.
James McGrath continues:
In fact, they read it all the way through, paying close attention to detail, on more than one occasion.
Mmm, yeh, well . . . I happen to know many apologist jerks who can boast just that — having read the Bible right through, close attention to detail, several times.
Yes, yes, of course we all know the next line,
many Christians who claim to take the Bible seriously actually merely pay lip service to it
But isn’t there one little detail being missed here?
The Bible is NOT a single book by a single author like any Harry Potter novel. Unless one believes a supernatural mind was using human scribes to write it all in 66 chapters.
So what motivates a biblical scholar, a professional scholar, to compare the Harry Potter novels with a texts composed across centuries and cultures and compiled some time around the fourth century by a warring church council?
One does not get the feeling that one would be able to engage in a serious non-partisan academic discussion with such a scholar.
But to see the real relationship between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ one can’t go past Derek Murphy’s analogies in Jesus Potter Harry Christ.
Matthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has posted an interesting discussion on Dennis MacDonald’s defence at the recent Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference of his thesis that a significant influence of the Homeric literature can be found in the New Testament writings, especially the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts.
For those wondering what the status of his views currently are in the mainstream of biblical studies they will find this an interesting read. Some comments:
Not surprisingly, MacDonald’s thesis has had a number of critics, but has also received a good deal of praise. . .
Overall, the general consensus is that some of the parallels that MacDonald identifies are very strong and interesting, while others are weaker and more speculative. But, one thing that was generally agreed upon at the SBL conference is that mimesis criticism is working its way into mainstream biblical criticism. In fact, MacDonald’s mimesis criticism is likewise going to be discussed at the SBL Annual Meeting in Georgia later this year. . . .
The fact that MacDonald’s arguments will be a central part of this year’s annual SBL conference suggests to me that MacDonald’s new methods are, indeed, making headway into mainstream Biblical Studies. I am not sure whether mimesis criticism will necessarily be central to interpreting the majority of passages in the Gospels and Acts, but I do think that it is very applicable to select examples . . . .
Another Aussie blogger, Matthew R. Malcolm of Cryptotheology, today posted published an interesting post, Plato and Jesus on inviting the poor. Matthew raises a question that emerges quite often to anyone who knows the Bible and reads widely among the ancient texts, Greek, Roman and Jewish. One regularly stumbles across passages that sound just like something in the Bible. I have posted on some of these “ah ha” moments and have many, many more lined up eventually to post about “one day”. Surely there must be reference books identifying these passages. Does anyone know of one?
I take the liberty of quoting the same edition of the Plato passage cited by Matthew:
If it were true that we ought to give the biggest favour to those who need it most, then we should all be helping out the very poorest people, not the best ones, because people we’ve saved from the worst troubles will give us the most thanks. For instance, the right people to invite to a dinner party would be beggars and people who need to sate their hunger, because they’re the ones who’ll be fond of us, follow us, knock on our doors, take the most pleasure with the deepest gratitude, and pray for our success. (Phaedrus 233d-e, Cooper’s edition)
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
Reminder: This series is skipping over many of the personal details related to Thomas Brodie’s intellectual odyssey. It also needs to be kept in mind that generally, this book does not present Brodie’s detailed arguments but rather traces how his understanding of the nature and origins of the Biblical literature emerged.
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 notwhat 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.
Recently I disappointed the pastor of the Diamond Valley Community Church when I declined to respond to his point by point counter-claims to my comparison of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 as told in Mark 6:30-44 with Elisha’s feeding 100 followers with 20 loaves of bread in 2 Kings 4:38-44. This was a pity because he assures us that his efforts were “such a burden”, but we both know that those are the trials of a self-sacrificing follower of the Lord whose every breath is dedicated to banishing spiritual darkness from a godless world.
I have encountered the sorts of objections our burdened pastor made many times before and confess that by now I have lost all interest in engaging with them. Such objections — “this is not a real parallel because the story-reasons for the food shortage are different or because the prompts that led to groups of people sitting down are different in the two stories” — are a pointlessly puerile game of “spot the difference” where the pictures are quite different to begin with.
The differences in the above images are more striking than their similarities. One can search the net and easily find hundreds more and even more striking variations — different colour schemes, additional figures, different backgrounds, different positions and postures of the central figure . . . But one thing is clear: they are all adaptations of the original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.
Previous posts in this series are archived here. Another review of this chapter can be read at Aaron Adair’s blog.
I liked Ingrid Hjelm‘s chapter, “‘Who is my Neighbor?’ Implicit Use of Old Testament Stories and Motifs in Luke’s Gospel”, for several reasons:
it presented the first cogent explanation I have ever encountered for why Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is so different from Matthew’s and why it avoided all mention of David’s son Solomon and the rest of the kings of Israel and Judah;
it explained how a Davidic Messianic figure did not necessarily imply a worldly conqueror (at least not until the last days) but that the OT also contained a nonviolent priestly vision of David who united God’s people as a priestly, Moses-like figure;
it showed how the Gospel of Luke is very much an extension of the same sort of literature that came to make up the Jewish Bible;
it reminded me of the importance of the sacred meaning of numbers among biblical authors, something too easily overlooked today;
it also indirectly prompted possible explanations for why Luke might have adapted and changed the Gospel of Matthew (if he did — but this is really a topic that belongs to another post entirely.)
(But it took some time to grasp what the chapter was about initially. It launches straight into a detailed discussion of details of Matthew’s genealogy and one is immediately wondering, “What the heck is this all about? Was an opening paragraph outlining her argument lost by an editor?” More likely, perhaps, it was cut and paste from other publications by Hjelm yet with insufficient re-editing to clarify the direction of the argument for readers completely new to her views. And there are several passages in the rest of the chapter that leave a reader unfamiliar with the contents of cited references bemused. (Only after tracking down online citations and catching up with some background reading was I able to make sense of some of Hjelm’s statements. Needless to say, some of her claims whose citations are not online remain obscure to me.) Unfortunately this chapter is not the only one in this volume that suffers from this sort of difficulty for those unfamiliar with some of the authors and ideas, — not to mention just a few too many typos. But as you can tell from my positive introduction it was worth making the effort to understand the flow of her argument.)
Hjelm shows us that the author of the Gospel of Luke interpreted and reused the Old Testament scriptures as a template for his own Gospel story of Jesus in quite subtle and sophisticated ways that are foreign to the ways most modern readers have come to understand the OT. Luke (we’ll imagine the author’s name was Luke) viewed the David figure embodied in Jesus not through the stained history in the books of Samuel, but through the idealized portrait in the books of Chronicles where a priestly David is portrayed as a second Moses, and as such reunites Samaritanism and Judaism once again into the theological ideal of a new Israel.
(I use the term “Judaism” here instead of “Jews” because it is worth keeping in mind what that word “Jew” actually describes at that time: see Where did the Bible’s Jews come from?Part 1, Part 2. Hjelm even concludes that Luke was not the gentile convert most readers have assumed him to be, but a Hellenized “Jew”.)
What we see in the Gospel are reiteration and paralleling of the motifs and themes of the older Scriptures. If that sounds a lot like the sort of argument we have come to expect from Thomas L. Thompson, we should not be surprised to find Hjelm is also from the University of Copenhagen and Thompson’s name appears frequently in her list of publications.
There is, of course, much more to be written about the Gospel of Luke’s use of the OT — see, for example, Origin of the Emmaus Road Narrative and More on Luke’s Use of Genesis — but this chapter by Hjelm gives readers an excellent insight into the way the author used Scriptures. Hjelm concludes ambiguously on the question of the implications of Luke’s use of Scriptures for the narrative’s historicity. What really matters is that we understand and accept the nature of the Biblical stories and what they meant for their original creators and audiences.
Against Hjelm’s references to Samaritans as the heritage of Moses in this chapter one should be aware that Ingrid Hjelm clearly has a special interest in Samaritan studies (see her list of publications) and last year was awarded The Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Achievement by the Samaritan community. At one point she justifies the pivotal reference to Samaritans as well as Jews as an allegorical interpretation (Moses represents the Samaritans and Elijah the Jews) by citing an earlier (2004) publication of hers.
In this post I select just one detail that is not meant to persuade the sceptical (and scepticism is a virtue) but only to stimulate thoughts anew among anyone who has not traveled this road before. There is much more to be said along with the snippet of data I present here, and I have posted one of those snippets on vridar.info comparing Moses with Herodotus’ portrayal of the Persian king Xerxes (and the Plagues of Egypt with the catastrophes inflicting the army of Xerxes). A serious treatment comparing Herodotus’ Histories would need to start with a 1993 publication, The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History by Mandell and Freedman. One of the more fascinating insights is that the Greek history is in many ways a “theological” history like the Bible’s historical books. The same lessons of the the role of the divine in and over human affairs are found like a unifying thread in both works. But such details are for another time.
To appreciate what is to follow it would help to have some knowledge of both Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s epic poem of the founding of the Roman race, the Aeneid. G. N. Knauer sums up the way Virgil did not merely serendipitously draw upon recollections of what he had read in Homer’s epics, but he clearly studied the structures of Homer’s epics and built his own epic upon a reassembling of that structure, perhaps in an effort to surpass the artistry of the original.
. . . Vergil clearly realized how Homer conceived the structure of the Odyssey and . . . therefore did not simply imitate sporadic Homeric verses or scenes. On the contrary he first analysed the plan of the Odyssey, then transformed it and made it the base of his own poem.
What is especially significant is that this is one case-study of how ancient literature very often worked. Reworkings of earlier masters was a highly respected skill.
I don’t think I’m alone in also thinking Virgil reworked a single epic out of Homer’s dual effort. The Aeneid is an epic poem of the travels of Aeneas, founder of the Roman race, from the time he fled the conquered and burning Troy until the time he found a secure place in Italy after many battles with the local Latin tribes. The Roman epic begins with the adventures of a long voyage of Aeneas to his destined homeland — just as the second Homeric epic, the Odyssey, narrates the adventurous travels of the Greek hero. The second half of the Roman epic recounts many battles reminiscent of Homer’s first epic, the Iliad. Both conclude with the climactic death in battle of a warrior protagonist — Hector and Turnus. (Of course, the Odyssey likewise ends in much bloodshed, but this action is actually a small part in a larger narrative of deception, plotting and homecoming.) So a very broad comparison of the larger structures of these epics looks like this: