Okay, the title is a bait and switch. This post isn't actually about Ebola. It does however use the current fears surrounding Ebola as an instructive lesson for New Testament scholars.
The other day, I came across a news story that a patient was being treated in a Brampton, Ontario, hospital for Ebola-like symptoms. Now, Brampton, Ontario, is about a half-hour drive from my home, so I was understandably a bit concerned by the news. Then I read the story, and noted its emphasis upon the "like" in "Ebola-like." What was going on is that the patient had recently returned to Canada from a country affected by Ebola and had symptoms that looked like Ebola, but also looked like other, more common diseases, such as malaria. The hospital was playing it safe and quarantining the patient and sending out blood for testing, but it probably wasn't Ebola. The lesson: formal similarity is insufficient to establish substantive identity.
This is exactly the same lesson that Samuel Sandmel imparted some time ago when he coined the word "parallelomania." It is
a perpetual and still-persistent problem in biblical studies that scholars will
identify formal parallels between two texts or corpora but fail to specify the
precise significance of such parallels. So what if X is like Y? What is the
nature of the parallel? Is it, to borrow a helpful distinction from our colleagues
in evolutionary biology, homologous, which is to say a relationship of common
origin but not necessarily a common function (i.e. a bat’s wing and a human
arm), or analogous, which is to say a relationship of common function but not
common origin (i.e. a bat’s wing and a bird’s wing)? If homologous then what
generated the divergence? If analogous then what generated the convergence?
This is all to say two things: first, that form is not substance, such that a
formal similarity does not necessarily imply a substantive identity; second, that the mere identification of similarities
does not in fact constitute a historical argument but rather at best a question
to which as an answer one might now formulate a historical argument.
I discussed this the other day in relation to mythicism in historical Jesus studies. Yes, there are some similarities between the gospels and an array of mythical texts. There is a figure identified in some sense as divine (although one can argue about the extent to which this is the case for all of the canonical gospels). This figure dies and returns to life: a dying-and-rising god, one might say. This figure performs acts of power. Etc. In light of all these similarities the question becomes quite simply: so what? Before I judge the gospels to be myth I would want to know things like "What did the Evangelists intend"? Do they intend to write myth? Or do they intend something else altogether, such as historiography or biography, and just happen in the process to incorporate into their work quite incidental parallels with mythic literature? I would want to know how the earliest readers of the gospels understood these works. Did they think they were writing merely mythical accounts, without connection to actual real-world events? The more one asks such genuinely exegetical and historical questions the less one is impressed by the formal similarities.
The other interesting thing about parallels is that even if one identifies some sort of genetic relationship one still has to explicate its significance. Let us draw upon an example from the Hebrew Bible here. It is altogether conceivable that Genesis 1 alludes to the Enuma Elish. Although this is not necessarily without dispute, let us suppose that it does. The question, again, would be: so what? The ancient Israelites could in fact have adopted the entirety of the Enuma Elish without
necessarily ascribing to it the same values as did its neighbours, and in point of fact there is no data to warrant the conclusion that they did adopt the entirety of the Enuma Elish. Ben F. Meyer, in Early Christians, helpfully distinguishes between two forms syncretism: weak syncretism, which characterizes traditions that, having weak identities of their own, are little more than assemblages of elements borrowed from other traditions; and strong syncretism, which characterizes traditions that, having strong identities of their own, borrow elements from other traditions in order to better articulate that identity. Ancient Israelite and Jewish syncretism seems, at least from the Second Temple Period, to be a strong syncretism.
This has implications for these animals we call "Hellenistic Judaism" and "Christianity." In the case of the former, yes, Hengel is absolutely right, by the 3rd century BCE at the latest Judaism in the land and the western Diaspora can in general be termed "Hellenistic." Yet this requires qualification, for in this Hellenism Judaism did not give up but in fact sought to enrich, enhance, and advance its own distinctive identity. Philo's syncretism is perhaps the exemplar of strong syncretism: not the Platonization of Judaism but rather the Judaization of Platonism. Christianity perpetuates this tradition of strong syncretism. Origen will Christianize Platonism; church architects will Christianize the basilica form; missionaries will Christianize Germanic and Scandinavian pagan sites and symbols; etc. This strong syncretism continues today in various ways (witness for instance the Evangelical Christian tendency to take whatever form of music is currently popular and Christianize it by increasing the Jesus-per-minute factor whilst reducing its quality as music).
Returning to the question of mythicism, why should we think that the gospels are the exception in the tradition of strong syncretism identifiable in both Judaism and Christianity from at least the Second Temple period? Why should we assume that the earliest Christians, with their thoroughly Jewish heritage, suddenly went bonkers and became weak syncretists completely out of step with the tradition upon which they were building, only to return not long thereafter to a strong syncretism? Why should we think they were running off to pagan myths when all the data indicates that they were drawing upon Jewish scriptural and extra-scriptural tradition in building their understanding of Jesus of Nazareth? The answer to these rhetorical questions is of course that we shouldn't think thus.