Sunday, 10 August 2014

Ebola and Parallelomania

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.

14 comments:

  1. While I would certainly like to know how the earliest readers of the gospels understood them. there is very little extant writing about the gospels until the latter half of the second century. Can I infer anything about what the Evangelists intended from what Irenaeous thought about their work?

    The only evidence I have of the Evangelists' intention to write history or biography is the gospels themselves. So it seems to me that I am just back to looking for parallels. How do I determine which parallels are incidental and which are intentional?

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    1. Well, sure, yeah, the primary data for what the Evangelist intended to communicate is what they wrote. Likewise, the primary data for what you intended to write here is what you wrote here. Interesting thing is that I didn't have to go running off to parallels to understand what you meant. I read the words, I interpreted them as best as I could. It's not clear to me that reading the gospels would be any different in principle.

      And yeah, by "earliest readers" I mean "earliest readers whose writings are extant." I mean, really, what else could I mean? I obviously would not suggest that one go about trying to read writings that are not extant. The question however is, If we allow that Irenaeus is the earliest known reader of the gospels, and if he read the gospels as history or biography, what evidence is there that he represented a radical break from previous readings that went contrary to such reading? If we cannot know how the gospels were read prior to Irenaeus then we cannot know that they were read as myth during that period. So it's all wash.

      But of course in point of fact Irenaeus is not the earliest reader of the gospels whose writings are currently extant. There are, for instance, Justin Martyr, and before him Papias of Hierapolis. Yes, his writings exist only in fragmentary form preserved in later texts, but if ancient historians were to ignore all fragmentary writings preserved in later texts then our knowledge of the ancient world would be greatly truncated. There is also Ignatius of Antioch, whom I think most scholars would agree knew at least some of the gospels. And before any of these figures, if we accept Markan priority then both Matthew and Luke stand as readers of that prior gospel. Indeed, unless one supposes some sort of independence theory, then at least one Evangelist must be familiar with the work of at least one other. The interesting thing is that there is no evidence suggesting that any of these authors thought the gospels to be myth. So the question becomes: if the gospels are myth how is it that all these people were deceived in thinking otherwise? Or were they part of the deception? And is any historical narrative constructed to make this sort of conspiracy theory work going to be more reasonable than the much simpler one that says that Jesus was a real person about whom some guys wrote some biographies or histories?

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    2. By "earliest readers," you might have meant the communities for which the Evangelists originally wrote. I have seen enough discussions of who the gospels were written for that that was the first thing that popped into my mind. Of course, one might argue that that illustrates the dangers of looking for parallels. On the other hand, I think I would argue that whenever we read anything, we look for parallels to other things we know in order to interpret its meaning even if we aren't consciously aware that we are doing it.

      I don't know of any evidence that Irenaeus' reading of the gospels represented a radical break from the past. On the other hand, I know of no evidence that his reading represented continuity either. .I do know that Irenaeus was writing in an effort to settle controversies that were current in his day, so I think I can at least infer that opinion about the gospels was less than uniform. It's possible that I just can't know how the gospels were read prior to Irenaeus, if his is our earliest writing about the gospels. If that is the case, then perhaps I cannot infer anything about how they were intended based on how they were read due to the time gap.

      You are correct that there are earlier allusions to the gospels. I chose Irenaeus because he refers to the four canonical gospels that we know more unambiguously than any earlier writer. I understand there is less certainty about what writings Justin Martyr may have had, and even less when it comes to Ignatius and Papias.

      I think Papias raises some interesting questions in that the fragments quoted by Eusebius don't make it clear whether Papias actually possessed or had read the documents to which he referred. He might simply be passing along stories he had heard. In another fragment, Papias tells a story about the later life of fat, stinky Judas which is at odds with the accounts in the canonical gospels. Thus even if Papias understood the gospels to be historical writings, it seems that he accepted other fantastic stories as being equally historical. .

      If then we are left with the gospels themselves as the only evidence of the Evangelists' intentions (and I suspect this is probably the case), how do we discern that intention other than by making comparisons to other ancient literature? The arguments I have seen that the Evangelists were writing histories or biographies is made by identifying similarities to other ancient histories and biographies. The argument that they are mythology is made by identifying similarities to mythology. I just don't know how to reach any conclusions other than by looking for parallels to other works.

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    3. Let us begin by considering your final statement: "I just don't know how to reach any conclusions other than by looking for parallels to other works." Let us put this into more schematic form: I can only conclude anything about A because of similarities that it has to B. The problem is that if this is the case then knowledge about anything is impossible. Please allow me to unpack this obvious conclusion. If I can only conclude anything about A because of similarities that it has to B then this leads to the question, How can I conclude anything about B? If you answer "By comparison to A" then you are stuck in an inescapably circular argument. If you answer "By comparison to C" then you introduce an infinite regress. If you answer "I can make conclusions about B without comparison with anything else" then you obviate your initial statement "I can only conclude anything about A because of similarities that it has to B." In other words, your statement leads either to inescapable circularity, inescapable infinite regress, or the conclusion that it is fact false.

      Continuing with that paragraph, you ask how we discern the evangelists' intention other than by making comparisons with other ancient literature. I have already shown why in fact that cannot be made into a hard and fast rule, and now I will show how one can consider such matters absent resort to parallels. Let us consider for instance the first few verses of Luke's Gospel. He tells Theophilus that he is going to report what has happened among them. That hardly sounds like the words of someone who is about to report events that he knows did not occur. Now, one could respond that this is a literary technique to shore up the idea that what follows is meant to be historiography, but that is simply to concede my point. One could say that he aims to shore up the idea that what follows is meant to be historiography precisely because in fact Luke knew that it was not yet wanted his readers to believe that it was, i.e. that Luke doth protest too much. That however is again only to concede that what follows looks like historiography, and to further beg the question by supposing that which remains to be proven, namely that Luke is misleading his readers into thinking that what follows is meant to be taken as historiography. By far the more judicious reading, one that does not entail question-begging (a procedure that is by definition logically invalid), is that Luke intends for his readers to understand that his Gospel is meant as some form of historiography (I have no objection to this being called alternatively "biography," as does Richard Burridge) and that he intends this precisely because he intends to write historiography.

      Now, the interesting thing is that this is only supported by appeals to parallels. I can think of no instances wherein such a prologue is utilized within the context of myth. Moreover, Loveday Alexander has shown quite convincingly that such prologues tend to occur in setting wherein what is being emphasized is precisely that what follows is grounded in what we would call empirical data. The parallels make the idea that Luke is writing myth that much more improbable, unless, again, one supposes a priori that Luke is engaged in active deception, but then one must suppose this despite rather than because of the parallels in question. Thus to move in this direction would again obviate the initial premise that parallels are necessary to establish our knowledge about an author's intention.

      In short, one ends up in a big old epistemic morass the more one presumes it necessary to rely upon parallels to know anything about the ancient world.

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    4. I am afraid that your point is not at all clear to me. In the second paragraph, you claim that you “will show how one can consider such matters absent resort to parallels.” Then you make an argument which you admit “is only supported by appeals to parallels.”

      I would also like to clarify that the last sentence in my previous comment did not refer to how one goes about reaching conclusions about anything in the ancient world. It referred to the subject of the paragraph, i.e., reaching conclusions about the intent of the Evangelists if in fact our only evidence of that intent is the gospels themselves. It is the lack of other evidence that forces us to look for parallels as you did, but that doesn’t mean I was arguing that all historiography can be reduced to looking for parallels

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  2. From your first paragraph it seems that you think you have caught me in a contradiction, but of course you have not. In paragraph two I demonstrate without appeal to parallels that one can reach quite reasonable and probably indubitable conclusions regarding the Lukan prologue and by consequent Luke's overall intention in reaching his gospel. The mention of parallels in paragraph three is merely to point out that this conclusion is consistent with material garnered from parallels, but that is merely to affirm that this additional body of data does not obviate the initial conclusion reached on other grounds. The conclusion reached in paragraph two absent appeal to parallels would stand regardless of whether or not paragraph three existed.

    And that is what this is about: the necessary and sufficient conditions for affirming a historical hypothesis. I contend in my initial post that parallels between texts will not typically constitute a sufficient condition for affirming a historical hypothesis. You apparently dispute that, and add that moreover parallels constitute necessary conditions for affirming any hypothesis about the gospels. I have demonstrated that in point of fact, no, we can know things about the gospels absent appeals to parallels, and thus parallels cannot be necessary conditions for affirming any hypothesis about the gospels.

    Regarding your second paragraph, I am a bit confused by the statement that "It is the lack of other evidence that forces us to look for parallels as you did." If the parallels constitute relevant evidence then there is not a lack of evidence; if they do not constitute relevant evidence then they are irrelevant to the discussion. Either way you place you seem to be obviating your own argument for the necessity of parallels. On your own terms either they are not to be found or they are not relevant. Again, you seem to be treading in choppy epistemic waters.

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    1. //I am a bit confused by the statement that "It is the lack of other evidence that forces us to look for parallels as you did." If the parallels constitute relevant evidence then there is not a lack of evidence; if they do not constitute relevant evidence then they are irrelevant to the discussion. Either way you place you seem to be obviating your own argument for the necessity of parallels. On your own terms either they are not to be found or they are not relevant. Again, you seem to be treading in choppy epistemic waters.//

      "It is the lack of *other* evidence that forces us to look for parallels"--I've added emphasis to the word "other" because I'm not sure it was noticed in what you wrote above. Vinny is saying if there is no (or is not enough) *other* evidence, then the evidence we have to go on consists in the parallels we've found.

      Myself, I think you should avoid saying things like "you seem to be treading in choppy epistemic waters" because there's nothing to be gained by it. Either you're right, in which the thing to do is to discuss the issues themselves until he gets it or leaves, or else you're wrong (as in here) in which case you've accidentally overreached and made yourself look a little bit foolish to your audience.

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    2. Thank you for your response Christopher. Since the disagreement here turns upon what Vinny meant by the word "other" let me quote his statements more fully: "It referred to the subject of the paragraph, i.e., reaching conclusions about the intent of the Evangelists if in fact our only evidence of that intent is the gospels themselves. It is the lack of other evidence that forces us to look for parallels as you did, but that doesn’t mean I was arguing that all historiography can be reduced to looking for parallels" The point here is that the only evidence is the gospels, and hence any other evidence must be evidence in addition to the gospels. Therefore my point stands: if that is the case then the parallels cannot be counted as evidence. Indeed, that remains the case if you are correct that "Vinny is saying if there is no (or is not enough) *other* evidence, then the evidence we have to go on consists in the parallels we've found." If there is no evidence then how can we go to evidence? If there is insufficient evidence then how can parallels constitute sufficient evidence? I am not at all convinced that your reading of the matter saves the argument.

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    3. Okay I can see what you mean. It looks like you're saying the following two statements (attributed to Vinny) are contradictory:

      A: The only evidence of the intent of the Evangelists is the gospels themselves.

      B: Parallels between the gospels and other artifacts exist, and are evidence of the intent of the Evangelists.

      I can see how one might get the above from a direct reading of what Vinny wrote. I think a more plausible (i.e. not directly contradictory) reading is available, though--albeit one that admittedly applies a bit o' the ole' principle of charity...

      A. Other than parallels, the only evidence of the Evangelist's intent is the gospels themselves.

      B. Therefore, having exhausted the evidence contained strictly within the gospels themselves, what we are left with is to examine the parallels.

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    4. Okay. Let's take that more charitable reading. A number of issues come up immediately.

      One, the argument as more charitably articulated is really quite trivial, as it amounts to saying that "Once we have exhausted all data in the gospels we should consult the data outside the gospels."
      Two, it becomes non-trivial in two instances. The first is if we introduce an unspoken minor between A and B (which actually was voiced in Vinny's articulation) namely that the gospels are insufficient to inform us of the Evangelist's intent and thus we must turn to extra-evangelical data.
      Three, the second instance in which it becomes non-trivial is one in which we distinguish between extra-evangelical data that consists of parallels and extra-evangelical data that does not. How does one make that distinction? What are the distinguishing features? And once these questions are answers is it in fact the case that are no non-parallel, extra-evangelical, data?
      Four, all of this goes back to the major argument of my initial, namely that parallels, whilst not necessarily illegitimate to identify, do not constitute sufficient data to carry an argument. In fact they usually do not so much answer questions as raise them. I still am left quite unsure how a text less relevant to construing the intent of an author than the author's own writing can be of greater evidentiary value for establishing that intent then her or his own writing itself, which must be the case if Vinny's unspoken minor is to be affirmed.

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    5. //Two, it becomes non-trivial in two instances. The first is if we introduce an unspoken minor between A and B (which actually was voiced in Vinny's articulation) namely that the gospels are insufficient to inform us of the Evangelist's intent and thus we must turn to extra-evangelical data.//

      Yes, this is what I had in mind on my reading of Vinny's post.

      //Three, the second instance in which it becomes non-trivial is one in which we distinguish between extra-evangelical data that consists of parallels and extra-evangelical data that does not. How does one make that distinction? What are the distinguishing features? And once these questions are answers is it in fact the case that are no non-parallel, extra-evangelical, data?//

      These seem like great questions to me, which I think can help move forward the discussion you two are having.

      //I still am left quite unsure how a text less relevant to construing the intent of an author than the author's own writing can be of greater evidentiary value for establishing that intent then her or his own writing itself, which must be the case if Vinny's unspoken minor is to be affirmed.//

      I agree that it would be interesting to see what Vinny has in mind here.

      (Vinny, if you've already addressed that above my apologies for not recalling it. I have to skidaddle or I'd go re-read the relevant posts.)

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    6. Concerning this last point again:

      //I still am left quite unsure how a text less relevant to construing the intent of an author than the author's own writing can be of greater evidentiary value for establishing that intent then her or his own writing itself, which must be the case if Vinny's unspoken minor is to be affirmed.//

      Not to speak for Vinny, but the idea doesn't seem that far-fetched to me. References to things external to the text, for example, might not in themselves yield much evidence for their meaning, but knowledge of those externals might yield a lot of evidence for the references' meaning.

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    7. Thank you for your input Kristofer.

      Frankly, I don't think I would use the word "evidence" to describe parallels. In my humble opinion, the gospel writings are evidence, but the parallels that one posits between the gospels and other ancient historical or mythological writings are interpretations of the evidence or a means of interpreting the evidence. By "other evidence," I had something in mind like writings demonstrating how the gospels were understood by their first readers as opposed to how they were understood by later Christians.

      I think I might say that our primary evidence of the Evangelists’ intent is the gospels themselves, but we need a method by which we infer that intent from the gospels. Is the Evangelists’ intent apparent on its face, or are the gospels ambiguous concerning that intent? I think that it is the latter. If I were to look up the word “epistemic” in the dictionary in order to better understand the point Jonathan is making, it would not imply that the dictionary is more relevant to determining what he meant than his own writing or that it had greater evidentiary value. It is simply a method of determining the meaning of the language he has used. I think that looking for parallels is a similar endeavor.

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  3. Your previous statement was that your conclusion was "only supported by appeals to parallels." If you want to tone that down to "merely pointing out consistency with the parallels," so be it. I think you were right the first time.

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