Disproving Parallelomania

The Story so Far:

Neil at Vridar published a chapter of Tom Brodie’s book on Jesus which purports to show the many and detailed connections between the Elijah/Elisha narrative in 1 Kings 19, and Jesus’s challenges to his disciples in Luke 9.

James at Exploring our Matrix responded with skepticism.

It’s All Random … Mostly (what a very suitable blog title!) called out James on his use of the world ‘parallelomania’ – suggesting that it is a facile insult, but avoids engagement.

I’ve been musing on this today.

I find it hard to imagine what a constructive engagement with ‘parallelomania’ might look like. One that goes beyond just blank skepticism. Because there are some claims that can only be addressed with skepticism.

Seeing patterns in noise is hard to disprove.

Here’s an extreme example (to illustrate the problem, not to say Tom Brodie’s conclusions are comparable). If someone claims to see Jesus in a tree-stump, how do you have detailed engagement with them on it? They’re just going to head for the detail – “look this particular fleck of pigment looks like a nostril – right?, so clearly this section is a nose.” – “No, its just a coincidence” – “but this wiggle here in the nostril, that’s the columella transit, in the exact correspondence with this fleck here which is the philtrum, what other markings on the three have that exact combination – it can’t be coincidence!”

I’ve had those kinds of conversations with people claiming amazing biblical prophecies, for example. With really specific, odd detail. It is difficult to engage with.

So false positives in patterns can only be really disproved by an overall probabilistic argument, but such arguments can feel week, and they tend to require a huge corpus. Let’s say we were to properly engage with Brodie’s argument – how would it be done? Well, I’d want to find how many other texts, when interpreted at the same level of generosity, would also display the same number of ‘correspondences’. But nobody is suggesting Luke is independent of 1 Kings, so how do we tell the difference between coincidence, allusion, and derivation? Surely not by just counting the hits.

So I have some sympathy for using the term ‘parallelomania’ as a term of skepticism. To say, yes it is fine to find parallels, but as long as you’ve only shown the parallels, you’re relying on a kind of probabilistic innuendo to make your point: you have neither analysed the false positives nor the false negatives.


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16 responses to “Disproving Parallelomania

  1. I haven’t read the links, nor know the issue,
    But I love how you have discussed the issue of HOW to weigh evidence.
    There are all sorts of evidence types and for each type, it has its own short-comings. I feel that when someone is purporting evidence or countering supposed evidence, it is most helpful when disagreement occurs, that these principles are discussed upfront and matter-of-factly.

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  3. TWF

    Having seen and heard several cases where parallels are drawn without even so much as a wink at the false positives and negatives, I think that’s a fair assessment of the situation. Well said.

  4. While I agree that “parallelomania” avoids the issues rather than engaging, I appreciate that parallels can be found almost anywhere. However, I see that as at least as much a problem with the sources as a problem with the method. Anything could be borrowed and anything could have roots in a historical event. There is no sure footing for either side.

    On the other hand, having read the Brodie chapter, it is hard for me to make any sense of James and John asking Jesus whether they should call down fire from heaven to destroy the inhospitable Samaritans prior to Jesus’s journey to the place where he was to be taken up to heaven in Luke 9:51-55 other than as an allusion to Elijah calling down fire from heaven to destroy the king’s men prior to his journey to the place where he was to be taken up to heaven. I can’t see any reason to look for any historical event behind that passage. That seems to me to be a solid case of Luke directly reworking Elijah stories rather than interpreting historical events through Elihah-colored glasses. I think that is enough to justify Brodie’s search for other possible parallels even if they are more ambiguous.

  5. As I’ve said to James on his blog, my rant was a little over zealous and you are right I did avoid engagement. I was a student of Brodie for 5 years until last year so I’m used to accusations of parallelomania at this stage. This has changed the way I approach intertextuality to a more experimental manner. This is mentioned in ‘Reading the Bible Intertextually’ (Hays et al.) as a process of comparing texts for the sake of comparing them just to see if the reading of one can illuminate the other. Based the results of this process one can propose dependence depending on the evidence. But what constitutes evidence of dependence? For this I use criteria for judging literary dependence. I have been developing my own which were initially based on Brodie’s but I found this too slack in dealing with textual parallels so I’ve been tweaking and tweaking them over a few years venturing into both Classical and literary studies to build a set that can aid in assessing data in a manner that doesn’t result in false positives. It’s a work in progress. I suppose that this is part of what makes the term parallelomania so frustrating is that a case for dependence is not plucked out of thin air – but say the word parallelomania and everybody looks at it with prejudice.

    Also – the title is suitable isn’t it? I do like a bit of random.

  6. Ian

    @Shape – thanks for commenting and welcome! I wasn’t accusing you of not engaging, I was just wondering how one could engage. I like to see engagement, but engaging on details can be counter-productive when the problem is higher level. I wasn’t being negative about your post, just musing on it. I think you’re right on literary dependence and there you’re on safer ground because you can do statistics on large corpora.

    @Vinny – I was reasonably happy with some of Brodie’s coarse comparisons. But it is the idea of then going looking for other correspondences where the context of false positives and negatives are needed. It is, imho, a fallacy to suppose one connection invites you to match others, with a lower threshold of probability.

    So perhaps the ‘calling down fire’ is an allusion to Elijah. Seems reasonable (though, I guess, what’s the chances of any kind of quote at that point matching some OT text… still, nobody doubts Luke knew Kings, so the allusion seems reasonable.)

    But then, as you say “this happened on Jesus’s journey to his death, and on Elijah’s journey to his death”. Well, its all in the way you frame it. You frame both passages that way, and you get the correspondence, but that’s getting subtle. The ‘parallelomania’ kicks in when all this new reframings start coming thick and fast such as the threefold challenge, lying down, the mention of death, and so on. You can squint and kinda get them to match, if you frame each one in just the right way isolate it, and neglect to check the rest of the corpus. But the idea that the presence of the fire allusion makes those connections more likely seems totally unreasonable to me.

    But to refute that, we’d need a corpus approach, which would be really really time consuming for anyone to ‘engage’ with, and unduly changes the burden of evidence onto the critic. So the best that I can suggest is to say “Brodie needs to go and do the corpus analysis to refute the null hypothesis, until then we’re justified in treating his conclusions as dubiously based.”

    @TWF, Sabio – thanks a lot!

  7. @Ian,

    I don’t think I am getting subtle at all, because it’s not a “journey to his death.” It’s being “taken up to heaven” while alive, which. as far as I know, only happens to Jesus and Elijah in the Bible. Jesus dies and rises back to life before being taken up and Elijah is taken up in a whirlwind without ever dying. It’s natural to think of Jesus making the journey to his death because he had already predicted his death twice in that chapter, but the phrase “taken up to heaven” is the phrase that Luke uses to describe the Ascension. As far as “raining down fire” goes, apparently some manuscripts even include the phrase “as Elijah did” in Luke 9:54.

    I agree that the threefold challenge gets pretty speculative and I think that Brodie expresses entirely too much certainty about it, but given what I take to be pretty solid evidence of borrowing from Kings in the earlier passage in Luke, I think some speculation about what else might be borrowed is in order.

  8. Ian

    @Vinny – that’s exactly the point I was making in the post. how do we have a sensible discussion that doesn’t consist of you focusing on details and me going ‘Nuh-uh!’? I don’t know. The being taken up to heaven idea, I can see, but doesn’t convince me that it isn’t an eisegetical reading into these specific passages. But it convinces you – how would we determine who is right without having some kind of more general statistical analysis?

  9. Erp

    Enoch also gets taken into heaven but that is just a one verse (and apocrypha)

    As for Jesus’s disciples asking about fire from heaven, this could be an addition by Luke, an addition to one of Luke’s sources, or the disciples could really have asked it since they considered Jesus a prophet and that’s what great prophets do (they would also have been familiar with Kings).

  10. How would one determine false positives and false negatives such that such an analysis could be undertaken, even in principle?

    I share your sense of futility. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say except that no, I don’t see a dog in that cloud. Hunting parallels can be a fun exercise sometimes, I just don’t see it as being productive.

  11. @ Ian, Maybe we can’t, but perhaps experts could. My guess would be that there are some passages for which there is an objectively strong case for borrowing, but that’s just an amateur’s guess. Even if I’m right, it only establishes a possibility and not a probability.

    @ Erp. I think I remember reading that there were a couple of other people in non-canonical sources who got taken up to heaven without experiencing death and there may have been others who are no longer known to us. Maybe raining down fire from heaven was more commonly associated with great prophets than we might guess based just on the Bible. Ergo, maybe it’s not as clearly an Elijah allusion as it seems to me.

    On the other hand, raining down fire on Samaritans seems to be a bit of an overreaction just because of a lack of hospitality so I still have a hard time seeing much reason to suppose historicity.

  12. Hey Ian,
    Have you seen this video by Carrier?

    I really enjoyed it and he talked of probability in the decision process.
    And when I think of the parallelism used by gospel writers, I wonder about the validity of James’ objection — though I have yet to take time to read them (sorry).
    James has made up pejorative words in the past to put down his opponents — I don’t like this rhetorical method. So the more I think of this word game, unlike you, I am not sympathetic with the rhetorical trick.

  13. @Sabio I don’t intend to speak for Ian, but my problem with this is that a probabilistic argument is the one Brodie could make, not the one he does make. I don’t know if such an argument could be effective, because the math is too complicated for my humanities brain, but as of right now it’s a moot point.

    We need to differentiate what could be done from what Brodie actually does do. Right now he is making probabilistic claims with no probabilistic analysis. We’re appraising the work that exists, not the work that might exist later.

  14. Hey Rick,
    Yeah, I am ashamed to say I am not up on the subject. But James’ name labeling is always distasteful to me — and though I like his blog (sometimes), he jumps into surprisingly illogical rhetoric too often for my taste.

    So, here is my uneducated images:

    Matthew makes up stories to make Jesus sound like he was prophesied.

    I left Christianity after seeing the amazing parallels between other religions and my Christianity — all wrestled with the same things, all spun fantastic stories, all could not be right and the most probabilistic conclusion for me is that they ALL were wrong.

    Carrier points out the similar trends and in many religions around the time of Jesus. They were all doing fantastic story telling and myth creating. Either Christianity was unique (unlikely) or the same stuff was going on.

    Now, the percent of made-up stuff is up for grabs but I think they are huge (see my post and cute illustrations here). But Carrier and Vidar are pointing out even more stuff that I think pertinent than the status-quo scholars do and I think this is helpful using the same probabilistic, lay logic I spoke of above.

    To label such things as parallelmania is simply bad conversations skills which James excels at when talking with Mythicists, for some reason (?investment?).

    As you can tell, I don’t know this stuff and my comment may be way off the mark. Thank you for your patience.

  15. Ian

    @Rick – thanks, I appreciate the input, and your shared sense of futility!

    @Sabio – this might be long, but it didn’t seem right to promote to its own post.

    1. On insults. I agree to a point, I’ve said to james before that I’ve found some of his comparisons offensive. But, I also know what it is like to be professionally attacked by an ideologically organized anti-scholarly group. I think there are comparisons between mythicism and creationism in terms of the way discussions go (though, I’ve said here several times that — although I disagree with both creationists and mythicists — I don’t think the quality of their conclusions is comparable generally. I make the comparison on sociological grounds, not for rhetorical effect.). And I’ve certainly enjoyed flinging immature insults and times, mostly out of frustration. Academics tend to have egos (I’m not an academic any more, but I still have my ego), and egos tend to get bruised, especially their integrity and competency is impugned, particularly by folks who haven’t shown their own ability in the area. So, yes, not helpful sometimes, but I’m not so dismayed as you about it, I think.

    2. On ‘parallelomania’ – it is worth saying that James didn’t coin this term, and though it is a negative term, it isn’t purely pejorative. It comes from a key paper in biblical studies (Rick, has described it as the most important biblical studies paper ever). Which effectively criticised this exact methodology as being unduly susceptible to post-hoc rationalization. It isn’t a technique that is peculiarly mythicist, and its conclusions are equally dubious when employed for mythicist or conservative ends. There are good reasons to conclude certain passages have literary dependency. There are good reasons to conclude that certain references are allusions to other passages. But the temptation is often to take an allusion and make it into a dependency. Parallelomania cautions us that this *sounds* impressive, but is actually a rather simple fishing exercise, without much academic rigour. It is one of a set of erroneous techniques I’d loosely group under ‘too-close-reading’, essentially a form of textual pareidolia, comparable to my example of seeing a face in a tree-stump. So I stand by my assertion that ‘parallelomania’ is a useful term of skepticism. It says, nice idea, but you’re going to need to flesh out the whole probabilistic argument before I treat it as anything more than wishful thinking.

    3. Your comment seems to be straying too close to the mythicist bait-and-switch for my comfort. Mythicists often sound reasonable based on a confusion of definition – the (well established) theory that the gospel accounts are not generally historical, and the hypothesis that Jesus is a wholly constructed myth. The former is reasonable, so reasonable in fact that only conservative ‘scholars’ would disagree. The latter is a highly speculative and unevidenced idea that has roundly failed to convince scholars in the field for a century. There are, of course, grey areas between the two. Now, I think this confusion is mostly the fault of the academy, not mythicists, because I’m continually frustrated and angry by the way ‘mainstream’ historical scholars fail to loudly distance themselves from conservatives who show up to the same conferences. I can say more about this, but it isn’t a healthy situation. So we must tread very carefully. It is easy to have conclusions at one point of the question painted as if they were conclusions on an unrelated part. So religious myth making is not at all unique in Christianity. Neither James nor I would suggest that. But consider Brodie’s subtext for this chapter. If we look in detail at this passage in Luke we see *it is basically a rather simple reworking of a passage in Kings*. In other words, it tries to establish Luke’s gospel writing as a *literary* reconstruction of previous passages. If all the gospels are like this, it certainly reinforces the mythicist position, but it isn’t necessary for it. Why couldn’t Luke have just been alluding to stories in the OT canon at this point as he invented his story about Jesus? Why couldn’t he have been reporting a dofus thing that the disciples of Jesus actually said, and it was the disciples who were alluding to the power of Elijah that they envied? Well, perhaps neither, perhaps he really did systematically rewrite Kings into this passage, down to the threefold form, sleep, forms of questions, and so on. But that would be a rather specific and major conclusion, so we’re rightly expecting it to be established based on detailed probabilistic argument. As Rick said, Brodie simply failed to do so. And unless that is done for a large number of gospel stories, the idea that the Christ myth is merely a reassembled literary invention can’t be made rigorously. It is dubious and tendentious in the extreme. Now, here’s the bait and switch, because one can’t then conclude that a) Jesus was historical, b) that any of these stories are historical or c) that this is actually the argument that mythicists want to have at all. See the problem? If this discussion is to be constructive we’ve got to remain precise about what we’re discussing. Its one of the reasons I dislike discussing mythicism, because it is so bloody hard to figure out what we’re talking about. I’ve never violently agreed with people so much as on this issue.

    tl;dr – Brodie, I think, is wrong in his conclusions, James is right to describe this style of work as parallelomania, but you can read *far* to much into both those conclusions. I think that most mythicists or agnostics should be able to agree, if their tribal allegiance were not triggered.

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