Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Gospel of False Dreams?

I would be willing to bet that less ink has been spilled on the Gate of False Dreams in the Aeneid than has been spent on the first ten verses of the Gospel of Mark.

That this is true should be shocking.  But it isn't, it's expected.  It is, in general, considered warranted even.

I've been mulling over the different assumptions that guide inquiry the past week or so, particularly as relates to Brodie, MacDonald and "parallelomania".  And I realized an assumption I have that is radically different from Biblical scholarship at large.

See, from the very conservative Raymond Brown to the very liberal Thomas Brodie or Earl Doherty, there is this general sense that the gospels represent the product of a complex literary process.  Not everybody agrees on what that process is, or how it works, but almost everyone--at least implicitly--agrees that it exists, that it is there to be teased out.

Confession time:  I don't think there was any complicated process at all.  I certainly don't think the authors thought it out as thoroughly as the modern exegete does.

Many would agree with this statement in principle, but in practice they go right on digging.  The unstated assumption of virtually every commentary in print is that the gospels are uniquely an utter embarrassment of riches for the exegete to plow.

I don't think they are.  I don't even think there are any good reasons to suppose it to be true.

See, Mark reads almost like a stream of consciousness, joined by "and" a lot.  Matthean symbolism has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  Lukan symoblism is only slightly better, and sometimes even worse.

I am expected to believe that these are the literary geniuses whose work we need to harvest every nuance from?  You'll forgive me if I reject the premise.

People are very good at finding patterns, at making connections, at seeing significance.  We can come up with all kinds of models for how they wrote the gospels.  And then find all sorts of evidence that that's what they did.  This isn't actually evidence that it happened, only that we can find a consistent pattern.  We can find a lot of consistent patterns.  Often competing.  That in itself should shake our confidence in the fruits of such inquiry.  What of the alternative?  That they didn't have ten scrolls open in front of them while they worked?  That when they called earlier scripture to mind they were doing it from memory and off the cuff?  That they wrote...I don't know, like real people, instead of modern constructs?

Monday, August 12, 2013


I suppose that's as good a term as any for the recent surge of interest in the topic.  Over on Vridar Neil gives a nice, and in my opinion more or less correct, discussion of Sandmel's majestic paper, see as well the interesting comment by J Quinton in the comments to that post.  As I noted both on Vridar and on Explouring Our Matrix, I'm of the rather firm belief that Parallelomania is the greatest paper ever written in Biblical Studies--Sandmel is so right about so many being so wrong.  So if you haven't read it in the past, you should definitely do so.

Over on It's All Random...Mostly the Shape offered his further thoughts on the term, where he too acknowledges that Sandmel did not intend the term to be an insult, but--like Neil--suggests that it is frequently used as such, a simple dismissive pejorative without any discussion of what the concerns are.  And they're both right on that point as well.  The Shape suggests that there is a millieu in Biblical Studies that prevents discussion of parallels being taken seriously, perhaps because of concerns regarding the texts' historicity.  He states that he'll be visiting that subject in a future post, particularly in comparison to literary criticism in Classics.  I very much look forward to the comparison.

He could be correct in his assessment.  Presumably if we knew everything that biased our appraisals we would take care of it, but there are always going to be overarching concerns that frame the nature of our inquiry--of any inquiry, really.  We work, to a large degree, within a shared paradigm.  Perhaps the paradigm is wrong, or predisposed to reject given conclusions without due consideration?

He also mentions my observation that internet forums tend to produce a more aggressive rhetorical style, which I've mused on a bit the last week or so.  I think in particular of fora like the FRDB or Reddit, where both the rapid speed and audience promote a more combative style, but it holds for blogs too (just ask James McGrath, Joel Watts or Neil Godfrey!).  There really is an art to the right balance of polemic and argument, which I've never been able to master.  Ian Hutchesson is probably the best example of someone who does it very well.  I've never been able to strike it quite right, and frequently (as is the case with my last post on Parallelomania) come off significantly more combative than I intend.  Usually I catch it before I hit "Publish," and soften the tone.

Finally, please, whatever you do, don't follow The Shape in considering this an academic blog!  I'm a guy who reads too much on a narrow range of subjects that I scarcely understand who spouts whatever no doubt incorrect opinion occurs to him.  No academics here, I promise you!

Wednesday, August 07, 2013


it occurs to me that this might be taken in the wrong spirit due to poor wording.  I don't mean "quotemine" in the sense of dishonesty, rather that he seems to have found what he was looking for and then quit looking

Oh dear.  Recent discussion about parallelomania seems to have produce a bit of quote-mining over on It's All Random...Mostly.

See, here's what he quotes:

"...that extravagance among scholars which first overdoes the supposed similarity in passages and then proceeds to describe source and derivation as if implying literary connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction." (p.1)

He takes this as evidence that it is a "facile insult."  But it's not.  Other than the word "extravagance," all of this is explicitly describing a method, not a scholar.  But what of this word, "extravagance?"  Well Sandmel elaborated shortly thereafter.

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. 

It is not an insult after all, but referring to a specific kind of excess.   An excess he then spends the rest of the paper describing, linking specifically to "the areas of rabbinic literature and the gospels, Philo and Paul, and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the NT."   This is the quote mine.  The author would lead you to believe that Sandmel dished out some name-calling, and then ran away screaming "Poo poo head!"  But that isn't how it went at all.

Not only did Sandmel describe it, he described problems accurately.  Sandmel didn't use the term for James McGrath's 2013 blog post, he used it to describe patterns in scholarship in the 1950s and early 1960s.  Patterns that were uncritical, and are now for all intents and purposes universally rejected.  Sandmel's criticism was wholly on point, and far more precise than "The Shape" would have you believe.

This isn't a "facile insult," and I'm not sure why it's being taken as such.  Especially given the context of the address.  Sandmel's largest target was Strack-Billerbeck.  Are we to conclude that the use of Strack-Billerbeck that used to dominate NT references to Rabbinic literature was appropriate and critical?  If that's the case, I wonder why nobody does it any more?  While I might disagree, I can at least understand people who take offense at McGrath's use of the term, but Sandmel's was wholly appropriate.  "Uncritical use of a text that was developed with predetermined understandings of Rabbinic Judaism and the intent of producing parallels supporting that view" is such a long-winded way to describe it.  Parallelomania is much catchier.

Similarly, he writes at a time when everyone was convinced that the Qumran scrolls were going to runneth over with clear and direct parallels to the New Testament.  I wonder why nobody thinks that anymore, if his appraisal of the dangers of such an approach was just a "facile insult?"

"The Shape" goes on to feign outright indignation.  While I happen to agree with Sandmel that the parallelomania he was addressing was a disease to be eradicated, I can understand how this might be seen as offensive.  But outside of the norms of scholarly discourse?  Hardly.  And, as is pointed out, it was an address.  I'm not excusing it, I'm contextualizing it.  An address is exactly where we should fully expect rhetorical flourishes.

He goes on to suggest that "Such an attack could easily leave a scholar in two minds about how far to go in proposing textual connections for fear of being accused of having this ‘disease.’"

It shouldn't.  See, here's how it works.  If most people can agree on your parallel, nothing else is needed--consensus eliminates the need for further convincing, almost by definition.  But (as is the case with Brodie) if they can't, the onus is on you to provide statistical data to back up your implied probabilistic claim.  If, as is the case with Brodie, you should reasonably expect such criticism, you should probably get that data ready in advance.

Making probabilistic claims about literary dependence without statistical analysis is nothing more than a description of what you, personally, find plausible.  If you can realistically anticipate some pushback, you should be ready with real data in support of your position.  Brodie wasn't.  That's parallelomania.

There is, of course, a question of degree.  The scholar who suggests a handful of  parallels, or a thematic comparison, can probably get away without such a detailed breakdown.  Not because his effort is somehow better or more rigorous--it isn't.  But because we can't realistically expect the kind of detailed analysis it would require for every suggested link.  But if you make detailed, specific, numerous claims about literary dependence, you need detailed, specific and abundant evidence.

Compare the type of analysis the synoptic problem has received with what Brodie has provided.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Drum Majorette

One of my favorite examples of scholarship gone horribly wrong is the drum majorette, discussed by Hervey Cleckley in his masterful study of the psychopath, The Mask of Sanity (pdf).  Therein, on page 408, we find a reference to a "prominent psychiatrist," who, following Freud's methods, provides an appraisal of the attraction of the drum majorette.

No one, male or female, should have to think terribly hard about this perplexing dilemma.  Drum majorettes are, in general, young, hot, scantily clad, and prancing about.  I should think the means of her attraction to be the very last problem we need to solve in human behavior, right after why we are compelled to breathe.

But this "prominent psychologist" provided their own interpretation.  The drum majorette protrudes from the band the way they erect penis protrudes from the body.  Thus, our attraction to her represents our latent homosexuality.

This is the among the stupidest things I've ever heard.

Yet, stupid or not, it was treated seriously, and accorded serious consideration.  And ever since I first read Cleckley's volume some 15 years or so ago it has served as a constant reminder to me of the dangers of unchecked interpretation.

The last time I mentioned the drum majorette I noted that I would not suggest that there were not a few drum majorette quality papers circulating in Biblical Studies.  The scholar I had in mind with that was Dennis MacDonald.

Those who are familiar with both MacDonald and recent discussion in the biblioblogosphere know exactly where this going.  For those who don't, you might see Vridar, where over the past few weeks we've been treated to a discussion of Brodie's odyssey toward mythicism.

In turn, you might turn to James McGrath's satire, and my satirical engagement with his satire.  Then McGrath's further comments.  This inspired some comment on It's All Random...Mostly.  Rounding out our background reading, Ian on Irreducible Complexity pointed out the difficulty with addressing "Parallelomania."  My sentiments, to be expressed shortly, are very much in keeping with Ian's, though given his background in math he no doubt has a significantly better idea than I do how it could (at least in principle) be resolved.

Over on Vridar, there's been some interesting discussion in the comments to his post containing a chapter of Brodie's work .  One comment in particular has compelled me to move here, from Neil (snipped a bit as it was contextually dependent on earlier posts--one can read the thread to get the details.  I have not removed anything germane to what I'm addressing):

...when one gets down to the structural and detailed verbal analysis of literature, I think that’s where we are doing more than cloud-shape-spotting. I think, in fact, that we can all at least “see” the parallels that Brodie, for example, points out. The question is not seeing them, but explaining them.

There are two problems I have with this.  Working from the bottom.  The question actually isn't explaining them, unless we share Brodie's conviction that they are sufficiently significant as to require explaining.  And that is the shape in the cloud--that the parallels are significant, not simply that they exist.  That they are real parallels, and not false positives.

But the more important point is the preceding one, and what inspired me to move here, since I've seen it a couple times.  Brodie isn't doing an analysis except by the most liberal use of the word.  What he's doing is literary criticism.  The distinction isn't terribly subtle.

Brodie makes an implicit claim about probability.  That the most probable explanation for the parallels is dependence.  But he makes this claim with no data, and therefore has no response to the person who says "No it isn't."  And that's how these discussions always go.

See, we could, at least in principle, do a meaningful analysis.  We could compare sources we know Luke used (Mark, Q/Matthew), sources we know he was at least familiar with (eg the LXX) and sources we know he didn't know (eg later Christian documents).  This would, by necessity, be mostly linguistically based.  But if the linguistic analysis held up we could move on to thematic considerations.

We could tally up the number of parallels, we could determine at least a rough idea of false positives and so on.  We could produce real data.  It would take a lot of work, a lot of time, and some enterprising academic would need a lot of grad students, but it could be done.

But Brodie hasn't done anything like this.  He hasn't given us any real data with which to assess his implied probability, it is based only on his intuitive sense that it is likely.  If I don't share that sense, the discussion has gone as far as it possibly can, until he produces real data.  With data he produces something the critic can grapple with directly.  Without he only produces the drum majorette.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

A Fabulous Turn of Phrase on Reddit (Quote of the Day)

A great turn of phrase from /u/Tiako on Reddit's AskHistorians, on whether winners write history:

It is a very lazy and ultimately harmful way to introduce the concept of bias. There isn't really a perfectly pithy way to cover such a complex topic, but much better than winners writing history is writers writing history.
The depth of this simple turn of phrase isn't even touched in the context in which it is use.  Writers write history might just be the most succinct description of contemporary philosophy of history I've seen.  Genius.