Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Parallelomania

EDIT
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
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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.

3 comments:

The Shape said...

Hi Rick,

I think quote-fishing would be a better term. Mining implies digging deep. With fishing you can hook from just under the surface, leaving the depths untouched.

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. Alas, it was rushed and I didn't give Sandmel's article the treatment it deserved. I do intend to respond to your post more thoroughly. Not about Sandmel in particular but about my own method in regard to parallels and literary dependence. Although I was a student of Brodie's, my method is not the same.

Rick Sumner said...

Hi, I realized after I'd published that my tone was significantly more combative than is intended. Too much time on internet forums and elists have left me a writing style that over values polemic against other rhetorical styles unless I'm overly conscious of it, so I hope you take it in the less battle ready spirit it was intended. Looking forward to your response.

The Shape said...

Well at first I said to my partner "bring me my battle gear - we're going to war!" But that would have been an over-reaction considering you wrote nothing unfair.

I blame Twitter for me. Twitter is unbelievably confrontational.