Month: October 2009

Dealing with ‘parallelomania’ while trying not to contribute to it

Even though I work primarily in the field of New Testament studies, I have an almost uncontrollable tendency to venture outside my boundaries and into other lands.  More times than not, these journeys include the exotic plains of Ancient Near Eastern wisdom, the bustling city streets of Graeco-Roman philosophy, and even the unsettling wilderness of Old Testament theology.*  In many respects, I think this propensity for wandering is healthy in academic studies simply because it is easy to become siloed** in one’s field.  The more practical reason for wandering, however, is simply this: there are some great thinkers and writers out there who deserve to be read, but to gain access to them means jumping the fence.

One of my favourite Old Testament scholars is Samuel Sandmel.  (I have others, but he is one of the ones at the top of my list).  He is engaging, incisive, thought-provoking, occasionally disruptive, and dare I say punctually humorous in his writing.  He is recognised as a mind and person to be reckoned with by scholars working in Jewish-Christian history and theology.  This is the case not only because he too had a propensity to wander into other fields but also because he appears to have established residence in many of them.  Thus, when he speaks about a particular discipline or aspect of that discipline, we can be quite certain that he is speaking as a native of that field and one who knows the territory.

In 1961, Sandmel delivered an inaugural lecture at the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference, which was held in St. Louis, Missouri.  The title of his lecture was simply, ‘Parallelomania’ and its contents revealed a growing concern that he perceived within biblical studies.  (If you would like to read it, you can find here).  The gist of the lecture confronted what he saw as the problematic tendency within scholarship of overemphasising apparent parallels between biblical texts and other ancient writings and/or writing styles, features, trends, etc.  Specifically, the problem for Sandmel was that the parallels became so prominent in academic studies that they had become seen as evidence of influence.  For example, because the letter of Hebrews deals with the topics of messiah, prophets, angels, Moses and Aaron in a way that parallels what can be found in the writings of Qumran; some believed that the author of Hebrews was influenced by the teaching of those at Qumran.  For Sandmel, the ‘influence’ bit was the problem.  Furthermore, the worst case scenario of ‘parallelomania’ was that the contents of the parallels found became the standard of measure for interpreting biblical texts.

As some of you might know, I am currently working on the specific text of 1 Corinthians 2.1–3.4 and trying to figure out what in the world is going on in this section of Paul’s letter.  In dealing with this text, I am looking at four major interpretative models and their contributions for understanding the logic of the passage.  The four models are: historical criticism, social-scientific analysis, theological hermeneutics, and rhetorical criticism.  With the exception of historical criticism and maybe theological hermeneutics, social-scientific analysis in general and rhetorical criticism in particular appear to have forgotten Sandmel’s cautionary words.  With regard to social-scientific analysis, the parallels found tend to have what could be called a chronological dissonance in the sense that modern sociological theories and trends are retroactively applied to biblical texts as though there is a one-to-one correlation.  (I admit that this is an oversimplification of the process).  With regard to rhetorical criticism, ‘parallelomania’ appears to an epidemic–especially the strand that manifests itself with the boils and sores of direct ‘influence’.  (I’m currently taking medication for my jaundice against rhetorical criticism).

I cannot count the number of scholars I’ve read in the past few months who make passionate and assertive claims about Paul’s brilliant rhetorical acumen in both his preaching ministry and literary career.  Such claims are often predicated on assumptions regarding Paul’s education–assumptions that are not typically supported in the works that assert them–but even that remains a matter of scholarly dispute.  However, because the parallels suggested exist between Graeco-Roman rhetoric and Paul’s ministry (and writing), scholars often argue that the former necessarily influenced the latter.  I realise that I open myself up to debate/ridicule in saying this, but: I remain unconvinced that such an influence actually existed or that showing an influence is even possible.  In fact, I (boldly) maintain that Graeco-Roman rhetoric has become a siloed discipline in biblical studies with the result that other possibilities are simply overlooked.

Herein lies my dilemma.  For my project, I must read through the relevant materials (i.e. the Graeco-Roman rhetorical stuff) in order to make my case that Paul was not adopting and/or employing rhetorical conventions during his 18-month sojourn in Corinth.  I must also read through other materials (i.e. the non-Graeco-Roman rhetorical stuff) that have similar themes, ideas, and terms related to what Paul says in 1 Cor 2.1–3.4 which might be better suited for understanding his argument in that particular text.  More problematic is the fact that what I’m seeing as better suited has been largely dismissed by other scholars as being unsuitable–or, it does not seem to parallel what is found in the text.  But I wonder: is it unsuitable because it does not parallel with what is found in the text; or is it unsuitable because it does not parallel the parallelomanic-rhetorical reading currently surrounding the text?  If the former, then fine; if the latter, then we have a serious problem–one that Sandmel warned us about over 40 years ago.

* My Master’s thesis in Seminary was an attempt to document my journeys into these other fields.
** ‘siloed’ (verb): the act of being turned into a silo–i.e. an isolated building in the middle of nowhere.

Industrial-sized blenders and funnels

Along with my usual responsibilities, I am working on four short articles to be published in the Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture (Sheffield Phoenix, 2012*). What I appreciate about this opportunity is that it forces me to think not only intentionally but also concisely, because the dictionary is aimed at undergraduates and the length is confined to 600 words (or less). My approved four are: ‘Book of Life’, ‘Mystery’, ‘Signs of the Times’, and ‘Twinkling of an Eye’. (For those keeping score: yes, I do have apocalyptic interests).

There were two topics, however, that I wanted to do but were already assigned: ‘Camel Through a Needle’s Eye’ and ‘Behemoth’; however, I found out that such was the case after I had written the one on the camel. So I thought: why not post it and see what people think? What follows is a slightly lengthened and adapted version of the article. I would be curious to hear comments, criticisms, etc.

Camel Through a Needle’s Eye. This rather graphic phrase is found in Mark 10:25 (paralleled in Matthew 19:24; Luke 18:25). Some interpretative concerns are worth pursuing before attempting to ascertain the meaning of this phrase.

First, a variant reading in some Greek manuscripts reads, ‘a rope [or, cable].’ The variation is often explained in one of three ways: a visual mistake on the part of the scribe making a copy of the text, where the scribe accidentally read καμηλον (kamêlon [‘camel’]) as καμιλον (kamilon [‘rope/cable’]); an audible mistake, if the scribe was creating a copy via dictation, due to eta (η) and iota (ι) having similar sounds; or a scribe purposely replaced καμηλον with καμιλον in order to minimise the otherwise gross imagery. However, the reading of καμηλον not only outweighs the marginal reading of καμιλον but it also appears in earlier manuscripts. The earliest reference for καμιλον is around 444 CE and not appearing again until the 9th century CE, whereas the reference for καμηλον ranges consistently from 215 CE onward. Superficially, while the basic force of Jesus’ meaning would be retained whichever term was chosen; given the manuscript evidence (and other rules related to Textual Criticism), the reading of ‘camel’ is favoured in spite of (or, even because of) its graphic nature.

Second, considering the phrase as a whole, early theories suggested a small hole in the wall of a city serving as a gate through which travellers and their animals must pass. However, given its humiliating size, camels were either excluded or squeezed through only after off-loading their cargo—and even then with great effort. Some believe that this gate was called, ‘the Needle’s Eye’ and that Jesus’ comment in Mark 10.25 referenced not only this gate but also the great effort of bringing a camel through it. Thus, the rich man could enter heaven only if he was willing to be ‘off-loaded’ and humbled before God. Another theory, which is essentially a variation of the first one, suggested an extremely narrow mountain path known as ‘the Eye of the Needle’. The tight squeeze of this path required the riders of camels to dismount and walk slowly through mountains thus becoming vulnerable to robbers. While both of these options provide for interesting preaching material and captivating Sunday School lessons, there simply is no historical evidence to support them. Furthermore, both theories minimise (if not subvert) the significance of Jesus’ statement by making the impossible humanly possible.

Third, concerning additional uses, the phrase can be found in later extra-biblical texts and in a way that militates against references to a physical location. Berakhot 55b, exchanging camel for an elephant, stresses the impossibility of a given reality suggested by an evil spirit in a dream. Similarly, Bava Metzi’a 38b criticises the argumentative tendencies of the Babylonians who proclaim things that are logical impossible–hence: with their logic, ‘they push an elephant through the eye of a needle.’ More in line with Jesus’ statement, Persiqta 25.163b nuances the meaning of the imagery with God saying, ‘Open for me a gate no wider than a needle’s eye, and I will open for you a gate through which camps and fortifications can pass.’ Thus, the focus is on faith in what God can do (cf. Acts of Peter and Andrew). Similarly, yet from the other (logical) direction, the Qu’ran says, ‘the gates of heaven will not be opened for them nor shall they enter paradise until the camel passes through the eye of a needle’ (Surah 7.40), meaning: access can only be obtained by a divine act.

Finally, with regard to its meaning, two features should be noted. First, the insanely hyperbolic nature of the phrase needs to be retained in order for Jesus’ statement to have its full effect. Furthermore, the way in which the phrase is employed in extra-biblical texts supports a hyperbolic reading. Second, Jesus does not suggest that the rich are excluded from heaven because they are rich; instead, they are excluded because they believe their riches entitle them access to heaven. For Jesus, that belief is a logical (and theological) impossibility.

* UPDATE: when this post was originally written, the publisher and the publication date were different (i.e., Baylor, 2010)–or they wound up changing part way through the project.

Quote of the day (or, week)

We are going to have to stop penalising people for making that most human of gestures–a mistake. . . . So long as there’s an opportunity to profit from the simple, unintentional mistakes of others, then there will always be a desire to do so.  To lash out.  To blame.  To turn some poor unfortunate soul who just happened to be in wrong job on the wrong day into a human punchbag.

– Jeremy Clarkson, The World According to Clarkson (2004), 76