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.


  1. good stuff… Interestingly, Stanley Porter said recently that he’s kinda given up arguing against rhetorical critical approaches to paul – because the proponents seem so keen on their approaches that they just don’t listen!

    1. Thanks for the response, Matt. That is interesting about Porter; I had not seen that comment from him. When or where did he say it? I might want to use it. 🙂

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