Parallelomania

It is quite the fashion these days in scholarly circles to find parallels between biblical texts and either Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts, for the Old Testament, or Greco-Roman texts, for the New Testament. Very confident pronouncements are then made about organic literary connections, even determining the direction of dependence. Samuel Sandmel, a rabbinic scholar, warned against extravagances in this direction in his address to the Society for Biblical Literature in the early 1960’s. The article was published in JBL 81.1 (1962), 1-13.

It is quite difficult to prove literary dependence. Similarity of verbiage does not prove literary relationship. Even if it did prove it, it does not prove the direction of literary dependence. Not even the relative age of manuscripts can prove literary dependence. What happens in the vast majority of biblical scholarship is that the foreign influence is always deemed to be prior, and the biblical text late and derivative. It is not difficult to detect a direct attack on the inspiration of Scripture: did the biblical ideas come from God, or did they come from humans?

One could argue, I suppose, that God could somehow use already existing human materials in a new way in the process of inspiration. However, that is not how parallelomaniacs argue. They argue that the biblical text is fully derivative. They start from an assumption that the Bible could not possibly be breathed out by God. It is merely a human document.

The problems with this position are two-fold: 1. it undermines the doctrine of inspiration; 2. it ignores the often apologetic tone of Scripture. What I mean by the second point is that if Scripture “sounds like” the ANE or Greco-Roman literature, it is usually done so as to reject those ideas, not appropriate them.

Old Testament scholars will immediately cry foul and point out the similarities of, say, the biblical book of Proverbs and the Egyptian Proverbs of Amenemope. To such scholars, I ask the following question: on what basis could one possibly prove that the scriptural book of Proverbs is dependent on the Egyptian document? The date of manuscripts? This is not conclusive in the least. Date of manuscript does not prove date of origin. Secondly, is it completely outside the realm of possibility that God’s common grace might reveal some wisdom to those outside the covenant? The covenant, incidentally, constitutes the major difference between the biblical book of Proverbs and the Egyptian document. The fear of the Lord in 1:7 and in chapter 9 is a covenantal fear, and this controls the whole book of Proverbs. In other words, the wisdom of Proverbs is not secularly derived, but rather from the fear of the Lord.