Posts Tagged ‘Geza Vermes’

Widowfield on McGrath: Brodie, Vermes, & parallelomania

July 13, 2013 4 comments

Tim Widowfield has commented critically on a review by James McGrath, of Thomas Brodie’s book ‘Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery‘ (2012). This article considers Widowfield’s criticisms.

Bad faith

Widowfield accuses McGrath of “bad faith in dealing with mythicists”, pointing to McGrath’s review of Brodie’s work as “a prime example”.

Well, here’s a prime example from McGrath’s scathing remarks about Brodie’s suggestion that Paul’s supposed profession may have something more to do with theology than with history.

His treatment of the case of Paul, like Brodie’s work on Jesus, illustrates both the usefulness of detecting literary parallels, echoes, and borrowings, and the bizarre results of taking that approach to the extreme that Brodie does, into the realm of unchecked paralellomania [sic]. His argument that mundane details about Paul were fabricated on the basis of earlier literature includes the claim that the reference to Paul having been a tentmaker was inspired by references to tents in the Jewish Scriptures, including God spreading out the heavens like a tent (p.151). Using such an approach, being willing to claim even identical prepositions as evidence of literary dependence, is a method which could claim that absolutely anything is derived from absolutely anything else. The sad thing is that the bizarre extremes to which Brodie is willing to go to make one text wholly derivative from another cheapens and detracts from the legitimate points he makes about the smaller number of texts and points of contact that have strong evidence in their favor. (emphasis mine)

That’s quite an accusation. Does Brodie really claim that some writings are based on others because of “identical prepositions”? Perhaps so, but McGrath doesn’t give us any specifics.

Bizarre and extreme

After quoting McGrath, Widowfield explains why he feels this is an example of bad faith on McGrath’s part.

Note the scare words in that paragraph. Brodie’s ideas are “bizarre” and “extreme.” Brodie, McGrath is telling us, has failed to show restraint. How do we know he’s gone too far? Because he’s reached the wrong conclusions. You see, sophisticated NT scholars know how the game is played. A writer needs to find that Goldilocks Zone, where the Jesus porridge is ju-u-u-ust right. Anyone out on the “fringes” can be ignored (and insulted), because they either accept too much material as authentic or because they accept too little.

Widowfield claims McGrath says Brodie’s ideas are bizarre and extreme. In fact McGrath does not say this. Here are McGrath’s words, as quoted and emphasized by Widowfield.

His treatment of the case of Paul, like Brodie’s work on Jesus, illustrates both the usefulness of detecting literary parallels, echoes, and borrowings, and the bizarre results of taking that approach to the extreme that Brodie does, into the realm of unchecked paralellomania [sic]

Firstly, McGrath makes the point that Brodie’s work “illustrates the usefulness of detecting literary parallels, echoes, and borrowings”; McGrath states specifically that the kind of pattern detection in which Brodie is involved, is valid and useful. Additionally, McGrath acknowledges “legitimate points” made by Brodie “about the smaller number of texts and points of contact that have strong evidence in their favor”.  So McGrath not only acknowledges Brodie’s approach is a valid literary treatment, but also acknowledges it has “legitimate points” with conclusions “that have strong evidence in their favor”. Widowfield makes no mention of any of this, despite quoting McGrath directly. Instead he claims McGrath simply says “Brodie’s ideas are “bizarre” and “extreme””.

Secondly, McGrath does not uses the word ‘bizarre’ in the way Widowfield claims. Contrary to Widowfield’s claim, McGrath does not say “Brodie’s ideas are “bizarre” and “extreme””. What he says is that Brodie’s work illustrates “the bizarre results of taking that approach to the extreme that Brodie does, into the realm of unchecked parallelomania”. It is the results of Brodie’s extremism that McGrath refers to as “bizarre”, the “bizarre extremes to which Brodie is willing to go” (emphasis mine).

Thirdly, McGrath never says that Brodie “has failed to show restraint”, nor does he say the evidence Brodie has gone too far is “he’s [sic] reached the wrong conclusions”. The term he uses is “unchecked parallelomania”, objecting to Brodie’s appeal to parallels without a systematic check for validation and falsification. Later  in McGrath’s article he repeats this, pointing out that any literary work can be interpreted as the product of literary borrowing “as long as one’s penchant for parallelomania knows no restraints”. McGrath also cites Brodie’s “complete disregard for other possibilities”, reinforcing the fact that it is Brodie’s lack of methodical validation of his theory to which McGrath objects, not simply that Brodie has reached a conclusion with which McGrath disagrees.

Paul the tentmaker & Godfrey on parallels

McGrath took issue with what he describes as Brodie’s clam that “claim that the reference to Paul having been a tentmaker was inspired by references to tents in the Jewish Scriptures, including God spreading out the heavens like a tent (p.151)”. In response, Widowfield invites readers to “examine all of Brodie’s reasons, and not just the ones McGrath scoffed at”. He then simply lists the four points of Brodie’s reasons for his case, though he does not actually examine any of them.

So, to McGrath’s specific point on Paul as a tentmaker: Is this an outlandish idea? Well, let’s examine all of Brodie’s reasons, and not just the ones McGrath scoffed at. First of all, Brodie admits that the reference in Acts 13:3 sounds legitimate. However, he says that before we take it at face value, “it is necessary first to investigate the literary relationship of tent-making to the Septuagint image of the tent and to the image of Paul as architect (1 Cor. 3:10-11).”

  1. The term in 1 Corinthians is quite specific: σοφὸς ἀρχιτέκτων (sophos architektōn) or “wise master builder or architect.” Cf. to the Jewish tradition of calling   wise Rabbis, doctors of the law, and their followers “builders of the law.”
  2. “In Isaiah, God spreads out the earth as a tent.”
  3. “[T]ents are given a central role among people of the desert.”
  4. In John’s gospel, we’re told that the Word sojourned or “tented among us.” (John 1.14) In Greek: ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν (eskēnōsen en hēmin).

He could also have mentioned the importance of the tabernacle (portable tent shrine) in the OT as the precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem. YHWH dwelt or “tented” with his people wherever they might roam. He might also have discussed the importance of the tabernacle in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Widowfield makes no further comment on Brodie’s argument, and does not actually examine any of Brodie’s points as he said he would do. Nevertheless, he does not provide readers with any reasons for accepting Brodie’s argument as valid. No explanation is provided as for why this list of verses makes a logically coherent case for Paul’s occupation being a literary invention in the manner claimed by Brodie, and why this is a more efficient explanation than any alternatives.

For a more critical analysis of Brodie’s suggested parallels between texts, some of Neil Godfrey’s comments are quite useful. In response to a claim made on one of Godfrey’s articles that the Elijah/Elisha narrative in the Old Testament, and the Jesus/John the baptist narrative in the New testament are “the same allegorical tale of a solar myth” (accompanied by two links to articles arguing for literary dependence on the basis of parallelism), Godfrey was quite critical of the theory, explaining “I have three difficulties with this, if I may“. His three specific criticisms are worth citing for their relevance to Brodie’s work, and agree very well with McGrath’s own criticisms of parallels drawn by Jesus mythicists.

1. Showing a correlation of concepts does not of itself show us causal or direct linkages.

Godfrey makes an excellent point here. In fact this is the first point to be made when considering Brodie’s lists of alleged parallels; mere correlation is insufficient evidence for “causal or direct linkages”.

2. The correlations are put together not from a single work but from a range of sources, e.g. from 3 different gospels, not from one coherent document expressing a unified thought.

Again, an excellent observation from Godfrey on the parallelism he was criticizing. In the same way, the texts cited by Brodie in support of his claim that Paul’s attributed occupation as “tentmaker” is a literary invention, come from a range of sources; one of the earliest authentic letters of Paul (1 Corinthians), the Old Testament book of Isaiah, and John’s gospel (considered by scholarly consensus to have been written long after the book of Acts). They certainly do not come “one coherent document expressing a unified thought”. It is possible that Brodie actually makes a coherent argument as to the relevance of these texts, and explains logically the basis on which they support his argument concerning the attributed occupation of Paul. However, Widowfield does not describe any such argument made by Brodie.

3. What alternative explanations are there for the similarities? Can any of these be tested and found to have more validity than others?

Godfrey’s third point is equally relevant to Brodie’s claims. What alternative explanations does Brodie present, and in what way does he test all of his options to see which have the greatest validity? Widowfield does not tell us. Yet this is an important point, which Godfrey has made on more than one occasion when dismissing the parallelism arguments made by others, as he does here.

So your argument does indeed come down a propensity to see patterns for which you sometimes say (incorrectly) that there are no other explanations. There are indeed other explanations, and when I point one out to you you reply that I should go beyond the evidence and leap to your speculation.

In contrast, Godfrey is generally enthusiastic about Brodie’s arguments (“Some of his literary borrowings strike me as spot-on!“), though he also says “I sometimes find myself in a love-hate relationship with them“. Nevertheless, he insists “Brodie’s arguments do NOT lend themselves to a facile “parallelomania”“. For Godfrey, Brodie’s arguments are superior to the parallelism arguments which Godfrey criticizes in other people’s work, such as the supporters of astrotheology, whose arguments for parallelism Godfrey dismisses out of hand without even feeling the need to explore the subject first (emphasis in the following quotations is mine).

Now I am quite open to the possibility that Christianity began as some sort of astrotheology cult or whatever, but before I am persuaded to investigate that possibility in any depth I would need to see something more than rhetorical declamations of woolly correlations as an argument.

I have never taken the time before to explore astrotheology, not because I have some psychological block against the very idea, but because I have never seen any pointers to actual evidence or valid methodology. I have only seen “parallelomania” and subjective patterns being constructed across all the data the way we sometimes see magnificent shapes in the clouds.

Rhetorical questions

Widowfield represents McGrath as being irritated that Brodie has chosen to answer questions which are supposed to be rhetorical.

But the main point to understand is this: The New Testament is replete with examples of additions, deletions, and alterations that have their roots not in tradition, but in authorial invention. Brodie’s sin is answering that rhetorical question: “Why would anybody make it up?” Brodie says, “Here’s why, and here’s how.” And that drives people like McGrath round the bend.

McGrath does not say anything like this. It is therefore no surprise that Widowfield presents no quotation from McGrath in an attempt to justify his claim. McGrath certainly never takes Brodie to task for answering the question “Why would anyone make it up?”. McGrath does take Brodie to task for not making a case that his explanation is more logically coherent and more efficient than alternative explanations, which McGrath refers to as a “complete disregard for other possibilities“.

It illustrates the bankruptcy of Jesus mythicism, and the fact that it has the potential to ruin careers, not because there is ingrained antipathy to it in the academy, but because the case for it is based on thoroughly unpersuasive arguments, and the complete disregard for other possibilities, such as that either Jesus himself or an author like Luke deliberately made a comparison and contrast between Jesus and Elijah.

Theological meanings

In support of Brodie’s arguments, Widowfield cites examples of occupations

We should mention that occupations in the New Testament and in later Christian tradition often have theological meanings. We have fishermen who become “fishers of men.” We have Mary, who was supposed to have been a weaver (or a spinner of wool) — and who created the very temple veil that split down the middle during the crucifixion. Some people still believe this story is true.

However, neither of these examples are analogous to Brodie’s claim concerning Paul’s occupation. Brodie claims Paul’s occupation was a literary invention derived from a combination of texts for theological reasons, but Widowfield does not cite any examples which do this. On the contrary, he simply cites occupations which he claims “have theological meanings”.

Widowfield cites “fishermen who become “fishers of men”, but provides no evidence that the occupation “fishermen” has a theological meaning here; on the contrary, it is clear “fishermen” has a literal meaning, referring to “Simon and his brother casting a net into the sea (for they were fishermen)” (Mark 1:14). The phrase “I will make you fishers of men” which follows (Mark 1:17), is an example of a play on the literal meaning of the word; in both cases the Greek word ἁλιεύς (halieus), means ‘fishermen’. The occupation of Mary was only attributed to her much later in Christian tradition (as Widowfield notes), not in a Biblical text, and Widowfield provides no evidence that this was an occupation with a theological meaning at the time the gospel was written. This is no parallel at all to Brodie’s argument concerning Paul’s occupation.

What Vermes does which Brodie doesn’t

Widowfield introduces a comparison between the work of Géza Vermes and that of Brodie, with a quotation from Vermes.

Finally, we have a muddied reference to Jesus as a laborer or carpenter. On this last point, Geza Vermes had this to say in Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels:

Was he a carpenter himself, or was he only the son of a carpenter? The confused state of the Greek text of the Gospels usually indicates either a) a doctrinal difficulty thought by some to demand rewording; or b) the existence of a linguistic problem in the expression in Hellenistic terms of something typically Jewish. Here the second alternative applies The congregation in the synagogue voices astonishment.

‘Where does he get it from?’ ‘What wisdom is this … ?’ ‘Is not this the carpenter/the son of the carpenter … ?’

Now those familiar with the language spoken by Jesus are acquainted with a metaphorical use of ‘carpenter’ and ‘carpenter’s son’ in ancient Jewish writings. In Talmudic sayings the Aramaic noun denoting carpenter or craftsman (naggar) stands for a ‘scholar’ or ‘learned man’.

This is something that no carpenter, son of carpenters, can explain.

There is no carpenter, nor a carpenter’s son, to explain it.

Thus, although no one can be absolutely sure that the sayings cited in the Talmud were current already in first-century AD Galilee, proverbs such as these are likely to be age-old. If so, it is possible that the charming picture of ‘Jesus the carpenter’ may have to be buried and forgotten. (p. 23, emphasis mine)

Widowfield does not explain what he means by “a muddied reference to Jesus as a laborer or carpenter”. Since Vermes refers to what he calls “The confused state of the Greek text of the Gospels” with regard to the references to Jesus as a carpenter (Mark 6:3), or son of a carpenter (Matthew 13:55), it is possible Widowfield drew the conclusion that the Greek in the text is obscure in meaning, or of doubtful certainty. In fact neither is the case. In both passages the Greek is certain, with the alternative reading “son of a carpenter” (ὁ τοῦ τέκτονος υἱὸς, ho tou tektonos huios), in Mark 6:3, only appearing in the 3rd century P45, the late medieval f13 manuscripts, a number of the late minuscules, and a few of the Old Latin manuscripts (the Syriac manuscript Syrhr omits the word for “carpenter” in Mark 6:3).

Vermes appears to be referring to the fact that Mark 6:3 refers to Jesus as a carpenter, whereas Matthew 13:55 refers to him as the son of a carpenter. Regardless, the text is certain in both places; the manuscripts simply differ in their descriptions. Vermes suggests this is a result of an Aramaic term of reference being confused by later Greek writers, “the existence of a linguistic problem in the expression in Hellenistic terms of something typically Jewish”. This suggestion was adopted from Vermes by German theologian Rainer Riesner, but has been criticized by scholars such as John Meier, not least because it relies on a hypothetical Aramaic source for which there is no evidence, and parallels of uncertain date, in Jewish literature. Meier critiques the suggestion thus (emphasis mine).

“Sometimes, to bolster this suggestion, appeal is made to the Aramaic word supposedly behind the tektōn of our Greek Gospels, namely naggārāʾ.170 But naggārāʾ, like tektōn, has a wide range of meanings: carpenter, turner, artisan, and, in a metaphorical sense, master or artist.171 Even if we were sure that this is the precise Aramaic word behind tektōn in our Greek text, it would prove nothing.

Riesner, however, pushes the significance of this hypothetical Aramaic source even further by appealing to some later talmudic passages, where naggārāʾ seems to mean “scholar,” while bar naggārāʾ (“son of the carpenter”) means “student, disciple.”172 From this Riesner concludes that people in the “carpenter” trade were known for their knowledge of Scripture. Since all the talmudic passages of this sort are of proverbial nature and hence of venerable age, Riesner argues that the connection between a carpenter and special knowledge of Scripture could reach back to Jesus’ day. One can only comment that such reasoning leans heavily on very slight and late evidence. Talmudic proverbs could preserve material two or three hundred years old and still not bring us back to the lifetime of Jesus. What is perhaps most telling here is that Riesner can supply no examples of this usage from the earliest rabbinic compilation, the Mishna.” [1]

The suggestion has also been rejected by other scholars, typically because it does not fit the context of the passage at all.

For the implausible conjecture that ‘carpenter’ was used of Jesus in a metaphorical sense to mean ‘scholar’ or ‘learned man’ see Vermes, Jesus the Jew, pp. 21-2. He cited y. Yeb. 9b; y. Qidd. 66a; and b. ‘Abod. Zar. 50b.” [2]

“This interpretation requires dismissing the gospel context.”[4]

“But the term in Mk 6:3 clearly is not used in that sense. Mark’s point is that because Jesus was only a carpenter, the residents of Nazareth refused to listen to him. Otherwise, the passage makes no sense.”[5]

No one in the passage is talking about a problem which only a scholar could solve, or the lack of a scholar to solve a problem. They are astonished and ask “Where did he get these ideas? And what is this wisdom that has been given to him? What are these miracles that are done through his hands?” (Mark 6:2).

To suggest they answer their own question by saying ‘Is this not the scholar, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? And aren’t his sisters here with us?’ (Mark 6:3), would suggest they answer by acknowledging Jesus is a scholar and miracle worker, which contradicts the very next statement that “they took offense at him” (Mark 6:3), and the statement that Jesus “was amazed because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:5). It also fails to explain why they are described as astonished.

Vermes himself acknowledged the lack of conclusive evidence for the parallel; “no one can be absolutely sure that the sayings cited in the Talmud were current already in first-century AD Galilee”. According to one scholar, Vermes later abandoned this interpretation.[3] This is supported by Vermes’ references to Jesus in his much later work ‘Searching for the Real Jesus: Jesus, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Religions Themes’ (2009).

In this book, Vermes says “This very human person, who is the subject of Jesus the Jew, was a carpenter in the village of Nazareth” (p. 20), “They [the gospels] report that Jesus lived with his parent, Joseph and Mary, his four brothers and several sisters in Nazareth in the Galilee ruled by Antipas, Herod’s son, and was a carpenter or builder” (p. 41), and “He was a builder or a carpenter” (p. 36). Widowfield quoted Vermes’ work written in 1981, but appears unfamiliar with Vermes’ most recent work and the evidence for his change of view.

Widowfield then draws a comparison between Vermes and Brodie, with a rhetorical question.

“Was Vermes a parallelomaniac using unsound methods to reach “bizarre extremes”? Brodie, after all, said that Paul’s identification as a tentmaker could have literary, metaphorical meanings that later became historicized.”

There are several reasons why this comparison is invalid.

1. Vermes was fully aware of the conjectural nature of his proposal, and stated it cautiously, giving due weight to the lack of supporting evidence. Accordingly, four qualifications accompany Vermes’ statement; “no one can be absolutely sure”, ‘If so'”, “it is possible”, “may”.

 “Thus, although no one can be absolutely sure that the sayings cited in the Talmud were current already in first-century AD Galilee, proverbs such as these are likely to be age-old. If so, it is possible that the charming picture of ‘Jesus the carpenter’ may have to be buried and forgotten.”

2. Vermes cited relevant literature in which a parallel could plausibly have been found, and made a testable case for his theory, on the basis of textual evidence. Consequently, it was falsifiable and it has been falsified.

3. After his view was subjected to sustained criticism (though perhaps not because of this), Vermes later changed his mind and abandoned the view he had held previously.

None of this finds any parallel with Brodie.


[1] Meier, ‘A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus’, volume one, pp. 283-284 (1991).

[2] Davies & Alison, Jr, ‘Matthew 8-18’, International Critical Commentary, p. 456 (2004).

[3] ‘Even Easterman’s use of the metaphorical understanding of the Aramaic naggar, not as is literal meaning of ‘carpenter’ but ‘scholar’, is based on Vermes’s work, although the latter has since retracted that view.’, Lim, ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Very Short Introduction’, p. 15 (2005).

[4] Davies & Alison, Jr, ‘Matthew 8-18’, International Critical Commentary, p. 456 (2004).

[5] Fiensy, ‘Jesus the Galilean: Soundings in a First Century Life’, p. 69 (2007).