Parables of Jesus: Are These Stories “Allegories”?

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A major reoccurring issue is the use of the allegorical hermeneutic which dominated the study of parables until the work of Adolf Jülicher.  Jülicher’s magisterial work is rightly considered to be a scholarly watershed because he so resoundingly rejected any allegorical interpretation of the parables.  Virtually everyone agreed with Jülicher’s rejection of allegory, yet scholars have struggled to be consistent with this rejection of allegory with varying degrees of success.  In recent years allegory has made something of a comeback as a scholarly method of interpretation, although with serious safeguards in order to avoid the excesses of the early and medieval church.

A related issue involves the purpose of parables.  Until Jülicher the purpose was to convey hidden meaning which could only be understood through the allegorical method.  After Jülicher, the purpose of a parable was to express a single point, usually a timeless aphorism or an “existential decision.”  But since this one-point meaning often failed to fully express the depth of meaning possible in the parables, literary methods of reading parables have experimented with multiple applications and meanings which sometimes give the impression of a return to an allegorical method without any controls.  “Meaning” can multiply indefinitely.  Developments in philosophical hermeneutics have had a great influence on parables scholarship, occasionally providing new and helpful insights, but more often confusing the “meaning of meaning” to the point of absurdity.

Identifying the genre of parables may help sort out this problem.  Prior to Jülicher the parables, like the rest of scripture, were equivalent to allegories.  Jülicher was the first to attempt to define parables in terms of simile and similitude rather than metaphor and allegory.  This definition held until Robert Funk suggested parables are “extended metaphors.”  More recently, Craig Blomberg has suggested that parables are in fact allegories, if one understands an ancient allegory properly (Interpreting the Parables, 165).   For Blomberg, the parables teach one “point” per character.  For example, Blomberg would find a lesson in the character of the Prodigal Son, but also in the Father and the Other Brother.  Jülicher would find only a single point. Literary methods popular in the 1960’s could find many different “readings” all dependant on the reader’s creativity, not the author’s intent.

Do the parables have a “single point” can they be interpreted in a variety of ways?  Does the reader create meaning as the experience the parable?  I am more or less convinced by Blomberg that there are several layers to the meaning of a parable, but is this opening a door for a return to allegorical methods?

Bibliography:

Craig L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: Inver-Varsity, 1990).

Robert Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God:  The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).