The Parables of Jesus: “Realized Eschatology” in the Parables

C. H. Dodd’s  Parables of the Kingdom was a major step forward from the foundation of Jülicher.  Dodd attempted to read the parables in their proper historical context (Sitz im Leben Jesu), but he also attempted to deal with the problem of eschatology raised by Schweitzer.  Schweitzer argued that Jesus thought of the kingdom as present in his own ministry and that his actions in Jerusalem would bring the kingdom fully into the world.  Dodd, on the other hand, understood the kingdom of God as having fully arrived with the ministry of Jesus.  Jesus is not reforming Judaism or correcting their misunderstanding of the Kingdom, he is creating something new.  The parable of the Patched Garment and Wineskins, for example, indicate that the old has already passed away and the new has already come.  Jesus has not come to reform Judaism, but to bring “something entirely new, which cannot be accomplished by the traditional system” (117).  There is no future eschatological climax to history, history has reached it’s fulfillment in the person of Jesus. The parables of the kingdom are an attempt by the early church to take the words of Jesus and create a new eschatology as an alternative to that of the Jews of the Second Temple period (35-6).

This “realized eschatology” controls Dodd’s reading of the parables so that he occasionally detects places where the evangelists have obscured Jesus meaning.  For example, the parables of the talents was originally about the Pharisees and ethical conduct but the early church adapted it to the delay of the parousia.  But the eschatological parables are from Jesus himself, there is no long drawn out period of oral transformation within the life of the church (122-39).  Form criticism is correct that the parable must be taken out of the artificial context of the Gospels, but Dodd does not propose a method of determining the artificial context.

Dodd deals with the eschatological parables in his chapter on “parables of crisis.”  By this point in his book he has repeatedly argued that Jesus was not expecting a future apocalyptic kingdom, so he merely re-affirms his belief that the apocalyptic interpretation of these parables is a secondary addition developed by the early church.  In the parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants in Matthew 24:45-51 and Luke 12:42-36, Jesus’ original parable concerned responsibility of those charged to lead and faithfulness to the task given. He had the chief scribes and teachers of the law in mind, not a future coming kingdom.  That idea was “naturally enough and legitimately enough re-applied” by the early church to a new situation (160).  The parable of the Thief at Night (Mt 24:43-44, Lk 12:39-40) originally referred to the coming persecutions of Jesus and his disciples, and the destruction of Jerusalem.  Both the Faithful Servants and the Thief in the Night parables referred to something that was already happening in the ministry of Jesus, but the early church took them over and re-applied them to the situation present after the resurrection (170-71).

The evidence for this is the re-use of the saying (which Dodd would associate with Q) in 1 Thessalonians 5.  For Dodd, Paul is re-applying something he picked up form the traditional sayings of Jesus and re-applying it for the Thessalonian church(168).   The parable of the Ten Virgins is interpreted in a similar fashion.  Jesus taught preparedness for the “developments which were actually in process in the ministry of Jesus” (178).

Dodd’s chief contribution, so-called “realized eschatology” attempted to deal with the apocalyptic Jesus described by Schweitzer in such a way that did justice to both the texts which describe the kingdom as present and those which describe the kingdom as future.  This theological position will be extremely influential on subsequent parables studies, especially those by Smith and Jeremias.

But is a fully-realized eschatology the best way to read all of the parables?  I am not at all happy with ignoring parables which seem to be “apocalyptic” as later additions and not from the Historical Jesus. The Ten Virgins and the Talents seem to teach a long delay before the return of the Lord.  This may not be a product of the church but a genuine apocalyptic teaching from Jesus.  Dodd contributes much, but by removing the apocalyptic from the Parables he robs them of their Second Temple Period context.

C. H. Dodd, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribners 1935))

13 thoughts on “The Parables of Jesus: “Realized Eschatology” in the Parables

  1. It is a good idea to read most of the parables in a fully-realized eschatology, but not all of them. One of the parables that should not be read in this way “is the short story of the two debtors in Luke 7:41-43” (Blomberg Pg. 307). Christ “tells the story of the two debtors, one forgiven a small debt and one forgiven a much larger debt. The answer to the parable’s closing question as to who will be more grateful is obvious, but Jesus is intending to compare the woman with the debtor forgiven more and proceeds to declare her sins forgiven (v. 47). It is now widely agreed that Jesus is claiming that the woman’s love demonstrated her prior forgiveness (cf. TNIV: “as her great love has shown”)” (Blomberg Pg. 307). “Parables conceal truth rather than reveal it” (Blomberg Pg. 304). “Jesus is revealing secrets not previously understood about God’s plans for his people” (Blomberg Pg. 304). Two short parables that should be taken eschatology is The Seed Growing Secretly and the Mustard Seed and Leaven. “The mustard seed was proverbial for its smallness and usually grew big enough to be considered only a medium-sized bush. This one becomes “the largest of all [lit.] vegetables. “God’s kingdom will have a surprisingly large size and effect, considering its inauspicious start with Jesus’ “ragtag” band of followers” (Blomberg Pg. 305). Another parable that should be taken eschatology is The Wheat and Weeds. “In the beginning, the weeds seem to have won. Evil at times seems to have thwarted God’s purposes in the world. Then it turns out that the wheat survives after all. God’s kingdom will advance despite the seemingly indistinguishablity of his people from his enemies. Finally, Judgment Day will sort all things out properly. The wicked will be destroyed, and the righteous will enjoy God’s presence forever” (Blomberg Pg. 306). Those are some of the parables that can be read as fully-realized eschatology. The reason for this is that the actual meaning behind these parables is the coming of God’s kingdom.

  2. I agree with Cary because some of the passages may have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God while other’s do. We need to really examine what the passages are saying and apply them to our lives’ in some way. I really like the parable about the mustard seed and leaven because that is a parable that is clearly talking about the Kingdom and you can understand the point trying to be made. The parable of the good samaritan kind of talks about the kingdom when an expert of the law asked “what he must do to inherit eternal life”? (John 10:15). Jesus answers “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'”. (John 10:27). In that passage, it talks about how we can obtain eternal life but it doesn’t talk about the Kindgom. It talks about how we are supposed to love “our neighbor” which people can take in different ways as people in the “community”. I take it as we should love everyone no matter who they are or what they have done. I feel with this passage we don’t have to look at it as an “eschatology” but at the same time we kind of can. In the passages where it does talk about the Kindgom, I believe it states it talks about the Kingdom clearly.

  3. I agree with you P Long that we shouldn’t read the parables fully-realized eschatology. I have a hard time agreeing with the concept that Dodd holds about the apocalyptic parables. It seems, by saying that the church added those parables at a later time, that Jesus wasn’t also fully God. The idea that Jesus saw his kingdom as the only kingdom, and didn’t expect there to be another “future kingdom” seems ridiculous. It seems as if he’s completely thrown aside the theology of the trinity all being fully each other. If Jesus didn’t realize that another kingdom, a future kingdom, was coming then could he really be considered God? I realize that this opens door into a completely different conversation, but that’s what keeps bothering me about the idea that Jesus only saw his kingdom being the final kingdom.

  4. I understand your confusion concerning Jesus’ thinking of His kingdom, but one could say that He was ushering in His own kingdom, and there wouldn’t be another one. There would be a consummation of it later in the progression of time, but, nonetheless, there would never be another kingdom.

    I, however, think that not all of the Parables should be read with realized eschatology, because some were simply not intended to be read that way. Jesus, while on earth absolutely made a point to emphasize His Messianic presence, but also needed to make known the reality of a coming consummation of the kingdom (as in Jesus’ second coming as a righteous judge) in order to fulfill prophecy. Although He may not have been accept by most as the Messiah, those who confessed his as Christ realized that although there were some things that had not been fulfilled, Jesus was alive and in that time period to bring History its most precious gift, atonement. This is also why he spoke of “faith like a child”; there were things to come, but all that mattered to Israel (and all humanity) was Jesus’ ministry.

  5. “But is a fully-realized eschatology the best way to read all of the parables? I am not at all happy with ignoring parables which seem to be “apocalyptic” as later additions and not from the Historical Jesus. The Ten Virgins and the Talents seem to teach a long delay before the return of the Lord. This may not be a product of the church but a genuine apocalyptic teaching from Jesus. Dodd contributes much, but by removing the apocalyptic from the Parables he robs them of their Second Temple Period context.”

    I’m not sure I quite fully understand this post, but like my other post I wrote about in order to get the meaning of the passage we have to look into the context of what is going on. It seems as though Dodd is rejecting any of the apocalyptic ideas from the parables. If Jesus intended the parable to have a future meaning, then I believe we should take it as an apocalyptic idea or thought to be fulfilled in the future.

    I don’t think we should read all of the parables in an full-realized eschatology. Jesus was speaking to a specific audience, for specific needs and a specific purpose. We need to study the passage in its context, while doing this then we can apply the interpretation for our own lives. While doing the normal interpretation method if the text showed their was a future understanding then let it be so.

  6. I would agree wholeheartedly with the general sentiment so far in these comments that we cannot take all of Jesus’ parables in the context of a realized eschatology. There is no reason to take each and every parable that camp out of the mouth of Jesus in the context of a realized eschatology, even in the midst of the clear kingdom focus of Jesus’ ministry. It is my opinion that it is necessary when dealing with any controversial topic such as the context of the teachings of Jesus, or their true meaning, to truly seek to find as much of the context for the material as possible. Seeking the historical, geographical, grammatical contexts allows modern day readers to truly find understanding in a similar context to which the original readers would have understood it, therefore providing the modern reader a much better context within which to understand the material. It seems that in this case, there are two main possible alternatives for the context of Jesus’ parable teachings, those that should in fact be read in the context of His eschatological focus, and those that clearly fall outside of those bounds. If a parable, or any part of the biblical text for that matter, clearly indicates a context that involves apocalyptic teaching, or moral guidelines, or other settings, it makes no sense whatsoever to involve a context of eschatology in the reading and understanding of that material.

  7. I also agree that the parables should not be read in a fully-realized eschatological way. Saying, as Dod seems to believe, that the various parables meaning and interpretations were changed by the early church from when Jesus first spoke them to fit their current cultural context, to me, is messing with Scriptural authority and the idea that God was in complete control over the formation of the Bible. God allowing the original meaning to be changed and then allowing it to be presented as the original meaning is contrary to what I know about God’s character. Also, as P Long mentioned in respect to eschatology, certain parables have obvious future implications.

  8. Context is key when talking about scripture. Joe is right and I agree with him when he says we need to look at the context of the parable. One problem that we as imperfect humans have is to over spiritualize or ignore the true meaning of what is said, be it by Jesus, professors and even our fellow peers. If we only approached what has been/is said with a rational mind but more importantly, God given wisdom, discernment and insight, then we could understand the meanings. Now I’m not saying that we as humans can understand fully what Christ is saying. There are some things that we will never understand because of our human state. What I am saying though is that if we “ask God, who gives generously and freely without fault” for wisdom as James says, He will give and we will be able to read and discern truth from scripture. That there are both historical and apocalyptic meanings in parables is no doubt. The question is, will we be humble enough to ask God for the discernment instead of trying to figure it out by ourselves?

    • “imperfect humans have is to over spiritualize” — interesting you should describe over-spiritualizing as a product of our fallen humanity – since most people who engage in that sort of thing think that they are reading the parables in a more spiritual way, getting at the real “deep things” of God!

  9. There’s one thing that bothers me about Jesus and an apocalyptic teaching. Consider his listeners, the majority of which probably had plenty of apocalyptic thought and imagery of the kingdom yet to come. I would argue that this would even be considered conventional Jewish thought at the time. Jesus himself uses apocalyptic terms – he seems to be aware of his own return, and mentions so. But the things that seem most crucial to Jesus’ parables was the part that turned conventional Jewish thought upside down. With this in mind, it would seem that to include apocalyptic meaning in his teaching would risk diluting another message: the present kingdom, or realized eschatology. I believe this was very possible because as a second temple Jew, if the kingdom that is “among you” is in a form not expected (e.g. submission over resistance), you are much more likely to believe it just hasn’t arrived, filtering out any content involving eschatology realized. If Jesus came to save, what significance would an apocalyptic teaching have if it diverted attention away from the central figure of his salvation message – himself.

    • Good point, but to a Jew living in the Second Temple Period, I am not sure there is a real difference between “apocalyptic” and “salvation.” That was more or less Wright’s point in the challenge of Jesus — to be an apocalyptic teacher was to talk about salvation. The difference is that he is talking about the salvation of the Jewish people, you are talking about individual salvation.

  10. I too believe the gospels should not be read in a fully eschatoligical way.I REALLY like what David had to say here. For us to say the church at a later time wrote the apocalyptic gospels is complete hogwash. How can we fully believe Jesus is God if he only saw his kingdom. if some of these gospels were written by the church then I feel like that would totally screw around with the authority of scripture.

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