The Parables of Jesus: Literary Approaches

Beginning with Ernst Fuchs, however, parables have increasingly been examined as “language events” which are analogies that get at the heart of reality.   In general, the authors of many of these studies are trained in literature outside of biblical studies and therefore open to ideas antithetical to Jülicher.  These studies represent a shift from “parables as similitudes” to “parables as metaphors” and there is far more acceptance of the idea of a parable as an allegory.  In fact, there is often a healthy respect for allegory as a literary genre before approaching Jesus’ parables.  These studies also reject the possibility of reconstructing any historical context for the parables as a misguided goal since the parables ought to be understood solely as units of literature.  There is a marked trend away from authorial intent as a valid goal of interpretation.  Simply put, the original author and historical context no longer have a bearing on the interpretation of the parable.

I will touch on one example of the types of studies that came out of this literary movement.  As a founding member of the SBL Parables group, John Dominic Crossan followed Funk’s lead in his work on the parables in a bewildering number of articles which employ at various times virtually every literary-critical method.   As an engaging writer, reading Crossan is always a joy, but one is always left wondering what he really thinks.  At times he seems to be playing with the parables and other literature just because he can.  He creates new combinations of diverse literature which challenge in unanticipated ways, but ultimately leave one wondering if there is anything in his reading which Jesus might have recognized as one of his parables!

For Crossan, the parables are the “preaching itself and are not merely serving the purpose of a lesson”  Crossan argues “the parable does not belong to the realm of didactic tools and pedagogic tactics but comes from the world of poetic metaphors and symbolic expressions.”   Yet parables are not allegories, because an allegory can still be reduced to some propositional statement. Because of this assumption that the parables are art, Crossan is free to approach these stories as stories, employing a structuralist or deconstructionalist method.

In his later writings, Crossan has argued that parables are polyvalent – parables are capable of many meanings since they are capable of being read in many contexts.  The interpreter “plays” with the parable and creates a new and unique meaning from the plot of the parable.  The same reader may return to the text on multiple occasions and develop quite different readings of the same parable.  The reader has changed and may sense new connections and insights from the same text.  Crossan has made a pass at the parables from the perspective of deconstructionism as well.  In this version of his thinking on parables, he follows Derrida closely, arguing that metaphor creates a “void” which requires the reader to create meaning through the “free play of interpretations.”

What is remarkable about literary approaches to the Parables is how they embrace rather obtuse literary methods in order to make the parables say anything.  This strikes me as an intellectual version of the allegorical method.  For most of these types of studies, the reader is more important that the author.  In fact, the reader “creates meaning” when the parable is read.  The same parable could be read at ten different times by the same person and new meaning may be created each time.  What the author meant does not really matter, whether that is the Historical Jesus or the gospel writer.

For the record, I am a firm believer in “authorial intent.”  My approach to the Parables is to place the story in the context of the Life of Jesus.  The point of the parable is exactly the point which Jesus intended.  However, literary studies are right about a few things – I can read the same parable at different times in my life and hear something different every time.  To me, this is not a creation of meaning.  The parables were designed to have various levels of meaning, complex nuances which may resonate with some people and not with others.

While it is easy enough to dismiss literary studies as dated relics of postmodernism, they might have struck on something which was lost when Jülicher declared the allegorical method dead.  Were the Parables intended as open ended, polyvalent stories by Jesus?

Bibliography:  John D. Crossan:

In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973).
“Servant Parables of Jesus,”  Semeia 1 (1974): 17-62.
“Metamodel for Polyvalent Narration,” Semeia 9 (1977): 105-47
“Difference and Divinity,” Semeia 23 (1982): 29-40 .

26 thoughts on “The Parables of Jesus: Literary Approaches

  1. On occasion, I have listened to people wander aimlessly through the parables of Christ with unfitting applications, while noting their indifference to the Person speaking the parable as if He were not really that important to the interpretation.

    I find your series on the parables to be both interesting and instructive, and
    your summary statement “For the record…” is refreshing.

  2. “Were the Parables intended as open ended, polyvalent stories by Jesus?” I believe Jesus did leave his parables open for subjective meaning. I mean, He had one particular point He was trying to make when He taught the lesson, but at the same time I wonder if He purposely left some ends untied so that His followers would be able to apply it to their individual contexts as well. I think so many people get caught up with the idea that when someone shares a lesson they are only trying to make one point, but why can’t the audience take the lesson as it applies to them? To me it is like when I go to a church service and after the sermon my friends and I talk about what the preacher said. More times than not we all take away something different from the message. It was the exact same sermon and same illustrations, but we all have different opinions on how it impacted our lives; how it applied to our individual lives. I view Jesus’ parables the same way. It’s the same lesson being given to the readers of the text but everyone is going to take it a different way. Usually in a personal way that impacts their life in the here and now. Is what I’m saying the postmodern thing to say though?

    • “Is what I’m saying the postmodern thing to say though?” Yes, that is what you are doing. Not that there is anything wrong with that…. There is a difference between Jesus and your pastor — Jesus makes some claims to authority that your pastor does not. If we disagree about what the pastor’s words means, it is not that big of a deal. But if we disagree on Jesus — there are some ramifications which neither of us are going to be comfortable with.

  3. I totally agree with Joe on this how Jesus left his parables open for subjective meaning. I also believe that Jesus did have a main point he was trying to make (which he always did) but there are also things that are open for us to interpret ourselves’ and apply it to our own lives’. Like P. Long said, he would listen to a message one time and take something out of it and then listen to it again a later time and take something totally different out of it. I feel like we take out things and apply them to our lives’ by what’s going on in our lives’ at that point in time. Jesus did make his point with the passages but also left some open spaces for us to take something new out and apply it to our lives’ in some way.

    • I agree with Melissa on how we take things out of parables that we seem to be dealing with at the time, it shows versatility in lessons which I think was a goal when writing the parables. I don’t think that the main intent, however, is to apply everything we read to our lives, we can learn a lot by God but just reading his word and learning more about him that way. I know for me I want to read things that will help me and benefit me in the Bible rather than selflessly reading it with the intent to get to know God better. I think it is important to have a balance while reading scripture.

  4. I have to admit, it is hard for me to say that there is more than one meaning to the parables. All that I have been taught when approaching God’s Word says that I need to go back to the original context and author and understand it from his eyes because there is only one purpose to a text. However, as Blomberg points out: “if we follow the interpretations of the text, it is virtually impossible to limit a given parable to one single meaning… but if the passage can make one point per character, the stalemate is resolved” (Blomberg 303). I like how he explains it. Each character has a new meaning and purpose in the text. I agree, it is hard to nail down just one purpose for all the parables. If you attribute a new purpose for each character then it makes sense that people can notice different things at different times in their lives. God’s Word will always speak new things into our lives, we will never be able to exhaust even a single passage. This should not be taken as a stepping stone for interpretation as allegory. It should be looked at as seeking for the meaning in each character. This should be founded in what the context says and what is given. We should not try and make up the meanings as we see fit. I hope that this is still possible with the way that Blomberg has put it, otherwise, it is a slippery slope heading back into interpretation as we see fit.

  5. This is a good discussion, nice post P. Long. It seems to me that he is comparing the parables to Aesop’s Fables. What I mean by this is that none of Aesop’s Fables do not have a destinct proposition or purpose for each story. So he is saying that each reader can take a different meaning from the story. But the thing I do not understand is that each person will take away the same essence of the meaning, but with their own world view attached to it. You see the story of the Crow and the pitcher involves, (as many of us may know) a Crow trying to get a drink of water from a pitcher. But, he cannot reach it because the water is to low. So the crow goes on to pickup pebbles and drop them in until the he can reach the water. Now we all take away the concept of, “keep working and your efforts will pay off.” But some one will also take the idea of problem solving. Now, both are variations of the same resolve I would say, but it is the same idea. Most parables from my perspective are the same way. I think often times we see varience in the resolution when people look into the historical context of the parable. But there really isn’t a difference, we just percieve the lesson as odd, or profound because it hasn’t been communicated to us that way.

    • “Aesop’s Fables” Yes, but a fable can only have one point, and it is included in the story itself. Rarely does Jesus give us “the moral of the story”, and when he does, it is not always clear what he means (check out the wedding banquet in Matthew 22).

  6. Like I said in my previous post, I beleive that there can only be one true meaning to what is being said in these parables, but I believe that they each can have different applications. I really liked how Joe P. compared it to listening to a sermon. We all hear the same sermon, or read the same parable, but each one of us might come away with a completely different application depending on where we are and what is going on in our lives at that specific time. I do believe that we can interpret a passage a different way each time we read it depending again, on where we are at in our lives. I still believe though that we should be looking at these parables from Jesus’ perspective when he orginially told them.

  7. Nice job bringing in Aesop’s Fables Jed – Classy!

    Plong is right about the intent of the authors is Christological – to point to the life of Christ. It interesting to see topics like these be played out. Here we are talking about the meaning of parables, and I think in one sense, there really is one distinct meaning of the passage, a major theme that the author believed Jesus was conveying. HOWEVER, once the questions come to application or revelation to the reader, the opportunity for multiple applications [“new” truths we have yet to see in a particular passage] exists. At a conference this summer, the theme of the conference was New Song. It’s whole goal of the conference was to encourage people in ministry to seek fresh experiences of ancient truths. For example, if in my life before I’ve realized this truth of God being sovereign, but it’s been awhile since I’ve experienced it… the next time I come in contact with that truth it could be in a totally unexpected way but the Spirit can reaffirm that truth to/for me.

  8. Joe is wrong in my opinion. I believe that when Jesus told the parables he had a motive; a single driving point. The lessons are driven toward the glorification of God, through the better living of man. To say that Jesus wrote them with an open end for us to apply whatever trivial humanistic things to them is folly. I think that by careful inductive study we will find the very pointed lessons that Christ meant to get across in his parables.

    • “…a single driving point….” You say it is the glory of God, I say it is the kingdom of Heaven, someone else says it is a high ethical standard, someone else says the parables are apocalyptic re-tellings of Israel’s history. Which is it? Are you right and everyone else is totally wrong? A “single driving point” implies black and white, but can you say any of the four examples I gave is wrong? Really?

  9. I believe what Jesus was saying had a main point and he was telling something that he wanted us all to know. But, I believe that he had some more that was subjective and is up for interpretation.

    • Sounds like you are saying to opposite things are true – Jesus had a point, but it was a subjective point that anyone is free to interpret on their own. Can this really be both?

  10. Also, along the lines of Application. To read into the parables and apply something new to them every single time (Crystal F.) is quite possibly taking the very pointed lessons Christ has in his parables and making them far more complicated than they need to be. By applying the principles Christ demands us to live by, to our lives; we will find a better mode of living that ultimately honors God. And it is the honoring of God that gives us purpose and drive to follow the pointed lessons from these parables. If we read to deep into, or make the word of God more complicated than it needs to be than it is obvious that we are missing the point of what has been said in the scriptures.

  11. Amazing discussion post. I believe that when Jesus told a parable, he had a single driving point that he had in mind. I agree with Joe though, in that I think Jesus may have left some things open, not to throw people off, or to lead them astray, but to have them dig. Isn’t that when we learn the most today? When we are maybe unsure of something, and we dig deeper into the word and ask questions, and study. We end up drawing closer to God and gain more knowledge of the scriptures. I believe we do this today with the entire bible, but it’s not as if it is heretical. Do we always preach on the same topic as the original author intended it? No. We don’t twist things around to make them non-biblical, or say something the bible doesn’t say, but we may find something there that we didn’t the first time. Maybe something that wasn’t originally intended, but we can relate it to something when comparing it to the scriptures as a whole.

  12. Authors intent I believe is very important. If the others intent is not what is important here, who cares what the parable says? Why would Jesus go to the trouble of coming up with and teaching in parables if they were just stories that had no definite meaning and were completely subjective to the average listener. No, Jesus gave his parables with certain things he wanted people to get from them, he had a point and a purpose, and they were specific. If Jesus did not have specific points in mind why then would he explain some of his parables himself, such as the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:18-23? On the other hand, I don’t think that Jesus could not have had more than one lesson to be learned in a parable, an example being in the parable of the good samaritan where we learn who our neighbors include, and as Blomberg points out the lack of religious duty as an excuse for not showing love to ones neighbor.

    • “If Jesus did not have specific points in mind…” I think that most modern literary approaches shift attention from the author to the reader. As a result, if Jesus had a point, it really does not matter. The reader brings something to the text and creates meaning.

  13. Prior to really thinking about this, I’m positive I would’ve said something like “the only things that are important is what Jesus meant his listeners to hear, and that could only involve the reality that existed up to the moment of the parable. Historical context holds ultimate precedence.” This post raises some questions though.

    The idea of authorial intent seems odd to me. What other intent could the author possess besides his own? Unless he was taking stabs at future relevance, any intent other than his own would be unintentional, and therefore, should be dismissed as beside the original message. This conclusion tempts me to think that any literary approach to the parables (especially involving literary patterns dated after the fact!) is borderline ludicrous. But I find it difficult to draw the line of dismissal on anything involving God. To what end would my purpose be in drawing that line, especially when I learn about the numerous occasions when God has communicated in unexpected ways to those faithful to him.

    While no one can deny the “layered” dynamic of Jesus’ parables, I believe there was only one intent of these stories – the author’s. I don’t think they were meant to be open ended, and that the complete meaning of each parable was fully accessible to the original listener, including the ones with eschatological themes. To go beyond his meaning would be to step into “free play of interpretations.” It seems not as much about interpretation as it does contextual knowledge – in this case, first century Judaism.

    • “What other intent could the author possess besides his own?” We are trying to either get at the author’s intention, or we are creating meaning ourselves. For example, in a freshman English class, everyone reads a poem then discusses what it means to them, not what the author intended.

      But I think it is possible to create a story that is intended by the author to have multiple interpretations. (The Matrix, anyone?)

  14. I believe that Jesus had one main point he tried to get across but he also left room to be a little open endedness too. This makes me think of Bloomberg’s way of interpretation by taking one main point from each character. Using Blomberg’s method we would have to come up with our own points too then. It seems to me that Jesus left a lot of unanswered questions for the audience to figure out. Jesus sometimes said statements that didn’t make any sense as well. I think that Jesus possibly may have left these there on purpose for interpreting purposes. Could Jesus be doing this so we could find out a meaning for ourselves after we understand the main point? The one thing I think that we need to be careful about is not taking Jesus’ words and making our own meanings to apply to our own life. I agree with P. Long in the fact that we need to take the parable back into the context of Jesus to figure out anything for certain. If we are looking at Jesus’ teachings through the wrong lens, it is quite obvious we aren’t going to see it clearly. One thing for sure is very interesting and mind boggling: Why would Jesus leave us with so many questions and so little answers about things He taught?

  15. Like everyone else when it comes to the question “Were the Parables intended as open ended, polyvalent stories by Jesus?” I believe the answer is yes. I think Jesus had a purpose for each parable, but I also think he wanted us to read what he wrote and apply it to our lives in whatever way we need to. Yes this may cause many different interpretations from one parable but if it gives you insight or help with a certain struggle your going through I think that is what the point of a parable is. I mean if there was only one way to interpret the story then I feel like they wouldnt be as relevant because they could only apply to a certain group of people, and not everyone will fall in that group.

  16. It amazes me how much inspiration is packed into each of these parables. As one who is seeking after God, I appreciate the different ways the parables speak to me on a personal level. The parables were specifically intended to explain whatever point Jesus was trying to teach. I am sure these parables resonated with Jews during the time of Christ a lot differently. I like what P Long said, “The parables were designed to have various levels of meaning.” It is easy to overlook a parable because we think we already know the meaning. Desire to learn and to seek after God drives us to dig deeper into these parables. Some take these parables way out of context (pastors, teachers, etc.). This is something that makes me very angry (especially when it points people in the wrong direction). Jesus spoke these parables into exsistence to edify us and bring us closer to God. We have no right to create new meanings to these inspired parables.

  17. Just like I said in the other post… Let me start out by saying the parables do not seem to have the purpose of conforming to the readers view: saying what it means to Him/her today not “polyvalent” Sure we can see different meanings in the text but, whenever we see them we must measure them against the rest of the word of God. God knew we would be reading these parables with the completion of the cannon of scripture, but this does not mean we should read it in today’s context does it? Back to the main point: Jesus had a purpose in saying them and we cannot forget exactly who He was talking to.
    At least we don’t try to ignore the parables all together “because it is not the same dispensation.” I believe no matter what that there is much to learn when studying the parables.

  18. I like the discussions that are going on here. For me it is hard to believe that Jesus did not leave some of his parables with open ends so that the hearers could take out an application to their own context. When I think of parable I think of one thing.. an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. I like How Joe pointed out that when we go to a church service, we all take out different applications for our own lives. it is the exact sermon using the same scriptures, and illustrations, etc.. but yet everyone has a different take away from it. I think Jesus intended his parables to have open ends for his listeners to take different things out to apply to their own context

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