Parables and the Historical Jesus

It is sometimes said that in the parables of Jesus we hear the true ipsissima vox Jesu: the real voice of Jesus. Joachim Jeremias, for example, begins his classic The Parables of Jesus by stating that the we “may be confident” that we stand on a particularly firm historical ground. The parables reflect the sorts of things we might expect in the teaching of a first century Jewish rabbi. The images are drawn from the life of the common people of Galilee and Judea. Many have an apocalyptic edge to them that we know was common among people of the Second Temple Period.

Yet many scholars wonder if the parables as we read them in the gospels accurately reflect the original form and content of Jesus’ teaching. Is it possible to interpret the parables in the context of the life and teaching of Jesus? Can we know that the parables reflect true voice of Jesus? Or to put it another way, have the original parables been creatively adapted and re-applied to the situation of a later church or community by the gospel writers?

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the parables were assumed authentic but the original intent of Jesus’ teaching was set aside in favor of elaborate allegories which applied to the time of the interpreter. Details of the story became fodder for preaching the gospel or some moral lesson, often incorporating elements of later church theology. For example, Augustine took the “meaning” of the oil in the parable of the Good Samaritan as the Holy Spirit, and the inn-keeper as Paul. Nothing in the parable even hints at this meaning, the “message” is from the mind of the interpreter.

This allegorical method was overturned by Adolf Jülicher. He effectively challenged popular allegorical interpretations by applying form criticism the parables. He argued that the parables were not allegories. He rejected the detailed and imaginative interpretations (Paul as the inn-keeper, etc.) Instead, parables had a single message, a “moral of the story” which could be expressed simple timeless truth. Rejecting allegory was a great contribution to the study of parables, but Jülicher also cast doubt on the possibility of knowing the original setting of the parables of Jesus. Elements of a given parable could have been added to the parable to make it more “up to date” and to make it more applicable to the present church. For Jülicher , it was not possible to know if Jesus was the original speaker of a given parable.

Here is a thought experiment you can try: Retell the story of the Prodigal Son to a group of junior high boys. How much of the story do you change in order to make it “current”? How does the son spend his inheritance? (Big car, big TV, women, gambling, etc.) If you retell the story to a group of elderly ladies at their home Bible Study, my guess is that the prodigal spends his money differently (shawls and Matlock videos?)  I imagine that a retelling of the Prodigal Son will have more than a few different details in an African village, or in a European city, or in a village in Vietnam.  But the core of the story will always remain the same, the point of the story does not change.

It is natural for their to be some shifting of details when a story is retold, but the sense of the story remains the same.  Jülicher was right to reject allegory, but perhaps he went too far by placing the stories into a later context beyond that of the historical Jesus.

How much adaptation is there in the parables as we have them int he Synoptic Gospels?  Did the gospel writers adapt the parables to a new (later) context?  What is at stake theologically if they did?

17 thoughts on “Parables and the Historical Jesus

  1. For me, questions about the authenticity of scriptures, always come back to the belief of whether you as the reader believe that the Bible is the inspired, faultless word of God or not. We can look at both sides for evidence, evidence of contradictions that would seek to prove the Bible as faulty, evidence to prove that within context, those said contradictions aren’t contradictions at all but make perfect sense, and evidence that the Bible is truly the word of God. But to the individual, it comes down to a matter of faith. We can look at the evidence for both sides, make a logical decision for either viewpoint, but in the end faith in God is a part of believing in God’s word.

    That being said, my faith leads me to believe that in the gospels, when it is written to say that Jesus is the one speaking, that it is He who is speaking, and that the stories that he tells, are written in the Bible the way that he had told them. I believe that the gospel writers being disciples of Jesus, and believing Him to be the Son of God, would not have changed his words around, thinking that the way they could write the parable would be a better story, or lead to a more suitable moral. As disciples of Christ they would have wanted to tell his parables the way they were spoken by their Lord. This also echoes in the fact that many of the parables are told again in more than in gospel, without the parable being changed around. The writers also, not being the only ones to have heard the parables, as they were told to many other listeners, would have perhaps faced controversy in their own time had they told the parables of Jesus differently, or claimed their own parables as Jesus’. Imagine one of the disciples telling a crowd about a parable that Jesus had told, and someone in the back yelling out “Hey I was there! That’s not the story that he told us!”

    Theologically it is important to us that the parables of Jesus are indeed the word of Jesus, because if they aren’t we are reading from the wisdom of man. If we don’t believe that when the Bible is telling us that Jesus spoke, that it was Jesus who truly is speaking, the validity of the Bible goes out the window. Instead of it being the divine inspired word of our Holy God, it becomes the written “wisdom” of men.

    • Excellent response, Mitch. Let me push a little harder. Is it still possible to hold a high view on inspiration / inerrancy and understand the Wedding Banquet in Matt 22 and Luke 14 as the same parable, remembered two different ways? If so, is our view of inerrancy flexible enough to allow Matthew (for example) to make the punishment more extreme to reflect the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70?

      • Can we know that the parable is being remembered differently? I’m sure Jesus told some parables a number of times. Perhaps each writer is recalling a different occasion that Jesus told the parable, and it was Jesus who wanted to illustrate a parable differently to a different audience. But maybe that’s too much of a stretch for a reflection of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD.

        But is our view of inerrancy flexible enough to allow Matthew to make the punishment more extreme as a reflection of the destruction? As far as scripture being God’s inspired word, I think that if that is the case, it was within God’s will that that reflection is made. I think I just struggle with the idea of Jesus’ parables being edited, even by the disciples. I’ll need to give this one a bit more thought…

  2. I think that as far as theology is concerned we can still consider the parables solid, theologically. As Long said, it is almost expected to change small details of a story in order to make it more understandable in the culture where it’s being told. Even so, with only these small details changing the main idea, theme, or moral, take away remains the same. And not only does the main idea likely remain unchanged but again to reiterate what Long has said, the parables fit in historically with the style of teaching of the pharisees and the subject topics of the second temple period. So while I can see the perspective that says Jesus’ parables may have been changed over time and as a result has less theological validity, I still that find the evidence for the parables being the true voice of Jesus more convincing than the later argument.Therefore I see no reason we can not consider in discussion of theological principles.

  3. I enjoyed P. Long’s “thought experiment” regarding the Prodigal Son. While it is true that a story can be slightly modified to fit the culture of the time I believe Jesus’ “original intent” stayed true as the parables are recorded. If details of the parables were changed to keep them “up to date” than how do we know that everything else Jesus said was not modified to fit to different cultures to bring them to the more modern category? Being that the Bible is supposed to be the inerrant Word of God would the changes to the parables exclude the Bible from inerrancy? Julicher said that it was not possible to know if Jesus was the original speaker of the parable. Than to reiterate my point, how do we know that anything Jesus said as recorded in the gospels can be taken at face value? What would have been the true motivation for the writers to change or “modify” what Jesus said? If the parables were shown to be changed then I would think it would be fair to say that we cannot trust anything Jesus was said to have spoken.

  4. I think if you say that the parable writers adapted the parables in a later context then theologically the authority of the parables could be questioned. However, I think that the main messages of the parables can be applied to other situations. I think main message of the parables do not change. I agree with Long and Joseph Furno when they said that small details in the parables could of changed but the main theme and morals that Jesus taught were seen through the parables. I am in not place by any means to say whether or not the writers adapted the parables to a new context because I have not idea. I do not know how we can find prove if they did. I consider the parables part of God’s words and they have the same amount of authority as the rest of the Bible. Therefore, I see no reason why the parables cannot be apart of any theological discussion.

  5. Keeping in mind the recent posts which have discussed the historical accuracy of the Gospels (Luke 1), I think it is fair to assume that the parables included in the Gospels are an account of Jesus’ actual teachings. I may be incorrect in making this assumption, but it seems like many of the cultural elements that Jesus included in his parables would still be present (or in recent memory) of the writers of the Gospels. Sure, today we adjust the details of a story like the Prodigal son to fit our audience, however the gap in time is much greater. Furthermore, extracting a specific detail of a parable to fit an event in history, the destruction of the temple for example, appears to an issue of interpretation and a desire to fit our theology. Whether or not the parables are recorded exactly as Jesus said them becomes less important when we believe they were recorded exactly how God wanted them to be (2 Timothy 3:16).

  6. I love this concept of adapting the parables to current talking terms, in order to explain them. I am guilty of doing that, because of how easy it is to apply the different parables to my life. The parable of the Lamp under the basket is one that I think of off the top of my head, if I was retelling it I would change the deliverance of the story ever so slightly so that it can be applied to more people’s lives. I think, therefore I believe that allegory is important to help others understand scripture.
    I believe it is very possible that the writers of the parables in Matthew, Mark and Luke changed the telling of the story ever so slightly in order for others to also understand. Because Jesus was so smart and he knew all, his stories and explanations I am sure were a little too much to handle at times. I imagine Jesus as one who would tell something and it is so simple that it gets complicated to understand and interpret.
    I like this thought about the theology that Mitch has mentioned above, and about Jesus speaking and I like P Long really enjoyed reading his post. I think it is very important to understand the importance and authority the bible has, and that the parables though stories are as important as the Ten Commandments. They are just as important if not more relatable, because we can interpret them in such a way where we can understand to an extent the point of Jesus telling the parable.

  7. I guess I never really thought of it in this way. It is interesting to me that we can put so much into the interpretation of something that we often times forget what the original intent and meaning was. And to think that we may be reading so much into the parables that we are not even seeing what Jesus really meant. I do not think that this is necessarily true, but maybe it is, that if we so often “change” some minor details to fit our audience, (as you mentioned, P. Long, with the junior highers and elderly women) then what is there to say that the disciples did not do this as well, at the time of their writing. They easily could have used things to apply to what the people would have understood. I think it may be a possibility, but at the same time I do not feel that it is a huge possibility because I feel like things would have still been similar from the time Jesus taught it and when they wrote about it all. But who knows, maybe some things did change. So in all of that, I agree with what Mitch said, in that it all comes down to faith and that we know what is written is true and inspired from God, not just man’s writings. So I guess as long as we do not view the parables so differently or change them so much that we lose the main point of it, then it should not really even matter if the disciples changed a little too. Plus, I think they would have kept things as close as they could to what Jesus said and taught because they respected and understood His authority.

  8. I don’t have any issue saying that the disciples changed the story in order to update it from its original version. If you believe that the Bible is 100% the word of God, then its truth whether Christ said it or not. As Mitch pointed out, it could even be that each disciple told a different version because they were recalling different versions. There was no internet, Facebook, or Twitter, so Christ most likely told each of his parables multiple times.
    To be honest, I don’t have much of an issue with the way that Augustine handled the parables. God’s word is “living” and could easily mean different things to different people, but that is a topic on truth so we won’t go to far in that direction. No matter how you handle the parables, they are God’s word and therefore truth. So again, it doesn’t matter if they are updated stories or not.

  9. I really liked what Scott said. ” Whether or not the parables are recorded exactly as Jesus said them becomes less important when we believe they were recorded exactly how God wanted them to be (2 Timothy 3:16).” Honestly, we can never know for a fact whether the parables have been adapted for a later context or are true in every word. It is all speculation when you try to factually prove things that cannot be with the evidence we have now. It is by faith we believe in the inerrancy and inspiration of scripture. Thus by faith we must believe that, as Scott said, “they were recorded exactly how God wanted them to be.” If the words were adapted a bit from Jesus’ exact words, the truth of the lesson of the parables is still intact. I would say that the gospel writers would not have adapted his words for a later context because they were trying to record the story of Jesus in their gospels. To insert their own adaptions would have been counter to their aim, and would have possibly been countered by others who have heard the teaching of the Parables from Jesus.

    Theologically, as long as we are founded in the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture as God wanted it (2 Timothy 3:16), then there should be no theological problem with a possibility of adaptation. It can be a problem if you find inerrancy in the words being exactly word for word. If faith is placed in the words being exact then you lose all authenticity and authority of the parables. The gospel writers then lied and are teaching the “wisdom of men” as Mitch said.

  10. It’s really hard to come up with an answer to that question. How is it that we’re supposed to be certain anything is completely true? For all we know, the Bible could have been tampered with while it was being written. But that’s an argument for another day. Throughout history, adaptation has been one of the key elements to survival. Whether it be adapting to the weather or adapting to our surroundings, adaptation has played a huge role in humanity. I wouldn’t imagine it would be any different when it comes to the gospels. I believe that with every time, there’s a specific way in which an audience can be reached by. So I believe that the gospel writers did adapt the parables to their current times to make it easier to apply to one’s life. At the same time, maybe it wasn’t adapted in order to maintain the purity of the scripture and Jesus’ parables.

  11. First and ‘foremost’, I’m so glad Augustine’s parabolic interpretations were mentioned in this blog. I love that stuff. I mean, it’s terrible. But it is also a beautiful expression of creative insight and imagination! Alright, that’s all I needed to say there.

    Second, thank you for proving my theory that all Adolfs have facial hair.

    Moving on…

    The question, “Can we hear the true voice of Jesus?” is a very interesting, yet somewhat complicated question to answer.
    I am unable to confirm that Jeremias is right when he states that how Jesus taught would have been entirely like that of a typical first century Jewish Rabbi. But, I would tend to agree with that. Although the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables (Matthew 13:10), I think that the language of Christ (agriculture, travel, and feasting) in his parables was very intentional and was therefore the language that the people (and he himself) would consistently find themselves thinking and talking in. It was the day-to-day type of conversation and stories that would be shared. But, he used it to teach. I do not know if many other Rabbis taught this way, but it seems to be a very ‘Jesus of Nazareth thing to do.’
    “Is it possible to interpret the parables in the context of the life and teaching of Jesus?” This question is hard to answer, in my opinion, for two main reasons. 1) As time goes on, scholars seem to make progress in their understanding of biblical languages as well as the culture of the time. 2) But also, as time goes on, culture progresses further and further away from first century Jewish culture (there is the chance that culture could progress towards that as well in the future) and the first century will only be further in the past and harder to understand, remember, and relate too.

    Moreover, while I think it is possible, to a degree, to read the gospels as originally intended and understand the point of them, it is impossible for us to come to them with a tabula rasa. We will always have preconceived notions; even if we are first century Jewish culture /understanding experts. And much of this stems from the overly allegorical hermeneutic of parable interpretation as well as the approaches to make their teaching (main truth) applicable to contemporary believers. And I say that as a direct reference to Dr. Long’s example of applying the parable to teens and to elderly women.

    So is it okay to retell the story in word’s that we understand? My argument is yes. And that is because, as I said earlier, that is exactly what Jesus was doing. He was taking truths and using language of his day to teach them. And so, assuming we have a good and proper understanding of the truths and points of the parables, we should be fine with making them relevant in today’s language.

  12. I think that the parables are theologically sound. I believe they were changed a little bit according to the culture and generation they were approaching. All scripture is God breathed, and God inspired. So whatever the bible says accords to the words in it, says that the parables are reliable and true. I think this is more important than the subject matter concerning if ‘Jesus had a Wife or NOT’. But I believe that if the writers of the parables changed them and they were false and we were learning some so false for what God intended. I believe that we would be convicted about it, and I we asked the Spirit for understand he would reveal to us the meaning that was intended for us to get.

    • I personally do not think we have any reason to doubt that we have an accurately represented account of what Jesus’ actual words were or to think that the parables “were changed a little bit according to the culture and generation they were approaching.” Although Peter was specifically referring to prophets writing prophecies, I think the same idea found in the following passage can be carried into the discussion of writers of any Scripture: “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). If God has charged a man with the responsibility of writing his Word, I believe, and I believe that the Bible teaches, that he will carry them “along by the Holy Spirit.” We can look at manuscripts that have been written from the first century on to see that they are impeccably consistent in their content. Hebrews 4:12 says that “the word of God is living and active,” not just something that can be manipulated and falsely preserved. God’s Word is inerrant, he would not give us a faulty book.

  13. Jülicher made a great contribution to the study of parables by affirming that the church had allegorized them far too much, but his assertion that the elements of parables may have been altered by later writers to preserve and intensify the impact of the parables themselves does not seem correct to me. Long comments that Jülicher believed that “elements of a given parable could have been added to the parable to make it more ‘up to date’ and to make it more applicable to the present church.” However, I think to say that Jesus’ parables only had one basic truth to convey, and that this main idea could also be conveyed by telling the story in different ways misses some of the depth and power of Jesus’ teaching. The elements of the stories served to enrich the meaning to the original listeners. “The parables have become so familiar to Christians that we often miss the powerful impact they would have had to a first-century Jewish hearer” (Strauss 449). Strauss brings up the fact that the detail of the Samaritan being the one who helped the beaten Jew being shocking to the hearers because Samaritans were despised by Jews. He also gives the example of the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, how the tax collector had a more humble and God-honoring prayer than the Pharisee, and says that this “shocked” Jesus audience. (449-450) But much of Jesus teaching and ministry is deeply rooted in its cultural relevance, not just his parables. When Jesus was being asked by the Pharisees about divorce in Mark 10:1-12, the Pharisees were trying “to trap him” by his words because the king at the time had remarried (Wright 101-102). The parables were not reworded for new audiences, they carry with them a rich history of cultural significance.

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