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?