Reading the Parables of Jesus – C. H. Dodd

In a previous post, I tracked the shift in Parables studies away from the allegorical methods of the medieval church to the “one point per parable” method of Adolf Jülicher.  in the next several posts I want to talk about a few other scholars who developed Jülicher’s ideas in the twentieth century.

C. H. Dodd’s Lectures on the 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, the life-situation of Jesus),  but he also attempted to deal with the problem of eschatology raised by Schweitzer. Schweitzer suggested 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, indicates that the old age has already passed away and the new has already come. For Dodd, Jesus did 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 reached fulfillment in the person of Jesus.  This is a “realized eschatology” which emphasizes the already to the exclusion of the not yet.

The parables of the kingdom are therefore 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. Dodd is aware of apocalyptic texts which describe the kingdom as appearing dramatically in the near future. He cites the Assumption of Moses 10 and 2 Baruch 73 as evidence that there were many Jewish in the Second Temple period who were eschatologically minded, but texts like Matthew 12:28 and Luke 11:20 indicate Jesus’ teaching ran counter to that expectation (35-36).

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 (122-139). 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.

Dodd’s chief contribution to Parables study is his application of “realized eschatology” to the apocalyptic parables of Jesus. He attempts to do justice to the elements of Jesus’ teaching which describe the kingdom as present and those which describe the kingdom as future, although Dodd’s emphasis is decidedly on the presence of the kingdom. This theological position will be extremely influential on subsequent parables studies.

Does Dodd’s view of the parables satisfy every aspect of the parables of Jesus?  Were they devoid of any hint of a future kingdom?  Which parables might be difficult for Dodd to explain through the lens of “realized eschatology”?

Bibliography: C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (London: Nisbet and Co, Ltd, 1935).

4 thoughts on “Reading the Parables of Jesus – C. H. Dodd

  1. I love C.H. Dodd! Though I confess I don’t agree with his sometimes overpressed Realized Eschatology. I have almost every book he wrote and published! And perhaps one of my most favorites, is his little book: The Apostolic Preaching, and its Developments. My copy, 1949, is signed.

    Btw, another nice Pauline read of his, was/is: The Meaning Of Paul For To-day, the chapter: “Emancipation” is worth the book!

  2. Although C.H. Dodd’s view of the parables is very helpful in in showing realized eschatology in Jesus’ parables, I do not think that the parables were completely about the present kingdom. As Jesus’ message of the kingdom was one of already/not yet, some of His parables did have some hints of a future kingdom. One parable that shows this is the parable of the weeds told in Matthew 13:24-30, and explained in Matthew 13:36-43. Verse 40 says, “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.” This parable talks about a ‘harvest’ that will occur at the end of the age where the wicked are condemned and the righteous ‘will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (v. 43). “The parable of the wheat and the tares reveals that in its present phase, the kingdom will exist alongside the evil world system, but at the end, evil will be rooted out” (Strauss 450). Jesus does talk about what the earth looks like presently here, but also what will happen at the end. Parables like this make it hard to explain every parable through the lens of a purely realized eschatology.

  3. I feel like it is difficult to have just one way of looking at the parables. Dodd tried to do this but there are still other parables that cannot fit under his thinking. Dodd says that Jesus’ parables do not show anything that gives examples of the future times and the kingdom. Like Josh mentioned, there are a couple parables that specifically mention the future kingdom and what He plans to establish (Matthew 13:24-30). But because this kingdom is “already and not yet”, some parables do mention the kingdom that was currently present in Jesus’ earthly ministry, like the parable of the Good Samaritan. The idea here is that it is important to care for one another and how to be a neighbor. Strauss mentions that “while most parables are not allegories, there are allegorical elements in many parables, especially those related to Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God” (448). So there are some parables that need to be read in different ways to fully understand the concept and the meaning Jesus was trying to convey.
    As much as I do see where Dodd is coming from, in trying to find a way to explain all the parables, I do not feel as though it is possible. Jesus meant each one to be different and they could have been told in different ways depending on what He was talking about and who He was talking to. So for me, I think it is just important to understand the context and the culture and history behind the parables to fully grasp the true meaning of each, rather than putting them all under one category.

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