Reading the Parables of Jesus – Literary Approaches

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 (Dodd and Jeremias).  In this post I cover the return of a kind of allegorical method in the form of literary approaches to the Parables.

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 the foundation laid by 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. Leland Ryken simply states “. . .the parables of Jesus belong to the literary family known as allegory.” (Leland Ryken, The Literature of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974], 301).

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.

Geriant V. Jones is a transitional figure between the classic works of Dodd and Jeremias and the literary studies of Fuchs and Funk. For Jones, Dodd and Jeremias went too far in their attempt to place the parables in a historical context in the life of Jesus. Jones’ motivation is to rescue the parables from the “bloodless world of thought of the theological or philosophical speculator.”

For Jones, parables are an art form which deal with perennial problems of human existence and rightly should be extracted from their context and “transposed” to another (modern) context. Rejecting rabbinic parallels as true parallels, Jones accepts the idea that parables are metaphors as well as allegory-like features. In fact, by removing the parables from their historical context, an element of allegory is necessary.

Individual symbols in a story have a symbolic meaning, but this does not give warrant to “unabashed allegorizing.”  There is no reason, Jones states, to think that Jesus would not have created allegories. The view of Jülicher which dominated the early twentieth century denigrated allegory because it was considered  an inferior form of literature (Jones, 89-109). Some allegory is in fact high art which describes reality fully, although not the reality of the empirical world.

Jones also rejects Dodd’s view that the parables address an “eschatological crisis.” There is nothing eschatological in them at all.  Rather, the main concern is an “existentialist crisis” or a “summons to a decision.” Sounding a theme from Bultmann, Jones says that Jesus never taught general or ethical truths, rather he illuminated human understanding and the character of existence.  The parables demand a decision from the hearer, although the question to be decided will vary depending on the reader.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, is filled with existentialist possibility since it demands a decision to live a live of freedom and responsibility. It is not about a theological or doctrinal statement which can be narrowed down to a simple propositional statement.  It demands the hearer respond to God like the prodigal.

Jones’ view of the parables has many things to commend it, especially since the parables seem so infinitely applicable to all generations.  The description of parables as “works of art” and “language events” certainly allows for a great variety of interpretations.  Preachers especially use the parables to demand people decide something.  One cannot read these stories impassively, looking only for theological prooftexts.

But where does this allegorical reinterpretation stop?  Can the reader take whatever they like from a give parable and see that as a legitimate interpretation?  I think that Jones opens the door to interpretations of the parables that go far beyond the intent of Jesus or the gospel writer.  What restraints ought we apply to literary approaches to the parables?

Bibliography: Geraint Vaughan Jones, The Art and Truth of the Parables: A Study in Their Literary Form and Modern Interpretation. London: S.P.C.K., 1964.

11 thoughts on “Reading the Parables of Jesus – Literary Approaches

  1. It is quite interesting that the great American theologian Geerhardus Vos, born however of Germans parents in Friesland, the Netherlands, always sees the idea of a biblical and eschatological, before the soteriological place. Perhaps this is more of an “ordo salutis”? G. Vos is always one to engage on this subject! Both his: The Pauline Eschatology, and The Shorter Writings of GV, The Redemptive History And Biblical Interpretation. Vos is as an older Reformed, always A-Mill, and I say this sadly, for this is a theological presupposition, rather than a biblical and historical one in my opinion. But, everyone will gain reading the great Geerhardus Vos!

  2. I also think that interpreting the parables only through looking at the possible allegorical meanings is very dangerous. I think that the historical context should never be ignored. How could we fully understand the meaning if we don’t know who Jesus was talking to, what He was talking about, and why He was talking. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom during His ministry and the parables were a large part of that proclamation. Matthew 13:11 says, “He replied, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them’.” Jesus was intentional in His parables.
    “They were stories designed to tease, to clothe the shocking and revolutionary message of God’s kingdom in garb that left the hearers wondering, trying to think it out, never quite able to pin Jesus down” (Wright 87). I think Jesus had more purpose in His speech than just abstract, allegorical stories. Jesus was not talking directly to us in these parables, He was talking to specific people. Therefore, He used ideas and illustrations that would make somewhat sense to them and not necessarily to us. So it is important to know the historical context to understand what Jesus’ illustrations referred to. I think that the reader cannot make Scripture form to what they want to see in it, we must let Scripture form us. That involves careful study, and a strong relationship with Christ.

  3. Geraint V.Jones himself states, “Individual symbols in a story have a symbolic meaning, but this does not give warrant to unabashed allegorizing”. Strauss (Four Portraits One Jesus) give 6 methods of interpreting the parables.
    1. Always interpret the parable in the context of Jesus’ ministry.
    2. Always keep in mind Jesus’ central message of the kingdom of God
    3. Be aware of cultural, historical, and literary allusions
    4. Seek the primary point of the parable
    5. Be cautious concerning allegorical elements
    6. Examine the context of the parable in the Gospel in which it appears

    Jones states, “There is no reason to think that Jesus would not have created allegories. I would tend to agree with Jones. While there is always the possibility of abuse with allegorizing, it seems quite obvious that Jesus had “secondary meanings” to the parables. Meaning not just for the first century Jews and the nation of Israel but, to people of all ages. Again, context of the parables is key but relevance to the first century only dismisses Jesus’ eschatological meanings as well.

    • I am not sure that You meant to say that eschatology cancels Relevance to the first century. It seems to me that there was plenty of eschatology in the first century, so parables with an eschatological fit well into the context of Jesus’ ministry.

  4. I do not think that Jones can completely “that the parables address an ‘eschatological crisis.’ There is nothing eschatological in them at all. Rather, the main concern is an ‘existentialist crisis’ or a ‘summons to a decision.'” I think it is dangerous to say that parables are summoned to a decision. Although I agree that parables can be often interpreted as a challenge to our lives and should cause us to made a decision. I agree that there are many times that parables are loaded with eschatology. Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdoms that were to come. “Jesus spoke in parables both to reveal and to conceal,” (Strauss 449). As Josh mentions we must look into the context of what Jesus was trying to reveal through His parable before we can jump to any conclusions.

  5. I think it is important to understand that yes, “There is no reason… to think that Jesus would not have created allegories” (Long). But, to think that “the parables ought to be understood solely as units of literature” (Long) and therefore “the original author and historical context no longer have a bearing on the interpretation of the parable” (Long) is a costly mistake. Yes, parables have a strong “allegorical” and “metaphorical” element, but those must be understood in a very literal and real understanding of the culture they were presented to and from within. Not only that, but we must always seek the original intent of the author. To not understand the culture and literal intent of Jesus is to not fully understand the point and purpose of what was said. Parables then become meaningless if they are to be subjected to a fully allegorical interpretation driven by the various different cultures and ideologies of its interpreters.

  6. The idea that we should reject the historical context of the parables and just read them as literature seems is fallacious in and of itself. The works were written in a given time and they have a clear connection to the culture of the day. Jesus’ references things that pertained to the agricultural nature of the day, as well as other specific culturally relevant things of the day. To read them without the historical context would be to miss certain elements the Jesus’ original audience would have understood. However, the door get’s left wide open when we begin to try and allegorically reinterpret the parables. We should try to understand the historical context to discover what we interpret from these stories so we don’t come to a modern conclusion from a story that was given to a first century listener.

  7. Something that I found very interesting in this blog and about this person’s views on parables is the fact that he believes we should not consider the historical context of the parable when reading them. He believes that we should read it just as literature or even art. I disagree with this because before we can even understand the parable that we are reading, we need to know the background. Where this took place, who was involved, who was the original audience, what was society like, etc. All of these factors allow us to reveal the true intentions of the author and allows us to apply it to our lives appropriately. Not only is this applicable for reading parables, but also the rest of the Bible as well. When we do not fully know what a passage, story or parable is talking about or what the historical background is, we will just assume what it is trying to say and interpret it on our own and in our own way. As a result of this we may misinterpret it and take it out of context which is something we do not want to do. Although the Bible is a piece of artwork created by many witnesses of Gods words, we cannot just read it as artwork and literature. It is history that is supposed to reveal what God is try to say to us through the text.

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