Reading the Parables of Jesus – Craig Blomberg

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) and a short note on the rise of literary studies of parables beginning in the 1960’s, using Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan as examples.  Since 1990 there has been a wave of commentaries on the parables from writers who take the parables as historical, coming from the teaching of historical Jesus, yet also allow for some insight on a literary level.  I start with Craig Blomberg simply because I find his approach to parables extremely helpful.  In addition, his book Interpreting the Parables had remained in print for more than 20 years and was just published in a Second Edition from InterVarsity Press.

Craig BlombergCraig Blomberg has developed the interpretation of parables which is an evangelical return to the allegorical method, albeit with clear limits. The parables were intended to have some level of allegory by Jesus himself. This allegory is along the lines of that found in the rabbinic parallels to the parables. By way of method, Blomberg argues the interpreter should only attempt to find a “point” for each character of the parable, normally three characters, sometimes two with an implied third. This point or lesson is stated in propositional language and is understood to be the intention of Jesus when he original gave the parable.

Blomberg is not advocating the kind of polyvalence represented by Crossan but he does seem to open the way for a metaphor to function as a more or less fluid literary device. The meaning of the metaphor is, however, to be found within the text and is a part of authorial intent rather than an open-ended reader-response hermeneutic. In a very real way, Blomberg is advocating limited multiple meanings, specifically only those meanings which were intended by Jesus in the first telling of the parable in a real historical context.

The Prodigal Son an excellent paradigm or prototype of the most common pattern of three point parables (the so-called monarchic pattern). The title of the parable is misleading since if places the focus on the son that leaves. The parable might very well have been titled “The Forgiving Father” or “The Hardhearted Brother” based on the characters in the story. If a parable can only make one point, then the parable of the Prodigal son must be interpreted in such a fashion so as to downplay two of the three major characters. Is the story about repentance? Is the story about forgiveness? Is the story about acceptance? It appears that all three of these themes are present. The interpreter following Jülicher would seek to formulate a single theme that somehow was broad enough to cover all three of the themes above. Blomberg argues that this will water down the message, making it so general that it is of very little value. By allowing one application for each main character the interpreter is free to work all three themes.

Blomberg is not adverse to allegory.  For example, in reading the  Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids he struggles to determine which elements should be allegorized and which not.  Since the bridegroom is a common Old Testament symbol for God, and the preparation for the banquet may be seen as allegorical since it is highly unusual for the women to be unprepared given the tendency for the wedding party to be late. It may be also possible to see the wedding banquet as a reference to the kingdom since this is a metaphor used in Jesus teaching elsewhere, and the parable seems to make the shutting out of the banquet parallel to Jesus’ shutting out of the hypocrite from the kingdom in Matthew 7:21. Blomberg calls the oil an“allegorical waver,” or more specifically the attempt of the unprepared virgins to borrow some oil from the prepared virgins. Blomberg states that the importance of this feature may or may not have some significance.

Blomberg represents an evangelical response to the literary studies of Funk and Crossan in that he treats the parables as capable of more than one meaning. He establishes controls for what elements of a parable may be used for application and which should not be “allegorized” in order to refrain from the wild interpretations of church history or more radical literary readings. By limiting his “points” to one per character, Blomberg methodologically limits himself when approaching other elements of a story.

Does Blomberg’s method allow for multiple interpretations and authorial intent?   How is this “one point per character” a helpful control on allegory?

Bibliography:  Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables.  Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990; second edition, 2012.

9 thoughts on “Reading the Parables of Jesus – Craig Blomberg

  1. I find Blomberg’s “theme for each character” helpful. But in what we call the parable of the prodigal son I don’t understand Tim Keller and others’ treatment of the older son. I prefer the older son. What was he doing when they finally told him about the party? He was working! As Donald Juel says there is no evidence in the text that the younger son repented. The younger son was a moocher. I don’t blame the other son for skipping the party. His mistake, however, was that he shows no interest in forgiveness or moving on. Yes, there is injustice here, but you have to let it go, and forget about it. We don’t know if he ever did that. All three characters made a mess of things here. It’s a tremendous parable!

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    • I could devote a couple of weeks to the Prodigal Son parable alone! To me, the “key” is the context at the beginning of the chapter, there are some who are complaining about Jesus eating with sinners. These “others” are the other brother of the Prodigal Son parable. The genius of the parable is that it is unresolved: does the other brother come into the banquet with the sinful brother, or does he stay outside and sulk about all the skanky sinners celebrating with the father?

      Since I am the other brother, rather than the prodigal, I find this most convicting.

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  2. Other unresolved matters, at the end, for speculation: Will the father coddle the son, or will he demand that the son sin no more? Will the prodigal son repent and change? But the main character for me is the older brother. And your point regarding the context (older brother-pharisees) makes me lean even more that way. But maybe I should not shoot my mouth off because I have always scratched my head reading the parables, and I need some training.

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  3. From what I get from Blomberg’s method, I believe that it does allow for multiple interpretations. Though for the most part, it’s a good idea because it allows for different perspectives on different parables. But, on the other hand, it allows for misinterpretations of certain parables. I guess, like any other method, it has the double-edged sword effect. As for the “one point per character”, I’m not entirely sure of how that would work for some parables, such as The Prodigal Son. Since that parable has three different points, repentance, forgiveness and acceptance, it’s not wise to only pick one. If you lose the repentance aspect then you’ll lose the forgiveness aspect since there’s no forgiveness without repentance. The same goes for acceptance. Since there’s no repentance or anything to forgive, there’s no need for acceptance. So, all in all, I’m sure that this can be applied to many different parables, we just have to be wary of when to use this method, or if there’s the need to use a different method of interpretation. As for the authorial intent, I believe that this method really doesn’t allow for it. Since it’s only “one point per character”, it takes away the multifaceted parables, like The Prodigal Son, among others.

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  4. i am still undecided on how i feel about his method of different interpretations. Yes, in some cases it could be useful and apply to more people to have more than one moral or point. In some instances this idea could be taken out of context and people could be making up ideas and points that they got that may not be relevant to the parable.

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  5. I have no respect for the younger son. He didn’t suggest anything for his older brother. He was more concerned it seems with the fact of just going and talking to his father rather than asking for forgiveness of his old brother as well. If I was the younger son, I would have asked where my older brother was, and would have called for him to come inside.
    I also have mixed feelings about the old son. The Father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. it was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:31-32) Why didn’t the older brother use common sense and think that his father was just and fair with him. His brother was an idiot. Why wouldn’t his Father be that generous with his hardworking older son?

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  6. When reading this, and reading about the parable of the prodigal son, I never looked at it in the other ways as being the forgiving father, or the unforgiving brother. We often look at a parable and only take it’s meaning from one stand point and leave out all the rest. I don’t quite know how I feel about this way to interpret but I want to read more about the others and see how they all feel the parables should be interpreted. I feel that there are many different ways to interpret a parable and that there isn’t always one meaning behind it. Obviously Jesus had one main point that He was making, but I feel like us, through the Holy Spirit, can interpret it in other ways and from other angles, that help speak to us and help us grow in more ways than none.

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  7. Blomberg’s method does allow for multiple interpretation by way of allowing freedom in the “one point per character”. The one point that is chosen for each character can be interpreted in multiple different ways. However, it does not allow for too many interpretations. Only so many themes can be appointed per character. Using the prodigal son parable as an example. Appointing the point of forgiveness to the father is pretty much the best one to pick. However there may be others who pick other points, but the father is pretty well set with forgiveness. As far as authorial intent, his method seems to allows for it but limits it by only allowing the characters one facet. This is limiting because the author may have intended multiple facets to the characters, and it seems to overlook the other elements of that surround the story. The most helpful aspect of Blomberg’s method is that it puts a healthy control on allegory. It keeps the interpretation from adding to the parable or using it as an allegory it was never meant to be by focusing on the parables meaning through its characters. However, it does limit the use of allegory in parables that it is meant in. Overall, Blomberg’s method is a safe way to interpret the parables, but limiting. It safely avoids far off allegory but risks rejecting the use of allegory altogether.

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  8. I think Blomberg’s use of the one point per character is very accurate. I do not think it really allows for multiple interpretations, as much as it allows for one overall interpretations/topic with the 2 or 3 sub points. And these sub points are what makes the overall interpretation. Like the example of the prodigal son, there is an overall theme, along with all the perspectives from the characters as sub points that point to the theme. If you looked at this story as just a story of a father forgiving his son, then why was the brother even in the story? This is why Blomberg’s reasoning makes sense. This way helps shape the interpretation by incorporating all of the dimensions that Jesus included.

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