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 we “may be confident” we stand on firm historical ground when we read the parables. The parables reflect the sort of thing expected when a first century Jewish rabbi taught. The images are drawn from the life of the common people of Galilee and Judea and many have the “apocalyptic edge” we know is present in other literature of the Second Temple Period.

ParableYet 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 students. 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?) It is natural for there to be some shifting of details when a story is retold, but the sense of the story remains the same.

The emphasis of much of twentieth century scholarship has been on placing the parables into the context of the community which produced the synoptic gospels, often despairing of the possibility of recovering the words of Jesus. Perhaps it is better to ground the Parables in the life of Jesus as an itinerant teacher in Jewish Galilee. As I see it, this will allow us to “hear the voice of Jesus” most clearly.

How should we interpret the parables? How far should we “push” the application of a given parable away from the original context in the life of Jesus?

20 thoughts on “Parables and the Historical Jesus

  1. One of the main objectives of Jesus’ ministry was to make God’s commands easier to understand. He did this in Matthew 5, for example. Jesus alluded to a piece of the old Law which said to not “swear falsely”. Jesus basically cleared this up for the people, translating it simply to “let your yes be yes, and your no be no”. One of the reasons Jesus used so many parables, in my opinion, is because they’re easy to understand. The parables are stories that use things common to that time to send a message. If this was Jesus’ intention, which I think it was, than I don’t see the problem in doing the same thing today. We take the stories that Jesus told and equate them to things that are common to us today (the car and t.v., for example), while sending the same message.

  2. There are many different ways to interpret the parables that Jesus taught us. I believe that Jesus used the parables to not only preach to his present audience, but he taught them to everyone even at our current time because I think each parable can be applied to our lives today. Although I believe this, I think that we should first see the parable in the context in which it was spoken to get the fundamental meaning of it before applying it to our lives today. I agree that “The emphasis of much of twentieth century scholarship has been on placing the parables into the context of the community which produced the synoptic gospels, often despairing of the possibility of recovering the words of Jesus” (P.Long). This is a good way to get a unique perspective on the teachings, but we should first look at what the meaning was in the context of the audience. This goes along with our text which says, “To understand the parables, it is important to interpret them first and foremost in the context of Jesus’ ministry”.
    For example, in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, in the context of Jesus’ ministry this means that Jesus is the farmer. Since he was teaching about the Kingdom of God thought his entire ministry. Matthew 13:17 says, “I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but they didn’t see it” (NLT). By saying this, Jesus shows that he has been active in his ministry that people have been waiting for. Using this same parable, we can relate this to ourselves for a contemporary meaning. In this perspective, the “seeds” can be seen as the Word of God. On the contrary, it is easy to constantly “push” the application to other areas of our life which can be deceiving. I think that the fundamental message in the perspective of his audience can be applied, but taking pieces of his teachings can deviate from the purpose.

  3. I think that we should be interpreting the parables as looking for a basic moral of the story. I think that was the purpose of Jesus telling these parables, behind each parable and each thing he said, there was a deeper meaning behind it and that is what we are looking for and learning about from those parables. I think that there is a line that needs to be drawn when we push the application, but I think that when we change a little bit of the story to relate it more to our times, it is fine. We are not changing the meaning of what Jesus was telling us and it helps us let others really relate to the story if they know what exactly you are talking about.

  4. I believe Jesus used parables because they are universal. Everyone loves a good story, but something was different about Jesus’ stories. They are full of truth. The truth is universal and can be told in other ways. The truth can’t (and shouldn’t) change but the way that truth is told, I think can be. I believe that we should study the Bible’s history and original meaning of the parable, because it is written down and given to us by the Holy Spirit, but I don’t think we have to always retell it the same way. In our culture we received the story of Cinderella and for some reason the story is still super popular and ABC Family has to make a new movie about it ever three weeks. The details of the Cinderella story change but no matter what it’s still a Cinderella story. There is always a main piece of the story that keeps it the same story and as long as we don’t lose that part Jesus’ meaning can still be applied even if early churches added details.

  5. Strauss says, “One of the reasons Jesus taught in parables was to communicate truth in a vivid, powerful, and memorable manner” (Strauss 448). I think that we should interpret the parables by finding the truth in every parable. Jesus told parables to tell a very memorable story that explains the truth to us. In my own opinion I think we can tell the parable as different as we want, as long as we are able to tell the truth that Jesus taught us in our stories. I think that is what Jesus was trying to do too. The parables that we read in the gospels were more aiming for Jesus’ timing than our timing. So taking your example of re-explaining the Prodigal Son to Jr. Highers is going to be different than if we were going to re-explain the parable to Kindergarteners. As long as we still have the whole truth in what Jesus taught, I think it wouldn’t matter how the story is being told.

  6. We should understand the parables in Jesus’ timeframe. He was making his point known to certain people using illustrations that they recognize in their everyday lives. I also believe he did this so we can use his illustrations and apply them to our lives. I think we look back on his teaching and some of us think, “Why couldn’t he have just been blunt with his point”. Well, how do we apply his teaching to our current culture? I like the experiment you’ve pointed out with the prodigal son. I really believe switching the message to fit our culture while leaving the point and sense of the story the same is a good thing. I guess when I’m listening to my pastor, I believe I can understand something if he is blunt, but what about non-believers who have never heard the message or the teaching? We need to connect to those who are just there for the first time visiting. I think the best way to push the application of a given parable is to first read the original context in the life of Jesus and then reapply that same context to something in our culture. That is why I enjoy expository preaching the best. We can read a passage or a parable, dissect its meaning, and then give proper application to our lives. I believe it’s easier and less stretched when we examine the story and then apply. Rather than just apply. I believe that form of reading the parables keep us honest.

  7. I think that the parables are included within the bible because they correlate with the same messages that have been taught throughout all of scripture. I believe that the ongoing message throughout scripture is the coming of a Savior. People from the Old Testament were promised a Savior, and thye waited patiently for one, but once Jesus arrived, many people were not prepared. “Jesus’ teaching in parables is closely associated with his proclamation of the kingdom, and most parables illustrate or illuminate aspects of the kingdom” (Strauss 450) Because that is the main message of the parables, there will always be scripture to back up Christ’s messages. I think that we can find meaning within the parables by examining the reasons why God is telling parables. Obviously Jesus needed to get His point across that He was the Savior, so He used narratives that the people around Him could relate to.

  8. The parables are good stories to learn truth from. We should interpret them like they would have been interpreted in Jesus’ day. This is important so that we can understand the parables from the perspective that the people who were hearing Jesus preach it would have interpreted it. Strauss says, “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). However, it is still useful to “push” the boundaries a little and interpret what they would mean for our lives. The parables teach moral lessons and ways we can live more like Christ. If we focus on those teachings of the parables then we are able to apply it to our daily lives.

  9. I find it the idea that some scholars question whether the parables are the authentic words of Jesus to be interesting. If one does not take these as the authentic voice of Jesus, where could the skepticism then stop? Wouldn’t it then be easy to start questioning everything that is recorded as the words of Jesus, wondering if it is authentic or not? Yes, it is natural to retell or shift details to fit the audience, so I can see where the argument might be made. Yet, when it comes to the Bible, everything that is included has been inspired by the Holy Spirit. To question whether these were the words of Jesus, or simply added later, would seem to then begin to question the authenticity of the Bible as a whole. In this sense, I would agree with Jeremias that we “stand on firm historical ground when we read the parables”. As we have discussed in this class, it is important to always read the Gospels through the lens of the cultural context they were written. You state in the blog that “the parables reflect the sort of thing expected when a first century Jewish rabbi taught” (Long). This should then help answer the question on how far we are to take the understanding of the parables. To a reader, some of these parables might not make much sense in a literal modern-day context, I admit to having been confused when reading some of them. I firmly believe the parables have meaning that is applicable to us today. Yet, as the reader we need to first take in to account the historical context the parables were being told in, so we do not interpret our own meaning. Strauss says, “the parables have become so familiar to Christians that we often miss the powerful impact they would have had on a first-century Jewish hearer” (541). He also cautions readers to “examine the context of the parable in the gospel in which it appears” (543). Jesus was a teacher, and His words reflected the way that first century rabbis would have taught the people. I agree that in order to best understand the application of the parables, we must first “hear the voice of Jesus” (Long) as His disciples and followers would have.

  10. Because of the purpose and intent of the parables, I believe it is okay for the sake of teaching to allow some differing applications of the parables. Keeping in mind that there is always one interpretation, and many applications. Jesus had a specific reason for telling the parables to teach a lesson, and when we use them to teach they can be I believe crafted to fit the context of the situation as long as we stay true to the purpose and the context in scripture in which these parables were written.

  11. So often it is easy for us to go through all the possible alternative meanings of a passage or in this case a parable. While there are healthy and informative things that come from these findings this not always the case. It is necessary to understand the context but one of the beautiful things about the parables is that anyone can understand the general moral of the story. Now we don’t know the full extent of the heavenly impact like when the disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables in Matthew 13:10 and Jesus replied with “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you but now to them.” Clearly there is more to understand to parables but there is a simplicity of speaking in parables so that everyone can understand. Strauss says that parables are “a story from daily life illustrating a moral or spiritual lesson.” This paints the picture beautifully for the intent of Jesus’ parables.

  12. In a previous blog post, Dr. Long discussed the method of reading and understanding parables. In this, he mentioned the importance of knowing the context and deeper meaning of a parable to learn and grow. It is easy to get lost in the noise of everything around us. The same is true for the Bible, specifically Jesus’ teachings and parables. We do know the parables are common for the time and people of Galilee and Judea. When we look at the use of parables today, individuals can often change the elements of the story to apply it to modern elements. When this is changed those speakers do not change the message of the story. We see the difference in situations when we tell a 4-year-old compared to a 16-year-old. The 4-year-old may not understand the meaning of drinking and excessive partying. Sometimes it is important to exchange elements to help the audience understand. It is important to keep the heart of the message and not get overcome with the use of various elements. I personally fall on the side of sticking close to the original elements and pieces of the application to what the Bible says. It has a lot of Jesus’ teachings that can be taught with the lens of the significance of the original audience. At the same time at times, it is good to show the examples of applications to make them feel the significance a little deeper. It is easy to think their circumstances at the time were not so bad, but to put in context to have them feel the hurt or joy can make a difference in understanding. I believe there is a balance between teaching mainstream elements and the original. We need to stay true to Jesus’ words and understand the original context and meaning.

  13. Over the course of this class we have looked at different ways in which we may interpret scripture incorrectly or apply it incorrectly based on our own worldview and motivation for reading the text. This problem also applies to the parables and was a serious problem for many generations as Dr. Long points out. An allegorical interpretation, often applicable only to the culture in which it was interpreted, was eventually challenged by Julicher, However, many believe that Julicher took it too far to say that any allegorical piece in the parables was inauthentic (Strauss, 448). When interpreting the parables, we can look at the ministry of Jesus as our start. He made lots of waves when he preached the parables because they were often shocking to his Jewish listeners. The story of the Good Samaritan would have been unheard of. Understanding the shock-value of this story helps to understand the purpose behind why Jesus would have told this story, or any parable, to that specific audience. The parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee would have been backwards for his listeners. Tax collectors did not have a place in the temple and so for Jesus to call them the justified ones would have been truly shocking (Strauss, 449)! Understanding the culture of Jesus and the ministry of Jesus, helps us to understand his words better. When we change the words to better fit our own culture, we lose the true purpose behind Jesus’ words. Breaking it down and making it graspable for others is important though. I believe that is what teachers, pastors, and professors are called to!

  14. I believe that we can incorrectly use any part of Scripture for our own benefit and interpretation if we are unwilling to take God’s word at what it says. However, reading about how Augustine interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan made me think back to the Confessions and his life. Even though I don’t believe that this man, a serious advocate for God, would’ve ever intended to lead anyone astray from the Lord, I do think that he read too much into it. As said by Strauss, parables aren’t “allegories but similitudes, stories intended to convey only one main point. [T]he parable of the good Samaritan makes just one point: what it means to be a neighbor” even though there are definitely parables with “allegorical elements” (540).
    I do understand why people would want to make the parables more understandable to the audience it is being presented to. I recall how a missionary led a cannibalistic tribe to the Lord by telling them that they needed to follow the path that Jesus had laid out for them since they believed that each man made/followed their own trail. The missionary knew that the message wasn’t going to be meaningful to the tribe if they didn’t understand it so I believe that there is definitely a benefit in making it understandable, but, as the post said, we need to be careful to not lose Jesus’s words. As we are learning in BI 205, it is important to have a version of the Bible that’s not too formal and not too functional. In light of this, I think we should interpret the parables as best as we can according to Scripture and determine whether or not there are allegorical elements within the passage.

  15. I think we should interpret the parables in the context that Jesus used them to make sure we are seeing them the way Jesus intended his audience at the time to see them. Strauss mentions some main points to consider when interpreting the parables and the first one was making sure you understand the context of the parable (2020). A few other points Strauss made about interpreting the parables, that I agree with, include, keeping in mind Jesus’s central message and to identify the primary point Jesus was trying to make with the parable at the time (2020). When we understand Jesus’s reasoning for the parable and the point of the parable we can better understand how to appropriately apply the point of that parable to our lives. Too often people take the Bible out of context innocently, to avoid making that mistake we have to be informed and do our research.

    References

    Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus. A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Second Edition. Grand Rapids,
    Mich.: Zondervan, 2020.

  16. Parables have a meaningful impact on the world today. We have found in this blog that there is a lot of truth in the parables as well. I realized that that all of Jesus parables had some type of meaning to it. I still have a hard time finding the purpose of some of parables and lessons that he is trying to make but I will keep being observant in understanding the messages Jesus is announcing.

  17. I think that adjusting the details of Bible stories is something that we need to be very careful about. Using our own spin on the messages Jesus spoke can never add to the message. I think that if we just adjust the messages to make them more understandable or relatable to our audience it shows that we have not laid the foundation or background of the messages well enough for the audiences to connect to them as they are. The Bible is a story that flows from beginning to end and understanding the context of what Jesus’ messages are is so important. Struass acknowledged the importance of context by considering the expectations of the Jewish people of Jesus’ time regarding the Kingdom of God and their Savior before showing what Jesus actually came and accomplished (Strauss, pg. 438, 2007). By setting the foundation of the context the reader can understand how the Jews were misunderstanding God’s promise to restore his Kingdom through Jesus. When we tell others about Jesus’ messages we should not need to change the details so that they understand them, but we should bring to life the world that Jesus was living in when he spoke those messages to help them understand.

  18. When interpreting the scriptures it is important to have as much contextual, historical and cultural knowledge as possible to fully grasp the intended meaning of the parable. Strauss’s first principle to interpreting a parable is to “always interpret the parable in the context of Jesus’ ministry” (2020). His second key principle is to understand what the central message of the parable is and how it relates to the Kingdom of God (2020). I believe these two principles are an excellent start to interpreting the parables in the way they were intended to be interpreted. Research is your best friend when you want to find the meaning of a scriptural text and it is crucial in making sure what you interpret is what God intended. Trying to remove your own personal biases about what you want the text to tell you and break down the text in its purest form. This is what will help you find the meaning that Jesus was trying to convey when he shared the parable with his disciples and others.

    References
    Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus. A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Second Edition. Grand Rapids,
    Mich.: Zondervan, 2020.

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