C. H. Dodd’s 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), but he also attempted to deal with the problem of eschatology raised by Schweitzer. Schweitzer argued 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, indicate that the old has already passed away and the new has already come. 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 has reached its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. The parables of the kingdom are 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 (35-6).
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 parable 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 (122-39). 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. This idea was “naturally enough and legitimately enough re-applied” by the early church to a new situation (160). The parable of the Thief at Night (Matt 24:43-44, Luke 12:39-40) originally referred to the coming persecutions of Jesus and his disciples, and the destruction of Jerusalem. Both the Faithful Servants and the Thief in the Night parables referred to something that was already happening in the ministry of Jesus, but the early church took them over and re-applied them to the situation present after the resurrection (170-71).
The evidence for this is the re-use of the saying (which Dodd would associate with Q) in 1 Thessalonians 5. For Dodd, Paul is re-applying something he picked up from the traditional sayings of Jesus and re-applying it for the Thessalonian church (168). The parable of the Ten Virgins is interpreted in a similar fashion. Jesus taught preparedness for the “developments which were actually in process in the ministry of Jesus” (178).
Dodd’s chief contribution, so-called “realized eschatology” attempted to deal with the apocalyptic Jesus described by Schweitzer in such a way that did justice to both the texts which describe the kingdom as present and those which describe the kingdom as future. This theological position will be extremely influential on subsequent parables studies, especially those by Smith and Jeremias.
But is a fully-realized eschatology the best way to read all of the parables? I am not at all happy with ignoring parables which seem to be “apocalyptic” as later additions and not from the Historical Jesus. The Ten Virgins and the Talents seem to teach a long delay before the return of the Lord. This may not be a product of the church but a genuine apocalyptic teaching from Jesus. Dodd contributes much, but by removing the apocalyptic from the Parables he robs them of their Second Temple Period context.
What does Dodd contribute to the reading of Parables?
Bibliography: C. H. Dodd, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribners 1935)