Snodgrass, Klyne R. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 892 pp. $58, Hb. Link to Eerdmans
When the first edition of Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent was published in 2008, I happened to visit the now-closed Eerdmans Bookstore in Grand Rapids. Alan, manager of the Bookstore approached me and handed me a copy of the book and said “You are going to buy this book.” For those who knew Alan, if he told you to buy a book, you bought it because it was going to be an excellent book. And indeed it was. The first edition of Stories with Intent won the 2009 Christianity Today Award for Biblical Studies and was almost immediately considered by many to be the best book on parables written in the last fifty years. Since I regularly assign papers on parables in my Gospels class, my syllabus states: ignore Snodgrass at your own peril. I was therefore quite excited to see the announcement of a new edition of this important book.
Stories with Intent is a comprehensive commentary on every parable of Jesus. Although the commentaries may have similar content, Snodgrass includes parables from each synoptic gospels and includes two or three versions of the parable when this occurs (The Mustard Seed in Matthew 13:31-32, for example). Snodgrass includes two chapters of introduction to parables (sixty pages) where he defines and classifies parables and discusses interpretive strategies. He recognizes some parables have allegorical elements, but these do not give the interpreter warrant to allegorize anything and everything in a parable (p. 17). In the body of the commentary, he often interprets some element of a parable without resorting to the kinds of allegorical interpretation found in ancient commentaries or popular preaching. For example, the lamps and oil in the Parable of The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-12) does not “represent” the Holy Spirit. Commenting on the two sets of servants in the Parable of the Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), any interpretation that makes these two sets of servants into pre-Easter mission to the Jews and a post-Easter mission to the Gentiles is “merciless allegorizing” (315). Snodgrass is consistent in this methodology.
What makes this book an especially rich resource for parables interpretation is the collection of parallel material for each parable. While there are collections of rabbinic parables or parallels to early Christian literature, Snodgrass conveniently places the text of these parallels alongside his commentary on the parable. Sometimes these parallels seem strained, but since the goal of the volume is a “comprehensive guide,” this is understandable.
The book is now about 35 pages longer than the first edition, the main difference being one additional chapter on recent contributions to parable research (pages 565-600). The page numbers from the first edition have not changed and there appear to be no differences in the endnotes. This is convenient since references to pages in the first edition will be the same pages in the second. The index of authors is greatly expanded (from just short of four pages to nearly eight pages). The bibliography has been updated to include the books appearing in the new chapter. The bibliography appears to use a slightly smaller font and spacing since it is several pages shorter than the first edition although the content is nearly the same.
The title of the book is important. Snodgrass was dissatisfied with reader response approaches to the parables since they ignore the author’s intent and make the parables say anything. Some literary approaches to the parables completely ignored what Jesus said in favor of creating a new meaning which was somehow more modern and provoking. For Snodgrass, when Jesus spoke a parable he did so with a specific intention, and to ignore that intention is to miss the point of the parable. Although taking into account the literary features of parables as well as the literary context of its place in a gospel, he does not engage in the fanciful reader-response type application of parables. This requires the interpreter to understand the historical, social, and literary context of each parable and to consciously read that parable in that proper context.
Other books on parables are more concerned with reconstructing the original forms of parables or determining what the historical Jesus may (or may not) have said. This was the driving force in John Meier’s 2016 Probing the Authenticity of the Parables. Using the criteria of authenticity Meier concluded only four parables go back to the historical Jesus. As Snodgrass observes, these criteria have been challenged and for many Jesus scholars they no longer have any value at all. Snodgrass does engage with scholarship on the authenticity of the parables, but his goal is to set the parable into a context where Jesus’s original intent can be heard. Stories with Intent is not a historical Jesus study.
The parables are grouped thematically (parables of the present kingdom, parables about discipleship, etc.) For each parable Snodgrass collects any parallels in canonical writings, early Jewish literature, rabbinic literature and early Christian writing. He includes the text for most of the non-canonical texts, which is extremely useful for some of the more obscure rabbinical sources. He then asks questions and creates lists of things needing attention for students and teachers who want to interpret the parable accurately. Sometimes he does not address all of these needs in his explanation, but for the most part a mini-commentary on the parable compares and contrasts several approaches to the parable and draws conclusions. He provides a section on cultural background when applicable. For each parable he offers a short comment on how to adapt the parable for contemporary use in teaching and preaching. Each parable concludes with a short bibliography, although these have not been updated since the 2008 edition of the book.
In his new chapter for the second edition of the book Snodgrass observes that in the ten years since Stories with Intent was first published, more than twenty-five books on parables have been published. This does not include journal articles, but the number seems small to me, especially in comparison to other more burning issues in New Testament studies over the same time. Compare this trickle of parables research to the avalanche of books written in the New Perspective on Paul. Perhaps the publication of this massive commentary on all the parables discouraged some scholars from contributing their own monograph on the parables.
Snodgrass divides recent parables research into several categories and offers a short summary of their contribution to the study of parables. He begins with a short comment on his non-use of the Gospel of Thomas in Stories with Intent. This was a critique of the first edition in the original round of book reviews. For some scholars, GThomas is an early witness to the Jesus tradition and is useful for interpreting the parables. Snodgrass agrees with Simon Gathercole and Mark Goodacre that the Gospel of Thomas is dependent on the Synoptic Gospels and dates to the second century. In a footnote he dismisses April DeConnick’s suggestion that Thomas is a “rolling composition” with a kernel of early Jesus tradition as “speculative and unconvincing” (note 2, 807). Although Snodgrass includes Gospel of Thomas in this parallel texts on the body of the commentary, he is clear that Thomas will not provide “an early window into Jesus’s parables” (566).
There are only a handful of new books on Old Testament and Rabbinic parables, and Snodgrass includes a few Bible Study type books as well as a few monographs on specific parables. In his section on New Testament parables he includes David Gowler’s book on the reception of the parables in Christian art and other literature. He groups several studies under the heading “Social Science” approaches. In his summary, Snodgrass indicates these studies see the parables as political and economic stories rather than theology. They assume anyone who is rich in a parable is a negative character. Snodgrass is not convinced politics was Jesus’s intent. Although the ethical concerns are important, Snodgrass sees these approaches as open to criticism. If Jesus was were entirely political in orientation, how did the early church get them so wrong when they collected them as theological statements? Commenting on Stephen Wright’s Jesus the Storyteller, Snodgrass concludes “If Wright is correct, why were these stories remembered at all?” (588)
Conclusion. Stories with Intent is certainly the “first off the shelf” book on parables. Some will object to his rejection of parallels in Thomas or his rejection of most of the faddish approaches once popular in parables research. Nor is there much here on reception history of the parables, partly because Snodgrass soundly rejects allegorical interpretations of the parables and most of church history allegorized them extensively. Snodgrass consistently provides sufficient background material to read the parables in the context of Jesus’s ministry, but also to adapt the parable to the contemporary situation.
If you have the first edition of this book, it may not be necessary to replace it with this second edition. However, if you are going to use one book on the parables, Stories with Intent remains the best, most comprehensive book on the parables of Jesus.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.