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Gowler, David B. The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 320 pp.; Pb.; $29.99. Link to Baker   

David Gowler’s earlier book on the parables, What Are They Saying about the Parables? (Paulist Press, 2000) was a handy guide to the various approaches to the parables in scholarship. This new volume from Baker Academic extends that project by studying how scholars, pastors, preachers, philosophers and artists have understood Jesus’s parables. This book is a reception history, although it ranges broadly in both chronology and disciplines.

Cover ArtGowler includes chapters covering examples from Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE); Middle Ages (ca. 550-1500 CE); Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Since he includes so many examples in each chronological period, each sub-section is necessarily brief. This may frustrate some (there is obviously more to be said about prolific writers Augustine or Luther), but it is the nature of the book Gowler has written. On the other hand, by limiting his comments only a few thousand words, readers may use this book as a kind of devotional reader. The brevity allows a reader to profitably spend a few moments reading a section without sacrificing the overall themes of the book.

Some of the selections are the most important and well known authors, but some selections are more obscure. For example, in the section on Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE), Gowler includes several of the earliest and most important Christian writers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, John Chrysostom, Augustine), but also the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, two obscure writers (Macrina the Younger and Ephrem the Syrian), but also examples in Early Christian Art, Oil Lamp and Roman Catacombs. He also includes the Dura-Europos House Church and Illuminations from the Rossano Gospels and several Byzantine Mosaics and a song from Romanos the Melodist.

This diversity is seen in Gowler’s selections for his chapter on the Middle Ages. Gregory the Great, Hildegard of Bingen, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas are well-known to most students of church history, but the Sunni writer Sahih al-Bukhari (ca. 870) is far from a household name in contemporary evangelicalism. It may be a surprise for some readers to learn some of Jesus’s parable were discussed in Islamic literature, but as Gowler observes, this illustrates the trajectories gospel traditions could follow. The next writer Gowler includes in this chapter is positively obscure, Wazo the bishop of Liège (985-1048). He is primarily known from a biography written by Anselm. This chapter also includes several panels from the Golden Gospels of Echternach (Codex Aureus), an illuminated gospel produced between1030–1050. The book reproduces several pages illustrating parables in grey-scale. It is well worth the effort to find these images available on the internet. Gowler includes several pieces of art (Albrecht Dürer) and architecture (Chartres Cathedral) in this section, although he only provides a link for the images from Chartres.

Golden Gospels of Echternach

For the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, he includes the reformers Martin Luther John Calvin, but also playwright William Shakespeare, poet George Herbert and the remarkably evocative art of Rembrandt and Domenico Fetti (1859-1623).  One of the more obscure examples in this section is John Maldonatus (1534-1583), an example from the counter-Reformation who likens the “stony place” in the Parable of the Sower to the heretics Luther and Calvin.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries are even more diverse, ranging from William Blake’s art to Søren Kierkegaard, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the hymn writing of Fanny Crosby. The inclusion of abolitionist Frederick Douglass is a pleasant surprise. Douglass used the parable of the Great Feast in Luke 14:16-24 as part of his argument against slavery and the plight of the black slaves as similar to Lazarus in one speech, as a symbol for women’s emancipation in another. A rare biblical scholar in this period is Adolf Jülicher, a constantly referenced work on parables but rarely read.

For the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Gowler includes such diverse voices as Thomas Hart Benton, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King Jr. along with more pop-culture examples such as writer Octavia Butler and the play Godspell. He has a section on Latin American Receptions, a Jewish writer (David Flusser) and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

In his concluding comments, Gowler asks, “What Do Parables Want?” Since the parables themselves are literary works of art, they function like any other type of art. Jesus was often ambiguous when he told a parable, and this ambiguity generates the variety of interpretations evidenced in this volume. When Jesus spoke a parable, he demanded a response, as in Luke 10:36-38: “go thou and do likewise.”

Although Gowler includes many examples of the reception of Jesus’s parables over the last two millennia, there is far more to be said. For example, he has barely scratched the surface of in the modern period with respect to art and literature. A catalog of scholarly approaches to the parables could generate another (much longer) book. Gowler maintains a blog, A Chorus of Voices: The Reception History of the Parables, where he has additional examples. Earlier posts on this blog are the seed-bed for this book and occasionally there are links to art and architecture examples. The book also includes an appendix briefly describes each of the parables covered in the book, although Gowler gives biblical references throughout.

Conclusion. This book is a joy to read, a book I would recommend one reads the book slowly. In many cases the examples are obscure and it will reward the reader to look up a few names in an encyclopedia or dictionary in order to place the section in a proper historical context. Gowler demonstrates an amazing range of scholarship, equally at home in patristics as in the Reformation, in both medieval and contemporary art. By including such a wide range of voices readers will be challenged by the diversity of responses to the parables of Jesus.

NB: Thanks to Baker for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

What they have done is taken care of “the least of these” is very simple practical ways, usually described as social responsibilities, things that were valued by the Jews at the time of Jesus. The idea that a righteous person takes care of the poor and needy is found throughout the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic thought and becomes cornerstone to Christian ethics.

Job defends himself by arguing that he has not defrauded the poor (Job 31:16-21).  These same sorts of “good deeds” are typical of righteous Jews in the Second Temple Period.  For example, Tobit 4:16-17: “Give some of your food to the hungry, and some of your clothing to the naked. Give all your surplus as alms, and do not let your eye begrudge your giving of alms. Place your bread on the grave of the righteous, but give none to sinners.”  Likewise, Sirach 7:35 says “Do not hesitate to visit the sick, because for such deeds you will be loved.  Feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty are things which the person of God does because they are God’s people (Prov 25:21, Ezek 18:7-9).

The LeastThe sheep are also praised for sheltering the foreigner and stranger as well as clothing the naked.  This pair deals with basic hospitality requirements in the Ancient Near East. The word for stranger may mean someone from your country that is passing through your village or someone from another country.  Think of this as “when I was an immigrant, refugee, etc. in your land, you sheltered me.”  In b.Shab we read “Hospitality to the wayfarer is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekinah.”  Job claims that “no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler” (Job 31:32)

They also visit the sick and the prisoner.  Visiting the sick becomes a key virtue in the early Church (see James 5:14, for example).  Visiting the prisoner was necessary since the Greco-Roman prison system did not provide any food, water, or other needs for prisoners.  If the person was to survive in prison, there had to be friends on the outside to bring the person food and water.

The Testament of Joseph 1:5–6 “I was sold into slavery, and the Lord of all made me free; I  was taken into captivity, and His strong hand succoured me. I  was beset with hunger, and the Lord Himself nourished me. I  was alone, and God comforted me; I  was sick, and the Lord visited me; I  was in prison, and my God showed favor to me.

Babylonian Talmud (t. Bab. Nedarim) “he that does not visit the sick, is as if he shed blood:  says another, he that visits the sick is the cause of his living; and he that does not visit the sick, is the cause of his death: and, says a third, whoever visits the sick shall be preserved from the damnation of hell.”  Visiting of the sick was reckoned, by the Jews, a very worthy action: they speak great things of it, and as what will be highly rewarded hereafter.”

There is a question of application here – usually this verse is used to guilt people into giving to a food drive or money to a homeless shelter.  While that application is fine (I am a big fan of helping the poor), but I am not so sure that is what Jesus is talking about.  The people who enter “eternal life” are those who have actually done the will of God by caring for the least of the brothers.  In every other text in the gospel of Matthew, the brothers of Jesus are the disciples, the Jews who are following Jesus.  It is possible that Jesus is not referring to the generic poor of all ages, but specifically the disciples who will suffer greatly for their testimony.

This pericope is a grand conclusion to the Olivet Discourse and sums up many of the eschatological themes in Matthew.  But is this a parable? Not in the normal sense of a parable, it is more of an apocalyptic prophecy with parabolic elements.  The story is usually treated as a parable, despite the fact it is not a story drawn from everyday life.  As an apocalyptic prophecy, the Sheep and Goats is an interpretation and re-application of themes from the Hebrew Bible to a new situation.

Clearly the “Son of Man” is not a symbol, Jesus is identifying himself as the one who will be doing the final judgment.  There is, however, a shift from Son of Man to “the King” in verse 34.  The King in this parable is not necessarily a metaphor for Jesus but an actual title of Jesus that he will have at that time.  That Jesus sees himself as the central character in this parable helps us to read the previous parables – Jesus is the king who went away, Jesus is the bridegroom.

The Sheep and the Goats are metaphorical elements that parallel the Wise and foolish virgins and the productive and unproductive servants in the parable of the talents. The elements of the judgment are not to be taken as metaphors, what the sheep do and what the goats do not do should be understood as a part of the judgment that they are facing at the end of the age.  The wise virgin and prepared servant are more or less like the Sheep, the foolish virgin and the unprepared servant are more or less like the goats.

Sheep and GoatIt is probably best to see this is prophecy that is using the metaphor of the separation of sheep and goats to indicate that at the end of the age the nations will be separated and judged.  The basis of that judgment will be the treatment of the “least of these brothers of mine.” This prophecy may be based on several passages from the Hebrew Bible.  For example,  Ezekiel 34:11-17 describes Israel as a flock in need of a true shepherd.  It is quite possible that the Sheep and Goats of Matthew 25 is a reflection on Ezekiel 34:16: “As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.”  Compare also Joel 3:12: “Let the nations be roused; let them advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side.”  The Animal Apocalypse in the 1 Enoch is very similar – the sheep represent Israel, while other animals represent the nations.

Like any of the parables, this story must be read in the context of the first listeners.  The shocking end of the parables of the kingdom is that those that thought they were getting into the kingdom are not going to be there, and those that were on the outside do get in.   The ruling Jews thought that they were going to be in the kingdom, in fact, they were the “keepers of the kingdom of God.”  Yet when Messiah came, they did not recognize him.  They never really had much of a chance to since they were not caring for the poor and the needy as they ought.  Jesus is very critical of the Pharisees who liked their fine things, or the people giving in the temple and mocking the widow and her mite.

On the other hand, the underclass probably did not think of themselves are serious candidates for the first to get into the kingdom.  They were told repeatedly that they were the unclean, “sinners and tax-collectors.”  Yet they will enter the kingdom, and those that were accepting and caring for this underclass, as Jesus was, will enter as well.

This parable is an interesting example for parable study since it is often dismissed as a creation of the later church to explain the long-delay of the return of the Lord. The parable is an allegory created by Matthew to explain why Jesus did not return as quickly as anticipated. For example, Eta Linnemann said that this parable “is certainly a creation of the early Church. A Christian prophet or teacher unknown to us uttered it in the name and spirit of Jesus.” (Parables, 126).

I would rather read this parable in the context of the other parables in Matthew 24-25, as well as the whole of Jesus’ teaching in the Temple his final week.  The parable was intended to use common typology for Israel’s relationship with God found in the Hebrew Bible. For example, the relationship of God and Israel is pictured in the Old Testament as a marital relationship (Isa 54:4-6, 62:4-5, Ezek 16, Hosea).

If we follow Blomberg’s method for interpreting parables, then the bridegroom is the central character, the two sets of bridesmaids are the contrasting characters. This would imply strongly that the bridegroom is God / Jesus, since in most of these sorts of parables God is in that central position. The ten virgins or bridesmaids would then refer to the followers of Jesus who are waiting for his return. Five are prepared for a long interim, the other five are not.

But other elements are not intended to be typological at all. For example, the oil is sometimes equated to good works, or the merchants with the Church. (If you want to be ready for the return of Jesus, go and do good works in the Church?)  This is very “preachable,” but I am not at all convinced that was Jesus’ original point.

What makes the bridesmaids “wise” or “foolish”? It cannot be that they fell asleep since both the wise and foolish get drowsy and fall asleep. The delay was so long that normal life had to go on. The issue is that the foolish five are unprepared for the long wait. The type of lamp they used would need to be refueled when the groom arrived. By preparing themselves, the five wise bridesmaids are allowed to join the groom and enter into the wedding feast.

But what about the unprepared virgins? Why are they judged harshly? The shutting of the door is an indication of final judgement: there is no longer any way for them to get into the kingdom, they have missed out. The groom’s response to their please is that he does not know them.

The groom’s response is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 7:23 and is a rabbinical formula used to dismiss a student. The implication is that they had the same opportunity to be ready, and that since they were not ready at the right time, they will have no part in the kingdom. They remain outside, in the dark. The fact is, they were always in the dark and only thought that they would enter into the Wedding Feast.

This is yet another example in Jesus’ teaching of a shocking reversal. Those who think that they ought to be in the kingdom do not get in, they remain on the outside.  I think that the context supports this reading – what else do you seen in Jesus’ final week that supports this conclusion?  Who should we identify as the “wise” and “foolish” in the immediate context of the parable?

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.  In the last few installments of this series I want to cover several studies on the parables published since 1990 which treat the parables as coming from the teaching of historical Jesus, yet also allow for some insight on a literary level, such as Craig BlombergKenneth Bailey and now Klyne Snodgrass.

The subtitle of Klyne Snodgrass’s Stories with Intent is “A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus.” This is certainly the case! At over 800 pages, this book is the largest book on parables produced in many years (pages 570-770 are endnotes and the bibliography runs to 45 pages!) Snodgrass has written several important articles on parables and his The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is a detailed study of this important parable. (Originally published in the WUNT/2 series, I noticed that Wipf & Stock have an inexpensive reprint of the book.)

Snodgrass provides about sixty pages introducing the usual topics expected in an introduction to the parables. As he states in the introduction, he is not offering a new method for interpreting the parables (31). What sets Snodgrass apart is his assumption that the parables are the authentic voice of Jesus and he rarely discusses matters of authenticity.

He is also skeptical of attempts to reconstruct earlier, simpler versions of the parables because this assumes that there was an original form which differs from the form as it appears in the gospels. In addition, reconstructions also assume that anything allegorical was added to that original form by the later church, created to deal with internal problems in the Gospel writer’s church situation. Frequently the context of the sermon is dismissed a priori as a creation of the evangelist, as are the concluding lines which interpret the parable. These assumptions, Snodgrass argues, do withstand criticism. There are no fixed laws of transmission as was once assumed, and the now standard rejection of allegory by modern interpreters simply does not take into context the of Second Temple Period literature (where allegorical elements were often included in parables).

Snodgrass therefore studies “each parable in its own right with regard to form and content” (35). His goal is to set aside tedious arguments about sources and original forms and read the parable as we have it on the page as accurately as possible. In order to do this, he provides a 22 page introduction to what a parable was in Second Temple Period Judaism and in the Greco-Roman world. Jesus’ parables stand more in the tradition of the rabbinic parables, but there are clear differences as well.

In the body of the book, Snodgrass arranges the parables are into topics (parables about prayer, about Israel, about the kingdom, etc. ) For each parable he provides a section entitled “Issues Requiring Attention.” This is a list of exegetical and theological issues that any interpreter must treat when reading this particular parable. For a pastor preparing a sermon, this section clarifies the main ideas which are important; for the student, here is an outline of issues for a paper! Following this section he lists all of the potential “source material.” This includes Second Temple Period literature, rabbinic parallels and Greco-Roman sources. This is a goldmine of material, often the important lines are reproduced, sometimes they are simply summarized.

Following this background material are “Textual Features Worthy of Attention” (key words to study, interesting syntax, etc) and “Cultural Features” (elements of background to study). Once again, this provides the interpreter with a number of tips on what is important in the parable (and perhaps by their commission, what is not so important).

The main section for each parable is the “Explanation of the Parable.” This takes the form of a number of questions and answers working through the main points of the parable. In this section he interacts with the Greek New Testament (in transliteration) as well as with key modern interpreters of the text. While he does draw on the literature of the Second Temple Period, he ignores (for the most part) church interpretation. His focus is purely canonical, not historical. He provides a bibliography for each parable, including both better commentary sections and journal articles. Occasionally German and French resources are included, but the emphasis is purely on English scholarship.

In the final section, Snodgrass offers some hints on how to “Adapt the Parable” for use in a sermon or Bible study. Here one hears Snodgrass’s pastoral heart – this material on the parables is not to be purely academic without any application!

Stories with Intent has become my “first off the shelf” for parables, although some readers may be lost in all of the details. I cannot imagine trying to teach or preach the parables of Jesus without consulting this book.  The most helpful element in the book is Snodgrass’s questions, leading the reader in the right direction, without answering all the exegetical questions possible. Again, that might frustrate some readers who do not have the time or inclination to dig into these things themselves.

With respect to method, I find Snodgrass’s rejection of form-critical assumptions helpful. While Dodd and Jeremias remain bright lights, Snodgrass calls into question whether they really illuminate the text as we have it. In addition, while Snodgrass occasionally cites some of the literary studies (Funk, Crossan, Via), he does nothing that looks at all like the postmodern studies popular in the late 1960s.

Is his skepticism of the assumptions of earlier studies valid? Does his method actually “work” for reading the parables accurately?

Bibliography: Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008.

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.  In the last few installments of this series I want to cover several studies on the parables published since 1990 which treat the parables as coming from the teaching of historical Jesus, yet also allow for some insight on a literary level, such as Craig Blomberg  and now Kenneth Bailey.

Kenneth Bailey approaches parables as fair representations of the culture of the Mediterranean world of the first century. Bailey’s method is unique because he reads the parables through the eyes of modern Middle Eastern readers with whom he has lived for many years. Bailey thinks the culture of the Mediterranean world has not changed that much since the first century and many of the unusual elements of the parables can be explained by paying attention to the eastern culture from which the stories first arose. This “oriental exegesis” attempts to read the parables as Oriental churchman have throughout the centuries (Poet and Peasant, 29). In order to do this, one first must know the ancient literature and be able to assess it properly.

The most controversial point of Bailey’s method is his insistence that the culture of present Middle Eastern culture is archaic and accurately reflects the culture of the parables. Life changes slowly in the Middle East and it is intentionally traditional. Therefore some cultural phenomenon observed today may in fact go back to the first century.

This observation is not new, although the sorts of memoirs which were published in the late nineteenth century as travelers began to visit the Middle East are of varying value. What Bailey seeks to contribute is a method and control for the study of present culture as a window for understanding the first century. Books are of less value to Bailey than personal interviews with people who have spent at least twenty years in the Middle East collecting observations orally, in Arabic. Bailey has found 25 dialogue partners who satisfy this requirement and are also biblically literate enough to understand the point of the questions he put to them concerning the parables.

A second methodological consideration is what Bailey calls “theological clusters.” Bailey believes that Jülicher’s belief about the relationship between allegory and parable has been proven false, although the idea that a parable makes a single point persists. Bailey argues that parables are intended to evoke a decision, but the response to a parable is informed by a “theological cluster,” each element of which may be examined separately (Poet and Peasant, 41). It is the point at which all of the theological themes come together that a single response is evoked. A single response is different than a single meaning, the meaning may vary from listener to listener, but there is still only one response.

Bailey illustrates this with the Parable of the Sower. The response is “hear the word of the kingdom and bear fruit.” But there are at least four theological points made by the parable which contribute to this response: The kingdom is like a seed growing slowly; God’s grace includes sowing the seed where the ground is unprepared; fruit bearing is an essential part of the kingdom; there is the hope and assurance of a harvest in spite of difficulties. All of these theological motifs (and perhaps others) converge to illicit the response to the parable intended by Jesus.

Bailey has been rightly critiqued because he draws very little from rabbinic parallels. Bailey brackets this evidence since it is extremely hard to date evidence from post-Mishnah Judaism, but relies on evidence from modern Mediterranean culture. If the general lines of the culture have survived since the first century in practice, then those cultural elements one finds in the literature like the Talmud may very well be an accurate reflection of first century culture.

Charles Hedrick offers a number of criticisms of Bailey’s methodology which ultimately question the value of the study (Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fiction, 45-46). Hedrick’s most important criticism is the chronological distance of Bailey’s sources. Is it reasonable to think that the Mediterranean culture Bailey experienced in the twentieth century is an accurate representation of the culture of the first century?

In addition, Hedrick points out that Bailey ignores the Islamization of Palestine. For the last 1400 years Islam has ruled Palestine in some way, but when Jesus lived in Israel it was ruled by the Romans through a Jewish bureaucracy. It is a stretch of the imagination to think that Islamic bedouin of the modern era have the same sorts of practices that the Jewish peasants of Galilee did. Yet anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Middle East knows that bedouin culture is extremely conservative and has only recently has tradition been eroded by the modern world (cell phones and blue jeans, mostly!)

Despite these criticisms, I find Bailey’s books stimulating and insightful. He has a slightly different perspective that most writers on parables and in almost every case I find his comments helpful for teaching and preaching the parables.

Are the criticism of Bailey’s method fair? If there is a problem, perhaps what seems very “preachable” is not accurate – but is the use of contemporary cultural observations valid?

Bibliography:

Poet & Peasant; and, through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Combined ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983.

Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2005.

The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants.  Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2005.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2008.

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 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.

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.  In this post I want to briefly look at the work of John Dominic Crossan on the parables.  One problem is that he has written so much that it is almost impossible to summarize him fairly in 500 words.  I thought to omit him from this survey, but his work seems to be the best example of postmodern literary technique applied to the parables.

As a founding member of the SBL Parables group, John Dominic Crossan followed Funk’s lead in his work on the parables in a bewildering number of articles which employ at various times virtually every literary-critical method. As an engaging writer, reading Crossan is always a joy, but one is always left wondering what he really thinks. At times he seems to be playing with the parables and other literature just because he can. He creates new combinations of diverse literature which challenge in unanticipated ways, but ultimately leave one wondering if there is anything in his reading which Jesus might have recognized as one of his parables!

For Crossan, the parables are the “preaching itself and are not merely serving the purpose of a lesson” (In Parables, 21). Crossan argues “the parable does not belong to the realm of didactic tools and pedagogic tactics but comes from the world of poetic metaphors and symbolic expressions” (“Parable and Example,” 87).

Yet parables are not allegories, because an allegory can still be reduced to some propositional statement. Because of this assumption that the parables are art, Crossan is free to approach these stories as stories, employing a structuralist or deconstructionalist method. Crossan eventually turns Jesus into a Cynic teacher and dispenses with most of the parables as having much historical value at all as words of Jesus (The Historical Jesus).

In his later writings, Crossan has argued that parables are polyvalent: parables are capable of many meanings since they are capable of being read in many contexts (“Metamodel for Polyvalent Narration”). The interpreter “plays” with the parable and creates a new and unique meaning from the plot of the parable. The same reader may return to the text on multiple occasions and develop quite different readings of the same parable.

The reader has changed and may sense new connections and insights from the same text. Crossan has made a pass at the parables from the perspective of deconstructionism as well (Cliffs of Fall). Crossan argues that metaphor of a parable creates a “void” which requires the reader to create meaning through the “free play of interpretations.” These “free plays” can include anything, juxtaposing a parable of Jesus and a modern poem might result in interesting, new insights.

The result is interesting to read, but seems to be about as far from the meaning of historical Jesus as a reader could get! While I do think that assumption and reader-context bear on the interpretation of a text, I am not sure that the resulting interpretation should be confused with the original meaning of the text. I suspect that those attracted to a full-blown reader response interpretation of the parables will not particularly care about the author’s original intent, or simply despair that it is possible to discover that intent.

Is it possible to read the parables as polyvalent, metaphors which are capable of almost limitless meaning, and still consider the text of the Gospels authoritative in any sense of the word?  Does Crossan’s concept of polyvance help the reader of the parables at all?

Bibliography:

“Parable and Example in the Teaching of Jesus.” Semeia 1 (1974): 62-104.

“Metamodel for Polyvalent Narration.” Semeia, 9 (1977): 105-47.

Cliffs of Fall: Paradox and Polyvalence in the Parables of Jesus. (New York: Seabury Press, 1980).

In Parables. (San Francisco: Harper, 1985).

The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

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.  Robert Funk’s work on parables as metaphors is a classic, although it seems to swing the pendulum back towards allegorical interpretations, although through the lens of modern language methods.

Another example of a literary approach to the parables is Robert Funk. He adapted Dodd’s work along literary lines, using the parable of the Great Supper as a test case for his theory of parables as metaphor. The imagery of a parable is drawn from common life yet intends to engage the hearer by its vividness or strangeness.

But Funk differed with Dodd by taking parables as extended metaphors. Similes simply illustrate a point that is known. Metaphors create meaning by juxtaposing two somewhat incompatible objects in order to impact the imagination. Metaphors are the “superimposition of the everyday with the ultimate,” and the parable “cracks the shroud of everydayness lying over mundane reality” (161-2).

Metaphorical language is inherently creative because it is incomplete until a listener hears the text and discovers the meaning in some way. The act of listening to a parable, therefore, creates meaning out of the text. Since meaning is grounded in the act of listening, each listener may discover a unique meaning as they encounter the text, as Fuchs says, “the parable interprets the reader” (151). Picking up on Dodd’s thought that the parables are left open ended to tease the hearer to make their own application, Funk argues that the whole point of the parable is to provide the opportunity for the hearer to make an application of the parable.

Metaphors may live on beyond the text, changing and “constantly refracting in the changing light of historical situation” (141-2). Here Funk is reflecting literary theory on metaphors which describe how metaphors function within a language and applying this thinking to the parables as extended metaphors. A given metaphor may function differently in a new historical or cultural context, making new meanings in each new circumstance. Parables are not intended to transmit some proposition, but rather to open “onto an unfinished world because that world is in course of conception” (“Good Samaritan as Metaphor,” Semeia 2 (1974): 75).

Funk agrees with Dodd’s principle that the application of parables was left some way imprecise and vague in order to allow the hearer to make their own application, but things Dodd did not take this far enough. For Funk, it is impossible ever, once and for all, to say what a given parable means. Parables simply do not transmit ideas and cannot be placed into a historical context as Dodd and Jeremias did. To put them back into any “real life situation,” either that of Jesus or the Church, is pointless and does not allow the parables to function as parables. In fact, the tradition which has placed the parables in the gospels is described as a “deformation” of what Jesus original spoke.

Funk said, “Strictly speaking, the parable does not say something else . . . the parable does not teach something, but it gestures toward” (196).  The church “deforms” the parables by applying them to new situations – but for Funk and many post-modern readers of parables, this is not a bad thing at all.

I will readily admit that most people read the parables this way, applying them in new and creative ways, using them to speak to new situations in church and culture. This is certainly the way metaphors work – but is this a fair method for reading the parables with clarity?  I am not sure that it is helpful to say that parables do not express a point until they are read by an individual.  Does that  combination of “writer and reader” meeting in a text create meaning?   Does the author’s intention count for anything?

Bibliography: Robert Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology. New York: Harper, 1966.

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.

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