Reading the Parables of Jesus – Kenneth Bailey

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.

Kenneth Nailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern EyesThe 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?


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.

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.

Reading the Parables of Jesus – John Dominic Crossan

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.

John Dominic CrossanAs 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?


“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).

Reading the Parables of Jesus – Robert Funk

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.

Reading the Parables of Jesus – Literary Approaches

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.