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?

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).

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.

Reading the Parables of Jesus – Joachim Jeremias

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.

Jeremias’ The Parables of Jesus is perhaps the most influential work since Jülicher. He adapts Dodd’s method by fully applying the methods of form criticism. Like Jülicher, Jeremias rejects allegory, but he also rejects Jülicher’s own reworking of Jesus as an “apostle of progress.” Jeremias goal, in contrast, was to “hear the voice of Jesus” by developing a set of tools which can liberate that voice from the literary context in which it has been preserved (9).

Jeremias creates a methodology for detecting the “transformation” of the parables from their original form to the form found in the gospels. These are areas in which he thought the early church had adapted the parables. Some are certain, such as the translation of Jesus’ words from Aramaic into Greek or “representational changes” as the story was re-cast in a non-Palestinian culture, but others are suspect.

Jeremias sees later churches adding conclusions and introductions to the parables and placing the parable in a new contexts to better fit the Gospel author’s theological tendency. Any “moralizing” was an example of the hortatory use of the parable in the early church. Any allegorizing was an influence of the Sitz im Leben (life-setting) of the early church, such as the “delay of the parousia” in the parable of the Ten Virgins (61). Jeremias accepted the realized eschatology of Dodd, but interpreted the parables as applicable to Jesus’ ministry, especially his ministry to the poor.

While fully accepting Jülicher’s view of the parable as similitude rather than metaphor, Jeremias is not free from allegorical interpretations. Jeremias describes the Parable of the Banquet in Luke 14:7-15 as an allegory of salvation. The characters of the Prodigal Son story represent other referents outside of the narrative world, such as the father as God. The wicked husbandmen was  allegorized by the early church, but the idea that the vineyard is Israel comes from Isaiah 5. This allegorical symbolism is “unique in the parables of Jesus” (55). In the parable of the Ten Virgins, the oil represents repentance (132).

Like Dodd, the kingdom in the parables is fully realized in the ministry of Jesus. The “eschatological overflowing of divine fullness” is to be found in the person of Jesus and in the salvation he is bringing into the world (92-93). That there is in fact a coming crisis is clear from the parables, but that crisis is a judgment on the “nation rushing upon its own destruction, and more especially on its leaders, theologians and priests” (126). In this “demand for decision,” Jeremias anticipate some later developments in parables research in his discussion of the existential and eschatological motifs in the parables.

I remain unconvinced that there is much hope of discovering the church-setting of the Parables.  Why Matthew preserved one parable and Luke preserved another is a matter of the author’s decision and it is difficult (if not impossible) to decide what motivated that decision in some community to which the gospel is addressed.

Jeremias is still an important work since was among the first to take the historical setting of Jesus’ parables seriously.  The first step in his method was to establish the parable in the world of first-century Judaism.  This is something that still remains the first step in accurately reading a parable.

Bibliography: Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus. Tr.S. H. Hooke. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955.

Reading the Parables of Jesus – C. H. Dodd

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.

C. H. Dodd’s Lectures on 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, the life-situation of Jesus),  but he also attempted to deal with the problem of eschatology raised by Schweitzer. Schweitzer suggested 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, indicates that the old age has already passed away and the new has already come. For Dodd, 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 reached fulfillment in the person of Jesus.  This is a “realized eschatology” which emphasizes the already to the exclusion of the not yet.

The parables of the kingdom are therefore 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. Dodd is aware of apocalyptic texts which describe the kingdom as appearing dramatically in the near future. He cites the Assumption of Moses 10 and 2 Baruch 73 as evidence that there were many Jewish in the Second Temple period who were eschatologically minded, but texts like Matthew 12:28 and Luke 11:20 indicate Jesus’ teaching ran counter to that expectation (35-36).

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 parables 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 (122-139). 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. That idea was “naturally enough and legitimately enough re-applied” by the early church to a new situation.

Dodd’s chief contribution to Parables study is his application of “realized eschatology” to the apocalyptic parables of Jesus. He attempts to do justice to the elements of Jesus’ teaching which describe the kingdom as present and those which describe the kingdom as future, although Dodd’s emphasis is decidedly on the presence of the kingdom. This theological position will be extremely influential on subsequent parables studies.

Does Dodd’s view of the parables satisfy every aspect of the parables of Jesus?  Were they devoid of any hint of a future kingdom?  Which parables might be difficult for Dodd to explain through the lens of “realized eschatology”?

Bibliography: C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (London: Nisbet and Co, Ltd, 1935).

The Parables of Jesus: “Realized Eschatology” in the Parables

C. H. Dodd’s  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 has 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 it’s 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 parables 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.  That 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 (Mt 24:43-44, Lk 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 form 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.

C. H. Dodd, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribners 1935))