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.

Parables and the Historical Jesus

It is sometimes said that in the parables of Jesus we hear the true ipsissima vox Jesu: the real voice of Jesus. Joachim Jeremias, for example, begins his classic The Parables of Jesus by stating that the we “may be confident” that we stand on a particularly firm historical ground. The parables reflect the sorts of things we might expect in the teaching of a first century Jewish rabbi. The images are drawn from the life of the common people of Galilee and Judea. Many have an apocalyptic edge to them that we know was common among people of the Second Temple Period.

Yet many scholars wonder if the parables as we read them in the gospels accurately reflect the original form and content of Jesus’ teaching. Is it possible to interpret the parables in the context of the life and teaching of Jesus? Can we know that the parables reflect true voice of Jesus? Or to put it another way, have the original parables been creatively adapted and re-applied to the situation of a later church or community by the gospel writers?

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the parables were assumed authentic but the original intent of Jesus’ teaching was set aside in favor of elaborate allegories which applied to the time of the interpreter. Details of the story became fodder for preaching the gospel or some moral lesson, often incorporating elements of later church theology. For example, Augustine took the “meaning” of the oil in the parable of the Good Samaritan as the Holy Spirit, and the inn-keeper as Paul. Nothing in the parable even hints at this meaning, the “message” is from the mind of the interpreter.

This allegorical method was overturned by Adolf Jülicher. He effectively challenged popular allegorical interpretations by applying form criticism the parables. He argued that the parables were not allegories. He rejected the detailed and imaginative interpretations (Paul as the inn-keeper, etc.) Instead, parables had a single message, a “moral of the story” which could be expressed simple timeless truth. Rejecting allegory was a great contribution to the study of parables, but Jülicher also cast doubt on the possibility of knowing the original setting of the parables of Jesus. Elements of a given parable could have been added to the parable to make it more “up to date” and to make it more applicable to the present church. For Jülicher , it was not possible to know if Jesus was the original speaker of a given parable.

Here is a thought experiment you can try: Retell the story of the Prodigal Son to a group of junior high boys. How much of the story do you change in order to make it “current”? How does the son spend his inheritance? (Big car, big TV, women, gambling, etc.) If you retell the story to a group of elderly ladies at their home Bible Study, my guess is that the prodigal spends his money differently (shawls and Matlock videos?)  I imagine that a retelling of the Prodigal Son will have more than a few different details in an African village, or in a European city, or in a village in Vietnam.  But the core of the story will always remain the same, the point of the story does not change.

It is natural for their to be some shifting of details when a story is retold, but the sense of the story remains the same.  Jülicher was right to reject allegory, but perhaps he went too far by placing the stories into a later context beyond that of the historical Jesus.

How much adaptation is there in the parables as we have them int he Synoptic Gospels?  Did the gospel writers adapt the parables to a new (later) context?  What is at stake theologically if they did?