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).

Today at CNN: Crossan on Jesus

CNN News ran a story today on John Dominic Crossan’s “Blasphemous views” on Jesus.  Since this is a news story, there is little substantive here.  The emphasis is more on reactions to Crossan and his personal struggle with his scholarship and faith. In the interest of full disclosure, I have always enjoyed reading Crossan. My interest in Historical Jesus studies and Christian Origins was sparked largely by his Historical Jesus and the Birth of Christianity.  I do find myself at odds with him on virtually every point, however.  In a Gospels class, a student once called Crossan “my favorite whipping boy.”  While I am not sure I ever whipped him, I do use him as a foil too often in dealing with Historical Jesus issues. But then that is the nature of John Dominic Crossan, he says things boldly and attracts attention.

I have several observations on this article.  First, the article is out of date.  For example, the author cites his Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography as “recent” (my copy is the 1995 edition from Harper).  My guess is that the writer of this piece has the 2009 re-packaging of the book in mind, failing to notice that it is now over 15 years old.  Second, the article mentions his association with the Jesus Seminar, despite the fact that this too is old news.  As is well known, the Jesus Seminar has always been on the fringe of scholarship, even in Jesus Studies.  Third, while his involvement in A&E Bible programs is mentioned, there is nothing on the more substantive debates with N. T. Wright.  These were significant dialogues and were both friendly and scholarly. The impression I get from the article is that the Christian community only pours out hate and derision on Crossan.  This is not the case at all, the dialogue has been positive for more conservative scholars (which is just about everyone when you are talking about the Jesus Seminar.  Last, I think it is good that the article used a quote from Ben Witherington in the SideBar, although there is no indication when or where Witherington said this.  There is also no distinction between Witherington the radical conservatives who threaten Crossan at the beginning of the article.  For the writer of this article, there are only two options, but Ben Witherington is (in reality) not one of the knee-jerk conservatives who vilify Crossan (or anyone for that matter).

My guess is that this sort of article pops up in March since the Easter Season is starting.  Nothing generates page hits at Easter like saying that Jesus was taken down from the cross, thrown in a garbage dump and eaten by dogs.  But there is nothing new here, certainly nothing which is News.  Glad to see Crossan still getting media attention, I just wish the media paid attention to a broader spectrum of scholarship.

The Parables of Jesus: Literary Approaches

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 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.  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.

I will touch on one example of the types of studies that came out of this literary movement.  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”  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.”   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.

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.  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.  In this version of his thinking on parables, he follows Derrida closely, arguing that metaphor creates a “void” which requires the reader to create meaning through the “free play of interpretations.”

What is remarkable about literary approaches to the Parables is how they embrace rather obtuse literary methods in order to make the parables say anything.  This strikes me as an intellectual version of the allegorical method.  For most of these types of studies, the reader is more important that the author.  In fact, the reader “creates meaning” when the parable is read.  The same parable could be read at ten different times by the same person and new meaning may be created each time.  What the author meant does not really matter, whether that is the Historical Jesus or the gospel writer.

For the record, I am a firm believer in “authorial intent.”  My approach to the Parables is to place the story in the context of the Life of Jesus.  The point of the parable is exactly the point which Jesus intended.  However, literary studies are right about a few things – I can read the same parable at different times in my life and hear something different every time.  To me, this is not a creation of meaning.  The parables were designed to have various levels of meaning, complex nuances which may resonate with some people and not with others.

While it is easy enough to dismiss literary studies as dated relics of postmodernism, they might have struck on something which was lost when Jülicher declared the allegorical method dead.  Were the Parables intended as open ended, polyvalent stories by Jesus?

Bibliography:  John D. Crossan:

In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973).
“Servant Parables of Jesus,”  Semeia 1 (1974): 17-62.
“Metamodel for Polyvalent Narration,” Semeia 9 (1977): 105-47
“Difference and Divinity,” Semeia 23 (1982): 29-40 .