Reading the Parables of Jesus – Klyne Snodgrass

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.

Klyne SnodgrassThe 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).

Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with IntentThe 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.