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 .