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Gowler, David B. The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 320 pp.; Pb.; $29.99. Link to Baker   

David Gowler’s earlier book on the parables, What Are They Saying about the Parables? (Paulist Press, 2000) was a handy guide to the various approaches to the parables in scholarship. This new volume from Baker Academic extends that project by studying how scholars, pastors, preachers, philosophers and artists have understood Jesus’s parables. This book is a reception history, although it ranges broadly in both chronology and disciplines.

Cover ArtGowler includes chapters covering examples from Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE); Middle Ages (ca. 550-1500 CE); Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Since he includes so many examples in each chronological period, each sub-section is necessarily brief. This may frustrate some (there is obviously more to be said about prolific writers Augustine or Luther), but it is the nature of the book Gowler has written. On the other hand, by limiting his comments only a few thousand words, readers may use this book as a kind of devotional reader. The brevity allows a reader to profitably spend a few moments reading a section without sacrificing the overall themes of the book.

Some of the selections are the most important and well known authors, but some selections are more obscure. For example, in the section on Antiquity (to ca. 550 CE), Gowler includes several of the earliest and most important Christian writers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, John Chrysostom, Augustine), but also the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, two obscure writers (Macrina the Younger and Ephrem the Syrian), but also examples in Early Christian Art, Oil Lamp and Roman Catacombs. He also includes the Dura-Europos House Church and Illuminations from the Rossano Gospels and several Byzantine Mosaics and a song from Romanos the Melodist.

This diversity is seen in Gowler’s selections for his chapter on the Middle Ages. Gregory the Great, Hildegard of Bingen, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas are well-known to most students of church history, but the Sunni writer Sahih al-Bukhari (ca. 870) is far from a household name in contemporary evangelicalism. It may be a surprise for some readers to learn some of Jesus’s parable were discussed in Islamic literature, but as Gowler observes, this illustrates the trajectories gospel traditions could follow. The next writer Gowler includes in this chapter is positively obscure, Wazo the bishop of Liège (985-1048). He is primarily known from a biography written by Anselm. This chapter also includes several panels from the Golden Gospels of Echternach (Codex Aureus), an illuminated gospel produced between1030–1050. The book reproduces several pages illustrating parables in grey-scale. It is well worth the effort to find these images available on the internet. Gowler includes several pieces of art (Albrecht Dürer) and architecture (Chartres Cathedral) in this section, although he only provides a link for the images from Chartres.

Golden Gospels of Echternach

For the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, he includes the reformers Martin Luther John Calvin, but also playwright William Shakespeare, poet George Herbert and the remarkably evocative art of Rembrandt and Domenico Fetti (1859-1623).  One of the more obscure examples in this section is John Maldonatus (1534-1583), an example from the counter-Reformation who likens the “stony place” in the Parable of the Sower to the heretics Luther and Calvin.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries are even more diverse, ranging from William Blake’s art to Søren Kierkegaard, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the hymn writing of Fanny Crosby. The inclusion of abolitionist Frederick Douglass is a pleasant surprise. Douglass used the parable of the Great Feast in Luke 14:16-24 as part of his argument against slavery and the plight of the black slaves as similar to Lazarus in one speech, as a symbol for women’s emancipation in another. A rare biblical scholar in this period is Adolf Jülicher, a constantly referenced work on parables but rarely read.

For the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Gowler includes such diverse voices as Thomas Hart Benton, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King Jr. along with more pop-culture examples such as writer Octavia Butler and the play Godspell. He has a section on Latin American Receptions, a Jewish writer (David Flusser) and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

In his concluding comments, Gowler asks, “What Do Parables Want?” Since the parables themselves are literary works of art, they function like any other type of art. Jesus was often ambiguous when he told a parable, and this ambiguity generates the variety of interpretations evidenced in this volume. When Jesus spoke a parable, he demanded a response, as in Luke 10:36-38: “go thou and do likewise.”

Although Gowler includes many examples of the reception of Jesus’s parables over the last two millennia, there is far more to be said. For example, he has barely scratched the surface of in the modern period with respect to art and literature. A catalog of scholarly approaches to the parables could generate another (much longer) book. Gowler maintains a blog, A Chorus of Voices: The Reception History of the Parables, where he has additional examples. Earlier posts on this blog are the seed-bed for this book and occasionally there are links to art and architecture examples. The book also includes an appendix briefly describes each of the parables covered in the book, although Gowler gives biblical references throughout.

Conclusion. This book is a joy to read, a book I would recommend one reads the book slowly. In many cases the examples are obscure and it will reward the reader to look up a few names in an encyclopedia or dictionary in order to place the section in a proper historical context. Gowler demonstrates an amazing range of scholarship, equally at home in patristics as in the Reformation, in both medieval and contemporary art. By including such a wide range of voices readers will be challenged by the diversity of responses to the parables of Jesus.

NB: Thanks to Baker for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

What they have done is taken care of “the least of these” is very simple practical ways, usually described as social responsibilities, things that were valued by the Jews at the time of Jesus. The idea that a righteous person takes care of the poor and needy is found throughout the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic thought and becomes cornerstone to Christian ethics.

Job defends himself by arguing that he has not defrauded the poor (Job 31:16-21).  These same sorts of “good deeds” are typical of righteous Jews in the Second Temple Period.  For example, Tobit 4:16-17: “Give some of your food to the hungry, and some of your clothing to the naked. Give all your surplus as alms, and do not let your eye begrudge your giving of alms. Place your bread on the grave of the righteous, but give none to sinners.”  Likewise, Sirach 7:35 says “Do not hesitate to visit the sick, because for such deeds you will be loved.  Feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty are things which the person of God does because they are God’s people (Prov 25:21, Ezek 18:7-9).

The LeastThe sheep are also praised for sheltering the foreigner and stranger as well as clothing the naked.  This pair deals with basic hospitality requirements in the Ancient Near East. The word for stranger may mean someone from your country that is passing through your village or someone from another country.  Think of this as “when I was an immigrant, refugee, etc. in your land, you sheltered me.”  In b.Shab we read “Hospitality to the wayfarer is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekinah.”  Job claims that “no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler” (Job 31:32)

They also visit the sick and the prisoner.  Visiting the sick becomes a key virtue in the early Church (see James 5:14, for example).  Visiting the prisoner was necessary since the Greco-Roman prison system did not provide any food, water, or other needs for prisoners.  If the person was to survive in prison, there had to be friends on the outside to bring the person food and water.

The Testament of Joseph 1:5–6 “I was sold into slavery, and the Lord of all made me free; I  was taken into captivity, and His strong hand succoured me. I  was beset with hunger, and the Lord Himself nourished me. I  was alone, and God comforted me; I  was sick, and the Lord visited me; I  was in prison, and my God showed favor to me.

Babylonian Talmud (t. Bab. Nedarim) “he that does not visit the sick, is as if he shed blood:  says another, he that visits the sick is the cause of his living; and he that does not visit the sick, is the cause of his death: and, says a third, whoever visits the sick shall be preserved from the damnation of hell.”  Visiting of the sick was reckoned, by the Jews, a very worthy action: they speak great things of it, and as what will be highly rewarded hereafter.”

There is a question of application here – usually this verse is used to guilt people into giving to a food drive or money to a homeless shelter.  While that application is fine (I am a big fan of helping the poor), but I am not so sure that is what Jesus is talking about.  The people who enter “eternal life” are those who have actually done the will of God by caring for the least of the brothers.  In every other text in the gospel of Matthew, the brothers of Jesus are the disciples, the Jews who are following Jesus.  It is possible that Jesus is not referring to the generic poor of all ages, but specifically the disciples who will suffer greatly for their testimony.

This pericope is a grand conclusion to the Olivet Discourse and sums up many of the eschatological themes in Matthew.  But is this a parable? Not in the normal sense of a parable, it is more of an apocalyptic prophecy with parabolic elements.  The story is usually treated as a parable, despite the fact it is not a story drawn from everyday life.  As an apocalyptic prophecy, the Sheep and Goats is an interpretation and re-application of themes from the Hebrew Bible to a new situation.

Clearly the “Son of Man” is not a symbol, Jesus is identifying himself as the one who will be doing the final judgment.  There is, however, a shift from Son of Man to “the King” in verse 34.  The King in this parable is not necessarily a metaphor for Jesus but an actual title of Jesus that he will have at that time.  That Jesus sees himself as the central character in this parable helps us to read the previous parables – Jesus is the king who went away, Jesus is the bridegroom.

The Sheep and the Goats are metaphorical elements that parallel the Wise and foolish virgins and the productive and unproductive servants in the parable of the talents. The elements of the judgment are not to be taken as metaphors, what the sheep do and what the goats do not do should be understood as a part of the judgment that they are facing at the end of the age.  The wise virgin and prepared servant are more or less like the Sheep, the foolish virgin and the unprepared servant are more or less like the goats.

Sheep and GoatIt is probably best to see this is prophecy that is using the metaphor of the separation of sheep and goats to indicate that at the end of the age the nations will be separated and judged.  The basis of that judgment will be the treatment of the “least of these brothers of mine.” This prophecy may be based on several passages from the Hebrew Bible.  For example,  Ezekiel 34:11-17 describes Israel as a flock in need of a true shepherd.  It is quite possible that the Sheep and Goats of Matthew 25 is a reflection on Ezekiel 34:16: “As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.”  Compare also Joel 3:12: “Let the nations be roused; let them advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side.”  The Animal Apocalypse in the 1 Enoch is very similar – the sheep represent Israel, while other animals represent the nations.

Like any of the parables, this story must be read in the context of the first listeners.  The shocking end of the parables of the kingdom is that those that thought they were getting into the kingdom are not going to be there, and those that were on the outside do get in.   The ruling Jews thought that they were going to be in the kingdom, in fact, they were the “keepers of the kingdom of God.”  Yet when Messiah came, they did not recognize him.  They never really had much of a chance to since they were not caring for the poor and the needy as they ought.  Jesus is very critical of the Pharisees who liked their fine things, or the people giving in the temple and mocking the widow and her mite.

On the other hand, the underclass probably did not think of themselves are serious candidates for the first to get into the kingdom.  They were told repeatedly that they were the unclean, “sinners and tax-collectors.”  Yet they will enter the kingdom, and those that were accepting and caring for this underclass, as Jesus was, will enter as well.

Mark Strauss says, Jesus’ miracles were not “showy demonstrations of power or even proof of his identity. They are manifestations of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, a foretaste and preview of the restoration of creation promised by God” (Four Portraits, 466). I agree Jesus did not do miracles simply to draw a crowd or entertain people. While Strauss is correct the miracles are indications the Kingdom of God is present in the ministry of Jesus, in most cases Jesus did a miracle in order to reveal something about himself as the Messiah. This is slightly different than “proof of identity” since none are strictly speaking proof Jesus is the Messiah or his ministry is an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. They are hints toward the truth for those who “have eyes to see” (Matt 13:14-15).

Healing_paralyzed_man The healing in Mark 2 is an example of a miracle as self-revelation. Jesus heals a crippled man, but the reason he does so is to reveal something about who he is to both the outsiders (Pharisees and scribes) but also to the insiders (his disciples who already believe) and the larger crowd who are in-between these two extremes. The challenge of this miracle is: “Who is this man, Jesus?”

Jesus returns to Capernaum and attracts a very large crowd at Peter’s home. A paralytic is brought to Jesus by some friends to be healed. Since they cannot enter the home because of the crowd, the men go onto the roof and break a hole large enough to lower the man on a pallet into room where Jesus was. The roof of a typical home at the time of Jesus was a sun dried mud thatch, so the very “to dig” is quite appropriate.

There was a relationship between sins and birth defects in the minds of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus may be attacking this misconception of sin by forgiving the sin without healing the man. In the ancient world, an extreme illness or birth defects was considered to be the result of sin, either on the part of the sick person or on the part of the person’s parents or grandparents. (The disciples ask about a blind man in John 9:1-2.) Not only do all the people observing this believe this to be true, but the man himself probably believed that his sickness was the result of sin.

Forgiveness of sin and healing typically go together in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Period Judaism. In 2 Chron 7:14, God forgives the sins of Israel and “heals their land.” Similarly, Psalm 103:3 connects forgiveness with the healing of disease, and in Isaiah 19:22 the Lord responds to Israel, hears their pleas and heals the nation.

It is most startling to notice that Jesus claims to forgive sin by his own authority. This is the action of Jesus that elicits the strong reaction from the religious leaders that are observing Jesus’ actions. He did not say, for example, “in the name of God your sins are forgiven,” but rather simply, “your sins are forgiven.” Jesus himself is forgiving the sins as if he were the one offended by them.

Jesus says to the teachers of the law: Which is easier, to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ or ‘rise and walk’?” It is just as easy to say one as the other. Jesus point is that saying is the easy part, doing is the difficult part. Jesus says that he will not only forgive the man’s sins, but he will heal him, so that the teachers of the Law might know that he has the authority to do those things. There is a significant bit of theology packed into this statement. Authority is power, ability, and permission to do something.

Jesus healed in order to signal the beginning of the messianic age and to prove to the Jewish leadership that he was the Messiah. That Jesus calls himself the Son of Man in this section important since it is likely an allusion to Daniel 7, where “someone like a son of man” is given authority to rule. In a sense, Jesus is drawing together three lines of evidence for his divinity. He forgives sin, he is about to heal a lame man, and he claims to be the Messianic Son of Man.

If we were to examine all of the healing miracles in the Gospels, we might find they all are some sort of self-revelation by Jesus. Other than general statements that Jesus healed many people, are there any healing stories that do not reveal something about Jesus’ nature and/or the nature of the Kingdom of God?

What other healing-miracles in the Gospels reveal something about who Jesus is?

 

After looking at a few example methods in the last few posts, I want to suggest four points that need to be part of a method for reading parables properly.

First, Parables are “extended metaphors” in which an abstract concept is made more clear through the telling of a story. A proper understanding of metaphor should not lead either to wild allegorizing nor a complete rejection of allegory as a way to convey truth. Elements of the parable may have a so-called “allegorical” meaning, but only insofar as the original audience could have understood. For example, that a king or master in a parable is intended to “stand for” God is a common enough stock feature in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic parallels to accept this as the original intent of the parable. In fact, the imagery is so pervasive, it is hard to believe that anyone hearing the parables for the first time could have missed “king = God” as a metaphorical element. In order to develop this point, one would need to survey the rabbinic literature in order to develop a feel for these stock images. This would require a study to identify which elements of a given parable are likely to be “current metaphors” which would have had rhetorical impact on the original listeners.

Matt 18_23Second, Parables were given in a specific context in the ministry of Jesus which can be recovered with some certainty.  When a historical context is know it should be used to illuminate the parable. For example, the parable of the Two Debtors is found is a specific context in Luke 7:36-28 which is essential to the meaning of the brief parable. The “specific context” of a parable, however, may be generically stated and still be helpful for interpreting the parable. It is likely that the parables of the kingdom in Mark 4 / Matthew 13 were placed together via a tradition picked up by the authors of the gospels. But within the context of the overall ministry of Jesus, these parables were all spoken in Galilee, after some level of conflict with the Pharisees, and prior to the confession of Peter. Likewise, several parables of judgment are associated with Jesus’ teaching in the temple in his final week. This general Sitz im Leben Jesu seems give the parable enough context for proper interpretation. Parables therefore address a situation within the life and ministry of Jesus.

Third, Jesus taught in parables in order to communicate something to his original audience. While the single-point method of Jülicher avoids wild allegorizing, interpreters who attempt to create a single-point tend to boil the parable down to the most generic and bland message possible. Most of these “lessons” could be described as variations on the golden rule. For example, the Good Samaritan does teach us to love our neighbors, but this is something a Jewish audience would have already believed and practiced. However, if we really try to interpret the parable in the context of Jesus ministry the parable takes on a somewhat more radical dimension which has application to his present ministry at that moment in time. Interpreting the parable within the ministry of Jesus will aid our understanding of the point Jesus was making in the first place.

Fourth, since the stories were meant to communicate something to the original audience, we ought to look for the primary application of the parable to the ministry of Jesus.  The best example of this is again the parable of The Two Debtors is found is a specific context in Luke 7:36-28. Within Jesus current ministry people are receiving forgiveness and responding in radical ways. The Parable of the Lost Sheep/Coin/Son refer to the same theme of forgiveness in the ministry of Jesus at that very moment. The parable of the Sower is a case where the meaning of the parable is better rooted in the events of Jesus’ ministry. The gist of the story is that a farmer went out to sow seed and some of this seed fell on unprepared soil while other seed fell on prepared soil. In the literary context of Mark and Matthew, the parable is a commentary on the first movement of Jesus’ ministry. He has come preaching the Kingdom of God. Some have accepted this message and followed Jesus while others have rejected the preaching for a variety of reasons. Each of the parables of the kingdom can be read as applying to what was happening in the Jesus-movement at the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry.

Several “parables of judgment” occur in Jesus’ last teaching in the temple and are rather pointed condemnations of the existing power structure in Jerusalem and can again be interpreted as referring to Jesus’ ministry up to that moment in history. There is no need to think that the Parable of the Vineyard has been created by Christians after the resurrection, Jesus is describing what has already happened throughout his ministry. The parable of the Wedding Banquet can also be read as describing Jesus’ rejection by those who thought they were invited to the messianic feast and their replacement by those who had no chance of being invited.

While the allegorical method was largely ignored in the early twentieth century, it never was completely abandoned. Some of the literary methods popular in the late 1960s were not far from allegory. More recently, Craig Blomberg developed a method for the interpretation of parables which offers a strictly limited use of allegory. Blomberg observes that some parables have intentional allegorical elements identified by Jesus himself. The birds in the parable of the Sower represent Satan according to Matt 13:18-20. This limited kind of allegory is similar to rabbinic parables.

Interpreting the ParablesBy way of method, Blomberg argues the interpreter should only attempt to find a “point” for each character of the parable, normally three characters, sometimes two with an implied third. This point or lesson is stated in propositional language and is understood to be the intention of Jesus when he original gave the parable.

Blomberg is not advocating the kind of polyvalence represented by Crossan but he does seem to open the way for a metaphor to function as a more or less fluid literary device.  The meaning of the metaphor is, however, to be found within the text and is a part of authorial intent rather than an open-ended reader-response hermeneutic.  In a very real way, Blomberg is advocating limited multiple meanings, specifically only those meanings which were intended by Jesus in the first telling of the parable in a real historical context.

The Prodigal Son is an excellent paradigm of the most common pattern of three point parables (the so-called monarchic pattern).  The title of the parable is misleading since if places the focus on the son that leaves.  The parable might very well have been titled “The Forgiving Father” or “The Hardhearted Brother” based on the characters in the story.  If a parable can only make one point, then the parable of the Prodigal son must be interpreted in such a fashion so as to downplay two of the three major characters.  Is the story about repentance?   Is the story about forgiveness? Is the story about acceptance?

It appears that all three of these themes are present.  The interpreter following Jülicher would seek to formulate a single theme that somehow was broad enough to cover all three of the themes above.  Blomberg argues that this will water down the message, making it so general that it is of very little value.    By allowing one application for each main character the interpreter is free to work all three themes.

Similarly, the three main points of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin resemble those of the three points of the Prodigal Son.  In each of the three parables something is lost that is of value.  The lost item is considered valuable to the “master” figure in the parable.  In the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, the “master” figure seeks out the lost item, in the Lost Son the father is seen waiting for the son upon his return.  The results of finding the lost item is an occasion for great rejoicing, although in the Lost Son the rejoicing is tempered by the poor reaction of the older brother

Blomberg represents an evangelical response to the literary studies of Funk and Crossan in that he treats the parables as capable of more than one meaning.  He establishes controls for what elements of a parable may be used for application and which should not be “allegorized” in order to refrain from the wild allegorizing of church history.  By limiting his “points” to one per character, Blomberg methodologically limits himself when approaching other elements of a  story.  Is the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 and 25 in some way to be related to the kingdom of God or the consummation of the age?  Perhaps, but Blomberg’s method seems to preclude the possibility since only the characters can be used for the development of a “point.”

In the end, Blomberg has created a Jülicher-like method by restricting meaning to three points and three points alone. Does this “one point per character” work for all the parables? How can the method described here help restrain the excess of most allegorical methods?

Bibliography: Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1990); Interpreting the Parables (Second Edition; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2012).

 

In a previous post, I suggested the Parables “fit” into the culture of first century Galilee. One way to read parables properly is to study the material culture of the world of Jesus in order to highlight the rhetorical impact of the imagery he used. But how does one study a two thousand year old culture?

BedouinTentKenneth Bailey has written a number of books on parables. He argues Jesus’s parables are representations of the culture of the Mediterranean world of the first century. Bailey’s method is unique because he reads the parables through the eyes of modern Middle Eastern readers with whom he has lived for many years. Bailey thinks the culture of the Mediterranean world has not changed that much since the first century and many of the unusual elements of the parables can be explained by paying attention to the eastern culture from which the stories first arose. This “oriental exegesis” attempts to read the parables as Oriental churchman have throughout the centuries (Poet and Peasant, 29). In order to do this, one first must know the ancient literature and be able to assess it properly.

The most controversial point of Bailey’s method is his insistence that the culture of present Middle Eastern culture is archaic and accurately reflects the culture of the parables. Life changes slowly in the Middle East and it is intentionally traditional. Therefore some cultural phenomenon observed today may in fact go back to the first century.

This observation is not new, although the sorts of memoirs which were published in the late nineteenth century as travelers began to visit the Middle East are of varying value. What Bailey seeks to contribute is a method and control for the study of present culture as a window for understanding the first century. Books are of less value to Bailey than personal interviews with people who have spent at least twenty years in the Middle East collecting observations orally, in Arabic. Bailey has found 25 dialogue partners who satisfy this requirement and are also literate enough to understand the point of the questions he put to them concerning the parables.

MDG : Seed : Plowing a field and sowing seeds in EthiopiaA second methodological consideration is what Bailey calls “theological clusters.” Bailey believes that Jülicher’s belief about the relationship between allegory and parable has been proven false, although the idea that a parable makes a single point persists. Bailey argues that parables are intended to evoke a decision, but the response to a parable is informed by a “theological cluster,” each element of which may be examined separately (Poet and Peasant, 41). It is the point at which all of the theological themes come together that a single response is evoked. A single response is different than a single meaning, the meaning may vary from listener to listener, but there is still only one response.

Bailey illustrates this with the Parable of the Sower. The response is “hear the word of the kingdom and bear fruit.” But there are at least four theological points made by the parable which contribute to this response: The kingdom is like a seed growing slowly; God’s grace includes sowing the seed where the ground is unprepared; fruit bearing is an essential part of the kingdom; there is the hope and assurance of a harvest in spite of difficulties. All of these theological motifs (and perhaps others) converge to illicit the response to the parable intended by Jesus.

Bailey has been rightly critiqued because he draws very little from rabbinic parallels. Bailey brackets this evidence since it is extremely hard to date evidence from post-Mishnah Judaism, but relies on evidence from modern Mediterranean culture. If the general lines of the culture have survived since the first century in practice, then those cultural elements one finds in the literature like the Talmud may very well be an accurate reflection of first century culture.

Charles Hedrick offers a number of criticisms of Bailey’s methodology which ultimately question the value of the study (Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fiction, 45-46). Hedrick’s most important criticism is the chronological distance of Bailey’s sources. Is it reasonable to think that the Mediterranean culture Bailey experienced in the twentieth century is an accurate representation of the culture of the first century?

In addition, Hedrick points out that Bailey ignores the Islamization of Palestine. For the last 1400 years Islam has ruled Palestine in some way, but when Jesus lived in Israel it was ruled by the Romans through a Jewish bureaucracy. It is a stretch of the imagination to think that Islamic Bedouin of the modern era have the same sorts of practices that the Jewish peasants of Galilee did. Yet anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Middle East knows that Bedouin culture is extremely conservative and has only recently has tradition been eroded by the modern world (cell phones and blue jeans, mostly!)

Despite these criticisms, I find Bailey’s books stimulating and insightful. He has a slightly different perspective that most writers on parables and in almost every case I find his comments helpful for teaching and preaching the parables.

Are the criticism of Bailey’s method fair? If there is a problem, perhaps what seems very “preachable” is not accurate – but is the use of contemporary cultural observations valid?

 

Kenneth Bailey Bibliography:

Poet & Peasant; and, through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Combined ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983.

Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2005.

The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants.  Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2005.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2008.

Robert Funk is an example of a literary approach to the parables. 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).

Funk and the ParablesMetaphorical 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 a 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.

C. H. Dodd’s 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), 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 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 has reached its 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).

SowerThis “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 parable 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.  This 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 (Matt 24:43-44, Luke 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 from 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.

What does Dodd contribute to the reading of Parables?

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

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 we “may be confident” we stand on firm historical ground when we read the parables. The parables reflect the sort of thing expected when a first century Jewish rabbi taught. The images are drawn from the life of the common people of Galilee and Judea and many have the “apocalyptic edge” we know is present in other literature of the Second Temple Period.

ParableYet 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 students. 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?) It is natural for there to be some shifting of details when a story is retold, but the sense of the story remains the same.

The emphasis of much of twentieth century scholarship has been on placing the parables into the context of the community which produced the synoptic gospels, often despairing of the possibility of recovering the words of Jesus. Perhaps it is better to ground the Parables in the life of Jesus as an itinerant teacher in Jewish Galilee. As I see it, this will allow us to “hear the voice of Jesus” most clearly.

How should we interpret the parables? How far should we “push” the application of a given parable away from the original context in the life of Jesus?

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Christian Theology

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