Jesus Parables

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Jesus and the Parables

In Reimagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Polebridge, 2001), Brandon Scott suggests that the history of parable studies can be divided into two major stages.


First Stage: Parables in European research

The FIRST STAGE is dominated by a number of important European scholars: Adolf Jülicher, C.H. Dodd and Joachim Jeremias. Scott gives the following "report card" comments of the contributions of these pioneer studies into the parables of Jesus:

Adolf Jülicher (Die Gleichnisreden Jesu - 1910) attached the traditional method of interpreting the parables as allegories, but also showed that the parables themselves often fit rather poorly with their immediate literary context in the NT Gospels. The parables had a life prior to their incorporation into the Gospels, and the allegories that are sometimes found in their Gospel context do not represent the original interpretations of the parables.

  • Gain: Rejection of allegory
  • Loss: Parables are not dependent on their Gospel context

C.H. Dodd (The Parables of the Kingdom - 1935) built on the foundation laid by Jülicher but added the suggestion that the parables had a distinctive interest in eschatology. Dodd used the phrase, "realized eschatology," to describe the parables' interest in a kingdom which is already present for the hearers. As Scott notes, Dodd also crafted one of the most influential definitions of parable:

At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.
  • Gain: Introduced the question of the parables; eschatology

Joachim Jeremias (The Parables of Jesus - 1947) adopted the insights of Form Criticism to develop a convincing account of the oral transmission process for the parables prior to their inclusion in the written gospels. He applied these "laws of transmission" to specific parables in order to reconstruct the original words of Jesus, even suggesting the Aramaic phrases that he believed lay behind the extant Greek version of the parables. Jeremias understood the original life situation (Sitz im Leben) of the parables to have been oral disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees, although scholars these days are more cautious about the presence of Pharisees in Galilee during Jesus' life time. Interestingly, despite his conservative theological tendencies, Jeremias was a pioneer in using the Gospel of Thomas as an independent witness to the parable tradition.

  • Gain: Outlined the stages for a history of the parables from Jesus to the Gospels


Second Stage: Parables in North American research

The SECOND STAGE of critical study of the parables reflects the contributions made by American scholars: including Robert Funk, Dan Via, John Dominic Crossan and Brandon Scott.

Over a number of studies beginning in the 1960s, Robert W. Funk and Dan Via independently drew on the well-established models of literary studies familiar to students in English departments across North America. Both scholars studied the parable as an object in its own right (an "aesthetic object" for Dan Via, and a "metaphor" for Funk).

Dan Via (The Parables: Their Literary and Existential Dimension - 1967) overcame the limitations of historical criticism by focusing on the parable as an autonomous text. What matters is the "internal meaning" of the parable, not the historical context or its possible original sense. The original audiences may not have fully understood the meaning of the parable, just as later generations find new layers of significance while finding older interpretations unconvincing. Like any aesthetic object, the parable can be appreciated but never fully understood.

  • Gain: The specific historical situation does not determine meaning, or the meaning of the parable cannot be reduced to a specific situation in the ministry of Jesus.

Robert Funk (Language, Hermeneutics and the Word of God - 1966 and Jesus as Precursor - 1975) contrasted the logic of discursive language and metaphorical language, and proposed a way of reading the parables that took seriously their character as metaphorical languages that creates (new) meaning by juxtaposing "two discrete and not entirely comparable entities." In a sense this project built upon Dodd's definition of parables as incongruous metaphors that provoke thought.

  • Gain: Parables function as a metaphorical structure or system
  • Loss: Attention must be paid to the very metaphorical nature of the words themselves.

John Dominic Crossan (The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story - 1975 and In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus - 1973) explored and expanded the creative insights of Dan Via and Robert Funk, consolidated their gains, and made this new approach to the parables accessible to a wide audience. Crossan understands the parables as promoting what he calls "permanent eschatology" as the "permanent presence of God" confronts, challenges and shatters the complacency of human individuals and systems. Where Jeremias had sought to recover the very words (ipsissima verba) of Jesus, Crossan argues that what was remembered in the oral parable tradition was not the words themselves but the structure (ipsissima structura), the form, and the pattern of the parables.

  • Gain: We are dealing not with the very words of Jesus but with the structure (the memory and performance) of the parables.

Bernard Brandon Scott(Hear Then the Parable - 1989) was the first person since Jülicher to deal with all of the parables in a single study. Scott took seriously the different dimensions of orality and literacy in the parable tradition, and drew on reader-response criticism to develop a comprehensive literary strategy for interpreting (hearing) the parables. He asks not so much what Jesus intended by the particular parable, but what effect the parable might have on its audiences. Scott also drew on insights from the social sciences to develop what he calls the "repertoire" of a text -- those social conventions and assumptions that the teller and audience hold in common.

William Herzog (Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed - 1994) also draws on social science studies to make sense of the parables, but has rejected the embrace of literary criticism by Via, Funk and Crossan. For Herzog, the parables encode first century structures of oppression and, as Scott says, "Herzog often produces illuminating readings of the parables, making sense of details that have often left one confused."

  • Gain: Literary methods and social science method are both necessary to interpret the parables.


Parables Research and the Jesus Seminar

The tradition of critical study of the parables was to play a significant part in the work undertaken by the Jesus Seminar in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The seminar was jointly chaired by Robert Funk and Dominic Crossan, and many of their graduate students (including Brandon Scott) were included among the Fellows. Crossan's compilation, Sayings Parallels: A Workbook for the Jesus Tradition (Fortress, 1986) provided the basic text for the Seminar as it went about its work, and a careful analysis of the sayings attributed to Jesus was the primary focus for the first phase of the Seminar. The results of that phase were reported in the bestseller The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Macmillan, 1993).

This creative new work on parables allowed the Jesus Seminar to break new ground with its inquiry into historical Jesus research. By giving primacy to the sayings of Jesus rather than the deeds of Jesus, the Seminar believes that historical Jesus research reaches back to an earlier stage of the tradition as well as drawing closer to the heart of the Jesus tradition.What Jesus himself may have said has a certain spiritual cache that no third party report of events involving him can ever have. In addition, with each performance of the parables their spiritual power may be experienced afresh.

The actions of Jesus are another matter. Particular events happen just once. The reports of them are always second hand. They are especially susceptible to legendary development, and they seem to be used in the tradition for theological purposes rather than as simple accounts of specific events. As Lane McGaughy ("Why Start with the Sayings," p. 20) notes:

The best one can hope to recover with respect to deeds are the earliest reports of bystanders about what they thought they saw, whereas the authentic sayings indicate what Jesus himself thought or intended ...

McGaughy cites with approval the couplet coined by (Jesus Seminar Fellow) Julian Hills:

"sayings are repeated, deeds are reported."