Wednesday, September 25, 2013

“New” Parables of Jesus Lost in the Gospels?

Well, maybe not "new" in the sense that no one has ever seen them before, but there are certainly parables in the gospels that are overlooked, neglected, or ignored for one reason or another—so the parables are "new" in the sense that they need to be "rediscovered" as parables. What is a parable? The classic form of parable is a brief narrative fiction about ordinary things.  Basically a narrative is a story having at least three elements: a beginning, middle, and end.  So a parable is a form of speech that is something more than a phrase, clause, or saying—it tells a story.  A parable may be as brief as a single sentence: "a woman took and concealed a fermenting agent in three bushels of flour until the whole was leavened" (Matt 13:33); or a parable may extend to as much as two paragraphs in length (viz., A Father and Two Sons, Luke 15:11-32).  In general, scholars tend to recognize a literary unit as a parable when they are introduced with the phrase:  "The kingdom of God is like . . .," but that is not always the case.  A Father and Two Sons (Luke 15:11-32), and An Injured Man on the Jericho Road (Luke 10:30-35) are not introduced by a parabolic comparative frame, and yet these two stories are universally recognized as parables.
            The Jesus Seminar made a survey of early Christian literature in the first two centuries of the Christian era searching for parables attributed to Jesus, and found thirty-three that they thought should be included in the corpus of stories attributed to Jesus (Funk, Scott, Butts, The Parables of Jesus. Red Letter Edition [Polebridge Press, 1988).  I have argued, however, that the corpus of Jesus' parables is comprised of at least forty-three parables, ten more than acknowledged by the Jesus Seminar.  One that you may have missed is Settling out of Court (Matt 5:25-25 = Luke 12:58-59).  I checked several commentaries on the parables at random and discovered that the following scholars apparently do not regard it as a parable (The Jesus Seminar, Kissinger, Scott, Bailey, Blomberg, Hultgren), but at least two do (Smith and Jeremias).  Another story, The Persistent Friend (Luke 11:5-7) is not regarded as a parable by the Jesus Seminar and Scott, but Kissinger and Jeremias do discuss it as a parable.
One story, Offering your Gift at the Altar (Matt 5:23-24), appears to have gone virtually unrecognized as a story of Jesus by the scholars whose works I checked for this blog:
If, therefore, you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and first go become reconciled to your brother, and then coming offer your gift.

The Jesus Seminar colored the saying gray, as it did a similar saying parallel (Mark 11:25), but the story is not unlike its "twin" immediately following in Matthew (On Going to Court, Matt 5:25-26) in its use of the imperative; this "twin" parable is colored pink in The Five Gospels.  Bultmann regarded the "saying" Offering Your Gift at the Altar as the more original form of another similar saying (Mark 11:25), since Matthew's parable "presupposes the existence of the sacrificial system in Jerusalem" (Bultmann, p. 132).  Bultmann regards the legal style of Offering Your Gift at the Altar in Matthew as the work of the early church.  The saying itself, however, is older, since the content had nothing to do with the church "brotherhood" (Bultmann, 146, 147).  The use of the term "brother" when used in the gospels is generally read as a Christian motif, which may account for the general neglect of the parable, but that aspect of the saying is likely part of the Christian reworking of a much older saying.  How might the narrative have appeared in its earlier pre-Christian form?
A man was offering his gift at the altar and there remembered his [friend] had something against him; he left his gift there before the altar and first went, became reconciled with his [friend], and then coming he offered his gift.

The term "friend" makes an appearance in other parables of Jesus in Luke (11:5-6; 14:10; 15:6, 9; 15:29).
What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
Color gray: the saying is questionable as a saying of Jesus
Color pink: the saying is likely a saying of Jesus
Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels
B. T. D. Smith, The Parables of the Synoptic Gospels
Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition
Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes
Kissinger, The Parables of Jesus
Scott, Hear Then the Parable
Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus
Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables
Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus


Jim Deardorff said...

Hi Charlie,

I hope your trip to Toronto was fruitful and rewarding.

Regarding Jesus’ parables, I feel it’s more important to ascertain which ones were spoken by Jesus himself, as opposed to being altered versions or invented by the Gospel writer, than to be concerned if they fit one’s definition of a parable or not. So I rely on redaction criticism quite a lot.

Re Settling out of Court (Matt 5:25-26), this seems to be an invention of the writer of Matthew because it’s really not what a true wisdom teacher would teach. As commented by Francis Beare in his Commentary (p. 151), should you placate your brother only to forestall his invoking the law against you? Beare found this to be a "rather sordid motive" for seeking to settle a dispute with your neighbor. A true wisdom teacher, I think, would advise that if you know you are in the right, to do your best to make the judge understand why. Also, this verse fits the redactor’s profile of not resisting evil and turning the other cheek.

Re the Prodigal Son (Father and Two Sons) parable in Luke, it seems to be an invention of the writer of Luke, being so characteristic of his own writing (and for reasons in C. Carlston, (“Reminiscence and Redaction in Luke 15:11–32,” JBL 94 [1975] 368–390). And for those who see the Synoptic Problem solved by a modified Augustinian hypothesis, the parable looks non-genuine because it’s not in Matthew or Mark.

But how about Matthew’s parable of the Man and Two Sons, which is totally different. I find it to be largely genuine, though interestingly manuscripts and Nestle-Aland have the two sons be addressed in the opposite order from that of most Bibles.

Re “Gift at the Altar” (Mt 5:23-24), this seems like more on the placation theme of the Matthean redactor rather than illustrating any sound piece of wisdom. Leaving your gift where the priest can get it may even be the main point of it.

Charles Hedrick said...

Morning Jim!
The trip was very educational; I learned a lot about the Christian apocrypha.
I think one must first be able to define what a parable is (hence form is important) and how it works as a piece of literature in order to address the issue of originality. For example, would you regard Luke 4:23 as a parable? Luke did and even named it a parable! But translators will inevitably translate Luke's Greek word "parable" as "proverb," which is what Luke 4:23 is--and it did not even originate with Jesus.
"What a true wisdom teacher would teach" is a matter of opinion. What you regard as a true wisdom teacher or true wisdom, I might not. There are and have been different types of wisdom through history all having their adherents--similar to different religious denominations in our modern period.
A Father and Two Sons (Luke 15) is virtually recognized as a parable originating with Jesus of Nazareth, which puts you (and Carlston) against the history of parables scholarship. Aspects of Lucan language in the parable should not be a problem since all evangelists put the parables in their own words (except when Matthew and Mark copy Mark but even then they make adjustments to the story). None of the parables come directly from the lips of Jesus in the form you read them in the gospels.