Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Parables are not Parabolic Figures; they are Narrative Fictions

I am delighted to announce that Wipf and Stock, publishers in Eugene, Oregon, has recently published in their selective Cascade Series a new book of mine entitled Parabolic Figures or Narrative Fictions? Seminal Essays on the Stories of Jesus (Eugene OR: Cascade, 2016); the cost is $38.00 from the press. It is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. and even in electronic form.
            In the book I contend that parables do not teach moral and religious lessons; they are not, in whole or part, theological figures for the church. Rather parables are realistic narrative fictions told to Judean peasants, and like all effective fiction literature the stories are designed to draw auditors (and now readers) into their story worlds where auditors and readers make discoveries about themselves by finding their ideas challenged and subverted—or affirmed, by the stories.
            The parables have endings but not final resolutions, because the endings raise new complications for careful readers, which require further resolution.  The narrative contexts and interpretations supplied by the evangelists constitute an attempt by the early church to bring the secular narratives of Jesus under the control of the church's later religious perspectives.  Each narrative represents a fragment of Jesus' secular vision of reality.
            As I began this approach to parables over twenty years ago, I found myself moving further outside the mainstream of parables scholarship, both ecclesiastical and critical. I explored a literary approach to the parables in a series of early essays that, among other things, set out what I considered the basic rationale for a literary approach to the parables of Jesus.  These early essays form the central section of the book, published in recently edited form along with previously unpublished critiques of a strictly literary approach to the parables and my response to my critics.*
            I have been invited by Barnes and Noble in Springfield, Missouri for a meet-the-public and book signing on October 22, 2016.  If you are in town, drop by and let's chat a bit about parables, my blog, or you could just share a bit of your own thinking with me.  I am always happy to entertain new ideas.
What do you think of the parables as stories for a Judean peasant audience?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
*adapted from the back cover of the book; used by permission of Wipf and Stock.


  1. Good morning Charlie,

    1) Before I get the book, can you briefly state the exact nature of your critics' accusations and/or arguments? I'm curious to know their beef.

    2) Does your book address originality of Jesus's parables? Does it address the question of whether or not they were borrowed from Jewish stories passed down orally or written?

    3) Does your book address any theories as to why Christians reacted to strongly to these parables- why do they stand apart from other parables?

    (I guess the simple answer to my questions is- buy the book!!)

    :-) Elizabeth

    1. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      With regard to your last comment about buying the book: My suggestion is check out the book at your local library or Barnes and Noble (they can get a copy for you to see if you want to buy it).
      1.I will take a pass on your first question. I would not want to list criticisms without explanations and a brief defense, which response would be too long for this medium. You will have to check the book for criticisms (pages 240-50). I will only say that no criticism invalidates the approach I take.
      2. Your #2 is not part of the book. There are relatively few "parables" in antiquity. the problem with Jewish parables is that there is virtually no early literature except for the Bible. Check my "Many Things in Parables" pages 17-22.
      3. No that is not a part of this book.

  2. Hi Charlie,

    I've read your chapters on parables in your book The Wisdom of Jesus (2014), and I think that I recall previous discussions on this blog, particularly one about 'The Fired Manager.' You have left me with the impression that parables are provocative secular stories which demand reflection.

    One issue seems to be unanswered, and I apologize if I have missed the answer. Why must our thinking about parables be unitary? Why can't those that begin with "The kingdom of God/Heaven is like..." be one category, and those which are strictly secular be another category? Couldn't Jesus have taught with both types and maybe included both categories in some of the narratives?

    Is their a basic philosophical prejudice here, namely that a smart guy like Jesus would see the world in a unified way, and, therefore, his teaching must be unitary, as well!

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Hi Gene,
      In your first paragraph you have rightly stated the situation as I see it.
      2nd paragraph: What the gospel writers call (and treat) as parables are simply secular narrative fictions that function like any narrative literature. The evangelists call them figurative literature in order to wrest a religious explanation from them. Basically they are simply stories (see Wisdom of Jesus, 131-36). Very few of the stories have religious features and then these features do not call for religious explanations. They are just part of the background of the story--the wallpaper of antiquity so to speak (see Wisdom of Jesus, page 128, note 17). The expression "Kingdom of God" is a strategy of the evangelists designed to prompt a Christian reading of Judean secular narratives (Wisdom of Jesus, 134-35).
      3rd paragraph: We (or at least I) do not have a full picture of the way Jesus viewed reality. All that has come down to us from antiquity is his fragmentary discourse and a few fictional stories (see Wisdom of Jesus, 91-144).

  3. Hi Charlie,

    If I understand your comments correctly, "kingdom of God" wasn't original to Jesus in fact or intention. If so, what is your theory on where the phrase came from, why the followers created a memory of that particular phrase, and, if it was so important, why they only used it consistently in thirteen of forty three (Wisdom of J, 134) Jesus narratives?

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  4. Good Morning Gene,
    Good question! Jesus, however, actually did speak about the Kingdom (see sayings 11, 12, 13, 16, 25, 29, 35, 50, 53, 68 in Wisdom of Jesus pages 93-103), but it was not the only string on his guitar (see pages 100-103 in Wisdom of Jesus). The expression "it is the case with the kingdom of God as it is with . . ." introducing some of the parables is likely an attempt of the part of early Christians to make the stories acceptable as religious stories. In light of the fact that the evangelists are not consistent in the use of the comparative frame and the fact that the stories are obviously secular in themselves, it is more probable in my view that the evangelists were trying to make sense of the story in terms of their own synoptic theology (remember there are none of these stories in John and the kingdom of God is marginalized in the Gospel of John).

  5. Hi Charlie,

    Just sharing some more thoughts on why I think that Jesus can merge two dimensions (secular and kingdom realities) together at once; obviously, specific interpretations are an open issue:

    Fictional Narrative: Goal oriented passion as a general behavioral rule.
    Kingdom Parable: Goal oriented passion metaphors for pursuing the kingdom of God.

    The manager engages in criminal behavior to ensure future work. (Luke 16:1-7)
    The widow’s badgering manipulates the decision of the judge. (Luke 18:2-5)
    A friend intrudes on hospitality for selfish gain. (Luke 11:5-8)
    A merchant liquidates everything to buy a particular pearl. (Matt 13:45-46)
    A shepherd puts the whole herd at risk to go after a single sheep. (Matt 18:12-13)
    Someone sold all he had to buy a field with buried treasure. (Matt 13:44)
    An assassin tests his strength and then completes the kill. (Thomas 98)
    Vineyard slaves kill the heir to gain control of the land. (Matt 20:1-15)
    A woman relentlessly searches down a lost coin. (Luke 15:8-9)
    A caretaker insists on another year of nurturing a barren fig tree. (Luke 13:6-9)

    Fictional Narrative: Be alert to the potential of unimpressive conditions.
    Kingdom Parable: The metaphor for the scaffolding of the Kingdom is a tiny/hidden beginning
    and a conspicuous ending.

    A tiny mustard seed grows up to shelter birds. (Mark 4:31-32)
    The hidden leaven produces 50lbs of dough. (Matt 13:33)
    In proper soil, tiny seeds produce a huge harvest. (Mark 4:3-8)
    A small leak in a grain jar eventually empties the jar. (Thomas 97)

    Fictional Narrative: Generous behavior remains open to opportunity.
    Kingdom Parable: Kingdom behaviors do not favor cultural norms.

    A dinner host broadens the scope of invitation to outcasts. (Thomas 64)
    A slave loses his life for resisting his owner’s illegal ventures. (Matt 25:14-28)
    Human equality does not rest upon work output. (Matt 20:1-15)
    Compassion does not originate with the in-group. (Luke 10:30-35)
    Love is not bound by the behavior of its object. (Luke 15:11-32)
    Make friends with your accuser. (Luke 12:57-59)

    Depending on the listener, I suggest that some heard the secular message and some heard the kingdom message. Given the impoverished culture, and Jesus seeming to be a goal oriented passion type guy, I'm still thinking that offering the kingdom as an alternative was his main intention.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  6. Good afternoon Gene,
    Thank you for engaging the parables and my approach to the fictions of Jesus. You may of course be correct that Jesus intended "to merge two dimensions (secular and kingdom realities) together at once." You are clearly in good company since that is the default Jesus Seminar way of reading parables. But the truth is all he succeeded in doing was to provide his auditors with secular narratives--at least that is all that we have preserved in the early gospel literature, which the evangelists attempt to make over into religious narratives. So the question becomes how do you know the "intentions" of Jesus from what we have left? In short we only know what he said--within certain limits, and do not know what he intended. Truth be told we never know what anyone "intends" even when they tell us. Tell me exactly where do you find the kingdom in the words of his fiction story? Or put another way: what leads you to the conclusion that Jesus "intended" his auditors to hear "kingdom realities" in the story about supposed criminal activity (Luke 16:1-7) that does not stem from the strategy you employ in reading the story? Is the kingdom actually "in" the story, or have you simply "found" it there? Why should I think that it is the idea of Jesus rather than your own? I note that describing a narrative unit as a metaphor is a reader's strategy applied to that unit. It says nothing about what the unit is in itself but only what the reader thinks about it (see Many Things in Parables, pp. 6-9, and 45-54).

  7. Hi Charlie,

    You wrote, referring to the narrative fictions: "Is the kingdom actually 'in' the story, or have you simply 'found' it there?" I'll do my best to share additional thoughts about this mystery.

    I think that I've identified at least 10 narratives with a similar theme (see last post): Goal oriented passion. One can limit that theme to the characteristics of each story, or one can see the stories as representative of a larger purpose (the kingdom?).

    In "The Wisdom of Jesus" you list the following kingdom sayings (see above post).

    The character of God's kingdom is found in children.
    Those with wealth will enter the kingdom only with difficulty.
    A camel will go through a needle's eye easier than a wealthy person enters the kingdom.
    The kingdom belongs to the emotionally and physically impoverished.
    Our Father! Your kingdom come.
    There are eunuchs who have castrated themselves for the sake of the kingdom.
    The kingdom of God is among/within you.
    If I drive out demons by God's power his kingdom has come upon you.
    I am the fire. Those who keep me at a distance are far from the kingdom.

    These can easily be secularized: for example, the first saying could just as easily have its kingdom teeth removed: "Whatever is worthwhile in life is found in children."

    Why should we not remove the word kingdom from these sayings to make them consistent with the narrative fictions? After all, there are many sayings (most) that do not mention the kingdom, just as most of the narratives do not mention the kingdom.

    I'm thinking that Jesus had a goal oriented passion for a higher purpose and that each of his teachings reveal that purpose in some respect. Kingdom is one memory that expresses that purpose.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  8. Good Morning Gene,
    I think grouping sayings together to show they treat a common subject is helpful (see Wisdom of Jesus, 100-102). And I did write about the themes of the stories but cautioned that one must never think that "the whole purpose of the story has been to yield up the abstract statement" (Wisdom of Jesus, 137). Stating a story's theme is a reader's response to the story, and can never be a substitute for the story itself. Taking one example of your restatements of sayings(Mark 10:14): your restatement of this saying is very different from what Jesus is reported to have said. In my study I changed no words in either sayings or stories. The reason "we should not remove the word kingdom from these sayings to make them consistent with the narrative fictions" is because one is then changing what the saying says to suit one's own interpretation. The result is not what Jesus said but an interpretative reader's response. I did not change the wording of the stories themselves; I did not have to; for none of the stories even mentions the kingdom.

  9. Thanks for your insightful responses, Charlie.

    Suppose we approach this discussion from a holistic perspective. Setting the word kingdom aside, given what we may know of his actions and teachings, what is the best way to describe Jesus holistically?

    (By the way, no need to labor these matters further unless you see some value in it.)

    Perhaps we can plausibly say that Jesus approached life with a goal oriented passion for:

    Giving without return: e.g. Thom 95:1-2
    Loving one's antagonist: e.g. Luke 6:32
    Supporting cultural reversals: e.g. Matt 20:16
    Trusting the Father: e.g. Matt 7:9-11
    Revealing the hidden: e.g. Luke 13:20-21
    Finding life in losing it: e.g. Matt 19:24
    Waging war with Satan: e.g. Luke 10:18
    Bringing new values to light: e.g. Mark 9:50a
    Lodging and meal fellowship: e.g. Luke 10:7a

    If we don't use the word kingdom, what are we to call these circumstances or something like them? What did Jesus have a passion for? Certainly he was not without passion.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  10. Good rainy afternoon Gene!
    I find discussions about these matters very interesting. Being forced to think by good questions always makes me learn something about myself. Your question: speaking holistically what was the principal passion of Jesus?, is virtually impossible for me to answer (see Wisdom of Jesus, 186). Here is why. One would have to know the whole person, and then get inside his head, which would leave me out since I don't read minds.. Unfortunately all we have are fragments of his sayings and stories. (I am not sure how to go about sorting out his activities from the romanticized reports in the gospels.) You have quite rightly listed some of the sayings (but only one narrative) that have passed critical historical review. But wouldn't you have to consider all the vestiges of his life? And even doing that you are still left with a mighty small residue of his life on which to base an accurate description of his "passion."
    Nevertheless I did try to give a more or less holistic view of Jesus in Wisdom of Jesus, pp.184-88. Perhaps the statement on page 188 comes closest to the statement you asked of me.
    Thanks for asking,

  11. Hi Charlie,

    You wrote: "(I am not sure how to go about sorting out his activities from the romanticized reports in the gospels.)"

    What do you suppose about Jesus resulted in the passion of resurrection visions and folks expecting the end of the world any day? That can't be disconnected from his life, can it?

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  12. Good Sunday afternoon, Gene!
    Visions, and the end of the world were common motifs in the ancient world. So these motifs do not necessarily have anything to do with Jesus. See the articles by Nicklesberg (ABD) and Segal (NIDB) for the sources. They do not cover the Greek, Roman and Egyptian traditions but the feature of dying and rising Gods are very common. Perhaps more to the point is "The Life of Apollonius of Tyana," whose career paralleled that of Jesus. Philostratus describes Apollonius as a neopythagorean holy man born near the beginning of the first century common era. He does many of the same things Jesus is credited with doing in the canonical gospels, among which is raising the dead. At the end of his life Apollonius is assumed into heaven and he "appeared" after his death. If these traditions be allowed as parallels, then it is not unusual that such stories emerged about Jesus. But your question is why should they have attached themselves to Jesus. My answer would be it occurred because of his exemplary life, just like that like of Apollonius. See page 188 of Wisdom of Jesus. I suggested that christologizing of the life of Jesus began with the idea that he was a wise man, one of those holy souls into whom the spirit of Lady Wisdom was thought to pass in every generation (Wis 7:27).

  13. Good Morning Charlie,

    I agree with your description of the ancient mind and experience and the extraordinary person of Apollonius. But you don't seem to give much credence to the contrasts with Jesus.

    I remember a number of years ago Robert Price wrote an article for the 4thR detailing numerous accounts (8 or 9?)of "resurrection" in the Greco-Roman world. I came away thinking that these are fanciful and interesting, but nothing historically important came of them. They were like Matt's and Luke's birth stories, interesting and romantic but unessential for the Jesus story. So these rez stories are nothing compared to the rez communities generated by Jesus in which Paul could say, "It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me," communities in which "God has sent the spirit of his son into our hearts crying out 'Father,'" and in which the hope of personal resurrection still dwells strong.

    What Apollonius said and did, and however wise, and whatever miracles he performed, and however he was raised and appeared, he didn't create anything like the communities built on the resurrection of Jesus. (Should we ignore that Apollonius' biography was written 200 years after his life?).

    If Apollonius was such a "wise guy" (smile), how come so little resulted from his life. I don't think that simply being "wise" generates the kind of energy that came out of Jesus' life.

    I'm not sure what scholars consider to be the source of Apollonius' miracle power, but Dennis MacDonald, (e.g. Mythologizing Jesus, 2015), I think, has an interesting theory about Jesus' miracles. He says that the miracle narratives were basically the result of mimetic activity on the part of the canonical authors. Material was drawn from the Greco-Roman classics (Homer, Vergil, Euripides), particularly by Mark and Luke; their motive was to demonstrate that Jesus had the power of the heroes and gods but put them to shame when it came to being "a hero of compassion." (44) So too, maybe Apollonius' miracles were more paper-work than reality.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  14. Good Morning Gene,
    The Aramaic speaking cells of Jesus associates eventually died out and it was only when the early Jesus traditions were taken up in a Greek speaking context that the Jesus movements began to have success.
    The time distance between Apollonius and the inscription of his career by Philostratus (with imperial support) is significant. But no more so than the three "generations" that it took for the Jesus traditions to reach the evangelists and be inscribed in a frequently tendentious way (for my understanding of the three generations see Parabolic Fictions or Narrative Fictions, 82-83; and compare the statement in The Acts of Jesus, p. 2 second paragraph).