Some years ago I spent six hours on the Greek island of Delos walking its streets and climbing among the various sanctuaries and temples dedicated to the ancient Gods of the Greco-Roman world. Delos, a tiny island 5 kilometers by 1300 meters, began as a religious center dedicated to the Ionian God Apollo. Its influence in the Greek Cycladic islands endured from the seventh to the first century BCE. The devout of many faiths from all over the civilized world came to build holy shrines on Delos, and for six hundred years worshiped their gods there. But now the site consists of crumbled ruins, whose white marble remains glisten as so many skeletons in the burning Greek sun. Apollo, Asclepius, Dionysus, Isis, Aphrodite, and the many other Gods of their generation survived into the Roman period, but to my knowledge today there is not a single active temple dedicated to the worship of these Gods, whose power captured the imagination of the people of the ancient Mediterranean world.
One modern response is to say that they were not real Gods—meaning, I suppose, that they never existed at all. I can just imagine, however, the response of the hundreds of thousands who believed in them, and through the years made their holy pilgrimages to Delos—just as today modern Christians, Jews, and Moslems make pilgrimages to the holy shrines of their faiths. The ancient believers came, offered prayers and sacrifices, and left inscriptions throughout the ancient world attesting to the power of these Gods and their influence in the daily lives of the believers. They would be shocked at the idea that Asclepius and Apollo are not "real." Nevertheless today their sanctuaries are silent and these Gods considered historical artifacts. What do modern believers in God say about the silent sanctuaries of Delos? Should they assume that these ancient Gods were simply products of the over-active imaginations of a primitive and superstitious people who lived during a naïve age?
If such popular and influential Gods can so completely pass out of fashion, or be so easily dismissed as never existing, what should one think about one's own God? Is my faith really that different from these ancient faiths, whose Gods were credited with as much power and influence in the ancient world as the Gods of current faiths enjoy in the modern world?
If there is no completely satisfying answer to these questions, they at least remind us of the character of faith: faith is not demonstrable proof; it is only the evidence of a deeply held hope. God's existence cannot be quantitatively proven—at least not in a modern scientific test-tube sense. And that knowledge should make us all a little less arrogant in our own religious beliefs, and just a little more tolerant of the beliefs of others. It also raises the issue as to whether or not the demise of the Greek Gods was the beginning of the twilight of all the Gods.*
Missouri State University
*An earlier version of this essay appears in Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009, 51-52.
The word parable (παραβολή, parabole) does not even appear in the Gospel of John, and neither does the brief story form, which is what scholars usually describe as the classic form of the parable. Instead John uses the word paroimia (παροιμία) to describe an aspect of the discourse of Jesus. The figurative image of the sheepfold in John 10:1-5 is not a story and is not described as "parable," but rather as paroimia (10:6). Scholars provide several translations for this word: pithy saying, proverb, maxim, or hidden, obscure speech. Its only other occurrences in the New Testament are translated as "figure" (John 16:25, 29) or "proverb" (2 Pet 2:22). The kind of language to which it refers is indirect language (i.e., not directly related to the issue at hand) or language that paints a picture.
John 16:16-29 deliberately contrasts paroimia (16:25, 29) with clarity of speech (16:29)—paroimia being conceived as obscure, unclear, inscrutable and mysterious language, suggesting that it is not plain speech, but rather that it is obscure and that its significance is open to question. In this section (John 16:16-29) there really is no "figurative" language for the disciples to be perplexed over. They quite plainly state that what confused them was Jesus' statement "a little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me" (16:16-19). Jesus refers to his explanation to the disciples over their perplexity (16:20-28) as "paroimian language" (i.e., unclear, 16:25). And they accept this explanation of what they regard as an obscure saying, as plain or clear language (16:29-30). In short, the narrator in John 16:16-29 seems to misunderstand paroimia—at least, one may say that what the disciples are confused about does not have the character of figure, pithy saying, proverb, or maxim.
The image in John 10:1-5 (and presumably also John 10:7-18) is described as paroimia (John 10:6). And it certainly is, without doubt, a "figure," that paints an image of the situation with a sheepfold, the door to the sheepfold, and identifies the one who legitimately has access to the sheep and to the fold. This image (unlike the saying in John 16:16-29), however, does not confuse, it only succeeds in angering the audience of Judeans/Judaites/Jews (10:19), who apparently are not confused about the image, but rather are confused over the person of Jesus.
The reason for the correct usage in one instance and the incorrect usage in the other is the fact that John 10:6 is a "narrative aside," written from a perspective different than that held by the principal narrative voice of the Gospel of John, which in this case is represented by John 16:16-29.*
The Jesus of the Gospel of John does not use parables simply because the flesh and blood author does not know the tradition that Jesus told brief stories that the synoptic evangelists dubbed "parables." Nevertheless, both the authors of the synoptic gospels and the author of John agree that the language of Jesus was cryptic and in need of explanation, which is very interesting in the light of their almost complete disagreement on everything else. Their lack of understanding of the nature of parable arises from their erroneous idea that Jesus the early first-century Israelite believed the same things they did. But he was a Judean Israelite and they, coming along later, were Greek Christians. Little wonder that they found his language strange, arcane, and in need of explanation.
Scholium (a marginal comment):
Brown is clearly wrong that "paroimia and parabole are used synonymously in Sirach 47:17." R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii). AB 29. New York: Doubleday, 1966, 385-86.
Missouri State University
*See Hedrick, "Authorial Presence and Narrator in John. Commentary and Story," in Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings, pages 74-93. Edited by Goehring, Hedrick, Sanders, and Betz; Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1990).