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.
Charles W. Hedrick
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).
No parables and no demon exorcisms, both of which figure prominently in the synoptics. I, however, cannot believe that the author of John did not have at least proto-Luke in front of him when writing. He seems to have been inspired to trump (if one is allowed to still use that word) the authority of the Marcionite gospel narrative, both correcting and enlarging it.
Good afternoon Roger,
For readers not familiar with the term, Proto-Luke is a theory for explaining the literary relationship between Matt, Mark, and Luke. It begins with the supposition that Luke wrote a first draft of the gospel combining the L material (material unique to Luke) and the Q material (material shared by Matt and Luke that is not in Mark), and then s/he later added the material that only appears in Mark. The theory is more popular in England than in the U.S., where the priority of Mark solution is preferred (with some few opting for the priority of Matthew).
I fail to see any indication in the Gospel of John to support a theory that its author was influenced by either a Proto-Luke or a postulated Marcionite Gospel.
For the record: Proto-Luke, Q, and a Marcionite Gospel are not preserved in any ancient manuscripts but only in restorations by modern scholars.
Hi Charlie, you wrote:
"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."
Do you have a theory about what kind of "life situation" would be consistent with John not knowing the synoptic parable traditions or exorcism traditions. Can any reason be given for why John would not have known this material? On the other hand, is there any reason why John might choose not to use it?
I cannot answer your question. It is a question that can only be answered with speculation, as there are no certain data that will permit a definitive answer. There are a few, very few, overlaps between Mark and John. But they are not enough to prove that John knew the synoptic tradition in written form in my judgment. If John knew a written synoptic tradition then the conclusion seems inevitable to me that John deliberately set out to revise the Jesus tradition.
To follow up a bit more, what's your reaction to Elaine Pagel's conclusion (Beyond Belief, 2003)that GJohn is a correction of the tendencies that are found in GThomas. For example:
"This research has helped clarify not only what John's gospel is 'for' but what it is 'against.' John says explicitly that he writes 'so that you may BELIEVE AND BELIEVING MAY HAVE LIFE (her italics) in Jesus' name.' What John opposed, as we shall see, includes what the gospel of Thomas teaches--that God's light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially, at least, in everyone. Thomas' gospel encourages the hearer not so much to BELIEVE IN JESUS, as John requires as to SEEK TO KNOW GOD through one's own, devinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God. For Christians in later generations the gospel of John helped provide a foundation for a unified church, which Thomas, with its emphasis on each person's search for God, did not." (p. 34)
Thomas, of course, contains quite a few parables. Is it reasonable to suppose that GJohn deliberately replaced that communication form with the "I am..." speeches.
Good Thursday Morning, Gene!
I agree that John directly challenges certain sayings in the Gospel of Thomas that reflect a more introspective understanding of what later became Christianity (sayings such as 3A, #b, 11C, 49, 50, 108). I would not say that GosThom "teaches" but rather that certain sayings in GosThom teach. Thomas is after all a "collection" of sayings; it is not a story like Mark. Is this a deliberate, conscious opposition to those sayings in Thomas? That is to say did John have a written copy of Thomas open on the table when s/he wrote? That would depend on when you think Thomas reached the written state in which we know it in the NH version. The Greek versions of certain sayings were written sometime in the early to late 2nd century and a time of composition equaling the composition of the Gospel of John is not out of the question. (See pages 1-5 of my book Unlocking the Secrets.)
Good morning Charlie,
So would you characterize the Gospel of Thomas as being a gnostic gospel? Since it emphasizes more knowledge than belief?
Why was belief thought to be more desirable than knowledge? I guess that's a relative question.
I've heard the gospel of John characterized as being "mystical" by Christian commentaries. Do you share that view?
Thank you so much as always! Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth from an icy Southwest Missouri.
I discuss your questions in the introduction to my book: "Unlocking the Secrets of the Gospel According to Thomas."
In my view Thomas represents an eclectic collection of collections mostly associated with and/or attributed to Jesus. Not all of these however originated with Jesus. The sayings represent in part a radicalizing of a mystical spiritualism found in some earlier Christian texts (page 10). Thomas is not a "gnostic" text as such in the sense that it was produced for a "gnostic" community. I regard it as a radical Christian text, but it would clearly appeal to those who have been described as gnostic.
I do regard John as a mystical text at least in part. See page 10 for a definition of "mystical."
Good icy afternoon to you Charlie- from slick St. Louis!
Does your book address any theories as to why the gospel of Thomas was not accepted into the biblical canon? Also, was gnosticism practiced before Jesus was introduced? Or was it a result of his early followers?
I don't understand why John was accepted into the canon but the gospel of Thomas wasn't. I don't see how either was more or less "radical" mystical spiritualism than the other. I personally see Christianity itself as radical mystical spiritualism- how else could you describe the teaching of the Trinity? The only reason Christians don't see that as radical is because it has been transformed into a normalized concept, handed down for generations. To a Jew living in the third century- it was a radical teaching that contradicted their monotheistic belief "The Lord is God, the Lord is one."
Do you think "radical" is a relative term? Do you see the teaching of the Trinity as being radical?
PS: Craig wrote a term paper for you regarding the Gospel of Thomas- we've looked all over for it, and wish we could read it again. I've asked him the same questions I asked you but his mind is not nearly as fertile and vibrant and retentive as yours! Plus we've moved a lot since then.
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
I do briefly address the canon issue about Thomas (pgs. 1-2). From the earliest sources a Thomas gospel was considered heretical by the church. Canon is a broad subject, You might look at McDonald and Sanders, eds. "The Canon Debate." Hendrickson, 2002.
The answer to your second question depends on what is meant by "Gnosticism/gnosticism." See my introduction (pgs. 1-11) to Hedrick and Hodgson, eds. "Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity." Hendrickson: 1986. It is a little dated but the essay sets out the problems in a reliable way and it is written at an accessible level.
I do agree that the term "radical" is a relative word (as is the word "heretical"). The terms are used by insiders to describe those who have different views. People called radicals do not necessarily think of themselves that way and that also applies to those called heretics.
A few more thoughts. Perhaps we can think of GJohn writing at a time and place where the language of cryptic and hidden meaning (inclusive of parables) was appreciated and the fate of the individual soul took the place of an interest in communal history.
Therefore, GJohn has little or no content which resembles a parable and actually presents a more complex pre-crucifixion history of Jesus than the synoptics.
Also, I just finished your Parabolic Figures and Narrative Fictions, very enjoyable read. For some reason I was interested in reading the topics in the order of last chapter to first. Turned out well for me. I still would like to see more emphasis on how the parables are one way to get at how Jesus himself experienced and interpreted life. I don't think that one can tell stories and hide himself completely.
Also enjoyed your interpretation, along with Miller and Ford, of The Pharisee and the Toll Collector in the most recent 4thR (Jan-Feb 2017, 30:1).
Good Morning, Gene,
In your second paragraph you suggest that the parables are in a sense "autobiographical." That is to say that one can "get at how Jesus himself experienced and interpreted life." I agree to a point. I don't think, as some conservative scholars do, that the parables are "commentaries" on what was going on in the life of Jesus. I do think that they suggest aspects of what he was interested in, since he created the stories. So they are more commentaries on the kinds of characters and interactions among them that he found interesting.
Thanks for the positive comments about the exchange between Miller, Ford, and myself on the Samaritan. Be sure and send Miller a note on that. He is always looking for reader feedback.
I should have mentioned in regards to your first paragraph, first sentence that C. H. Dodd in "The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel" (Cambridge: University Press, 1965), 3-130 gives an excellent survey of the various backgrounds of John: in Hermetic literature, in Hellenistic Judaism, in Rabbinic Judaism; in Gnosticism, and in Mandaism.
Thanks for the heads-up on Dodd. Just ordered the book at Amazon.
As I am also writing on the same issue on the absent of parable in the fourth gospel, I have come to this understanding. John does not use parable because when we look at parables in the synoptic gospels, they are most of the time used in the context of Jesus talking about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. In the synoptic gospels, they are used to explain the meaning of the kingdom of God/heaven. In contrast,John neither uses the phrases such as"kingdom of God" nor "kingdom of heaven" except in John 3:3, 5. Thus John replaces the above phrases with "eternal life." This I think is the major reason for John's exclusion of parables in his gospel.
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