Meier rejects the critical history of the parables tradition written by J. Jeremias in 1947.1 Jeremias demonstrated that “the primitive church related the parables to its own concrete situation and by doing so produced a shift of emphasis” in the parables.2 Thus the church reshaped the character of the parables by allegorizing them3 even to the extent of introducing allegorical features into the narratives to insure ecclesial interpretations.4 The critical distinction between parable and allegory was established in 1888 by A. Jülicher in his two volume work Die Gleichnisreden Jesu.5 N. Perrin summarized the distinction that Jülicher established between parable and allegory in this way: “parable means what it says, using pictures to express its meaning. Allegory, on the other hand…does not mean what it says, but hides its meaning in symbol.”6 Since these two pivotal studies on the parables (Jülicher and Jeremias) critical scholarship has regarded the allegorical flourishes in the parables like barnacles on a clam—the clam is not defined by the barnacle, rather the barnacle by the clam. In short Jeremias found that “most of the allegorical traits in the present form of the parables are not original.”7
Meier defines parables as “comparisons…that have been ‘stretched out’ into short stories with at least an implicit beginning, middle, and end—in other words, a mini-narrative with at least an implicit plot line.”8 But since allegorical narrative is used in ancient Israelite texts and in the synoptic parables “one must come to each Synoptic parable with an open mind rather than a rigid grid” (p. 87) as to the presence of allegory in the parables.9
Nevertheless Meier regards the narrative parables as “riddle speech” when compared to Jesus’ “legal teachings” (p.4, 34). The parables require a context. Without a context the parables are open to multiple meanings (p. 32-33). He works out his understanding of the historical context of the parables in the career of Jesus in his first three volumes, summarized for the reader in the volume on parables (p. 3). This “historical context” is heavily indebted to the synoptic reconstructions of the career of Jesus. Hence a reliable interpretation of a parable of Jesus requires that it be analyzed in “its redactional context in a Gospel and its historical context in the ministry of Jesus” (p. 5) in order for an exegete to have any hope of recovering the “intention” of Jesus.10 Both requirements, therefore, ensure the continuing influence of allegorical analysis in the interpretation of the parables of Jesus.
At the end of his chapter on allegory (pp. 85-87) it becomes clear that allegorical motifs in the parables will be regarded as legitimate parts of the parables’ tradition, and such is the case with his discussion of the four parables he finds to be authentic (pp. 230-362). Interpreting the parables allegorically, however, is a denial of the inherent nature of the parables as realistic fictitious narratives about everyday life in Palestinian peasant villages.11 Meier’s view is that while some of the parables might be realistic, not all are (pp. 42-43). The basic realism of the parables, however, challenges Meier’s allegorical method of parables’ interpretation. On the other hand, acknowledging their realism disfranchises allegory thus freeing the parables to come into their own as ancient texts un-encumbered by early Christian theology and rhetoric.12
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*Meier uses the word “blunder” to describe a position with which he disagrees (40).
1This is the date of the first German edition of Jeremias, Parables of Jesus (first English translation, 1954); see N. Perrin, Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus, (1967), 258. Perrin was a student of Jeremias.
2Parables of Jesus (revised edition, 1963), 48.
5Jülicher’s two volume work has never been translated.
6Perrin, Rediscovering, 257.
7Jeremias, Parables, 89.
8Meier, Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, 37.
9Ibid., 87. See his brief discussion of allegory pages 82-88.
10Meier’s goal in interpreting the parables is the following: “our quest concerns what the historical Jesus intended when he decided to use parables in general and to speak this or that parable in particular,” p. 33. From my perspective, however, one never really knows what people intend; one only knows what they tell us they intended.
11Meier specifically rejects the idea that parables are inherently realistic fictions that draw upon everyday life in Palestinian villages (42-43).
12Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 36-44.
Good Evening Charlie- it looks like you've been getting quite a bit of rain in your neck of the woods!
I have a question with regard to allegory and exegesis. First allegory- here's a passage that I didn't quite understand: "Since these two pivotal studies on the parables (Jülicher and Jeremias) critical scholarship has regarded the allegorical flourishes in the parables like barnacles on a clam—the clam is not defined by the barnacle, rather the barnacle by the clam. In short Jeremias found that “most of the allegorical traits in the present form of the parables are not original.”
How do you know which parts of the parable are allegorical? Can you give an example? And how can you tell that they were added later? Also- I didn't understand the analogy of the barnacle and the clam... I'm not sure I see what that analogy is trying to illustrate.
My other question has to do with exegesis. This is an explanation of exegesis that I found online: "Exegesis is what comes out of the Bible, as against what gets read into it."
Do you as a scholar practice exegesis- or is that something that theologians do? How do you describe the practice of exegesis and is it something you utilize as a scholar? How does one know if one is getting something "out" of the Bible as opposed to "reading something into it?"
To sum up, allegories fantastical and theatrical and parables are simple and common everyday occurrences that normal people can easily relate to... Do you think allegory was later added to the parables in order to make them more appealing and attention-getting to audiences?
Thank as always! Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
We did indeed receive some much needed rain.
"Barnacle on a clam": In order to explain the characteristics of a clam one must look past the barnacle. That is to say: a parable is a story and not an allegory.
Here is one example: The parable/story of the vineyard in Mark (12:1-11) has a reference in 12:6 to the owner's "beloved son." The beloved son is Jesus (compare Mark 1:11; 9:7). In short Mark has turned a simple story about bad people who do not pay their debts (compare Gospel of Thomas 65) into an allegory about salvation-history.
Exegesis means simply explaining what the text says in terms of its ancient historical context with no modern application. Eisegesis is reading one's own modern ideas into the text that were not part of the ancient author's historical situation. In short a scholar practices exegesis. Eisegesis is what modern religious ideologues do. Good exegesis aims to make the ancient author's point in terms of the ancient situation first. And then to make modern applications as appropriate.
I think the evangelists introduced allegorical flourishes into the stories Jesus told and/or read them from the perspective of a strategy that they were allegories. They did this in order to overcome Jesus' story with their own theology.
What is your take on Matthew's (18:23-35) use of the "Unforgiving Slave" as an analogy? Here are my thoughts:
The Christ community, as found in the writings of Paul (e.g., 1 Cor 7:22) sometimes describes its members as slaves: "For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ."
In the parable Matthew seems to understand the ruler as God and the slave he forgives of a huge amount and that very slave who refuses to forgive another slave a very small amount as Christ community members.
In the verses (15-22) just previous, Matthew refers to "the congregation": try to settle differences privately, if that doesn't work out take two or three along, next take the matter before the congregation, finally treat the person as a pagan or toll collector; the decision is binding even in heaven. In contrast, this must be a stupendously long process as Jesus is quoted as telling Peter to forgive seventy-seven times. However, the Unforgiving Slave couldn't even do it once.
Vs. 35 clarifies that if God forgives you, you must forgive "your brother and sister" (Christ community members), even it it's seventy-seven times, or "be turned over to the torturers."
Perhaps Jesus originally taught that one cannot expect anything but undesirable consequences when forgiveness is compromised. (Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels. p. 219).
Good Morning Gene,
Thanks for calling out attention to this very interesting story. Matt 18:23-34 is a single version parable (i.e. no parallel versions). Verse 35 is not part of the story; it is Matthew's interpretation of the story: if you don't forgive others God will throw you to the "jailers" (Greek: torturers).
I have four general comments about your reading of the story: 1. If Jesus actually told this story, in his oral context it would have had a social context in the life of the Judean people. Matthew's context is a later literary context arranged by Matthew. 2. Your reading of the story is an allegorical reading that introduces foreign ideas into the story that even Matthew did not do (i.e., the ruler is God and the slaves are Christians). 3. A Christian reading is anachronistic. Christ communities are a later Hellenistic phenomenon. There were no Christians at the feet of Jesus when he first told this story (if he did). 4. I see nothing in the story that authorizes an allegorical reading. Matthew suggests allegory as an approach in verse 35.
If I were setting out to consider a reading of this story I would begin by researching debtor's prisons in Grec0-Roman antiquity.
I regret that you have misread my post, probably due to poor clarity on my part. I do not think that this parable or any other parable was originally an allegory. I think that Matthew uses the parable as an allegory, as I outlined.
In my last sentence I referenced a summary observation made by the Jesus Seminar with which I tend to agree. I have since also reviewed a statement in your book The Wisdom of Jesus (p. 140) which also seems quite reasonable: "Theme: Compassion for the adversities of others is not always learned by example or experience."
My apologies, Gene! I am very good at misreading things.
I agree that Matthew turns the story into an allegory by taking the king figure in the story to be God, as verse 35 makes clear.
For those who do not have my book: a theme of a story is "an abstract central idea on which the elements of a given story are based" ( "Wisdom of Jesus," 138).
Thanks for pushing back.
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