John P. Meier has published five books under the general title A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991- 2016). Each book is given an independent title. The independent title of his fifth book in the series is Probing the Authenticity of the Parables (Yale, 2016). The challenge of this book is that it charges the guild with largely assuming the historicity of the parables attributed to Jesus (p. 56). Meier, on the other hand, has come to the conclusion “that most of the parables lacked solid arguments for authenticity” (p. 20). And this in turn leads him critically to sift the parables as to whether or not they originated with Jesus, and he finds that only four parables originated with Jesus. By my count there are forty-one individual narrative parables in all (others count them differently); fourteen exist in multiple versions and twenty-seven exist only in single versions.1 Meier’s four authentic parables are: the Mustard Seed, the Evil Tenants of the Vineyard, the Great Supper, and the Talents/Pounds (p. 231). His prime criterion for sorting the parables is the criterion of “multiple attestation of sources” (pp. 16, 48, 49, 55, 56), which states: “when a motif or teaching attributed to Jesus appears in more than one literary form or more than one independent literary source, the possibility of its originality is increased, provided it is not characteristic of the early church or Palestinian Judaism.”2 Meier applies this criterion only with respect to independent strands of the tradition (that is, literary texts), and in the sorting does not address the ideas reflected in the parables. This enables him to relegate all the singularly attested parables (27 in all) to a category of what he calls non liquet; that is, they must be discounted from consideration because they appear in only one literary text (p. 8). There are, however, more parables that appear in multiple independent sources than just these three3 but he eliminates those texts from consideration for various reasons.
Here briefly is a critique of his first blunder permitting him to draw the conclusions he does. Meier excludes all singularly attested parables, although he admits that some of them may have originated with Jesus (p. 8). Nevertheless, the multiple-attestation criterion does not prove that a parable originated with Jesus. It only proves that a particular parable did not originate with the writer in whose text it appears, since it appears in at least one other text not literarily related to the first. The criterion only proves that the parable was accessed independently from the tradition by each writer rather than from each other, and only takes one “back to early elements in the tradition, not necessarily to Jesus himself.”4 An additional step is required to show that a given parable probably originated specifically with Jesus. For this proof Norman Perrin preferred the criterion of dissimilarity, which states: “Sayings and parables may be regarded as original with Jesus if they are dissimilar to characteristic emphases in Palestinian Judaism and early Christianity.”5 Perrin found the multiple-attestation criterion to be “less effective” and “restricted”; hence he used it in only a limited way, because “it will not often help with specific sayings but rather with general motifs.”6 Perrin states that “the application of the criterion of dissimilarity enable[s] us to reconstruct major aspects of the teaching of Jesus beyond a reasonable doubt: [they are:] the parables, the kingdom of God teaching and the Lord’s Prayer tradition.”7 Meier takes no second step in arguing authenticity.
The parabolic form was not used by the earliest Christians. They used other literary forms.8 The parables are principally realistic narrative fictions whose content was expressed in terms of the peasant culture of Palestinian antiquity.9 The early church, however, was able to make use of them particularly by interpretive introductions and conclusions, the literary settings in which they were placed, and by allegorical glosses or allegorical rewriting, among other things.10
Here is what leads me to the conclusion that Jesus is probably the originator of the parables. Parables appear in multiple independent strands of the Jesus tradition: Mark, Thomas, Secret James, and Q. The fact that we have forty-one separate parables for which no authorship other than Jesus has ever been asserted argues that Jesus is the putative author. Not that all are from Jesus but responsibility shifts to those who wish to deny that a particular parable did not originate with Jesus. Jesus popularized the parabolic form but the form was not unique to Jesus since it also appears in ancient Israelite texts.11 The fact that the stories attributed to Jesus bear the stamp of Palestinian culture rather than the Hellenistic culture of the authors of the gospels who preserved them and who had so much difficulty understanding them argues that they did not originate them.12 The gospels abound with allegory and Christian theology, but the stories of Jesus themselves as a whole do not, and that makes them strikingly different from the sources in which they appear.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*Meier accused the Jesus Seminar of a “major blunder” in describing Jesus as sage (p. 40).
1 Hedrick, “Parable,” NIDB, 371.
2 Hedrick, When History and Faith Collide, 141-42. See in particular: N. Perrin Rediscovering the Teachings of Jesus, 46-47 and M. E. Boring, “The Historical-Critical Method’s ‘Criteria of Authenticity’: The Beatitudes in Q and Thomas as a Test Case,” Semeia 44 (1988): 12-14.
3 Hedrick, “Parable,” NIDB, 4: 371.
4 Boring, “Criteria of Authenticity,” 14; see also Perrin, Rediscovering, 46.
5 Hedrick, History and Faith, 139-41. See in particular Perrin, Rediscovering, 39-43 and Boring, “Criteria of Authenticity,” 17-21
6Perrin, Rediscovering, 46.
7 Ibid., 47.
8 Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus, 31-43.
9 Perrin, Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, 104. Compare Meier, Marginal Jew, 42.
10 These insights are only possible because of the writing of the parabolic tradition by Jeremias, Parables of Jesus, 23-114. Perrin, Rediscovering, 47.
11Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 17-18.