In 2004 I called attention to what I described as an embarrassing situation in New Testament Scholarship.1 Whereas in the natural sciences “the confirmation or not of a limited hypothesis is regarded as an experimental fact if repetition yields the same result,”2 the modern study of the parables of Jesus yields remarkably different results. Each critic claims to have the key to explicate the parables of Jesus. Of course, literary and historical criticism are not the natural sciences, and in the study of parables the researcher’s personal proclivities frequently end up shaping the product of the study of the parables of Jesus.
Shortly before the death (4 B.C.E.) of Herod the Great, King of Judea, Jesus was born. According to early Christian tradition, his birth took place at Bethlehem (Matt 2; Luke 2), a few miles south of Jerusalem. He was reared, however, in the Galilee region at Nazareth, a tiny village in the hills a short distance from Sepphoris, where for most of Jesus’ life Herod Antipas directed the affairs of his tetrarchy (Galilee and Perea). Virtually everything known about Jesus’ public life comes from the early Christian gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, written decades after his death.3 Nothing is known of his private life. The gospels describe a number of Jesus’ public acts and preserve sayings and stories attributed to him in the course of his public career in the first third of the first century. Detailed reports exist of his death at the hands of the Romans during the Prefecture of Pontius Pilate (26-36 C.E.).
The most prominent feature of Jesus’ public discourse, to judge from the gospels, is the brief story form he popularized in his short career. These stories, dubbed “parables” since the latter part of the first century, on their surface were simply secular stories about aspects of village life in what the Romans knew as Syria-Palestine, and later simply as Judea. Through the years it has been easier to reconcile the gospel accounts of Jesus’ activities with who Jesus has become in the faith of the church, than it has to reconcile his stories (which on their surface are not religious at all) with who Jesus has become in the faith of the church. Since the first century, his stories have remained a conundrum for the New Testament critic. How is it possible, for example, to find something religiously significant about God—or human life, for that matter—from a brief narrative about a woman putting yeast into a rather large measure of flour (Matt 13:33b; Luke 13:20b-21; Gospel of Thomas 96:1)? That issue—how to go from a first-century secular story to an “appropriate” religious explanation—has continued to be the fuse driving the fascination of the critic with Jesus’ stories. In the hands of his critics, those who ponder and analyze his stories for their “true” meanings, Jesus is seen to be many different people and his stories have been found to be about many different things. Each critic claims their own analysis unlocks the true meaning of the stories, giving expression to their true voice. That claim creates the embarrassing situation in which the study of Jesus’ parables finds itself today. The entire enterprise of parables study is threatened by each critic claiming to have the “true” interpretation of the parable. Their contradictory claims undermine confidence in any of the results. Yet no one seems to be bothered by this embarrassing state of affairs.
Missouri State University
1Charles W. Hedrick, Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004). This brief essay is adapted from the introduction.
2James B. Conant, “Concerning the Alleged Scientific Method,” in Louise B. Young, ed., Exploring the Universe (New York: Oxford, 1971), 31.
3The Gospel of John has no parables. See Hedrick, Many Things in Parables, 4-5.