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.
Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, please recall that I solved the parable interpretation problem (smile) in large part in chapter two: Practice Goal Oriented Passion, of my Attitudes Handbook. In the following parables Jesus teaches goal-oriented passion: Those who have some other-centered motives: vine-keeper, badgering friend, shepherd's search; those whose motives are primarily self-centered: coin search, pearl search; those whose motives are morally and/or legally compromised: unjust manager, treasure hunter, harassing widow. These teachings were all voted to be authentic to Jesus by the Jesus Seminar. I suggest that these stories illustrated Jesus own passion for pursuing God's way and appealed to the passion of common secular experience to win over his listeners.
I call the group's attention, also, to your book The Wisdom of Jesus Cascade (2014), especially chapter 7: Parab;es: Fictional Narratives About the Ordinary. You list about 40 narratives that fit this description and give a challlenging interpretation of each one.
Science seems to be a different domain that wouldn't address solving the problem of what an ancient parable truly meant or means. Science doesn’t generally seek what is “religiously significant” but what is “statistically significant” (or not) about phenomena. It works with operationally defined terms and under controlled conditions. Dealing with religious meaning from stories, the mantle of science doesn’t fit. It’s literature. The only “true” meaning was lost long ago in the mind of whoever created the parable; reconstruction of that is impossible. One can neither observe nor measure the “meaning” of literature objectively, thus the many different conjectures about what was mean by the “riddles.”
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Thanks for engaging on the parables. The major problem with parables is that they are the willing servants of any master and will become what any interpreter wants them to become. That is the nature of narrative. No one interpretation of a given "parable" will discourage other interpreters.
I agree with you. My point with the comparison to the scientific method was to show how porous narrative was. Narrative cannot be controlled and not even Jesus could control what he intended with the story. As soon as it was out of his mouth it was subject to the whims of each auditor. There never was a single meaning of any of the parables, and whatever Jesus "meant" that auditors should understand with the story was lost immediately upon the telling. The embarrassment of modern parables study lies in the fact that critics don't realize that parables study is not an exact science.
My approach to parables and sayings in general is to find something that a group of them seem to have in common and identify that as important to the person being quoted.
Recently I've identified two different groups in Jesus' sayings: reductions of the urge to retaliate, and a hidden positive process which doesn't include judgment or violence.
Readers might be interested in the parable definition in The Five Gospels (1993) of the Jesus Seminar: "a brief narrative or picture - a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or the common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness and strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about the precise application to tease it into active thought."
From my vantage point, the study of literature – which is what the parables are – is the study of an art form and from literature, different interpretations are commonplace and acceptable. When one proclaims to have the one true interpretation of ‘what the author meant,’ it causes me to snicker. In my English classes, there was one prof like that who only accepted one viewpoint, but the rest accepted thought-out and well-presented hypotheses. There was no embarrassment because, just like an abstract painting, a symbolic writing can be seen differently depending on many variables. If one, however, elevates the literature to “holy,” one tends to cover the parable with a stained glass window, obscuring its own hues.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
The most recent book of parable interpretation I have is Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Interpretation by Ruben Zimmerman (Fortress 2015), 480 pgs. He gives an incredibly thorough history of parable interpretation.
He seems to put a greater emphasis on "memory" than most. What we have in the scriptural record is a memory of memories so to speak. Each small part of the tradition, teaching or action, has gone through its own memory metamorphosis. Jesus' inner circle were the first memory modifiers of what was heard, then the multiple informal groups which further modified, and then more formal groups until we get to the writers of the earliest documents, and eventually the gospel writers. Jesus winds up being the end product of all those memory modifiers. So groups like the Jesus Seminar are well meaning but misdirected because there is technically no such thing as authentic material. The memory process gives us what it gives us, and that is the only Jesus we can know.
Zimmerman fits the interpretation to the parable: some may have one or two, others 5 or 6. For example: theological/Christological, Group-dynamic, ethical, encouragement, hope, sociological protest, feminist, soteriological, ascetic-martyrological, gnostic , etc.
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