Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Why are there no Parables in the Fourth Gospel?

A reader of this blog from Papillion, Nebraska, asked the following via email:
Dear. Dr. Barber,
I was going over a list of parables when I notice that there are none in John. (I'm not a scholar!). I then read your article on the authorship of John. Do you think that the lack of parables says anything about the authorship? Do you know why there are no parables in John? I tried to do a search on it and couldn't find anything.
This is a good question.

Ultimately, I have to say: I'm not sure. However, I do have some assorted thoughts on the matter that might combine together to equal some sort of answer. This is sort of "half-baked", but let me just offer a couple of ideas.

Abbreviated Parables in John

It is true that the Gospel of John does not report Jesus telling narrative parables like those in the Synoptic Gospels (e.g., the famous parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son found in Luke's Gospel).  However, there are what we might call "abbreviated allegories" in John that are somewhat similar to parables. In fact, in his commentary on the Gospel of John Rudolf Bultmann pointed to true parables (Bildworte) in the Fourth Gospel. Likewise, the great Johannine scholar, C.H. Dodd, once scolded himself for having spoken "in too absolute terms" about the absence of parabolic material in John (More New Testament Essays [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968], 30, n. 1).

John in fact tells us that Jesus taught through "figures of speech" or "metaphors" (paroimiai: John 10:6; John 16:25; John 6:29). Dodd highlighted six examples of abbreviated or "hidden" parables strewn throughout the Gospel (John 12:24; John 16:21; John 11:9-10; John 8:35; John 10:1-5; John 3:29).

Dewey has translated the "figures of speech" as "proverbs". In fact, Dewey has located 34 of them in the Fourth Gospel (John 1:46; John 2:10; John 3:8; John 3:20; John 3:27; John 3:29; John 3:30; John 4:35; John 4:37; John 4:44; etc.).

Concerns of the Audience 

Other scholars, e.g., Craig Blomberg (The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel: Issues & Commentary   [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001], 49-50), have suggested that John did not include parables because he was writing to a Greco-Roman audience that may have simply been confused by the imagery of Jesus' parables.

Whether looking at the particular audience of the Fourth Gospel is the key to solving the problem (I am not so sure), it is true that even in the Synoptic Gospels the parables are hard to interpret even when Jesus explains them! The early Church fathers would often offer varied interpretation of their meaning and scholars continue to debate their symbolism even today. Perhaps John just thought it best to be as clear as possible about what Jesus taught.

The Parables and Jewish Opposition

Finally, there is one option worth considering that often goes overlooked. Here I am just speculating. . . but isn't that one of the perks of blogging?

In the Gospel of Matthew we find that Jesus only told full-length narrative parables after he was explicitly condemned by the Jewish leadership. In Matthew 11-12 this opposition crystalizes. This gives way to the parables of Matthew 13. Notably, there are no full-length narratives parables before this.

This makes sense. Parables were typically used to speak truth to power. Think of the story of the prophet Nathan confronting David after his sin with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband. Nathan approaches David by speaking a parable (2 Samuel 12:1-7). By speaking through parables--by making your point in a "hidden" way--prophets understood that they could more effectively criticize corrupt leadership.

Jesus was, among other thing, a prophetic figure. Is Matthew's placement of parables later in Jesus' ministry simply literary device? Or does it involve a historical memory, i.e., that Jesus began to speak in narrative parables after the opposition to him had been cemented?

John and the Early Part of Jesus' Ministry

Note one more thing. If you read the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus' ministry seems to last about one year (e.g., he goes up to Jerusalem for Passover only once, at the end of his ministry). If you read John, Jesus' ministry seems to last more than one year (e.g., Passover occurs at least three times: John 2:13; John 6:4; John 11:55).

Could it be that the Synoptics focus their attention on the latter part of Jesus' ministry, while John pays more attention to events from an earlier period? Indeed, the material in the earlier chapters of John does appear to dwell on the beginning of Jesus' ministry (e.g., Jesus' first miracle at Cana).


I realize I haven't solved all the problems and that some of my "solutions" raise further questions (e.g., exactly how long is Jesus' ministry in John?). But I think some of them help explain the absence of full-length narrative parables in John. I certainly do not think that it is responsible to deny that (1) Jesus told parables or that (2) the author of the Fourth Gospel was too far removed from the eye-witnesses of Jesus' ministry to remember that in fact he had spoke in parables. In fact, as I've explained in a previous post, I think the author might well be John.

Needless to say, I'll have to think about this some more.

I'd love to get your thoughts in the comment box.


Elmtree said...

I was always taught that Jesus' public ministry was three years. Am I mistaken? And is it John's three passovers that cause some to say 'three years'? Or was it just some
"nun story" from my vaguely remembered Catholic school days?

theekevy said...

While this doesn't exactly address the topic of your post, lately I've been thinking about the absence of parables in Acts. I wonder if the lack of parables is related to the eschatological perspective of the writings; John and Acts have a more "realized eschatology" than the other gospels (this isn't to say their eschatology is only realized; Jesus still has yet to return!).

Anonymous said...

Paul and John seem to be devoid of the leaven of parables, which indicates to me they were being more straight forward and making an effort to stay away from Jewish fables and the leaven of Herod.

Dave Z said...

It seems that you may be correct about the parables being told to the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Though some seemed to be directed specifically to his disciples. I recently wrote about the same idea here (Ambiguity in Design). It seems that Jesus' parables are understood differently based on the state of the heart when listening. The self-righteous hears one thing. The repentant sinner understands it differently.