Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Parables of Jesus Ignored?

Sorry we've been away!
Michael's been swamped with dissertating and I've been busy writing a new chapter of my book on the Last Supper. This chapter focuses on "The Eucharistic Parables of Jesus and the Kingdom of God." As anyone who's ever tried knows, it is easy to get sucked into the vortex that is scholarly research on the kingdom of God and never get out. Thankfully, I am coming out of it.
In the midst of writing, however, I've noticed two things worth sharing.
First, I have been working through Klyne Snodgrass' new book, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). So far, so great! I must admit that when this book first came out, I didn't pay it much attention, but it has quickly become the best work on the Parables that I have on my shelf. Two particular strengths stand out. 
(1) Snodgrass does not make his exegesis of the parables contingent on any particular source-critical solution to the Synoptic Problem. He interprets the parables as they stand in the Gospels. (Although this may ruffle the feathers of some reviewers, I suspect it will give his work an enduring value that many twentieth-century studies will not share. Go re-read C. H. Dodd's book on the parables and you'll see what I mean.)
(2) Snodgrass at least attempts to interpret what each of the parables might have meant in Jesus' own historical context. This is a refreshing change from commentaries that simply assume that the parables are allegories of the life of the early Church without even trying to see how they fit into an ancient Jewish context. The results in many cases are quite compelling. 
Second, I have become startlingly aware of just how many Jesus scholars--myself included!--tend to give the parables rather short shrift in full-length books on Jesus. Think back over the last century. Where are the parables in the works of Albert Schweitzer, Ben Meyer, E. P. Sanders, or Dale Allison? Nowhere to be found. What about James Dunn's massive  Jesus Remembered? Surely in 1000 pages he devoted ample space to them? Sorry; just a few pages. Even N. T. Wright, who gives great attention to the Prodigal Son and the Wicked Tenants, ignores a host of other parables (especially those troublesome 'Second Coming' parables, which don't exactly fit Wright's view that the Second Coming will take place, but that Jesus never spoke about it.) Finally, if what he told me a few years ago is still the case, Father John Meier's fourth and fifth volumes will contain little to no treatment of the parables, because only a few of them are multiply attested.
The irony in all this is that if there is anything that modern scholarship agrees on, it is that (1) Jesus preached about the kingdom of God; and (2) he did so using parables. Yet when we turn to major books on Jesus, oftentimes, the parables play little to no role in the reconstruction. Why is this?
Of course, there are probably a host of reasons that are too complex to be summed up in a short post. But I would suggest at least one.
On the one hand, it seems to me that the parables that describe the kingdom as a process of growth that takes place over time (e.g., the Mustard Seed, the Seed Growing Secretly, the Wheat and the Tares) pose a huge problem for Albert Schweitzer's enormously influential theory that Jesus expected the end of history to coincide with his own death. Perhaps this is why they played no real role in his reconstruction of Jesus' eschatology. On the other hand, it's no coincidence that C. H. Dodd, the champion of "realized eschatology," leaves the parables that envision a delay of some sort before the final unexpected advent of the Son of Man until the end of his book on the parables of Jesus (e.g., the Faithful and Unfaithful Servants, the Waiting Slaves, the Thief at Night, the Ten Virgins). They likewise pose real problems for his overall argument, and so he readily disposes of them as creations of the early Church.
In other words, many of the parables just don't fit the eschatological schemas that undergird most Jesus research taking place these days. So what to do? Simple: ignore them, as if they didn't exist. That, at least, is what I've done in my own thought for a number of years. Or, declare them all inauthentic, by stripping them of the elements that pose problems and then reinterpreting them.
However, is this really the best way to deal with the parables? Maybe the reason the parables of the kingdom don't play a role in many books about Jesus is not because they are all inauthentic, but because most modern conceptions of Jesus' view of the kingdom is fundamentally flawed. That, at least, is what I am beginning to wonder. 


Sister Mary Agnes said...

Thank you for sharing Klyne Snodgrass' new book. I think there is tremendous value in looking at the Gospels from the context of ancient Judaism, and it is exciting to know someone is writing about the parables through this lens.

As Jesus so often said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." I wonder if the parables have been so ignored because they are harder to "hear" than the rest of the Gospels.

Brant Pitre said...

I think that's certainly part of it, Sr. Agnes.
To my mind, many (not all) of the parables have a kind of dual function: they both conceal the nature of the kingdom and reveal it at the same time--depending on the presuppositions of the listener. Nowhere else do presuppositions matter as much as in parables interpretation--hence the importance of at least trying to interpret them in light of Jesus' ancient Jewish context.

Timothy said...

Thank you for pointing out this book on the parables. It looks like a very good and interesting read. The only other main scholarly book that comes to mind is Joachim Jeremias' Parables of Jesus. Another book that I own, which I hope to get to this summer!

JohnO said...


Have you read Brad Young on the Parables? He takes them from the Jewish perspective, and shares several rabbinic parables that either share the same point, or same form (but make a different point). I'd be interested in what you think the strengths or weaknesses of Young's book, and this book, are.


Mason said...

Thanks for posting this, I've used "Stories with Intent" a good amount in the last year, and think its an excellent resource.

The parables are hard to fit into much of the direction the Historical Jesus movment has taken, but I wonder if this could be in part a reversal of your question? Maybe it is less that the parables don't fit because the reconstructions are wrong as it is that the parables don't fit because we have a history of misreading many of them?

Elaine T said...

Blogger seems to have eaten my first comment, so I'll try again. Apologies if two appear.

I've been reading Kenneth E. Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes . It's very good. He's a professor in Jerusalem, it seems, and knows the land and the culture very well. He spends a good chunk of the book on parables, analysing what the rhetorical style tells us, what their cultural context is, drawing parallels between them and modern events - like the nearby modern ruler who went alone to face down rebellious officers - related to Matthew's parable of the wicked tenants and the owner's son. He references almost none of the sources I'm used to seeing referenced, rather he uses Arabic, Syrian, Coptic, ... Middle Eastern sources. Including an interesting tidbit about the Good Samaritan being authentic Jewish tradition tied to events in 2 Kings.

After a visit to Amazon I see he also has a book that looks only at parables, the parables of LUke. Definitely worth a look if you haven't heard of him before.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed by everyone's breath and depth of understanding. I have none beyond knowing a couple of names.

This raises my question: Why do pew-potato lay Catholics scurry over to reading accessible
Protestants and ignore learned Catholic etc. scholarship as such insider mumbo-jumbo?

Unknown said...

Dr. Pitre,

This is awesome. You've put your finger on something.

(I can't wait to read your new book!)


Daniel Egan said...

OK, this has nothing to do with the article in the blog, but with your CD series on the Liturgy and the Mass. I am blown away by the beauty of the scriptures.

Do you know of a video series that would demonstrate what in the world is going on with all of these feasts? I think if I saw it, it would be easier to understand.


Anonymous said...

There is a movement, at least academically in the Evangelical tradition, to look at various renderings of Scripture, be that Protestant or Catholic. Considering the volume of literature that is in circulation, it becomes prohibitive to engage all Gospel literature unless one is an academic or has considerable amount of time devoted to such a meaning endeavor. Snodgrass' book, "Stories with Intent" has been in circulation for over a year and has been received, on my part, as a refreshing rendering of the parables of Jesus.