Category Archives: Parables


2016-05-12

The Prodigal Son: Cultural Reception History and the New Testament

by Tim Widowfield
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 166...

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662–1669 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neil’s post from last year — “Why Does Jesus Never Do Anything Wrong?” — got me thinking about a story told by David Livermore in his course, Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. He tells of a New Testament scholar and minister who performed a small experiment in which he asked people of different cultures to tell him the parable of the Prodigal Son. Afterward, he compared the points of story to what people remembered, noting what they tended to remember as well as what they left out.

His results were somewhat surprising. It turns out that our cultural background, social context, and personal history can have a large impact on what we consider important. Without realizing it, our frame of reference profoundly distorts how we understand and recall information.

How did the Prodigal Son end up in a pigpen?

Although Livermore and others have used this anecdote (you can find many references on the web), I found it rather difficult to track down the original scholarship. Sadly, the book in which the paper first appeared, Literary Encounters with the Reign of God, is far too expensive for me; however, you can see bits of it in the Google Books preview. Fortunately, the author, Mark Allen Powell, recapitulates much of his paper in the book, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew.

Powell, a narrative critic, frequently uses the term polyvalence, which for him has a specific meaning:

Simply put, polyvalence refers to the capacity—or, perhaps, the inevitable tendency— for texts to mean different things to different people. Literary critics differ drastically in their evaluation of polyvalence (i.e., friend or foe?), but virtually all literary critics now recognize the reality of this phenomenon: texts do mean different things to different people and at least some of the interpretive differences that have been examined (e.g., gender-biased interpretations) appear to follow fairly predictable patterns. (Powell, 2007, p. 12)

I would add that the situation might even be worse for those of us who were steeped in a particular tradition since childhood. Not only have I been hearing New Testament stories for over five decades, but I’ve been told what they mean, again and again. I even know them by titles that drive the reader or hearer to understand them from an orthodox point of view. For example, I knew the parable of the Prodigal Son long before I knew what the word “prodigal” even meant.

As I said earlier, Powell asked a number students to pair off, then read, and finally describe the parable to their partners. He then noted the details they emphasized or omitted. (The exercise comes from Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie’s Mark as Story.) Oddly enough, they all left out the part about the famine that struck right when the young man’s money ran out. Powell notes: read more »


2014-10-16

The Origin of the Good Samaritan Parable and Other Lucan Favourites

by Neil Godfrey

David Teniers the Younger (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

John Drury, DD, in The Parables of the Gospels, explains why it is very doubtful that Jesus ever spoke the parable of the Good Samaritan. The evidence points towards the real author of this parable being the same person who was responsible for the work of Luke-Acts. For convenience we’ll call him as Luke.

The parables of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew are strongly allegorical. In the Gospel of Luke their allegorical character takes a back seat. The parables in this third gospel are found to be more “realistic stories which are rich in homely detail and characterization.” (Drury, p. 111)

It is not likely that different traditions, one recalling allegorical parables spoken by Jesus and the other more realistic stories of his, went their own distinct ways so that Matthew heard one sort and Luke the other. I think it’s more reasonable to suggest that we see the creative hands of the authors at work.

The All Important Mid-Turning Point

Another indicator that Luke’s creative imagination was responsible for the parables unique to his gospel is their structure.

L [i.e. unique to Luke] parables have a characteristic shape of which the most striking feature is that the crisis happens in the middle, not, as so often in Matthew’s parables, at the end. (Drury, p. 112)

It is this “middle” part of the story, or the mid-point in time, that is the turning point. Not that this observation is original with Drury. It is a familiar pattern to students of Luke’s parables ever since Conzelmann’s The Theology of Saint Luke.

This pattern is in fact a characteristic of all of Luke’s work, so much so that Drury can say

The pattern in the L parables is deeply embedded in Luke’s mind. It is the pattern of the whole of his history. Jesus in his Gospel is not history’s end but its turning point, setting it on a new course in which Judaism drops away and the Christian Church goes triumphantly forward. (p. 113)

So the story of Jesus begins in a narrative rich in allusions to the patriarchal stories of Genesis and Judges, proceeds to portray Jesus as the new Elijah (contrast Mark and Matthew who gave this role to John the Baptist), and follows up Jesus’ mission with the growth of the church as seen in his parables and in Acts. Jesus is the mid-point or turning point of the grand narrative.

This carries over to Luke’s eschatology. In Luke we read less of the end of the age, period, than we do of the end of a person’s life. But that end of the individual’s life is not the end of the story. Consequences of the life led follow. The individual’s end is the turning or mid-point. In the parable of the rich fool, for example, the crisis comes with his unexpected death and this is followed by the punishment he must receive in his afterlife. For Luke the “end” is moved from the cosmic to the individual level.

It’s the way Luke thinks and the way he designs narratives. He didn’t just happen to inherit a subset of parables from Jesus that coincidentally matched his own literary-narrative style and no-one else’s. The parables of Jesus in Luke’s gospel are Luke’s own creations.

If only by symmetry of pattern, the L parables fit perfectly into Luke’s perception of the historical significance of Jesus’ biography. 

By contrast Matthew was “very ready to end his parables with the end of time.”

The All Important Individuals

read more »


2014-09-21

Doubting an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels: The Parables

by Neil Godfrey

All posts in this series are archived at Henaut: Oral Tradition and the Gospels

(This post extends well beyond Henaut, however.)

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I have recently posted insights by John Drury and Michael Goulder into the literary character of the parables in the gospels. (The vocabulary and themes are part and parcel of the larger canvass and thematic structure of each gospel.) Drury has further shown that they are not, as widely assumed, to be based on everyday commonplace events but are in fact bizarre and unnatural scenarios. (Sowers did not scatter seed so wastefully as per the parable of the sower, for example.)

kelberoralwrittenShortly before Drury’s book was published (1985) a work by Werner Kelber appeared, Oral and Written Gospel (1983). I recall devouring Kelber’s books, pencil-marking them, thinking about them, applying them to other works I read, when I first began to study study what scholarship had to say about Gospel origins. His Oral and Written Gospel remains one of the most underlined and scribbled-in books on my shelf. Back then Kelber led me to ask so many questions of other works I was reading; now I find myself asking more critical questions of Kelber himself.

Arguments for the parables originating in oral performance

Here is what he wrote about the significance of the parables as evidence for oral tradition lying behind the sayings of Jesus in the gospels.

The oral propriety of parabolic stories requires little argument. “A parable is an urgent endeavour on the part of the speaker towards the listener.” [citing Carlston] Speaking is the ordinary mode of parabolic discourse, and writing in parables seems almost out of place. (p. 57, my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

There are three distinctive features about parables that Kelber identifies as clear signs that they originated as oral performances. read more »


2014-09-02

Jesus Did Not Speak in Parables — the Evidence

by Neil Godfrey

fivegospelsHenautThe parables of Jesus are among many people’s favourite treasures in the Bible and the focus of much erudite and popular research outputs by some of the most renowned scholars in the field. In The Five Gospels Robert Funk, Roy Hoover and the Jesus Seminar confidently point to the triadic structure (groups of threes) as well as the repetitions and catchwords — all characteristics of oral sayings — in the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4) to assert that this parable most likely originated as the very words of Jesus himself. The same year (1993) saw Barry Henaut’s publication, Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4, that comprehensively demolished the claim that triadic structures, repetitions and mnemonic catchwords are unique to oral communications and demonstrated that the same features were also characteristic of ancient literary compositions that were written to be read aloud to audiences.

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This post follows on from What Is a Parable? My original intent was to post the outline of Michael Goulder’s reasons for concluding that the parables we know so well from the gospels were the literary creations of the evangelist authors of those gospels and did not derive from anything Jesus said.

ParablesBefore I had a chance to continue with that plan one most helpful reader alerted me to John Drury’s book The Parables in the Gospels: History and Allegory.

I’ll keep this post’s main focus on the Gospel of Mark, widely thought to be the earliest gospel written. Matthew, Luke and (a significant number of scholars believe) John knew and adapted Mark’s material to serve their own theological and literary purposes.

I know we remember all this but. . .

From the earlier What Is a Parable? post we saw that the Greek word in the Bible that we translate as “parable” was derived from the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint/LXX) and embraced what in Hebrew was a word (mashal) that embraced a wide range of figurative expressions. It could be a pithy proverbial saying, an extended allegorical tale, a prophetic oracle, a riddle, a song of derision or a byword. It was generally a saying with a hidden meaning that needed to be deciphered. It generally professed to explain God’s will behind some historical condition. It was always an integral part of its surrounding narrative.

That last mentioned trait alone is a significant reason for believing such parables were the creations of the authors of the works in which they appeared. read more »


2014-08-17

What Is a Parable?

by Neil Godfrey
John Drury

John Drury

‘Parable’ is an English version of the Greek word parabolē. According to Aristotle (Rhetoric, 2.20) parables were used by orators in inductive or indirect proof as a generally recognized means of demonstration and illustration. They are, according to him, of two kinds: true events taken from history, and the more easily invented example such as the fable or the parables used by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. Characteristically, he had a decided preference for the first of these as against the second with its allegorical form. It was a preference which was to appeal strongly and fatefully to modern critics such as Jülicher and Dodd who had had a classical education.

But the education of the New Testament writers was different. The Bible, not Aristotle, was their teacher and they possessed it in a Greek translation, the Septuagint. It was full of parables, and the Septuagint translation was usually careful to translate the Hebrew mashal by the Greek parabolē in spite of the extraordinary range of mashal. Since that range is so wide and contains a number of things which would not be called parables nowadays, it is worth setting it out with examples both for reference and as an historical corrective. (Drury, Parables in the Gospels, p. 8)

So what are sorts of things does Drury set out as instances of “mashal” or “parables” in the Old Testament? This is something worth knowing if the New Testament gospels do in fact mean any sort of OT-type “mashal” when they use the word “parable”. We see here in the literary world of the authors of the gospels what parables looked like and the purposes to which they were put. Drury identifies six types of parables:

  • Sayings
  • Figurative sayings or metaphors
  • Enigmatic allegories
  • Songs of derision
  • Bywords
  • Prophetic oracles

read more »