Doubting an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels: The Parables

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by Neil Godfrey

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

(This post extends well beyond Henaut, however.)


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.

If the parables of Jesus are about the plain and everyday processes of life then they can hardly be memorable enough to be passed on through generations:

Mnemonic patterning has left its imprint on two Markan parables, and to a lesser degree on a third one. ‘The parable of the Sower narrates a sharp contrast between triple failure and triple success of the seed. The parable of the Mustard Seed contrasts the smallest of seeds with the largest of plants. Contrasts render these stories orally impressionable, for the display of opposites appeals to the imagination and holds the attention as few rhetorical devices do. (p. 59)

A second feature is the way the parables reverse common expectations:

Parabolic extravagance promotes intensification and exaggeration, risks paradox and hyperbole, and strains or transgresses the hearers’ sense of realism. A parable is thus a story that, while it “pretends to be plain and trivial,” [citing Ricoeur] . . . Ricoeur’s concept of extravagance further illuminates the mnemonic process of parabolic stories. Over and above mnemonic patterning, it is the element of excess and irregularity that eases remembering. The trivial facilitates identification, but oddness makes these stories memorable. For what one remembers is not the pane in the window, but the crack in the pane. (p. 61)

English: A man in heavy robes animatedly telli...
English: A man in heavy robes animatedly telling a story to an eager crowd. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thirdly, there is the “unfinished” quality, the “open-endedness” of the parables that contextualizes them as oral performances:

Owing to their metaphorical quality parables are hermeneutically unfinished products. They encourage but withhold meaning, suggest but conceal understanding. This status of hermeneutical open-endedness renders parables peculiarly dependent on oral, social contextuality.

A parable is not meant to be frozen into textuality, but rather to engage hearers “to complete the process built up within the story.” [citing Tolbert] Speaker and hearers are thus wholly indispensable to a successful delivery of parabolic speech. Because parabolic language is not self-explanatory but intent on transcending what it says literally, it needs all the help it can get to carry out this delicate transaction. The sounding of words, the gestures of the speaker, facial contact between speaker and hearers, as well as an environment shared by speaker and hearers alike are all crucial aids in conveying meaning without saying it. (pp. 61-62)

Kelber concludes:

Two conclusions must be drawn. First, insofar as parabolic language is open-ended, and negotiable in social contexts and by interaction of speaker with hearers, it is a quintessential oral form of speech. Of all synoptic speech forms, the parable is the least capable of functioning as an autonomous linguistic object. Contrary to modem aesthetics of literature, parable is first and foremost a speech act delivered by a speaker to hearers.

Second, parabolic speech not only lacks the original form but also the original meaning. No single telling of a parable is quite like any other, and different social contexts suggest multiple hearings. . . .  In other words, the hearing of parables varies with each performance, because hearers and social contexts, the “cocreators” of parabolic speech [i.e. the interpreters], are inevitably variables. 

To sum up, the parables as metaphors invite polyvalent hearings that are negotiated in oral, social contexts. (p. 62)

After such a barrage it was no wonder that I for a long time did indeed think of the parables as being inherited by the evangelists or gospel authors from oral traditions.

But since then I have read Thomas Brodie (Oral Tradition 1; Oral Tradition 2; Oral Tradition 3; Oral Tradition 4), Drury and Goulder and much more widely on ancient literary techniques. And now we are going through Barry Henaut’s thesis specifically demonstrating the literary — as opposed to oral — character of the parables of Jesus in Mark 4.

Henaut’s response

Henaut responds to Kelber’s arguments for orality:

The argument is this: features A, B and C are proper to the oral medium; texts 1, 2 and 3 display characteristics of A, B and C; hence texts 1, 2 and 3 were at one point oral.

At this point we recall the the oral qualities of ancient literature. It was to be read aloud. (See the previous posts in this series.)

Kelber is correct to emphasize the considerable role that audience and context play in the oral delivery of such an hermeneutically flexible entity as the parable. Tone of voice, gestures, pace and a host of other live delivery techniques affect the parable’s ‘meaning’ in any given performance. All these factors are lost to us in the Gospel text.

Yet Kelber has overstated the case, I believe, in his assertion that no one form of a parable can be held as more original than another. This is true only of the oral medium, but it certainly is not true of parables incorporated in written Gospels. . . . .

The clearly allegorical features, for example, in Matthew’s version of the Marriage Feast as compared with Luke’s Great Banquet fit well in the evangelist’s textual redactional concerns. These elements are not equally authentic or original details of the oral parabolic story; they are post-resurrectional and secondary alterations. They reflect an historical setting completely out of keeping with that of the historical Jesus. (pp. 65-66)

 Revisiting Drury

Matthew’s Marriage Feast

Luke’s Great Banquet

22 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” 


15 When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.16 Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’

20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.

22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.


In the light of Henaut’s criticism of Kelber’s argument that the parables — that the parables concern matters alien to Jesus’ day and that they are literary creations — we read in the gospels were passed on by oral tradition from Jesus I can’t resist turning at this point to Drury’s comments on these two parables:

banquetNot only does [Matthew’s Great Banquet] come straight after the [Parable of the] vineyard with no more separation than ‘and again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying …’; it also takes up its themes and phrases.

  • Jeremias noticed that ‘he sent his servants’ here in verse 3 is the identical phrase which was used in 21.34.
  • Likewise ‘again he sent other servants’ is an exact repetition of a phrase in 21.36.
  • The killing of the servants here in 22.6 repeats the same atrocity in 21.35.
  • The king’s retaliatory slaughter in 22.7 – ‘destroyed those murderers’ – is an actualization of the inevitable future of 21.41, ‘he will horribly destroy those horrible men’.
  • Jeremias further notices that the killing of the servants bringing the invitations to the banquet is ‘motiveless’. That is to put it very politely indeed. But the observation is telling, as is the suggestion that the missing motive is in fact given in the previous parable where the messengers bring an unwelcome demand: a dramatic instance of the importance of reading parables in situ, for without having read the vineyard parable the marriage feast is not intelligible.

The two belong together inextricably and where Jeremias is tentatively perceptive of this, Goulder is very bold: ‘The Marriage Feast parable is nothing but a second version of the Wicked Husbandmen in terms of the Esther story, with suitable Christian glosses, and in the Matthean manner’ (p. 415).

What needs to be brought out more clearly than it is either by Jeremias or by Goulder is that the two parables are linked by a theme: the historical crisis whereby Judaism was condemned and Christianity authorized, the fundamental Christian historical myth. That this should come up yet again is a reminder of the importance it had for Christians obsessively busy with establishing their own identity and authority, explaining how they stood first in God’s favour although they came last in his plan, how authority has passed from its traditional holders to those who responded to Jesus as God’s Son.

It is important to notice that in both these parables the crisis is not doomsday but the fall of Jerusalem. The vineyard is handed over to other tenants who will produce its fruit: an historical community of righteousness is envisaged, not heaven. Those in the parable of the marriage feast who refuse their invitations and kill the messengers fall victims to royal anger by being destroyed and having ‘their city’ (a remarkable intrusion into the story, motivated by nothing but historical allegory) burned: after which other invitations are issued and the feast goes on, including the disciplining of the undressed guest.

This crisis within history, followed by a new historical phase, is an important modification of straightforward eschatology which was prompted by the fall of Jerusalem, has its primary parabolic expression in Mark’s vineyard, and gets more through expression in Luke’s Gospel and parables. On the literary level, the recurrence of the historical theme of the doom of Judaism and the treatment of it by allegory shows that this is a parable in the proper biblical sense which it had for Ezekiel, performing its proper function of making events in history transparent to the divine plan behind them. 

Much of the allegorical symbolism is second-hand. It usually is, and is best that way because people will understand its signals.

  • Jesus as bridegroom and his disciples as wedding guests goes back to Mark 2.19||Matthew 9.15.
  • The king is God.
  • What the burning of the city meant in terms of Jewish history could not be mistaken by anyone after AD 70.
  • The guests who refuse their invitations are the Jews. Those who accept are Christians, ‘bad and good’ as Matthew knew them in his imperfect church.
  • Likewise Wisdom had laid a banquet and invited the simple or ‘foolish’ (LXX) to eat it and become wise (Proverbs 9.1-6).
  • In the background of the parable there is also the story of Esther, particularly the climactic banquet at the end of the tale where the unworthy Haman was unmasked and condemned. . . . . 

Luke will further refine Matthew’s version by clearer allegorical reference to the gentile mission of the Church which, for him, takes the place in the Christian historical scheme of Matthew’s preoccupation with Church discipline. (pp. 97-100 of The Parables in the Gospels)

Then on Luke’s version:

parable-banquet-smThe [Parable of the] banquet . . . is a version of Matthew’s marriage feast with big differences.

Its allegorical significance is diminished by Luke’s substitution of a man giving a banquet, for Matthew’s king (God) giving a marriage feast for his son (Christ).

But allegory is increased by the second and third rounds of invitations: to the poor of the ‘city’ and then to people in ‘highways and hedges’, signifying, as many commentators agree, the Church’s missions to disregarded Jews and to Gentiles.

The setting of the parable also makes clear that here, more definitely than in the preceding instruction about places at table, something beyond etiquette is signified: 

When one of those who sat at table with him heard this, he said to him, ‘Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ But he said to him …

Then the parable makes clear that the blessed state enthusiastically referred to is conditional on responding positively to the invitation. Eternal happiness has historical conditions.

On the other hand Luke omits, as well as Matthew’s king’s son’s marriage, the demolition of the city of the unresponsive at Matthew 22.7 with its clear reference to the fall of Jerusalem. This could well be because, for all its historical appeal, it is too fantastic a feature of the parable for one who likes his parables to be realistic. It is certainly not because Luke does not care about the catastrophe. 

He also omits the ejection and killing of the improperly dressed guest; for the same probable reason. The result is a more unified and likely story. But it is not obviously, as Creed believes (The Gospel According to St Luke [Macmillan 1930] p. 191) a simpler one. If Matthew’s bloodthirsty interludes go, Luke has a more complex and vivid set of three excuses with scriptural backing in Deuteronomy 20. He also has the three deliberately allegorical rounds of invitations. That there are fewer jolts along the line of Luke’s story than Matthew’s is more demonstrably due to his greater narrative skill than to primitive simplicity.

‘Luke does not allegorize’, says Creed (ibid.), but then commenting on verse 21 allows the significance that ‘the Pharisees and the religious leaders having rejected their opportunity, they are replaced by the publicans and sinners’. Jeremias is similarly inconsistent. Goulder, too, having asserted that ‘Luke shows a marked aversion from allegory’ (p. 59), says that ‘Luke’s secondariness is made certain by the added allegory of the gentile mission’ (p. 418). Such confusion can be avoided by simply dropping the a priori assumption that Luke is unallegorical. His text shows that he can handle both the simply realistic and the allegorical. This parable in comparison with Matthew’s version shows him combining both well. He cuts allegorical ornaments in the interest of the narrative line – and adds them elsewhere. It is not that Luke eschews allegory but that he has other ways of telling parables as well: realistic ways which can happily include and bear allegorical significance. Here in the banquet parable his redistribution of the allegorical weight is done to the template of his overall historical pattern.

Matthew’s improperly dressed guest and his fate brought the curtain down on doomsday as the decisive crisis. Luke’s insertion of the gentile mission, like his more detailed excuses, shifts the crisis back from the end and into history itself as the decisive arena. (pp. 123-124)


See also other posts on John Drury’s argument about the literary origin of the parables:tag:drury-parable-in-the-gospels/

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Doubting an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels: The Parables”

  1. I wonder whether the historical Jesus (if he existed) actually taught in intriguing parables or pithy one liners? It’s interesting Paul doesn’t seem to be aware of any intriguing parables or pithy one-liners by Jesus. Maybe the parables and one liners were just legendary material about Jesus (that he was brilliant) that accumulated around Jesus after he died (like the miracles). Judaism of antiquity was a storytelling culture, so it would make sense that a hero like Jesus would be portrayed as a master of parables and pithy one-liners.

    Jewish culture had their education centered on the stories of the Torah, from creation through the Exodus. When the prophet Nathan needed to challenge and condemn King David’s actions, he did it with a story (2 Sam 12). And when Jewish people gathered in their annual rituals to confess their faith in God, they did not formulate abstract creeds and doctrines. They told stories:

    A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, who went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand … and brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut 26.5–9)

    Rather than abstract ideas about God, we find a story, or at least a summary of a story, about what God has done.

    Given the pervasiveness of storytelling in Greco-Roman culture generally and in Jewish culture specifically, it is not surprising that Jesus is portrayed as a storyteller and that our understanding of him rests largely on stories told about him. These stories about Jesus circulated in various forms and activities, but most especially in early proclamations about Jesus, generally called sermons.

    We should not think of these sermons as short lectures, however, but as lengthy story-telling events. The earliest reference we have to the shape and content of a sermon about Jesus comes from Acts. And the first sermon in Acts is what Peter is reported to have said on the day of Pentecost:

    You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up… (Acts 2.22–24)

    Again we have the synopsis of a story or, more accurately, of a series of stories.

    So, given that the Jewish culture of that time prized storytelling, it would not be odd that legendary (or mythical if Jesus didn’t exist) storytelling material (such as the brilliant parables and the one liners) could have accumulated around Jesus even though he didn’t teach that way in real life.

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