Tag Archives: The Parables in the Gospels

The Prodigal Son: Cultural Reception History and the New Testament

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 »

Doubting an Oral Tradition behind the Gospels: The Parables

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 »

Jesus Did Not Speak in Parables — the Evidence

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 »