Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Parables of the Kingdom 1

It has been October 6 since I posted on Jesus and the kingdom.  I had been writing on "The Essential Jesus" before getting quite distracted.  I now want to resume blogging about Jesus from now till the time he returns... or until I finish or am otherwise distracted ;-)
Parables of the Kingdom
Mark has this to say about the way Jesus taught the crowds that followed him: "he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples" (4:34, NRSV).  It goes against the way most of us think about parables, but Jesus tells his disciples that his parables are meant to be something like riddles to the crowds, "in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand'" (4:12, NRSV).  These stories, that some use as an illustration of how clearly Jesus taught, sometimes had the effect of confusing, of distinguishing those who had faith from those who did not.

Now this way of looking at Jesus' parables fits especially with one of the special themes of Mark--the hiddenness of who Jesus was and the misunderstanding of his followers.  Luke does not treat Jesus' parables in this way.  The second Jesus volume in this series will explore unique features in each gospel like these.  What I take away from Mark for now is that Jesus' followers--including his disciples--may have looked back at his teaching in hindsight with a somewhat different understanding than they had when he was on earth. Looking back, his parables may have looked somewhat like riddles that they could only really understand now.

Mark tells us that these parables or riddles were the main way Jesus spoke publicly. [1]  The kinds of parables Jesus told are exactly the kinds of stories that fit an agricultural world: stories about seeds, farming, day laborers, feasts, muggers, not to mention economic and religious pressures from "outsiders."  The parables in the gospels range from very short stories to one line comparisons (called similes). [2]  Sometimes the same basic parable varies a little from gospel to gospel, a fact worth a quick moment of reflection.

It is true that Jesus likely retold the same parable on more than one occasion and that he may very well have varied them himself from time to time.  However, this fact does not likely account for all the variation among the gospels for two reasons.  First, these stories were likely told and retold from the moment Jesus shared them. [3] It seems almost certain that the gospel writers were not bothered by the sorts of minor variations that come from oral tradition. It is simply wrong to demand they follow modern expectations about how to do "investigative reporting."

A second factor is that they also felt free to edit their sources themselves in order to emphasize certain things. [4] They were oriented around the message.  They were not antiquarians whose main goal was to make sure they told it exactly how it happened or to get the quotes exactly as they were originally said.  The gospels are more like The Message than the King James Version.  Detailed comparisons of the gospels demonstrate this fact over and over again beyond any reasonable doubt.

We cannot critique them for their focus on the message rather than on precise historical reconstruction.  That is our problem and our hang-up, not theirs.  They were not in error to do so. We are in error if we insist that our standard is the only correct standard!


[1] On the parables, I want to suggest two books that I consider very helpful: Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990) and Klyde Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).  Older classics that are now less helpful include C. H. Dodd's, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961) and Joachim Jeremias' The Parables of Jesus, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972 [1958]).

[2] In an earlier day, the German scholar Adolf Jülicher put some very strange restrictions on what Jesus could or could not have really said based on the form a parable might take (Die Gleichnisreden Jesu 2 vols. [Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1888, 1899]).  Famously, he thought a parable that really went back to Jesus could only have one point and certainly could not be in the form of an allegory, where the various elements of the story had some figurative significance.  Scholars now rightly recognize that these claims, which were strangely influential for almost a century, have little basis at all.

[3] This is a key insight from the work of Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008).  A nice overview of some of the implications is in James D. G. Dunn, A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).

[4] I will show why this is almost certainly the case in the second volume of this series.

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