…Jesus exorcisms were not merely isolated incidents of compassion for individuals oppressed by malevolent forces.  They were direct confrontations of the power and the presence of the Kingdom of God.  The success of Jesus’ assaults indicated that the head of that evil kingdom had already been bound, making possible the spoiling of his domain. David George Reese, “Demons” in ABD 2:141.

As with his healings, Jesus commands the demons to leave without invoking an authority.  It was common for exorcists of the first century to use powerful names in order to force demons out In Acts 19:13-16 the names of both Jesus and Paul were invoked as “power names” to cast out demons.) In Testament of Solomon 11, Solomon interrogates a demon who appears “like a stately lion. The demons identifies himself as “The Lion-Shaped Demon, an Arab by descent” who “sneaks in and watches over all who are lying ill with a disease and I make it impossible for man to recover from his taint.” In addition, this demon has legions of demons at this command at the time of the setting sun.  When Solomon asks how he can be cast out of a person, the demons replies “By the name of the one who at one time submitted to suffer many things (at the hands) of men, whose name is Emmanouel, but now he has bound us and will come to torture us (by driving us) into the water at the cliff. As he moves about, he is conjured up by means of three letters.” (Translation by D. C. Duling, in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:972–973.)

JesusCastingOut_satanJesus does not make any elaborate preparations for an exorcism. In contemporary literature, the exorcist often did a number of rituals.  For example, in the book of Tobit the angel Raphael instructs Tobias on how to cast out his bride’s demon:

Tobit 8:1-3  When they had finished eating, they escorted Tobias in to her. 2 As he went he remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the live ashes of incense and put the heart and liver of the fish upon them and made a smoke. 3 And when the demon smelled the odor he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him.

Jesus does not even pray to expel demons. In the DSS  Genesis Apocryphon, Abram prays to cast out a demon. In this expansion on Gen 12:10:20, Abram prays for “all the cities of Egypt” afflicted with plague after he lied about Sarai The King of Egypt asks Abram to “pray for me and for my household so that this evil spirit will be banished from us.” Abram prays and lays his hands on the king, and the “plague was removed from him; the evil [spirit] was banished [from him] and he recovered” (1QapGen, column 20).

Is there any connection between Second Temple Period messianic expectations and the exorcisms? Usually scholars cite Isaiah 61, especially the “prisoners being set free.” But Graham Twelftree expresses doubt that these passages have been read correctly since there is also the idea of Satan being active until the end of the age in the Gospels.  There is a two-stage defeat of Satan being described in the gospels, the first mission of Messiah render the power of Satan useless, it is in his second coming that he will judge him and consign him to the Lake of Fire. He uses texts like Isaiah 24:22 (shut into prison then after many days released.)

The Feeding of the 5000 is one of only a few stories appearing in all four Gospels. Jesus miraculously feeds a large crowd and intentionally evokes several images from the Hebrew Bible in order to reveal something about himself. The authors of the Gospels include the story as part of their presentation of who Jesus is.

Fis and LoavesFirst, is introduced in a way that recalls Israel’s history. “Sheep without a shepherd” reflects an image used for Israel in the Hebrew Bible (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Ezek 34:5). The miracle itself is not unlike Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44, who fed a crowd of 100, some would draw an analogy to the manna in the wilderness in the book of numbers (Moses fed the people in a wilderness place as well both with manna and quail.)

When the disciples point out to Jesus that the place they are in will not be able to meet the physical needs of the crowd, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people. They assume that Jesus is speaking about physically feeding them, and respond that they could not possibly buy the food required to feed a crowd of that size.  Did Jesus mean literal food here?  Probably, but on a more subtle level he is setting up the miracle. Jesus has them recline on the “green grass” then provides them with their food.  The way of telling the event highlights the people as sheep who have found their true shepherd, Jesus makes them lie down in a green pasture and provides them with their daily needs.

This is an important event, important enough to be included in all four Gospels.  What makes it so significant? This event is an anticipation of the Messianic Banquet. There are two events in Hebrew Bible this miracle may evoke.  In both cases the food is literal, and the provision is from God.  God provides food for his people. In Exodus 16 God provides for the people of Israel with manna and quail. Elisha feeds 120 men in 2 Kings 4:42-44.

At least some Jews expected the return of manna at the beginning of the messianic age. In The Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch (2 Baruch), the great chaos monsters Behemoth and Leviathan will be slaughtered and fed to those who have survived to until the time the Anointed one appears. Then…

“the earth will also yield fruits ten thousandfold. And on one vine will be a thousand branches, and one branch will produce a thousand clusters, and one cluster will produce a thousand grapes, and one grape will produce a cor of wine. And those who are hungry will enjoy themselves and they will, moreover, see marvels every day. 7* For winds will go out in front of me every morning to bring the fragrance of aromatic fruits and clouds at the end of the day to distill the dew of health. And it will happen at that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time.” (Translation by A. F. J. Klijn, in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:630–631.)

If there was indeed an expectation among some Jews that the long exile would soon be over and a true shepherd would appear to lead Israel as Moses did in the wilderness, then it makes sense manna would return in the eschatological age since manna was the food provided by God for his people in the Wilderness, the place where God first made Israel his people. If Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah expected by the prophets, it follows that he would intentionally evoke the expectations of people living in Galilee in the first century. 2 Baruch is written sixty years after Jesus, but it was constructed on the foundation of the same Hebrew Bible Jesus and his contemporaries used.

Is Jesus intentionally alluding to stories from the Hebrew Bible in order to call attention to his own role in the presence of the kingdom? Is this an “already” aspect of the kingdom? If this is the case, then what is this miraculous feeding saying about Jesus?

Mark Strauss says, Jesus’ miracles were not “showy demonstrations of power or even proof of his identity. They are manifestations of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, a foretaste and preview of the restoration of creation promised by God” (Four Portraits, 466). I agree Jesus did not do miracles simply to draw a crowd or entertain people. While Strauss is correct the miracles are indications the Kingdom of God is present in the ministry of Jesus, in most cases Jesus did a miracle in order to reveal something about himself as the Messiah. This is slightly different than “proof of identity” since none are strictly speaking proof Jesus is the Messiah or his ministry is an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. They are hints toward the truth for those who “have eyes to see” (Matt 13:14-15).

Healing_paralyzed_man The healing in Mark 2 is an example of a miracle as self-revelation. Jesus heals a crippled man, but the reason he does so is to reveal something about who he is to both the outsiders (Pharisees and scribes) but also to the insiders (his disciples who already believe) and the larger crowd who are in-between these two extremes. The challenge of this miracle is: “Who is this man, Jesus?”

Jesus returns to Capernaum and attracts a very large crowd at Peter’s home. A paralytic is brought to Jesus by some friends to be healed. Since they cannot enter the home because of the crowd, the men go onto the roof and break a hole large enough to lower the man on a pallet into room where Jesus was. The roof of a typical home at the time of Jesus was a sun dried mud thatch, so the very “to dig” is quite appropriate.

There was a relationship between sins and birth defects in the minds of the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus may be attacking this misconception of sin by forgiving the sin without healing the man. In the ancient world, an extreme illness or birth defects was considered to be the result of sin, either on the part of the sick person or on the part of the person’s parents or grandparents. (The disciples ask about a blind man in John 9:1-2.) Not only do all the people observing this believe this to be true, but the man himself probably believed that his sickness was the result of sin.

Forgiveness of sin and healing typically go together in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Period Judaism. In 2 Chron 7:14, God forgives the sins of Israel and “heals their land.” Similarly, Psalm 103:3 connects forgiveness with the healing of disease, and in Isaiah 19:22 the Lord responds to Israel, hears their pleas and heals the nation.

It is most startling to notice that Jesus claims to forgive sin by his own authority. This is the action of Jesus that elicits the strong reaction from the religious leaders that are observing Jesus’ actions. He did not say, for example, “in the name of God your sins are forgiven,” but rather simply, “your sins are forgiven.” Jesus himself is forgiving the sins as if he were the one offended by them.

Jesus says to the teachers of the law: Which is easier, to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ or ‘rise and walk’?” It is just as easy to say one as the other. Jesus point is that saying is the easy part, doing is the difficult part. Jesus says that he will not only forgive the man’s sins, but he will heal him, so that the teachers of the Law might know that he has the authority to do those things. There is a significant bit of theology packed into this statement. Authority is power, ability, and permission to do something.

Jesus healed in order to signal the beginning of the messianic age and to prove to the Jewish leadership that he was the Messiah. That Jesus calls himself the Son of Man in this section important since it is likely an allusion to Daniel 7, where “someone like a son of man” is given authority to rule. In a sense, Jesus is drawing together three lines of evidence for his divinity. He forgives sin, he is about to heal a lame man, and he claims to be the Messianic Son of Man.

If we were to examine all of the healing miracles in the Gospels, we might find they all are some sort of self-revelation by Jesus. Other than general statements that Jesus healed many people, are there any healing stories that do not reveal something about Jesus’ nature and/or the nature of the Kingdom of God?

What other healing-miracles in the Gospels reveal something about who Jesus is?

 

The so-called criterion of authenticity can applied to the miracle stories.  For example, all strata of the tradition indicate that Jesus did miracles, including Mark, Q, M/L, and John.  This ought to satisfy the criterion of Multiple Attestation since miracles appear in all of the various forms suggested by form criticism.  Given the methodology of even the Jesus Seminar, one can confidently conclude that Jesus had the reputation as a miracle worker, that he claimed to do miracles, healings, etc.

Healing a Blind ManThe criterion of plausibility argues that an event is more likely historical if it is a plausible event.  If this is applied to the miracles, many will dismiss miracles because they do not seem plausible.   What is or is not plausible is highly subjective, and very often implausible events actually occur.  To me, it is implausible that anyone claiming to be a messiah in the Second Temple Period would not do miracles.  While the modern worldview would dismiss miracles as implausible, the Second Temple Period would require them if Jesus was to be taken seriously as the messiah!

This is the sort of thing that Anthony Le Donne suggests in his The Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 2011).  There are many memories of Jesus acting as a healer or exorcist, even raising the dead. These memories are in a wide range sources, and there is variation among these sources.  Le Donne refers to this as memory refraction – people are the same events with slight variations, but the main contours of the event are the same.  These variations actually increase the likelihood that a given event is historical (130).  In the case of Jesus’ miracles, not only are there variations on the same event, but many miracles around given themes (healing, exorcism  etc).

The criterion of embarrassment is more helpful.  If a deed seems like it might have been an embarrassment to the growing theology of Jesus, and they passed it along anyway, it has a greater claim to validity.  The healing of the woman with the flow of blood, for example, has Jesus healing the woman without really consciously thinking about it, the power just “went out of him” and he did not know who it was that touched him.

In addition, Jesus was known to have been a man of prayer, yet there are no stories in which Jesus prays in connection to a healing.  If the early church were going to create or enhance the prayers of Jesus (which they very well may have), it is remarkable that they did not create prayers to be added to the miracles of Jesus. This means that Jesus did not heal in the same way Jewish holy men healed, through prayer and ritual.

In short, it is historically plausible that Jesus was known as a miracle worker during his own lifetime, even if the modern thinker dismisses the possibility of miracles.  Do these sorts of “criteria” for authenticity work for miracles in Jesus’ ministry.

Or is this a case of “preaching to the choir”?  For example, what is the difference between my argument here and saying, “lots of people think Santa brings the presents at Christmas so it must be true”?

[The] modern man acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are comprehensible within the framework of the rational order of the universe. He does not acknowledge miracles because they do not fit into his lawful order. When a strange or marvelous accident occurs, he does not rest until he has found a rational cause (Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, 37-8).

There is a strong tendency in modern Christianity to dismiss the miracles of Jesus as myth-making. Usually there is an assumption miracles are impossible, so that a reader of the Gospels must explain the miracles of Jesus in a natural way (psychosomatic healings, for example) or to assume the early church created miracles in order to build up the authority of Jesus.

Like most who have studied the miracles of Jesus, Graham Twelftree traces line of thinking to David Hume. Hume argued that for an event to be believed as true it must have sufficient witnesses. Since a miracle is something that is outside of the laws of nature, the witness to a miracle must be especially strong. In fact, there is no witness to a miracle that Hume would accept as reliable, therefore there are no accurate reports of miracles, therefore miracles never happen.

Miracle PuzzlersIn a scientific age, events once thought to be miraculous can be explained. Honestly, I am extremely skeptical when someone tells me they have experienced something supernatural (a ghost, for example). My modernist mind pretty much goes into MythBuster mode and I look for the logical explanation behind the experience. There is simply no way I am going to believe a ghost appeared, no matter who was telling me the story. Arthur C. Clarke once said that technology in a primitive culture is indistinguishable from magic. Mark Twain makes a similar point in A Connecticut Yankee. To most modern minds, a miracle is just science or technology which has yet to be discovered in a particular culture.

Two observations are appropriate here. First, my modern skepticism has no business trying to explain the miracles of Jesus. In the Second Temple Period, miracles happened. In fact, people who expected as messianic age believed it would be accompanied by miracles, including healing and resurrection. If Jesus had appeared in Galilee and announced he was the messiah did not do any miracles, he would have been dismissed as a fraud. In fact, the conflict Jesus has with the Pharisees is not whether he did miracles, but the source of his power to do miracles.

Second, anyone who dismisses Jesus’ miracles is imposing their modern worldview on a pre-modern worldview. We are expecting Jesus to act like a proper Evangelical Christian (or Lutheran or Pentecostal, etc.) The fact is, Jesus does not fit modern theological categories and it is a serious mistake to make him out to be exactly what we expected him to be.

How does this affect the way a modern reader understands the miracle stories in the Gospels?

After looking at a few example methods in the last few posts, I want to suggest four points that need to be part of a method for reading parables properly.

First, Parables are “extended metaphors” in which an abstract concept is made more clear through the telling of a story. A proper understanding of metaphor should not lead either to wild allegorizing nor a complete rejection of allegory as a way to convey truth. Elements of the parable may have a so-called “allegorical” meaning, but only insofar as the original audience could have understood. For example, that a king or master in a parable is intended to “stand for” God is a common enough stock feature in the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic parallels to accept this as the original intent of the parable. In fact, the imagery is so pervasive, it is hard to believe that anyone hearing the parables for the first time could have missed “king = God” as a metaphorical element. In order to develop this point, one would need to survey the rabbinic literature in order to develop a feel for these stock images. This would require a study to identify which elements of a given parable are likely to be “current metaphors” which would have had rhetorical impact on the original listeners.

Matt 18_23Second, Parables were given in a specific context in the ministry of Jesus which can be recovered with some certainty.  When a historical context is know it should be used to illuminate the parable. For example, the parable of the Two Debtors is found is a specific context in Luke 7:36-28 which is essential to the meaning of the brief parable. The “specific context” of a parable, however, may be generically stated and still be helpful for interpreting the parable. It is likely that the parables of the kingdom in Mark 4 / Matthew 13 were placed together via a tradition picked up by the authors of the gospels. But within the context of the overall ministry of Jesus, these parables were all spoken in Galilee, after some level of conflict with the Pharisees, and prior to the confession of Peter. Likewise, several parables of judgment are associated with Jesus’ teaching in the temple in his final week. This general Sitz im Leben Jesu seems give the parable enough context for proper interpretation. Parables therefore address a situation within the life and ministry of Jesus.

Third, Jesus taught in parables in order to communicate something to his original audience. While the single-point method of Jülicher avoids wild allegorizing, interpreters who attempt to create a single-point tend to boil the parable down to the most generic and bland message possible. Most of these “lessons” could be described as variations on the golden rule. For example, the Good Samaritan does teach us to love our neighbors, but this is something a Jewish audience would have already believed and practiced. However, if we really try to interpret the parable in the context of Jesus ministry the parable takes on a somewhat more radical dimension which has application to his present ministry at that moment in time. Interpreting the parable within the ministry of Jesus will aid our understanding of the point Jesus was making in the first place.

Fourth, since the stories were meant to communicate something to the original audience, we ought to look for the primary application of the parable to the ministry of Jesus.  The best example of this is again the parable of The Two Debtors is found is a specific context in Luke 7:36-28. Within Jesus current ministry people are receiving forgiveness and responding in radical ways. The Parable of the Lost Sheep/Coin/Son refer to the same theme of forgiveness in the ministry of Jesus at that very moment. The parable of the Sower is a case where the meaning of the parable is better rooted in the events of Jesus’ ministry. The gist of the story is that a farmer went out to sow seed and some of this seed fell on unprepared soil while other seed fell on prepared soil. In the literary context of Mark and Matthew, the parable is a commentary on the first movement of Jesus’ ministry. He has come preaching the Kingdom of God. Some have accepted this message and followed Jesus while others have rejected the preaching for a variety of reasons. Each of the parables of the kingdom can be read as applying to what was happening in the Jesus-movement at the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry.

Several “parables of judgment” occur in Jesus’ last teaching in the temple and are rather pointed condemnations of the existing power structure in Jerusalem and can again be interpreted as referring to Jesus’ ministry up to that moment in history. There is no need to think that the Parable of the Vineyard has been created by Christians after the resurrection, Jesus is describing what has already happened throughout his ministry. The parable of the Wedding Banquet can also be read as describing Jesus’ rejection by those who thought they were invited to the messianic feast and their replacement by those who had no chance of being invited.

While the allegorical method was largely ignored in the early twentieth century, it never was completely abandoned. Some of the literary methods popular in the late 1960s were not far from allegory. More recently, Craig Blomberg developed a method for the interpretation of parables which offers a strictly limited use of allegory. Blomberg observes that some parables have intentional allegorical elements identified by Jesus himself. The birds in the parable of the Sower represent Satan according to Matt 13:18-20. This limited kind of allegory is similar to rabbinic parables.

Interpreting the ParablesBy way of method, Blomberg argues the interpreter should only attempt to find a “point” for each character of the parable, normally three characters, sometimes two with an implied third. This point or lesson is stated in propositional language and is understood to be the intention of Jesus when he original gave the parable.

Blomberg is not advocating the kind of polyvalence represented by Crossan but he does seem to open the way for a metaphor to function as a more or less fluid literary device.  The meaning of the metaphor is, however, to be found within the text and is a part of authorial intent rather than an open-ended reader-response hermeneutic.  In a very real way, Blomberg is advocating limited multiple meanings, specifically only those meanings which were intended by Jesus in the first telling of the parable in a real historical context.

The Prodigal Son is an excellent paradigm of the most common pattern of three point parables (the so-called monarchic pattern).  The title of the parable is misleading since if places the focus on the son that leaves.  The parable might very well have been titled “The Forgiving Father” or “The Hardhearted Brother” based on the characters in the story.  If a parable can only make one point, then the parable of the Prodigal son must be interpreted in such a fashion so as to downplay two of the three major characters.  Is the story about repentance?   Is the story about forgiveness? Is the story about acceptance?

It appears that all three of these themes are present.  The interpreter following Jülicher would seek to formulate a single theme that somehow was broad enough to cover all three of the themes above.  Blomberg argues that this will water down the message, making it so general that it is of very little value.    By allowing one application for each main character the interpreter is free to work all three themes.

Similarly, the three main points of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin resemble those of the three points of the Prodigal Son.  In each of the three parables something is lost that is of value.  The lost item is considered valuable to the “master” figure in the parable.  In the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, the “master” figure seeks out the lost item, in the Lost Son the father is seen waiting for the son upon his return.  The results of finding the lost item is an occasion for great rejoicing, although in the Lost Son the rejoicing is tempered by the poor reaction of the older brother

Blomberg represents an evangelical response to the literary studies of Funk and Crossan in that he treats the parables as capable of more than one meaning.  He establishes controls for what elements of a parable may be used for application and which should not be “allegorized” in order to refrain from the wild allegorizing of church history.  By limiting his “points” to one per character, Blomberg methodologically limits himself when approaching other elements of a  story.  Is the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 and 25 in some way to be related to the kingdom of God or the consummation of the age?  Perhaps, but Blomberg’s method seems to preclude the possibility since only the characters can be used for the development of a “point.”

In the end, Blomberg has created a Jülicher-like method by restricting meaning to three points and three points alone. Does this “one point per character” work for all the parables? How can the method described here help restrain the excess of most allegorical methods?

Bibliography: Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1990); Interpreting the Parables (Second Edition; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2012).

 

Beale, Gregory K., Daniel J. Brendsel, and William A. Ross. An Interpretive Lexicon of New Testament Greek: Analysis of Prepositions, Adverbs, Particles, Relative Pronouns, and Conjunctions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2014. 96 p. Pb. $15.99. Link to Zondervan.

This short book combines a lexical analysis and exegetical syntax for the always troublesome “little words”: prepositions, adverbs, particles, relative pronouns and conjunctions. It joins Murray Harris’s Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament (Zondervan, 2012) and Dan Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Zondervan, 1996) as a specialized tool for Greek exegesis focusing on logical relationships between propositions (p. 6).

Interpretive LexiconIn the introduction to the Interpretive Lexicon, the authors explain the need for a handy list of words that used in the Greek New Testament to indicate relationships between clauses. The book uses a series of abbreviations for the types of logical relationships possible. For example, Alt = Alternative, C-E = Cause and Effect, C?-E = Condition, T = Temporal, +/- = Negative-Positive, etc. The authors provide brief descriptions of these abbreviations and offer a short introduction on how to read the entries in the Lexicon.

The main purpose of the books is to help interpreters tease out the often subtle connections between phrases and clauses in order to shed light on the text. Because the book is a brief handbook, a student can quickly identify the types of logical relationships possible for any given preposition when working on a discourse analysis of a pericope.

The lexicon itself is only 69 pages. It includes mores prepositions, adverbs and particles, but it is not exhaustive. Each entry begins by providing the page numbers in either the second edition of Bauer (1979, BAGD) or the third edition (2000, BDAG). Entries also include page references to either Harris or Wallace. Each entry is subdivided into usage (preposition with the dative, adverb, etc.) and the entry is “tagged” with an abbreviation indicating the type of logical connection the word usually indicates. The word ἐκεῖ, for example, is an “adverb of place” in BDAG, the Interpretive Lexicon identifies it has an adverb, either L (location) or NLR (no logical relationship). Other entries are more complex, ἐν includes six logical relationships as well as references to Wallace and Harris, plus separate entries for ἐν τῷ + and infinitive and ἐν ᾧ.

There are other guides that are similar to this Lexicon, such Steven Runge’s Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2010) or Harris’s text used throughout this Interpretive Lexicon. Runge is far more detailed, which is to be expected in a monograph that runs over 400 pages. This Interpretive Lexicon of New Testament Greek is therefore a valuable exegetical aid for the student reading the Greek New Testament. Considering the book low price of the book, it is an affordable addition to any student’s Greek reading aides. It will in a valuable handbook for those working on a discourse analysis of a text.

NB: Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

 

In a previous post, I suggested the Parables “fit” into the culture of first century Galilee. One way to read parables properly is to study the material culture of the world of Jesus in order to highlight the rhetorical impact of the imagery he used. But how does one study a two thousand year old culture?

BedouinTentKenneth Bailey has written a number of books on parables. He argues Jesus’s parables are representations of the culture of the Mediterranean world of the first century. Bailey’s method is unique because he reads the parables through the eyes of modern Middle Eastern readers with whom he has lived for many years. Bailey thinks the culture of the Mediterranean world has not changed that much since the first century and many of the unusual elements of the parables can be explained by paying attention to the eastern culture from which the stories first arose. This “oriental exegesis” attempts to read the parables as Oriental churchman have throughout the centuries (Poet and Peasant, 29). In order to do this, one first must know the ancient literature and be able to assess it properly.

The most controversial point of Bailey’s method is his insistence that the culture of present Middle Eastern culture is archaic and accurately reflects the culture of the parables. Life changes slowly in the Middle East and it is intentionally traditional. Therefore some cultural phenomenon observed today may in fact go back to the first century.

This observation is not new, although the sorts of memoirs which were published in the late nineteenth century as travelers began to visit the Middle East are of varying value. What Bailey seeks to contribute is a method and control for the study of present culture as a window for understanding the first century. Books are of less value to Bailey than personal interviews with people who have spent at least twenty years in the Middle East collecting observations orally, in Arabic. Bailey has found 25 dialogue partners who satisfy this requirement and are also literate enough to understand the point of the questions he put to them concerning the parables.

MDG : Seed : Plowing a field and sowing seeds in EthiopiaA second methodological consideration is what Bailey calls “theological clusters.” Bailey believes that Jülicher’s belief about the relationship between allegory and parable has been proven false, although the idea that a parable makes a single point persists. Bailey argues that parables are intended to evoke a decision, but the response to a parable is informed by a “theological cluster,” each element of which may be examined separately (Poet and Peasant, 41). It is the point at which all of the theological themes come together that a single response is evoked. A single response is different than a single meaning, the meaning may vary from listener to listener, but there is still only one response.

Bailey illustrates this with the Parable of the Sower. The response is “hear the word of the kingdom and bear fruit.” But there are at least four theological points made by the parable which contribute to this response: The kingdom is like a seed growing slowly; God’s grace includes sowing the seed where the ground is unprepared; fruit bearing is an essential part of the kingdom; there is the hope and assurance of a harvest in spite of difficulties. All of these theological motifs (and perhaps others) converge to illicit the response to the parable intended by Jesus.

Bailey has been rightly critiqued because he draws very little from rabbinic parallels. Bailey brackets this evidence since it is extremely hard to date evidence from post-Mishnah Judaism, but relies on evidence from modern Mediterranean culture. If the general lines of the culture have survived since the first century in practice, then those cultural elements one finds in the literature like the Talmud may very well be an accurate reflection of first century culture.

Charles Hedrick offers a number of criticisms of Bailey’s methodology which ultimately question the value of the study (Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fiction, 45-46). Hedrick’s most important criticism is the chronological distance of Bailey’s sources. Is it reasonable to think that the Mediterranean culture Bailey experienced in the twentieth century is an accurate representation of the culture of the first century?

In addition, Hedrick points out that Bailey ignores the Islamization of Palestine. For the last 1400 years Islam has ruled Palestine in some way, but when Jesus lived in Israel it was ruled by the Romans through a Jewish bureaucracy. It is a stretch of the imagination to think that Islamic Bedouin of the modern era have the same sorts of practices that the Jewish peasants of Galilee did. Yet anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Middle East knows that Bedouin culture is extremely conservative and has only recently has tradition been eroded by the modern world (cell phones and blue jeans, mostly!)

Despite these criticisms, I find Bailey’s books stimulating and insightful. He has a slightly different perspective that most writers on parables and in almost every case I find his comments helpful for teaching and preaching the parables.

Are the criticism of Bailey’s method fair? If there is a problem, perhaps what seems very “preachable” is not accurate – but is the use of contemporary cultural observations valid?

 

Kenneth Bailey Bibliography:

Poet & Peasant; and, through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Combined ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983.

Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2005.

The Cross & the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants.  Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2005.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarstiy, 2008.

Robert Funk is an example of a literary approach to the parables. He adapted Dodd’s work along literary lines, using the parable of the Great Supper as a test case for his theory of parables as metaphor. The imagery of a parable is drawn from common life yet intends to engage the hearer by its vividness or strangeness. But Funk differed with Dodd by taking parables as extended metaphors. Similes simply illustrate a point that is known. Metaphors create meaning by juxtaposing two somewhat incompatible objects in order to impact the imagination. Metaphors are the “superimposition of the everyday with the ultimate,” and the parable “cracks the shroud of everydayness lying over mundane reality” (161-2).

Funk and the ParablesMetaphorical language is inherently creative because it is incomplete until a listener hears the text and discovers the meaning in some way. The act of listening to a parable, therefore, creates meaning out of the text. Since meaning is grounded in the act of listening, each listener may discover a unique meaning as they encounter the text, as Fuchs says, “the parable interprets the reader” (151). Picking up on Dodd’s thought that the parables are left open ended to tease the hearer to make their own application, Funk argues that the whole point of the parable is to provide the opportunity for the hearer to make an application of the parable.

Metaphors may live on beyond the text, changing and “constantly refracting in the changing light of historical situation” (141-2). Here Funk is reflecting literary theory on metaphors which describe how metaphors function within a language and applying this thinking to the parables as extended metaphors. A given metaphor may function differently in a new historical or cultural context, making new meanings in each new circumstance. Parables are not intended to transmit some proposition, but rather to open “onto an unfinished world because that world is in course of conception” (“Good Samaritan as Metaphor,” Semeia 2 (1974): 75).

Funk agrees with Dodd’s principle that the application of parables was left some way imprecise and vague in order to allow the hearer to make their own application, but things Dodd did not take this far enough. For Funk, it is impossible ever, once and for all, to say what a given parable means. Parables simply do not transmit ideas and cannot be placed into a historical context as Dodd and Jeremias did. To put them back into any “real life situation,” either that of Jesus or the Church, is pointless and does not allow the parables to function as parables. In fact, the tradition which has placed the parables in the gospels is described as a “deformation” of what Jesus original spoke.

Funk said, “Strictly speaking, the parable does not say something else . . . the parable does not teach something, but it gestures toward” (196).  The church “deforms” the parables by applying them to new situations – but for Funk and many post-modern readers of parables, this is not a bad thing at all.

I will readily admit that most people read the parables this way, applying them in new and creative ways, using them to speak to new situations in church and culture. This is certainly the way metaphors work – but is this a fair method for reading the parables with clarity?  I am not sure that it is helpful to say that parables do not express a point until they are read by an individual.  Does a combination of “writer and reader” meeting in a text create meaning?   Does the author’s intention count for anything?

Bibliography: Robert Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God: The Problem of Language in the New Testament and Contemporary Theology. New York: Harper, 1966.

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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