A crisis of understanding in relation to the New Testament has arrived
on the doorstep of Christians. Having crept stealthily up the garden path
for many decades it is finally knocking at the door.
The crisis is this:
Careful, intelligent and dedicated Christians can no longer easily go to the
Bible for support of their chosen way of life. Even the parables of the
Gospels are no longer readily accessible without a depth of learning for
which most have neither time nor inclination.
To put it plainly, the
Gospels no longer communicate with us as they once did. The voice of Jesus
of Nazareth, once so powerful that it transformed the civilised world, has
steadily become more distorted over the ages. Only those who are able to
take the gospels' text more or less literally are relatively unaffected.
In what sense have the gospels lost their punch?
accepted today that the process of communicating is far from
straightforward. Many experiments have shown that there can be a huge
losses of meaning in even the simplest of conversations between people.
 To supply meaning to a communication, a listener or reader must revert
to experience - and everyone's experience is unique to him or her. The cry,
"Mind the water!" might send me into a panic because I once nearly drowned.
But you will merely look for the leak in the roof. The experience of a
majority is now so significantly different from the world of the Bible that
meaning tends to be severely compromised.
individual perceptions of reality are different. We project our needs and
presuppositions onto incoming sensory data in very different ways. This
is, for example, the basis of the widely-used Thematic Apperception Test
(TAT) and the Rorschach Inkblot Test. In both, the subject is presented
with a content-free message. Each interprets the stimulus entirely from
their own interpretation of reality. In the absence of clear meaning in
Bible texts, readers inevitably supply their own meanings, regardless of
what the texts - according to the best findings of experts - actually
of time and culture make mutual understanding difficult and sometimes
impossible. Anyone who lives in a multicultural society will experience
gaps and differences in meaning almost daily. To take an extreme example,
the nod or shake of the head will mean one thing to a native of Botswana
and the opposite to a native of Europe. Similarly, the culture of
first-century Palestine is almost utterly foreign to huge numbers of
urbanised people today.
isn't an insignificant problem. Jesus spoke mainly to illiterate peasants.
Their background would have been largely agricultural. That background can
sometimes convey little to a contemporary city dweller of the 21st century
anywhere in the world. He or she may never have seen or handled a farm
animal, for example, may never have made a long journey on foot and may
never have sown any sort of seed. What would have hit home to Jesus'
hearers may be very far from meaningful to vast numbers of people today.
But even more potentially serious is the gradual penetration into the
consciousness of ordinary people that the gospels don't necessarily
communicate "what Jesus really said". The Jesus of history - by which I
mean the man who really lived just as we do - has turned out to be less
available from the New Testament than was once thought. We know more, for
example, about the Greek Philosopher Plato than we do about Jesus - and
the former lived centuries earlier than the latter.
Of all material in the gospels, parables and aphorisms appear to have
survived best the perilous journey from the oral to the written forms.
Even that most sceptical and rigorous body of scholars, the Jesus Seminar,
has confirmed the historicity of twenty-three of the thirty-five parables
usually attributed to Jesus. Of course, even then it's not possible to say
that they record the words of Jesus verbatim. But they are the most
accurate rendition of "what Jesus really said" that we have, or will ever
The parable is
not a form of communication unique to Jesus. It occurs in both Greek and
Semitic literature. There are some 2 000 Rabbinic parables, many similar
to those of the Gospels. Some think this proves that Jesus merely adapted
what was already Hebrew tradition. But the Rabbinic parables are almost
all later than the first century. They were written down in final form
only around 200.
One can class
parables with what is generally known as "wisdom literature". They are
related to aphorisms and proverbs. There are seven clear examples of
parable in the Old Testament, though none is as clearly a parable as those
in the gospels:
parable about the poor man and his lamb (2 Samuel 12.1-10).
- The woman from
Tekoa's parable about the two sons (2 Samuel 14.5-20).
- An "acted
parable" concerning King Ahab (1 Kings 20.35-40).
- The parable of
the vineyard (Isaiah 5.1-7).
- The parable of
the eagles (Ezekiel 17.2-10).
- The parable of
the lioness and her cubs ((Ezekiel 19.2-9).
- The parable of
the vine in the vineyard (Ezekiel 19.10-14).
Parables are not
abstract. Abstraction requires a mutually-agreed jargon to communicate
meaning. Thus theologians, physicists and cricketers all have their
"codes" which can be properly understood only by those who are part of the
That the parables
as we have them today are historical is not to say, however, that they
don't lose meaning when a person living in the 21st century reads them.
The parable of
the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.30) illustrates. The central idea of this
parable can't be grasped unless one knows about ritual uncleanness in
Judaism of the first century. If the priest had touched the injured man,
he would have had to be ritually cleansed. To us this may seem a small
matter. To him it would have been a tiresome and possibly expensive
setback. Which of us might not have done as he did?
The parable of
the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21.33, to take another example, loses its
impact if one doesn't fully appreciate how Roman occupation of Palestine
had dispossessed people of their land. Many owner-farmers became tenants
working in poverty for absentee landlords. One should also recognise that
current Roman inheritance laws allowed tenants to take possession of land
in some circumstances.
Only when this
sort of background to the parables is known to a modern reader, can the
original meaning of what Jesus said become apparent. And even then, we can
be sure that our comprehension is fragile and incomplete.
C H Dodd, a
famous New Testament scholar who seventy or so years ago attempted to
penetrate the veil of time which obscures the parables, described them as
... the natural
expression of a mind that sees truth in concrete pictures rather than
conceives it in abstractions ... At its simplest the parable is a
metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the
hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in
sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active
That is, parables
are stories with a hidden significance. They use extended metaphors drawn
from common experience which are impressive because of their vividness or
strangeness. A metaphor in this context is a simile which contains
elements such as "like the river of time". Time is not a river, yet has
similar characteristics. Its use here is metaphorical.
But a parable is
neither an allegory nor a moral tale in its concealed meaning. Christian
preachers through most of history have treated them as allegory, and still
do. Characters and events have been taken to stand for meanings
deliberately concealed so as to stimulate interest - rather like a verbal
puzzle or a riddle.
The "truth" of a
parable thus becomes a matter of interpretation rather than reflection.
Interpretation runs the risk of "discovering" meanings which derive from
elements of Christian theology rather than those Jesus intended. In
allegory the interpreter's meaning takes pride of place.
Hippo's interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan is one
example. The injured man is Adam; the robbers are Satanic figures; the
clothes they strip from the man represent his immortality; the Samaritan
is Jesus; the inn is the Church; the innkeeper is the apostle Paul - and
interpretation of Jesus' parables probably began when Christianity moved
from the Jewish world into the Graeco-Roman culture. As Dodd points out:
is that the parables could have been taken for allegorical
mystifications only in a non-Jewish environment ... In the Hellenistic
world ... the use of myths, allegorically interpreted, as vehicles of
esoteric doctrine was widespread, and something of the kind would be
looked for from Christian teachers.
agree today on the main characteristics of the parables in the Synoptic
Gospels (John's Gospel has none - it is primarily a theological
They refer mainly to the kingdom or empire of God - or, in
present-day parlance, the way we get things done in the world, the way
things work. By inference this means "the way God has created things".
They contrast conventional with radical ways of living. They
invite listeners to look at the roots of their lives and not just
reassess the peripherals. Jesus isn't addressing money matters in the
Parable of the Lost Treasure, for example.
They are taken from everyday life, but are not necessarily
realistic. Tenant farmers really existed in Jesus time. Perhaps some of
them were among his audiences. But they would not have been likely to
behave as did those in the parable of the Wicked Tenants.
Parables point out that conventional ways are not necessarily the
ways of God. That God or a Jew should think well of a Samaritan was, to
say the least, an unusual line to take in Palestine of the first
century. If it had been told in the Occupied Territories of today's
Palestine the parable might have been about "The Good Israeli" - with an
equally unpalatable message.
Reality is described in terms of tensions between opposing
elements in the parable. Some seed is spoiled and some grows well on
good soil; the tenants are wicked, the son is good; one man uses capital
productively, another seeks security first.
The form is concrete not abstract. Parables don't present
theories about the world. They use the real world of human experience.
Which of us hasn't met the Pharisee of Luke 18.10-14?
Parables have the effect of shocking or stimulating listeners
into applying situations to themselves. They achieve this through
elements of hyperbole or pseudo-realism. Twenty two parables start with
a question such as "Which of you ...?"
We know that the
Gospel authors often used the same material (either written or oral, we
don't know for certain which) for differing purposes. That is, they were
more interested in theological meaning than in history as we know it
today. The parables, like other Gospel material, are not immune from
editorial manipulation. Bernard Scott remarks,
the founder of modern parable interpretation, demonstrated the often ill
and awkward fit of the parable to its gospel content. Thus it becomes
clear that most parables existed prior to their incorporation into a
when placed in the context of "what Jesus really said", the parables turn
out to be an important vehicle for Jesus' teaching. One commentator
remarks that the parables "... were the teaching method [Jesus]
chose most frequently ..."
In this respect,
however, it may be wrong to suppose that Jesus used parables more than
other kinds of communication (they comprise about a third of Jesus
sayings). It may seem that way only because the other forms have not
survived or have survived in attenuated form.
Might it not be
that Jesus used the parable form as only one amongst other forms, such as
allegory and rhetorical morality tale? And were these forms lost, while
the more durable parable form survived the forty or so years before the
first Gospel was written? We have no way of knowing for sure.
On the other
hand, it may be that Jesus used parables rather than other forms because
he guessed that they were more likely to survive oral transmission than
any other form of verbal communication.
But if he was
concerned for the survival of his sayings why did he not take steps to
ensure that what he said was written down? If he had done that the chances
of the material surviving would have been greatly increased. If he did
write his thoughts down, why have the manuscripts not survived?
tradition (Luke 4.16) was that Jesus could read. If so, we can suppose
that he could also write. But the evidence for his literacy is weak and
many think it insufficient
Illiteracy would not, however, have been an insuperable problem. Jesus
could easily have dictated his thoughts to a scribe. Paul's letters were
almost certainly dictated and have survived for two millennia in good
shape. Early Christians would probably have been able to copy and pass on
Jesus writings just as they preserved and passed on the Gospels and the
because no abstract teaching of Jesus has survived doesn't mean that he
didn't use that form when needed. But if he did, we should at least
question why his more philosophical reflections were not preserved. After
all, long abstract works by Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle in
particular, have survived a much longer transmission period than the
Gospels. There is nothing simple or earthy about Plato's Republic
or Aristotle's Ethics!
Parables of the Kingdom, 1935
 Re-Imagine the World, B B Scott, 2001
 Parable, K R Snodgrass in Dictionary of Jesus and the