Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus

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?

It's widely 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.

[1] 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.

[2] Our 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 mean.

[3] Differences 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.

Cultural distance 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 have.

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:

  • Nathan's 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 in-crowd.

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 thought [1].

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.

Augustine of 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 so on.

The allegorical interpretation of Jesus' parables probably began when Christianity moved from the Jewish world into the Graeco-Roman culture. As Dodd points out:

The probability 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.

Most scholars agree today on the main characteristics of the parables in the Synoptic Gospels (John's Gospel has none - it is primarily a theological exposition):

  • 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, 

Adolf Julicher, 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 gospel [2].

Nevertheless, 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 ..." [3].

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? 

One early 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 [3]. 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 Pauline letters. 

Moreover, just 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!
[1] The Parables of the Kingdom, 1935
[2] Re-Imagine the World, B B Scott, 2001
[3] Parable, K R Snodgrass in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 1992