Jesus the storyteller
Stephen I. Wright
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT912 )
THE parables of Jesus are probably the most discussed of all the
teaching in the New Testament Gospels; in academic debate, they
have been used to furnish both positive and negative evidence in
the quest for the historical Jesus.
Each generation seems to have favoured its own classic study
published to present the meaning of the parables. Some older
readers may think first of an influential Fontana paperback,
The Parables of the Kingdom by C. H. Dodd. This
demonstrated how the parables could be used to advocate a
particular doctrinal position, in this case, that of realised
eschatology. Among many other books on the parables, most are
likely to reveal their own agenda or tendency.
So it is reasonable to ask what motivates this book as another
new study of the parables (or, to use this author's preferred term,
"stories"). Part of the answer is in narrative criticism or
narrative theology, which allow for a more inclusive and rhetorical
approach to stories, rather than the range of labels that used to
be applied to the different characteristics of parables (or their
Old Testament prototypes).
Therefore, we are to examine the stories as narratives, using
the technical terms of Reader Response criticism, such as implied
teller, setting, characters, plot, and point of view. Admittedly,
this approach could be open to the same objection as has been
levelled at almost every approach to the parables since Jülicher,
namely that the interpreter is imposing a structure on the material
examined and thus predetermining the result.
But there are distinct advantages in seeing the parables more
openly as stories, and as parts of the larger narratives of the
Evangelists. The added strength of Stephen Wright's approach
(developed from his Ph.D. thesis, published as The Voice of
Jesus (Paternoster Press, 2000)), is the broader sense of
balance created by examining the material within a series of
distinct contexts of study.
First, we are offered perspectives on scholarly studies of the
parables from Reimarus or Wrede to the present day. This leads to
an introduction of the present opportunities offered by fresh views
on oral communication, social setting, and literary/theological
The second stage concerns the distinctive context provided for
the stories in each of the Synoptic Gospels, with an assessment of
their respective theological significance. Here, St John's Gospel
should not be forgotten, even though it strikingly contains none of
these stories; but Synoptic images recur within the tradition of
reflection about Jesus, and in the self-revelatory sayings of Jesus
(such as the Good Shepherd).
In the third stage, we are encouraged to re-enter the experience
of orality underlying the Gospels, and to hear individual stories
from a position alongside the first listeners, noting the settings
of the stories in Galilee, or on the journey, or in Jerusalem. The
telling of these stories reveals "the standpoint of one who
observed contemporary Jewish life in its richness, its potential
and its urgent demands, and [who], with idiosyncratic, humorous,
deep-sighted penetration, narrated some of its possibilities, then
left his hearers and their successors to enter his narratives, if
Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical
Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.