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He spoke to them in parables

24 October 2014

Why is not the only question. John Court  looks at a new study

Jesus the storyteller
Stephen I. Wright
SPCK £19.99
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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 dynamics.

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 they would".

Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.


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