Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Answers to some questions from Paul Moldovan about the parables of Jesus

I was delighted to answer a few questions from Paul Moldovan about the parables of Jesus. Paul is an Masters of Divinity student at George Fox University (and a student of Dr. Nijay Gupta).

Here is the link to the entry in which I answer all seven questions. 

My answer to the first question is below:

David Gowler on Understanding the Parables

I had the honor of asking David Gowler (the Pierce Chair of Religion and the director of the Pierce Program of Religion at Oxford College of Emory University) a few questions regarding the parables and how the modern reader can better understand them.

What can we in the modern world compare a parable to, if anything?
David: What is parabolic, in many ways, exists in the eyes and/or ears of the beholder. Perhaps if I place the parable into its ancient context, that will help clarify things.

The Greek term for parable (parabolĂȘ) typically is used to translate the Hebrew term mashal (plural: meshalim). Mashal is extremely difficult to define, but a central aspect of its meaning is “to represent” or “to be like,” and it refers to a wide range of literary forms that utilize figurative language. The Hebrew Bible tends to use mashal for whatever is “proverb-like,” with hidden or allusive truth, which means that responses of readers or hearers are essential to the process of creating understanding (assuming they understand the analogy being made). Yet the meshalim of the Hebrew Bible do not offer any definitive examples of parables like the ones Jesus created. The Hebrew Bible does contain some fables, such as Jotham’s mashal of the Trees (Judges 9:7–15), Jehoash’s mashal of the Thistle (2 Kings 14:9), and Ezekiel’s mashal of the Vine and the Eagles (Ezekiel 17:3–10), but no Hebrew Bible mashal serves as a direct parallel to the New Testament’s use of parable as a short narrative. Isaiah’s mashal of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1–6) might qualify as an allegorizing parable, but of all the meshalim in the Hebrew Bible, the closest we come to a narrative parable is Nathan’s mashal of the Poor Man’s Only Lamb (2 Samuel 12:1–4).

Parables play a prominent role in later Jewish literature, such as in rabbinic traditions, where the rabbis used them for preaching, interpreting Scripture, and providing guidance for daily lives. I like David Stern’s definition of the rabbinic parable as “an allusive narrative told for an ulterior purpose”—usually to praise or disparage a specific situation of the speaker/author and hearer/reader. It draws a series of parallels between the story recounted in the narrative and the “actual situation” to which the parable is directed. These parallels, however, are not drawn explicitly; the audience is left to derive them for themselves, which, again, can be confusing if the analogy/parallel is not clear enough. So the parable is neither a simple tale with a transparent lesson nor an opaque story with a secret message; it is a narrative that actively elicits from its audience the interpretation and application of its message. The social context, then, clarifies the parable by giving the audience the information they need to understand it, and, if the readers do not understand the social context, the parable can also be hard to understand (see the answer to question #3 below).

In Greco-Roman traditions, the parable is similar if not the same as the ancient fable, and rhetorical treatises can help explain what they are and how they work. The mention of Greek fables usually conjures up visions of stories with talking animals that illustrate a simple moral. Yet, in antiquity, the term fable denoted several kinds of brief narratives, but the one that serves as the best example is Aelius Theon’s definition of the fable as “a fictitious story picturing a truth.” The realistic portrayals in Aesop’s fables, for example, are similar to the parables of Jesus. Mary Ann Beavis points out that both are brief narratives that shed light on aspects of human experience and behavior, that usually involve ordinary human characters and situations—like quarreling siblings who are corrected by a loving father—and that, despite their realism, often contain an element of extravagance or surprise. Most fables, like the parables of Jesus, illustrate religious and ethical themes but do not have miraculous interventions (only two of Jesus’ parables have direct supernatural interventions: Luke 12:13–21; 16:19–31). Some fables also include a surprising or ironic element of reversal that is reminiscent of Jesus’ parables.
So, I hope that historical context explains the variety and flexibility of what could be considered a parable today.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Another Review of The Parables after Jesus

Many thanks to Ben Brown, a former student and now colleague at Oxford/Emory, who found the following review of The Parables after Jesus online and sent me the link.

The review is by Phillip J. Long and was posted on his blog, "Reading Acts." The review may be found here, so I will copy/paste only the first and last paragraphs:

Gowler, David B. The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 320 pp.; Pb.; $29.99. Link to Baker   
David Gowler’s earlier book on the parables, What Are They Saying about the Parables? (Paulist Press, 2000) was a handy guide to the various approaches to the parables in scholarship. This new volume from Baker Academic extends that project by studying how scholars, pastors, preachers, philosophers and artists have understood Jesus’s parables. This book is a reception history, although it ranges broadly in both chronology and disciplines.

. . . .

Conclusion. This book is a joy to read, a book I would recommend one reads the book slowly. In many cases the examples are obscure and it will reward the reader to look up a few names in an encyclopedia or dictionary in order to place the section in a proper historical context. Gowler demonstrates an amazing range of scholarship, equally at home in patristics as in the Reformation, in both medieval and contemporary art. By including such a wide range of voices readers will be challenged by the diversity of responses to the parables of Jesus.
NB: Thanks to Baker for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Many thanks to Phillip for his review of the work and including it on his blog.

Phillip was also kind enough to refer to this blog as the "seed-bed" (in addition to his reference to two of my books on the parables) of many parts of the book, so please, if you haven't already, go check out his blog as well.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

I will be speaking at "The Prodigal: A Curated Experience of Art and Scripture" in Edmonton

For those readers who are near enough to Edmonton (Alberta, Canada), I am delighted to announce that I will be giving three lectures at what looks like will be an outstanding conference on the parable of the Prodigal Son.

The conference is sponsored by the E. P. Wahl Centre of Taylor Seminary on September 29-30, 2017. You can check out the program here.

Friday night I will begin with a short lecture: “Why Reception History?”

Saturday I will give two lectures, parts one and two of: “What do Parables Want?: The Afterlives of the Two Brothers in the Prodigal Son as a Test Case.”

In addition to all the other interesting lectures and discussions on the prodigal son's text, cultural context, and reception, there will be over twenty original works of Prodigal-themed art on display created just for this conferences.

The conference will conclude with a first-century-style feast that includes a fatted calf (to welcome all the attending prodigals home?).

I am grateful to Tim Willson--the Director of Communications and Marketing for Taylor Seminary and the E P Wahl Centre, and curator of the onWORD Conference--for inviting me to speak at this year's conference. I am really looking forward to it.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Review of James Through the Centuries

Although my book, James Through the Centuries, is about the Epistle of James and not the parables, I thought I should share excerpts of a recent review of the book, since it is about reception history.

This review, by R. Alan Culpepper, appeared in the Society of Biblical Literature's Review of Biblical Literature in July 2017.

RBL is available only by subscription at here, so I am only able to post "fair use" sections of it on this blog. I will include only the introduction and the conclusion of the review:

The aim of the Wiley Blackwell Bible Commentaries, according to the series preface, is to provide convenient access to the reception history of the Bible, book by book and chapter by chapter. The commentaries gather readings of the biblical text from the history of scholarship but also from such diverse sources as, to quote John Kloppenborg’s endorsement [of Gowler’s book] on the back cover of the volume, “the history of icons, mediaeval woodcuts and other representations, … monastic rules, hymnody, literature, political polemics, and much more.” Readers are therefore given an overview of the influence of the Bible on Western culture . . . .
David Gowler has taken this commission and carried it out in a breathtaking fashion as he has gathered and summarized readings of James “through the centuries.” For each section of the letter, Gowler addresses first the “Ancient Literary Context” and then “The Interpretations,” which generally follow a roughly chronological order: “Ancient and Medieval” followed by “Early Modern and Modern.” Gowler also makes explicit his ambitious hermeneutic. Appealing to Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism, the principle that truth is not to be found in the understanding of an individual person but is the product of dialogic interaction in the collective search for truth, Gowler contends that the “meaning” of the Epistle of James “does not reside alone in the creative genius of its author; it exists in a relation between creator and contemplators” (4). In other words, it exists not in the text alone but in the readings and rereadings of the text through the centuries, in the dialogue of readers with the text and with each other. Interpreters therefore participate in the meaning of the Epistle. Accordingly, “voices that are sometimes silenced or marginalized receive a fair and equal hearing” (8). One of the collateral benefits of this approach is that “it makes explicit what in reality is inherent but usually implicit—that our own interpretations are incomplete without a dialogic response to the responses of those interpreters who have preceded us” (5) and whose readings have shaped our own. 
. . . .
[Gowler’s] James through the Centuries treats readers to a symphony of readings drawn from many generations and cultures, while pioneering an expansive understanding of the task of interpretation and showcasing important as well as marginalized and novel interpretations. The sheer effort involved in this research and the access it gives to such a wide range of resources insure that Gowler’s work will continue to be a part of the dialogue about James for years to come.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Review of my book (part 3) by Nijay Gupta

Here's the final part of Nijay Gupta's review of The Parables after Jesus.

I am grateful for his careful reading and thoughtful critique.

He raises a valid point at the end, one which readers of this blog may remember (since I catalogued the decisions I made and why while writing the book) that I debated and struggled with many times.

For the reasons that I will recount in full here (e.g., of the ~40,000 words of painful cuts I had to make, such as deleting all of what I wrote about Bede and Chaucer), I decided to do most of the "synthesis" work in the various sections themselves (e.g., the allegorical interpretations in contrast the less allegorical in the early Church) and also to limit myself to one lengthy example of such a "synthesis" in one parable (the Prodigal Son in the Introduction) as an example of what others could do to build upon my work in this book. 

My own inclination is to celebrate heteroglossia and to react against what often is an over-simplification of eras or trends in eras (e.g., such as in the proposed stages of the quest of the historical Jesus), so that also probably played a role in my decisions. 

Let me hasten to add that Nijay clearly is not asking for that; I'm just saying that such concerns (and biases) were part of my rationale for not doing more of the synthesis for which he (rightly) seeks. 

Chapter 5
Parables After Jesus
The last main chapter focuses on both the 20th and 21st centuries (pp. 207-153). Here Gowler covers 9 people/groups including Thomas Hart Benton, the Blues, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King Jr., Godspell, Latin American interest in the parables, David Flusser, Octavia Butler, and Thich Nhat Hanh. I will mention a few interpreters that were especially interesting to me. I love Flannery O’Connor. Her novel, The Violent Bear It Away, is considered to be inspired by the Parable of the Sower, a harrowing but vivid modern tale. As for Martin Luther King, he preached with passion about the Parable of the Rich man and his storehouses. Also, unsurprisingly, King was inspired by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. My favorite musical of all time is Godspell and as a young Christian I learned many of the teachings of Jesus through it. Gowler is no doubt right when he says that Godspellmore than any other Jesus film/play/musical “incorporates parables so deeply into its narrative of Jesus’ life and teachings” (232).
Gowler’s conclusion is concise, less than three pages. He simply affirms that we see such creativity and  rainbow of readings of the parables no doubt because they are puzzles and riddles worth pondering extensively. Gowler likens them to art works, inviting the reader into active imagination.
Gupta’s Final Thoughts
Gowler’s The Parables after Jesus is such a fun book to read – the case studies are well-chosen and refreshingly diverse. Gowler balances ancient and modern, East along with West, men and women, academic and art/popular culture. The visuals in the book are helpful and show the impact of the parables even in earliest Christian art. If I have one lingering desire after completing the book, though, it is for more synthesis and guidance from Gowler. I would have enjoyed some commentary on trends and distinctives of certain periods or communities, perhaps briefly at the end of each chapter. In the conclusion, Gowler could have adumbrated how readings have flowed through various watershed moments. These ideas notwithstanding, I warmly recommend this book to all students of the Gospels and the parables of Jesus.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review of my book (part 2) by Nijay Gupta

One of the reasons I was so delighted to see Nijay K. Gupta's two-part (soon to be three-part) review of The Parables After Jesus is that he reads carefully, and he thoughtfully works through all the books he reviews.

I should have mentioned the name of the blog he co-writes with Christopher W. Skinner, Crux Sola

The first part was posted on April 27 (see my previous post about it). 

The second part was posted on May 12, 2017, and it can be found here.

I will copy and paste the second part of the review below, but I encourage you to go read the other reviews Nijay does on Crux Sola, not just this one.

As Nijay notes, Reception history of the Bible is important both because you learn about fascinating interpreters and interpretations and because you gain additional perspectives on the Bible itself. 

Part 2 of the review:

Gowler -Parables After Jesus Part 2 (Gupta)

Parables After JesusWe are continuing a short series on David Gowler’s The Parables After Jesus (Baker; PART 1)
Here we will look briefly at chapters 3 and 4, respectively on the interpretation and use of the parables in the 16th-17th centuries, and on the 18th-19th centuries.
Chapter 3: “The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
Here Gowler examines ten case studies, we will just mention a few of these. The first is Martin Luther. Luther rejected allegorical interpretation, calling it “stupid.” He promoted a more simple approach which drew out the plain meaning, though Luther himself did not discount the possibility of symbolic meaning. As can be expected, Luther focused his interpretation of the parables on Christ. When it comes to the parables, they often focus on moral behavior and good works. How does Luther handle this? According to Gowler, as far as Luther was concerned, “The ‘works’ are outward signs of one’s inner faith…Works do not make anyone good; instead, works bear witness to the genuineness of one’s faith” (120).
I was also fascinated by Gowler’s discussion of Shakespeare’s interest in the Synoptic parables. Apparently, Shakespeare was especially infatuated with the plot and themes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son – sibling rivalries, rebellious children, mercy, restoration, etc. Gowler notes how Shakespeare alludes or tips his hat to the prodigal son in numerous works such as Comedy of ErrorsLove’s Labour LostKing LearTimon of AthensTwelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, and Two Gentlemen of Verona.Prodigal.jpg
Perhaps my favorite case study in this chapter is Rembrandt. While Rembrandt famously portrayed many biblical texts in his artwork, he did few on parables, though when he did, they all came from Luke (152). Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son is especially famous, though he did more than one version of the scene (see image). It is especially satisfying that Gowler included artwork images throughout the book.
Chapter 4: “The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”
There are nine case studies here, including Fanny Crosby and Charles Spurgeon, but I will briefly mention tidbits about Leo Tolstoy and Emily Dickenson.
Tolstoy was not shy about criticizing the structured and dogmatic Christianity of his day. He longed for the simple way of Jesus that focused on love of God and love of neighbor. He wrote a story called “Where Love Is, God Is” and drew from his own reading of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Dickenson also took interest in this Parable, which inspired a poem based on Matthew 25:35 called “I bring an unaccustomed wine.” Dickenson’s interest in and use of the parables is not just thematic, but perhaps also hermeneutical, as her reflection on poetic communication seems to align with the riddling nature of parables.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant–
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
(see Gowler, p. 197)
Again, very insightful chapters, lots of fun learning, and prods the reader to follow up on many of these interpreters of the parables.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review of my book by Nijay Gupta

I was delighted to see that Nijay K. Gupta did a two-part review of The Parables After Jesus on the blog he co-writes with Christopher W. Skinner. The first part was posted on April 27.

Here is part one of the review:

Gowler – Parables After Jesus Part 1 (Gupta)

Parables After JesusI love studying and teaching about Jesus’ parables in the Gospels – that is one of my favorite class sessions in the NT intro course I teach. I am also fascinated by the history of interpretation of the parables. So, I was overjoyed to see David B. Gowler’s new book The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia (Baker, 2017). Because this book covers more than fifty case studies in reception – most of them deeply engaging and insightful – I will talk about the book over several posts. Here we will briefly cover the introduction and first main chapter.

Why a book on the “afterlives” of the parables of Jesus? Gowler seems to be intrigued by the impact of these tales and riddles on Christians and other readers of the gospels throughout the centuries. But he also mentions how attentiveness to reception helps us to be aware of our own blindspots and the disadvantages of having just one human tradition or perspective. The more engagement from people outside of our era and locations/culture, the more our
David B. Gowler
vision is expanded to what may be going on in the parable. In his own words, Gowler says that “One of the goals of this book is to help readers better understand the importance of context for interpreters’ responses to Jesus’ parables” (9).
He uses the Prodigal Son parable as a test-case, noting that some (from their own vantage point) argue that the point is ethical, others focus on ethnicity (elder brother = Israel, younger = Gentiles), and others still believe it talks about different kinds of Christians. Gowler is not directly interested in settling on the “right” interpretation. He sees the attentiveness to these many interpretations instructive regarding the act of learning itself.
Chapter 1: The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in Antiquity (to c. 550 CE)
In this era, Gowler is selective, but covers figures like Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, and the under-appreciated Macrina the Younger. Gowler also looks at Christian a
Domitilla Catacombs
rtwork from this period which depicts parable images (though admitted there is not very much). It is difficult to give any sweeping summary to patterns of reception and use in this period, but Gowler does note that allegorization and blending of biblical passages and images was popular.

So far, I appreciate Gowler’s concise summaries of each figure or artist’s interpretation, and he includes artwork as able and relevant. Next up – the middle ages…
Rossano Gospels, Wise and Foolish Handmaids

Answers to some questions from Paul Moldovan about the parables of Jesus

I was delighted to answer a few questions from Paul Moldovan about the parables of Jesus. Paul is an Masters of Divinity student at George F...