Monday, August 31, 2015

Adolf Jülicher and the Parables (1857-1938)

It's been over a week since my last post--the longest gap, I think, in the almost two years that I have written this blog. The beginning of the academic year and other issues have kept me away. 

I was able to steal some time to continue editing and, since my time was limited, to start putting together the bibliography for the book. That task is easily started and stopped, so even in a few minutes, I can accomplish something--unlike real research and writing.

I also could not decide which topic to cover next. Last night I decided to do Adolf Jülicher. The section I wrote about his work probably will make it into the book, but since I cover him and other scholars in a previous work, What Are They Saying about the Parables?, I do not focus on many modern scholars in this book (David Flusser and Elsa Tamez are the only two in Chapter 5; Jülicher is in Chapter 4, for now).

So here goes:

Adolf Jülicher was born in Falkenberg, Germany, in 1857. He attended the University of Berlin, where he earned a doctorate in 1880, and then served as a Lutheran pastor at Rummelsburg. He also worked as a private lecturer (Privatdozent) in Berlin, and during that time, he wrote the first volume of his seminal work, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu (The Parables of Jesus), which was published in 1886. As a result, Jülicher was invited to join the faculty at the University of Marburg, where he remained until he retired in 1923 (the famed New Testament scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, was one of his students).

Die Gleichnisreden Jesu is the most famous and influential scholarly book on the parables ever written, and it inaugurated a new era in the modern research of the parables. The first volume of the work discusses interpretative issues, and the second volume, published along with a revised first volume in 1888-1889, gives detailed interpretations of all the parables found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Although many of Jülicher’s categories have been superseded by subsequent interpreters, some of his discussions still influence current debates (for much of the following, see Gowler 2000 and the sources listed there). For example, Jülicher argues that scholars must distinguish between the parables as told by Jesus and the parables as they are found in the gospels. Jesus uttered his parables perhaps as much as fifty years before the gospels were written, and the gospel authors creatively reworked those traditions. For Jülicher, the major problem is that the gospel authors obscured the parabolic message of Jesus with an overgrowth of allegory, descriptive supplementation, and interpretive application, with the “incontrovertible” (Unangreifbar) result that the gospels actually obscure the meaning and function of the parables as Jesus had uttered them:
The authenticity (Echtheit) of the Gospel parables is not absolute. They did not emerge from the mouth of Jesus as we now read them. They are translated, displaced, and internally transformed. . . . Without careful examination, one can nowhere identify the voice of Jesus with voices of the Gospel authors (Jülicher 1963: I.11).

In addition, in a survey of previous interpretations of the parables, Jülicher demonstrates that, with a few exceptions such as John Calvin and John Maldonatus, virtually all interpreters imposed allegorical interpretations far exceeding those found in the gospels themselves. As Joachim Jeremias observes, “It is positively alarming to read . . . [Jülicher’s] story of the centuries of distortion and ill-usage which the parables have suffered through allegorical interpretation” (1972: 18).


  1. In the 3rd century A.D., some scholars who were considered knowledgeable Christians allegorized to the extreme. Then later, another scholar from Germany, Dr. Adolf Julicher (1857-1938), made a dictum that parables have only one, and only one, meaning. Scholars since then have noted that the method interpretation depends on the parable.
    Caution should be taken when applying complex interpretations and adjustments to a parable’s theme, characters, or story-line, especially if it is allegorical to start with. The main thrust for interpretation is to stay within context of the situation and purpose in which the parable was delivered.
    For example: if someone takes the “Samaritan” parable and assigns their personal thoughts about the characters; say, making the robber as a form of Satan, the victim as a type of the unsaved, the Priest as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the Levite as a deserter from his post at the Temple, and the Samaritan as a Christian who loves God and therefore loves his neighbor; we get a practical allegory that stays within Jesus’ story that is interesting and likely applicable.
    BUT—if we simply agree with the world that says this parable is only about a “do-gooder” that needs an award, we could easily miss what Jesus was saying in this parable. In order to stay on track remember what instigated the parable.
    • Rule one: If Jesus used an allegory in the parable, it’s likely we shouldn’t devise another allegory to explain his allegory.
    • Rule two: Keep in context (What instigated this parable? What are the verses before, and after?).
    • Rule three: Take a moment and pray that the Holy Spirit will be with you.
    In the Samaritan parable Jesus gave the disciples a visual example to think on — this example would help them throughout their ministry. It is not good, nor necessary. to take a simple parable and make complicated interpretations. Some parables may have one intended application and don't need an allegory. BUT, if an allegory is necessary to better explain the “intended meaning” of the parable, why argue?

    1. If you are interested in reading more about Jülicher, please see my book, What are They Saying about the Parables" with Paulist Press. A new edition, which contains additional information is coming out this year. I also have an extensive section on Jülicher in my book, The Parables after Jesus.


What are They saying about the Parables? (Chapter 4 , part 4): Contributions from Ruben Zimmermann (edited works)

  Ruben Zimmermann's "Integrative Approach” to Parables  (summarized from Chapter 4 of WATSA Parables?) Ruben Zimmermann has publis...