Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Adolf Jülicher and the parables (part 4)

Adolf Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu

What about the relationship of Jesus’s parables to his teaching of the kingdom of God? To place Jülicher’s work in context, biblical studies in this era were dominated by the “social liberalism” of Albert Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack. Ritschl believed in an evolutionary kingdom of God, one in which Jesus gave human beings responsibility to create a new society here on earth that would be fulfilled by an eternal kingdom after death. Human beings, in response to the rule of the kingdom in their hearts, were to work to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Ritschl, therefore, interprets the “parables of growth” in this evolutionary way: the Growing Seed (Mk 4:26-29) portrays the seed of Jesus’ teaching as it was sown in the first century. It would grow and come to fulfillment in history as a result of human beings’ response and faithfulness to the redemptive activity of God in Christ and of the human activity made possible by God’s action (Riches 1993: 15-16). As Joachim Jeremias notes, Jülicher’s Jesus also is an “apostle of progress” (Apostel des Fortschritts; II.483) who teaches the moral precepts that encourage human beings in their quest to bring about God’s kingdom on earth (Jeremias 1972: 19). Other scholars such as Johannes Weiss, however, argue that Jesus’s message of the kingdom was apocalyptic: Jesus was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the imminent end of the world. The kingdom of God is wholly future, and human beings could do nothing to bring about its end; they could only prepare for its imminent arrival. Weiss also believed that many parables had nothing whatsoever to do with the kingdom of God, and he rejected the parables as a reliable source for Jesus’s understanding of the kingdom (Weiss 1971: 60-64; Gowler 2000: 86-87).

Jülicher attempted to remove the allegorical accretions in the Gospel parables and situate the parables in concrete situations in the life and ministry of Jesus, who uttered them in a particular context and in response to particular challenges: “Jesus’s parables were designed to make an immediate effect, children of the moment, deeply immersed in the particularity of the present moment” (Jülicher 1963: I.91). Parables are not riddles; they are self-evident and do not need to be explained (Jones 1964: 17). Yet in stripping away all traces of allegory, Jülicher’s interpretations of the parables, since they focused on one single idea, often with the most broad application, are often bland generalities: The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, for example, was supposed to produce joy (Freude) in a life of suffering, and to inculcate fear (Furcht) of a life of wealth and pleasure (Jülicher 1963: II.638). Likewise, the parable of the Unjust Steward encourages its hearers to make wise use of the present to ensure a happy future (II.511).


Scholars since Jülicher have noted the groundbreaking nature of his work, but many have pointed to weaknesses in his approach. Do parables always have one point, and is there an “essential” (wesentlich; I.52) difference between simile and metaphor? Many have answered no to both those questions. Even Aristotle’s Rhetoric, on which Jülicher depended, notes: “The simile also is a metaphor; the difference is but slight” (Rhetoric III.4). In addition, Jülicher was criticized for being too dependent upon Aristotle and not appreciative enough of the Jewish context of Jesus and his parables (e.g., see the discussion of David Flusser in Chapter 5 of my forthcoming book). Some recent scholars suggest that Jesus’s parables can include allegory or even be allegorical, so they contest Jülicher’s rigorous exclusion of allegorical elements in the original parables of Jesus. It is true, however, that post-Jülicher scholars would never completely resuscitate the allegorical method.

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