I am grateful to Jake Raabe for the very thoughtful review of The Parables after Jesus.
I have a shelf on one my bookcases dedicated to the parables of Jesus. A variety of books sit on this shelf: a volume of allegorical interpretations from the Church Fathers, a historical-literary approach to fables in the ancient near-east, a lengthy exegetical commentary on the parables of Jesus, a speculative and skeptical assessment of what Jesus “actually said,” a devotional volume, and so on. I have these because, as David B Gowler argues in the introduction and conclusion to The Parables After Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions Across Two Millennia, the full meaning and significance of a parable is found in its continued reading, interpretation, and application by the community it was given to.
The Parables After Jesus is a study of this reception history. It provides an overview of how different interpreters understood Jesus’ parables throughout Christian history. Though this volume can be used as a sort of encyclopedia (a handy reference for, say, learning how Tertullian used the parables, of how the Wheat and Tares has been used throughout history), it functions best as a type of historical narrative. It records Christianity’s response to Jesus’ most famous teachings from the imaginative allegories of the Church Fathers through the elaborate four-fold interpretations of the Middle Ages to the historical-critical leanings of the Reformers to the decline of biblical literacy and rise of skepticism in the Modern era. This journey through church history with the parables is fascinating.
Part of the fascination in this volume is the wide variety of interpreters and mediums of interpretation Gowler brings in. Entries range from the great Christian theologians such as Augustine and Luther to the novels of Flannery O’ Connor to the paintings and artwork of William Blake and Thomas Hart Benton to South-American Liberation theologians. The range of interpreters even goes so far as to include Islamic and Buddhist interpreters of the parables. Given the massive variety of people, times, and mediums covered, it’s surprising how well Gowler explicates each source and interacts with recent scholarship. It’s almost hard to believe that one person could write with equal proficiency on the writings of the Church Fathers, Victorian artwork, and modern novels. Serious work was put into this volume.
Perhaps the amount of work Gowler put into this book makes sense in light of his reason for writing it. As he states in the book’s conclusion:
“Each interpreter has his or her unique context, point of view, and conceptual system, and each one responds to Jesus’s parables differently… All interpreters must realize that their interpretations depend in some way on the interpretations of those who preceded them…. My own perspective is that understanding should lead to action- ‘if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’- that there should be both a responsive and responsible ethical moment in the act of reading, one that leads to action in a number of realms.” (256)
This focus- quality scholarship stemming from a desire to see Jesus’s parables provoke action- makes The Parables after Jesus a fantastic resource for any interested in the Bible or Church History. Those in an academic setting will appreciate Gowler’s meticulous and thorough account the reception history of an integral part of Jesus’ public ministry. Pastors and ministers will appreciate Gowler’s multitude of examples of how parables have been interpreted, preached, and represented in a variety of settings. This book has my highest recommendation. I welcome it to my parable-shelf.Some reviewers of reception history scholarship, not just mine, do not understand the importance of the history of interpretation of the Bible both inside and outside the church and/or scholarship. Raabe makes a cogent and succinct case for the importance of reception history, which is, I think, the best and most critical part of his review.