Chapter 3 of the second edition of What Are They Saying about the Parables?, Fully Developed Literary Approaches to the Parables, is another significantly revised/expanded version of the chapter in the first edition (stay tuned: Chapter 4 is a completely new chapter!).
This chapter begins to explore how literary approaches to the parables began to be applied in a programmatic way to the entire parable corpus or to key parables within a particular gospel. It analyzes how earlier studies on the literary aspects of the parables began to bear fruit in the works of other scholars. John Dominic Crossan is the primary example because he pulls together the advances of his predecessors and furthers their work with innovative insights from contemporary literary criticism. John Drury and others also represent an important turning point; they return the parables to their gospel contexts but now examine them afresh with a literary sensitivity to how parables function as narratives within larger narratives.
The lengthy section about John Dominic Crossan’s prolific contributions to parable study includes revisions of what was already in WATSA Parables? and new analyses of his works over the past twenty years (including some insights I also covered in my What are They Saying about the Historical Jesus?, also with Paulist Press). Some of the works examined are:
- In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (1973), where Crossan examines the “historical Jesus,” not in the sense of his religion, faith, or self-understanding, but in the sense of the language of Jesus—specifically that of “the reconstructed parabolic complex” (xiii). The distinction Crossan makes in this work between parable and allegory is crucial for his thesis. He compares allegory—which expresses the intelligible—and symbol—which expresses the inexpressible. Crossan argues that parables reflect the temporality of Jesus’ experience of God, establish the historicity of Jesus’ response to the kingdom, and “create and establish the historical situation of Jesus himself” (32). In other words, Jesus was not crucified for speaking parables, but for ways of acting that resulted from the experience of God presented in the parables. These poetic metaphors, Crossan asserts, portray a “permanent eschatology,” the continuous presence of God as the one who challenges the world and repeatedly shatters its complacency. This kingdom of God and its parables manifest an advent of a radical new world of possibility, a reversal of ordinary expectations and the past, and a call to action as an expression of the new world with new possibilities (26–27).
- The Dark Interval (1975), which uses the structuralist models of Claude Lévi-Strauss (as adapted by the anthropologists Elli and Pierre Maranda) and Algirdas Greimas (as modified by Roland Barthes) and asserts that “reality is language” (37).
- Raid on the Articulate (1976) that juxtaposes sayings and parables of Jesus with works by the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. Tania Oldenhage speculates that Crossan’s book might be the “first instance of a biblical scholar trying to make Jesus’ stories speak to a post-Holocaust situation” (Parables for our Time: Rereading New Testament Scholarship after the Holocaust, 2002, 7).
- Finding is the First Act (1979) that examines the structures of the parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matt 13:44) by mapping out its plot options (finding, acting, buying) in comparison with other Jewish treasure stories and an array of “treasure plots” in world folklore.
- Cliffs of Fall (1980) that shares Jacques Derrida’s belief that all language is metaphoric. Metaphor creates a “void” of meaning that generates the free play of interpretations. Language thus is judged to be polyvalent; it allows no single and definitive reading/hearing to emerge. For Crossan, theology therefore must be seen as devoid of absolutes and of all pretense of knowing any secure reality by which to test other reality claims: “Parable becomes the deconstructive medium par excellence” (cf. the critique by Brown and Malbon, “Parabling as a Via Negativa”).
- Brief discussion of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (1991); Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994); Who Killed Jesus? (1995); and, with Jonathan L. Reid, Excavating Jesus (2001). Crossan notes that he wrote about a million words about the historical Jesus in the 1990s alone.
The section thus concludes with an extended analysis of Crossan’s 2012 book, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus became Fiction about Jesus, where he proposes a threefold typology of parables—stories that “point metaphorically beyond themselves to some external referent that has to be discovered by their recipients” (136). The most accurate way to categorize the parables of Jesus, according to Crossan, are as challenge parables, “extremely gentle” provocations that are pedagogical and instructive, not primarily polemical and aggressive: “They want to seduce you into thought rather than beat you into silence and batter you into subjection” (137). All three types of parables—riddle, example, and challenge—are “participatory pedagogy,” but Jesus preferred challenge parables because they are nonviolent pedagogy, thus the medium of the message coheres with the content of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God (245), whereas riddle and example parables are more adversarial (136). The second section of Crossan’s book then argues that the four New Testament Gospels are actually parables told about Jesus, similar in function to the books of Ruth, Jonah, and Job in the Hebrew Bible (73–88).
I’ll write about the rest of Chapter 3 in the next post.