This is the second part of a summary of some of what is found in Chapter 3 of the second edition of What Are They Saying about the Parables?: Fully Developed Literary Approaches to the Parables. Examples of other scholars and works included in this chapter are Bernard Brandon Scott’s Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom (1981) and Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (1989). In addition to analyses and critiques in this chapter, other related scholars/works are found in subsequent chapters, such as in chapter 6 (e.g., William Herzog) and chapter 8 (e.g., Charles Hedrick; Luise Schottroff). In Chapter 3, I also briefly mention Scott’s 2002 Re-Imagine the World, an introduction to the parables for non-specialists that contains a brief overview of Jesus and the parables and concludes with an essay on parable, historical Jesus, Q studies, and recommended readings.
The section, Contextual Readings of the Parables, begins with a discussion of John Drury’s The Parables in the Gospels: History and Allegory (1985) and Mary Ann Tolbert’s Perspectives on the Parables (1979; and her 1989 Sowing the Gospel that analyzes the parables as parables of the gospels, not as parables of Jesus).
Robert Tannehill’s The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation (1986) is significant because it focuses on how parables function within the Gospel of Luke itself.
This section of WATSA Parables? also includes analyses of Ched Myer’s Binding the Strong Man (1988) and my own Host, Guest, Enemy, and Friend (a "socio-narratological analysis" later developed into an even more interdisciplinary mode of analysis, a “dialogic reading”: See, for example, David B. Gowler, “The Enthymematic Nature of Parables: A Dialogic Reading of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16–20),” Review and Expositor 109:2 (2012): 199–217; and “‘At His Gate Lay a Poor Man’: A Dialogic Reading of Luke 16:19–31,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 32:3 (2005): 249–65.), where I examine, in part, how parables become, on the narrative level, indirect presentations of character traits of the Lukan Pharisees.
Other important works in this era include John Donahue’s The Gospel as Parable (1988) and Warren Carter and John Paul Heil’s 1998 Matthew’s Parables. The latter focuses on what happens as Matthew’s audience interacts with the parables in their present form and in their current placement within the plot of Matthew’s gospel, and this sections analyzes four important features of this approach (which I won’t summarize here). See also, John Paul Heil, The Gospel of Mark as a Model for Action (1992) for another example of how parables can be interpreted within their literary contexts, as well as Peter Yaw Oppong-Kim, Matthean Sets of Parables (2013) and John Kilgallen’s explorations of twenty parables in their Lukan contexts: Twenty Parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (2008).
Another more recent work is Lauri Thurén’s 2014 Parables Unplugged that reads the Lukan parables in their “rhetorical context” in an attempt to get beyond the “bewildering diversity of interpretations” and move toward a “natural listening” by “detaching the parables from all other perspectives.” The aim is “to read the parables of Jesus ‘naked’ or ‘unplugged,’ without any presuppositions, alterations, or later problems” (10). To attempt this task, Thurén endeavors to “get back to the text, back to the message and function of the parables in their real context” (and by “real,” Thurén means their gospel contexts; 11).
Thurén’s focus on the text is commendable, since a critical first step in interpretation focuses on “inner texture”—rhetorical features such as the literary context, structure, and details and thus the specific ways in which texts attempt to persuade their readers. Yet because texts are more complex than Thurén’s model assumes, additional steps are needed, such as including “intertexture”—a text’s representation of, reference to, and use of phenomena in the “world” (That is, a text’s citations, allusions, and reconfigurations of specific texts, events, language, objects, institutions, and other specific extra-textual contexts with which the text interacts)—and social and cultural texture—how the text shares the general social and cultural attitudes, norms, and modes of interaction which are known by everyone in a society. For a student-friendly early discussion of these textures, see Vernon K. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts (1996).
Thurén’s interpretations of parables are often insightful and contain helpful correctives for those interpreters who stray too far from the text. In the end, however, Thurén’s reading includes too many of his own presuppositions, which ironically confirms Dieter Roth’s conclusion that “Parables can never be unplugged, and parables never should be unplugged” (Review of Biblical Literature, January, 2017).
I write a lengthy “Bakhtinian rejoinder” to all of these analyses (of the first three chapters) and then close with a few additional remarks. As far as the scholars/works in Chapter 3: The advent of “fully developed” literary approaches to the parables of Jesus inaugurates a significant shift in orientation, methodology, and language. Debates still occur about simile/metaphor, parable/allegory, and other related matters (see chapter 8 below), but implicitly or explicitly, most scholars accepted a view of parable as primarily metaphoric in a context of which metaphoric elements actually extend to all language (cf. Charles Hedrick).
As always, scholarship is an ongoing discussion, with new insights and approaches appearing, including old questions being addressed in innovative and different ways. The development chronicled in the first three chapters entails a shift from a primarily historical focus to a focus on the nature of language in its social, cultural, literary, historical, ideological, and rhetorical contexts. Current scholarship, as the following chapters demonstrate, continues to explore the nature of parables and the nature of language in a multitude of ways, but most of them, in varying amounts and degrees, incorporate at least some of the insights of these literary approaches—if not their orientation, methodology, and language.
The next post or two (next week) will be about a brand new chapter in WATSA Parables?: Chapter 4: “The Parables of Jesus in/and the Gospels: The Dialogues Continue.”