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Parables Notes

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How do the parables of the Kingdom function in Mark?
Donahue, John. The Gospel in Parable, pg. 1- 62. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1988. The poetic nature of Jesus's speech, most embodied in the parables which portray a wide variety of images which:


'embrace images of the dynamism of nature and deviousness of human nature and range from short narrative vignettes to full-blown dramatic stories', pg. 2. Through Jesus's language we glimpse his imagination expressing his understanding of his mission and 'his struggle with the mystery of his Father's will'

Jeremias also discussed the reconstruction of the parables' context, the kingdom proclamation of Jesus. Pg. 3 'in proclaiming the advent of God's kingdom (Mark 1:14 - 15), Jesus proclaims God's sovereign rule and God's summons to people to open their hearts to the claims of God present in his teaching and ministry.' The parables we see in the gospels are in their own definite context. Donahue looks at the parables in the gospels as primarily being a window into the theology of said gospel and as reflecting its main motifs. We must look both at text (parable) and context (gospel)

Problem- their original context is inaccessible to us today, furthermore they were part of oral tradition.

Pg. 5, 'etymologically parable means that one thing is understood in juxtaposition or comparison with another.'

The original situation evoking their utterance, as well as the tone and body language with which people experienced/heard them, are important (e.g. was something said with a shrug? A snarl?)

The term (Greek parabole from the Hebrew masal) is used to describe several different literary forms e.g. allegories, proverbs, riddles etc.

All we have is the parables as text, and no original text; only Greek translations/adaptations Joachim Jeremias shows that 'the text has been so altered in transmission that the original 'text' of any parable is a reconstructed one.' Pg. 3.

C. H. Dodd provides a good definition of the NT parable: 'the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.' (Parables pg. 5) His definition conveys the 4 major aspects characteristic of parabolic:

1) 2) 3) 4)

Open-ended nature Paradoxical and engaging quality Realism Poetic/metaphoric quality

Wilder did not see the parables as pedagogical, arguing instead that parables portray basic assumptions about existence, as any art form of any time does. 'New hermeneutic', German school of thought:

The parable as metaphor 1888- Julicher, instead of doing as had been done for centuries and interpreting the parables allegorically, thought that their 'point' was to be found in the historical context of Jesus's teaching.


Saw parables as rhetorical, rather than poetic, devices Thus Jesus used his parables to teach Pg. 7 'he argued that a parable is a developed simile where the point of comparison is clear, while allegories are developed metaphors that foster inauthentic speech and arbitrary interpretation.' He saw each parable as having only one point of comparison which usually applied to ethics

Later the eschatological meaning of the parables (instead of the ethical) was argued for. Amos Wilder and Robert Funk saw parables as poetic forms where 'deep appreciation of metaphor opened the way to new understandings of their literary and theological importance' pg. 8



Stressed that Jesus's sayings were language events not communicating his teaching but rather his self-understanding and his radical challenge to others Funk uses Dodd's definition of the parable to argue that a metaphor combines too 'discrete but not entirely comparable elements' pg. 9, which are juxtaposed, this impacting on the imagination in producing an image of reality which discursive speech does not have the power to do.

Metaphor- particularly adept at expressing two characteristics of religious experience: immediacy and transcendence. Jesus's parables, as metaphors, point to an order of reality not described in the parable. Pg. 10 'often it is an element of the parable itself, such as the extraordinary harvest (Mark 4:8)… where the ordinary has gone askew and thereby shocks us into realizing that the parables lead into another way of thinking about life.' Therefore, Jesus spoke in a familiar language for people and their everyday lives, but this language pointed further

and 'summoned people to see everyday life as the carrier of self-transcendence'

One thing that was carried through from Julicher's theory was the polemic against allegory.

Many of Jesus's parables are thus proclamations of the kingdom which convey God's power and the transformation the world is in the process of going through.

'from a literary perspective, therefore, parables are metaphoric in combining in one assertion two orders of reality and in using the language of concrete imagery to suggest an analogy or comparison with the thing signified'

Donahue 'the message of the kingdom is that the world points beyond itself. The use of parable with the native power of metaphor to point beyond itself means that in effect the medium is the message.' CRITICISM - parables of Jesus often seem more like similes than metaphors as they often have 'like' or 'it may be compared to' Moreover, often attributes in a sentence or predications of an image are thought to be metaphors (e.g. you are the salt of the earth), whereas the parables are extended narratives. Perhaps they are just metaphoric stories?
Paul Ricoeur offers an adequate description of parables as 'a combination of the metaphoric process with the narrative form' (pg. 10/11) Madeleine Boucher argues that we must not discard the rhetorical dimension of the parable, although the content of the parables might not be as simple or broad as was argued by Julicher, they did have teaching functions.

From a theological perspective, metaphor and parable are of vital importance and relevance to theology as they point to what is beyond expression. 'drawn from nature or common life' Jesus's parables are characterized by realism.

The parables offer an insight into Galilean firstcentury life. Their appeal comes from their concrete nature Pg. 14 'the parables present stories about ordinary individuals and ordinary events, but told in such a way that people from every age and culture have seen their own life with its hopes and challenges replayed in these short vignettes.'

The parables' realism means that the point of contact between human beings and God is placed by Jesus in the everyday world of human experience. Jesus's parabolic language is available to be heard by all; does not speak God language or his religious heritage language (Hebrew bible isn't often quoted)

'in presenting the parables it is not enough simply to restate or paraphrase the parables. The vibrancy of the original images must be recaptured often in language as realistic as the original language. Even the old wine of the parables must shatter new wineskins.' 'arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness' Although the parables are realistic, that realism is shattered as the parable unfolds.

Funk argues that the parables present 'disorientation of everydayness, exaggerated realism… which prohibit the parable from coming to rest in the literal sense.'

e.g. the parable of the Pearl in Matthew (13.45-46) is the point of the parable to be found in the search? The willingness to risk everything? Or in the joy of finding?
Commentators largely agree that the parables can be interpreted in multiple ways. Eta Linnemann presents the concept of 'interlocking', seeing the parables as dialogues engaging with the audience/hearers The power of the parables stems from the fact that, in them is reproduced the world of the hearer. The parable as narrative

Ricoeur notes that in the parables there is a pattern: orientation, disorientation and reorientation.

Parable study has looked, not just at parables' metaphoric quality, but also at the parable as narrative.

Crossan develops this idea in arguing that the parable presents a paradox which is concealing a deeper truth e.g. he who lose his life saves it.

Bultmann- 'narrative laws' which reflect 3 characteristics of parables

Crossan sees the most integral message of the parables of Jesus as that 'things are not as they seem, that you must be open to having your tidy vision of reality shattered.' Pg. 16

1) Narrative style 2) Characterization 3) Plot Bultmann makes these characterizations of the parable

The paradoxical characteristics of the parables become metaphorical representations of the transcendent.


Polyvalence- the possibility of multiple interpretations


Concise narration- information is often merely suggested, only those necessary are present Groups and crowds are often treated as one single, individual character Stage duality- at one time only two people are interacting


The audience is asked to only focus on one perspective at a time


Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg note 4 aspects of narrative 1) 2) 3) 4)

Meaning Character Plot Point of view



The parables as context The parables were communicated in a social context (Jesus's ministry), a religious context (Jesus's proclamation and mission) The context in which the parables were originally received is not accessible as we cannot be in the historical position of the audience to whom Jesus spoke. The parables are, however, often viewed in the context of the proclamation of the kingdom of God. John Riches argues that study of the kingdom of God can illuminate Jesus' teaching Riches does so by looking at both the theological meaning of the parables as well as their social context in kingdom statements. The context we ought to be looking at is the literary context of parables in the synoptic gospels.

Immediate context o Looking at the periscopes which come before and after the parable in order to see if the evangelists' intention can be illuminated by the parable's location Proximate context o How the parable fits into the larger context of a part of the gospel Canonical context o Looking at the parables' parallels with themes/perspectives which can be seen elsewhere in Scripture.

THE PARABLES OF MARK Scholars normally agree that there are 6 Markan parables

The The The The The The

sower (4:3-8) seed growing secretly (4:26-29) mustard seed (4:30-32) wicked tenants (12:1-11) fig tree (13:28-29) doorkeeper (13:34-37)

Two of these are called explicitly kingdom parables (The seed growing secretly (4:26-29) and the mustard seed (4:30-32)) Markan parables have a village setting, imagery stemming from nature and farming

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