On Parables

Defining Parable

A parable is a form of teaching that eludes easy definition. In fact, its intention is to be elusive. Due to its very nature, it is easier to describe what a parable is not than what it is.

A parable is not a pronouncement. It does not claim that the world should be one way rather than another. It is not a moral lesson. It is not a description of a second or supernatural world. A parable is built on the images of the everyday world but reconfigures the everyday world. It opens a seam or a glimpse to an alternative world and an alternative way of reasoning in the world. In this sense only does it describe a different world or the world seen differently. However, it never leaves this world. It simply re-orients this world through its description of a happening that never really happens.

The Parables of Jesus

The parables of Jesus are rooted in the everyday world. Someone loses a coin. A truant child returns home. A gardener sows mustard seeds. A group of day laborers are waiting for a call. A man travels alone down the dangerous road from Jerusalem to the wealthy villa of Jericho. A woman conceals leaven in flour.

In each story the expected happens, but at the same time the unexpected happens. An altered version of reality arises from the usual to make us laugh or scratch our heads as if impacted by comic relief—which is sometimes no relief at all. It can also be very acute, making a strong political or social comment by way of a sharp contrast. A woman searches all day and finds a coin. That’s common enough. We have all searched diligently for something of value to us. Then, she throws a party to celebrate her luck. The cost of the party is far in excess of the value of the coin. What she has found is more than lost again. In fact, in the practice of ancient hospitality, the result of the party is likely debt—which will either earn her friends or deliver her to destitution. We might ask, is she crazy or brave? The unexpected ending is a plays on the comic-tragic hope that to lose what is found is to find even more.

It is rather expected that if you are silly enough to travel unaccompanied down a dangerous road, you’ll likely fall among thieves. The unexpected is that the hero in this story turns out to be a Samaritan. A Samaritan is the enemy. Yet in this story our enemy practices loving kindness better than we do. Our enemy teaches what it means to love our enemies. Think. The Samaritans have a Torah, a mountain, and a God different from our Torah, mountain, and God. They are not supposed to get it right because they got it wrong! But this story shatters our prejudices directly. Then there is the comedy of the aftermath that we can only imagine. Once again, given ancient customs of hospitality, imagine the Judean in this story who will return home to announce, “Guess who is coming for dinner?”

The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges. Image Credit: Southern Cross Review

Kafka and Borges

Franz Kafka and Jorge Borges are two 20th-century writers who used the art of parable. They told stories that on the surface are plausible but that, in the course of their telling, point toward the unexpected, inexplicable, and unimagined. Yet, the unimagined part of the story causes the re-evaluation of the world order and meaning in life.

Kafka has a story about an estate holder who takes a trip on a horse out to the countryside. At the gate, the manager of the estate wants to know where the master is going. These are common images on an estate in or around early 20th-century Prague, where Kafka lived. The response to the query is “out of here” or “away from here.” The estate holder says that he is going “out,” plain and simple. He has no explicit destination.

The response of the estate holder converts the common scene to a parable. We suddenly see that if we are to understand the story we have to change the initial impression of what is happening. We have to change the world we reside in. We have to notice that the servant does not understand the master, that the trip in question is not about arriving somewhere, and that the draw to go away from here does not rest on a reason. It’s not about getting somewhere; it’s about becoming in the process of going. That’s an entirely different scene.

Jorge Borges tells the story of a spy in World War I who is hunted down by an English assassin. In the course of evading his pursuer, the spy hides in a noble’s house. Curiously, the noble householder has a copy of the spy’s grandfather’s novel, which is widely considered unintelligible. It turns out the noble has an interpretation: the novel is a labyrinth; it is not about interpretation but about the intersection of choices. Borges’ reader shares the desire to know the interpretation of the unintelligible novel, but “parable” happens when the situation turns on itself. The novel is the endless intersection of unending choice. The right interpretation is that interpretation is not the point.

Parable is a fascinating form of teaching. It takes the student on a journey of transition, yet once (and if) the student makes the transition there is no longer a point or aim or purpose to the parable or even to life. Life is converted to dance or to metaphor or even to fiction. It is light. It is joyful. It is gift. Describing this transition is extremely difficult since the very act of description introduces purpose or aim back into the parable. The un-parabolic question is to ask why then tell a parable? The parabolic answer is that everything is parable, and the only way to convey this is to tell a parable.

David Galston

David Galston is a University Chaplain, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Academic Director at Westar Institute, and academic adviser to the SnowStar Institute in Canada. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity (2012).

Okay, Google, How Was the Bible Written?

Okay, Google, how was the Bible written?

You were curious, so you asked. You opened your web browser and recited, “Okay, Google, how was the Bible written?” And here were your first-page results:

  1. Truthnet.org, “How Was the Bible Written? How did the prophets write the Bible?”
  2. Everystudent.com, “History of the Bible – Who Wrote the Bible – Why It’s Reliable”
  3. Biblica.com, “When was the Bible written?”
  4. Biblica.com, “In what language was the Bible first written?”
  5. BibleOdyssey.org, “How Was the Bible Written and Transmitted?”
  6. Wikipedia.org, “Bible”
  7. Bible.org, “2. How the Bible was Written”
  8. PBS.org, “NOVA | Origins of the Written Bible”
  9. Carm.org, “When was the Bible written and who wrote it? | List of dates”
  10. Newsweek.com, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”
  11. PBS.org, “From Hebrew Bible to Christian Bible | From Jesus to Christ”
  12. NewRepublic.com, “A Newly Deciphered Babylonian Tablet Details Blueprints for ‘Noah’s Ark’”

Google helpfully recites the opening paragraph of the article from Bible.org (result #7). Thanks, Google. While we could immediately start reading the sites offered up to us, it would be smart to get an idea of how reliable and helpful they actually will be. The common-sense question we might ask, then, is, “Who are the people who run these sites?” (In case you were wondering, I didn’t ask Google this one; I looked up the sites myself.)

Google's Top Results for "How was the Bible Written"

Faith-based sites, with a strong trend toward biblical literalism

  • Truthnet.org “is a group of people who are involved in letting the world know about the exclusive truth found and expressed in the teachings of the Bible.”
  • Everystudent.com “is a safe place to explore questions about who God is and what it might be like to know God.”
  • Biblica.com is “passionate about reading the Bible well so we can live it well. For over 200 years, we’ve helped millions of people access and experience God’s Word, so it can transform their lives.”
  • Bible.org—Google’s favorite to read aloud—exists “to freely share the good news from God to the entire world so you can KNOW the Truth about life and eternity.”
  • CARM stands for “Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry.” Enough said?

Public media, crowd-sourced data, journalism

  • Wikipedia.org—do I even need to tell you?—is “a multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project supported by the Wikimedia Foundation and based on a model of openly editable content.”
  • PBS.org is “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.”
  • Newsweek “is a premier news magazine and website, bringing high-quality journalism to readers around the globe for over 80 years. Newsweek provides the latest news, in-depth analysis and ideas about international issues, technology, business, culture and politics.”
  • “Tailored for smart, curious, socially aware readers, The New Republic covers politics, culture and big ideas from an unbiased and thought-provoking perspective.” (Could possibly be placed with Bible Odyssey below?)

Academic and nonpartisan sites

  • BibleOdyssey.org is a project of the Society of Biblical Literature, “the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible based on the Humanities’ core disciplines.”

How do these sites fare in answering the actual question we posed?

For the sake of time and space, I’ll stick to one example from each of the groups above.

Truth.net. This turns out to be an apologetic defense of the inerrancy of scripture, specifically the Old Testament, based on the fact that people in ancient times did write stuff down (i.e., it’s not all oral tradition). It speaks generically of “critics who attack the Bible,” and names only one ostensible critic, Julius Wellhausen, who died in 1918. It never actually quotes or adequately summarizes Wellhausen about his Documentary Hypothesis but instead quotes a critic of Wellhausen. It’s possible to be a biblical literalist without being so generic in one’s criticism of alternative views.

What’s going for it:

  • It acknowledges that people might “agree on the inspiration of the Bible” even if they don’t agree on how it was written. Perhaps this allows for variety of opinion at least within circles that embrace biblical literalism?
  • It challenges oversimplified claims that “nobody could write” in the ancient world. One wonders if any credible scholar actually holds quite this simplistic a view, but I can at least imagine a conversation taking this turn in the local pub.

What it needs:

  • up-to-date information (a lot has changed since 1918!)
  • a more charitable treatment of opposing views instead of putting up an oversimplified version of Wellhausen’s argument as a “straw man” that presents no real challenge
  • awareness that the existence of writing in ancient times has little bearing on the documentary hypothesis, which could just as easily describe the blending of multiple written as multiple oral traditions (indeed, it was likely a mix of both!) into the Bible

PBS.org. This is a nice follow-up on the article above because it also begins with oral transmission and the written word, but it tells a more complex story of the transition from mostly oral to mostly written culture while observing that even into the Second Temple period (530 B.C.–A.D. 130) and beyond, “a fierce ideology of orality would persist in rabbinic Judaism.” It also includes information about the Christian New Testament as a natural outgrowth of the same forces that shaped rabbinic Judaism.

What’s going for it:

  • It tells a complex story about oral and written tradition rather than an oversimplified claim.
  • It includes the Christian New Testament without treating Christianity as a wholly separate phenomenon from Judaism.
  • It shows awareness that modern readers may not share the worldview of ancient readers.
  • The name and credentials of the author are included.

What it needs:

  • acknowledgement of a wider conversation and diversity of views about this subject, without necessarily having to go in depth about those views
  • better coverage of how both Judaism and Christianity came to “close” their canons

BibleOdyssey.org. This article begins in what strikes me at least as a more natural starting point: that “Bible” means “library.” Oral versus written transmission is covered, but is not the primary thrust of the article. Rather, this article explains a bit about canonization, including taking the time to define it as the “process of including certain books as Scripture and rejecting others.” This article also describes how scribes physically copied texts and why not all manuscripts of the Bible are exactly the same.

What’s going for it:

  • It does not overemphasize oral versus written tradition, which was only one factor among many in the development of the Bible.
  • It defines terms and doesn’t overwhelm the reader with details.
  • It makes very clear that there is no one Bible or biblical text. Variety exists across canons based on the concerns of particular communities.
  • The name and credentials of the author are included.

What it needs:

  • frankly, even though this article offers a more well-rounded response to our actual question, it doesn’t have much “curb appeal” compared to most of the other sites on Google’s top list
  • links to more information (although the “ask a scholar” option helps), especially given how much competing responses to this question offer by comparison
  • like the article above, it does not really imply wider conversations about this subject or alert the reader to interesting points of dispute

You Got Me, Google

From cringe-worthy statements like this opening line from EveryStudent.org—“unlike other religious writings, the Bible reads as a factual news account of real events, places, people, and dialogue”—to perhaps overly harsh accusations against biblical literalism like this one on an otherwise interesting NewsWeek article—“they are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch”—it is clear that asking Google about how the Bible was written opens a raw spot in the Western psyche. Is Google, like a good psychiatrist, probing our reasons for asking the question? Have we revealed our cards unexpectedly to the algorithms that impassively map the emotional turmoil spurred by our favorite text to love and hate? This is one historical question for which a straightforward historical answer may never be good enough.

Shameless plug: we’ll be talking about this pain point at the next national meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, with Harvey Cox, author of the brand new book How to Read the Bible. Why not join us?

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.