“No News Here”—Historical Truth and the Jesus Voiceprint (EHJ series)

“To be ‘over there’ is not to be in a different world, but to be in this world differently.”
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

We are in the midst of a chapter-by-chapter reading of David Galston’s book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don’t be a stranger—share your thoughts below!

Chapter 3 of 9, “The Jesus Voiceprint,” Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
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“In ordinary life we all carry around what we can call an imaginary baseboard: an electrical baseboard that jolts us whenever we encounter what feels like a problem,” says Charlotte Joko Beck in Nothing Special: Living Zen.

We can imagine it with millions of outlets, all within our reach. Whenever we feel threatened or upset, we plug ourselves into it and react to the situation. The baseboard represents our fundamental decisions about how we have to be in order to survive and get what we want in life. As young children we discovered that life wasn’t always the way we wanted it to be, and things often went wrong from our personal point of view. We didn’t want anyone to oppose us, we didn’t want to experience unpleasantness, and so we created a defensive reaction to block the possible misery. That defensive reaction is our baseboard. We’re always plugged into it, but we especially notice it at times of stress and threat. (31)

This accurately describes my experience of conversations about the historical Jesus. And in chapter 3 of Embracing the Human Jesus, David Galston begins with a catalog of the hazards faced by scholars who attempt such conversations: accusations of blasphemy (implied or stated), hostility, and ad hominem attacks.

Nevertheless, honesty demands the conversation. It is in this sense that Galston appeals to the Buddhist sense of Right View, which “involves a commitment to understanding things as they truly are” (EHJ: 50).

The critical issue continues to be how we approach history. Using words like “true” or “authentic” can make us feel like we’re uncovering something absolute, but this isn’t really what we get in historical inquiry. Our access to truth is limited by human perspective, which it often short-sighted and turned toward itself. Good historians need a more modest goal—Paul Ricouer’s “model that suits,” which Galston poses here as a question: “What makes the best sense of the available data?” (EHJ: 52).

This isn’t a unique perspective to the Jesus Seminar, and in fact has been used against it. In a 2007 online article critical of the Jesus Seminar, N. T. Wright claimed “First-century Jews, for all their wide variety, were living within a story, a controlling narrative,” which he defined as a Jewish apocalyptic worldview. “The Jesus Seminar, however, and many others beside, have said that all we know about Jesus are fragmentary sayings—a little nugget about this, a little wise saying about that, and a fragment of a parable here—that do not actually retain the stories.” In other words, he accuses the Jesus Seminar of taking things out of context. Later in the article, he encapsulates the problem in the following manner: “To be historically credible, you have to picture a Jesus who is both comprehensible and crucifiable within first-century Judaism. That, simply stated, is a problem history must always deal with.”

I find it ironic that Galston and Wright have framed this historical problem in almost the exact same terms, and yet represent very different attitudes toward the historical Jesus. Wright continues to emphasize the apocalyptic prophet, while Galston places Jesus in the Jewish wisdom tradition.

With all respect to Wright (full disclaimer: I’ve read only some of his work and am probably not the best person to address his views on the relationship between faith and historical inquiry), it seems patently unfair to claim that apocalyptic consciousness is the only historically credible attitude in the first century ce. Jewish wisdom traditions are well represented prior to this period by, at the very least, the books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. At the very least, we ought to allow it is possible that Jesus could contribute to such a tradition and not solely to end-times thinking. There is more than one way to criticize the Roman Empire, after all, and therefore plenty of ways to end up crucified. Which explanation best suits the evidence?

This brings us back to the Jesus voiceprint of last week’s blog post. Galston explains:

Identifying that voiceprint in greater detail helps us talk about the ‘lifestyle’ associated with a teaching tradition. This is not at all atypical of antiquity. Virtually all schools in antiquity not only had identifiable teaching but also complementary lifestyles. Jesus and various schools in ancient Judaism were no different. (67–68)

What was that voiceprint? What characterized it? The answer is right under our noses: Socrates gave us the allegory of the Cave; Jesus told parables.

Any of us who have read the Bible know what a parable is, more or less. It’s a story Jesus told to illustrate a point. It can be pulled from its immediate context and be told on its own, and it holds together pretty well. Other people have told parables, both in ancient times and in the present. It’s a rhetorical strategy, a mnemonic device.

Well, it’s a bit more complicated. Here’s the problem: sometimes, even most of the time, the gospel writers thought they understood the parables but really didn’t, or blatantly chose to interpret the parables in such a way that it served a need in their own communities. So we have this interpretive clutter around the original story. Some historians are absolutely fascinated by that interpretive clutter. Maybe they want to know how Plato framed Socrates’ Cave story and what it tells us about Plato. Maybe they want to uncover the historical “Matthew” for instance, or at least the community responsible for the gospel named after him. That would be a legitimate historical exercise.

However, if what we’re after is the historical Jesus, and we can reasonably understand the concerns of a given gospel writer, we can also figure out what the gospel writer might have added or embellished. We can bracket out such embellishment and get a sense for the original kernel of the parable. In its more basic form, the architecture of the parable should “fit together” for the listener, even if he or she doesn’t understand it. For example, the parable employs a recurring image like in the story of the Good Samaritan, where three people pass by the injured man in succession, giving us a key to remember how the story progresses.

Is there any reason to believe these mnemonic devices couldn’t have survived by passing from an original teacher (Jesus) to his students? Could those sayings, passed around, have caused enough controversy to lead to his crucifixion? If you find this credible, the historical Jesus as wisdom teacher may not seem quite so far-fetched, after all.

Next week’s post will revisit the “the apocalyptic complaint” mentioned above in more detail. For now, let me end with an excerpt from a rather parabolic poem by Anne Sexton, “Jesus Dies”:

From up here in the crow’s nest
I see a small crowd gather.
Why do you gather, my townsmen?
There is no news here.
I am not a trapeze artist.
I am busy with My dying.
Three heads lolling,
bobbing like bladders.
No news.
The soldiers down below
laughing as soldiers have done for centuries.
No news.

Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo credit: Cassandra Farrin

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. Photo credit: Cassandra Farrin


Beck, Charlotte Joko. “Nothing Special: Living Zen.” San Franscisco: HarperCollins, 1995.

Miller, Robert J. The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 1999.

Sexton, Anne. “Jesus Dies.” Pp. 272–73 in Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality. Edited by Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.

Wright, N. T. “Setting Scholars Straight about the Bible.” March 5, 2007. Accessed August 1, 2014. http://jesusseminar.blogspot.com/2007/03/setting-scholars-straight-about-bible.html

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. 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.

21 replies
  1. Peter Kane says:

    “There is more than one way to criticize the Roman Empire, after all….” I love that. We so often fall into the trap of generalizing about history, inventing a broad category for convenience, and then insisting on fitting the entire ancient population into that category. We forgot we just made up the category as a convenient shorthand.

    In both Brandon’s big book and little book on parables he leaves the final interpretation of ‘what the parable means’ open-ended. And that is just the way it is with parables. Reimagining the world ‘over there’ is something for everyone to do themselves, the Right View thing. And different people come out of that process differently. Which is OK, they stand on different ground when doing their reimagining. You can see the gospel writers interpreting in their own ways all over the place, which just sort of means Jesus was pretty successful in using parables to get people to think for themselves, though I suppose we could ding the gospel writers for not always recognizing the fine points of openendedness.

    But if telling parables puts Jesus in the Wisdom box, I think we should be careful how we do that. Personally I just cannot see Jesus involved in Wisdom for wisdom’s sake. However you want to try and recover the original sitz for a given parable, not easy to do, in general the parables had to do with addressing people under oppression. The parables call for the oppressed to imagine ways of coping with oftentimes almost impossible situations. To me a parable cannot be appreciated as a little gem or nugget of wisdom, devoid of any connection to history. But working out the connections, then and now, seems to be the challenge.

    I also have problems with Wright and others assuming an all-encompassing Jewish apocalyptic ‘world view’. Apocalyptic, revelations from on high, is just another way very oppressed people have to deal with very difficult historical situations. We invent the category, and then we try to cram everyone into the category. We might just as well insist that all Democrats think alike, or all Republicans think alike. Obviously they don’t, as we can see from last week’s news cycle.

    As can clearly be seen by the most casual observer (just for you Mike) most people unless they are crazy don’t ‘live’ in world views. They just use bits and pieces of world views to live in history, and to talk with each other about how they are dealing with history at the moment.

  2. Brian says:

    I like this post, and I like the poem!

    I’ll comment on one point:

    “Is there any reason to believe these mnemonic devices couldn’t have survived by passing from an original teacher (Jesus) to his students?”

    It’s possible, certainly, but we would need a record to trace the passing. Because it’s also possible, and perhaps more likely, that the author known as Mark developed the parables — this unknown writer being some variety of genius, inventing a new genre and creating these parables.

    All evidence points to an intelligent writer; I don’t see any evidence for a guy named Jesus.

    “Could those sayings, passed around, have caused enough controversy to lead to his crucifixion?”

    I find it hard to believe anyone would be crucified for his parables. The Jews denied multiple gods and they were tolerated for a long time. Ultimately it was their own penchant for military action that compelled the Romans to take the Jews out of the Empire.

    The Jesus movement during the Roman Empire was taken to be a branch of Judaism — unwilling to recognize Roman gods or respect the emperor as one. But I don’t think that had developed during 5 BC – 30 BC (the alleged lifetime of Jesus).

    “If you find this credible, the historical Jesus as wisdom teacher may not seem quite so far-fetched, after all.”

    No, I don’t find it credible.

  3. Cassandra says:

    Peter, Brian, thanks both for the stimulating thoughts!

    R.E. Peter’s discussion of context: First of all, I really like the point about world view. In my first year of undergrad we were required to take a “Worldviews” course; it was the first time I learned the term, and it continued to crop up in nearly every class I took. There’s a real danger in suggesting someone “had to” think or behave in a certain way, as though worldview is so powerful it quells dissonance.

    Well, we know from personal experience, most of us, that that is hardly true. Our experiences and interactions provoke new ideas and problems with old ideas all the time. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that for the sake of closing an argument (“This is just how people were back then. End of discussion.”) No wonder David began his discussion of the Jesus voiceprint with the problem of truth in historical inquiry.

    So on the one hand we know context matters, and that wisdom is either inherited or provoked by experience (as an adoptive parent I can attest to that!), but we can’t ever fully reconstruct the situation, only limit to plausible scenarios. That’s what leaves it open-ended—not absolutely open-ended, where anything goes, but still open-ended enough to be recognizably human.

    R.E. Brian’s point about an early writer like Mark vs. Jesus as the originator of the parables: I think that’s a fair question. I’ve read a number of books and articles about oral versus written culture in the ancient world, at least a couple of which call into doubt the idea that written texts were hard to come by. Most acknowledge that even written texts were meant to be read aloud, but Jesus, if he existed, was not a writer of such texts.

    In discussions of whether or not Jesus existed, I find myself turning to Paul, whose historical existence I don’t think is in doubt. Even if we exclude the book of Acts and inauthentic letters of Paul as evidence, in the authentic, undisputed letters Paul demonstrates indirectly, without any interest in proving the existence of anybody, that he did know and interact with (ahem, wrangle with) Peter, James and John. His disputes are often specifically around his own authority by comparison with these other leaders. In fact, one of the delicate problems Paul faced was his lack of first-hand contact with Jesus except in a vision. He claims his title of “apostle” as though to prove he had the right to use it. Why would he need to do that if he weren’t competing with others who could make a better case of direct contact with Jesus?

    In my mind, then, Paul’s letters, as the oldest layer of tradition we have, do suggest a historical group around a historical figure known as Jesus. I find it hard to imagine all this industry and dispute, some of which got quite virulent, around somebody no one had met.

    But I’m provoked by your question to consider whether the parables can be traced reasonably back to Jesus, so that’s not a done deal in my mind. Does Paul show evidence of knowing them, for instance? I need to do some thinking on that.

  4. Mike Short says:

    When I first became aware of the seminar, I was first hooked by Funk’s take on the Good Samaritan parable. I had learned in school that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who happened to be wrong in his predictions, at least according to Schweitzer. Funk’s interpretation of Jesus was not that. This Jesus was not asking us in this Samaritan parable who should we help? But who will we accept help from?

    Funk often said, “This is what we know about the historical Jesus, or think we know.” I liked that kind of thinking. It mirrors the scientific method that I studied. All science is tentative, this is what we know, or think we know. That kind of thinking demands respect, especially when placed next to the religious certitude I had faced in seminary.

    Cassandra posted “Here’s the problem: sometimes, even most of the time, the gospel writers thought they understood the parables but really didn’t, or blatantly chose to interpret the parables in such a way that it served a need in their own communities.”

    Very true, and if we go to a church and hear a sermon on a parable we get the preacher’s interpretation of the gospel writer’s interpretation that fits the life situation of that church.

    Brian wrote, “All evidence points to an intelligent writer; I don’t see any evidence for a guy named Jesus.”

    Yeah, that makes sense. I vacillate between HJ and no HJ. My wife, Linda, rightly claims I am a mugwump on many issues with my mug on one side of the fence and wump on the other side. Ted Weeden’s Thursday evening lecture and supporting paper on Two Jesuses at the Fall 2003 JS meeting got me to appreciate the possibility that the HJ that was written about in the Bible and resulted from the recent quest was a composite of itinerant sage sayings and life stories, possibly put together from the life histories of more than one Jesus and maybe some other sages with other names. The voiceprint then becomes a handbook of wisdom teaching that may or may not originate with a single first century individual. Is it still worth investigating that voiceprint? I think Galston will tell us as we progress in his book.

    Cassandra wrote, “I find it hard to imagine all this industry and dispute, some of which got quite virulent, around somebody no one had met.”

    I read a book once about Sasquatch. (Sorry, just one of my annoying habits.)

    Peter wrote, “But if telling parables puts Jesus in the Wisdom box, I think we should be careful how we do that. Personally I just cannot see Jesus involved in Wisdom for wisdom’s sake. However you want to try and recover the original sitz for a given parable, not easy to do, in general the parables had to do with addressing people under oppression.”

    As usual Peter, you make a lot of sense. Even if there were no HJ and we are looking at a composite, we still have an obligation to diligently search for the situation that would produce a parable or aphorism with the peculiar nature we have identified. That is the scholarly task. What we do with any wisdom remnants that are found is try to adjust them to our times. That is an even tougher task, a pastoral task or social task.

    We need not look to the foreign lands of missionary work to find oppressed people. How do we apply the voiceprint to the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the widows, the aliens among us today?

  5. Brian says:

    I vacillate myself between: Jesus was a myth, and, Okay, he existed but we can’t know anything about him. I am actually pretty comfortable with the idea that a guy named Jesus lived, but the actual man disappeared from history and was replaced by a legend.

    Perhaps the case of Socrates is most similar. If you read the first several paragraphs about Socrates on Wikipedia, it will be enough to get the idea: there is the slim possibility that he was a literary character that a few philosophers found handy to develop; but then it seems probably he did exist, however, since he is overwhelmingly a literary character, it is far from certain that we could approximate the real Socrates.

    I really do think that is where we are with Jesus.

    Of course, you are all right that, nevertheless, there are the hosts of believers who rely on the legend of Jesus and need to be in dialogue with pastors. People need Jesus, Vishnu, Mohammad, Odin . . .

  6. Cassandra says:

    Sasquatch! Point taken, Mike! 😉 You’ll all have to forgive my skepticism; my Masters thesis was on British Mormon conversion narratives, and if there’s one thing I learned from studying the LDS and other new religions, it’s that at minimum their core prophets are real, usually charismatic individuals with an intense concern that reflects the era in which they lived.

    (The concern doesn’t have to be apocalyptic, of course. Since a lot of new religions branch from old religions, many take on apocalyptic orientations. I don’t think it had to be that way, though.)

    Two related thoughts:

    In my research, I found that British Mormon conversion narratives were modeled after the original conversion narrative of founder Joseph Smith, a finding that confirmed a similar study in the U.S. I feel, based on that model along with what we already know about ancient groups, that it is not unreasonable to identify an associated lifestyle of the ancient “school of Jesus.” I agree with Brian that that is likely to be built at least equal parts on experience and legend.

    At the Spring 2014 meeting, Art Dewey brought up memory and the imprint of a life on others. I know it’s hard to “pin down” in the scientific sense, but it’s intuitively true that when someone dies, aspects of the person are carried forward in others’ mannerisms, commemorative actions (conscious or unconscious) and stories. In other words, we can make memory concrete through memorial.

    I don’t want to lose sight of this in cases of historical figures like Socrates, Jesus, and more recent individuals like Joseph Smith, Nelson Mandela, and others who are proving to leave an enduring imprint on people who never even met them. There’s an element to this that links deeply to that much-needed context Peter brought up.

  7. Dennis Carpenter says:

    Jesus the parablist? I doubt it. It’s a literary device used in the Tanakh as well as in the Gospels. It is, however, a good “voice print” of the early authors. Try composing a parable. Try writing one. I think the only evidence given that could even point in the direction of a historical Jesus the parabler are statements in Mark about Jesus being crazy… Anyone who walked around with nothing better to do than orally compose parables would have been!

  8. Brian says:

    Hey, I want to write a parable! What is the lesson in doing so, Dennis? I have read part of Dan Otto Via’s study, “The parables; their literary and existential dimension” (1967). Via says the Jesus parables are meant to keep a secret, not to be understood — or only meant to be understood by a special group.

    “And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven’.” (Mark 4:10-12)

    So this seems to be the key, identifying element of a parable, that it not be understandable, correct?

  9. Peter Kane says:

    Brian: The reason parables are “understandable” to some, and not to others is not because there is some secret religious code involved. It is because some belong to the great tradition and some belong to the little tradition. Or a better way of saying it is if you’re a part of the little tradition you will likely see various possible meanings suggested that someone belonging to the great tradition is likely to miss. Camel through the eye of the needle stuff.
    When you think of it, in general parables or aphorisms by their very nature, whether spoken by Jesus or someone else, are more directed toward the individual. They say to the individual, think about this, and see if it stimulates your thinking about how you might live your own life, in the company of others. You are invited to sit in a corner and think about how things are and how they might be. And whether they are a voiceprint of Jesus or a generic voiceprint of some of the ever growing oppressed people in the 1st century Galilean community, they have the tone of learning to cope in almost intolerable circumstances.
    When you look at Paul’s authentic letters (welcome Dennis), there is a voice print of a different kind. Community organizer, arrogant sob, but a voiceprint clearly directed to how communities should function. Much less individually oriented. When I was a kid I used to think reading Paul was like having a conversation with a real individual. But I have grown to see that what we have in the letters is and individual having a conversation with other ancient people in communities, and we are just eavesdropping on the conversation trying to figure out what was going on.
    The authentic letters are clearly a different ‘voiceprint’ than the pseudo Pauline stuff, and way different than Acts, which I always recognized as lower quality religious pr, even as a kid – didn’t need the Acts Seminar to tell me that, but just fill me in on all the details of the literary style.
    So whether we are talking about the “Jesus” voiceprint or the “Paul” voiceprint, the real issue is not how authentic the voiceprint might have been. The issue was how were the voiceprints heard by people in the little tradition, and by people in the great tradition. How did they influence history.

  10. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Brian, parables are understandable, depending upon the ability of the reader. They are generally similes or metaphors unique in the way they cause people to think. My point was that I believe they are the voiceprints of the author, not Jesus. I spent a good deal of the first half of the year composing an essay about this. My conclusion (if it will fit):
    It seems to me that if one looks at the parables, one is looking at a variety of plausible origins. None, however, point directly to the teachings of Jesus. Here are the reasons:
    1. Between forty to 100 years passed before we have written records of parables. What is known about orality does not support the transmission of a “fixed” story. They changed with every performance.
    2. The parables, indeed the entirety of the gospels, would have gone from a Semitic language base to a Greek language. This is bound to have changed the stories and sayings. As the adage goes, “It loses something in translation!”
    3. The parables and the gospels went from a Palestinian to a Greco-Roman culture before the earliest copies of the gospels we have were copied.
    4. As late as the third century, Origen complained about the diversity in manuscripts, “…either through the negligence of certain copyists, or the perverse audacity shown by some in correcting the text, or through the fault of those who, playing the part of correctors, lengthen or shorten it as they please” (Comfort, p. 9). Charges were rampant in the second century that Marcion had “mutilated” certain writings. We know, as sure as anything, that the writings that ended up becoming the “New” Testament underwent changes.
    5. With the stories passing through different performances, they changed. We can see the *written* changes just by comparing parables common to the gospels. To say one is more “primitive” than the other is not the point. They are all “primitive” and were all put into writing, as far as we know, from about 80 ce until around 120 ce, roughly a forty year period.
    6. Parables that reinforce the views of the author probably originated with the author OR were changed so much by the author (and/or performers) the “original intent” is unknown.

    I doubt that any of the parables, as we find in the writings, can be directly traced to Jesus. That not only includes the wording of the parables, but any intent of the parable. A historical Jesus doesn’t talk through any of them. Our perception of a Jesus based on our experiences, just like those of the authors of the gospels, is what the parables show. That makes the parables moralizing stories one apply to one’s life. As Philo put it, “If you give attention to the riddles which arise out of the perception of what is probable, you have destroyed the truth by doing so.” Parable doesn’t “work” without experience. Attempts to tease a historical Jesus from parable, apart from being impossible, destroys the value of parable. (The tell more about the “teaser.”) The parables are what they are; reflections of a late first century, second century Christian zeitgeist.

  11. Brian says:

    Thanks for the helpful comments, Peter and Dennis. However, if the parables are understandable — and I agree readers do try to make sense of them, and I have read some exceedingly clever interpretations — how do I make sense of what Jesus said? — ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’

    The “you” are the disciples (who, although they are the ones given to understand, are forever saying, “What? What does that mean?!”), and everyone else is given to “see but not perceive, and…hear but not understand.”

    Unless the “you” is expanded to include followers of Jesus, believers. I think that is what most preachers will say, but the meaning seems ambiguous to me.

    In any case, it is indisputable that there is a group that is given to not understand. (Boy, that “lest they should turn and be forgiven” is a cold shoulder isn’t it!)

    Dennis, I see what you mean: that the writer will leave his or her imprint on the parable. I find it intriguing, the idea that multiple authors — say authors of James Bond novels — all try to capture Bond’s “voice,” and for the most part do a convincing job for most readers, and yet when examined closely, have left an identifiable, personal imprint of their own voice, layered underneath Bond’s voice.

    Same with Jesus. Which is why “Mark’s” Jesus sounds cranky most of the time.

    Peter, that was helpful for me to consider that parables are for individuals and letters are for groups.

    For the past year I have been thinking about and comparing the kingdom of God/heaven parables, and I find them flabbergasting.

  12. Cassandra says:

    Gentlemen, I am really enjoying listening in on your follow-up conversation on parables and secrets, and the important question of historical value when and if a parable can be traced back to a particular person. I will see what I can pull up into the next blog post from this, as David also comments on some of this. I’ve been trying to put these out by Saturday afternoon each week.

    Just to echo Brian, Peter, I also found it helpful to consider that parables are for individuals and letters are for groups.

  13. Peter Kane says:

    Brian: You got me thinking about how parables get authored. No doubt once authored, they get passed around and continually modified to reflect the ideas of later users of the parable, as Dennis suggested. That was going on in the gospels, and still is going on, often times in a wacky way, on Sunday mornings.
    But I think parables in general come out of a particular historical context, specifically a culture that was stable for a time, but now is changing. And the parabler is ahead of his time in seeing the changes coming. A parable writer today might spin a tale about what life would be like when white men are the minority in America. Or what life would be like when many more women are CEOs. The kingdom of women is like…
    So this means that in the same way we are eavesdropping on an ancient conversation in Paul’s authentic letters, we are likewise eavesdropping on a conversation when reading the gospel parables. They aren’t aimed at us directly as we might easily think. They have a more individual target audience than the letters, but we aren’t that target audience directly. They aren’t nuggets of eternal truth devoid of a historical context.
    What context works? Consider the rural nature of the stories. Consider how Tiberius and Sepphoris were sucking the life from small communities around them, taking over agricultural land and creating day laborers and bandits. What about the fishing industry being controlled and taxed on the Sea of Galilee. Fits with where Jesus is reported to have hung out, followers being fishermen, Mary being from Magdala.
    There is a lot that is plausible about drastic and oppressive changes going on in those areas being the genesis of stories of how things would be different with God in charge. Could there be other possible contexts in the Empire that could generate similar parables. No doubt, but I think it would be incumbent on someone advocating a different historical context to suggest a location and fill in the details a bit.

  14. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Peter, one mustn’t forget that parables were also used in the Hebrew scriptures. In Hosea 12:11, one finds God saying he “spoke parables through the prophets.” Jesus as prophet would be validated by parables, so it would not seem unique to have him speaking in “riddles.” Here are a couple of parables that, for the length of time they were written before the Synoptics, seem to have a Jesus-ish voiceprint to me… And, they are only one language from the original, probably:

    2 Samuel 12:1-4 The speaker is Nathan: “There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him. One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but he was loath to take anything from his flocks to prepare a meal for the guest who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”

    Isaiah 5:1-2 My beloved had a vineyard on a fruitful hill. He broke the ground, cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines. He built a watchtower inside it, he even hewed a wine press in it; for he hoped it would yield grapes. Instead, it yielded wild grapes.

    Ecclesiastes 9:14-15 There was a little city, with few men in it; and to it came a great king, who invested it and built mighty seige works against it. Present in the city was a poor wise man who might have saved it with his wisdom, but nobody thought of that poor man. “

  15. Brian says:

    Peter, it occurred to me this morning while I was making French toast that maybe the author known as Mark was influenced by the mysterious Mithraic religion that blossomed in Rome from about the 1st to the 4th centuries. Mark’s gospel is pervaded by the Messianic secret, and might help explain phrases like the one in the passage I’ve been quoting: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God…” It intrigues people to be told that some are in on the secret, while others are not in the know.

    Thanks for the reminder about the Hebrew Bible’s parables, Dennis. They do show that the New Testament gospel writers were working to establish connections, thereby gaining legitimacy, with the ancient Hebrew writers.

    I wish I could find Louise Glück’s poem “A Parable,” from her collection titled The Triumph of Achilles (1985), it’s one of my favorite poems, and is also about King David and his affair with Bathsheeba. Gluck has written other poems as parables that can be found online. She might be the best contemporary parabler in America.

  16. Brian says:

    Know what? I don’t think we know very much about Mark, either. Tradition has it that he went to Alexandria and began Christianity there, but his preaching against the gods angered the citizens and they put a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he was dead.

    Is that true? Did he even go to Alexandria?

  17. Gene Stecher says:

    Hi to all, especially to Mike, Peter, and Dennis with whom I’ve refreshingly enjoyed Jesus-study conversations in both the distant and recent past. Still trying to figure out how it came to be that I’ve been unaware of this dialogue site. Some might be interested in a conversation about parables I had last week with Charlie Hedrick at his blog site, under the title ‘Jesus-A Galilean Story Teller’: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/ As you all probably know, Charlie has written more than one book where the parables are a central theme, and he has another book coming out this Fall where he devotes an entire chapter to ‘The Fired Manager.’

    I do have some thoughts about Brian’s concern with Mark’s statement, ‘To you has been given the secret to the K of G, but to those outside everything is in parables…’ (4:11). This is my take: (1) the words are on Jesus’ lips but the idea is in-house, one no doubt promoted in Mark’s community. (2) Mark is quite good at this insider knowledge theme as it is found again in Jesus’ comment coming down from the mountain of transfiguration that the disciples should ‘tell no one until after the son of man has been raised.’

    Further, there is inconsistency about how widespread the ‘secret’ might be: (3) The comments are addressed to ‘those who were around him along with the twelve’ (4:10), and (4) Later at vs. 33, Mark says somewhat the opposite of the ‘secret’ theme, ‘With many such parables he spoke the word to them **as they were able to hear it**.’

    Give Mark credit for not blanketing transmitted tradition so completely with his ‘secret’ theme that he makes the broader emphasis disappear.

  18. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Here is another interesting perception, I think. “The healing stories in Mark structure Jesus’ miracle stories as parable and turn on the them of cleansing and purifying Israel… The metaphor in biblical tradition involves whatever is in imbalance, mixed elements that do not go together, physical distortions such as the blind and the lame, as well as moral distortions such as disobedience or apostasy. The kingdom’s positive reversals of destiny are repeatedly evoked by a miracle, turning the unclean to clean and the unholy to holy” (Thompson, The Messiah Myth, p. 70). Healing stories as parable.

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