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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).

Christianity’s Struggle for Self-Definition (EHJ series)

"The historical Jesus was a person like us who struggled in life to realize, through his own personality and situation in the world, the Christ of himself."

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 214

We can be really short-sighted, historically speaking. We struggle to keep more than one human generation's beliefs and ideas in our heads at once. It seems obvious these days that when somebody says, "I'm Christian," he or she probably means they believe Jesus died for their sins and rose again on the third day, but of course in the earliest generations of the Jesus movement, that was not a given. "Christianity has always engaged in a struggle of self-definition," Galston explains in the final chapter of Embracing the Human Jesus (203). There is no monopoly on the name, and Christian has held multiple meanings across time.

That's actually the subject of the next blog series, so let me tell you a little about that before I come back to this important final chapter of David Galston's book.

Join us in reading Karen King's What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2005)

What are we reading next?
Next week I'll be starting a new blog series on Karen King's book What Is Gnosticism? Karen King is the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, best known these days for her role in studying the Jesus Wife Fragment. In What Is Gnosticism? she specifically addresses the fact that "Christians of the first centuries were deeply engaged in controversies over such basic issues as the meaning of Jesus' teaching, the significance of his death, the roles of women, sexuality, visions of the ideal community, and so on" (vii). This book forms the basis for the next Christianity Seminar at the Westar Fall Meeting in San Diego, so I hope you'll join me in reading the book in preparation for that event, whether you're planning to participate in the conversation here on the blog, on our Facebook page, or in person.

Can a historical Jesus community be Christian?
It's tempting to reach for one of two extreme responses to the historical Jesus. Like me, maybe when you learn about Christian history in all its convoluted and uncertain terms, you find yourself preferring an atheistic or humanist outlook. Or, like others, you may find yourself courting neo-orthodox Christianity, a fancy word for Christianity that applies the Christ-myth more metaphorically, even prophetically, often in the service of social justice issues. In a variation of this second position, still others prefer a more mystical outlook, one that interprets Jesus as the key to a more universal spiritual pattern that manifests across all religions (although David Galston didn't mention them, I couldn't help but think of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung as possible examples).

When it comes down to it, though, all these positions have something in common. They tend to prefer the Christ to Jesus. The historical Jesus is dismissed in favor of the clear, straightforward Christ who can either be rejected or embraced—but not engaged.

So as I read this, what I was left asking myself was the question, "Do I really want to engage the historical Jesus?" I feel almost blank in response to that. What do I know about the historical Jesus? It's hard to engage with someone you've been taught to ignore and elide into the Christ over and over again through weekly rituals. Yet throughout this book Galston has introduced a Jesus who is clever and compassionate, a man whose stories especially reveal him to be a careful observer of human relationships. He left a mark on the people who knew him. For that reason Galston has suggested the banquet should replace its closely-related cousin, communion, as the center of religious life.

Also, and this seemed to be problematic to many of you who commented on the past couple chapters, Galston is suggesting we see the Jesus movement as a school and Jesus as a teacher. A school may simply not be an adequate replacement for the mystery that religious practice often offers.

We're left, then, with a lot of questions about what shape ultimately an historical Jesus community would take, whether it can still be relevant, and especially whether it can speak as powerfully for Christianity as orthodox forms have in the past. We're living in the era in which that will likely be decided. Maybe the reason education—biblical literacy and religious literacy more generally—has to play such a big role in our generation is that it has failed to do so in the past for the everyday person, regardless of what was going on in the academy. "A major roadblock to taking the historical Jesus to church is precisely that he comes with some assembly required and no miracles, no mystery, and no authority provided," Galston explains. Then, once we've delved into the stuff we've been missing, "sometimes the humanistic wisdom of the historical Jesus is not mysterious enough to be attractive" (199).

Coming back to the quote with which we began, what I find most compelling in this final chapter is the call to give Christian a new definition, and to do so without fear. It's okay to see the Christ nature not as something absolute or essential, but rather as something to be practiced and experienced—as long as we do it inside the accountability provided by a community. We do it by imitating the historical Jesus' parable-world. We change the world by living it differently, and we do so together.

This is the concluding post in a blog series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. You can find chapter 8 here. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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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.

Parodying Violence in Ferguson (EHJ series)

“To stand in front of a tank and be willing to be run over is absolutely not a funny situation, but it is a case parody. … The student tries through non-violent resistance to publicly humiliate the army in an exaggerated and literal demonstration of its callous oppression.”

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 134

Smoky photos of police in riot gear alongside protestors in street clothes with paper signs, breathless cries of frustration from reporters, rumors of fire hoses and international investigations—in a heartbeat, fifty-year-old iconic images of racially charged history explode with latent power. Ferguson, Missouri, has reminded us that our everyday reality is pregnant with past violence.

The images are kept alive in our imaginations by family lore, literature and media, ready to escape when triggered. “The circulation of violence becomes a habit of life, and everybody makes a contribution,” writes David Galston in chapter 6 of Embracing the Human Jesus. We operate out of these habits as though they are the natural way to be—our “default reality” (115). Most of the time they exist as a backdrop, something that doesn't need to be thought out or noticed, but then something happens to awaken us to our assumptions. In Jewish Dogs: An Image and Its Interpreters, Kenneth Stow tells compellingly of how the slur “Jewish dog” is perpetuated in seemingly harmless ways across history—such as through cartoons and children’s games—only to rear up in more serious forms when new developments in political and social conflicts excite feelings against Jewish people.

Consider: if we recall the murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till in a conversation about Michael Brown, as I’ve seen people do this week on social media, what are we hoping people will do with that connection? Likewise, NPR ran a story about a black teen who was ‘almost another dead black male’—the catch? His mom was white. My children's skin color is darker than my own, so yes, this concerns me. But what I want to know is what we’re trying to accomplish with all these images.

Protest as parody

Ferguson protest © Light Bringading (Flickr) | Tiananmen protest © ryanne lei (Flickr)

David Galston suggests we can see non-violent resistance as a parody that demands change via embarrassment of the oppressor’s assumed power. Parody is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as imitation “for comic effect or in ridicule, often with certain peculiarities greatly heightened or exaggerated.” This was a strategy employed by the historical Jesus, and it was probably what motivated Roman authorities to kill him. Many readers will be familiar with the following interpretation of "turn the other cheek": When Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” he probably was not encouraging us to passively accept abuse. Rather, it was a demand for equality. “To be slapped on the right cheek is to receive the backhanded blow of your oppressor’s right hand. It is symbolically a ‘downward’ blow meant to put you in your place” (134). Yet when you turn the other cheek, you demand a blow “that assumes equality.”

Galston does not mean to argue that Jesus taught exactly this popular lesson of non-violent resistance as it is now associated with him. It may have nothing to do with what the historical Jesus actually said and did. Rather, “the point is to extend ancient wisdom of the Jesus school into our time and language” (139). We carry the momentum of his teaching forward in our own ways. As the late Marshallese storyteller Jorju Arre once explained, he only told stories to the people who asked, even if that meant only one person would ever hear them (Kelin & Nashon, Marshall Islands Legends & Stories: 169). Sometimes we need to demand stories of the past that propel us toward a better future. If we don’t ask, it won’t be remembered.

Emmett Till’s mom left the casket open. Protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989 refused to move from in front of tanks. What are we doing when we set up and recall such highly visual protests? We are declaring the imbalance of power. We are not allowing it to go unseen. It’s a parody of the oppressor’s control. True, we don’t laugh; but we sure see the ridiculousness of our oppressor’s demands for peace and quiet.

This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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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.

Jesus, the Buddha and the Prodigal Son (EHJ Series)

"The church as school, Jesus as teacher, and Christianity as lifestyle are all part of taking the historical Jesus to church."
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus

Consider this: Suppose you had the opportunity to spend a couple afternoons learning from the historical Jesus and the Buddha. After listening to the lessons they offer, which one would you follow? Jesus likely said things like, "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27 / Q) and "The empty jar is full because it is empty" (Thom 97:1–4). The Buddha likely said things like "A mind unruffled by the vagaries of fortune, from sorrow freed, from defilements cleansed, from fear liberated—this is the greatest blessing" (Mangala Sutta), and  "The root of suffering is attachment" (Sunakkhatta Sutta, Pali canon).

In attempting to grab a couple representative quotes from each, I quickly realized that (1) it's hard to know what quotes are authentic, and (2) it can be hard to decide which quotes best convey each teacher's world-view. By the way, if you think you're on safer ground finding the historical Buddha than with the historical Jesus, think again. Here's one entertaining response to this problem. I've also heard David Galston, whose book we've been discussing the past several weeks on this blog, warn about the problem of the historical Buddha on at least one occasion.

Nevertheless, the quotes above I hope convey that Jesus is most often associated with loving where hate is expected, and giving where greed is expected. In other words, his wisdom turns on irony. The Buddha is most often associated with the problem of attachment to what is temporary/transitory. We suffer because we fixate on what ought to be rather than practicing openness to what a given moment brings.

These are not identical attitudes. They don't necessarily cancel each other out, but they set different priorities. So who would you follow?

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 5 of 9, "Life Practices and Schools in Antiquity," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Chapter 4

David Galston suggests we understand the essence of teachings associated with Jesus as a "Trinity of Satire"—paradox, hyperbole, and irony. He gives examples of each, including the two quotes I cited above. An example of hyperbole mixed with a little irony is the parable of the Prodigal Son. In this parable, "the loser is celebrated and the winner feels jealous," Galston explains. "The one with all the power is insecure and cannot let it go to enjoy the moment. The one with nothing is having the time of his life."

If you have 5 minutes to spare, you can watch a video of David telling this parable and interpreting it.

David point out that Jesus' saying, "Love your enemies," is a paradox—an impossible statement. Once you begin to love your enemy, s/he is no longer your enemy. By embracing your enemy, the very idea of enemy becomes empty. Perhaps this was what sparked the philosopher Martin Heidegger to declare in Being and Time that our relationship with others is largely based on a false notion of "the they." He writes,

"We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the great mass as they shrink back; we find 'shocking' what they find shocking. The 'they', which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness." (164, emphasis mine)

In other words, we build up this idea in our heads of who the Other is, and we begin to think that we really understand that other person or other group, that we either are with them or against them. But when we have an authentic encounter with another human being, that whole notion falls apart. They are not the caricature we thought they were. "They" never existed at all. What we have left is another complex human being.

Would You Join the Jesus School of Wisdom?
David poses an interesting question here. If the whole issue of Jesus wasn't about deciding whether or not he is God, but rather, whether or not we would follow his teachings, would we do it? This is the third time I've read David's book. The first time was a couple years ago when it came out, and since then I've undergone some changes in perspective that offered me some surprises when I got to this chapter. I now doubt that Jesus has much meaningful to offer somebody who comes from a strongly agrarian perspective. I no longer believe the Jesus school demonstrates closeness with the land.

This is an important issue to me for two reasons: (1) Just because Jesus may have resisted the Roman Empire, doesn't mean he did so in a way that cultivates a positive relationship with the earth. Those are two separate issues. Jesus may not be a good role model for what to me is our single greatest challenge in modern life: replenishing our damaged earth. (2) Itinerant teachers like Jesus may also not offer good advice for long-term communal life.

If these two values are high on your list, you may need to search elsewhere for a school of wisdom that can provide helpful insights. That's how I felt after reading this chapter.

This claim might need justification. It's true that Jesus uses nature metaphors, but I think he has more in common with people who live in urban settings. Even today, especially today, urban life makes migrants out of us. "Though we fled from distant lands to America, we continue to live much like refugees, never staying long enough to cultivate the richest values possible in a specific place," says Ben Falk in The Resilient Farm and Homestead. "We need the opposite kind of culture, a people that mean to stay" (14)

We already know the Jesus movement involved itinerant teachers who traveled from community to community, dependent on those they met to sustain them. Galston observes the similarity between this practice and that of the Greek Stoics, who likewise lived with little beyond the clothes on their backs. They did this on principle; it was part of the lifestyle of the school. It makes me think of Thoreau at Walden's Pond. I value simplicity to a point, but simplicity is easier for the itinerant than to the person who stays in one place, embedded in a community with all the messiness that entails.

By contrast, agrarian people usually live in multi-generational households in the same basic landscape, and are deeply shaped by that landscape the longer they live on it. This attitude is present in the Bible, mostly in what became the Old Testament. "The very pervasiveness of agrarian thinking in the Bible challenges the common assumption that those who composed or edited the writings were members of an urban elite whose perspectives 'distort or ignore the everyday reality of [villagers'] lives," explains Ellen F. Davis in Scripture, Culture and Agriculture (3).

I am especially taken with Davis' interpretation of the Israelite's exodus from Egypt. She sees the commandments given to the Israelites as a way to separate them from the exploitative practices of Egypt (or, metaphorically, the Israel's ruling class at the time the story was written). "Exploitative agricultural economies were for millenia a fixed feature of various Near Eastern societies," she explains, "including that of Israel and Judah in the period of the divided monarchy" (72). She notes that in this story the Israelites are not allowed to keep the manna overnight. In short, they aren't allowed to stockpile or control the distribution of food.

In complete contrast to agribusiness in both ancient and contemporary cultures, the first story of Israel out of Egypt shows that food is, more than anything else, an expression of God's sovereignty over creation and generosity toward humankind. (73)

I would substitute "God's sovereignty over creation" in this sentence with something about honoring our inability to force life to come into being. Davis is right, I think, to identify the importance of gratitude. In every book I have read, and every interaction I've had with long-time farmers in their least frustrated and anxious moments, gratitude is their highest value. In the words of Rilke:

Though he works and worries, the farmer
never reaches down to where the seed turns
into summer. The earth grants.

In this, I at last find a commonality between the Jesus tradition and the land-based attitude I am currently cultivating in my own life. While I think anybody with commonsense knowledge of nature would disagree with the notion that ravens "neither reap nor sow" (how untrue!), and with the notion that worrying about the future isn't occasionally useful to a cultivator of the land (surely it's helpful to prepare for contingencies!), we can at least agree with Jesus on this: "Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these" (Luke 12:27).

Gratitude—for the earth, for others, and ultimately for our own fleeting lives—is a value I'd like to prioritize. Is that more in keeping with Jesus or the Buddha? I don't know enough about the life of the Buddha, or popular ideas about that life, to comment intelligently on it. However, Jesus' itinerant lifestyle suggests he resisted or was encouraged to abandon the ties to the exact lands and households that once sustained him. To be sure, he may have been forced out by social and personal pressures. I think this may have impoverished the lessons he taught in the particular area we most need wisdom today.

The Prodigal Son is the closest we come to what we need, with a twist: do we have the day-in, day-out staying power of the oldest son? Are we willing to celebrate what we have, including our brother, rather than be celebrated for nothing?

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

Den förlorade sonens återkomst, Alex Kull (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Den förlorade sonens återkomst, Alex Kull (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Bibliography

David, Ellen F. Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Falk, Ben. The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1962 [Original 1927].

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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.

Did the Historical Jesus Bring about His Own Death? (EHJ series)

"We don't need to take the apocalyptic Jesus to church; he is already there."
—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 4 of 9, "Unhearing the Apocalypse," Embracing the Human Jesus (EHJ) series
« Chapter 3

Did the historical Jesus know he was going to die? For some of us, this is a non-question that takes us too far into the realm of the impossible. A human Jesus could not possibly have foreseen his own death. But did he want that outcome? Did he, like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, propel himself willingly toward his own death? Did he act in such a way as to bring it about? The word for this is apocalyptic.

Maybe it makes more sense to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher of sorts. Even saying it this way, I feel a drop in pressure. Wisdom teacher? Big deal. Why would history remember a guy who went around spouting aphorisms? I'm not saying, if he was a wisdom teacher, that he didn't stir up controversy—quite the opposite. To forward our parallel with Socrates from last week, recall that that wise man's life ended with a dose of hemlock for all-too-political reasons.

Was Jesus an apocalyptic end-times prophet who incited outrage, even purposefully, with an intent to go out in a blaze of glory? Or was he a wisdom teacher whose cheeky, barbed remarks got him in trouble once too often with the authorities?

We have examples of both in history, including specifically in ancient Jewish history and literature. Anyone who has read the later books of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Elijah stories, will easily recognize the prophet motif. The wisdom motif is there, too, in books like Job and Ecclesiastes, although these books as wisdom are emphasized less often in Christian contexts. I certainly noticed, growing up in the pentecostal tradition that I have since left, that it is very much possible to read such stories as a community while still downplaying any interpretation outside the apocalyptic. I certainly learned that wisdom all occurred inside an end-times framework, and the wisest action of all was submission to the cosmic Christ.

It doesn't have to be interpreted that way, of course.

Wisdom Traditions in Ancient Jewish/Israelite Culture
I opened with a quote from Galston about the apocalyptic Jesus already "being in church." Church rituals, stories and interactions all cater to an interpretation of Jesus as bringing about the end of history as we know it. This being the case, I thought it might be helpful here to share a couple quotes about Jewish wisdom traditions as a way to counterbalance the more dominant apocalyptic view. For instance, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in The Essential Talmud (2010) explains,

The sages themselves said, 'Random conversations, jests or casual statements of sages should be studied,' and sometimes important halakha is derived from chance remarks made without any educational intent. This being so, the actions of the sages are of even greater significance. Everything a sage does in every sphere of endeavor must be carried out in a spirit of truth and should be Torah itself. Disciples often studied closely the behavior of their rabbi in order to learn how to conduct themselves. (138)

Carl S. Ehrlich, in From an Antique Land (2009), helpfully summarizes types of wisdom literature in ancient Hebrew/Israelite culture:

According to James L. Crenshaw's categorization, there are four types of wisdom literature: "natural, experiential, judicial and theological" (Crenshaw 1993). Natural wisdom reflects observations of the real or natural world. This type of wisdom literature in the ancient Near East includes lists of various types and reflects a precursor of what has become known as the method of scientific observation. Experiential wisdom deals with the workings of the world and more specifically of human society. It is closely allied with what may be termed folk wisdom in the modern world. Judicial wisdom deals with the adjudication of disputes and how to settle them. Finally, theological wisdom is the one that attempts to answer questions of a speculative nature and is the type that is arguably predominant in the Hebrew Bible, but not necessarily within the book of Proverbs itself, in which experiential wisdom is quite heavily represented. (376)

On the other hand, it's good to remember that just because clever sayings were written down does not mean they were part of popular culture. Gonzalo Rubio, in a discussion of Sumerian literature, calls on a more recent example to show how far divorced an intellectual exercise can be from popular practice in the ancient world, too:

The divorce between production and consumption (i.e., writing and performance) of artistic works is not a particularly unusual phenomenon. For instance, J. S. Bach composed his Mass in B Minor according to the Roman Catholic ordinary cycle in Latin, as an expansion of a Lutheran missa brevis. However, there was no occasion for the performance of such a Mass in Lutheran Leipzig, and there is no indication this Latin mass was commissioned by any patron, such as the Catholic court at Dresden (Wolff 2000: 441–42). By producing such an apparently decontextualized Mass, Bach was establishing a musical dialogue and placing himself within a learned tradition that was initiated by Catholic composers, such as Palestrina. ... [Likewise] many Sumerian literary compositions are thoroughly scholastic and appear detached from performative goals of any kind. (From an Antique Land: 25–26)

Rubio is not saying that scholarly and artistic ventures like Bach's are fruitless, but rather that they belong to a particular community and stream of tradition that may not have touched the lives of everyday people. He specifically uses the word "decontextualized" to convey precisely what came up in discussion in last week's blog: the situation of a new stream of knowledge/performance, or the reason it came into existence. Why did Bach create such a Mass? To continue a multi-generational conversation he found meaningful about a certain genre of music. We don't always think of that as a context, but it was the context for his Mass.

Why did Jesus tell parables? Why did he tell those parables? The religion that developed out of it overshadows the original context, but what was that context, and why was it remembered in such a way that it eventually became an apocalyptic religious movement? Galston introduces his interpretation of life practices and philosophy recommended by the parables in the next two chapters of Embracing the Human Jesus, but for now, where does Galston find wisdom traditions in surviving texts about the Jesus movement?

Everywhere in the Jesus tradition there is evidence of wisdom as the fundamental memory of Jesus. In the canonical gospels, Jesus teaches mainly in parable. In the gnostic gospels, Jesus is almost exclusively a figure of wisdom. And the Apostle Paul is acutely aware of the wisdom tradition that defines his opponents and that he claims to know equally well (1 Cor 2:6). It cannot be said that apocalyptic material holds the same omnipresent characteristic. ... Other Christian options [apart from apocalypticism] that were eventually labeled heretical were originally as prolific as the orthodox tradition and shared with it the wisdom associated with Jesus. (78)

Galston goes on to cite the examples of Diogenes versus Thales to say Jesus not only employed parable but also short pithy sayings known as chreia. Even though this is traditionally a Greek form of wisdom, Galston and Steinsalz share the view that a man like Jesus need not be ignorant of wisdom traditions outside Judaism. "The spiritual world of sages was not closed to external influence or knowledge," Steinsalz explains after citing several examples of rabbinic interest in physical sciences. "'If you are told that there is wisdom among the nations, believe it,' they said" (140). Steinsaltz also observes that some branches of Judaism were aware of Greek and classical literature but purposefully muted their reliance on it, while others, like the Egyptian Jewry, purposefully "tried to combine Greek culture with Judaism" (141).

Returning to the parables, one thing I find very interesting is Galston's definition of a parable as a way to see this world differently rather than transport oneself to another, better world. Case in point: Some of you may be familiar with Wendell Berry's agricultural interpretations of the Bible. I found it helpful to ask myself how Galston's view differs from Berry's, by way of example. Berry's theology is not interested in the historical Jesus, so it doesn't add much to the discussion in that sense, but it's exemplary of an interpretive approach that does not focus on an apocalyptic end that comes from outside the world. Where Berry imagines an almost certain-to-come human-caused apocalypse caused by our failure to work with the earth that sustains us, I see Galston as turning away from that model entirely to a tradition that is complementary to Berry's concern with the impact of human action on the world, but is not apocalyptic at all in that it doesn't imagine a virtually inevitable, destructive end.

To frame this same point in light of Carl Ehrlich's four types of wisdom, I feel that authentic Jesus sayings generally suit experiential and judicial wisdom. What's the right thing to do, and how should we behave when the world does not operate by just and fair rules? These questions rub up against the problem of the Roman elite's displays of military and economic power, so they are not merely moralistic.

I noticed in last week's discussion, however, that we aren't all in agreement or clarity about what sayings of Jesus we would consider authentic, versus what should be attributed to Jesus' followers. I see the parables as largely experiential, but maybe if you include some of the more mystical sayings in your repertoire you see theological wisdom—"that attempts to answer questions of a speculative nature"—as more dominant. How many angels can dance on the head of pin? Which answer will get you crucified? Sometimes even the speculative questions can get you in trouble.

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

Carl Schleicher Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud (Carl Schleicher (fl. c. 1859 – after 1871))

Carl Schleicher Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bibliography

Ehrlich, Carl S. From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near East Literature. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Steinsaltz, Rabbi Adin. The Essential Talmud. London: Maggid, 2010.

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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.