Monday, August 26, 2013

Critical Review: John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus, Part 1

For this week we'll have a 3 part guest post by Tekton reader Ross Harriman, taking it to this new book by JD Crossan.


Recently I have been doing research on the parables (irrelevant side-note: with a focus on the Parable of the Unjust Steward) and one of the most frequent contributors to modern parables research has been John Dominic Crossan. He began writing on the parables in the early 70s and his contributions have included the article on the subject in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, books such In Parables [1973] and Cliffs of Fall [1980] as well as several journal articles (including some in the first volume of Semeia). While The Power of Parable, being a popular-level book, does not represent his latest interaction with research and criticisms, it does represent his latest views. If one is into parables research, this volume is an important one to read if for no other reason than to encounter a different perspective.

Now comes the “however.” Crossan’s book is rather extensively riddled with problems. I am not sure how to summarize the issues any better than to take this book chapter-by-chapter.


Crossan opens this chapter, as he does all of his others, with a narrative (either personal or one drawn from another source). I make this note to inform the reader, I will not be commenting on these narratives, except for this one. After recounting a Passion Play (a point of which we will return to later), Crossan writes of how, long ago, he was signed up to teach on the parables and on the resurrection stories of the Gospels. As he saw it, there was little difference between the parables by Jesus and these stories (meaning of course that he considers them parables about Jesus). What are parables? Crossan gives two or three definitions for the price of one (though the first one is more offhanded):

a fictional story invented for moral or theological purposes (3)
(similarly: “a story that never happened but always does—or at least should.”)(5)
a metaphorical story (which “always points externally beyond itself, points to some different and much wider referent”)(8, 9)

However, there is some difficulty in figuring out what Crossan means by “metaphorical.” He does define it as “seeing as” or “speaking as.” But the helpfulness of this term becomes rather suspect. On the one hand, though he thinks parables are metaphorical stories, the way in which he interprets several parables is to some extent decontextualized (or perhaps more accurately, miscontextualized; in any case, a guarantor of misunderstanding metaphor, which needs a context). On the other hand, maybe this confusion is understandable given that the way Crossan thinks about “metaphor” is quite broad: “When a metaphor gets big, it is called ‘tradition’; when it gets bigger, it is called ‘reality’; when it gets biggest of all, it is called ‘evolution’ or even ‘god.’”(8)[1] With metaphors like this kind, who needs literal language or any other form of trope for that matter? The issue with making metaphor so broad is that if everything is metaphor, nothing is metaphor. The term has ceased to be meaningful.

As a demonstration of his earlier point about the overlap between the resurrection stories and the parables, he cites the Emmaus road story in Luke 24:13-35. According to Crossan, there are three clues that this story was meant as parable and not history: 1) “when Jesus joins the couple on the road, they do not recognize him. He is, as it were, traveling incognito”; 2) “even when he explains in detail how the biblical scriptures pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, they still do not recognize him”; 3) “But the third and definitive clue to the story’s purpose is in the climax [24:28-32]”. (4) That is, this passage follows Jesus’ exposition of Scripture and thus has the same order as the ancient Christian liturgy involving Scripture and the Eucharist. If it is a parable, what is its meaning?

“The story is a parable about loving, that is, feeding, the stranger as yourself and finding Jesus still—or only?—fully present in that encounter. That was very clear to me decades ago, and I summed up the ancient Christian intention and modern Christian meaning of that parable by saying that, ‘Emmaus never happened. Emmaus always happens.’ That is, by the way, an introductory definition of a parable: a story that never happened but always does—or at least should.” (4-5)

It is at this point one realizes something that will be true throughout the book. Crossan’s interpretation is like a man who is on the other side of a deep canyon beckoning to another to come along. The second man asks how he made it to the other side as it is clearly too wide to jump and too treacherous to climb (not to mention the first man has no climbing gear in sight). “Surely there must be a bridge or an end to the canyon nearby?” inquires the second man.
The first simply replies, “Come on and cross the canyon.”
“But how? How did you do it?”
“Come on and cross the canyon.”
“I asked you a question.”
“Come on and cross the canyon.”
Eventually the second man leaves in a huff of frustration.

As becomes clearer and clearer, Crossan often presents “just so” statements and expects the reader to cross the interpretive gap, but never tells the reader how. It is also fair to ask Crossan what he would expect such a narrative to look like if it were history. Each of his apparent clues, taken in turn, hardly point “definitively” in the direction of parable. Jesus is not recognized. Why is this “clue” an indicator of parable and not an instance of the more broadly present feature of Jesus’ “transphysicality?” In other words, could it not be an indication that Jesus’ resurrection is not simply a resuscitation of his corpse, but also a transformation of it (so that he is not only able to be touched and to eat, but he is also able to appear and disappear at will, be taken up into heaven, and be unrecognized at first)? [2] Whether or not this first point is true, the second “clue” is neither here nor there. They could have thought the man they met was a prophet or a sage, but whatever the case this “clue” can hardly stand on its own one way or the other. The last “clue” is also non-indicative. One certainly can note that the events of this passage are paradigmatic of Christian worship, but, for that reason alone, to reduce them to parable is wholly illegitimate. It could as well be how events unfolded as their order makes sense outside of an appeal to liturgy. I would agree with N. T. Wright here:

“Of course, there are several elements of these experiences which he describes in such a way as to indicate the origin of ongoing Christian communal life….But they grow out of something which, at every point, Luke is at pains to make as discontinuous with subsequent Christian life as he possibly can. Emmaus, he says, did happen; and, though partial analogies occur every time hearts burn at biblical exposition and recognizing faith is kindled over broken bread, there is another even more important sense in which Emmaus will never happen again.” [3]

There are further indications here that Crossan’s interpretation is right out, which I present in question form. Why does Jesus disappear from their sight if the point of the story was as Crossan says? Would it not actually go against Crossan’s interpretation if Jesus disappears once the bread is broken and distributed? Why are the gospel proclamations in Acts featuring the resurrection distinctly from the breaking of bread? If this text is supposed to be an illustration of something that always happens, or should always happen, only with the breaking of bread, why does Jesus appear again in vv. 36-40 before there is any reference to food (which comes in v. 41) and explicitly rejects the notion that this appearance is something other than the physical appearance of Jesus himself (cf. Acts 1:4; furthermore, why is the order of Scripture and food reversed here)? In that same vein, if Luke-Acts is a two-volume work by the same author (as Crossan himself argues later in the book), why is there a reference to forty days (Acts 1:3) after which Jesus ascends to be replaced by the Holy Spirit ten days thereafter (Acts 1:9)? Here is, rather, a strong clue that Luke distinguishes between the appearances of the risen Jesus to the apostles and the reception of the Holy Spirit (also see Luke 24:51). Sure, the risen Jesus is known in and through the Holy Spirit, but not in the exact same manner as the apostles. The ascension demarcates these two kinds of encounters as much as it draws them together.

Even if this story was a parable and Crossan’s interpretation was its meaning, it has been shrouded in so much obscurity it is a wonder anyone—ancient or modern—could arrive at such an interpretation apart from Crossan’s guidance. Such an expression of love is of course vital for the Christian life and it does have its place in Jesus’ teaching and praxis as well as that of the Church. But there is no reason to think that teaching and praxis is here.

As he moves on from this section, Crossan outlines the rest of the book, giving the reader a categorization of parables: riddle parables, example parables, and challenge parables. He examines each of these kinds in turn throughout Part 1 (there is a fourth kind of parable he announces in Part 2, but that is for later). He also presents one of his major proposals of understanding the Gospels as larger parables in themselves (or “megaparables”)(6). More on this subject anon.

Chapter One

The first chapter of the book proper examines the first kind of parable in his categorization: riddle parables. Despite his attempts to illustrate by example, it is not entirely clear what he means by “riddle parable.” He attempts to give a more concise definition in the Epilogue: “Riddle parables (or allegories) are stories in which each element points outside itself to elements in some other hidden story….With riddles, participation involves discovering hidden knowledge and decoding secret information.” (244) This definition is better than anything he gives in the actual chapter (on 18 there is a more verbose statement to this effect), but it is not entirely helpful. It is not accurate to speak of his notion of riddle parables and allegories as if they are interchangeable. Since the days of Adolf Jülicher in the late-nineteenth century, it has been common to separate parable and allegory or at least Jesus’ parables and allegory. However, more and more scholars have come to decry such a distinction. [4] One important study in this area done by Madeleine Boucher noted that allegory is not so much a genre unto itself as a device of meaning which gave a story two levels of meaning (the literal and the tropical). [5] Stories with allegorical elements need not have each element pointing to something outside of itself. In speaking of “allegories” as such, scholars often appeal to the extreme example of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but not to, say, The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Flies. Craig Blomberg, who advocates an approach to parables as having such allegorical elements, argues that it is most often the “characters” of a parable that have outside correspondences, not necessarily all of the elements. [6]

Anyway, according to Crossan, Mark understands Jesus’ parables in this fashion of what Crossan deems “riddle parable” and this claim is demonstrable from how he presents Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (4:1-20) when, in between the parable story and its interpretation, he quotes Jesus as citing Isaiah 6:9-10 to explain why he speaks in parables (vv. 11-12). (18) And because riddles require one to get all of the details correct, Mark believed Jesus was using incomprehensible parables as a counterrejection to people who rejected him. (23-24) Crossan thus insists that Mark has misunderstood Jesus. He makes this argument for five reasons. 1) Mark’s understanding in vv. 11-12 contradicts his own opening of the section on parables in vv. 1-2 (since teachers do not teach in order to create incomprehension); 2) it contradicts Jesus’ framing words instructing people to listen (v. 9); 3) the presence of the Parable of the Lamp, given the inevitable associations, contradicts this view (vv. 21-22); 4) some were able to hear the parables (vv. 33-34); 5) the parable itself along with its interpretation contradicts this understanding. (24-25)

Of course, if Crossan thinks Mark’s own narrative contradicts itself this profusely within a single chapter, one wonders why he apparently did not re-evaluate his interpretation of what was going on in the first place. By this view, the Gospel authors were apparently conscious enough of their source material to select and shape it, but not to the extent that, in the process of shaping (or creating), they could realize when they had created such a dense multitude of contradictions in a small space. It is rather hard to accept both notions at once and so Crossan would have been better off going back to the drawing board.

As it is, the whole conflict is created by his interpretation of the “purpose statement” in Mark 4:11-12, which cites Isaiah 6:9-10. In light of the use of the verbs for “perceive” and “understand” elsewhere, as well as the contrast to verbs for “see” and “hear”, it seems unlikely that cognitive grasping is at issue here, as would be necessary for a riddle. After all, elsewhere in Mark and the other Gospels, the enemies of Jesus understood the parables well enough cognitively (such as in Mark 12:1-12), but are unwilling to accept the call contained therein. As in the rest of his ministry, the parables pose a moment of decision that can lead to discipleship or repulsion by clear rejection. [7]

Klyne Snodgrass’ analysis of this passage is especially helpful here. From the outset, he notes that at least Chrysostom’s day, it has been pointed out that if Jesus wanted to prevent understanding, the more effective means would be to remain silent. [8] When the wider context of the quote and the significance of identifying with Israel’s prophetic tradition are considered, the meaning of Jesus’ use in Mark becomes clearer. (By the way, I think a good piece of exegetical advice when interpreting the use of the Old Testament in the New is—unless you know the OT better than the NT writers—to go back to read the quoted/alluded passage in context and see what effect the further echoes of the old context might have in the new one since the general practice in the NT seems to be quoting a part of a passage to evoke a larger context.)

This portion of Isaiah 6 comes in the commissioning story of Isaiah to a ministry that will involve critiquing and calling to repentance. While the passage of course asserts that many will not respond to this ministry properly and there will be judgment in the hardening of hearts towards the prophetic message, it is both a warning and a provocative challenge in which Isaiah still expects and seeks some to hear and follow. [9] There is, after all, the promise of a holy remnant here (Isaiah 6:13). Furthermore, to quote Snodgrass:

“The ideal reader wants to be part of that remnant. Further, reversing the images of Isa 6:9, the promise for the future is that the deaf will hear and the blind will see (Isa 29:18; 35:5). The use of the words of Isa 6:9-10 by later writers shows that this passage became the classic depiction of the refusal to hear.” [10]

In line with the logic of texts such as Mark 4:24-25 (and others such as 2 Baruch 51:1-6) the ones who respond appropriately are given more from Jesus because they are responding to the word of God. In a sense, Crossan is correct that the parables can serve as counterrejections, but not by being incomprehensible in some cognitive sense (see endnote 7). Overall, Snodgrass summarizes the logic of this citation and its context like so:

“Parables by their very metaphoricity have a veiling quality, some more than others, and especially in a context of opposition they say indirectly what cannot be said openly. They can be mysterious, but if so, it is to stimulate thought. They both hide and reveal, and to say ‘to those outside all things happen in parables’ is to say what 4:33 and 3:23 imply: Jesus taught in parables, like any good prophet, to appeal and to enable hearing. Where parables find a willing response, further explanation is given. Where there is no response the message is lost.” [11] (pp. 162-163)

As Crossan also stresses in other riddles of the ancient world that there could be fatal consequences for getting the riddle wrong, (14) he also implies Mark believes such about the parables in his use of this citation. However, while the descriptions are of hard-heartedness and obduracy, they do not represent a fixed group from which no one can move since these same descriptions are applied to the Twelve (6:52; 8:17-18). In Mark’s portrait, Jesus does not simply pose a riddle, he tells a parable and allows for questions and a learning curve to whoever is willing to learn (compare 4:10 to 3:32 and 4:33-34).

Chapter Two

Crossan’s next category is that of an example parable: “In this book, example parables are moral models or ethical stories that consciously and deliberately point metaphorically beyond themselves from literal microcosm to macrocosm, from one clear content to far, far wider implications and applications.” (30) As in his other chapters, he provides examples, though in some cases his examples are not so much what would fit this definition as they are illustrations of a theological tenet (such as Sanhedrin 91). Whatever other disputes there may be would take us too far afield and ultimately have little significance in the grand scheme of the book.

As the last chapter focused on Mark, this one focuses on Luke because Crossan sees this Gospel as the exemplar of example parables. The primary demonstration he sees of example parables is in Luke 15. But ultimately, Crossan thinks that the “theory” (so to speak) of Jesus’ parables as example parables is as much of a distortion of Jesus’ parables as Mark’s “theory”.

“Were some, most, or maybe even all of Jesus’s own parables best understood as example parables—as Luke 15 certainly indicated?...The conclusion was that—despite Luke 15—Jesus’s stories were not fully or even adequately interpreted as example parables.” (42)

While an argument could be made that Mark used the Parable of the Sower as paradigmatic for Jesus’ parables as a whole in its content (not necessarily in its form), Crossan is on much less stable ground trying to argue that Luke 15 “certainly indicates” example parables best encapsulate the majority of Jesus’ parables. Luke 15 has no such indication and Crossan gives no reason for accepting this assertion. He is creating a false conflict between Luke and Jesus and it seems as if he is doing so for the purposes of his analysis, not because this position is historically/exegetically accurate. He is right to reject the category of “example” parable, but for the wrong reasons. We return to this point later with the Good Samaritan parable. As for the parables of Luke 15, it is enough to note that they are not example stories in the traditional scholarly designation since their second level of meaning is not about the subject of the story. Crossan is expanding the traditional category for his own purposes here, but the only sense in which these parables are “examples” is in the broad sense that parables, being analogical in nature, use examples of one thing to compare to something else.

Chapter Three

Here we arrive at Crossan’s focus in analyzing the parables: the challenge parable. Though he will examine other parables later, his paradigmatic text for discussing the challenge parable and its difference from example parables is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He notes that the context of this parable has some similarity with discussions of the love commands in Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34 should be an indication that it is not the proper context of the parable.

“It was Luke—and not Jesus—who adopted the dialogue about the double commandment of loving God and neighbor from Jesus in Mark as the context for the Good Samaritan parable. He also adapted it; he changed it from a questioner applauding Jesus with, ‘You are right, Teacher,’ in Mark 12:32 to Jesus applauding the questioner with, ‘You have given the right answer,’ in Luke 10:28.” (58-59)

Crossan is part of a school of interpretation that has a tendency to remove parables from their Gospel contexts, thinking them to be distortions of what the parables originally meant. In that light, he isolates the story of the Good Samaritan from its Lukan context, insisting that it was Luke who took the context from Mark and placed it during the earlier ministry of Jesus. Of course, if the double love command was important to Jesus’ teaching, it is at least as likely that there would have been more than one episode in his life in which it was a subject of discussion. Furthermore, if such teaching was important in Judaism of the time, it is plausible that someone else besides Jesus might appeal to the double love command, deriving it from the Torah and summaries of it (such as Rabbi Hillel’s). Debates about who is one’s neighbor would make sense in a Jewish context; there is surely concordance between the story and the narrative frame; explicit applications of a parable are quite common for Jewish parables (though not quite as ubiquitous in the case of the Gospel narrations of Jesus); and it is hardly mutually exclusive to claim that this parable both relates to the definition of “neighbor” (and the ethical entailments therein) as well as subverting the traditional boundaries by reversing the expected “good” and “bad” people in the story (there need not be only one point per parable). In other words, apart from accepting Crossan’s framework, there is no reason to doubt the connection between the context and the parable story. But he still tries to save the distinction here:

“had Jesus intended an example parable about helping somebody in distress, he could easily have done so by telling his story with unspecified characters…Had he wanted to insist that such help applied even to enemies in distress, he could have done it…Those would have been classic example parables, but as soon as Jesus specified the reputable clergy as nonhelpers and the disreputable Samaritan as helper, we have—as he intended—a classic challenge parable.” (60)

There are multiple issues in this text. As noted above, the distinction is a false dichotomy. It is true that it is not simply a generalized example parable about helping someone in distress and that it is not simply about helping enemies in distress. Crossan is right to reject the category of “example parable” but for the wrong reasons.

Since the days of Jülicher, it has been popular to divide parable categories into similitudes, parables proper, and example stories (this categorization is certainly not accepted by everyone, but it has been popular and influential enough that it needs comment). Generally, four parables were thought to be of the third type: the Good Samaritan, the Rich Fool, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (some made one or two others from Luke). These stories, though not equally explicitly, all involve some impetus to go and do (or do not) likewise. But over the years, scholars have objected to the significance this categorical label. Crossan has done so because of his commitment to the belief that parables are of necessity metaphorical and that they were usually challenge parables. We discuss this category later, but suffice it for now to say that it involved reversal by challenging values. I once again quote Snodgrass:

“However, the attempts to show these four stories were originally metaphorical are rather anemic. After reading a few analyses of parables concluding with a focus on reversal, one notices that the theme is noticeably lacking in specificity and starts to sound hollow. The parable of the Samaritan does not mention the kingdom. Is there any reason to think an original version of this parable would enable hearers to see a reversal of values and conclude that the kingdom must have such a reversal? I do not see how and a nonmetaphorical story can effect a reversal of values as easily as a metaphorical story.” [12]

Instead, Snodgrass suggests the category of “single indirect parables.” [13] Jesus’ parables are typically “double indirect” speech in that Jesus speaks indirectly by using a parable that is neither about the hearer or the subject in question directly. Single indirect parables do not address the hearer directly since the story is directly about another person, but they do address the subject in question directly. It serves as a better label for the function of parables such as this one because “example story/parable” is simply too broad and can be applied to several other parables outside of the traditional four. Nothing in their form distinguishes them from other parables, but their function is different and Snodgrass’ label better captures this fact. [14]

“Because, although an example parable may be good, a challenge parable is a far more importantly subversive operation. Why? Because challenge parables humble our prejudicial absolutes, but without proposing counterabsolutes in their place.” (63)

It is hard to know how to respond to this statement by Crossan because it is not precisely clear what he means. What does he mean by counterabsolute? Is it not a counterabsolute to say that the absolute in question is wrong? Would it not be a counterabsolute, say, to tear down ethnic barriers for his followers and insist that neighborly love is not restricted because the lawyer’s question was flawed in the first place?

No comments:

Post a Comment