How Many Points in a Parable?
Book review: Interpreting the Parables by Craig L. Blomberg. 1990. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. 334 pages. (A new edition was published in 2012, but this review is based on the original edition)
Scholars have often proclaimed that each of Jesus’ parables makes only one main point. Classic analyses by Adolf Jülicher, C.H. Dodd, Joachim Jeremias and Robert Stein decry the overly allegorical approaches of medieval commentators, who saw spiritual significance in every detail.
But scholars do not agree on what the main point of each parable is. Several points often vie for priority. Some scholars try to generalize the lesson so much that the parable teaches little at all. Some focus on what the parables say about God; others focus on the kingdom of God or on his disciples or his church.
Craig Blomberg (Ph.D. from Aberdeen, now a professor at Denver Seminary) responds to the problem of parable interpretation. In the first half of his book, he surveys ancient and contemporary approaches, effectively challenges the prevailing consensus and offers a moderate approach. In the second half, he applies his principles to Jesus’ 36 parables, giving helpful summaries of different scholars’ views on each parable and concisely summarizing the parables’ teaching.
Problems of the consensus
In the introduction, he summarizes “the scholarly consensus” (pages 15-19): “Modern scholarship has…rejected allegorical interpretation.”
A major reason is that no consensus could be reached on what each of the details represented. For example, the prodigal son’s robe was variously interpreted as
“standing for sinlessness, spiritual gifts, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, or the sanctity of the soul. Clearly all of these views recognized that the father gave the robe to the prodigal to indicate his restoration to the family. But it was impossible to agree on how to match the robe with one particular aspect of a new Christian’s relationship with his heavenly Father. Presumably the lesson to be learned is that the robe is not meant to be allegorized.”
But the one-point approach also has weaknesses. Scholars who strenuously object to allegory admit that Jesus’ audiences would have understood some of the major features to correspond to facets of the real world. And scholars who stress “only one main point” nevertheless manage to combine two or more points into some of their summary sentences.
“The parables as they appear in the Gospels do have a few undeniable allegorical elements.” (Blomberg writes “as they appear in the Gospels” because some scholars recognize allegorical elements but claim that they are developments of the early church rather than being authentic words of Jesus. Allegory, some say, is an inferior form of rhetoric and would therefore not be used by Jesus.)
Blomberg then presents his own approach, gathering supporting evidence from a variety of scholars. (The book has copious footnotes, which increases its usefulness.) Part of the debate is semantic, concerning the definition of allegory:
“Several scholars with cross-disciplinary expertise in Western literature and biblical studies…affirm that most of the major narrative parables of Jesus are, by every standard literary definition of the word, genuine allegories…. A parable may be an allegory even if [all] its constituent elements do not involve separate metaphors, so long as the overall point of the parable transcends its literal meaning (e.g., the story is about the kingdom of God rather than just, say, farming, fishing or banqueting)” (pages 42-43).
“A mixture of parable and allegory was both common and well-liked in ancient Judaism…. ‘Standard metaphors’ (most notably the king standing for God)…were so frequently used by the rabbis that Jesus’ audiences almost certainly would have interpreted them in fairly conventional ways” (page 37).
“The parables regularly contain not only common, down-to-earth portraits of Jewish village life but also ‘extravagant’ and unrealistic features which point to more than one level of meaning…. Although these features appear implausible as descriptions of normal events, they make excellent sense when interpreted allegorically” (pages 45-46).
“The parables…are much more allegorical than is usually acknowledged…. Given proper definition the parables may and ought to be termed allegories, but…this in no way requires a return to the more arbitrary exegesis which often characterized past generations” (pages 20, 23).
Blomberg, though accepting parables as allegorical, cautions against allegorizing every detail. He provides a much-needed control, noting that most parables contain three main characters or groups of characters.
“Each parable makes one main point per main character — usually two or three in each case — and these main characters are the most likely elements within the parable to stand for something other than themselves, thus giving the parable its allegorical nature.”
As another reasonable control, he says “all allegorical interpretation must result in that which would have been intelligible to a first-century…audience” (page 163).
“The frequent use of contrasting characters suggests that Jesus originally intended in many of his parables both a message for his enemies and one for his disciples” (page 88).
“Each parable looks slightly different depending on which character a given member of its audience identifies with…. The parts of a particular parable most likely to be invested with allegorical import are the two or three main characters which regularly appear as images of God, his faithful followers and the rebellious in need of repentance” (pages 148-149).
Most of us have little background in first-century Judaism. We will therefore find the description of Jewish parables instructive (pages 59-65):
“Rabbinic parables almost always begin with an introductory formula which parallels those found in the Gospels…. Often the logic…argues that ‘if such-and-such is true with men, how much more so with God.’… The length and structure of the rabbinic parables also resemble those of the parables of Jesus….
“The parables of Jesus and the rabbis further share common topics and imagery…. ‘Judah the Prince used to cite this parable: To what is the matter like? To a king who possessed a vineyard which he handed over to a tenant…. R. Meir illustrated it by a parable. To what is the matter like? To a king who prepared a banquet and invited guests.’… “The rabbis interpreted their parables in a variety of ways, but almost always with some allegorical element.”
Parables “lead the reader unwittingly along until he acknowledges the validity of the vehicle (picture-part) of the parable and is therefore forced to side with the story-teller concerning the tenor (spiritual truth) involved as well.” The classic example of this is Nathan’s parable to David, containing obvious allegorical elements. (We are not addressing in this review whether Jesus’ parables made spiritual truths clearer or hidden. Even his disciples did not understand many of the things he taught in the plainest of language.)
Jesus’ parables were unlike the rabbis’ in at least two major ways:
“The vast majority of the rabbinic parables staunchly reinforce conventional Jewish values, serving primarily to exegete Scripture. They thus stand in marked contrast to Jesus’ often ‘subversive’ counterparts, which almost never refer back to God’s written word, but gain their force from the personal authority of Christ…. “The parables of Jesus further distinguish themselves by their consistent reference to the kingdom of God” (pages 66-67).
Limited allegorical interpretations
The second half of this book comments on the meanings of each of Jesus’ parables, surveying previous interpretations and cautiously seeking concise statements on the parable’s major points. We would disagree with a few of his specific interpretations, but I think we can agree with most of his analyses.
I encourage you to read the book yourselves; here I will simply point out that Blomberg’s review of the history of the interpretation of many of the parables supports his three-point thesis:
“Much of the time scholarly skepticism stems from pitting against one another different interpretations of a parable, when in fact those interpretations each complement one another…. No need remains for choosing one of the lessons at the expense of the others” (page 211).
“Once we do not restrict a parable to making only one main point, we can see that the parable addresses both of these issues…. It seems unnecessary to choose between these. Each by itself seems somewhat truncated and together they yield good sense…. Several commentators…fail to admit that their encapsulation of the parable’s one main point actually combines two independent thoughts” (pages 232, 246, 265).
“Debates about which of these principles was the original point of the parable are futile once it is seen that all were intended from the outset. Jeremias, in fact, makes three very similar points in his exposition without acknowledging that they are distinct lessons” (page 243).
“Often the history of interpretation of a given parable discloses that three complementary themes have vied for acceptance as the main point of the story. In no instance has any reason emerged for jettisoning any of these themes, except for the arbitrary assertion that parables make only one point” (page 252).
After discussing all the parables, Blomberg summarizes what they teach:
“Jesus clearly has three main topics of interest: the graciousness of God, the demands of discipleship and the dangers of disobedience…. The central theme uniting all of the lessons of the parables is the kingdom of God. It is both present and future. It includes both a reign and a realm. It involves both personal transformation and social reform” (page 326).
Blomberg’s book offers a reasonable approach that avoids fanciful allegory on the one hand and reductionistic summaries on the other. By focusing on main characters, it suggests where to look for each parable’s significance, and a controlled way to develop the teachings of the parables for modern audiences.
Author: Michael Morrison