The Problem of the Parables

Robert M. Price

Readers may know that I have argued that exactly none of the Gospel sayings “of Jesus” stem from a historical Jesus of Nazareth, and not for the simple reason that there was no historical Jesus. No, my reasoning on that score is inductive, not deductive. My initial working hypothesis was to assume there had been such a Jesus, an itinerant holy man active during the tenure of Pontius Pilate. Following in the seven-league footsteps of Rudolf Bultmann and Norman Perrin, I scrutinized the Gospel sayings, alert for signs of anachronism, borrowing from other contemporary sources, tendential constructions by the early church, prophecies from the Risen One through the lips of charismatics and apostles, and anything else that might imply inauthenticity, that the material originated post-Jesus. But at length, I found so much of it to be fatally problematical on these criteria that I wound up regarding the estimates of the oh-so-skeptical Jesus Seminar (18 percent of the sayings probably authentic to Jesus) as hopelessly optimistic.

Now I find myself noticing Gospel texts that come near to admitting the secondary character of a lot of the material. It starts with the parables, many of which were first collected as they appear in Mark 4. These include the parables of the sower/soils, the lamp, the seed growing secretly, and the mustard seed. Matthew revises and expands the section, as we read it in Matthew 13. The new Matthean parables look to me to come from Matthew’s own hand rather than from some preexisting “M source,” and the same is true of the uniquely Lukan parables (lost coin, lost sheep, prodigal son, good Samaritan, dishonest steward, Pharisee and Publican, unjust judge, etc.), which all share similar narrative features; in other words, no “L source.”

But back to Mark. Mark 4:33–34 says, “And in many such parables he spoke the word to them, as much as they were able to grasp. And unless he had a parable he did not speak to them, but in private to his own disciples he explained everything.” It suddenly occurs to me that this statement implies that whoever said it did not know of other, nonparabolic teaching of Jesus, which nonetheless abounds elsewhere in this Gospel and all others: aphorisms, apocalyptic sayings, straightforward admonitions, etc. The impact of this incongruous statement is comparable to the astonishing statement in Mark 8:11–12: “The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.’” Mustn’t that verse stem from a time when people believed the incarnation was so complete that Jesus had left all divine powers behind in heaven (cf. Philippians 2:6–11)? First Corinthians 1:22 likewise says that “Jews seek signs [precisely as in Mark 8:12] … but we preach Christ crucified,” which certainly implies that Paul knew of no miracles ascribed to Jesus and is why his letters never mention a single one.

My point is that Mark 4:33–34 makes the same sort of programmatic statement: there were no nonparabolic teachings circulating in the writer’s day. Sure, we find nonparabolic material elsewhere in Mark, but the same is true about the miracles: Mark has plenty, even though he has preserved a saying that rules them out, justifying the absence of miracle stories in the time that saying originated. And this all in turn implies that the nonparabolic teaching was a subsequent addition aimed at filling the perceived gap—just like the miracle stories.

It occurred to me also that one must look again at the parables and ask if it is really plausible that people came in droves to listen to this stuff. The narrator himself tells us what the history of parable interpretation makes abundantly clear: there is no clear point to any of these parables. No one could have taken away enough meaning to keep him coming back for more. They are not like Aesop’s Fables. Commentaries on Mark and tomes on the parables (and there are very many of both) offer endless possible interpretations of the parables, all of which make the parables’ meaning dependent upon some larger theological system extrapolated from the Gospel as a whole or from a life of Jesus construct as a whole. Such a framework for interpretation is a chain of weak links.

And the recent readings of the parables by Dan O. Via, Bernard Brandon Scott, and Charles W. Hedrick strike me as so oversubtle and counterintuitive that only fellow specialists playing the same exegetical game could possibly find their interpretations even plausible, much less convincing. In short, I can imagine Jesus getting and keeping an audience with this lame material as easily as I can imagine anyone memorizing the whole of the Sermon on the Mount after hearing it once. Just take your head out of the text and out of the scholarly game, and you’ll agree with me.

So Jesus taught only in parables, which disallows everything else. But then he could not have taught with these parables either. It all reinforces the conclusion that there was originally no such figure as “Jesus the teacher” or Rabbi Jesus. Maybe this is why the Pauline Epistles never appeal to any sayings ascribed to Jesus either. There weren’t any yet. That would come later, and not from Jesus.

And remember Mark 13:11? “And when they lead you before the authorities, do not bother formulating beforehand what you will say, but whatever comes to you on the spot, say it. For you are not the speakers, but the Holy Spirit.” I draw the same inference from it that Luke did in his rewrite: “I will give you a mouth and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or refute” (Luke 21:15; cf John 16:12–15: “I have many more things to tell you, but they would be too much for you to deal with now. But when that one comes, the Spirit of Truth, he will guide you into all the rest of the truth. For he will not speak his own opinions, but he will relay what he hears, and he will announce future events to you. He will glorify me, because he will receive revelation from my treasury and announce it to you”). In the heat of argument, don’t worry: Jesus will supply the words—which then must have been simply ascribed to him, with no concern whether they were spoken by an earthly, historical Jesus or by a post-Jesus Christian prophet/confessor. Wouldn’t this be the ideal candidate for the origin of all those controversy stories in which “Jesus” reduces his opponents to silence with his clever retorts?

Nor let us forget Matthew 10:27 (a saying from the Q source, shared with Luke 12:23, where, however, it is made to have a very different point): “What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops.” Remember how the Gospels sometimes rationalize the late appearance (thus secondary character) of certain stories like the transfiguration and the empty tomb by claiming that the Jesus-era hearers either were warned to delay reporting it (Mark 9:9–10) or just failed to report it (Mark 18:8)? That’s why you’re hearing about it only now—yeah, that’s the ticket! Doesn’t it make sense that Matthew 10:27 should denote the same thing? That those who later credited their own preachments to Jesus in order to give them added clout “explained” why no one had heard them before by claiming they had first been told in secret? That is a classic Gnostic ploy, to maintain that Jesus had taught their newfangled teachings to the apostles all right, but in secret, which is why riffraff like you never heard of them till now! Again, this, I think, is a signal within the Gospels that their material is spurious.

Another comes in Luke’s version of a Q saying. Where Matthew had “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me” (Matthew 10:40), Luke (10:16) has added “Whoever hears you hears me.” This might easily mean the same thing, but one must wonder whether Luke’s version was understood (and was intended) as a license to speak (fabricate) new words of the ascended Jesus.

Robert M. Price

Robert M. Price is the author of Beyond Born Again: The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, The Case Against ‘The Case for Christ,’ and other books. He is also the host of the podcasts The Bible Geek and The Human Bible.

Readers may know that I have argued that exactly none of the Gospel sayings “of Jesus” stem from a historical Jesus of Nazareth, and not for the simple reason that there was no historical Jesus. No, my reasoning on that score is inductive, not deductive. My initial working hypothesis was to assume there had been …

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