In recent years, scholars have applied the tools of literary criticism to the study of the New Testament. One important literary tool utilized is narrative criticism, the study of biblical narratives as narratives. That is, narrative criticism studies the various aspects of stories in the text: characters, plot, setting, etc. Within New Testament studies, the primary focus has been on the Gospels, though narrative features in Paul’s discourse are also recognized (more on this in another post).
In the Gospels, a primary feature of Jesus’s ministry was that of a teacher. One of his favorite teaching tools was the parable. Though this is true, many Christians misunderstand the parables or neglect them altogether. While there have been many scholarly and popular studies on the parables, few, have considered the narrative character of the parables. That is, the parables are not just pity statements, but they are stories. How might a narrative analysis of the parables aid our understanding? This is the focus of Stephen Wright’s recent study Jesus the Storyteller.
Wright begins the book with an assessment of the history of parable research. The parables have been used and abused in many ways. Some consider the parables within the Gospels to reflect vastly different beliefs and intentions than those of Jesus himself (Reimarus). Some see the parables as universal moral truths, the product of Jesus the moral teacher (Jülicher). Sometimes the historicity of the parables has been doubted (Wrede) while at other times heavy emphasis is placed on their apocalyptic outlook (Schweitzer). Along the way, the narrative character is often neglected.
Wright believes that to rightly understand the parables, a “two-level hearing” is required. First, they must be understood within the wider narratives of the Gospels. That is, it is essential to grasp the literary function of the parables within the stories of the Gospels. For Wright, this should not arouse doubt as to the historicity of the parables as stories told by Jesus. The authors of the Gospels no doubt shaped the parables to fit within their stories. This does not, however, imply that the Gospel writers changed the meaning of the parables such that they are unreliable records of Jesus’s own words. Rather, “the Evangelists preserve them [the parables] as ‘actions’ which play a crucial role in advancing their narratives” (44).
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 provide an analysis of the parables within Mark, Matthew, and Luke respectively. In my opinion, these short chapters provide an very helpful entryway into understanding the function of the parables within the Synoptics. Wright argues that the parables were strategically placed within each Gospel for particular purposes. In other words, these chapters aid students of the parables to avoid missing the Gospel forest for the parable trees. This is a helpful corrective as some parable studies have isolated individual parables and sought to understand them apart from their literary contexts.
Wright’s major contribution to parable studies, however, is found in the last 100 pages of the book in which he applies the tools of narrative criticism to the study of the parables. This constitutes the second-level hearing. Whatever the parables were, and many definitions have been offered, they are at least stories. Wright believes we should study them as such. Thus, the parables have characters, settings, plots, and points of view. Identifying these features helps us to “hear” the parables as they might originally have been heard.
For example, Wright examines the parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3-9; Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:5-8) on pages 90-97. Instead of providing a verse-by-verse commentary, Wright walks through a narrative analysis of the parable. The benefits to such analysis lies in the clarity that it brings to the elements of the story Jesus told. Thus, understanding the setting of the original telling as recorded in the Gospels and of the story itself aids us in understanding the meaning of the story. Thus, Wright considers the importance of the land in Israel’s history and the symbolic power of seed imagery and harvest, all within the context of first century Jewish peasant society. Similar analysis of the characters, point of view, and plot are offered. All of this leads the reader to hear the power of the story: “it invites thought and encourages hope” (97).
One might quibble with some of Wright’s interpretations of individual parables. Indeed, I’m not fully convinced of a few his conclusions. Moreover, there are times in which I felt the historical analysis pushed a little too hard on the parable to the detriment of hearing the additional allegorical meanings. However, these minor points do not detract from the usefulness of this volume. Wright aids us in properly hearing the Master Storyteller.