Review of “The Power of Parable” – A History of Biblical Parables by John Dominic Crossan

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest and perhaps the most respected living scholar of early Christianity, has written at least nine books about Jesus from the perspective of an historian, not as a devotional advocate. He indicates that our knowledge of the historical character known as Jesus of Nazareth is very sketchy, with no surviving contemporaneous mention of him in the historical record. Only two historians writing before the third century C.E. mention him, and then only in passing. And they, Josephus and Tacitus, wrote at least 50 years after his death. So we are left with the gospels (both apocryphal and canonical) and a handful of epistles as our only sources of the historical Jesus.

Indeed, since virtually nothing is known about any of the gospel writers, it is not clear that anyone who actually saw or heard Jesus wrote anything that has survived to the present day. Biblical scholars almost universally agree that the gospel of Mark was the first of the canonical gospels to have been composed. Mathew and Luke borrow heavily from Mark, and probably from another gospel known to scholars as the Q gospel, which has not survived. In any event, the three so called synoptic gospels tell a similar story, although they disagree with one another on numerous small details. [The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called synoptic (from the Greek syn- together and opsis appearance) because they can be compared column by column with each other.] The Gospel of John, written some 20 to 30 years after the others, differs from them not only in tone, but also (rather substantially) in the events described.

On one thing, all four canonical gospels agree: Jesus taught in parables. A parable is a metaphorical story, always pointing to something externally beyond itself. Whatever its actual content may be, a parable is never about that content. Crossan argues that the gospels themselves are parables, each with a different implicit meaning that would have been divined by knowledgeable readers familiar with issues that affected Christianity at the time they were written.

John Dominic Crossan

The parable form of narration can be used to accomplish different goals. Crossan identifies four such goals: riddles, examples, challenges, and attacks. A parable can be a riddle that hides is meaning from all but the most astute or knowledgeable listeners; it can subtlely set an example; it can challenge the listener to think, discuss, or argue with others about its implicit or unstated meaning; or it can indirectly attack a person or an idea without literal confrontation. Crossan maintains that the challenge format is the best way to understand not only the parables of Jesus in the gospels, but also the structure of each of the gospels, as parables.

An old Jewish teaching story (via Annette Simmons)

As an example of “challenge” parables, Crossan cites the stories of Ruth and Job. (He points out that the form of the stories Jesus told was an option already present in the biblical tradition.)

In the Book of Ruth, the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah demanded an immediate end to Israelite marriages with foreign women, in particular Moabites. And yet Ruth, a Moabite, turns out to be a grandmother of King David, one of Judaism’s most important figures. Thus, the story of Ruth serves as a challenge to the laws decreed by Ezra and Nehemiah. As Crossan notes wryly,

“This subversive challenge parable reminds us that general law proposes what a single story disposes.”

Ruth and Boaz Meet, original color lithograph, 1960, by Marc Chagall

The Book of Job is even more of a challenge to Israelites of the Old Testament. It is, according to Crossan, a “three-level challenge parable.” In the first place, while Job is described as the holiest man on earth and “the greatest of all the people of the east,” he is not a Jew but a Gentile. Second, Job’s friends contend that he has been so cursed because he has disobeyed the Lord (as per Deuteronomy 28). But we know Job never disobeys; ergo Deuteronomy is wrong, at least in this one instance. And finally, Job is never told, even at the end, that all of his truly horrible woes have been the result of a wager between God and Satan. This is the ultimate challenge: what kind of God does this?

Job in Despair, original color lithograph, 1960, by Marc Chagall

The teachings of Jesus described in the gospels, like the stories of Ruth and Job, challenge the listener or reader to step back from the literal content, and evaluate their deeper, figurative meanings. Crossan argues that Jesus urged the Jews of his time to cease looking for a military messiah, and look instead for a new “Kingdom of God” to be achieved through nonviolent resistance to imperial Roman control.

Crossan goes further, and argues that each of the four canonical gospels themselves, taken as a whole, can be seen on a meta level as a parable containing an implicit message in addition to the literal “facts” they purport to relate.

Clockwise from top left: Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke, as depicted in The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin created by Celtic monks ca. 800.

Crossan views the Gospel of Mark as a challenge to the authority of the twelve apostles, whom he generally describes as incompetent and less responsive to the message of Jesus than, say, various unnamed women. The Twelve are accused not only of incomprehension, but of culpable incomprehension. But since most of the Twelve were already dead, Crossan sees the challenge to “their ongoing theological tradition, leadership style, and named importance.”

Crossan labels the Gospel of Matthew as an “attack” parable. At the outset, Jesus begins with forbidding anger, insult, and name-calling (Matthew 5), but by Matthew 23, Matthew’s Jesus has upped the rhetorical violence: “this generation” of Mark becomes “an evil and adulterous generation” in Matthew. In Matthew we first hear Jesus threaten the “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew’s gospel is where we see the Jewish people as a whole say at the crucifixion, “His blood be on us and on our children.” Matthew does not see himself outside the Jewish community. To Crossan, “the very nastiness of his language indicates a stern family feud in the 80s between Christian Jewish scholars and Pharisaic Jewish scholars.” The message of Matthew’s parable is an attack on the non-Christian Jews of his time.

Crossan contends that the Gospel of Luke and the book called the Acts of the Apostles were actually one single book in two volumes by the same author. And in the book of [as he calls it] Luke-Acts, we see the Roman Empire treated rather mildly, whereas the Jews of his time are excoriated. Luke challenges Rome, but attacks Judaism.

The gospel of John is quite different from the three synoptic gospels. John regularly escalates accusations from part to whole, from Jewish authorities to the Jewish people. John writes from outside the Jewish tradition, possibly from a Samaritan tradition. John’s gospel is not only an attack on Judaism, but is also a challenge to the synoptic gospels.

In the Epilog, Crossan raises the question of whether Jesus was a real historical character or merely fictional. Crossan opines that Jesus was real, citing not only external evidence (Josephus and Tacitus) but also internal evidence. Here, cleverly, he analyzes the total change in the depiction of Jesus in the synoptic gospels to the description of him in his return to earth in the Revelation of John. In the Apocalypse, Jesus has morphed from a non-violent teacher into a mighty warrior. That very change suggests there was a real person. Why, he asks, would the early Christians invent a character they could not live with, but must steadily and terminally change into its opposite? Crossan concludes that “Jesus really existed, that we can know the significant sequence of his life . . . but that he comes to us trailing clouds of fiction, parables by him and about him, particular incidents as miniparables and whole gospels as megaparables.”

Evaluation: I have never found Crossan’s books to be anything but stimulating and insightful. He bases his observations on careful textural analysis that is unfortunately too detailed to summarize in a review. For those who have an interest in “the story behind the story” of early Christianity, one can hardly do better than to read the works of this eminent Biblical scholar.

Rating: 4/5

Published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012

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3 Responses to Review of “The Power of Parable” – A History of Biblical Parables by John Dominic Crossan

  1. maphead says:

    This one looks really good. I might have to put this one by Crossan on my list. Thanks for the great review!

  2. Beth F says:

    Interesting. But I admit that I’d rather read Jim’s review/evaluation than the book itself. 🙂

  3. Rita K. says:

    Great review Jim! It might be one I should buy for Mike. He would probably enjoy reading it.

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