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[HJMatMeth] How much have your views on the parables of Jesus changed?

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  • Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus
    Professor Crossan, It seems to me that your current view not only of the historical import, but also of the oral nature of the parables of Jesus has changed
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 2, 2000
      Professor Crossan,
      It seems to me that your current view not only of the historical
      import, but also of the oral nature of the parables of Jesus has changed
      significantly from the position you took a long time ago in your
      comparative study of treasure trove folk tales and parables, _Finding is
      the First Act_. There you argued, in my mind quite persuasively (if I
      understood you correctly), that the selection and sequence of highly
      conventional, shared motifs were what distinguished Jesus' parable of the
      lost treasure from others, especially similar Jewish rabbinic parables.
      That study seemed to presume a sort of Lord/Parry theory of oral
      transmission, in which performers shared a vast treasury of themes, motifs,
      and formulaic phrases - and more or less composed their works from these
      basic units on the spot to fit a particular current situation and audience.
      Not only that, you seemed to argue that Jesus' virtuosity as a parable
      teller consisted in his unique selection and combination of these set
      components, the dramatic and unexpected sequencing of his narratives,
      intended to effect a radical transformation of his audience's ordinary way
      of looking at things.

      But when you replied to Mahlon Smith's question about the historical import
      of the parables, you seem to have adopted a different model of oral
      transmission. Namely, when you said,

      >(1) The parables of the HJ are an intensely
      >oral/interactive genre. (2) What we now have of any one is, at best, a plot
      >summary. For example, the Good Samaritan may have taken an hour to
      >tell/mime/act out. Told as now read, a sneeze would have lost that key word
      >"Samaritan." (3) The audience would have interacted to approve or
      >disapprove, accept or reject, not only at the end but even as the HJ spoke.
      >He is not simply telling a traditional tale where all are silent as long as
      >he is doing it "well."

      In your earlier work, did you imagine that the treasure parable was just a
      plot summary, that it's original telling would have taken about an hour (in
      this case a sneeze would have lost the whole parable ;-)!), and that there
      would have been a lot of intense back and forth dialogue during its telling?
      N.B.: I don't even know if you still consider this parable authentic to
      Jesus; you certainly did in _Finding is the First Act_. Indeed, you held
      it up as paradigmatic of Jesus' religious perspective.

      I don't fault you for changing your mind (if you did), but rather would
      like to know why you did. I ask because I have found your earlier book
      _Finding is the First Act_ one of the most persuasive and illuminating
      applications of a comp lit. approach and oral literary theory to NT
      literature in general, as well as to Jesus' parables in particular. Since
      to my mind, your "old wine is good," what new evidence or arguments were so
      compelling as to lead you to a different approach?

      One area however where you seemed to have remained consistent is in your
      negative aesthetic evaluation of parables that are applied to the
      explanation of a written text, rather than to an immediate, "live"
      situation - i.e., when you said:

      > (6) The major problem is the move of those parables from
      >oral interaction to scribal location. Even if the writer agrees absolutely
      >with the HJ and does not allegorize the parables in transmitting them, that
      >relocation is fatal to their generic purpose. They are necessarily doomed.
      >(7) Bereft of that oral interaction, the writers reduce them necessarily to
      >examples and eventually they will all go.

      Why must the "allegorical" application of parables to a written text,
      whether in a gospel or to Scripture in an exegetical midrash necessarily be
      "fatal to their generic purpose," some sort of "reduction?" The obvious
      counter-examples are rabbinic exegetical _meshalim_. Their generic purpose
      is both to explicate a specific scriptural verse and an existential
      situation, as David Stern has argued in _Parables in Midrash : Narrative
      and Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University
      Press, 1991. Now, unless you meant above that the parables of the HJ are
      themselves a unique genre different even from other parables that use the
      same forms and motifs, how can you say that their application to or in a
      written is fatal to their "_generic_ purpose?" Fatal maybe to HJ's
      particular rhetorical intention at the time he spoke them, but not to genre
      of parables as such!

      On the contrary, it seems to me that rabbinic exegetical meshalim
      exemplify, among orally transmitted folk narratives, a "Jewish" tendency
      to apply a written text explicitly marked as such to an extra-textual
      situation, a distinctive tendency you already noted in your comparison of
      Jewish treasure trove parables to Jesus' parable in _Finding is the First

      So why not just call parables that explain texts "Jewish" in style or
      tendency, rather than "reductions" that kill the "generic purpose" of
      parables? Otherwise, it seems to imply that any parables performed
      differently than the HJ performed them are aesthetically or even
      theologically inferior. I'm sure you don't intend this.

      Yet it is possible that this treatment of Jesus' parables, as with other
      approaches that stress the HJ's uniqueness (i.e., the criterion of
      dissimilarity) unintentionally perpetuate a sort of Christian cultural
      triumphalism. Is there a way to emphasize the HJ's uniqueness (including
      the uniqueness of the oral forms of teaching he employed) without even
      unintentionally denigrating the religious or aesthetic forms from which he

      Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus
      Assistant Professor of Religion
      Wheaton College
      Norton, MA 02766
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