The Power of Parable
Author: John Dominic Crossan
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Date of Publication: February 5, 2013 (REPRINT)
John Dominic Crossan is a Professor Emeritus at Depaul University's Department of Religious Studies. He is a former Roman Catholic priest and was Co-Chair of the Jesus Seminar from 1985-1996. The Jesus Seminar met twice yearly to debate the historical authenticity of the story of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. The Power of Parable is one of twenty seven books he has written on the topic of the historical Jesus.
Crossan begins the prologue with a definition of a parable: a fictional story invented for moral or theological purposes. He goes on to describe his personal epiphany regarding parables which occurred after his graduate studies. He was attending the Oberammagau Passion Play when he realized that the parabolic stories BY Jesus seemed remarkably similar to the resurrection stories ABOUT Jesus. He asks questions: Are some, many, or most of the recorded events of Jesus' last week parable rather than history, or, parabolic history or historical parable? Where does factual history end and fictional parable begin?
The first three chapters of The Power of Parable define riddle, example and challenge parables. Riddle parables are linguistic contests with potentially profound consequences. This type of parable existed in the ancient world (Example: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King – 429 B.C.). Examples of riddle parables also exist in the Old Testament (Judges 13-16). The Parable of the Sower in Mark 4 is seen as a riddle parable. Example parables are moral models or ethical stories that consciously and deliberately point metaphorically beyond themselves. The author feels that Luke interpreted (or misinterpreted) Jesus’ parables as example parables. Example parables in Luke include the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. The author contends that challenge parables are the best category of parables within which to understand the intention and purpose of Jesus’ stories. These parables challenge us to think, to discuss, to argue and to decide about meaning. The best examples of challenge parables are the Parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.
Challenge parables existed in the Biblical tradition before Jesus. In Chapter Four the author explores the books of Ruth, Jonah, and Job to show that book-length challenge parables existed in the Old Testament before the time of Jesus. Were challenges intended in all of Jesus’ original parables? The author uses the Parables of the Tax Collector as well as Lazarus and the Rich Man, as well as the Good Samaritan to show that Jesus was attempting to raise consciousness in an oral situation of audience interaction. These would be an enticement to debate: i.e., challenge parables. The author concludes the first section of the book by asking yet another question: Why did Jesus choose this third category for his parabolic vision of the Kingdom of God? The author describes Jesus as “a master paradigm shifter, a supreme tradition troubler, and, for some, a divine outlier.” The author goes on to say: “Jesus’ challenge parables are not only profoundly appropriate, but even rhetorically necessary as a collaborative invitation for a participatory kingdom of God.”
All of this prepares us for PART 2 of the book, “where we move finally from challenge parables by to challenge parables about Jesus and, indeed, to Jesus as the Christian God’s great challenge parable to the world.”
The remaining four chapters examine the thee synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke/Acts) and the Gospel of John. The author is quick to point out that there is but one "Gospel" and that each of these versions should be read as "The Gospel According to Mark, Matthew, etc..." They are four different tellings of the same story, albeit with different intent, audience and emphasis. Crossan also introduces yet another type of parable: the attack parable. He notes that "every attack is a challenge, but not every challenge is an attack." If the story "calls names, doubts honesty, impugns integrity, or even negates and dismisses what it challenges, it has moved beyond nonviolent challenge to violent attack." The author contends that Mark "presented Jesus through a challenge megaparable, but in Matthew the presentation morphed into an attack megaparable. Next, Luke/Acts and John both, but in divergent ways, combined challenge parable with attack parable."
This book is not for the casual reader. It seems more of an academic treatise or dissertation than a book intended for the general public. Some of the concepts, especially in the second half of the book will disturb many. We used this book in an adult Sunday school class at our church (First Presbyterian, Lynchburg, Virginia) and the discussion it generated was at times intense. It's hard to look at the Gospels, which have been ingrained as dogma, as stories which are almost certainly historically inaccurate if not, at least in part, fabricated or greatly embellished. The Power of Parable is a book which I am glad that I have read. It does give the reader great new insight into the parables of Jesus. The historical part of this I will leave to the historians and Biblical scholars.