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Yeshua in Context » Applying the Gospels, Background to Gospels, Beginners, Community in Yeshua, Discipleship - Formation, Erasing Anti-Judaism, General, Gospel Genres, Literary Features, Parables, Study Tips, Teaching of Yeshua » The Purpose of Parables

The Purpose of Parables

As part of a presentation I gave on September 18 at a “Studying the Jewish Gospels” event here in Atlanta, I developed an outline of “20 Ways to Read the Life of Yeshua.” Among my twenty pointers were things like, “Forget that you know the end of the story,” followed by examples in which onlookers and disciples can only be understood within the story as confused, as people who don’t know for a second that Yeshua is to be the dying savior and rising lord.

And another of my pointers, which forms the basis for this post: “Understand the genre of parables in rabbinic literature.” And the golden text for learning about this subject: David Stern, Parables in Midrash (note: this is not the David Stern who is famous in the Messianic Jewish community, but the Professor of Classical Hebrew Literature at the University of Pennsylvania).

WHAT IS THE RELATION BETWEEN RABBINIC PARABLES AND YESHUA’S?
This is a tricky question that needs to be addressed. Rabbinic parables started being written down in the fourth century in the land of Israel. That’s quite a long time after Yeshua. Some books and studies have unwisely blurred the lines between the first and fourth century.

Stern sums it up simply: “They were both part of a single genre” (188). This conclusion is based on the work of David Flusser (a scholar whose work, in my opinion, has flaws, but on this specific issue he must have made his point well) who demonstrated that literary characteristics of rabbinic parables have much in common with parables in the gospels.

People were telling parables already before Yeshua’s time and the genre continued with much similarity for hundreds of years.

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF PARABLES IN RABBINIC WRITINGS?
Rabbinical parables in most cases originated “in public contexts (sermons or preaching), and as an instrument for praise or blame, often directed at persons in the audience” (200). They “tend to be phrased in terms of praise or blame, or as a variation upon these opposites: approbation or disapproval, appreciation or disappointment, pleasure or pain” (52).

Among the purposes mentioned by Stern for parables are apologetics (defending the idea of faith against ideas that undermine it) and polemics (urging a point of view in opposition to others).

WHAT PARABLES ARE NOT
They are not primarily about doctrine. They may reflect on doctrinal themes. But they are primarily about praise or blame.

They are not riddles intended to confuse outsiders. Stern argues this in spite of Yeshua’s sayings about “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom” and “in order that they might not see” in Mark 4:11-12 (and parallels in Matthew 13:11-13 and Luke 8:10).

Stern thinks Yeshua (or Mark) has been misunderstood. The point is not that the parables were too hard to understand rationally. The point is that outsiders, those who do not remain near to Yeshua and ask questions and learn from him, will not be able to apply them. They will not penetrate the deeper message of the parables, which are mysteries, truths of a complex nature, involving more than interpretation: “To understand correctly, one must be a member of the community” (204).

TIPS FOR READING PARABLES
Who is Yeshua praising and why?

Who is he blaming and why?

How does the praise and blame from the parable receive added information from Yeshua’s teaching and actions with the disciples?

In other words, the parables are persuasive pieces of rhetoric designed to encourage action or belief in a certain direction. They are not primarily about information or revealing doctrine. The rabbinic parables may be later, but they provide a wealth of additional contexts in which we can see the same patterns as in Yeshua’s parables. They confirm for us the way parables were used in public speaking to persuade hearers to a new course of action or to stand firm in a good course of action or belief. We should look for Yeshua’s parables to function the same way.

This will largely keep us from reading too much later Christian theology into the parables, to imagine that they are about a timeline for the last days or a foretelling of Christendom or anything of the kind. They are persuasive sermons delivered to Jews in Galilee and Judea about Jewish life and faith.

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Filed under: Applying the Gospels, Background to Gospels, Beginners, Community in Yeshua, Discipleship - Formation, Erasing Anti-Judaism, General, Gospel Genres, Literary Features, Parables, Study Tips, Teaching of Yeshua

3 Responses to "The Purpose of Parables"

  1. James says:

    Oops. Wish I’d have read this before I published my own parables commentary yesterday.

  2. Don Young says:

    Parables are easy to memorize. Some of the details could be off without changing the moral of the parable. Thanks for all of your hard work Derek!

  3. website says:

    This blog has got a lot of really helpful stuff on it! Cheers for informing me!

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