Review: The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus

May 29, 2012

Title: The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus
Author: John Dominic Crossan
Publisher: HarperOne
Genre: New Testament
Year: 2012
Pages: 259
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 978-0-06-187569-4
Price: $25.99
By Blair Hodges
Jesus was so meta. In his famed parable of the Sower “the word” is compared to seed being cast onto the ground where it might grow or perish. And the word “parable” itself comes from the Greek—para (“with” or “alongside”) and ballein (“to put” or “to throw”). As popular biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan observes in his latest book: “Jesus was not trying to improve the agricultural yield of lower Galilee.” The activity of sowing is “cast alongside and compared with” the dissemination of the word; this is essentially a parable using parable as parable (10).
Crossan explores this manner of teaching in his provocatively-titled The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus. To better understand Jesus’s parabolic teaching style, Crossan describes a three-fold typology of parable: “riddle parables,” like the puzzles Samson tried to use to trick his new in-laws (Judges 14), “example parables,” like the story the prophet Nathan tells to David about the rich man and poor man’s lambs (2 Sam. 12:1-4), and finally, “challenge parables,” like Jesus’s Good Samaritan story, which presented a despised person as the protagonist—a strange reversal of social expectations (Luke 10). Crossan notes that the Good Samaritan has also been interpreted as an example parable (helping people out is good), but he believes the specific inclusion of the Samaritan as the rescuer signals Jesus’s deeper intent. Down the centuries a good deal of interpretation and assumptions have encrusted over Jesus’s parables, so Crossan spends a little time exploring the cultural context in which they were orally shared. It was a context in which a listening audience would recognize Jesus’s familiar parable form, but be startled by Jesus’s actual content. Challenge parables were a “participatory pedagogy” Crossan argues (95). Audiences would be forced to grapple themselves with the message, to question, to doubt. Jesus was intent on overturning long-entrenched views without use of violence and with the participation of disciples, thus making parables the ideal medium:

“Why, then, did Jesus trust so much in his audience and grant so much to their reaction? Why not just tell them what he wanted to say openly and literally—like a modern church sermon? Because a challenge-parable medium is perfect for a paradigm-shift message. Because a collaborative eschaton requires a participatory pedagogy” (134, emphasis in original).

Throughout part one, Crossan discusses parables by Jesus, detecting in them a non-violent means of changing his audience’s perception of what his coming Kingdom would be. But part two is where he turns up the heat by making the unique argument that the four gospels (combining Acts with Luke) themselves are parables about Jesus, or “megaparables” as he calls them (6). He suggests the gospels, as with Jesus’s stories, are carefully designed stories intended to subvert social expectations and prompt self-reflection about the risen Christ. That simple description is bound to raise the dander of many Christians who might think Crossan is calling the gospels fiction, so he makes sure to firmly italicize his belief that “Jesus did exist as a historical figure” (247). He’s making a more complex argument than that of simple historicity by asking: “Where does factual history end and fictional parable begin?” through analysis of narrative form and content (5).
His rhetorical leverage for concluding the gospels are parables is two-fold: first, he explores Hebrew Bible examples of book-length parables in Ruth, Jonah, and Job to argue that such megaparables weren’t unheard of. Second, his Interlude approaches the sticky question of historicity using the example of Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. He explores historical sources on Caesar’s famous crossing, with a mixture of fact and possible fiction, and concludes it is completely possible “to tell factual-historical stories and fictional-parabolic stories about exactly the same historical incident” (151).
For the rest of part two he examines the four gospels in turn, concluding that, based on the historical communities to which each writer directed their works, they selectively shaped the story of Jesus’s life to emphasize their own agendas. This is where Crossan’s governing assumptions do a lot of heavy lifting without much attention to New Testament source criticism. In essence, he concludes that Matthew, Luke and John produced increasingly polemical “attack parables” alongside the “challenge parable” aspects of their accounts, and Mark’s before them (see the summary on 246). A large part of his project is intended to account for the parts of the gospels he finds least Jesus-like: the rebukes of Pharisees, cursing of trees, and so forth.
Because he is writing for a non-specialist audience, Crossan’s prose is very plain and clear. Each chapter is usefully bookended by an outline of exactly what he will argue, and a conclusion of exactly what he has argued, thus making it simple to follow his reasoning and to a lesser extent his governing assumptions.
I think Crossan’s main project is excellent: to examine the gospels as instances of inspired writers’ crafting of narratives for specific and now often-overlooked purposes. Why did they emphasize the points they emphasized? What did they leave out? What might their contemporaries hear in the accounts? At the same time, his execution seems a bit lacking. He relatively frequently draws unnecessary conclusions from the evidence he’s dug up. For example, the fact that Mark and John record the day of Jesus’s death differently does not mean neither of them got it correct and were both thus making up the date in order to achieve their megaparable point. Either of them could have been right, and it would take more work with the texts to make such an argument (143). Crossan’s governing (and perhaps laudable) assumption of Jesus’s utter non-violence and desire for distributive justice do more lifting than the actual texts he uses to sustain the overall argument.
In short: whether the gospels are parables seems a different question than whether they can be read parabolically—an important distinction Crossan himself doesn’t make. But this book is aimed at a popular audience (hence it’s lack of an index and footnotes, aside from a few asterisks).
Such disagreements aside, I admire Crossan’s overriding desire for readers to take off the glasses of 21st century readers and slip into the dusty midst of a wind-blown audience on an old Jerusalem hillside, listening to the challenges of an itinerant Jewish teacher calling himself the Son of God. Jesus wasn’t just a nice moral teacher but the challenger of an old—and presenter of a new—way of seeing the entire world:

“Challenge parables mean—that is, intend—to make us probe and question, ponder and wonder, discuss and debate, and, above all else, practice that gift of the human spirit known as thinking. About what? About the absolutes of our religious faith, the certainties of our theological vision, the presuppositions, presumptions, and prejudices of our social, political, and economic traditions…Challenge parables foster not periodic doubting, but permanent questioning. Their hope is—from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke—to help us ‘love the questions’ and ‘live the questions.’ Their purpose is—from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins—to ‘Jolt / Shake and unset your morticed metaphors.’ Their intention is—from the prophet Micah—to make us ‘walk humbly with our God” (111, emphasis in orig.)

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Check a sample of Crossan’s book at HarperOne’s site.
Cross-posted at By Common Consent