Oct 2008

In this interview in our Talks With Scholars Andy Cheung interviewed leading evangelical scholar Klyne Snodgrass, Professor of New Testament Studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, USA. Dr Snodgrass talks about his recent work on the parables.

The most obvious place to start would be your well-received 850 page book, Stories with intent: A Comprehensive Guide To The Parables Of Jesus. Perhaps you can tell us about this?

What I'm trying to do is provide information that people would need as they investigate the parables. If you look at the preface it says that this is a self-consciously self-centred book: it's what I wanted, and what I try to do is give people the information they need to study each parable. I also give an overview of the approaches to each parable. I include primary source material that people don't have easy access to and discussion of textual and cultural features. I identify the issues that must be treated with each parable and then describe how I would treat them.

You say in the preface that it's a tool for teaching and preaching. Does that suggest your audience is pastors and students?

Yes, that's why I transliterated all of the Greek and Hebrew. I wanted it accessible to people, but I didn't really write for academics; quite consciously it was for myself and also for students and pastors.

You avoided practical application though I notice?

Yes, I didn't feel it was necessary to do that although at the end of each parable I do have a section on adapting the parable to indicate the direction in which application should take place. People can do more specific practical application for themselves.

You've worked on the parables before of course and this book is a mammoth 850 pages. Was it something of a life work that took a long time?

One chapter of my dissertation was on the parables and it later became my book on the wicked tenants [The Parable of the Wicked Tenants. An Inquiry into Parable Interpretation]. I've been teaching parables every other year since I started teaching 36 years ago. I didn't expect the book to turn out this big. I thought maybe it would be a three year project but it turned into a 12 year project!

One thing I be interested to know is whether there are any long cherished notions of parables that you think we are mistaken on.

I think the most obvious one is that of Adolf Jülicher [1857–1938, German NT scholar and professor at Marburg] who said that a parable only has one point. This has dominated parable discussions but to say that a parable only has one point is an overstatement. This has filtered down to all kinds of Christians who now think that, but they don't know where they got the idea. But Jülicher is wrong; a parable cannot be the limited in that way and I think a lot of what I say demonstrates that you can't take such an approach. Nor can you do what some other people do and focus on reader response and turn a parable into something Jesus never intended.

The title I use, Stories With Intent, is a protest because a lot of people coming to parables in effect say that the intent of Jesus is not accessible or end up making the parables say whatever they want.

On a similar note, you mention in the beginning of the book some wrong approaches to the parables throughout history. You state that you don't want to look at these issues.

I do not do a history of interpretation because lots of others have done that and I already have an article which traces the history of interpretation from the allegorising of Origen through the middle ages to the modern period where people are allegorising again. Also, in looking at each parable I show what people have done historically.

For each parable you provide a wealth of data on ancient culture, history, practice and geography. What strikes me is how would someone without this material go about understanding parables like these?

You've got your finger on a really important issue. Someone has said that the scripture is a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim. Some parables are difficult, but many are not. An educated – or even perceptive – pastor or lay person can deal with most parables. Some aspects may be difficult but if one reads the parable in context listening to and trying to understand Jesus he or she has a good chance of understanding the parable. But, each parable has layers, layers of nuance and meaning, and these are important for interpretation as well.

Would a reader of the New Testament in the first century have understood parables easily? I think of Jesus explaining the parable of the sower and wonder how the parables might have been received generally.

When you say a reader of the New Testament, we need to ask which reader? A Jewish reader? A Gentile in Rome? There are certain things that operate in a Jewish context that if you had the whole gospel, let's say Luke, then they can still get what's there and deal with it. I think most of the parables would have been relatively straightforward, but I think some of them they would have struggled with. We see that a little later from Origen onwards so there is difficulty there but it's not just parables. I'm also teaching Romans and my students are wide-eyed at the complex theological notions that face us.

I imagine that many people think the parables are limited to Jesus and New Testament, as if Jesus invented the genre. Can you tell us about parables elsewhere in ancient literature?

This is an important point. First, parables are quite old. They go back at least to about 1500 BC and are present in virtually every culture. Parables are known in material from Confucius, Buddhism, Sumerian and Akkadian literature, Greco-Roman writings, and elsewhere. If you look at Aesop's Fables, you have collections of parables too, but these are are different from Jesus’ parables in a lot of ways. They are intended for entertainment and to teach wisdom. That's not what Jesus did: they were not for entertainment or for teaching wisdom in that way.

Also, there are rabbinic parables. You will notice that I divide my primary source material into early Jewish material and later Jewish material. This is to force people not to assume that rabbinic parables are early: they're all late. There are, of course, parables in the Old Testament where they have a prophetic function. Were parables being used in Jesus day? There is some evidence to say yes, but there is very little like Jesus’ narrative parables. There are none at Qumran, none in the early Apocrypha, none in the early church other than much longer allegorical forms in the Shepherd Of Hermas. Some parables in 4 Ezra are close to Jesus’, but they are not the same. John The Baptist does use parabolic forms.

If you ask me whether the rabbis were teaching with parables at the time of Jesus, I would say probably yes but I can't prove it. The rabbinic literature is all later and when we do see the rabbinic parables, they are exegetical tools, not prophetic tools.

I would like to ask you about other books that you might recommend. Your work is a particularly comprehensive book so what if someone wanted a brief overview of the parables?

Craig Blomberg has a good book, but it is almost 20 years old. He also has a recent book on preaching the parables. We differ on a few things but we are also close on others and people will find that work useful.

I know that Brad Young takes an unusual approach to the parables. What do you make of his work, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation?

Brad has two works from a Jewish perspective on the parables [the other being Jesus and His Jewish Parables]. He studied under David Flusser and looks at the parables from a Jewish perspective. My complaint would be that there is no distinction between early and late Jewish material: they take the rabbinic material that's late and use that as a lens to say that Jesus is telling the same kind of story. I'm happy to draw information from them on certain points, but the problem is that the focus is too much on later rabbinic literature.

Finally, can you tell us about what you working on next?

My focus for the next year is a book that focuses on identity. I talk about a hermeneutics of identity and intend to write a book for lay people focusing on how scripture explains who we are. I have about eight factors that make up our identity, and they're all defined theologically.

Thank you, Dr Snodgrass, for your time.


Klyne Snodgrass is the Paul W. Brandel Professor of New Testament Studies at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois. His doctorate is from the University of St. Andrews and his dissertation was "The Christological Stone Testimonia in the New Testament." His well-received work on the parables, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus was published by Eerdmans in ealy 2008.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School. Dr Snodgrass's faculty page can be found here.

The Talks with Scholars series is a regular feature at the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School. Visit the interview page for more engaging dicussion and conversation with world class academics.