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Reconsidering the Parables of a “Marginal Jew”

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.
Volume 5: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables
By John P. Meier 
Yale University Press xiii + 441 pp $65 

Review by Garwood P. Anderson

When contemporary theologians and “churchmen” disparage the “historical-critical method” for its alleged barrenness, it is probably a book like this that they have in mind. That verdict is not meant to be as harsh as it sounds, but rather to indicate that the fifth volume of John Meier’s A Marginal Jew series is a near-perfect member of its species, a sincere and successful attempt at disinterested biblical criticism. In this case, the central project is assessing the historical authenticity of the parables attributed to the Jesus of history, and (spoiler alert) the conclusion is that very few of the parables attributed to Jesus are demonstrably traceable to the Jesus of history.

The question of the authenticity of Jesus’ parables is not new, of course. What distinguishes Meier’s offering from most precursors is the paucity of parables he attributes to Jesus as demonstrably authentic. His reluctant pessimism runs afoul of standard critical optimism that the parable tradition is among the most unassailably authentic testimonies to the Jesus of history. This was the presupposition of Adolf Jülicher’s pioneering critical work at the turn of the twentieth century and the presumption of most major works on the parables to follow. “Critical” approaches to the parables were largely content with demonstrating adaptation and redaction in the transmission of the parables, but that a simile or core story went back to Jesus in most cases has been conceded by most, even within more skeptical scholarship. [1]

That New Testament scholars regard the parables of Jesus as authentic in the main should not surprise us. There is, for starters, the smell test. It just seems to most that the sometimes provocative, frequently wry, often bemusing stories (C. H. Dodd: stories that “tease the mind into active thought”) must go back to a provocative, wry, and bemusing source — maybe even genius. Meier sees this, of course, but regards the “esthetic criterion” as far too subjective to bear such weight. “I like to think of Jesus telling these kinds of stories” is not exactly a tool of the historical-critical trade, even if it has quietly functioned as such for generations.

Indeed, the easy affirmation of the parables’ authenticity is a bias evoking wariness from a project such as Meier’s. After all, Jesus historians whose ends are not only a comprehensive but compelling portrait of Jesus betray an uncanny knack for uncovering cooperative material in the parables. Jülicher found a moralist therein, Dodd and Joachim Jeremias an eschatological innovation, J. Dominic Crossan and others an iconoclastic sage, and still others a Freirean “pedagogue of the oppressed,” and so on.  Very few, it would seem, want a Jesus without his parables. To which, John Meier essentially replies that “you can’t always get what you want,” and whether you get what you need, in the rigors of historical criticism, you’ll get what you get. The moral of the story is that it takes a lot of work to get very little yield, not because the critic is parsimonious, but because he is consistent and has chosen a certain task and a certain way of going about the task.

In the end, only four parables make the cut — “the few, the happy few” — the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32, Matt 13:31-32, Luke 13:18-19), The Evil Tenants of the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-11, Matt 21:33-43, Luke 20:9-18), The Great Supper (Matt 22:2-14, Luke 14:16-24), and the Talents/Pounds (Matt 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). We should be quick to note that this does not mean that Meier believes he has demonstrated the inauthenticity of the remainder, only that the data are not sufficient for a favorable judgment — non liquet, as he prefers to say it. Even more importantly, the conclusion does not so much mark Meier as a skeptic, but rather as a technician, plying his craft rigorously according to recognized standards.

Those recognized standards are the so-called “criteria of authenticity” — the much-debated but widely applied canons of modern biblical criticism by which historical wheat is separated from subsequent chaff.  Here, the criterion doing the heavy lifting is “multiple attestation”: namely, that material is more likely to be judged authentic if it is found in multiple, independent sources. As Meier shows, multiple attestation is a notoriously hard criterion to satisfy given the standard working hypothesis (which Meier accepts) that Matthew and Luke depend on Mark and a shared source (normally designated “Q”) for a substantial core of their material. On this premise — and I share a version of it with Meier — a parable found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke will be regarded as dependent on Mark, such that this would be simply the threefold appearance of a single attestation. Likewise, a parable common to Matthew and Luke will normally be attributed to the Q source, and so on. If, in the nature of the case, the synoptic tradition can yield very little multiple attestation, Meier eviscerates that criterion further with a detailed, and I think persuasive, argument for a late and dependent Coptic Gospel of Thomas, thus removing from the database a source regarded as paydirt by generations of parables scholars. The final shoe to drop is Meier’s argument that certain parables unique to Matthew and, especially, Luke evince features and themes that suggest composition by the evangelists, including, for example, his treatment of the Good Samaritan as a Lukan composition. All of this is worked out in meticulous — always plausible, sometimes persuasive — detail.

This is not to say that this methodological tack could have only yielded these results. In his quest for objectivity, Meier has chosen to work at a low altitude, and the results follow from that choice. For example, there is another way to appeal to the criterion of multiple attestation: rather than asking of each discrete parable whether it is multiply attested — an almost impossibly austere standard, given the nature of the sources — it can simply be noted more generally that speaking in parables is a characteristic of Jesus’ public ministry, independently attested in virtually every stratum of our source material (e.g., Mark, Q, M, L, and GosThom). This more generalized application of the criterion of multiple attestation is not infrequently appealed to in historical Jesus studies, indeed by Meier himself in previous volumes (e.g., Marginal Jew, 2:619-22 et passim). While this hardly establishes the authenticity of any particular parable, it quietly shifts the burden of proof and, should he have chosen this path, would have flipped Meier’s argument on its head.

Likewise, Meier dismisses the criteria of “discontinuity” and its neighbor, “embarrassment,” in short order (pp. 52-54). These criteria presume that a saying or deed of Jesus that is uncharacteristic of historical precursors and contemporaries (and perhaps even followers) is more probably authentic (discontinuity). Likewise, some material attributed to Jesus is sufficiently discordant with an early-Christian Jesus gestalt that it must be regarded as unlikely to be a creation of the early church (embarrassment). While Meier regards these criteria as largely inapplicable to the parables, others have judged to the contrary.[2]­

In a similar vein, Meier might have employed the so-called criterion of “coherence,” whereby favor is granted material consistent with a database of demonstrably authentic material established on other grounds. At this point, the criteria of multiple attestation, generally applied, might collude with the criterion of coherence toward something not unlike Meier’s disregarded “esthetic criterion.” Or to put it another way, multiple attestation and coherence generally applied get us to the Jesus Seminar’s tongue-in-cheek “sure sounds like Jesus” pink beads. It’s just that “pink” — “this is Jesus-like” — is a standard lower than that to which Meier aspires.

There is perhaps no more detailed and rigorous account of the authenticity of the parables available, and future parable scholarship, to the extent that it asks these questions, will be obliged to reckon with Meier’s detailed arguments. But it may be that this fifth volume will prove to have a more rhetorical purpose in the larger scheme of this almost three-decade project. If it should seem strange, having considered the miracles of Jesus with considerable openness (see vol. 2), to now meet the parables of Jesus with this much reserve, I suspect Meier would be pleased that we should be scratching our heads just so.

Dr. Garwood P. Anderson is the President and Provost of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, where he also holds a chair as Professor of New Testament.

[1] To wit, the pioneering publication of the Jesus Seminar was its 1988 report on the authenticity of the parables, and the notoriously skeptical Seminarians determined the better part the parable corpus authentic. Robert W. Funk, Bernard Brandon Scott, and James R. Butts, eds., The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1988).

[2] Myself included; see Garwood P. Anderson, “Seeking and Saving What Might Have Been Lost: Luke’s Restoration of an Enigmatic Parable Tradition,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 80 (2008): 729–49.


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