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Crossan on Parables and Gospels

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John Dominic Crossan's new book, "The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus," may spark controversy among some churchgoing readers. However, for readers who aspire to take the Gospels seriously, Crossan has some important things to say.

This book weaves together two major threads of Crossan's scholarship. Famous, and notorious, in the public eye for his work on the historical Jesus, Crossan earned his reputation among scholars for his provocative interpretations of Jesus' parables. "The Power of Parable" begins by rehearsing Crossan's understanding of Jesus' most distinctive teaching vehicle, the parable. He then turns to explain that the Gospel authors did something very similar to what Jesus did: Jesus made up stories about ordinary people and situations to convey his counter-cultural vision of the kingdom of God. The Gospel authors made up stories about Jesus to convey their compelling visions of who Jesus was and why he was significant. Jesus' stories involved "fictional events about fictional characters"; the Gospels include "fictional events about factual characters" (5).

Crossan's interpretation of Jesus' parables constitutes roughly the first half of the book; his account of the Gospels makes up the second. The second part will generate more controversy in the general public; scholars have been grappling with Crossan's ideas about Jesus' parables for 40 years.

Crossan defines a parable as "a metaphorical story" (8) -- but Jesus' particular parables represent only one specific kind of parable. In this respect, Crossan argues, Matthew, Mark and Luke misrepresent the nature of Jesus' parables. (Jesus speaks no parables in John.)

Mark, the earliest Gospel, portrays Jesus' parables as riddles -- antagonistic tests that determine whether or not a person "gets" Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God. According to Mark 4:10-12, Jesus actually uses parables to discriminate insiders, to whom has been given the mystery of the kingdom, from outsiders. And in Mark 12:1-12 Jesus uses parables as a weapon against his opponents.

Luke, however, uses Jesus' parables as examples. The Good Samaritan is a lesson on how to behave; the Persistent Widow teaches persistent prayer. Historically minded scholars like Crossan easily identify the signs that Luke has domesticated Jesus' parables by attaching explanations that turn them into object lessons.

Crossan maintains that neither Mark nor Luke rightly presents Jesus' parables. Jesus' parables were neither riddles nor example stories. Instead, Jesus spoke "challenge parables" -- parables that challenged their hearers to step back and reflect on the world and on God in new, counter-intuitive ways. They invite their hearers to ponder "whatever is taken totally for granted in our world" (63).

Want a good example of a challenge parable? The famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) has long provided Crossan's classic case. The entire scene presents a dialogue between Jesus and a "lawyer" -- an expert on the law of Israel -- and it ends with Jesus saying, "Go and do likewise." In other words, Luke uses the parable to teach people that no boundaries restrict the command to love one's neighbor.

A story within a story, the parable itself runs just a few verses within the larger scene. A man, presumably Jewish, finds himself half-dead by the roadside. And when two presumably respectable Jews come by, they avoid the victim and leave him to his fate. Nearly all of Jesus' parables come with a "hook," or surprise, however. This parable's hook resides not in the fact that a third passerby stops to help Jesus but in that man's identity. This man is a Samaritan, considered an inferior if not an enemy by most Jews. (John's Gospel reminds readers that Jews had no dealings with Samaritans.)

It's not surprising, Crossan argues, that a man stops and helps. It is shocking what kind of man does so. And that's the essence of a challenge parable. A challenge parable takes ordinary expectations and turns them upside down. What kind of world do we inhabit when "good" Jews fail to show compassion but a "wicked" Samaritan offers mercy?

Crossan has influenced many interpreters, who now expect surprises from Jesus' parables. Not many interpreters would agree that Jesus spoke only challenge parables, but Crossan's interpretations of some of those parables still shape the conversation.

Now what about the Gospels? This is where Crossan's argument will stir controversy in churches - a conversation faithful Christians will do well to follow. It's embarrassing, but this is the truth: many religious leaders do not share what they know about the Gospels. Not trusting their congregations, they preach and teach as if they had never taken a seminary biblical studies course.

Here's what any decent New Testament scholar will tell you about the Gospels -- and Crossan's book is valuable for pointing it out so clearly. The Gospels do not provide straightforward chronicles of Jesus' teaching and activity. Their authors never intended them to offer that service. Instead, the Gospels offer interpretations of Jesus and his significance. They surely draw upon traditions concerning what Jesus did and said, but they rework, and frequently make up, material to promote their real agenda, namely, to shape the faith of their audiences.

We have space to examine just two of Crossan's examples. Matthew includes the famous Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus instructs his disciples to love their enemies (5:43-48). A disciple may not so much as insult another person (5:21-26). However, Matthew 23 presents Jesus on a tirade against his opponents, calling them hypocrites again and again, among other names. What gives? Is Jesus inconsistent, or does Matthew have an agenda? Crossan, like most interpreters, says that Matthew 23 reflects not Jesus' own teaching but a conflict that emerged decades after Jesus' career -- a conflict between the Jewish followers of Jesus to whom Matthew is writing and other Jewish groups. The rhetorical violence in Matthew reflects those later tensions, says Crossan, not a contradiction within Jesus' own teachings. Unfortunately, Matthew's 28 chapter long story of Jesus functions as an attack parable against rival Jewish factions, a far cry from Jesus' nonviolent teaching and a far cry from the challenge parables.

Briefly, a second example. Throughout his career Crossan has been fascinated by the resurrection stories. Only John's version contrasts the anonymous Beloved Disciple with Peter. When Mary tells them about the empty tomb, the Beloved Disciple outruns Peter to the tomb, is the first to see that it is empty, and is the first to believe (20:3-9). If the author were a Southern football coach, he'd say that the Beloved Disciple "wanted it more" than Peter did. By no coincidence, the Beloved Disciple provides the authority behind John's Gospel (21:24-25) -- an authority greater than even Peter's.

Crossan's book will unsettle some readers. However, this brilliant and humble scholar is offering a gift. Many of the stories in the Gospels didn't actually happen -- at least, not as they're narrated. And Christians should not find that fact disturbing. Instead, this realization should free readers to perceive deeper levels of meaning in the Gospels.

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