A Place to Go

Klyne Snodgrass. Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Eerdmans 2008.

Cover: Stories with Intent (2008)

This thorough study is now the reference of first resort for anyone working with the Parables. (Whether, as the subtitle assumes, the Parables go back to the historical Jesus is a question which the material here gathered may eventually help to decide). The book contains a new and suggestive division of the Parables into rhetorical types. It also discusses each included parable carefully, surveying previous scholarship as relevant, and making new and useful observations.

There are a few infelicities of presentation. The publishers have thought that by moving the footnotes to the back of the book they will ingratiate their primary scholarly audience; in this they are grievously mistaken. The Parable of the Good Seed and the Tares might appropriately enough be pictured on the cover, but the designers' choice for that illustration was perhaps ill-considered. The blurbs on the back of the book emphasize utility to preachers and believers, perhaps a warning signal, but those wishing to bring intellect to bear on the Parables should nevertheless find the book a great help. It brings together in one place what would otherwise have to be dug out of the commentary literature at large, starting with Jülicher in two volumes (no English translation), Jeremias, and other earlier specialized studies of the Parables. The best of this, and more besides, is now judiciously assembled between two covers, and for this labor of many years, the author deserves the thanks of readers present and future.

The book's indexes to both authors and source texts (what in a more Latinate age would have been called the Index Locorum) are convenient; the bibliography, though necessarily formidable for this much discussed subject (it runs to 49 pages), usefully backs up the short citations, and for a book of 864 pages, the price is right (the HB lists at $50; we paid $32 through a discounter, and a PB is also available). There is no Subject Index; for reader convenience I might mention that the author's chief analytical terms (such as "double indirect narrative parables") are introduced and explained on p11-17.

Site of the SBL Meeting, November 2007

The book was the subject of a panel at SBL/2007 - curiously, since it had not yet been published (the panelists had seen proofs, but the audience was in the dark), and annoyingly, since, presumably in line with the publisher's idea of the book's audience, both panelists were concerned for its effect on the faithful, and predictably objected to its intellectual aspects. The whole session seemed somehow capricious and unfair.

There is a difficulty with the scope of this and all other publications in the NT field, which is hardly the author's fault, but which sooner or requires comment. As things turned out, one such comment came sooner, during the question period at the end of the abovementioned panel. It came from the undersigned. It was to the effect that Christianity in general grew up in a lively international context; that Capernaum in particular sat athwart one of the caravan routes making up that context (the fishermen of Galilee made their living not by peddling fresh fish to local households, but by bundling salted fish for Mediterranean export); that one of the five original disciples was a tax collector on the Capernaum leg of that international trade system; that the eastern termini of that network lay in China and India, and that Antioch, which seems to have been the center of second-genration Christianity, was a much more cosmpoloitan city, lying on a much more heavily traveled main route between East and West; and that one of the parables widely recognized as among the most difficult, the so-called Unjust Steward, of which Snodgrass says . . .

This parable is notoriously difficult, so difficult that hardly anyone suspects it could come from the early church. Already Richard Trench in 1864 complained of the manifold and curious interpretations of this parable, stating that "very many interpreters . . . had overrun their game." A bewildering number of explanations exist, many of which are still guilty of overrunning their game.

. . . becomes perfectly intelligible when it is read against its remote but probably ultimate Chinese original (better called the Canny Steward), the story of the man with the longsword in the service of the magnate Tyen Wvn (Jan-gwo Tsv #154 = HK #133). The comment at the end of the SBL panel concluded:

I do not suggest that every seminary graduate should know classical Chinese. I do suggest that out of every 1000 seminary graduates, one should have a working acquaintance with what is common knowledge in the classical China field. At present, you people are flying blind.

Of course the same is true of the classical Sinologists who fondly imagine that they can do text analysis by the seat of the pants, rather than by acquaintance with the high tradition of Renaissance philology which is better preserved in the Mediterranean fields (including NT itself), or who fancy that they can analyze the rhetoric of a collection like the Jan-gwo Tsv without regard for what is going on in the larger Indic, Aesopic, and indeed New Testament tale traditions generally. We too are flying blind.

Klyne Snodgrass

As an invitation to thought, to comparative reflection, and to becoming further acquainted with Snodgrass's book, here from p576-577 is his outline classification of the Parables, to which I have added references to the various Gospel versions of the parables (including Snodgrass's Thomas references); the last item is the page on which Snodgrass's discussion begins. Five parables (here marked with an asterisk) appear in more than one typological class; one member of each such duplet is always in the last or "How Much More" category. Ignoring these double treatments, the parables on this list are 39 in number. The 5 narratively undeveloped ones whose page numbers are given in [brackets] are merely mentioned, and not fully discussed:

Apart from the 5 parables not discussed at length, Snodgrass groups together 3 pairs of parables which are listed separately here. There are thus 31 discussion segments (readers will want to add to the book's table of contents an entry for the "Faithful and Unfaithful Steward" at p494). In the book proper, those 31 segments occur in a different order than that of the above list, thus offering a second approach to the material. They are further grouped by topic, the first topic being "Grace and Responsibility." There are also a few excursus sections.

No one is prepared to say exactly how many parables there are, since definitions differ; a wide definition can easily take in more than 60. Nor do all narrower definitions lead to the same smaller corpus. E R Dodd's 1935 study (3ed 1936) focuses on 34 parables, with another 10 merely referred to. Some of Dodd's 34 are ones to which Snodgrass gives only passing mention, such as The Children in the Market Place, and others are not included in the above list at all (The Strong Man Despoiled, The Savorless Salt). Such are the options. It was certainly reasonable of Snodgrass to focus on the narratively more expansive parables, since more can be learned from them about repeating devices of style and diction.

Both the above list and Snodgrass's discussion proper will be suggestive at many points to students of Synoptic matters. In the chapter entitled Parables of Lostness, Snodgrass says this at the beginning of an excursus about the general context:

The Arrangement of Luke 15. Luke has clearly arranged ch15 for rhetorical effect, and an understanding of how this section functions assists in interpreting the individual parables. The flow of the chapter is easily discernible . . .

Maybe not all that easily. But some at least will find Lk 15 and other structures more discernible with Snodgrass's help than without it. Whether or not they end by agreeing with Snodgrass about what the structures are, is a matter of less moment. The question of structure and relationship, and thus the larger Synoptic issue, has been raised. Let it be noted in passing that anyone who succeeds in understanding what the structure of Lk 15 is, and what that of Lk 16 is, and how the content of those structures serves to animate those structures, and how the same content in other Gospels differently animates their respective structures, will be well on the way to understanding the Synoptic text formation process at large.

Nobody so far has fully understood the Synoptic text formation process at large.

The Great Wall

At the other end of things, waiving details of Lukan structure and the specifics of any given parable, the general idea of a such a classification should be enough to send students running, not walking, to the Mencius, to list the varieties of comparison to which the historical Mencius resorts in the genuine transcripts of MC 1, and to list separately the varieties of comparison to which a fictive "Mencius" resorts in the later interpolated and counterfeit transcripts, which are also found in MC 1, and then to compare the two lists, with an eye to seeing whether the range of devices had increased over that interval of perhaps a generation, or what difference the nature of the audience might make, in the persuader's use of this or that tool from his rhetorical arsenal. Who knows? At the end of that afternoon, there might be something to transmit to our NT colleagues, by way of extension or countersuggestion in this important and still neglected area.

George Kennedy

In other words, we suggest that the classification scheme which is a salient feature of Snodgrass's book be used, not as a final typology, but as a well-developed indication that a more broadly based typology of the illustrative anecdote might be worth seeking, and that the search might well begin from the point, nay, the plateau, which Snodgrass has here expounded. Snodgrass himself seems to envision such an ongoing process of reconsideration:

The categories into which the parables are placed never totally suffice. One can easily argue that other parables should be included in a particular category, or sometimes parables may overlap two categories. (p255)

To quote George Kennedy, on a group of different but also recommended books:

To ignore these tools because they may be still imperfect is only to postpone the improvement that can come to them solely through use.

And so, fellow Sinologists, let's get on with it. Let's get on with our share of it. And let's remember that the name of the game is ultimately sharing.

E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Back to Reviews Index

21 Oct 2012 / Contact The Project / Exit to Home Page