Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time. Cheers, Fred.
The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus
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John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University, is widely regarded as one of the foremost historical Jesus scholars of our time. He currently serves as the president of the Society of Biblical Literature. (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)
This hardcover book’s back cover has this very brief summary: “In The Power of Parable, top Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan carefully dissects the stories we read in the gospels to get back to what Jesus actually intended to teach. Parables became so important for Jesus’s teaching that his follows also used this form to explain Jesus’s own life, ministry, and accomplishments. Each gospel, then, is really a book-length ‘megaparable’ about Jesus of Nazareth. Crossan also shows how these four gospel writers ended up undermining Jesus’s true message of God’s kingdom – that of bringing peace and justice for all.”
If not the book’s subtitle, the summary above should attract the interest of all who are not afraid to read Crossan’s speculations and insights in this, his latest book. Its Amazon.com website is
I recommend an interested reader use the option Click to LOOK ONLINE to first read the book’s Table of Content. (Everything underlined in blue can be read online, but only in part.)
Although all but page 7 of his 10-pp Prologue is available online, I want to summarize some of his introductory contents. “The book has two main parts of equal size. Part I concerns parables ‘by’ Jesus – involving ‘fictional’ events about ‘fictional’ characters. Part II concerns parables ‘about’ Jesus – involving ‘fictional’ events about ‘factual’ characters. In between those two parts is a very important interlude to emphasize and exemplify that shift from pure fiction to fact-fiction mixture.” Crossan breaks parables into four types: riddle, example, challenge, and attack. He says: “I propose to bracket brevity as a possible, but not essential, characteristic of parable and to define parable as follows: Parable = Metaphoricity + Narrativity.“ He adds “… more simply, a parable is a ‘metaphorical story’." But if one prefers, one could use (instead of metaphorical) words like allegory or symbolic story, although I think it is clear that Crossan chose to use the word parable since parable is what Jesus used in English translations of the gospels.
Crossan concludes his Prologue by stressing the difference between ordinary and metaphorical stories. An ordinary story “wants you to focus ‘internally’ on itself, to follow the development of character and plot, to wonder what will happen next and how it will all end. It wants you to get ‘into’ the story and not out of it”. …”On the other hand, a parable, that is, a metaphorical story, always points ‘externally’ beyond itself, points to some different and much wider referent. Whatever its actual content is, a parable is never about that content. Whatever its internal subject, a parable always points you toward and wants you to go to some ‘external referent’.”
A look at the chapter titles in Part I make it clear that Crossan rather quickly disposes of riddle and challenge parables (Ch 1-2) but has much to say about challenge parables (Ch. 3-6). Chapter 6 – The Kingdom of God – serves as a partial summary of Part I, where his focus is to answer four governing questions concerning parables. He answers them in detail. He provides an insightful comparison between the methods of John the Baptist and Jesus. In Ch. 6 he also discusses four reasons that Jesus chose to be a nonviolent resistor. I especially liked his summary of Jesus’s parables: “In summary, therefore, Jesus’s challenge parables are not only profoundly appropriate, but even rhetorically necessary as a collaborative ‘eschaton’ and as a participatory kingdom of God. They are equally necessary as a nonviolent medium for a nonviolent message. They are short stories that delicately subvert the great story of the Bible. They do not deny it or even destroy it. But, as ‘word against the word’, their quite voices remind us that the Bible is still our story about God rather than God’s story about us.”
The Interlude – Caesar at the Rubicon – serves to further emphasize the use of parables around the time of Jesus. He describes seven ancient accounts – the first three give the basic history and the last four “… all develop history intro parables and, indeed, into four quite diverse ones.” His point is to illustrate how quickly basic-history stories ‘develop’ into metaphorical stories that he calls parables.
The Interlude also serves as a prelude to Part II. Crossan first admits that he is in this book very limited by length in his selection of format and content. He clarifies this by saying “My general proposal is that parables ‘by’ Jesus in his life begot parables ‘about’ Jesus after his death; and, furthermore, that the four gospels not only contain parables about Jesus, but are best understood as four discrete ‘megaparables’ about Jesus. But, [he asks rhetorically] are these gospels, acting as megaparables, to be interpreted as challenge parables?”
The Interlude, as prologue to the gospel megaparables, ends as follows: “In Part II, we will have to assess whether each gospel moves beyond challenging what it opposes to attacking it bitterly or even dismissing it altogether. As parables ‘by’ Jesus begot parables ‘about’ Jesus, that increase in animosity from challenge through attack to dismissal may be the most striking development. To be blunt: Do the gospels as parables about Jesus push steadily beyond parable as challenge toward challenge as attack?”
I now jump to Crossan’s Epilogue, for, before I can digest Part II, I must reread it at least twice (this summer with a friend and next academic year with my church’s Roundtable book discussion group), before I decide how, or if, I will summarize Part II in my review. But I now provide some excerpts of Crossan’s views quoted from his Epilogue. “For me, the trajectory of human violence escalates almost inevitably from the ideological through the rhetorical to the physical. Granted that understanding of human violence, I see the challenge parable as an attempt to question ideological absolutes – whether they are ethnic or legal, social or cultural, religious or political – without reverting to an equally absolute countervision. A challenge parable is a narrative and, as such, can only tell a single story. But that single story dares you – ‘with nonviolent rhetoric’ – to reconsider presumptions, presuppositions, and prejudices taken all too often as unalterable reality: The power of the challenge parable is the power of nonviolent rhetoric to oppose violence without joining it.” …”… I conclude that … Jesus comes to us trailing clouds of fiction, parables by him and about him, particular incidents as miniparables and whole gospels as megaparables.” His final paragraph: “The power of Jesus’s parables challenged and enabled his followers to co-create with God a world of justice and love, peace and nonviolence. The power of Jesus’s historical life challenged his followers by proving that at least one human being could cooperate fully with God. And, if one, why not others? If some, why not all? ‘Ashes denote,’ wrote Emily Dickinson, ‘that fire was.’ And if fire ever was, fire can be again.”
This very thought-provoking and challenging book is a must-read book for any and every Christian. John Dominic Crossan covered in part the Christian gospels in Part II with his focus on the parts he discussed as mainly challenge parables, but then he concluded that we should regard each gospel in its entirety as a megaparable. I have not reached the conclusion that such a jump from parts to the whole is justified. I would have preferred a somewhat longer book that included some detail of the parts in each gospel that he considered were not parables. After reading it and discussing this with others I may change my mind. But for now, in spite of such omissions, I will, for the time being, still rate this book at five stars.