I love studying and teaching about Jesus’ parables in the Gospels – that is one of my favorite class sessions in the NT intro course I teach. I am also fascinated by the history of interpretation of the parables. So, I was overjoyed to see David B. Gowler’s new book The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia (Baker, 2017). Because this book covers more than fifty case studies in reception – most of them deeply engaging and insightful – I will talk about the book over several posts. Here we will briefly cover the introduction and first main chapter.
Why a book on the “afterlives” of the parables of Jesus? Gowler seems to be intrigued by the impact of these tales and riddles on Christians and other readers of the gospels throughout the centuries. But he also mentions how attentiveness to reception helps us to be aware of our own blindspots and the disadvantages of having just one human tradition or perspective. The more engagement from people outside of our era and locations/culture, the more our
vision is expanded to what may be going on in the parable. In his own words, Gowler says that “One of the goals of this book is to help readers better understand the importance of context for interpreters’ responses to Jesus’ parables” (9).
He uses the Prodigal Son parable as a test-case, noting that some (from their own vantage point) argue that the point is ethical, others focus on ethnicity (elder brother = Israel, younger = Gentiles), and others still believe it talks about different kinds of Christians. Gowler is not directly interested in settling on the “right” interpretation. He sees the attentiveness to these many interpretations instructive regarding the act of learning itself.
Chapter 1: The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in Antiquity (to c. 550 CE)
In this era, Gowler is selective, but covers figures like Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, and the under-appreciated Macrina the Younger. Gowler also looks at Christian a
rtwork from this period which depicts parable images (though admitted there is not very much). It is difficult to give any sweeping summary to patterns of reception and use in this period, but Gowler does note that allegorization and blending of biblical passages and images was popular.
So far, I appreciate Gowler’s concise summaries of each figure or artist’s interpretation, and he includes artwork as able and relevant. Next up – the middle ages…