Why Do Jesus’ Parables Differ from One Another?

You may have noticed an interesting dynamic in the synoptic Gospels (Matt, Mark, and Luke). They all emphasize that a large portion Jesus’ teachings were given in the form of parables. Give or take, they present roughly the same parables, and yet, they differ occasionally on the details. Why is that? N. T. Wright gives what I find to be a very helpful and historically informed answer:

First, unless we are to operate with a highly unlikely understanding of Jesus and his ministry, we must assume some such picture as we find in Gerd Theissen’s brilliant work, The Shadow of the Galilean.  Jesus was constantly moving from place to place, working without the benefit of mass media.  It is not just likely, it is in the highest degree probably, that he told the same stories again and again in slightly different words, that he ran into similar questions and problems and said similar things about them, that he came up with a slightly different set of beatitudes every few villages, that he not only told be retold and adapted parables and similar sayings in different settings, and that he repeated aphorisms with different emphases in different contexts. Scholars of an older conservative stamp used to try to explain varieties in the synoptic tradition by saying cautiously that ‘maybe Jesus said it twice.’  This always sounded like special pleading.  Today, once a politician has made a major speech, he or she does not usually repeat it.  But the analogy is thoroughly misleading.  If we come to the ministry of Jesus as first-century historians, and forget our twentieth-century assumptions about mass media, the overwhelming probability is that most of what Jesus said, he said not twice but two hundred times, with (of course) a myriad of local variations.
Second, those who heard Jesus even on a few of these occasions would soon find that they remembered what was said.  We do not even have to postulate a special sort of oral culture to make this highly likely; even in modern Western society those who hear a teacher or preacher say the same thing a few times can repeat much of it without difficulty, often imitating tones of voice, dramatic pauses, and facial and physical mannerisms.  Moreover, when there is an urgent or exciting reason for wanting to tell someone else what the teacher has said and done, a hearer will often be able to do so, in summary form, after only one hearing; then, once the story has been told two or three times, the effect will be just as strong if not stronger as if it had been heard that often.  This is a common-sense point, which would not need spelling out, were it not so often ignored.  When we add to this the high probability that Palestinian culture was, to put it at its weakest, more used to hearing and repeating teachings than we are today, and the observation that much of Jesus’ teaching is intrinsically highly memorable, I submit that the only thing standing in the way of a strong case for Jesus’ teaching being passed on effectively in dozens of streams of oral tradition is prejudice.  The surprise, then, is not that we have on occasion so many (two, three, or even four) slightly different versions of the same saying.  The surprise is that we have so few.  It seems to me that the evangelists may well have faced, as a major task, the problem not so much of how to cobble together enough tradition to make a worthwhile book, but of how to work out what to include from the welter of available material.  The old idea that the evangelists must have included everything that they had to hand was always, at best, a large anachronism.

– N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 422-423

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Posted on March 13, 2012, in N. T. Wright. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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