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History and Parable
The Power of the Parables

This epilogue has two sections. The first section is a summation of what I have proposed in this book about the parabling of Jesus. The second section raises two new and concluding questions about Jesus himself, about the Jesus of that parabling. I begin with a review of what we have done.

First, parable is story, that is, a tensive sequence of beginning, middle, and end in a narrative that lures you into its plotted microworld to participate as an outsider- insider in its ongoing adventure. (If you say of a story, “I can’t get into it,” participation has failed.) Some stories, of course, demand participation without thought, since thinking might reveal a story’s utter implausibility or even sheer vacuity.

Second, metaphor is “seeing as,” and metaphors extend from the most trivial clichés (“the sun rises”) to imagining worlds and proposing reality itself (“liberty and justice for all”). Here also, the purpose of metaphor is participation. Metaphors invite us to recognize the human necessity of “seeing as,” the dangerous and vertiginous necessity to create the ground we stand on. But, once again, metaphors can become clichés, and then we forget their inevitability.

But, still, try this, for example. Look in a mirror and see if you can see yourself without seeing your eyes seeing yourself. We swim in metaphor like fish in the sea. Do fish know about the sea? The hidden question of metaphor is this: Can we humans ever see without “seeing as”?

Third, a parable is a metaphorical story and, as such, it tends to generate a special mode of participation by hearers or readers. It does not want you to get into its story, but to get out of it. The Sower parable does not want you to get into sowing and ponder agricultural data. It wants you to get out of sowing— but into what? Parables are traps for thought and lures for participation. You are seduced or even provoked into thinking like this: If sowing is not sowing, what is it?

Fourth, I proposed a basic threefold typology for the genre of parable. Riddle parables (or allegories) are stories in which each element points outside itself to elements in some other hidden story. In Mark’s Sower parable, for instance, “the birds” (4:4) mean “Satan” (4:15). With riddles, participation involves discovering hidden knowledge and decoding secret information.

Example parables are ethical models, moral cases, or practical instances inviting participation by comprehension and imitation. In Luke, for example, seeking the lost sheep and rejoicing over its recovery (15:6) is a model for how Jesus acts toward sinners (15:1–2, 7) and, presumably, how we should act as well.

Challenge parables are the ones within my proposed threefold spectrum in which I am primarily interested— from the written book- length ones of Ruth, Jonah, and Job in the Christian Old Testament to the hour- long oral ones of Jesus in our New Testament. In all those case studies I emphasized the oblique and indirect, the delicate and gentle way in which great sweeping absolutes of habit and custom, law and culture, presumption, presupposition, and prejudice were subverted by simple parabolic narrative that recorded a single, but different vision.

No Moabite, says the absolute law of God, may ever enter the people of God. But, says the challenge parable of Ruth, a Moabite woman was the great- grandmother of David, the anointed of God, the once and future king of Israel. What about that? No attack is launched on Deuteronomic theology or on the Torah- based divorces demanded by Ezra and Nehemiah. But Ruth the Moabite is in the genealogy of David— and later of Jesus. So how about that?

Similarly, for Jesus. The “good Samaritan,” like the “good Moabite,” challenges ethnic absolutes and religio- political discriminations— not just in the Jewish, but in any world. What if your plural ethnic “good guys”— the priest and Levite— fail to act compassionately, and only your singular ethnic “bad guy”— a Samaritan— does so successfully? Is that the exception that proves the rule or the exception that subverts the rule? Think about it.

Further, to conclude the book’s first part, I wondered if, granted parables as participatory pedagogy, there was some profoundly intrinsic link between the medium and the message of Jesus, between the medium of challenge parables and the message of God’s kingdom. In response I had two equally important correlations.

All parables are participatory pedagogy. The first correlation was based on this proposal: Jesus proclaimed a participatory or collaborative eschatology by announcing that the kingdom of God was not an act of unilateral intervention by divinity, but an act of bilateral cooperation between divinity and humanity (Desmond Tutu: “God, without us, will not; as we, without God cannot.”)

But a participatory eschatology demanded a participatory pedagogy, a collaborative message demanded a collaborative medium. In other words, parables were the perfect— even necessary and inevitable— medium for that precise message. That raises, however, one further question. Why did Jesus prefer challenge parables rather than riddle or example parables, since all parables demand participation? All those three types are participatory, collaborative, and interactive media. So why did Jesus choose challenge parables in particular?

Challenge parables are nonviolent pedagogy. We saw that God’s kingdom was, for Jesus, not just a collaborative venture, but also a nonviolent one. (Thank you, Pilate, at least for getting that right.) I consider those two aspects as equally important and equally necessary for his visionary world of justice and peace. A challenge parable confronts metaphorically, of course, but also delicately and gently. It is, after all, only a single story, so how can it stand up to a sweeping legal absolute, ancient ethnic stereotype, established religio- political presumption, and especially a divinely sanctioned mandate? It will, it can, and it does. Because that is the power of the challenge parable.

Fifth, before turning from parables by Jesus in Part I to those about Jesus in Part II, I presented an Interlude on Caesar at the Rubicon. In that former part we were looking at fictional characters in fictional stories, parabolic protagonists in parabolic narratives. But that Interlude introduced the possibility— indeed, actuality— of factual characters in fictional stories, historical characters in parabolic stories. Julius Caesar certainly existed, and to get from Ravenna to Rimini in 49 bce he certainly crossed the river Rubicon. That Interlude was, of course, a deliberate preparation to move from fictional characters in fictional stories— that, is parables by Jesus in Part I— to factual characters in fictional stories— that is, parables about Jesus in Part II.

Sixth, without attempting in any way to summarize the four chapters of Part II, I emphasize one conclusion from that sweep from Mark, through Matthew and Luke- Acts, to John. Mark presented Jesus through a challenge megaparable, but in Matthew the presentation morphed into an attack megaparable. Next, Luke- Acts and John both, but in divergent ways, combined challenge parable with attack parable.

In other words, even if only on the level of rhetoric, the nonviolence of challenge parable has become— progressively throughout the four gospels— the violence of attack parable. Attack is not just a new and fourth type of parable. It is an antiparable to the challenge- parable mode of Jesus himself. Parable has turned— at least rhetorically— violent.

I pause for a moment to emphasize one final time how I understand the challenge parable as used throughout this book— and especially as distinct from the fourth type, the attack parable. 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 turn next to the second subject in this Epilogue and, by now, you have probably guessed the content of my two final questions. If parables involve fictional characters in fictional stories (challenge stories by Jesus) and factual characters in fictional stories (gospel stories about Jesus), are there also fictional characters in factual stories? In other words, and for my present focus, did Jesus himself exist as a historical figure, or did he never exist factually, but only fictionally? Furthermore, does that make any difference for the Christian vision of the “good news”? Two questions, therefore: Did Jesus exist? And is the answer important either way?

The first question is did Jesus ever exist as a historical figure in time and place? Is he like Julius Caesar— a factual figure, but enveloped in clouds of parable? Or is he like the Good Samaritan— an entirely fictional character of Christianity’s parabolic imagination? My answer is that Jesus did exist as a historical figure. That conclusion derives from two historical considerations— two types of proof, one external, the other internal. It does not arise from any dogmatic presuppositions.

The external reason is the basic agreement about Jesus between the Jewish historian Josephus at the end of the first century and the Roman historian Tacitus at the start of the second century. Both were writing at Rome and indicate what at least some educated elites knew about “Christians” as followers of a “Christ”— like Platonists followed Plato or Aristotelians followed Aristotle. Who, then, was this “Christ”?

There is a general scholarly consensus that the explanation about Jesus in Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities was “improved” by later Christian editors and, in citing it, I italicize those assumed additions. It is a deliberately neutral report from Rome in the 90s ce with these four main points:

Movement: About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ.

Execution: When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified,

Continuation: those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.

Expansion: And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (18.63–64)

I agree that those italicized sections are Christian “improvements,” save for one case. Josephus must have mentioned “Christ” earlier in that text, since he concludes that “Christians” are “called after him,” namely, after Christ, but only “Jesus” has been given as a name for the movement’s founder. So I think it very likely that the phrase, “He was [called?] the Christ,” was originally there as a Josephan explanation rather than added as a Christian confession.

Furthermore, later in his Jewish Antiquities Josephus speaks of “Jesus who was called the Christ” (20.200). So my proposal is that in 18.63–64 he also said, “He was called the Christ.” Christian editing involved only the omission of “called” and not the insertion of the entire sentence.

Be that as it may, Tacitus writing his Annals of the Julio- Claudian dynasty in the 110s, explained “Christians” as followers of “Christ” under those same four rubrics:

Movement: Christus, the founder of the name,

Execution: had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus,

Continuation: and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more,

Expansion: not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. (15.44)

Externally, therefore, two historians at the turn of the first to second century explain “Christ” as the founder of a movement that was not stopped by his execution, but spread in time and place— whether as “an unbroken love” with Josephus or as a “pernicious superstition” with Tacitus. That is the external proof of the factuality of Jesus, but, for me at least, the internal one is even more decisive.

The internal argument starts with what we have already seen throughout the sequence of the gospels from Mark, through Matthew and Luke, to John. We saw that Jesus presented through a challenge parable morphed steadily into Jesus presented through an attack parable. Recall, as just one example, how Jesus started off in Matthew 5 forbidding character assassination or even insulting language and commanding forgiveness and love of one’s enemies. But by Matthew 23 that same Jesus is repeatedly declaring, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” We saw, through the successive gospels, how rhetorical invective increases steadily on the lips of Jesus.

Think of another example, from a wider, overall New Testament perspective. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey at the start of his last week (our Palm Sunday). First of all, Matthew has Jesus ride a nursing female donkey with her little colt trotting by her side (21:2). Next, that happens, Matthew 21:4 says, “to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet” about the Messiah’s advent in Zechariah 9:9.

Finally, then, why a donkey? Because such a nonviolent entry meant that the Messiah “will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:10). That nonviolent entry was a parabolic lampoon on the violent imperial mode of entering a conquered city through shattered walls or opened gates. But turn now to the final book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse or Revelation. In Revelation 19 the return of Jesus is no longer on a nursing female donkey, but on a white battle horse:

I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war . . .. I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army . . .. And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (19:11, 19, 21)

The nonviolent incarnate Jesus has become the violent apocalyptic Jesus. The nursing donkey and her colt have been replaced by the warhorse or battle charger.

That is my second, internal, and far more definitive reason for accepting Jesus as a historical figure— no matter how creatively he has been portrayed in parable in small ways and large throughout the four gospel versions. Here is the point: If you are inventing a non-historical figure, why invent one you cannot live with, but must steadily and terminally change into its opposite? In other words, I find it much more likely that Jesus was an actual historical figure whose radical insistence on nonviolent distributive justice was both accepted and negated by the tradition it engendered. I conclude that Jesus was an actual, factual, historical figure and not a metaphorical, symbolic, or parabolic invention by his first- century Jewish contemporaries.

For those two reasons, one external and one internal, and along with the consensus of modern scholarship, I conclude that Jesus really existed, that we can know the significant sequence of his life— from John the Baptist to Pilate the prefect— but that he comes to us trailing clouds of fiction, parables by him and about him, particular incidents as miniparables and whole gospels as megaparables.

My second concluding question is: What, if any, difference would it make for the Christian vision if we discovered— with absolute certainty— that Jesus was never a historical figure? Apart from accusations of original lies or inaugural conspiracies, what if “Jesus” had been as deliberately and honestly invented as was, say, the “Good Samaritan” or the “Prodigal Son”? What— if anything— would have been lost to Christianity? Nothing more or less than an actual life of nonviolent distributive justice as the revelation of the character of God. But could you not get that just as well from a non-historical figure in a magnificent parable? Not really. But why? What is at stake?

Imagine if the “Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.” had been simply a non-historical character whose life and ideas were portrayed in a New York Times bestseller novel, a fictional tale that won all types of prizes and immediately became a motion picture. Its vision would have been absolutely valid for American destiny, but could have been dismissed with the offhand comment that it was all very lovely, but would not work— not now, not here, and maybe not anywhere, ever. It was just fictional entertainment, a dream from which one woke to a reality that negated it even as a human possibility. People, it might have been objected, would always strike back— at least by the second or third day, at least by the second or third murder.

But because Dr. King was an actual person who did it— rather than just a character in a parabolic novel who imagined it— his vision could not be so easily dismissed. If it were done, it could be done again— and by others. That, of course, is the challenge of Jesus as an actual, factual, historical figure. If any one human being can do anything in life and death, other human beings can do likewise.

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 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.

Taken from The Power of the Parable by John Dominic Crossan

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