Parables Unplugged: Reading the Lukan Parables in Their Rhetorical Context

Written by Lauri Thurén Reviewed By Gregory E. Lamb

Few works are bold enough to challenge the consensus of centuries of scholarship within a given field. Parables Unplugged by Lauri Thurén (Professor of Biblical Studies, University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu) is such a work. Thurén is a rhetorical-critical scholar whose past works have primarily focused on the Catholic and Pauline Epistles and include The Rhetorical Strategy of 1 Peter (Abo, Finland: Abo Academy Press, 1990), Argument and Theology in 1 Peter: The Origins of Christian Paraenesis, LNTS 114 (London: T&T Clark, 1995), and Derhetorizing Paul: A Dynamic Perspective on Pauline Theology and the Law, WUNT 124 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).

Thurén argues in this novel work that Lukan parables should be read “unplugged,” apart from any presupposed theological or exegetical grid, as they serve a singular rhetorical function of persuasion (pp. 13–15). Thurén conspicuously places his thesis, methodology, and purpose for writing in the opening pages of his work. Thurén states his thesis as follows:

[D]etaching the parables from all other perspectives [hence “parables unplugged”] opens new possibilities for understanding their meaning and specific persuasive function, and that Jesus seldom teaches his audience anything new by his parables. Instead, they mainly enhance the recipients’ adherence to already known facts, attitudes, or modes of behavior. This, in turn, is supposed to be applied to a new context. In some cases the result of this process may be a novel theological insight…. I shall argue that releasing the parables from unnecessary theological and historical burdens permits us a better view of their actual theological message. (pp. 4, 50)

In terms of method, Thurén is highly influenced by the parables work of Ruben Zimmerman, the rhetorical-critical work of Stephen Toulmin, and Adolf Jülicher’s hypothesis of a singular point (scopus) in every parable (pp. 13–17, 38–40, 84, 110, 187–89; 250–52). Thurén states: “I will present one of the best-known and most flexible methods, that of Stephen Toulmin . . . to clarify the precise persuasive function of each parable in Luke” (p. 13). Such a method “enables us to define more precisely the meaning and purpose of the specific parables, or at least many of them, provided that essential information about the situation [exigence] and the recipients is at hand” (p. 14). Thurén first provides “an overview of previous research, focusing on central problem areas.” Then, using Toulmin’s model, Thurén defines “the message and function of the parable in its embedding framework story by focusing on the text-internal interaction between the key characters in both narratives. Lastly, in chapters 6 and 7, he provides a “comprehensive ‘unplugged’ analysis of all the Lukan parables of Jesus . . . to test how the method applies to several types of parables” (p. 49). Thurén writes “to reveal interesting technical, rhetorical, and theological features of the Lukan way of telling parables” (p. 50).

Structurally, Thurén’s work consists of three main parts: Part I includes a substantive introduction (fifty pages), which serves as a prolegomenon for his rhetorical/narratological methodology; Part II is a “deep analysis” (p. 181) of four of Luke’s “key parables” (10:25–37; 15:1–32; 16:1–9; 20:9–19); and lastly, Part III includes a statistical analysis of all fifty-seven Lukan parables (as defined by Thurén), a brief investigation of the singular rhetorical “punch line” (scopus) of each of the remaining fifty-three parables not covered in Part II, as well as a chapter on “re-plugging” the parables in which Thurén classifies and analyzes “the messages supported by each particular parable” (p. 345).

There is much to commend in Thurén’s work. First, Thurén is an excellent thinker and lucid writer. He presents and argues his case in a well-researched, straightforward manner, and helpfully summarizes his main points at the end of each section. Second, Thurén’s writing is bold as he courageously swims against the stream of the consensus in parables scholarship and is unafraid to blaze new trails as his research leads. Third, and perhaps its greatest contribution (at least to this reviewer) to parables scholarship, is the statistical analysis of Lukan parables in Part II. This section alone is worth the price of this book.

As good as Thurén’s work is it is not without faults. A major fault is the sheer number of superfluous typographical and formatting errors, which detract from the quality of Thurén’s argumentation. Numerous misspellings in the body of the text and bibliography (e.g., pp. 182, 386) coupled with various formatting errors (e.g., numerous footnotes are on wrong pages, and all hyperlinks to Thurén’s supplementary worksheets are broken) plague an otherwise excellent work. Another flaw is that Thurén tends to contradict himself throughout his work. A prime example of this is his erroneous, stereotypical description of parables as “simple stories” (p. vii). Any parables scholar worthy of the moniker knows complex pericopes such as Luke 16:1–9 and Luke 16:19–31 are anything but “simple stories.” Thurén later admits this throughout his work, thus contradicting his previous statements (see pp. vii, 107, 234–36).

In sum, Parables Unplugged is a work that must be reckoned with in future parables scholarship. While this reviewer does not agree with many of Thurén’s conclusions, Thurén has argued his case well, and this work demands a hearing from any serious student of the Lukan parables.

Gregory E. Lamb

Gregory E. Lamb
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

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