The Parables in the Gospels: History and Allegory

Written by John Drury Reviewed By David Wenham

The title of this book was deliberately not ‘The Parables of Jesus’, because one of its distinctive features is its redaction-critical approach to the parables: the author gives the major part of his book over to separate consideration of the parables in Matthew, Mark, Luke and (briefly) John, and he makes no attempt to get back to the historical Jesus. He thinks that the sort of historical reconstruction attempted by Jeremias and others is an impossible task, and in any case he makes it clear that he regards much of the parabolic material in the gospels to be the composition of the evangelists.

Another distinctive feature of the book is the author’s claim that most of the gospel parables, with the exception of some in Luke, are highly allegorical; contrast the common view that they are life-like stories illustrating theological truths. He observes the widespread use of allegory in the OT and in other Jewish and early Christian literature, and he criticizes the attempts of Jeremias to explain parables, such as the parable of the sower, as historically realistic.

The author of this book is right to draw attention to some of the problems in Jeremias’ historical approach to the parables (problems also effectively noted in J. W. Sider’s article in JBL 102 (1983), pp. 61–83). But he is much too sceptical about the overall reliability of the gospels, regularly ascribing things to the evangelists’ redaction rather than to early Christian tradition on inconclusive grounds (e.g. on the basis of unimpressive vocabulary statistics). He does without ‘Q’ or any equivalent, making Matthew the author of much ‘Q’ material and Luke dependent on Matthew; in so doing he underestimates the case for a common pre-Matthean, pre-Lukan tradition, for example in the eschatological parables of Matthew 24 and 25 (and parallels).

The author is right to insist that the allegorical element in the gospel parables is significant. But he goes much too far when he treats almost all the parables, certainly in Matthew and Mark, as artificial and rather esoteric allegories rather than as stories taken from life and adapted to a didactic purpose. Jeremias may indeed be wrong in his explanation of the background of the parable of the sower, but that parable still makes good sense in the agricultural context of Palestine.

The book makes some interesting observations about the distinctiveness of the parables in the different gospels, though also some quite unpersuasive observations: did Mark see the parables as designed to obscure the truth from the crowds, or Matthew expect the church to observe Jewish dietary customs? But its value is more as a provocative tract to stimulate or irritate scholars than as a generally useful handbook on the parables in the gospels.

David Wenham

Wycliffe Hall