Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus’ Parables -- By: Mark L. Bailey

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 155:617 (Jan 1998)
Article: Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus’ Parables
Author: Mark L. Bailey


Guidelines for Interpreting Jesus’ Parables*

Mark L. Bailey

Mark L. Bailey is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Academic Dean, and Professor of Bible Exposition, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.

*This is article one in an eight-part series, “The Kingdom in the Parables of Matthew 13.”

A turning point in the study of Jesus’ parables came with the work of Adolf Jülicher,1 who sought to expose the inadequacies of the allegorical method of interpretation and asserted that each parable taught a single moral truth. In answer to Jülicher, C. H. Dodd and Joachim Jeremias sought to discern more specific lessons from Jesus’ parables by focusing on their major referent, the kingdom of God.2 Dodd and Jeremias attempted to interpret the parables in their historical contexts in the life of Jesus and in the gospel records.

More recent trends have tended to see the parables as literary art at the expense of historical interpretation.3 Consequently some writers have returned to the approach that sees multiple meanings based on the subjective philosophical self-understanding of the interpreters rather than the historical objectivity of Jesus and His message. The past fifteen

years or so have been dominated by a “sophisticated” literary criticism and structuralism which seems to be more concerned with the style of argumentation than the historical interpretation. From the pendulumlike extremes of Jülicher and the multiple meanings allowed by the extremes of the philosophical linguistic movement, a more cautious balance is being sought by recent conservative writers. Though authors such as Robert Stein, David Wenham, Craig Blomberg, and John Sider4 have sought to interpret Jesus’ parables more conservatively, it remains to be seen how many will join their effort.

Parables are distinguished from other literary figures in that they are narrative in form but figurative in meaning. Parables use both similes and metaphors to make their analogies, and the rhetorical purposes of parables are to inform, convince, or persuade their audiences. Pedagogically Jesus utilized parables to motivate hearers to make proper decisions. To Jesus’ original audiences the parables both revealed and concealed new truths regarding God’s kingdom program. Those who rightly responded were called disciples and to them it was granted to understand the mysteries of the kingdom. The same truth was concealed from t...

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