From Proverbs to Parables
The Creative Wisdom of Jesus
Part II discusses Jesus as a self-actualized artist who creatively designed these tales. It examines what shaped Jesus’ artistry, what might have been the sources of his literacy, why he might have chosen to expand individual proverbs imaginatively in order to create his moral tales, and how his wisdom enhanced conventional attitudes toward wisdom as the former included and clarified his new "kingdom of God" concepts. This book could be used in courses treating Literature and the Bible, Biblical Art, The Humanity of Jesus, and Wisdom Literature Common to Christians and Jews.
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- I: From Proverbs to Parables
- Chapter One: The Importance of Wisdom
- Chapter Two: Parables and Proverbs
- Chapter Three: Jesus’ Hebrew Bible Sources for His Parables
- Chapter Four: Jesus Speaking Wisdom as Wisdom
- Chapter Five: Reflections on Jesus’ Parabolic Wisdom
- II: Jesus as Creative Artist
- Chapter Six: What Shaped Jesus’ Artistry?
- Chapter Seven: How Might Jesus Have Become an Author?
- Chapter Eight: Why Did Jesus Draw from the Book of Proverbs?
- Chapter Nine: How Did Jesus Respond to Conventional Proverbial Wisdom?
- Chapter Ten: Conclusion
- List of Parables
I am very grateful to those who have been particularly supportive of this project. My wonderful department chair, Dr. Windy Counsell Petrie, suggested some three years ago that I write an essay relevant to “faith integration” of about fifteen pages. That turned into sixty-eight pages, a book proposal, and a contract for a full length manuscript, this book. Ms. Sarah Shahan, my student in both undergraduate courses and a graduate course, served faithfully as my competent research assistant on this journey. Ms. Rebecca Russo helped with the initial book proposal and with commenting on Part II. Dr. Marsha Fowler and our colleagues in her research group encouraged me weekly throughout the fall of 2019. My beloved husband of fifty-three years, David E. Lambert, Emeritus Professor, assisted me daily with loving support, good ideas, and amazing research skills. May God richly bless each one!
The goal of this little book is to suggest that Jesus as a creative artist was heavily influenced by the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Proverbs. First, From Proverbs to Parables: The Creative Wisdom of Jesus posits that he created some of his short parables from specific verses found in Proverbs. Second, it suggests that he expanded some basic sapient themes found in this book when composing his parables. Third, it shows him reacting negatively to the commonly held belief that this book’s overall concept of wisdom is that the wise are rewarded and the fools are punished by God through their own self-destructive choices and subsequent actions.
The Book of Proverbs is addressed to men, and the Gospels show that Jesus expanded the audience for wisdom to women who were probably illiterate in his era; women also became some of the key characters in his parables, admirable figures, unlike the adulterous seductresses of Proverbs. Further, women liked to listen to his teachings, as evidenced by Lazarus’s sister Mary neglecting to help her sibling Martha prepare the meal for Jesus and his praising her for doing so (Luk. 10:42). Hence Jesus’ parables provide an expansion of the ←1 | 2→conventional understanding of wisdom shared by his contemporary Jewish and Gentile audience.
Thus From Proverbs to Parables: The Creative Wisdom of Jesus is important for its readers in two ways: (1) it points to Jesus as an inventive artist, a concept not usually associated with him, and (2) it complicates simplistic ways of defining biblical wisdom. Part I demonstrates how Jesus might have created his tales from specific proverbs found in the Book of Proverbs. It defines “parable” as a narrated tale with an action filled plot, not just a symbol, metaphor, simile, or allegory. Hence the selection of parables here may differ from the lists found in others’ analyses of Jesus’ teachings. The overarching theme for these parables is wisdom: Jesus as wisdom (I Cor. 1:24) speaking wisdom in new ways. My focus will be on the parables found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, excluding the Gospel of Thomas and other non-canonical sources.
Part II discusses Jesus as a self-actualized artist who creatively designed these tales, words being the acceptable mode of creation in his Hebrew culture since constructing concrete objects that could become idols was forbidden. Indeed, his trade as a carpenter might have presented him with the temptation to carve or build attractive objects that could have evoked too much admiration. This part of the book examines what shaped Jesus’ artistry, what might have been the sources of his literacy, why he might have chosen to expand individual proverbs imaginatively in order to create his moral tales, and how his wisdom enhanced conventional attitudes toward wisdom as the former included and clarified his new “kingdom of God” concepts. Hopefully, the result of this study will present Jesus as an even more nuanced figure than he has appeared in Christian tradition and will expose an understanding of wisdom that goes beyond that of the Book of Proverbs and traditional claims drawn from it.
For example, one theological concept that can be derived from the wisdom of Jesus’ parables is the extreme generosity of God which often outweighs enactment of perfect justice; this is exemplified in the parables of The Prodigal Son (Luk. 15:11–32), The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16), and The Unjust Steward (Luk. 16:1–13), and will be further explicated in Part I. Another is that the “kingdom of heaven” is ←2 | 3→slow, quiet, powerful life growth which is demonstrated by the seeds which mature in the ground unobserved but richly vital in their eventual flourishing above the earth and producing fruit, as demonstrated in the parable of The Sower (Luk. 8:5–8), a second parable of The Sower (Matt. 13:3–9), the parable of The Wheat and the Weeds (Matt. 13:24b–30), the parable of The Mustard Seed (Matt. 13:31b–32), and the parable of The Seed Growing Secretly (Mk. 4:26–29). Like the writers of the Book of Proverbs, Jesus is focused on deep character changes in his listeners and readers, not superficial fulfilling of the Law, an approach which will be analyzed more fully in Part II. People, like seeds, mysteriously become more and more what they are and what they naturally were intended to be, hopefully always moving toward resembling the image of God which they bear. This character growth is possible even among those who were not physically healed by him (Job’s maintaining his integrity despite his acute suffering exemplifies this) and among abundant weeds (Jesus himself operated among opponents, for example, the scribes and the Pharisees, those lacking Job’s steadfast integrity, and even two disciples who betrayed him, Judas and Peter). Such insights into Jesus and his concept of wisdom should change the listeners and readers of his parables for the better.
The “pre-Easter Jesus,” to use theologian Sandra Schneiders’s term appearing throughout her The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, will be the focus since Jesus was a creative artist of parables during his earthly life and since the Gospels indicate that he told no parables during his resurrection appearances. Emphasis on some of the proverbs of the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Proverbs that seem to be linked to Jesus’ parables, literary texts as recorded in the Gospels, will take precedent over arguments about their authorship and reflections about their sources. Many biblical scholars consider the parables to be basically among Jesus’ most authentic sayings. Craig L. Blomberg notes that “… the parables … already have a core of material recognized as authentic by almost all schools of interpretation and where certain arguments for the unreliability of the tradition elsewhere usually do not apply” (128). He continues, “Nothing has emerged which convincingly challenges the authenticity of the parables; practitioners of several of the newer methods are fairly uninterested in ←3 | 4→historical questions” (189), and he clarifies, “The Synoptic parables may be accepted as authentic sayings of Jesus, assuming that authenticity is defined in terms of ipsissima vox Jesu and not just ipsissima verba Jesu” (193). Thus the texts themselves are important literary artifacts in their own right, ready for listeners and readers to respond to them. For a recent in-depth survey of biblical scholars’ outlook on and treatment of Jesus’ parables, one may consult the second edition of Blomberg’s Interpreting the Parables.
I chose Proverbs as a key wisdom book because of its antiquity; for example, Karel Van der Toorn notes that Qohelet’s and Ben Sira’s genres can be traced back to the Proverbs (25). Scriptural study reveals, however, that many of the Book of Proverbs’ insights also appear in other Wisdom literature of the Ketuvim, The Writings, particularly in Psalms and Job. Occasional references to these texts will appear as well. Michael V. Fox, in his The Anchor Yale Bible Proverbs 1–9, acknowledges that the Book of Proverbs, written by “countless generations of unknown sages” (3), provides not only guidance for life, “precepts, norms, and guidelines for securing a life of well-being, decency, and dignity” (3), but also “a novel principle: wisdom” (3). He acknowledges that the “main inspiration” of Ben Sira, to whom the Book of Sirach is attributed, “is the book of Proverbs. He borrows its forms, phrases, and ideas, quotes it, and reshapes its material. He can often be read as the earliest interpreter of Proverbs” (Proverbs 1—9 25).
Ben Sira worked with Proverbs ca. 180 B.C.E. (Fox, Proverbs 1–9 24); hence his creative use of them could have influenced Jesus to also inventively adapt and expand them into parables for his own ministry. My hypothesis for From Proverbs to Parables: The Creative Wisdom of Jesus is that Jesus tapped into this “novel principle” of “wisdom” in order to expand its meaning. Jesus’ concept of “securing a life of well-being, decency, and dignity” includes acknowledging and being faithful to “the kingdom of God” and eternal life, as will be shown below. He broadens the concept of “wisdom” to speak prophetically of this “kingdom of God” while using a traditional teaching device, rabbinic parables, in creative ways. David Buttrick notes, “I have suggested Jesus used a familiar Jewish wisdom form, the parable, but used the form prophetically. To be a prophet in Israel was to speak for God over ←4 | 5→against moral neglect and the easy idolatry of popular religion. Such protest is based on Israel’s calling to be holy as a Holy God’s covenant partner. Prophecy also looks toward ‘Zion,’ the fulfillment of all God’s promises” (20). Jesus’ “kingdom of God” is an innovative approach to “Zion.” W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, authors of The Anchor Yale Bible Matthew, affirm that “Jesus himself, like most early rabbis, relied on the tenacity of oral tradition, especially in the parables” (xxxviii–xxxix).
Fox and other commentators have noted that the Book of Proverbs “is clearly a secular work. It makes no pretense to an origin in divine revelation or inspiration. God is never quoted or addressed. It never had a role in the ritual life of Israel, in neither temple nor synagogue. In fact, it never was, and still is not, a subject of deliberate study in the rabbinic academies” (Proverbs 1–9 7). This “secular work,” then, leaves room for spiritualization by Jesus as he orally composed his parables. He could do so without offending those who cherished the Law and the Prophets as being divinely inspired; he could build on wisdom with which his audiences was familiar but without offending them by using in a new way what had not become ritualized in their worship services. He could also capitalize on what had not been “a subject of deliberate study in the rabbinic academies.” In short, Jesus could fill in a spiritual vacuum with his new wisdom and vision of the “kingdom of God.”
Common sense and the human mind must now be infused with God’s grace and vision of his “kingdom.” Fox acknowledges that proverbs “are, by their nature, highly mutable. Proverbial sayings undergo constant change, in both oral and written transmission, and some of the changes are developments [sic] rather than mere errors” (Proverbs 1–9 5). Jesus may have taken advantage of this mutability to develop certain proverbs into his parables. Fox notes that the Book of Proverbs was already finalized “well before Ben Sira, … writing in the early second century B.C.E., for he was strongly influenced by Proverbs” (Proverbs 1–9 6). Hence Jesus would have had access to these proverbs during his lifetime. How he became literate and how proverbs were used as memorized teaching devices will be discussed in Part II.
My hypothesis that Jesus artistically transformed certain proverbs from the Hebrew Bible into parables in order to prophetically expand his listeners’ (and later readers’) understanding of conventional ←5 | 6→wisdom is different from some others’ interpretations of the purpose of his parables. For example, Albright and Mann see them as predominantly “a literary form arising from case law” (cxxxix) that demonstrate how the Law should be actualized in real life. They state that it is “our central contention—that the parable was a literary device which grew out of interpretation of covenant-law” (cxlv). Joel Marcus, author of The Anchor Yale Bible Mark 1–8, regards Jesus’ parables as “weapons of warfare”: “He [Jesus] fights back in ‘parables’… these parables are not timeless maxims but weapons of warfare, and this pattern will characterize Jesus’ subsequent parabolic speech as well” (281). Parables, by their mystery and multivalence, protected Jesus from his enemies’ attacks against him. Rabbi Frank Stern agrees that they were strong sources of “self-protection” (259). Perhaps my analysis does not need to contradict these scholars’ conclusions, for Jesus’ parables could have served many purposes. My intention is to emphasize Jesus’ power as a creative, innovative artist in communicating a revised understanding of traditional outlooks on wisdom.
Following the postmodern convention of “locating” oneself for the reader, I should acknowledge that I have been educated as a secular intellectual who maintains a strong Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. I have studied under many superb scholars, including Robert Alter in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a graduate student from 1979 to 1986, and Elie Wiesel and Peter L. Berger at Boston University, where I taught from 1995 to 1998. I am a “born again” Pentecostal who moved to becoming a Presbyterian and then converted to Roman Catholicism in 1986. All of this rich life experience, both intellectual and spiritual, makes me a rather atypical biblical scholar while simultaneously offering to me the opportunity to study scriptures from both an artistic and an ethical point of view which is my intention in writing this text.
- XII, 164
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- Publication date
- 2021 (February)
- New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XII, 164 pp.