Rediscovering Parables in John with Ruben Zimmermann

Ruben Zimmermann’s Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Interpretations is a very fine work. One value of the book is that it consciously seeks to bring together current German and American research on the parables (see here). Another important feature is that Zimmermann applies recent research on historiography and memory to the interpretation of the parables (see esp. 76-98). This post will highlight a third contribution of the book, namely Zimmermann’s perceptive discussion of the genre of parable (pp. 105-150, esp. 132-138) and his convincing suggestion that there are, in fact, parables in John (pp. 333-360, esp. 333-339; see further here).

Before turning to Zimmermann, it may be helpful to illustrate the widely held view that parables are characteristic of the synoptics and not of the Fourth Gospel. To do so, I will quote from two (very fine) books that I have used in my course on John this semester: “This Jesus is not the gritty, earthy, Synoptic preacher of parables from rural Galilee.” (Christopher Skinner, Reading John. Wipf & Stock, 2015, p. 69); “In the Synoptics, Jesus speaks regularly in parables… John’s Jesus teaches not in parables but in lengthy discourses…” (Marianne Meye Thompson, John: A Commentary. WJK, 2015, p. 3; but cf. p. 344).

Zimmermann’s rediscovery of parables in John is based on his reassessment of the definition of a parable. He defines parables as follows:

137: “A parable is a short narratival (1) fictional (2) text that is related in the narrated world to known reality (3) but, by way of implicit or explicit transfer signals, makes it understood that the meaning of the narration must be differentiated from the literal words of the text (4). In its appeal dimension (5) it challenges the reader to carry out a metaphoric transfer of meaning that is steered by contextual information (6).” (p. 137).

137-138: “Concentrating on attributes, we can name a bundle of six characteristics of a parable … Four of them are core criteria (and), which means that whenever one is missing, the genre of the text in question is not really a ‘parable’. Two of them are supplemental criteria, which are relevant for most parable texts (and/or); however, they are not necessarily required. The ‘parable’ is:

1. narratival, and

2. fictional, and

3. realistic, and

4. metaphoric, and/or

5. active in appeal, and/or

6. contextually related.”

In my view, Zimmermann’s definition is very perceptive, and I would only want to quibble with criteria 3. More specifically, I think it is preferable to describe parables as “semi-realistic” rather than “realistic” since it seems to me that there are some cases in which the world under discussion or target domain influences the source domain or level of the image in such a way that it bursts or bends the realism of the image.

Zimmermann’s treatment of parables in John contains at least four important lines of thought. First, he provides a concise response to the reasons that have been advanced for not finding parables in John. Here (pp. 334-335), he notes, inter alia, that “The clear and simple sayings concerning the ‘walking at day or night’ (John 11:9-10), the ‘woman in labor’ (John 16:21), or the ‘shepherd who leads out his sheep’ (John 10:1-5), to mention only a few examples, cannot be characterized simply as allegories; rather, they arise out of the everyday experiences of agrarian life in Galilee”, that “the concept of nontheological parables in the Synoptics must be questioned, since key terms and themes such as vineyard, shepherd, or harvest were already imbued with theological meanings”, and that “the Synoptics bring together and characterize as belonging to the genre of παραβολή texts of varying length and character, a state of affairs that corresponds to the variety of figurative speech in John.” Secondly, drawing upon his earlier definition of parables, he explains that “Bearing in mind the above dynamic theory of genres, several passages can be identified as fictional, realistic, narrative, and metaphorical texts. Thus, using the same standard of justification with which we call such texts in the Synoptics ‘parables,’ we may call them parables in John too. In other words, there are parables in John!” (335). Finally, he takes a further step and asks whether one can identify a specific concept of the parables in John. Here (pp. 336-339) he notes, inter alia, that “If one seeks to locate the Johannine parables within the context of the entire Fourth Gospel, one discovers that they are found in nearly every section of the Gospel, from the first public appearance of Jesus (John 2:19-20) to the end of the Farewell Discourses (John 16:21)” and that “The theological goal of the parables for John is the recognition of Christ, which unfolds especially in relationship with Christ. The addresses of the Gospel should be drawn into a dynamic process of understanding and faith through the παροιμία, a process that culminates in a holistic fellowship with Christ, a ‘remaining in Christ’ as union with the resurrected one.” Fourthly, Zimmermann devotes the rest of this chapter (pp. 339-360) to a close study of the Parable of the Dying and Living Grain (John 12:24).

In my view, Zimmermann has made a very strong case for speaking of parables in John (see further the works referenced on page 335 n.7-8). This is not to say that there are not important differences between the Synoptics and John, both in general and with regard to their parables in particular. But it seems to me that we should no longer frame this issue by suggesting that the genre of parables is restricted to the Synoptics.

Addendum: I am pleased to learn that there will be an SBL panel on the parables this year featuring giants such as A.-J. Levine, J. P. Meier, K. Snodgrass, A. Merz and R. Zimmermann!

For a list of Ruben Zimmermann’s English publications, see here.

For a complete list of my blog posts, please see here.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne