The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861–1986: Summary

Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright
Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright’s revision of Stephen Neill’s, Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861–1986, attempts a concise, but significantly narratival, survey of various issues in New Testament scholarship during the period in question. To this end, Neill and Wright discuss: (i) the challenge to orthodoxy (1–34); (ii) the New Testament and its relationship to history (35–64); (iii) what the New Testament says and means (65–111); (iv) Jesus and His relationship to the Gospel (112–46); (v) Greeks and their relationship to Christians (147–204); (vi) “Re-enter[ing] Theology” (205–51); (vii) the theory of a gospel behind the Gospels (252–312); (viii) the Jewish background of the Gospel (313–59); and (ix) the relationship between history and theology (360–449).

While examining the challenge to orthodoxy, Neill and Wright concentrate on summarizing the noteworthy, continental contributions to New Testament interpretation from Enlightenment’s early days through the middle 1800s. “The New Testament and History” continues this examination, while giving special emphasis to the work of “the Cambridge three” of Lightfoot, Westcott, and Hort. Chapter three discusses developments and issues in textual criticism and exegesis. “Jesus and the Gospel” handles research on the synoptic tradition, especially as relates to the synoptic problem. “Greeks and Christians” mainly investigates the possibilities for and evidence of influence of Greek thought on the development of earliest Christianity. In the chapter titled, “Re-enter Theology,” Neill and Wright concentrate almost totally on Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus, Karl Barth’s dialectical theology, and Rudolf Bultmann’s attempt to discover the Christian kerygma—that is, the essence of the Christian faith. Further, Neill and Wright examine the possibility of a written source(s) that may stand behind the synoptic Gospels. The authors also investigate the help that Judaism might provide for interpreting the New Testament. In the final chapter, “History and Theology,” the book explores, in some detail, Ed Sanders’ work in reaction to, for example, the traditional Lutheran understanding of Paul. This chapter also encourages interpreters to exhibit a certain “historical humility” in their work and concludes by restating the relevance of New Testament studies.


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Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright

A Hermeneutic of Love

Communication is hermeneutical; it involves people sending and receiving messages. To make the communication process work, the sender(s) and receiver(s) both have to meet their own particular, communicative responsibilities. Of course, with literature like the New Testament, the people who sent the messages it contains cannot clarify or supplement anything they have already said. So, if communication is to happen, any modern readers, or receivers, must try to understand the text’s own communicative horizon, for all the problems that task entails (see this post for a discussion). On this task, consider the following, insightful comments from N. T. Wright’s New Testament and the People of God:

I suggest, then, that the epistemology which I outlined earlier—that which sees knowledge as part of the responsibility of those made in the image of the creator to act responsibly and wisely with in the created world—results, at the level of literature, in a sensitive critical realism. We must renounce the fiction of a god’s-eye view of events on the one hand and a collapsing of event into significance or perception on the other. Until we really address this question, most of the present battles about reading the gospels—and most past ones too, for that matter—will be dialogues of the deaf, doomed to failure. But, for a start, I suggest a possible hermeneutical model . . . a hermeneutic of love.

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.

When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. But however close the reader gets to understanding the text, the reading will still be peculiarly that reader’s reading: the subjective is never lost, nor is it desirable that it should be. At this level, ‘love’ will mean ‘attention’: the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change oneself in relation to the other (63–64; italics original).


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N. T. Wright
N. T. Wright

Simon Kistemaker – Interaction

Simon Kistemaker
Simon Kistemaker

Simon Kistemaker generally provides balanced, astute commentary on several of Jesus’ parables and parabolic sayings. He attempts to avoid allegorical interpretations, thinking that “in the New Testament we encounter elements of allegory but never a full-fledged allegorical parable” (15). This surface disagreement with Blomberg’s perspective on the parables is mainly an issue of semantics. In actuality, Kistemaker’s point merely reflects the very probable hypothesis that in none of Jesus’ parables do all the details stand for things other than themselves, or stated alternatively, that Jesus’ parables—even the allegorical ones—are qualitatively different from an allegory like The Pilgrim’s Progress. One of the chief benefits of The Parables is how Kistemaker consistently summarizes with simplicity and clarity what he considers to be the main points of each parable. Occasionally, one might well debate some precise points of exegesis. Yet, the work is, overall, engaging and informative, and Kistemaker’s style is coherent and straightforward.


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John Bunyan
John Bunyan
Simon Kistemaker
Simon Kistemaker

Simon Kistemaker – Summary

Simon Kistemaker
Simon Kistemaker

In The Parables, Simon Kistemaker specifically targets “theologically trained pastors. But because technical details have been relegated to endnotes, the text itself is user-friendly to any serious student of the Bible” (8). The introduction describes very broadly some of the basic issues of which one should be aware when studying parables, such as: the meaning of the term “parable,” the composition of parables, Jesus’ purpose for teaching in parables, the basic principles of interpreting parables, and the elusiveness of any firm method of classifying the parables (9–20).

After introducing his topic, Kistemaker examines a selection of Jesus’ parables and parabolic sayings; in doing so, Kistemaker treats together any groups of parables represented in more than one synoptic gospel (21–220). Generally, Kistemaker interpretively retells each parable (group), while adding helpful historical, cultural, and sociological information. Following this retelling, he typically discusses the parable’s theological or interpretive issues and indicates some ways each the parable (group) might apply to the church’s current situation. The conclusion of The Parables handles some issues related to the synoptic problem and attempts to identify the characteristics that the individual synoptic Gospels exhibit in their use of Jesus’ parables. Finally, Kistemaker briefly discusses the parables’ recipients, those recipients’ responses, and the ways in which the parables themselves represent Jesus (221–31).


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Simon Kistemaker
Simon Kistemaker

Dominic Crossan – Interaction

Dominic Crossan
Dominic Crossan
Crossan’s book, In Parables, immediately demonstrates his keen intellect and wide range of reading. The great variety of literature he cites certainly indicates his substantial, literary aptitude. One of the more beneficial parts of the book, however, relates more directly to his detailed reading of Jesus’ parables themselves rather than so much to his wide reading in other literature. Specifically, Crossan performs a very valuable service in his detailed analyses of multiply attested parables in relation to the synoptic problem. Crossan’s close reading of these parables and his subsequent notes on points of divergence between the parable froms in the synoptics helpfully summarizes the major critical issues involved with these parables. The solutions he proposes to these difficulties are frequently innovative and seem to be motivated by a desire to recapture the exact wording Jesus used when He originally gave the parables (ipsissima verba) (3–4). Nevertheless, many scholars might, in most cases, propose quite different solutions from those Crossan puts forth (cf. vii, 3–4). The book does have some questionable aspects, such as an excessive skepticism about the historical Jesus (e.g., 4; for a critical realist approach to this question, see Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God). Yet, In Parables definitely provides itself to be valuable by providing the reader with much helpful information concerning the divergences present in Jesus’ multiply attested parables.


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Dominic Crossan
Dominic Crossan
N. T. Wright
N. T. Wright

Dominic Crossan – Summary

Dominic Crossan
Dominic Crossan
Crossan’s work, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, is based on several articles that Crossan wrote separately and has now compiled into a single collection (xi). Rather uniquely, through citations from various scholars and littérateurs, the introduction and conclusion attempt to provide some literary commentary related to different ways of reading parables. The first major section, “Parables and the Temporality of the Kingdom” (3–36), addresses several broad issues related to literary theory, describes what constitutes a parable, and identifies a method for parable interpretation. At this section’s conclusion, Crossan groups Jesus’ parables by what he sees as their three major themes—namely, the advent of God’s kingdom, the reversal of the worldview of the parables’ addressees, and the calling and empowering of the recipients to live and act in concert with God’s kingdom (36). In each of the following chapters, Crossan comments generally about one of these themes and examines at least one parable that, in his estimation, fits that category.

Under parables of advent, Crossan discusses the relationship that the kingdom’s advent and the joy of its recipients have with the kingdom’s manner of growth (37–39, 49–51). He also analyzes the parables of the sower and the mustard seed in detail. Concerning parables of reversal, Crossan distinguishes between parables and example stories, and he comments about how reversal parables relate to paradox and eschatology (54–55, 73–76). As examples of reversal parables, Crossan treats the good Samaritan in detail and several other reversal parables in brief (55–73). In the book’s last, major section (parables of action), Crossan discusses connections between parables and ethics, particularly regarding the necessity of a parable’s addressee decisively to respond to the parable (78–84). For illustrations in this section, Crossan particularly concentrates on the parable of the wicked husbandmen while also including a more cursory discussion of the “servant parables” (84–117).


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Dominic Crossan
Dominic Crossan

Craig Blomberg – Interaction

Craig Blomberg
Craig Blomberg
In Interpreting the Parables, Blomberg appears to have succeeded quite well in accomplishing his stated task of producing an introduction to and theory of parable interpretation that will benefit a wide variety of readers (10). To this end, he keeps unnecessary, technical jargon to a minimum, yet regularly handles the necessary, technical points quite clearly.

One of this book’s chief values is the methodology Blomberg proposes for a responsible, multi-faceted, allegorical approach to parables. Recognizing the contributions of Jülicher and others, Blomberg seeks to push beyond the classic critique of flagrant, parable allegorizing and suggest a method of parable interpretation that makes room for allegorical elements in the parables while also providing some interpretive controls (163). Yet, as Blomberg himself implicitly recognizes, some exceptional cases may not comport perfectly with the main part of his methodology, but they do fall under an extension that he describes. That is, in addition to looking for allegorical interpretations for the main characters, parable interpreters should note that “elements other than the main characters will have metaphorical referents only to the extent that they fit in with the meaning established by the referents of the main characters, and all allegorical interpretation must result in that which would have been intelligible to a first-century Palestinian audience” (163; emphasis added). This extension is somewhat less discreet than Blomberg’s main statement of his method, but the two together do form a viable basis from which modern readers of the parables can consider them and appreciate their allegorical elements.


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Craig Blomberg
Craig Blomberg

Summary of Validity in Interpretation

To interrupt this series on parables research for a short commercial, Alan Knox, an Adjunct Professor of Greek and a fellow doctoral student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has made my summary of E. D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation available on his website, ̔Ελληνιστί, in HTML format.

A PDF version of this summary is also available here.

Update (19 June 2017): The above-noted link to Alan Knox’s website is currently broken. Please see the summary at the PDF link mentioned above.


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E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

Craig Blomberg – Summary

Interpreting the Parables
Interpreting the Parables
Craig Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1992).

Interpreting the Parables begins by summarizing significant findings and methodological issues in recent parable research so that a wide audience can benefit from this historical foundation for Blomberg’s work (13). In reviewing this previous scholarship, Blomberg seeks to interact critically with it and, at some points, propose specific alternatives (14). In Blomberg’s opinion, all Jesus parables are allegorical on some level. To articulate a method of treating the parables in this light, Blomberg discusses numerous hermeneutical issues, appreciating the value of the different positions where possible, critiquing them where necessary, and frequently coming to mediating conclusions about these issues’ relevance for parable interpretation. His most important conclusion, and the one that affects the whole the second part of the work, is that “each parable makes one main point per main character—usually two or three [characters] in each [parable]—and these main characters are the most likely elements within the parable to stand for something other than themselves, thus giving the parable its allegorical nature” (163). Having articulated this principle, the bulk of the second part of Interpreting the Parables contains Blomberg’s systematic examination of many of Jesus’ major parables according to this hypothesis (171–288). Blomberg concludes Interpreting the Parables by discussing some of the theological elements that frequently occur in Jesus’ parables and providing a brief summary of the work’s second part (289–327).