Book Review: Stories with Intent
My thanks to the kind folk at Eerdmans for a review copy of Klyne R. Snodgrass' Magnus opus, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008).
Some books have no rivals because of the quality of their reasoning, subtleness of exegetical insight etc. Others have no rivals because they offer something no other book even attempts. One can say that Snodgrass' Stories with Intent, also has no rivals - for a mixture of both of these reasons. At over 850 pages, Graham Stanton rightly exclaims that this book 'will be the book on the parables for the next decade and beyond'. We have here, with Stories with Intent, a real publishing event.
Of course, such a long work, as Snodgrass explains in his preface, is not meant to be read in one go. It functions as a resource manual, as a mine of relevant information concerning all of the parables of Jesus, carefully sifted from all manner of historical sources.
His introduction to the parables of Jesus includes a discussion of his definition of 'parable' ('an expanded analogy used to convince and persuade', 9), the characteristics of Jesus' parables, an examination of how parables should be interpreted, and a look at NT criticisms in relation to the parables. Wisely, in my view, he questions a number of dubious assumptions behind much previous work on the parables, such as the notion that there was 'an original' form, that 'items with allegorical significance were probably added', that 'the handing on of traditional material follows certain "laws" so that the shorter is earlier, the more detailed is later, etc.', that 'the parables can be read as mirror images of what was happening in the Evangelists' communities', and so on (cf. 32). All of this is naturally expressive of his methodological approach throughout the work.
Particularly revealing of his methodology are also his statements at the end of the introduction. In terms of the question of historical reconstructions of the life of Jesus, he argues along with Dunn that '[w]e do not have the ipsissima verba of Jesus ... and attempted reconstructions are not going to supply them ... the only Jesus that exists is the historic, biblical Christ. Anything else is a figment of the imagination' (35). As he later explains, he recognises very well the 'the essential fidelity of the Gospel writers to the tradition they received and the freedom with which they adapted it' (280). Because of this, we are left, for better or worse, with the biblical Christ. I am reminded of similar claims in Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, in which the author formulated his argument in dialogue with M. Bloch, R.G. Collingwood, Paul Ricoeur etc. Of course, Snodgrass is careful to fend off potential misunderstandings of his statements. But it is such comments as these that show the massive changes presently underway in much historical Jesus scholarship. But I am left wondering, Is any other approach really only 'a figment of the imagination'? How can we know that? How do we know if the Gospel writers handled their traditions with fidelity and freedom? Is this wanting to have our cake and eat it? While I think some good answers are forthcoming in terms of the last two questions, the others hang in the air, not so easily waved away. Nevertheless, I for one am heartily in favour of this overturning of the many presuppositional 'holy cows' that have driven much historical Jesus scholarship into many a bizarre dead end. About 90% of me passionately stands behind Snodgrass on these issues!
After this, Snodgrass turns to examine parables in the ancient world, namely in the Old Testament, early Jewish and Greco-Roman writings, the early church and later Jewish writings. Jesus, of course, was not the first to use parables. Yet prior to him, it appears that they were not used so forcefully or frequently. What is more, parables mostly have a very dependent relationship with the context in which they are said (which is why I wanted more appreciation of Wright's insights. But more on that anon).
In the following, Snodgrass turns his attention the various parables, categorising them thematically under the following chapter headings:
- Grace and Responsibility (Matt 18:23-35; Luke 7:41-43)
- Parables of Lostness (Luke 15; Matt 18:22-14)
- The Parable of the Sower and the Purpose of Parables (Matt 13:3-23; Mark 4:3-20; Luke 8:5-15)
- Parables of the Present Kingdom (Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 13)
- Parables Specifically about Israel (Matt 21:28-32, 33-46; 22:1-14; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 13:6-9; 14:15-24; 20:9-19; Gos. Thom. 64-66 – though it wouldn't worry me, for those panicking at the sight of 'Gos. Thom.', I say 'fear not', for Snodgrass argues that these texts are dependent on the canonical witnesses!).
- Parables about Discipleship (Matt 7:24-27; 20:1-16; Luke 6:47-49; 10:25-37; 14:28-32)
- Parables about Money (Luke 12:16-21; 16:1-13, 19-31)
- Parables concerning God and Prayer (Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-14)
- and Parables of Future Eschatology (the Eschatological Discourse; Matt 13:47-50; Matt 25:1-46; Luke 19:11-27)
For each parable, Snodgrass seeks to provide an introduction, an examination of the parable type, a list of issues requiring attention, a look at helpful source material, categorised and cited according the divisions employed in his study of 'parables in the ancient world'. He offers a comparison of the various accounts of the parable, a study of textual features worthy of attention and relevant cultural information, and an explanation of the parable (with 'options for interpretation', 'decisions on the issue'). Finally, he offers a section on 'adapting the parable' (for today), a further reading list and often some final remarks. All of these issues are raised in turn, in relation to the parables, in a structured manner.
It is clear that this material has been prepared with specific goals in mind. As he writes in the preface, the material is 'what I want when preparing to teach or preach on the parables' (xi). In other words, the material Snodgrass provides is of interest for all, whether scholar, student or preacher. As Martin Hengel comments in his book blurb. Stories with Intent is a book 'written for pastors and scholars, for students of the Bible, and for laypeople interested in the teaching of Jesus'. And given the consistent divisions in the discussion concerning each parable, finding whatever information is of interest is not difficult.
I have just one major grumble with the format of the book, however. Eerdmans decided to use endnotes. Why oh why?! Endnotes come from the pit; they are the invention of the satanic hoards! Please, oh please: Footnotes!! It makes it SO much easier to read. Perhaps the editor was worried Snodgrass' potential readers were going to be 'frightened away' by so many footnotes. But I think that the size of the book would have done all of the frightening away before that sort of reader would have been put off by footnotes. Please! FOOTNOTES!
I also had a small grumble with Snodgrass' critique of Wright's (peace be upon him) approach to material in Luke 15. Anybody who has read Jesus and the Victory of God (which is my all time favourite book, if I haven't yet mentioned that this week) will know Wright's approach to the parable of what Snodgrass calls 'the compassionate Father and his two lost Sons' (Luke 15:11-32). Wright, if you remember, argues that the controlling story for understanding the parable is that of exile and return, and that this parable is to a large extent that story in miniature. Snodgrass dismisses Wright's suggestion with the argument that his attempt to explain the significance of the elder brother is dubious (Wright proposes that the elder brother represents the Samaritans). I agree with Snodgrass that Wright's thesis at this point is questionable, but that is not enough to wipe the rest of Wright's proposal away! Luke's Gospel sets itself up to be read, in my view, in terms of the controlling story Wright posits (cf. the material relating to the presentation of Jesus in the temple as a baby, Luke's citation of the prophetic literature used by John the Baptist, and by Jesus in his sermon in Nazareth etc.). Just because Wright's Samaritan proposal does not persuade does not mean another option to explain the significance of the elder brother in terms of exile and return is not forthcoming. I believe one is, but I leave you guessing until a later date on that one. I thought it a real pity Snodgrass didn't pursue matters with a more positive assessment of Wright's (valid) insight on this matter. Is Snodgrass' project marred for its lack of appreciation of the controlling story of exile and restoration? I will let the reader decide.
Stories with Intent is a tremendous resource, one I will dip into for the rest of my life in relation to both scholarly pursuits and for sermon preparation. Even though I have sometimes found myself in disagreement with Snodgrass' judgments, I know that every time I read it I will potentially be inspired, corrected and educated by the pen of this 'parable grandmaster'. In many ways he represents evangelical scholarship at its best: mature, thoughtful, wise, balanced, not uncritical but not crazy woolly trash, deeply academic, yet pastoral and spiritual. I can think of no higher honour for a book than to say such things. Stanton calls it a 'stunning achievement', Hengel a 'wonderful' and 'inspiring' book. Bock simply says 'Bravo!' I'm not really sure what 'Tilling' can add to that list of names, but I do. Nobody preaching on the parables or working on them as a student or as an academic should be without a copy of Stories with Intent.
Labels: Book Review