Friday, June 16, 2006

First Parable Entry on the Busybody

Loren Rosson III has his first entry in the promised series on parables up on The Busybody, addressing the Prodigal Son (Lk.15.11-32). While he provides much food for thought, I must confess that I disagree.

Loren's suggestion really only holds up if the parable is authentic to Jesus. While the Jesus Seminar may have thought it likely, I don't. An obvious caveat in this regard is its length: It is difficult to remember, and thus harder to attribute to early tradition.

Loren notes, regarding his perception of misplaced emphasis on repentence:

"[R]epentance" is never mentioned in the parable; the younger son comes home because he's hungry.

I think this argument is misplaced. Repentence is not mentioned in the parable of the lost sheep, or the parable of the lost coin either, but the meaning in both is, I think, quite clear. The analogue is between absent//sin and return//repentence in both of the preceding parables, and, I'd suggest, in the third. There are other analogues to further this: celebration occurs both in the parable of the lost sheep (15.6) and in the Lost Coin (15.9). This points, IMO, to the meaning of the celebration in The Prodigal Son, a meaning made explicit in 15.7 and 15.10. Likewise the rejection of the ostensibly greater--the 99 sheep, the 9 coins, the son who stayed home--is a theme found in all three parables.

It seems to me that this parallelism requires a remarkable coincidence, or a single mind working toward a single goal. It is not enough, I think, to suggest that that mind was Luke, working with existing material--the weave is too thorough for that to hold.

Additional weight can be found in the preceding of all three of these parables with an implied or explicit explanation (the Lost Sheep is implied by the grumbling of the Pharisees, the next two are explicit--15.7, 10). That Luke wishes us to read it that way is apparent, though without viewing it as Lukan redaction his wish might be irrelevant. However, there is a curious parallel in theme in the Lukan narrative and Lukan intent and the Matthean parable of the Two Sons (21.28-32). Employing (as I do) Mark without Q, it seems there is a better than passing chance that Luke has made clear what Matthew left oblique.

That said, if the parable is not viewed as a Lukan creation, then I think Loren has offered a convincing exegesis of it. But, in my view, that is a big "if." Nonetheless, thanks to Loren for sharing an interesting and thought-provoking take on the Prodigal Son.


Loren Rosson III said...


Thanks for the critique. My purpose in this series isn't to debate the parables' authenticity but explain them on the assumption of authenticity. It may be that some parables don't go back to Jesus, but I think the burden falls on those who claim so. Three reasons (on which see Brandon Scott’s book, pp 63-64): (1) the parable genre doesn't appear in the Hebrew Bible or Hellenistic literature; (2) it appears in the Mishnah, but not traceable to pre-70 Pharisaic traditions; (3) it doesn't even appear in the Christian tradition outside the synoptics, gospel of Thomas, and Apocryphon of James. This isn't to say Jesus was unique in telling parables, but originators weren't exactly falling out of the sky.

With respect to The Prodigal Son, the fact that it's singularly attested doesn’t carry much weight for me, because on the face of it that about describes all the parables (on my view of the sources). I don't think Q existed; Matthew knew Mark, and Luke knew both; Thomas is also derivative. Since no parables fall in John's gospel, Paul's letters, or James' epistle, we don't have tangibly independent sources for the parables.

Lastly, I just don't see the problems you do regarding Luke. Repentance is an important theme for him; that he would redact a received tradition to serve his agenda is not only plausible but likely.

Rick Sumner said...

Thanks for your comments and clarification of purpose. An additional note to your mention of parables in Jewish Literature, while it is largely unique, it's not wholly unique. There is what appears to be a parable found in the DSS, (4Q302a). While it is badly damaged, there is, I think, no mistaking the genre. It can be found online here.

Loren Rosson III said...

With respect to The Prodigal Son, the fact that it's singularly attested doesn't carry much weight for me...

I'm not sure why I thought you made this objection. I may have been confusing it with your remark about the parable's length. (On that point, BTW, don't underestimate the role of oral tradition.)

Rick Sumner said...


Heh. I was a little confused myself--I'd thought you might have just put it out for posterity's sake, being a fairly standard objection to authenticity. Or that maybe you'd confused me with Crossan ;)

I agree with your assessment of the sources, with one major difference: I have one less hope for multiple attestation than you do, since I think John knows the synoptics as well. Like you, I don't place much stock in how well attested a given passage is.

My concern with longer passages isn't necessarily that I don't think oral tradition can keep it going, rather it's that it can't keep it going accurately. A gifted storyteller (and, IMHO, a narrative such as this would require a story-teller, not rote memory) doesn't memorize the narrative, he retells it. I think such retellings, each doubtless with their own slight or major redactions, can fundamentally alter it.

That said, I don't think it's the case here: I think Luke knew Matthew's parable of the Two Sons (which seems a more likely candidate for authenticity to me), and redacted it--that Luke is the gifted storyteller in question.

In either event, working within the assumption of authenticity, your suggested reading is quite sensible--taken outside of the context of the two preceding parables, it's even moreso. Perhaps instead of a critique, the post can simply stand as my own interpretation of the Prodigal Son (or rather, my own defense of the normal interpretation of the Prodigal Son)

Thanks again.

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